Of course, Žižek is in good company. Well before Immanuel Kant formalized the isolation of bodies from their abstract, transcendental forms, Protestants generally, and Pietists in particular, formally recognized the central role abstract value had come to play in western Europe. From the fourteenth century to the present, socially constituted psychē (ψυχή) has habitually been mistaken for a timeless, transcendental, feature of what the young Marx called “species being” (Gattungswesen; Marx 1988:75-78). The perversity of species being is beyond dispute. It accounts for the highly peculiar shape of social subjectivity, including spiritual and religious subjectivity, under capitalism. Žižek is, therefore, correct to discern this perversity at the core of contemporary Christianity. His mistake is to have ontologized and transhistoricized this perversion, to elide first century Christian perversity and to replace it with a perversity peculiar to the contemporary two-fold social form of the commodity.
The “privileged instrument” with which Žižek proposes to perform this operation is “Lacanian psychoanalysis, . . . whose purpose is to illuminate a standard text or ideological formation, making it readable in a totally new way — the long history of Lacanian interventions in philosophy, religion, the arts (from the visual arts to the cinema, music, and literature), ideology, and politics justifies this premise” (Žižek 2003:1). Yet, is it not Žižek’s deployment of this deeply flawed instrument itself that prematurely forecloses upon any but the most superficial grasp of contemporary Christianity and its perversity?
Here I do not propose an exhaustive review of Žižek’s The puppet and the dwarf: the perverse core of Christianity (2003). Such a review would take up far more space than is customary for an online journal. In any case, an exhaustive review is not necessary. Here I want only to highlight the socially and historically specific shape of the perversion Žižek believes he has found at the core of Christianity and to differentiate this perversion from the perversion the first century Jew Saul found at the core of Christianity. Žižek feels himself authorized to bridge this two thousand year lacuna by virtue of a species being, the psuchē, that, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, is felt to hold good across the ages. As we will see, popular first century Stoicism, whatever superficial similarities it might hold to Hegelian ontology, reveals a psuchē qualitatively different from those structured by and around the two-fold commodity form of capital.
The title of Žižek’s intervention alludes to the opening lines of Walter Benjamin’s 1940 reflection, “On the Concept of History,” written only months before his suicide:
The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight (Benjamin 1968:268).
The puppet to which Benjamin referred was the creation early in the 1770s of an inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen (Standage 2002). Were Benjamin a traditional Marxist, we might expect him to call the puppeteer’s bluff, to have the puppet master burst from the shadows and expose the puppet a mere form of appearance, a fraud. Benjamin, however, is not a traditional Marxist. Should the puppet master expose the ruse, then the puppet, historical materialism, will not prevail. But it does prevail. Why? The straightforward answer would appear to be that the audience wishes to be tricked. Because they are focused on the puppet, on historical materialism, the audience ignores the puppet master. But is this Benjamin’s answer?
No. In Benjamin’s analogy, historical materialism is but a surface form of appearance, subject entirely to strings pulled by the puppet master, who must “keep out of sight.” For Benjamin, the victory of historical materialism rests on this illusion: the illusion that historical materialism is automatic. But that is not all. In order to achieve victory — in order for the illusion to succeed — the puppet master must enlist theology. Or is “theology” simply another name for the puppet master? In that case, Žižek’s invocation of Benjamin’s story could suggest that the doors have already been flung open, the dwarf chess player exposed, and the spell upon which the victory of historical materialism was felt to depend is broken.
This may explain Žižek’s organizing question: “Why do we need religion at all in our modern times?”:
The standard answer is: rational philosophy or science is esoteric, confined to a small circle; it cannot replace religion in its function of capturing the imagination of the masses, and thus serving the purposes of moral and political order. But this solution is problematic in Hegel’s own terms: the problem is that, in the modern times of Reason, religion can no longer fulfill this function of the organic binding force of social substance — today, religion has irretrievably lost this power not only for scientists and philosophers, but also for the wider circle of “ordinary” people (pp. 4-5).
The doors have been thrown open, the chess playing puppet master exposed, but since no one in the audience found it the least unusual for automatons to play chess; or because they suspected all along that the play was illusory, the victory of the automaton (which is to say, the success of the illusion) was destined to fail even before the opening move.
