Žižek, Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma - On Social Theory and with Žižek

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

Žižek, Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma
On Social Theory and with Žižek

Kotsko, A. (2008) Žižek and Theology. London: Continuum.

Pound, M. (2007) Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma. London: SCM Press.

Pound, M. (2008) Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Religious motifs are more obviously at work in the history of philosophy than in psychoanalysis, but there are now claims that Lacan ’Christianised’ Freud, and Slavoj Žižek for one drives home the idea that in Lacanian psychoanalysis we might wipe the slate clean for a new beginning in the cure and that this process gives rise to a new ’universality’. ’Introductions’ to Žižek abound, and those true to the spirit of his writing repay the pleasure of reading his work with an appropriately idiosyncratic and passionate argument about how we should make sense of the contradictions and shifts of direction between books, between chapters and even sometimes between the lines. Adam Kotsko’s Žižek and Theology traces a new line through Žižek, and shows us why we need to know something about theology in order to understand his work and why theologians should take Žižek seriously. Kotsko’s aim is to clarify Žižek’s claim that ’to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience’ (Kotsko, 2008, p. 2), and he does successfully explain why we need this book, another introduction that attends to this claim.

Kotsko provides an excellent review of Žižek’s writing on ideology and subjectivity before turning to the core of the book, two intriguing chapters on ’The Christian Experience’ and on dialectical materialism. As he acknowledges, Žižek does give a classically Hegelian ’supersessionist’ account of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, but to claim that over the course of his three books on Christianity his ’esteem for Judaism steadily grows’ (ibid., p. 88) is to miss the way philo-Semitism often functions as the flipside of anti-Semitism. Margaret Thatcher’s comment to Jewish community leaders in her constituency that ’there are two great religions in the world, yours and mine’ also neatly captures how a Christian concordat with the chosen people tends to shut out those from other religions. Kotsko approvingly notes that Žižek has said nicer things about Buddhism recently (though he has still been fairly robust about the reactionary role of His Holiness the Dalai Lama), but there is silence in the book about Žižek’s oft-repeated sideswipes at Islam as being ’particularist’. (Actually, we can find, within In Defence of Lost Causes for example, some quite interesting and more appreciative reflections on Islam.)

The last stretch of the book, on theological responses to Žižek, takes us, most of us I suspect, into some unfamiliar territory where we learn, for example, of Roman Catholic disapproval of his critique of church institutions and Anabaptist delight at his enthusiasm for radical renunciation. There are, throughout the book, references to concepts from theological texts that conjure up other worlds of debate about the nature of modern subjectivity, with signifiers like ’the cross’ that are clearly more replete with signification than we might at first glance guess. Kotsko helps non-Christians appreciate how far Žižek is immersed in these other worlds, and the complexity and depth of his argument for a dialectical materialist standpoint.

Lenin once remarked of the debate between Christians and Marxists that this was a debate with progressive effects for the former but reactionary consequences for the latter. This insightful and lucid book introduces us to another way of reading and repeating Lenin’s argument; subjectivity can be theoretically invested with a concern with spirituality precisely so it can then be more effectively emptied of the Christian experience itself. We ’go through’ the experience vicariously in this book, and perhaps it would be possible to view our trajectory through the text as a traversal of the fantasy of redemption for all that Christianity promises. This is a journey that Žižek himself seems to be taking, and so this book provides much more than an ’introduction’, as well anticipating where our hero may be going next.

Marcus Pound, in contrast, is determined to steer Žižek back to Christianity and his Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction champions a fundamentalist Catholic reading — from out of the ’radical orthodoxy’ school Kotsko helpfully describes — of Lacan against Žižek’s ’crudely Protestant’ (to borrow a phrase from Pound) bid to seize theological ground from the enemy, that is, from those who really do believe in God. Pound’s problem with Žižek, of course, is that the sequence ’Lacan, Hegel, Marx’ is eventually punctuated by the last figure in the series, and so resolves itself into atheism. For Žižek, detailed readings of Biblical texts are part of a game in which the reader is lured into something they did not expect, away from any religion whatsoever. Pound wants none of this, and he is playing a quite different game that includes pitting an ostensibly Catholic Lacan against Žižek.

