Slavoj Zizek and Perverse Christianity
By Thomas Riggins
In a recent book, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts forth the view that Marxists can no longer make a frontal attack on the institutions of imperialism, thus a feint under the cover of Christianity is necessary. Zizek calls himself "a materialist through and through" and believes that Christianity has a "subversive kernel" which can only be demonstrated by a materialist analysis. But he also holds that the relationship is so intimate that "to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience."
Zizek maintains that for "intelligent Marxists" the most interesting questions are not those about change and development – but about permanence and stability. Why has Christianity persevered from ancient times? We "find it in feudalism, capitalism, socialism..." etc. The clue is to be found in the writings of the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton who wrote that despite the rigid ethical and moral demands of the Church and its priests, an inhuman "outer ring", it actually protected the masses of people where one would find "the old human life dancing like children and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom." Pagan freedom is here another term for joy in living.
This may explain the persistence of Christianity, but why must Marxists have the Christian experience? This is too unrealistic a claim. Do Asian Marxists from non-Christian cultural backgrounds have to convert to Christianity in order to have the "Christian experience" before fully understanding dialectical materialism?
Other religions have also been persistent. Hinduism, for example, is older than Christianity, as is Buddhism, and has adapted to the modern world. Zizek does discuss some of these other religions but is on shaky ground. He seems to think, for instance, that "Bodhisattva" is the name of a person rather than being a title used to describe Mahayana Buddhist deities.
Zizek’s "materialism" or at least his "Marxism" is also all mixed up with categories borrowed from Lacanian psychoanalysis. And here a digression based on W.L. Reese’s work. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst who thought the unconscious Id expresses itself in language because it is structured like a language. The Ego should recognize the depth and plurality of meanings of the Id. This is hard to do as the Ego = our personal identity, our conscious self which is only composed of the info allowed through by the Censor. Lacan wants to subvert not strengthen the Ego. The Ego is a mess due to problems in infancy and it is this screwed up infantile Ego, surviving into adulthood, that must be subverted by the usual psychoanalytic methods.
Using this Lacanian world view plus "Marxism," Zizek decides that by using a "perverse" version of Christianity leftists can smuggle in, as it were, progressive ideas and put them into play in our society. Having concluded that Marxism cannot get a hearing in our culture this is really the only way that we can advance the revolutionary cause. Marxists in Christian clothing.
No doubt that because Christianity originated among oppressed national minorities and slaves there are many features of progressive social justice that can be deduced from it. The battle against the Christian right could be more easily waged by showing that its political and social formulations are contrary to Christian teachings and the logic of Christianity.
In this respect Zizek has a point. But it is not necessary for Marxists to go through a Christian moment themselves. By the way, the "puppet" in the book’s title is Christian theology – we will use theology to forward our secular ends – the dwarf will use the puppet.
People interested in philosophy and religion will want to read this book. I have only scratched the surface in this brief article. At the end, Zizek says the point of his book is to show that Christianity at its core reveals the secret of the passion of the Christ (one that Mel Gibson missed).
When Christ dies after asking his Heavenly Father why He has abandoned him, the historical secret is that there is no Heavenly Father. There is no "Other" to judge us. We are responsible. This is the perverse core of Christianity and Zizek takes us on an interesting tour of the history of Western thought to get there. You might not like all of the stops along the way, or even the final destination, but you will enjoy the trip.