Rereading Žižek’s Hegel in Light of the Spirit and Truth of Kenotic Love

Though Slavoj Žižek, reading Hegel as if he were an atheist must ultimately misread him, there is a great deal in Žižek’s atheistic reading which commends itself and acts as a guide, not only to Hegel, but to New Testament Christianity as understood by Hegel. The particular point where there is both convergence and divergence between an atheistic and theistic reading of Hegel concerns the meaning of Spirit and the death of God. As Žižek describes it, the Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” as definitive of the experience of God, and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). Indeed, this suspension of God as other, and the immediate experience of God as immanent is key to Hegel. But Hegel’s point of departure is not simply negation, but he is focused on the Pauline concept of kenotic self-sacrifice in which one arrives at the Spirit of Christ. The kenotic sacrifice simultaneously marks the death of something “beyond” humanity and this is realized in the Spirit through imitation of Christ’s self-giving love.[1] But it is not simply the negation of God as Other, but the bringing together of the infinite and the finite in Absolute Spirit as Concept [Begriff] or a new form of speculative understanding and Truth.

In Hegel there is a double movement as the infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[2] But this is no mere feeling, but is the way of the Spirit, the way of love and of reason. As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[3] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. As Hegel puts it, “If God has the finite over against himself, then he himself is finite and limited. Finitude must be posited in God himself, not as something insurmountable, absolute, independent, but above all as this process of distinguishing that we have seen in spirit and in consciousness—a distinguishing that, because it is a transitory moment and because finitude is no truth, is also eternally self-sublating.”[4] God is not limited by the finite or infinite, as this would be something less than God.

Žižek gets this understanding half right, in that he misses the movement of Spirit as arising from both God as infinite Father, and the immanent Son. As he describes it, the Hegelian “reconciliation” is the “redoubling of the gap or antagonism” as the gap that separates opposites “is posited as inherent to one of the terms” (Parallax View, 106). “The gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself” through the death of Christ, so “the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God” (Parallax View, 106). There is relief from the oppressive otherness of God as Christ makes God immanent, but in Hegel’s understanding there is not simply the relinquishing of the infinite for the finite, but a realization of the infinite in the finite. In “externalization” (Entäußerung), Luther’s rendering of “kenosis,” Hegel depicts the break from “immediacy” through self-sacrifice, which is the work of the Spirit experienced in the Eucharist, and in the Christian’s taking up the life and death of Christ. In Pauline terms, self-sacrifice or being crucified with Christ is to arrive at the self, and in Hegelian terms self-negation is at the heart of self-actualization.

In Žižek’s understanding, the focus is on the negative moment. The move from the legal, symbolic, totalizing religion of Judaism to Christianity, is due to the death of Christ which suspends the perverse relation to the law. In Žižek’s Hegelian/Lacanian notion of dialectic, Judaism and Christianity posit the gap either as a gap between man and God or as within God, respectively. Judaism posits the gap between God and man, as God stands outside the Law in that he cannot be properly represented within it. The holy of holies, the empty room, is isolated and separated from everyone by a series of walls emphasizing God’s absolute transcendence to the Law. God is the Other, outside of the symbolic, and yet the one who holds the symbolic together (Parallax View, 106). The death of Christ exposes the orbit of the oppressive symbolic in God as Other. In Žižek’s Hegel the death of Christ, the fulness of the work of the Trinity comes into effect as thesis/antithesis/synthesis. There is the suspension of the Other (thesis) in the death of God (antithesis). The Holy Spirit is “then posited as a symbolic, de-substantialized fiction” which exists in and through the “work of each and all” (synthesis) (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42).

