During my recent trip to China, I was asked: ‘Do you think China’s problem is that we don’t believe?’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘A Western religion like Christianity assumes that you must believe’, my companion said. ‘You must have an existential commitment to the cause. In China we don’t have that. Do you think that is a problem?’

His question set me thinking, wondering whether belief isn’t actually the problem. By belief I mean not a collection of doctrines, but as my friend said, the existential commitment, the giving of one’s being to a cause. Is this sense of belief the real problem? In seeking an answer, I am reminded of Burton Mack’s point that belief was a peculiar invention of Christianity, bred under the conditions of marginality in the first couple of centuries. I would extend that point to include the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps Mack was onto something, indicating the oddness, the peculiarity of belief.

But we should not rest with Western religions, for long ago that notion of belief was extended to politics. Thus, one believes in liberalism, or anarchism, or communism. One becomes a true believer of a political party, one ‘keeps the faith’. One commits to the cause, heart and soul and mind, and fights for it by whatever means. But is this not the problem? Is it perhaps the case that the truly dangerous person is the one who really believes, who is thoroughly committed to the cause? I suspect so.

This is why the recent lecture given by Graham Ward, who now calls himself the Reverend Professor, was so deeply mistaken. Its title was ‘Why Believe?’ and it was given at Christ Church Cathedral in Newcastle, Australia. In a chronic example of ethnocentrism, he extrapolated from the particularity of Christianity and asserted that belief is part of human nature, that it is characteristic of being human, even an anthropological condition. So you can find it everywhere, from prehistory to modern neuroscience. Yet he failed to ask whether belief itself is the problem, whether its claim to universal status is then a false universal.

What’s the alternative? In his earlier and more interesting days, before he began believing in communism, Žižek made an interesting observation concerning communism in Eastern Europe. Everyone was critical of the government, thought a better world existed outside their own country (especially in the West), and no one actually believed in communism. Rather than a sign of the failure of communism, he argued that this was precisely the sign of its success. Of course, Žižek suggested this as one of his dialectical jokes, but he may have spoken more truly than he realised.

All of which makes sense of what I once thought was a curious answer to the question, ‘Are you a believer?’ It was asked of a visitor from China to north-western Europe. His answer was, ‘I am a believer without belief’. Most present laughed, thinking it a clever answer, a way of avoiding answering the question. But now I suspect that he spoke directly: yes, I am a believer, but not in the sense that you understand it, for I do not have belief.

(originally posted on Political Theology)


In the Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx wrote:

For Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation. As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci longed for a true ‘Italian Luther’ …

So I am pleased to announce that the new Luther has finally appeared amongst us: it is Slavoj Žižek. Neither German nor Italian, Luther has appeared as a Slovenian. How do we know? In Žižek’s latest work, God in Pain, the cover invokes our belligerent and sturdy monk with:

God in Pain is interesting for 95 reasons …


One Khepra has responded to Lenin’s Tomb‘s follow-up post on Žižek and racism with this absolute gem:

First, I think it critical to point out that I would not argue that your charge of ‘racism’ is wrong, but that it is not right. In other words, I would not suggest that ‘racist’ themes cannot be interpreted in Zizek’s argumentation, but that these themes are *interpretations* and not ‘reality’ or ‘the truth’. I propose that if one were to ask Zizek something to the effect of, “Did you mean to implicitly endorse racism or pogroms?” he would not answer in the affirmative. Therefore, I would suggest that you have interpolated this meaning and that it might be more constructive to acknowledge your role as author and translator than arbiter of ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’. [That is not to say that all meanings and interpretations are equivalent. Many ≠ any. One could not, for instance, legitimately come away from Zizek’s presentation with the interpretation that Zizek ignored the plight of the Romas outright, or that the cultural dispositions of the Romas had been thoroughly and accurately represented, or that Zizek was a firm advocate of neoliberal capitalism, etc.]

Reminds me of that moment in a lift when you hear two academics talking about something or other: it seems like a caricature of any intellectual conversation. (ht cp)

(ht cp)

This is why I still love reading this guy:

As every schoolchild knows by now, a new book by Žižek is supposed to include, in no special order, discussions of Hegel, Marx and Kant; various pre- and post-socialist anecdotes and reflections; notes on Kafka as well as on mass-cultural writers like Stephen King or Patricia Highsmith; references to opera (Wagner, Mozart); jokes from the Marx Brothers; outbursts of obscenity, scatological as well as sexual; interventions in the history of philosophy, from Spinoza and Kierkegaard to Kripke and Dennett; analyses of Hitchcock films and other Hollywood products; references to current events; disquisitions on obscure points of Lacanian doctrine; polemics with various contemporary theorists (Derrida, Deleuze); comparative theology; and, most recently, reports on cognitive philosophy and neuroscientific ‘advances’. These are lined up in what Eisenstein liked to call ‘a montage of attractions’, a kind of theoretical variety show, in which a series of ‘numbers’ succeed each other and hold the audience in rapt fascination. It is a wonderful show; the only drawback is that at the end the reader is perplexed as to the ideas that have been presented, or at least as to the major ones to be retained. One would think that reading all Žižek’s books in succession would only compound this problem: on the contrary, it simplifies it somewhat, as the larger concepts begin to emerge from the mist.

All of which makes me wonder whether the desire to find a system within Žižek’s thought is a little misdirected (here we should ignore his own claims), for he is more like Badiou’s anti-philosopher – Paul, Kierkegaard, Lacan etc. That and the need to read Žižek’s work as a massive compensation for or response to the ‘former Yugoslavia’, since he played his own eager role in its breakup.

I sidled up to it in my chapter on the pudgy Slovenian in Criticism of Heaven and Adam Kotsko narrated its passage to and fro in the man’s thought in his Žižek and Theology, but I wonder whether anyone has argued that Žižek’s thought is actually caught in this irresolvable tension – irresolvable at least for him. It is the tension between the argument (most forcefully put in Lacanian terms) that any revolution will run into the mud, since it still operates with the same coordinates as that which it seeks to overthrow, and the desire for a genuine revolution, which is cast in various terms, whether theological, Leninist, good old communist or what have you. In short: the tension between signing up for the Cause or refusism. And I wonder whether this tension, to which Žižek returns again and again, marks the trauma of the failed revolution in Slovenia, in which he was a full participant?

I can’t find any references or discussions, precisely  from someone who has gained for philosophising through dirty jokes and taboo subjects. So if anyone knows of a text where Žižek does discuss bestiality, please let me know. Otherwise, it seems as though the man does have some standards.