goya-saturn-sonNathan Schneider has an excellent review of Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Religion, and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies over at The American Prospect. For the record, I certainly wouldn’t deny that the Christian tradition has a lot of emancipatory potential within it. I don’t think Zizek and Badiou have been misguided in their appropriations of Paul, though I do think they are wrong in their dismissals of Jesus. One question here might be how we are to account for the curious dialectical inversion whereby something that does have so much potential somehow so often gets converted into its opposite, becoming a force of hate and an apology for some of the most repressive forces in our society. As I’ve often joked, Christianity is the greatest of conspiracies against Christ.

In this connection, many religious formations often strike me as being similar to psychodynamic processes Freud describes in his analysis of screen-memories. Freud theorized that screen-memories were a defense formation against some sort of trauma. For example, upon seeing a vagina for the first time the child might be filled with dread at the prospect of castration. Rather than remember what he saw, the child instead potently remembers, say, the flower print of his mother’s dress or develops a fetish for shoes. A recent book by Zizek and John Milbank is entitled The Monstrosity of Christ, and there does indeed seem to be something “monstrous” or sublime about Christ in the positive sense of the term. When I look at the tradition of Christianity, much of it often looks to me like a screen-memory designed to defend against this sublime monstrosity. For example, you get the fetishization of Christ’s death— so well illustrated in Gibson’s Passion of the Christ –such that his life and teaching is effectively erased or rendered invisible. Here we might also reference Joyce’s boyhood experience of the Catholic church as chronicled in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. What is it that is so sublime and monstrous about the figure of Christ? Certainly, like Socrates, part of this sublimity lies in his death. However, I think that Christ’s teaching is even more traumatic or Real in the proper Lacanian sense.

read on!

Were we to make like Thomas Jefferson and cut out all of Scripture and simply reduce Christianity to Christ’s life, death, parables, and teaching, such a teaching would require a total transformation of both ourselves and our entire social structure. It would require a form of social organization that was beyond any tribal identifications or names such as “Christian”, “Jew”, “Muslim”, “American”, “European”, etc., a form of social organization beyond the Law or the systems of mores and customs (sittlichkeit) that function as the condition for tribal membership, a form of social organization that would require a devaluation of kinship relations, and a form of social organization premised on the aleatory nature of encounters and what that encounter calls for in the contingency of that encounter (a sort of kairotic ethos) rather than abstract and universal moral laws. All of those activities through which we try to achieve prestige and superiority over others, such as praying in public or pride in our nation, would have to be thrown by the wayside as we would have to live in a way that is perpetually other oriented. Like the Lacanian analyst that “plays dead”, setting his own singular desire to the side so that the analysand’s desire might come to the fore and be discovered for that analysand, the *#*#*#-ian would have to “play dead”, setting aside his singular desire so as to have a desire, not unlike that described by the Buddhists, for absolute difference. As Lacan puts it at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law, where alone it may live. (276)

In short, the social and political vision Christ seemed to envision was that of a form of social life beyond the Lacanian dimension of the Imaginary. The “Imaginary” here does not signify the “illusory” or “imagination”, but rather is the domain of “…wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity” (Dylan Evans 1996, 82). The Imaginary is the domain of self-identity, of being identical to oneself, and of social relations based on similarity. Moreover, it is the domain where we take ourselves to be masters of what we say, where we think of meaning as being defined by our intentions (psychoanalytic practice being premised on the thesis that our words and actions always say more than we intend and that meaning is bestowed by the Other, not our intentions). Lacan associates the domain of the Imaginary with that of narcissism insofar as the Ego or self-identity is produced through narcissistic identification. Most importantly, it is a realm characterized by rivalry and aggression, insofar as we see our mirror counter-parts as contesting our own identity and therefore threatening or sense of wholeness and completeness or our belief that we are master’s of ourselves and of meaning. Whenever you protest to another “but that’s not what I meant, you’re twisting my words!” you are thoroughly immersed in the domain of the imaginary.

Throughout all of his teaching and more importantly his practice, Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary. He contests the domain of imaginary identification with the Other in proclaiming that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). As Levi-Strauss demonstrated, the incest prohibition and the structure of kinship relations is a matter of the symbolic and symbolic identifications, not a matter of the danger of producing five headed children. In contesting kinship relations the point isn’t that we should follow Jesus and God above all others, but that in the name of this new community we should undergo a subjective destitution where we refuse our Imaginary tribal identifications in the symbolic order. Kinship structures are organized around the dialectic of sameness and difference, the same and the other, such that they are designed to maintain the identity of the One or the Same against the other. This new community would therefore be a strange sort of community that was not an identity or a community at all, that did not name itself or differentiate itself against an other, and that did not require obedience to a particular set of customs or beliefs in order to belong. It would be a set-theoretical community rather than a class-theoretical community. We can also see traces of the vision of this sort of community in the people with whom Jesus congregated (disrespected Samaritans, thieves, beggars, tax collectors, lepers, and prostitutes… the lowest of the low and the marginalized) and those whom he denounced like the highly respected and self-righteous Pharisees. It can be seen in how he throws the law to the side, reducing it to the love of God and of one’s neighbor, but also in all the practices he proposed to minimize conflict and antagonism: not praying in public, not judging others, turning the other cheek, etc.

There is something monstrous and sublime in such a set of ethical and political proposals, and it thus comes as no surprise that all of this tends to get screened out, defended against, through a focus on his death, superstition, and Old Testament law. Nor does it come as a surprise that the proposal of a set-theoretical community without a name or identity has become inverted into its opposite: a community hyper-vigilant about maintaining the boundaries of its identity and defending against the Other.