The Problem of Political Centrism and “Pagan” Paradox

Žižek calls himself a psychoanalyst of cultures. What a culture consciously believes is secondary to what it unconsciously believes, as demonstrated in the culture’s actions. A belief functions differently depending on whether a person is psychotic, neurotic (obsessive, hysteric, or phobic), or perverse.

“Normal” individuals are neurotic by default, but Žižek claims Christianity, is perverse. This means the doctrines we hear are interpreted very differently by each individual because of how religious symbols are understood. Žižek’s wager is that we can analyze how a belief will function by understanding how communities and even entire cultures respond to symbols of belief. Further, he claims that Christianity – with its founding myth of the death of God and the resurrection of Christ in the holy community – has enormous liberating potential, even radical political potential so long as we are able to forsake our preoccupation with divinity and embrace material existence.

Following Marx, Žižek is hostile to centrist/liberal politics because centrism always mitigates contrast, preventing radical progress. This is also seen in his debate with theologian John Milbank in The Monstrosity of Christ. Their debate centers on whether Christian theology must rest indefinitely in paradox or resolve dialectically. Žižek claims that Milbank’s paradoxical stance is more pagan than Žiźek’s atheistic Christianity, because paradox bypasses rigorous thought by assuming there is some unknowable harmony between (seemingly) opposed beliefs. In contrast, Žižek claims we must make the full, dialectical turn that makes the death of God a central facet of Christian belief. For Žižek, the message of Christianity is that there is no God coming to save and that we, as the Holy Spirit, bear the responsibility of saving ourselves.

For Žižek, a paradox is anathema. We must risk throwing ourselves fully into our faith even when that faith leads to materialism. The problem of political centrism and “pagan” paradox is the same: each bypasses the felt antagonism that leads to a more mature, radical, and faithful solution.

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  1. Abigail March 21, 2013

    1) This is a very difficult task, because the block is all in the person’s head. You could indulge or deprive their senses in an effort to get them more “in the body,” but if they have a deeply-rooted suspicion of the body due to religious conditioning, you’re bound to have only varying degrees of success. Sadly, it seems that great suffering seems to often be the key to unlock this problem. Even then, though, we have our mental and emotional escape hatches…
    Oh, I know, how about this: tell them to pray for their deity to do something absurd to prove him/her/self. Pray it earnestly every day, warning that if this thing does not happen, you absolutely will STOP believing in him/her. This one small sign will be the condition of continued faith. If by the end of a certain period of time, the absurd thing does not happen, you must conclude that either the god/dess doesn’t exist, or s/he doesn’t want you to believe s/he exists. Maybe that would do it. (Ha, I doubt it!)

    2) I know American Christianity, so I can only speak about that segment of Christianity. The more privileged/influential kinds of Christians would probably use it as an excuse to go full-throttle, even more than they are, to try to take over political power and lord their moral positions over everyone else. Those who are weaker in society with less ability to actually effect change would probably despair. I know a lot of moms stuck with the incredibly difficult task of raising children, either all or mostly alone, who practically LIVE on the “promises of GOd” that he will help them, sustain them, empower them, provide for them, save them. Take away that hope, and they would sink. They might harm their children or themselves.
    That’s a surface-level American understanding of the phrase, though. If Christianity fixated more on the “we” in the phrase, as a societal, communal phenomenon, where “we” all help each other, the picture would be quite different.

    I’ll answer #3 later. For now, though, the fact that he seems to use the word “pagan” as an insult would seem, to me, to indicate a lack of understanding of other religious ways of thought.

  2. Abigail March 23, 2013

    Well, I wanted to read up a bit on Zizek before commenting on this article. Because, the way I understood today’s posting gave me a lot to disagree with, and I wanted to make sure I was understanding him correctly. I just don’t have enough time to dive into this reserach fully, but I got a better idea of where he stood generally, from the Wikipedia article, and the IEP article
    ( Though there wasn’t much about today’s specific topic in these articles, so I am still not sure if I’m understanding today’s post properly…

    (May I take a tangent, and expose why I could probably never become a full-fledged academic? As I read the Wikipedia article, searching for clues about Zizek’s thought, I couldn’t help but be taken by my impressions of him as a person. He seems to be a blustery, powerful, noble, passionate, and rather tortured soul, who, for his own survival, really needed to make a splash in this world. Kind of a “ready, fire, aim” kind of person, a thunderstorm stuck in a human body. I feel compassion for him, and hope he finds a place of peace eventually. Extremely brilliant people, unfortunately, often do not. I see comparisons to Beethoven… Anyway, my first reactions being feeling ones, with thinking only coming afterward, I’m probably destined to always be a cheerleader at the sides of academia, rather than a full participant! Ha ha)

    OK, now for some response. I take issue with his use of the words “neurotic,” “psychotic,” and “perverse.” Neurosis is an old-fashioned term from the 19th century, and to call someone “neurotic” today is an insult, NOT a rational analysis of their condition. The same with the other two terms. “Psychosis” is used in psychiatry for severe mental illnesses with certain characteristics, but in common vernacular, “psychotic” is an insult. And “perverse,” has such a moralistic, condescending sound to it. I refuse to entertain his initial attempts to classify all people into one of these three camps; therefore, the rest of his argument doesn’t make any sense.

    Lastly, on centrism and paradox, I disagree quite passionately with what was written here. I sympathize with his impatience in wanting to get things done politically, but I think it is rash to charge forward, insisting on your agenda at the expense of everyone else’s. This approach assumes the quite pompous idea that you have the only right answer to whatever problem you’re struggling in. It is wise to hear all the voices in the story, to engage with the often wildly disparate needs of everyone involved. The push and pull of political rhetoric is healthy, (if free speech is protected). I have great respect for the USA’s original Constitution, and its balance of powers. No one person or group of people has THE definitive handle on Truth, so we need to listen respectfully to each other and find a way forward that honors all involved, as much as possible.

    To address his opinions on paradox feels overwhelming. I do NOT think that rejecting paradox is mature. Quite the opposite. Yes, it is intellectually lazy to chalk up everything you don’t understand to “paradox,” but that’s no indictment against real paradox. Slipping into the realm of psychology again here, refusing to allow paradox in one’s own personal life leads to repression. I am both a kind person and a cruel person. The two hold each other in tension. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other will put my life out of balance, with negative consequences. I’d rather identify with my kind side, but this has led to my being abused and taken advantage of, so I’ve had to learn to integrate my cruel side too.
    I’ll stop here, because I could probably spend all night writing how much I disagree on this point!

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