Here Pound is extending an earlier reading of Lacan in his engaging and passionately argued Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma, published by SCM (the Student Christian Movement publishing outfit), in which he argues that Lacan’s ’postmodern’ variation on psychoanalysis ’provides the most coherent language’ to ’communicate the mystery of transubstantiation within our cultural milieu’ (Pound, 2007, p. xiii). We need, he insists, to appreciate how ’the liturgy of the Eucharist is analogous to analysis’, because it facilitates ’subjective reflection upon the truth’ (ibid., p. 155). Lacan is read through Kierkegaard, and this Christian thinker still shadows the account given in the Žižek book. St Thomas Aquinas is also present in both books. Lacan’s insistence that his children be baptised and the dedication of his 1932 doctoral thesis to his Benedictine priest brother as his ’brother in religion’ are summoned as evidence that Lacan’s version of psychoanalysis Christianises Freud’s work. There is the rather surprising claim that ’Freud already conceived of psychoanalysis as a secular form of theology’ (ibid., p. 1), and once we have accepted this we are on the preferred terrain of radical orthodoxy’s interventions into philosophy, one in which theological suppositions structure the relationship between the two disciplinary domains.

In the Žižek book Pound, true to form, inscribes the ’return to Freud’ in the Jesuit traditionalist and universalist ’return to sources’ in France from the 1930s to the 1950s: ’Lacan’s return to Freud was an instance of this theological ressourcement’ (Pound, 2008, p. 75). This is faithful to the radical orthodoxy line, that a return to medieval roots of Christianity will circumvent the Franciscan John Duns Scotus’ false separation of the worlds of theology and science. We are then also back to the supersessionist motif that Catholic theologians wriggle around but eventually endorse, which is that there is a key progressive historical shift from Judaism to Christianity; one marked by Thomas Aquinas as the shift from a religious worldview in which the truth of God is as yet deficient — that is, Jewish ’old law’ — to one in which it is superabundant, in which the sacrament must function as a kind of filter for those subject to ’new law’ who would otherwise be blinded by the truth: ’Aquinas situates religion on the side of the symbolic and God on the side of the real’ (ibid., p. 63).

Catholic ’feminist’ writing — which, as Pound acknowledges, has, in some variants, included warrant for anti-Semitism — is tactically mobilised in a reading of Lacan’s formulae of sexuation in order to set up an opposition between ’the Jewish God [which] conforms to the structure of masculinity’ and Christianity as ’the religion of love’ (ibid., p. 114). (Both Pound and Kotsko describe Lacan’s formulae as marking an opposition between ’feminine’ and ’masculine’ gender positions, and this risks obscuring the quite deliberate reference to sexual difference in Seminar XX.)

Despite the attempt to outflank Žižek with a Lacan more Lacanian than Lacan himself, Pound wants to have his Eucharist and eat it, and this requires a reading of Lacan that replaces the negative moment in psychoanalysis — castration, cut off the signifier, retroactive constitution of a supposed original access to jouissance — with a real fullness of being from which we have fallen. Pound inveighs against ’Nothing’ as a warrant for nihilism; a master signifier in his writing, and that of his radical orthodoxy mentors Conor Cunningham and John Milbank (with whom Žižek has recently debated in a recent book on Christianity), is ’ontology’, sometimes ’onto-theology’. This might account for why he characterises Lacan’s ’subject of the enunciation’ as corresponding to the real as if it were something of substance.

Pound’s well-written wilful misreading of Lacan allows him to argue for the human subject as ’already graced and participatory in God’ rather than, as in Žižek and Lacan, being led to a ’rupture of grace’ in a broken world (ibid., pp. 82—83), a rupture in a political act (for Žižek), or at the end of analysis (for Lacan). Žižek’s afterword provides a succinct outline of the importance of negativity, and neatly evokes and then subverts the appeal to the ’New’ testament over the ’Old’ with a characteristic reading of Psycho in which the ’New’ would be the world of Norman Bates the killer in thrall to the dead mother. Pound’s Žižek book is worth reading for this afterword alone. This is dire stuff, and perhaps the best way through it is to start with Kotsko’s introduction and then skip straight to Žižek’s piece to clear the mind, to traverse in the most painless way these regressive fundamentalist fantasies.