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Delpech Ramey.debate

Delpech Ramey.debate

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Published by: AnthonyPaulSmith on Apr 11, 2010
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11.1 (2010) 121-125]
 Political Theology
(print) ISSN 1462-317X doi:10.1558/poth.v11i1.121
 Political Theology
(online) ISSN 1473-1719
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010, 1 Chelsea Manor Studios, Flood Street, London SW3 5SR.
 A N
 Joshua Delpech-Ramey 
Rowan University Glassboro, NJ 08028USA ramey@rowan.edu
One of the more interesting points of contention between Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank in their recent debate,
The Monstrosity of Christ
, is over the
nature and status of belief in the supernatural. For Žižek belief in the super
natural is an ultimate symptom of capitalist domination; for Milbank it isa sign of the reality of the elusive promise of a world whose benecence
exceeds both the imagination and the administrative powers of empire and
capital. I contend that even without Milbank’s orthodox perspective, Žižek’sreduction of magic to fantasy obscures the black magic of capitalism itself 
and so arbitrarily and unnecessarily forecloses on modes of resistance thatare allied to liturgical, theurgical, and spiritual practices
: Adorno, capital, magic, Milbank, Žižek.
Beginning with Marx himself, astute critics of capitalist ideology have
noticed a strange resonance between belief in the market and belief in
magic. In “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Marx deftly and ironically demonstrated that this most modern and disenchantedof things, the commodity, is charged with “metaphysical subtleties andtheological niceties,” capable of a “table-turning” more mysterious than
any parlor trick. As Marx put it,
The existence of the things
commodities, and the value relation betweenthe products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations
arising therefrom. There it is a denite social relation between men, that
assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
1. K. Marx, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” in
 (London: Penguin, 1992), ch. 1 §4,
 Political Theology
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.
On the market, relations between inanimate objects do not merely reect
but actually create value, since (supposedly) no individual producer orconsumer can dictate price. In effect, we await the pronouncements of commodities as expectant suppliants wait for the verdict of the god on the
sacrice, the stars upon our fates.
Following Marx, Theodor Adorno observed that decadent and despair-ing bourgeois subjectivity increasingly turns to occult sources of meaning precisely to the degree that it despairs of real freedom.
As capitalism andadministration tighten their grip on things, fetishism of the commodity isovercoded by a vague and generalized fetishism or animism, an occultism whose vogue is the promise of a powerful and meaningful connection tothings alienated from their being as commodities. Ordinary sources of 
signicance become accessible only through occult forms of mediation.
 As Adorno realized, this turn to the spirits is pathetic. In
 Minima Moralia
he writes,
The same rationalistic and empiricist apparatus that threw the spirits outis being used to reimpose them on those who no longer trust their ownreason. As if any elemental spirit would not turn tail before the traps that
domination of nature sets for eeting beings. But even this the occultiststurn to advantage. Because the spirits do not like controls, in the midst of all
the safety precautions a tiny door must be left open, through which they can
make their unimpeded entrance. For the occultists are practical folk. Notdriven by vain curiosity, they are looking for tips. From the stars to forward
transactions is but a nimble step. Usually the information amounts to nomore than that some poor acquaintance has had his dearest hopes dashed.
In his debate with John Milbank,
The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or  Dialectics?
Slavoj Žižek continues the Marxist critique of magical thinking,this time rendering the ruse of occultism in terms of what Chesterton’s
detective Father Brown analyzed as a “fear of four words: He was mademan.”
Chesterton’s idea was that Western culture’s retreat into spiritual
2. Philip Goodchild has brilliantly updated Marx’s (and Weber’s) perspective on the
intimacy between belief and captital with
Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety
(London:Routledge, 2002) and
Theology of Money
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). Wil
liam Connolly has also explored the specically American Christian dimensions of this
situation with
Capitalism and Christianity, American Style
(Durham, NC: Duke University 
Press, 2008).3. Bourgeoise fascination with occultism and spiritualism began as early as the failureof the 1848–1849 revolutions, even though Adorno was observing early twentieth-century times.4. Theodor Adorno,
 Minima Moralia: Reections on a Damaged Life
, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 143.5. G. K. Chesterton,
The Complete Father Brown Stories
(Ware: Wordsworth Editions,2006), 394–5.
Supernatural Capital
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.
ism, and its willingness to believe in anything (from ESP in Chesterton’s
time to the Gaia hypothesis in our own), must be read as an inability tosustain the traumatic reality of God incarnate. As Father Brown puts it,
People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’sdrowning all your old rationalism and skepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; andthe name of it is superstition. It’s the rst effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything thatanybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself inde
nitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery,
and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht
and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of thebeginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because
 you are frightened of four words. He was made Man.
Refusal to believe in God incarnate leads not so much to atheism as togeneral superstition. Eliminating God means reproducing divinity every-
 where. With all this Žižek agrees. But “he was made man,” for Žižek, does
not mean, as it does for Chesterton, that God has included humanity inthe divine economy, but rather that, as with the Hegelian interpretationof Christianity, what was formerly perceived as an external Creator orMaster is now comprehended as nothing but the ungrounded and utterly 
contingent fact of human freedom itself. For Žižek, the decadent super
naturalism identied by Chesterton has its source not in the rejection of 
God but in the rejection of the radicality of freedom. Rather than sustain
the responsibility entailed by freedom, humanity drifts back into variet
-ies of the
deus absconditus
, re-populating the disenchanted universe with apanoply of ancient gods and familiar spirits.
Žižek is convinced that what he shares with Chesterton is—ironically—the endorsement of a direct link between incarnationalism and a kind of 
naturalism, a reduction of the supernatural to the ironies of contingency.
But as Milbank points out in his rejoinders to Žižek,
Chesterton was himself convinced
of the reality of angels, miracles, magic, and the importance of fairy stories. In
, Chesterton claimed that it was
ordinary reality was so astonishing that he himself was willing to entertain angels,miracles and magic. Chesterton also astutely noticed that in general angels
appear and magic happens to the most hard-headed ordinary people, likeshepherds and shermen, and not to pathetic warlocks begging demons
to bring them power.
6. Chesterton,
The Complete Father Brown Stories
, 394–5.
7. Slavoj Žižek, John Milbank and Creston Davis,
The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or  Dialectic?
(Cambridge: MIT, 2009), 25.8. G. K. Chesterton,
(London: Bodley Head, 1957), 262.

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