January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
November 21, 2011
I was downtown talking with people at Occupy Chicago last Monday, and I met a man named Les, who I mistook for the leader of the movement. I’m sure you all know that OWS is leaderless, but I’ve always assumed this is reall just code for Leader-Les, who happened to be a 67 year old man, retired and concerned about the future (or lack of) we are leaving for the future generations.
Anyway, this movement has so far put the mainstream media into the role of the hysteric asking, “What do you want?” “What are your goals?” Without clear demands, without a clear object-ive, the media is left without an object to represent, to summarize, to digest, to reduce into sound-bites positioned within well-established coordinates. But what are we to make of the Occupy movements and there attempts to do something impossible? It reminded me of two ways of thinking change: Žižek’s Act or Badiou’s Event.
On the one hand OWS seems to fit perfectly with Žižek’s understanding of the “subjective destitution”, the act of separating one’s self from symbolic support, the act of cutting ties to socially defined roles and expectations, the act of dying to the symbolic order, and therefore in a sense, dying to oneself. This is the “hysterical” position where on doubts the efficacy of the the established order (the status quo) and therefore puts one’s own subjective position into doubt, causing what may seem to be irrational outbursts (as opposed to the “perverse” position and it’s more rational transgressions). This systematic doubt derails the power of the ruling order, opening a new horizon for action, even if (or especially because) it might seem ‘unrealistic’. And this is what Žižek’s means when he speaks of subjective destitution as death, for only when one considers oneself dead to the existing order will you be able to actually act freely with regard to it. Only then will you move from piecemeal forms of transgressive resistance against the existing order toward creating the possibility of another order altogether.
And doesn’t this rough and ready summary seem to fit the Occupy movements? They don’t have a definitive request to make of the ruling political order; there are no directives or objectives. Indeed, OWS has attempted indifference toward party politics and has engaged Wall Street instead of Washington. Its leaderlessness is a type of unplugging from the organizational demands so often and easily co-opted by the ruling powers.
On the other hand OWS also seems to fit Badiou’s understanding of the political event. For Badiou an event does not attempt to define (financial) equality but declares (financial) equality against the corporate strangle hold on economics and politics. A true political event does not merely concern itself with ambiguous realms within political discourse (in this case, various gradations of economic liberalism: conservative-, neo-conservative-, or liberal-liberalism), but actively decides in favor of the singular existing outsides such discourse (i.e. media discourse, lobbying discourse, Capital Hill discourses, etc). These decisions witness to the fact that something new can come into existence within a situation, declaring and discerning its consequences. Badiou calls these eruptions ‘events’, an event (in this case a political event) is the revealing or acknowledging of something within the situation that had not been previously represented by the state, and not only not represented by also repressed by the state. In this way, an event disrupts the smooth functioning of the state when political subjects decide in favor of an event (i.e. that OWS exists) which calls for theirs involvement in declaring and discerning the event’s consequences within the political situation. This fidelity to an event puts into positive circulation what had been previously excluded by the state, calling into existence what the state did not allow. In this way, a political truth (or truth-event) always works its way through particular subjects, faithful to a singular event, investigating its results and connections.
Doesn’t this also seem to fit the Occupy movements? Calling into questions politics as normal, ditching the party system and its reality and its definitions of possibility, OWS is actively deciding in favor of the 99% as those who should be counted as/in themselves rather than merely accounted for through financial calculations (of debt) or political calculations (of voter responses). OWS could be thought of as a political event (but perhaps it is too early to tell) that is calling into existence new political subjects which act at a distance to politics as usual.
Of Death and Resurrection
One way of telling the difference between Žižek’s Act and Badiou’s Event could be thought as the difference between death and resurrection.
The political act for Žižek is death to the symbolic order, a persisting in death while still alive, which allows for freedom from ruling ideology. This is the formation of a subjectivity which persists between and beyond any formal system of order, or rather, it persists both after the fall of one symbolic order and before the creation of a new order. This understanding protects against an over-hasty production of another oppressive order (the old master is gone…say hello to the new master!). With a movement calling into question the global capitalist order like OWS, persisting in the negative moment of thought, of discussion, of consensus building without clear goals might be the only way to ensure lasting change. In this way, it is wrong for those who complain about the lack of objectives because this complaint is either just a reversion back to the normal order of politics or an over-zealous attempting at building something new.
The political event for Badiou is more like resurrection, because for him “death as such counts for nothing in the operation of salvation” because death can only be the site of an event, not its cause or ground. What always counts for Badiou is the emergence of something new, not the possibility but the reality of something new happening in the world, which for him is more resurrection than death. The authentic political subject is suspended by an event, is resurrection by an event, which declares that something new is happening here. The political event for Badiou declares with the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear.” For Badiou, the emergence of the new (beyond and indifferent to old binaries) is the sole concern of a political subject, building a new society amid the rubble of the old.
With the loss of Zuccotti Park it is difficult to know how to conceptualize Occupy movements. Are they (will they take) the form of Žižek Act, creating a community of activist willing and capable of persisting in a liminal situation (political zombies) out side the party system, or are they (will they take) the form of Badiou’s Event, building a new way of living in small, concentrated actions.
Between Death and Resurrection
When asked by Pilate if he was a king Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Or maybe is we could politicize the Message version, “My kingdom doesn’t consist of the socio-economic political options you see around you. If it did, my activist followers would terrorize you so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of party politician. I’m not the typical activist of this world.”
That Jesus kingdom is not of this world resonates well with OWS persistence that its is not an ordinary social movement. But this other-(than politics as usual)-worldliness has not been the sole purview of social movements for some (unfortunately not most) corners of the church have practices an alternative political formation for quite some time. These ecclesial movements (see new monasticism or jesus radicals) perhaps exist between death and resurrection, a type of baptismal participation in the kingdom of Jesus, as Paul says,
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.4-5)
For political subjectivity is neither being suspended by a truth-event, nor suspending the symbolic law, but rather a suspension between death and resurrection according to our baptismal incorporation in Christ. In other words, political subjectivity is neither hysterical nor evental, but baptismal.
 Žižek ,The Ticklish Subject, pp. 260-264.
 Badiou, Saint Paul, 69–70 (emphasis added).
Geoffrey Holsclaw is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine (www.lifeonthevine.org) and a PhD candidate in theology and society at Marquette University. He is an editor for the Church and Postmodern Culture (http://churchandpomo.typepad.com/) and writes at geoffreyholsclaw.net.