But, let us suppose instead that the “theology” to which Benjamin refers, which must keep itself hidden, is not, as Žižek seems to feel, a device or trick in which no one, in any case, any longer trusts. Rather suppose, as Hegel argued, the self-moving substance that is Subject. That is to say, let us suppose that by “theology” Benjamin intends not only the surface form of appearance, not only the puppet, and not only the puppet master, whether exposed or still concealed, it makes no difference. Let us suppose that both puppet and puppet master, and we ourselves, the audience who are witnessing this spectacle, no matter our skepticism or blind trust; we, all of us, are within the highly differentiated, self-moving substance that is Subject. And is this not the “theology” — the theology of this comprehensive, highly differentiated, yet integrated, living and moving social totality — that must at all costs be kept “out of sight”? But why?
A short history of Geist
To answer this question we need to look more closely at Žižek’s Hegel. Anything approaching an exhaustive treatment is, of course, out of the question. Yet, how could Žižek have so completely overlooked what is without question the defining feature of our age: its spectacular, extravagant, historically unprecedented devotion to the spirit. I picture Žižek looking wryly at the dwarf, pointing, winking, and smiling mischievously, while the rest of the audience is reaching for their sidearms. Is it not only with the dismissal (aufheben) of positive religion — i.e., the unmasking of the chess playing dwarf — that the spirit can come into its own, neither as empty universality, nor as fragmented particular, but as the highly differentiated, integrated, rational totality — i.e., theology — hidden in the static dyad: dwarfóautomaton.
Žižek’s psycho-analysis, his analysis of spirit (psuchē), to this extent, still Kantian — still Pietist, still Protestant. He has successfully isolated the abstract value of the commodity form from its material forms of appearance. He has adopted as the vantage point the psuchē from which the liminality of the body is exposed and undone. Was this not Kant’s defining achievement? So long as practical and pure reason maintained a safe distance from one another, appearances could be preserved. Kant did not cross the line. (That would be Hegel.) But he shed a harsh light on where he anticipated this line would be. It fell, Kant proposed, along the boundary separating absolute magnitude from bodies condemned to finite space. “Hence the effort to take up into a single intuition a measure for magnitude requiring a significant time for apprehension is a way of presenting which subjectively considered is contrapurposive, but which objectively is needed to estimate magnitude and hence is purposive. And, so, the same violence that the imagination inflicts on the subject is still judged purposive for the whole vocation of the mind” (“Analytic of the Sublime,” §27). Or, put more simply, “the object is apprehended as sublime with a pleasure that is possible only by means of a displeasure” (Ibid.).
For Žižek too particularity is placed ill at ease by its phallic Other, God (pp. 23-24), Who wishes to deprive bodies of self-jouissance, self-pleasuring. Or, as Kant put it, “the beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense)” (“Analytic of the Sublime” §29). But where Kant maintained a safe distance from this borderland, Hegel ground it to a fine dust and inhaled it deep into lungs.
Kant’s view is that “the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form but concerns only Ideas of Reason which, although no adequate representation of them is possible, may be aroused and called to our mind precisely by this inadequacy which does admit of sensuous representation” (Critique of Judgment, 1799, p. 77 [§23]). . . . Precisely because the infinite is set apart from the entire complex of objectivity as explicitly an invisible meaning devoid of shape and is made inner, it remains, in accordance with its infinity, unutterable and sublime above any expression through the finite (Aesthetics “Symbolism of the Sublime” p. 363).
Hegel does not deny the violence with which the sublime penetrates the bodies that it violates. But he counts this violation as a self-violation. “This, therefore, differing from Kant, we need not place in the pure subjectivity of the mind and its Ideas of Reason; on the contrary, we must grasp it as grounded in the one absolute substance qua the content which is to be represented” (Ibid.). For Hegel, both the puppet and the dwarf are exposed as is the artificial space separating each from the other, and both from the onlooking, but no longer innocent, bystanders.
It would be natural at this point to rush on to §§18-19 of Hegel’s “Preface,” where he schematically lays out, at the highest level of abstraction, the internal economy of this highly differentiated totality. First, however, we need to notice, as Hegel noticed, that this spiritual (geistliche) coming into its own, this divine returning (now completed) to itself, was, for Hegel, a process not independent from the history in which it unfolded; was not directed or orchestrated by a spirit that was not itself objectified, externalized, and active in the process of its own mutual composition. That is to say, although Hegel could not have known as much, his grasp of this process does not preclude its socially and historically specific, particular, origins — in this particular instance in Ghent in 1324, when “the abbot of Saint-Pierre authorized the fullers ‘to install a bell in the workhouse newly founded by them near the Hoipoorte, in the parish of Saint John” (Le Goff, p. 45).
