Žižek vs Milbank

Yesterday I attended a debate between Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, held at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. Though brief (no mean feat… neither Žižek nor Milbank are known for their brevity), the exchange was energetic and provocative without straying into the kind of pre-established roles, i.e. Marxist, materialist, atheist (granted this is how Žižek describes himself, but he doesn’t fit the expected mold) vs cheap fideist or fundamentalist. Both Žižek and Milbank displayed the breadth of their reading, the former citing Tertullian and Claudel, the latter referencing figures including Badiou and Meillassoux.

The discussion was motivated by the recent publication of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? The conversation successfully dodged the danger of lectures prompted by publications: namely, rehearsing the book to the point where it’s no longer necessary to read it. Instead, both Žižek and Milbank highlighted important points of agreement before beginning a lively analysis of their differences.

Žižek began by suggesting that there are two dominant modes of theology: (1) the purely historical; (2) popular engaged projects. The first is characterised by a naïve notion of history; its advocates chafe at the suggestion that they represent a particular agenda. The second is just banal. These first two categories are accompanied by the favoured practices within academic circles: (1) New age theology; (2) Jewish post-modernism. The first is a kind of vaguely Buddhist holism. The second tends to argue that God doesn’t exist, but there is a voice calling to us from the void, but nothing can be said about this voice. Žižek finds that he and Milbank are equally opposed to these positions which are all characterised by a neutering of the ability to make direct metaphysical statements.

From there Žižek offered some preliminary points for conversation. First he suggest that there needs to be a rehabilitation of Tertullian. Prior to Christianity, Žižek argues, the world was dominated by a kind of common sense wisdom. Christianity is a radical cut that suggests that the truth may be at odds with common sense. In this sense, Duns Scotus, not Aquinas, is the father of modern science. The darkness of the Middle Ages ruins the pre-existing common sense, but Aquinas remains too Aristotlean. Second, he advanced his reading of Job. In short, Job is the first critique of ideology. At the end of the book, when God appears to Job, his speech is not rehearsing divine greatness, but is God’s expression of the overwhelming chaos of creation (a great divine wtf). Third, he suggested that what dies on the cross is the idea of a transcendent, benevolent figure who takes care of everything. Fourth, in the resurrection, God returns only as the Holy Ghost or the community of believers. Therefore God is the Comrade Christ and the Holy Ghost is the emancipatory community.

Milbank then presented his perspective on their agreements. First, he described how they both reject the general aura of agnosticism or post-modern indeterminacy. The kind of religious discussion that emerges from this indeterminacy is politically impotent (in the end I think this comes down to their mutual loathing of Hobbes). So radical politics demands the kind of direct, metaphysical statements that both Žižek and he produce, and they are therefore joined in opposition to the modern, liberal politics that stems from post-modern indeterminacy. He also suggested that a similar rejection of agnosticism characterises speculative realism. This opposition amounts to a rejection of Kant on the one hand, and the demand that knowledge aspires to the infinite on the other. In this context, the polite indifference of liberalism doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, philosophy’s abandonment of metaphysics is linked to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Second, he stated that any serious atheism must take the form of materialism (here he stated to shift into points of contention). The metaphysical questions that face materialism, however, sound strikingly theological, i.e. the relation between the originary nothing and the actuality of events. Referencing Deleuze, Badiou, and Laruelle, he suggested that the monism that would seem to logically flow from materialism never escapes this dualism. He also submitted that Badiou’s materialism collapses into idealism and Laruelle’s rationality collapses into mysticism. When materialism confronts the key questions of subjectivity, reason, and materialism it is better to go theological and admit a plenitudinous transcendence. Third, the religious factor in German idealism is closer to materialism than Kantian agnosticism. Fourth, there is an opposition between paradox and dialectics. He wants a both/and: regarding the death of Christ, this means ‘This man is God’ is also ‘God is this man.’ Only Christianity is capable of maintaining this kind of paradox. Finally, he differs from Žižek in that he doesn’t see the cross as the end of paganism, but its fulfillment. In this sense, Milbank claims to be less of a Christian supremacist than Žižek (a point Žižek conceded). He concluded by saying Žižek isn’t an atheist he’s a Protestant. He thinks the God could have a rival in other ‘lesser gods.’ Milbank sees these other gods (or at least the practices surrounding them) as participating in the truth of the one true God.