Of course, the primary contention between a Christian and atheistic reading of Hegel, revolves around Spirit. In Žižek’s reading the Spirit is a fiction, which is not a dismissal of its importance, as the Spirit is an open fiction, where the movement of the Subject, in all of its phases prior to the gift of the Spirit is a necessary lie, but one that remains hidden. The hidden force of negation or death drive animates the Subject – giving life through death, but in therapy exposure of the lie, the death drive and its attendant categories, can be tapped as a source to unplug from perversion and to come to an understanding of Being as sustained in and through negation. The encounter with the death drive is a “limit-experience” which “is the irreducible/constitutive condition of the (im)possibility of the creative act of embracing a Truth-Event: it opens up and sustains the space for the Truth-Event, yet its excess always threatens to undermine it” (Ticklish Subject, 161). Behind the good, the true and the beautiful is the constitutive background of the death drive – “the Void that sustains the place in which one can formulate symbolic fictions that we call ‘truths’” (Ticklish Subject, 161). The means of manipulating the truth is through tapping into the underlying ground of the death drive and approaching the void of deception in which the symbolic truth is grounded. The death of Christ and dying with Christ provides access to this deception undergirding the truth. The truth inheres in a lie, so to refer to the Spirit as a fiction, is a new form of truth.

For Hegel, the Spirit is not a fiction but the absolute truth: “it is here maintained that this content, which the knowledge of absolute Spirit has of itself, is the absolute truth, is all truth, so that this Idea comprehends the entire wealth of the natural and spiritual world in itself, is the only substance and truth of all that constitutes this world, while it is in the Idea alone that everything has its truth, as being a moment of its essential existence.”[5] This truth, in the Spirit is a realized truth. Kenotic love unites the infinite and finite in the Concept (Absolute Spirit), which is the realization of presence (God’s and the self) and identity. Hegel slowly recognizes the inadequacies of other forms of sacrifice, which fall short of fostering the social relation, inherent to kenosis. Mere self-negation, apart from the establishment of a community of the Spirit, simply ends in self-defeat.[6] To be a living sacrifice or to “live” sacrifice is not simply a negation, but the arrival at one’s true essence.

A way to get at the divergence in regard to Spirit, is in Žižek’s focus on the death of Christ, which more or less sums up what he has to say about the gift of the Spirit and resurrection (unlike Hegel). Where for Hegel the death of Christ results in the immanence of God in the Spirit, Žižek has more to say about death, which he equates with resurrection and spirit. He repeatedly refers to Christ’s cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk. 15.34; Mt. 27.46)., “In Lacanian terms, we are dealing with the suspension of the big Other, which guarantees the subject’s access to reality: in the experience of the death of God, we stumble upon the fact that ‘the big Other doesn’t exist’” (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42). This negation or death opens up the possibility of life in the spirit.

In describing the death of Christ, Žižek equates life and death: “Life and death here are not polar opposites, contrasts, within the same global Whole (field of reality), but the same thing viewed from a global perspective” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). He concludes, “The (temporal) death of Christ is his very (eternal) life ‘in becoming’” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). Death and life are not in some sort of “pseudo-dialectic relation as utter loss/negation (death) and its reversal into absolute life” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). The death of Christ is the founding of the community of the Spirit and this community is his resurrection. According to Žižek, “That is to say that Christ’s death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.”[7]

Christ’s death reveals the psychoanalytic ground; the Freudian moment of madness which Schelling anticipates and which Žižek comes to understand Paul to describe in Romans 7. Radical negativity, the death of Christ or death drive, is the constitutive moment of the event which serves as the ground of a Subject no longer constrained by law or ideology (the significance of the resurrection Event). Resurrection can be identified with death as they both amount to the destruction of one’s symbolic supports and the emergence of a new form of subjectivity. This new form of subjectivity is the hysteric, which Lacan and Žižek equate with Hegel – “that most sublime of hysterics.” Where the masculine orientation identifies unquestioningly with the symbolic order of the law, the hysteric questions the status of the law. So, for example, Žižek identifies hysteria with the Paul of Romans 7. The feminine, hysteric position from which Paul writes describes the necessary passage through negativity and death drive as this is the road trod by Christ himself.

In my original reading of Hegel, through Žižek and Lacan, the role of negation was key to understanding the rise of the Subject in the dynamic interplay of the three registers of symbolic, imaginary, and real. The real is the engine of negation and death which explains the negative energetics dominating fallen personhood. I think this reading is a partially true reading of Hegel, in its diagnosis of the disease, much as Žižek’s is an insightful reading of Paul’s depiction of the problem in Romans 7. But both Paul and Hegel pass beyond this negative moment. But for Žižek, nothingness and death drive precede the Subject and are the primary “substance” constituting the Subject. In Žižek’s atheistic creation ex nihilo (a creation from nothing) God and truth, subject and object, are preceded by death drive and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil (Reader, 273). Lacan also describes the death drive as the attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle to the realm of excess jouissance, the pure substance of the death drive, which he also does not hesitate to call evil: “We cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII, 184–5). This evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it is not something that can be finally and completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the absolute freedom of the Subject. Absolute freedom and autonomy cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good (in Žižek’s reading). The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive.

