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Žižek Body of Christ Presentation AAR 2010

“Žižek and the Excremental Body of Christ”


by Adam Kotsko

I am very glad to have the opportunity to participate on this panel on the Body of Christ,
above all because of the positive impact it has on my reputation to be associated with such
distinguished panelists—but also because of the chance it gave me to reflect specifically on
Žižek’s use of the concept of the Body of Christ. While it does not rise to the level of a major
theme in his engagement with Christianity and while his use of the concept excludes much of the
familiar territory that it covers in traditional theology—most notably, he does not use it to refer
either to the community of believers or to the sacramental Body of Christ in the Eucharist—I
believe that Žižek’s perspective on the Body of Christ provides both a particularly helpful
perspective on his thinking on Christianity and a perhaps surprising point of contact with
contemporary Latin American liberation theology.
In order to demonstrate this, I will begin by laying out my understanding of Žižek’s
position on Christianity and its importance for his broader intellectual project, centering on how
his two major intellectual inspirations, Hegel and Lacan, shape his use of Christianity. I will then
turn to his use of the concept of the Body of Christ and the light it sheds on his engagement with
Christianity. Finally, I will bring Žižek’s use of the Body of Christ into dialogue with an essay
by Jon Sobrino, “Extra pauperes nulla salus,” published in his 2007 book No Salvation Outside
the Poor, in order to think through some of the political and economic deadlocks currently
confronting all leftist political projects, whether founded in liberation theology or, as in Žižek’s
case, more explicitly and directly in the Marxist tradition.
I.
The basic structure of Žižek’s interpretation of Christianity is provided by Hegel, who
elaborates a theology of the “death of God” (which was later taken up by American theologians
such as Thomas Altizer, whom Žižek discovered after developing his own Hegelian reading of
Christianity). Hegel contends that the three persons of the Trinity do not represent three co-
eternal realities, but rather three decisive and irreversible turning points in the life of God: the
Father empties out the entirety of his divinity into the Son, and by dying the Son then empties
out that divinity into the Holy Spirit, which is understood as a new form of social bond.
Coming at this basic structure from a Lacanian perspective and specifically from his use
of Lacan to found a contemporary form of ideology critique, Žižek argues that Christ represents
a unique form of “master signifier.” Normally “master signifiers” are tautologous authorities
whose self-assertion allows some form of symbolic order or ideological structure to crystallize—
for instance, in modern society money serves as the foundation of our entire system of values,
but when you ask what money is worth, you can only answer that it’s worth… money. Money is
valuable because it’s valuable. The model of this kind of “master signifier” is of course God,
whose authority ultimately stems from the fact that he is God. Žižek claims, however, that the
founding myth of Christianity provides us with a weird kind of self-effacing or self-denying
master signifier—a God who not only dies (many gods have died throughout history, only to be
replaced), but who himself becomes an atheist. In Žižek’s reading, Christ’s cry of dereliction on
the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—presents us with an image of a
God who doesn’t believe in himself. Elevating Christ to the level of a “master signifier” thus