But, second, this also means that when Hegel did come around to addressing the composition of contemporary political economy, he was not inclined (as were “[Adam] Smith, [Jean-Baptiste] Say, and [David] Ricardo,” Philosophy of Right §198) to transhistoricize or universalize an alleged “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” (Smith I.ii.1). To the contrary, thought Hegel, “political economy is the science which starts from this view of needs and labour but then has the task of explaining mass-relationships and mass-movements in their complexity and their qualitative and quantitative character. This is one of the sciences which have arisen out of the conditions of the modern world” (Philosophy of Right §189).
And, yet, for Hegel, too, the theologian remained hidden or, in any case, misrecognized. That is to say, while Hegel recognized the historically constructed character of Geist, he failed to theorize — could not theorize — its deconstruction or sublation from within. He was therefore compelled to contemplate a spirit, which, in completing itself, repeatedly, eternally, was compelled to return to itself. It could not not be the “one absolute substance.”
The living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis [the immediate simplicity]. Only this self-restoring sameness, or this reflection in otherness within itself — not an original or immediate unity as such — is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual (“Preface,” Phenomenology §18).
Žižek would not have been mistaken to characterize this movement as jouissance divine, or “divine self-pleasuring” (Lough 2014:21). How else could we interpret Hegel’s further illucidation of the spirit’s movement in §19: “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself [ein Spielen der Liebe mit sich selbst]?”
Is this perverse? On Hegel’s own terms, surely it is not. But, for this very reason, it is also not perverse within the temporal horizon carved out by the value form of the commodity since 1324. Within this ever expanding, “universal” temporal horizon, to which Weber alluded in the Introduction to his Religionssoziologie, all things — but specially the Father and the Son, including their mutual annihilation and restoration, and, thus, their eternal completion of one another — are comprehended within the highly differentiated, dynamic, living, and expanding totality that is Geist.
Žižek is therefore not the only theologian to have been attracted to this prototypically Protestant version of the spirit or to have inferred from it the ontologically fundamental shape of Geist. Space does not permit us to interrogate the central role this spirit has played in psychoanalytic theory from Freud and Jung, on up through Lacan. This is hardly surprising, since the analysis of the psuchē, no matter how distorted or fragmented, externalized or objectified, is believed, on its own, capable of accounting for its own shape and movement. And is this not the spell under which the young Marx fell when in 1844 he felt authorized to collapse the entire Hegelian organon into “species being” (Gattungswesen) or when in 1848 he expanded this organon to include dialectical materialism and the history of class struggle? Only in the late 1850s did Marx see that the self-pleasuring Hegel ascribed to God was a process within the commodity form itself and that its “completion” or “return” or “realization” required the sublation (Aufhebung) of the value-forming substance itself: the self-moving substance that is Subject, the Geist, which is to say, value-forming labor.
[Value] is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. . . . Value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms (Capital trans. Fowkes, pp. 255-256).
Nor was it necessary for Marx then to add: “[value] differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value, just as God the Father differentiates himself from himself as God the Son” (p. 256). Was this not already implied?
If there is a perversion here, it does not consist in divine self-pleasuring, not even the sadomasochistic divine self-pleasuring implied in Hegel’s phenomenology. Rather does it consist in the persistent, repeated, irrepressible, and eternal violence the Geist inflicts upon its own body — which is to say, our bodies, which “live and move and have their being” within this Geist. And was not this precisely Kant’s point already, when he favorably compared the soldier to the statesman?
Even in a fully civilized society there remains this superior esteem for the warrior, except that we demand more of him: that he also demonstrate all the virtues of peace — gentleness, sympathy, and even appropriate care for his own person — precisely because they reveal to us that his mind cannot be subdued by danger. Hence, no matter how much people may dispute, when they compare the statesman with the general, as to which one deserves the superior respect, an aesthetic judgment decides in favor of the general. Even war has something sublime about it if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of the citizens’ rights. At the same time it makes the way of thinking of people that carries it on in this way all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers in the face of which it courageously stood its ground. A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent a merely commercial spirit, and along with it base selfishness, cowardice, and softness, and to debase the way of thinking of that people (“Analytic of the Sublime,” pp. 121-122).
