Caputo on Žižek and Milbank

If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter, you will want to check out Jack Caputo’s review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank.  If you are not familiar with the work of either Žižek or Milbank, perhaps this is not a bad (if critical) introductions to some basic ideas in their work.  To simplify, both thinkers in this book are taking the thought of G.W.F. Hegel as their starting point and “materialism” as their main concern [and not Jesus, btw…].  Žižek is pro-Hegel and Milbank is anti-Hegel, but, as Caputo shows, their “Hegel” is probably not the one you can find in, say, Hegel…or at least not in the standard readings of Hegel.  Žižek uses Hegel to argue for a radical materialism; Milbank argues against Hegel in favor of a materialism supported, instead, by the apparatus of the metaphysics of analogy [and here] of St. Thomas Aquinas.  So this is the question posed in the title of the book:  Does Hegel’s dialectic lead to a nihilistic dead end that is upended by the paradox of a God-made-man (Milbank)? Or, does Hegel’s dialectic demand the conclusion that God (divinity) died on the Cross, leaving us with no choice but a fully-demythologized materialistic view?  Caputo’s review lays this all out nicely.

Caputo’s estimation of all this?  He finds neither Žižek nor Milbank to be really interested in matter…i.e, matter doesn’t really matter for them.  Milbank denigrates matter by seeing it as a moment or a stage to be passed through on the way to the resurrected body (which, if matter, is no matter we’re familiar with)—his not-so-radical orthodoxy.  For Žižek, it is not so much matter that matters but our ability to embrace our fantasies and to give ourselves over to a Cause even though we know there is nothing more to what is than matter, despite the utter despair this produces.  The “matter” that matters to Žižek is “spectral” or virtual matter that is the result of our pursuit of desires, fantasies, causes.

In the end, Caputo thinks this debate on matter doesn’t really matter at all.  Why be forced to choose if presented by a false dilemma?

Why do we need the notion that at the metaphysical base of things there lies either a primordial peace or a primordial violence — or a primordial anything, at least one that we could ever get our hands on? Why do the multiple repetitions of which our lives are woven need to be cast either as a downbeat and futile search that will be always frustrated or as underwritten by an uplifting metaphysics of participation? Why inscribe either absolute contradiction or absolute peace at the heart of things instead of ambience and ambiguity? Why chaos instead of the unsteady chaosmotic process of unprogrammed becoming? Why not see life as a joyful but risky business that may turn out well or badly, a repetition forwards in which I produce what I am repeating, in which I invent what I am discovering, but in which I am divested of any assurances about what lies up ahead — let alone deep down at the metaphysical base of things? Žižek’s notion of the contingency of necessity is close to this insight, but he insists on treating the Deep Trauma like some Metaphysical Meteor that cratered downtown Ljubljana. Is this not just the search for a transcendental signifier all over again? Why do we have to believe that something deep is out there but alas it is lost and we are hopelessly searching for it?…

Why not adopt the post-metaphysical idea that gives up searching for all such primordial underlying somethings or other? Why must we posit either a primordial loss or a primordial gain? Is there some reason we get only two choices, either God as an illusion spun by the objet petit a or God as the Alpha and Omega, the really real and really Big A? Is this not simply metaphysics spinning its wheels all over again, a point Milbank supports when he says neither of these views can be proven (153)? All that is truly given is a promise/risk, what Derrida calls a “perhaps” not reducible to one or the other. Why must we believe that underneath it all is something profoundly productive or destructive? Why not simply confess that the “matter” that really matters is the risky matter of life, life marked by an unknowable and fundamental undecidability, an ineradicable secret or mystery which reminds us that we do not know who we are, that we do not know what is (deeply) what or what we truly want, yet to make this confession without nostalgia and without despair and without theological triumphalism but with a joyful sense of discovery?

To put this set of questions my own way:  Why not try to feel our way through [phronesis] that space between idolatry (a set-in-stone guarantee that it will all work out in the end and I know what “work out” means precisely; i.e., that I know God as the god-that-I-know, and the god-that-I-know is the One True God) and foolishness (that nothing matters, not even matter, and that what is is just what I say and nothing more, i.e., nothing more than nothing at all)?

My only reservations with Caputo’s review is the tendency that bubbles up here and there of the pot calling the kettle black.  Caputo doesn’t like Žižek’s nasty criticism of Derrida (whom Caputo loves), but then lays into G.K. Chesterton in a manner equally unfair—he “mocks mercilessly,” just as Žižek does Derrida.  Sometimes Caputo himself has, in his own words directed at Milbank, “a disturbing and dogmatic theological dismissiveness of anyone who disagrees with him.”  I risk this comment under the dictum, “he without sin cast the first stone….”  We all do this, I suppose.  But I do want to point out that Caputo’s is not the only (or best) way to read Chesterton….

I prefaced this review-of-a-review with a qualifier:  If you are one of those people for whom these kinds of things matter….  You don’t have to be.  As Caputo asks:

Does anyone really think the Sermon on the Mount has anything to do with any of this bombastic metaphysical tilting and jousting?

Jack’s message is this:  The matter that really matters is the flesh of your neighbor.  Just go take care of it….

  1. #1 by Gregorio Hansellini on September 26, 2009 - 10:46 am

    Eric, I like the phronetic dialectic you espouse here, one that feels its way toward metaphysics, but I think this is more you than Caputo. I take him literally saying “post-metaphysical” as “giv[ing] up searching for all such primordial underlying somethings or other.” As always, I am excited and inspired by Caputo’s affirmation of life, the “oui, oui” (to pun a line, he is Nietzsche with the soul of Christ). But if we neglect metaphysics, than the difference between Caputo and Zizek is only aesthetic opinion on how to posture one’s life. I find this to be very different, and lessor, than the phronetic dialectical metaphysics (to coin a cumbersome phrase) that you seem to be working through in your writing.

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