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means effectively giving up on “master signifiers,” producing a whole new form of social bond
—one that is outside of ideology.
As I argue in Žižek and Theology, this elaboration of a “death of God” theology as a path
to a non-ideological social bond is the end result of a long and difficult development in Žižek’s
political thought, because—to put it bluntly—getting rid of master signifiers is difficult. It’s easy
enough to overthrow any given master signifier, but the human tendency to reestablish them
seems irresistible—and before his foray into theology, Žižek seemed to be essentially advocating
revolution for its own sake, as a kind of moment of pure authenticity and truth, despite the fact
that every revolution will necessarily be a matter of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The reason for this is that “master signifiers” are a way of organizing our enjoyment, keeping the
suffocating force of jouissance sufficiently at bay to give us breathing room, while nonetheless
giving us access to occasional moments of indulgence. A key aspect of this is Žižek’s view that
every form of law founded in a “master signifier” includes its own “inherent transgression”—
that is, it depends on people occasionally feeling like they not only have permission to break the
rules but are actively exhorted to do so, so that they have a way to let off steam. A familiar
example of this is the Jim Crow order in the US—in addition to the official laws segregating
blacks and whites, the order was characterized by extra-legal attacks such as lynch mobs. Žižek
would argue that these weren’t unfortunate outbursts but were an integral part of the Jim Crow
order, allowing whites to “let off steam” by forcibly asserting their dominance while maintaining
the public fiction that segregation was a harmonious system with everyone in their natural place.
Inspired by Alain Badiou’s work on St. Paul, Žižek turns to the origins of Christianity as
a way of thinking through what it might mean to have a revolution that would be a durable
achievement rather than a flash of inspiration between two ideological regimes. His main critique
of Badiou is that Badiou one-sidedly emphasizes the resurrection over the cross—in Lutheran
terms, Badiou is a theologian of glory rather than a theologian of the cross. Žižek believes that
any new order (represented by the resurrection) must be preceded by a break with the old
(represented by the cross)—some act of negation, some negative gesture separating oneself from
the reigning master signifier. But again, this is very difficult to achieve. Not only does the
ideological order actively rely on its own violation through the “inherent transgression,” but
Žižek had also argued extensively that “cynical distance” from ideology—the sense that “no one
really believes this stuff”—is actually a built-in feature of all ideologies. Just “going through the
motions” without really believing it isn’t a way of escaping ideology, but rather the most
powerful form of submitting to ideology.
If the seemingly most obvious ways to negate ideology are built-in features of ideology
already, then where can one turn? In The Puppet and the Dwarf, which represents his most fully
realized account of Christian origins, Žižek makes what is, in my view, one of his most
interesting moves—he claims that Judaism represents a kind of inherently negative space, a
culture that is “unplugged” from the enjoyment provided by the surrounding pagan ideology, so
that the logic of the “inherent transgression” and of “cynical distance” alike don’t apply.
Contradicting both Badiou and centuries of Christian interpreters, Žižek thus argues that the
point of Pauline Christianity wasn’t to escape from the Jewish law, but to find some way to
induct Gentiles into this “unplugged” Jewish stance. Historically, of course, Christianity wound
up betraying its Jewish roots and became an ideological order like any other, so that perhaps
Žižek’s attempt to find a durable model that would be something other than the space between
two ideologies has failed—yet he believes that the Pauline communities built on engrafting