But of course, if one understands Hegel is working with negation, not in an atheistic sense as a point of origin, but in the Pauline sense of kenotic self-giving love, this will account for the illness of the Subject diagnosed as more or less incurable by Lacan and Žižek, and go beyond this privileging of the negative, to kenotic self-giving love, truth and unity in the Spirit.

[1] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019).

[2] Goggin, 12.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition – The Lectures of 1827. Edited by Peter Hodgson. One-Volume Ed edition. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1988, 190. Quoted in Goggin, 273.

 [5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 206.

[6] Goggin, 11.

[7] See On Belief, 106 – 51; The Puppet and the Dwarf, 171; The Parallax View, 106; For They Know Not What They Do, liii.

Traversing the Fantasy of Jerry Falwell Jr. and American Politics?

Fantasy is what obscures or covers over the inherent antagonism or contradictions in our personal or national identity. This antagonism is the force which pits one race and class against another culturally but it is also the antagonistic force at work within the individual. The fantasy of personal identity covers over the incongruence and contradiction which plagues us, and the fantasy which holds a culture together functions like a mass delusion to hide the inherent contradiction of a people. Every individual and culture is structured around its fantasy, covering points of contradiction or impossibility. When the fantasy fails, the points which might seem to have been disrupting the culture, are exposed as the structuring principle of the culture. Fantasy does not resolve or reconcile but obfuscates the inherent antagonism. For example, the fantasmatic Jew in anti-Semitism (hoarding the wealth conspiring against and blocking the Aryan race) covers class antagonism, in the same way the phantasm of black jouissance in American racism projects onto blacks or people of color the disturbance of what would otherwise be a harmonious social organism. The foreign element (the Jew, the black, the foreigner, etc.) “disrupting the harmony” creates the lure of this harmonious fantasy. The pain, disruption, disharmony, which we are now experiencing might evoke a “traversing” or exposure of the fundamental fantasy or it might result in the compounding of commitment to the lie. To put the question in perspective we can turn to a more controlled and limited instance, a smaller instantiation, of what plagues the nation. What is wrong with Jerry Falwell Jr.?

The success of Jerry Falwell Jr. has far exceeded the vision cast by his father, and there is a sense in which his vision brings together the inherent antagonism erupting around us.  It is not just that his support of Donald Trump was key in swaying evangelicals to support Trump, it is not just that his school and family have been key in the rise of the rise of the religious right, but his vision fixed upon the figures of his father and Donald Trump explains not only his own contradictions but the unfolding national implosion. As the president of Liberty University (the most ironic of names) Falwell Jr. unleashed the business, sports, and political potential of an institution founded upon the repression his father institutionalized in the school, in the Moral Majority, and in the wedding of right-wing politics and religion. Falwell’s embrace and promotion of Donald Trump is a natural, if not necessary, extension of his father’s vision but it is also speaks of his private perversity.  It is no accident that law and order, racism, and sexuality of the repressed and transgressive sort, have taken center stage in the man and in the movement, which characterizes a large portion of the country.

As Paul (and Žižek) describe it, there is always a split in the law in which the law would repress or forbid jouissance and in the process creates the seeming possibility of a transgressive enjoyment. In Paul’s description it is this very prohibition that brings about jouissance or forbidden desire (“I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” (Ro. 7:7)). In turn, the repressive figure of Jerry Sr. does not preclude but entails the necessity of a Trump like figure (the restriction of the one points to the enjoyment of the other). Trump, with his wealth, transgressive sexual practices, racism, and open agitation of violence, is the tangible empowerment of those who support him. (As I have described elsewhere (here), the power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess is, by definition, physical; a pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power.) Trump is the incarnation of evangelical desire for power. The inherent racism (the original impetus of Jerry Sr. to form a political lobby so as to maintain both racial discrimination and tax-exempt status for his school), the repressive sexuality (no prolonged hugging, anti-homosexuality) leading to sexual perversion, the promotion of violence and guns, and the financial and business success, describe not only Liberty but the dynamics driving evangelicals’ support of Trump.