Contemporary apologists for divine spirit habitually downplay its violent, sadomasochistic tendencies, claiming that state-on-citizen and citizen-on-citizen violence has decreased dramatically in the modern period (Pinker 2011; Harari 2014, 2016). But the universal spirit has as little respect for state boundaries as it does for notions of citizenship or civil rights. Since 1300, the casualties attributable to officially sanctioned mass death have not diminished, but, to the contrary, have expanded completely out of proportion to the world’s population (P Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics 1962). In the unbridled expansion of Geist, bodies — our bodies — are the price we must pay for unending growth.
And is this not the “theology” that, on Benjamin’s terms, must be kept “out of sight”? Dialectical materialism, the puppet, relies for its victory on our ignoring or not noticing or downplaying the central role Geist plays in the chess game. We see the puppet. We see the puppet master, the dwarf. Where is the theology?
The perverse core of Christianity
Our brief history of Geist has exposed the theology that authenticates and guarantees victory to the puppet, i.e., to historical materialism; so long as it is kept out of sight. As we have seen, this Geist is not without a certain perversity. But is this the same perversity that composes the core of Christianity?
Clearly, it is not. For, in order to compose the core of Christianity, this spirit would have had to have leapt from the fourteenth century Ghent, where it first emerged, back to the first century, where nothing even remotely similar to the abstract value form of the commodity had as yet made even the faintest appearance. Barring such a temporal and spatial acrobatic feat, we are left with Žižek’s psuchē, whose specific late capitalist form is held to be valid as well for first century social being. Here Žižek, the theologian, joins a long train of Protestant theologians stretching back to the fifteenth century, all of whom interpreted the Father’s relationship to the Son, just as Marx had noted, through the sublime value form of the commodity, but who, unlike Marx, failed to reflect critically on the violence immanent to this economic Trinity.
The closest we come to this violence in the first century would be the popular Stoicism under whose banner Rome felt authorized to expand its dominion over the better part of Eurasia. Under the cover of precisely this Stoicism, universal violence finds ample expression in the Christian Bible, and not only in the standard Pauline pseudepigraphic passages (i.e., Colossians, First and Second Timothy, and Titus) that specifically foreground the deeply misogynist Stoic household code. Recall, for example, how Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, takes the first three chapters of his letter to defend and lend divine authority to a natural and civic Stoic law which he then shows Jesus to have violated.
Or, recall how, in the infamous thirteenth chapter of his Letter, Paul defends and lends divine authority to Stoic statecraft; “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4b). All that Rome lacked was the abstract social substance — the value form of the commodity — which might have relieved it from having to enforce Stoic science by brute force. For, at least among the educated Jewish diaspora, of which Paul was a proud member, the natural order itself was held to assume the form it did “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21).
And is it not precisely this “natural order” that Paul deconstructed in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, where he explicitly credited God with having chosen “things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (τὰ µὴ ὄντα, ἵνα τὰ ὄντα καταργήσῃ; I Cor. 1:28b)? Under the cover of the Protestant Geist, we might be tempted to find in Paul’s formula incontrovertible evidence for the famous deus absconditus, the God concealed under the sign of His opposite, i.e., the flesh. In that case, the one absolute substance, i.e., theology, could be secreted in through the back door, as it were. But, this was not at all the perverse mystery that Paul discerned at the core of Christianity. For Paul the perversion lay far deeper.
Recall that it was only under the condition that Stoic science held true that “the message about the cross is foolishness” (I Cor. 1:18). For, in that case the message of the cross would not only appear foolish. It would in fact be foolish. But, if, to the contrary, τὰ µὴ ὄντα, ἵνα τὰ ὄντα καταργήσῃ — if “things that are are being destroyed by the things that are not” — then the foolishness would fall instead on the side of the things that are, which are being annihilated, not on the side of the things that are not. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing [τοῖς µὲν πολλυµένοις].” We could interpret the cross from the vantage point of Stoicism’s “governing powers” [ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις] (Rom. 13:1), in which case the cross would, in fact, be foolish. But, what if we instead take the cross to be the criteria, the standard, by which “things that are” are to be measured? In that case, the governing powers fall short of the measure, precisely because they are Real.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (I Cor. 1:26-28).
Once again, we see the puppet. We see the hunchback dwarf pulling the strings. The contrivance is exposed. The illusion is broken. The Real, in Lacan’s sense, is restored. However, in Paul’s version of the story, the governing powers still do not prevail. They still believe that Stoic science holds good. But they are mistaken.
Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (I Cor. 2:6-8).
How are the rulers of this age perishing? Paul has just told us. He has chosen “what is low and despised in the world” — the Corinthians themselves — “things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” But the rulers of the present age do not see it. They do not get it. Instead, they cling to the fiction that, in the final instance, it is governing power, the “Real,” the “phallus,” that will destroy “what is low and despised.” Had they not clung to this fiction, they would not have crucified the Palestinian Jew, Jesus.
The perverse core of Christianity is this wisdom, secret and hidden, from the foundation of the world; not the progressive, expanding, dialectical unfolding of the living Weltgeist, the one absolute substance. But, rather, the deep, substantive correspondence of the crucified God to those God has chosen precisely to destroy this one absolute substance.
The puppet and the dwarf
Žižek shows no interest in this first century perversion. Instead, after faithfully reproducing the standard Protestant caricature of Paul (pp. 8-18) — Paul the author of the Christian religion — Žižek makes a beeline to the Hegelian-Lacanian contradiction immanent to this particular universal form. What further contribution could Žižek’s Lacanian analysis of the spirit make to Paul’s mission to the foolish, weak, lowly and despised Corinthians? More importantly, how could anyone find in this perverse core of Christianity an “organic binding force of social substance” sufficient to coordinate, guide, comfort, direct, console, reward and punish women and men who enjoy command of neither science nor philosophy?
To be sure, in this limited sense, Žižek is right to feel that “in Hegel’s own terms” first century Christianity and its perverse core are as incapable in the twenty-first century as they were in the first of providing cover for the dominant social formation. As we have just seen, the very aim of Paul’s mission, the perversity that lay secret and hidden at Christianity’s core, was the annihilation of all power and authority as such. Which may explain why this perversion has never held sway, least of all within Christianity itself — not even in the first century. Rather is it Hegel’s theology that has prevailed in Christianity, and not only in Christianity. When the observant faithful in exceedingly large numbers consent to their own self-immolation, or when the spiritual withdraw from and transcend the bodies by which and of which they are composed, they reenact a ritual oblation, a liturgy, that Hegel knew only too well. And is this not the liturgy Weber observed on the battlefields of Europe, when, in 1915, in what he called his indeterminate, or immanent, or intermediate observations [Zwischenbetrachtung], he accurately captured the secret motivation for modern, officially sanctioned mass death?
As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need. And, as a mass phenomenon, these feelings break down all the naturally given barriers of association. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness. . . . Death on the field of battle differs from . . . merely unavoidable dying in that in war, and in this massiveness only in war, the individual can believe that he knows he is dying “for” something (“Religious Rejections” Gerth & Mills, p. 335).
Žižek claims not to see this. “In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel claims that in the modern age, as much as we admire art, we no longer bend the knee before it — and the same holds for religion,” reports Žižek. Does it, really?
The stage is set. The “Turk” — for this, in fact, was what the mechanical chess playing puppet was called — dressed in an exotic turban and colorful, gilded robes, is enthroned on the stage behind a chess table. A man in a tuxedo throws open the doors beneath the table and waves a candle up and down, left and right, under the table, revealing “nothing.” The man then challenges anyone in the audience who dares to match wits with this mechanical chess player. A victim offers himself. Of course, he loses. And, once again, the audience looks on in amazement (Standage 2002). But, before anyone can restrain her, a woman in the front row rushes the stage, murders the stage manager, throws open the doors, and reveals a hunchback dwarf cowering beneath the table.
Let us suppose that Benjamin was correct. The Turk represents dialectical materialism, which must always win. But its victory requires “the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.” For the moment we can overlook Benjamin’s considerable theological accomplishments. Is it not more important, in any case, to appreciate why, contrary to Žižek’s expectations, the audience is ready to believe that the Turk is equipped to automatically defeat any opponent? Are we not curious to discover the hidden theology that would bring the audience to cheer the mechanical Turk on to victory over its human challenger? What if victory were assured? What if victory were automatic? What if a self-moving substance were, in fact, Subject? But, in that case, who or what is the hunchback dwarf? And what role does she play? Or how might her sudden revelation as the real chess player shape the theology by which the Turk’s victory, which is her victory, is no longer automatically assured?
And is this not the perversion that lies at the core of Christianity?
Joseph Lough is a lecturer in economic theory and history in the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley.
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