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Gentiles into the promises of Judaism provide at least a way of thinking through what a durable
non-ideological social bond might look like.
II.
So where does the Body of Christ fit into all this? As I’ve said, he is uninterested in the
idea of the Christian community or church as the “Body of Christ,” and this is not only because
he has opted to refer to that social bond as the “Holy Spirit”—in addition to his general distaste
for anything as “harmonious” or “organic” as a body metaphor would imply, Žižek also has no
interest whatsoever in ecclesiology or in the institutional church as such, believing it to be a
betrayal of Christianity’s original revolutionary core. Furthermore, Žižek has never, to my
knowledge, addressed the sacraments in any serious way, and so the sacramental Body of Christ
in the Eucharist is not on his radar.
What remains, though, is the literal, physical body of Jesus, which Žižek basically only
discusses in the context of the crucifixion. Like a medieval mystic, Žižek is fixated on Christ’s
weakness and suffering, his pathetic and pitiable appearance—the absolute disjuncture between
this disgraced and repulsive dying body and the divine nature he embodies. More than that, he
claims, in something like an orthodox fashion, that Christ embodies the truth of humanity, the
truth that, in Luther’s words, “we are the shit that fell out of God’s anus.” Drawing on this
Lutheran inheritance, Žižek defines Christianity as providing a vision of a God who “freely
identified himself with his own shit” (Parallax View, 187).
Now this focus on excrement is not entirely new for Žižek, who has always had a fixation
of sorts on whatever is disgusting, repulsive, or otherwise off-putting. In fact, one of the key
concepts he takes from Lacan, objet petit a, which represents the ever-elusive object and cause of
desire, frequently bears the name of the “excremental remainder,” referring to that little
“something” that one has to give up in order to join the social order. What Žižek calls Luther’s
“excremental anti-humanism,” then, does not simply lead to humanity wallowing in its own self-
disgust. Rather, it leads to humanity wallowing in its own enjoyment, or as Žižek says, to the
emergence of enjoyment as a direct political factor. For Žižek all ideological orders represent a
way of organizing enjoyment or jouissance, of keeping it at a distance while allowing periodic
indulgence, but what Luther’s position opens up is the possibility of a kind of short-circuit,
where jouissance is not just a silently presupposed basis of the political order but instead a
conscious emphasis and goal.
The end result is what Žižek characterizes as the contemporary “superego injunction to
enjoy”—the perverse situation where authorities are directly exhorting people to enjoy. The most
obvious manifestation of this tendency was perhaps George W. Bush’s injunction that people go
shopping in response to 9/11, but Žižek believes this basic attitude is absolutely pervasive.
Increasingly, Žižek claims, one feels guilty not for having sex, but for not having enough sex—
and even the asceticism of dieting and exercise is geared toward the hedonistic ends of
attractiveness and longer lifespan. Increasingly, contemporary Western subjects, or at least
contemporary middle and upper class Western subjects, directly identify with their excremental
remainder, with objet petit a—with the end result of a kind of autistic compulsion to enjoy, an
obligatory enjoyment that one begins to suspect is not finally all that enjoyable.
The answer to this situation, for cultural conservatives and particularly for conservative
Catholics such as Žižek’s dialogue partners G. K. Chesterton and John Milbank, is to reimpose
some version of traditional values in order to save enjoyment from itself. For Žižek, however,
such a solution is both dishonest and self-undermining, or in other words, perverse—hence the
subtitle of The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, which refers to Actual

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Existing Christianity and not to its original, supposedly revolutionary form. His solution is not to
disavow enjoyment, but rather to focus on the enjoyment of the other, to form a community
centered on the care for the concrete suffering and enjoying others one happens to encounter.
This, in his view, is Christian love, a love he characterizes as “violent” in that it cuts beneath the
ideological identity markers of the other and attends directly to the excremental remainder
underneath it all.
Though this notion of an authentically Christian community is based in an adaptation of
one of the later Lacan’s more opaque concepts, the “discourse of the analyst,” I believe that the
clearest example of what he’s talking about can be found in his final contribution to The
Monstrosity of Christ. There he discusses Agota Kristof’s novel The Notebook, which for him is
“the best literary expression” of an ethical stance that goes beyond the sentimentality of
moralism and instead installs “a cold, cruel distance toward what one is doing.”1 The novel
follows two twin brothers who are “utterly immoral… yet they stand for authentic ethical naivety
at its purest.”2 Žižek gives two examples. In one, they meet a starving man who asks for help and
get him everything he asks for, while claiming that they helped him solely because he needed
help, not out of any desire to be kind. In another, they urinate on a German officer with whom
they find themselves sharing a bed, at his request. Žižek remarks, “If ever there was a Christian
ethical stance, this is it: no matter how weird their neighbor’s demands, the twins naively try to
meet them.”3 (Interestingly, this ethical stance of giving people what they ask for in the most
literal way corresponds with one of Žižek’s earliest political prescriptions for dealing with the
cynical distance that is inherent to ideology—instead of resisting the demands of ideology, one
should take them as literally as possible, because that’s the one response ideology isn’t prepared
for.) Žižek commends the twins’ amoral ethics as follows:
This is where I stand—how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy,
doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive
distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like
this, the world would be a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a
cold and cruel passion.4
Such is Žižek’s understanding of Christian ethics, a position I am sure will not be included in any
Christian ethics courses any time soon.
III.
I would like to conclude this presentation by connecting Žižek’s work to liberation
theology—not through the more obvious path of the reliance of both on the Marxist tradition, but
rather precisely through Žižek’s notion of the Body of Christ as a kind of “excremental
remainder.” My initial point of contact here might seem superficial initially, but I believe it will
prove surprisingly revealing. In his essay “Extra pauperes nulla salus,” or “No salvation outside
the poor,” Jon Sobrino begins with a quotation from his fallen comrade Ignacio Ellacuría, who
was among the members of Sobrino’s Jesuit community who were massacred by a Salvadoran
death squad in 1989 while Sobrino happened to be out of the country:
What on another occasion I called copro-historical analysis, that is, the study of the feces
of our civilization, seems to reveal that this civilization is gravely ill and that, in order to
avoid a dreadful and fatal outcome, it is necessary to change it from within itself.