Jerry’s perverse sexual activity is no more a betrayal of his father than his support of Trump. His is an unquestioning acquiescence to the fantasy of an absolute law. By the same token, the transgressive life Jerry seems to have enjoyed was his means of establishing the puritanical law.  He would establish this binary law (doing evil that the good may come) in the same way he would establish the law of his father through Trump. Of course, just as black people, foreigners, and liberals are the perceived gap or enemy of a balanced culture, the enemy in Jerry’s world was the transgressive desire of his wife for Giancarlo Granda.  This foreign sounding name, of this almost colored pool boy, provided prohibited pleasure (jouissance) from the underside of the law. All blame lies with the pool boy in the same way the Jews, blacks, people of color, or the foreigner, are to blame. These foreign elements simultaneously disrupt and indicate there is more pleasure to be had.  

For his admirers like Falwell, Trump is representative of the obscene pre-Oedipal father partaking directly of the jouissance or excess enjoyment of the law they are denied. As the very embodiment of law, Trump need not hesitate (he can directly “grab them by the pussy”), while Falwell requires a mediator (a pool boy) to enjoy for him, as he has access to jouissance only through the “big Other” behind the law. The repression of the father means repression is part of his own possibility of phallic enjoyment, which is to be had in the simultaneous pleasure in pain or guilty enjoyment. His father, Jerry Senior, serves as the prime figure behind the public presentation of the law but Trump provides the sort of access to the powerful underside of the law that Jerry Jr. embraced.

As in the Fall, the knowledge of good and evil is itself an indicator that there is more to the prohibition of the Father than appears on the surface. As the serpent indicates, it is not death but life that is accessed through transgression. The perverse orientation presumes the law is itself the indicator that something more is available – it points to the opportunity for more (excess) life and knowledge. The perceived disruption, lack, or absence must be filled in on the other side of the law. Pursuit of forbidden desire is the force of lack (sin) as it takes control: “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind” (Ro. 7:8). The command not to covet or desire gives rise to desire. “Thou shall not,” is the imperative to enjoy (to really live) by means of transgression.

The theology of Jerry Falwell, like the theology of evangelicals, seems to follow, and not contradict, the logic of the serpent. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals indicated as much, when confronted with the inconsistency of preaching against homosexuality while having a homosexual affair (see here). Haggard explained to Larry King that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” The sin confirms the grace; the evil establishes the good. Pat Robertson has confirmed in his vision of heaven, Donald Trump sits in the place of Jesus, at the right hand of God, and in his description of his approval of Trump, it was precisely his lurid sexual adventures Robertson smilingly approved of.  As Dallas megaChurch Pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has put it, Trump is preferable to a candidate like Jesus (or Jesus-like) for President as Christ’s Lordship and ethics (as described in the Sermon on the Mount) do not pertain to governance of an earthly nation. We need an unrestricted ethic to engage the realities of the world; one that is not bound by the inherent weaknesses of mere love of neighbor and God. The exposure of the sexual perversity in Falwell and Trump are not then, an obstacle, but a perverse sort of confirmation.

It is evangelical theology that partly sustains the fantasy (a future heavenly harmony disconnected from earthly ethics) obscuring the antagonism erupting before us. Doubling down on the racism, squelching the protestors (equating all protesters with rioters), and reinforcing the demand for law and order, is the equivalent of blaming and punishing the pool boy. The evocation of fear on the part of President Trump is precisely what is called for in warding off the choice being posed in this moment. Fear of immigrants, fear of open borders, fear of an uncontrolled black population, fear of rioters and violence, are the only thing inhibiting confrontation with the antagonisms constituting the social body. It is a real question whether the culture can hold together without its fetishes of fear, but clearly the lie (the fantasy) can no longer contain the antagonism, so that this moment is providing the opportunity to traverse the fantasy and expose the lie. At the least, we need to turn to face reality, and abandon a politics that continues to obfuscate the antagonism of racism, classism, and sexism (the structuring principle of this social order).