The Protests of Zizek and the Spirit of Communism
Last Tuesday night, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek waged a fight on two fronts, against both God and capitalism. The theater of battle was the New York Public Library’s basement auditorium, a grand room whose marble and polished wood glowed under tastefully dim lighting. Zizek dressed for the occasion in a brown t-shirt and blue jeans, casual attire which matched his intellectual style—informal, contrarian, and splashed with a love of pop culture. The centerpiece of his argument turned out to be an old joke, which went something like this:
A man believes himself to be a seed, and enters a mental hospital for treatment. Several months later, his doctor proclaims him cured. But as soon as the patient walks out the hospital door, he encounters a chicken and, fearful of being eaten, runs back inside to the doctor.
“There’s no reason to fear a chicken,” the doctor assures him. “You know you’re not a seed.”
“Of course,” the patient replies. “But does the chicken know that?”
Switch the protagonist to a believer who is cured of his faith in God yet remains afraid of damnation, and the punch line becomes: “Of course I know God doesn’t exist. But does God know that?”
Zizek’s point is that you cannot defeat fiction by pointing out its falsehood. Accusing Shakespeare of distorting the Danish historical record doesn’t reduce our sympathies for Hamlet, and Richard Dawkins cannot diminish the power of God with scientific evidence that God does not exist. A fiction can only be attacked from within.
Zizek stands with the likes of Dawkins in believing that God is a fiction worthy of attack. Throughout history, the argument goes, dogmatic religious beliefs have corrupted us. They have convinced us that we have a privileged relationship to some absolute truth—a zealous feeling which pushes us to overcome our natural revulsion for torture and mass murder, and allows us to defer responsibility for our ensuing acts of violence. God is a very bad influence.
How does one attack such pernicious fictions from within? Zizek’s tactic was reinterpretation.
He began with the Old Testament story of Job. The Sunday-school moral of the story emphasizes Job’s humility and faith: he wants to know the reason behind his suffering, but he insists only God has the answer. “Let the Almighty state his case against me!” Job says. Zizek’s reading points out that God dodges the question. Instead of answering Job, God catalogues the majesty and enormity of his creation, describing in vivid detail the natural wonders and savage animals of the world. “Look at all the mess I’ve created!” Zizek said, paraphrasing God. “Sorry, I don’t control it.” In this reading, God can offer us no explanatory relief, and Job’s heroism lies in his courageous acceptance of life’s absurdity.
Zizek’s argument reached its climax in his reading of the crucifixion. When Jesus cries out from the cross—“My God, why have you forsaken me?”—he doesn’t even get an evasive monologue from above. There is no reply. Zizek interprets these events literally: God in heaven affirms in silence that he is utterly absent, and then God on earth dies. The crucifixion becomes an atheist parable. In our search for cosmic meaning and moral authority, we can no longer expect revelations from a burning bush or an miracle-wielding deity incarnate. We’re on our own.
A self-identified “Christian atheist,” Zizek wants to de-sanctify God but not kill him entirely. There are two main problems with a totally godless world. First, as the murderous regimes of modern history have proven, the absence of divine authority creates a power vacuum that is easily exploited. Second, when we lose the feeling that God is watching over our shoulder, we don’t gain freedom. Rather, God’s presence is replaced in our psyche by an even more powerful anxiety. “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited,” Zizek said, quoting Lacan. The committed multiculturalist is cursed to live in fear of violating someone else’s rules.
In Zizek’s gospel, what remains after the death of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, or “the community of believers.” Divinity exists in the best qualities of people—love, compassion, and cooperation. Zizek did not say on what authority these qualities should be anointed, but he did spell out the political implications of his faith. The true church is any institution that nurtures the best in humans, and for a Marxist like Zizek, the Holy Spirit comes to resemble the organized proletariat, united under the banner of loving comradeship.
Despite his professions of Marxist faith, I thought Zizek sounded a bit like another German social theorist, Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The great legacy of the Reformation, Weber thought, was to sanctify secular labor. Protestants began preaching that salvation depended not only on the inner workings of faith and God’s grace, but also on glorifying God by fulfilling one’s role in the world. As this Protestant ethic began to transcend its ascetic origins, it animated the new social order of capitalism. At first, to profit was to glorify God. Ultimately, the two concepts elided, and wealth became a good in itself. Weber’s lament was for “the irrational element of this way of conducting one’s life, whereby a man exists for his business, not vice versa.”
Zizek’s complaint, on the other hand, appears to be that capitalists have chosen the wrong earthly god. He concluded his lecture with another joke, in which a Bolshevik propagandist escapes from hell and ascends to heaven. Satan then approaches God to reclaim his prisoner, but he finds the propagandist seated beside the Almighty. God says to Satan, “First, I am not your God, but a comrade. Second, you should know that I don’t exist. And third, I am late for a party meeting.”
“This is the God I would die for,” Zizek said.