1
Žižek and Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 301.
2
Žižek and Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 301.
3
Žižek and Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 301.
4
Žižek and Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 303.

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Sobrino agrees, claiming that the “excrement” or waste product of capitalist civilization, in the
form of massive impoverishment in the Third World, demonstrates that it is profoundly sick.
Reciting the massive imbalances in global priorities, for instance the inconceivable sums spent
on arms at the same time as people are starving daily, Sobrino concludes that “we are dealing
with a metaphysical obscenity” and that “God is furious” (39).
That is of course because for Sobrino and for all liberation theologians, God has
identified decisively with this excremental remainder of the poor. The parallel here with Žižek’s
“God who freely identifies with his own shit” is inexact—most notably because liberation
theologians do not believe God is the author of the process that produces the poor as an
excremental remainder—but also compelling, insofar as Žižek has written a great deal recently
on the obscene inequalities that characterize the contemporary world and has even put forth
urban slum dwellers in the Third World as a contemporary parallel to the “unplugged” stance he
detects in first-century Judaism.
In addition, Žižek’s account of “Christian love” as naively meeting people’s needs simply
because they ask resonates profoundly with the implied premise of Sobrino’s harsh and furious
text: people need to eat! Regardless of whether they’re deserving, whether giving them food
would produce bad economic incentives, etc., etc., people need to eat. The same could obviously
be said for all basic needs—for example, regardless of whether it undermines someone’s ability
to put big numbers in quarterly reports, people who have AIDS need medicine! A little more
literalism and naïveté would certainly help in our present situation. In addition, simply listening
to what people are asking for would be a huge improvement over the patronizing tutelage of
NGOs and foreign aid, which Sobrino characterizes as actively contributing to the
dehumanization of the already dehumanized people they serve, insofar as it deprives them of
agency.
The principle here is basically Jesus’s: sell all you have and give to the poor. The focus
here isn’t on liquidating your holdings so that you can enjoy the moral righteousness of poverty,
but of putting your goods at the disposal of the poor—or, as Jesus says in another setting, of
using your dishonest wealth to make friends.
The really difficult question between Žižek and liberation theology, however, is what the
end state looks like. For Sobrino as for most liberation theologians, the basic stance seems to be
humanist in the broad sense—a society that respects human dignity, that looks to the intrinsic
worth of every individual. Yet Žižek remains resolutely anti-humanist and suspicious of the
language of human rights. And while Sobrino can look forward to a correction of civilization’s
digestive system such that it will stop producing the poor as excrement, Žižek revels in the
disgusting and repellant aspect of the “excremental remainder.”
When the case is stated in this way, it seems difficult to favor Žižek over Sobrino, yet I
wonder if Žižek is getting at an important truth here—namely that the end state is something that
we, blinkered as we are by the ideology of our present sick civilization, simply cannot recognize
as beautiful or desirable, that the change we need is so profound that it will change our very
concept of what it means to be human. In any case, both Žižek and Sobrino agree that what it
means to be human now entails the production of a massive and appalling waste product—and
that what it means to be faithful to the message of Christ is to freely identify with that waste
product.