At this point the moderator tried to get them to address how the nature of this debate differs from the debates between Christians and the atheists like Dawkins. This provided relatively unsuccessful as Žižek wanted to respond to Milbank (though they returned to the subject of Dawkins later).

Žižek agreed that he advocates a break from Kantian agnosticism, though he departs Kant through Hegel. He then turned to his alternative reading of the gospel: we are abandoned by God, and in that we are drawn into the life of God through identification with the dereliction of Christ on the cross. With Christ, Father and Son both are gone and only the Holy Spirit remains. Finally, he sought to define his particular form of materialism as an abstract materialism that acknowledges the incompleteness of reality. The thing in itself is incomplete (this returns to his departure from Kant through Hegel). The task confronting contemporary materialism is thinking this incompleteness. From this perspective, Milbank is too materialist so he needs God.

He then turned back to the question of Dawkins. His main critique is that he, and those like him, fails to explain consciousness, always retreating to metaphor. They fail to be consequential materialists.

He concluded by posing a question to Milbank about the passages in scripture where Christ speaks of hating your father and mother (Lk 14:26) or bringing the sword (Mt 10:34-36). Žižek suggested that the predominate readings are: (1) they are mistranslations; (2) they are not meant literally. In opposition to these, he suggests that the Holy Spirit, the community of believers, is not a form of organic hierarchy. In hating your father and mother you destroy fixed social hierarchies.

Milbank responded by claiming that Žižek is perpetuating Rousseau’s parody of Augustine, in which Rousseau pushes liberalism to its extremes. Milbank claims that Christ is not abolishing the organic but building on it. He also described Christian hopes as invalidating feeble hope (Rousseau) and utopianism (some kind of blueprint). Rousseau, according to Milbank, is nothin compared to Bk 19 of City of God.

At this point the moderator opened up questions from the floor. The first person asked if Paul should be blamed for ruining the truth of Christianity by enabling its Romanisation. Žižek and Milbank both seemed to find this question a bit befuddling. Milbank named Paul the father of radicalism, highlighting the way he built a kind of benign globalism whereby communities in Rome, Corinth, etc. communicated on matters of religion and trade, superceding existing patterns of trade and communication ruled by the state. Žižek described Paul as Christianity’s Leninist moment. Without Paul Christianity would have not been an interesting sect.

Marcus Pound then asked about Žižek’s Protestant tendencies verse potential Catholic alternatives. This tendency is especially highlighted by Žižek’s fascination with transgression, demonstrated by his interpretation of the previously mentioned scriptural passages. Žižek responded by saying that the question was limited by the confines of liberal individualism. His reading of the passage sees the Holy Spirit as inaugurating a kind of radical communitarianism. Milbank critiqued Žižek’s depiction of hierarchical social relations, especially within the family, arguing that the family is an organic location of education. At this point Philip Blond accused of Žižek of really being just a liberal and claimed that Žižek is unable to account for a plurality of wills, and therefore reduces everything to his will. Žižek seemed to find the line of questioning somewhat confusing and returned to his earlier point about the passages he referenced. He kept demanding a reading that does not water down the words of Christ, but no one responded.

I think this portion of the debate was the most interesting. For one, it is kind of ironic to see Žižek shaking his fist, calling for someone to take Jesus seriously, accusing of Milbank of liberalising the gospel. In the exchange, though, I think they both missed the overlap between their positions. Žižek sees the passage calling for us to hate our mother and father as the inauguration of the critique of the ideology of the family. Althusser would name this ideology as fundamental; indeed, if ideology is the reproduction of the conditions of production, the modern nuclear family, radically atomised by the suburbanisation of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie is key to the perpetuation of the prevalent modes of production and exchange. So I find, Žižek’s reading very interesting: we see Christ prophesying the coming of the Holy Spirit, whereby this foundational ideology is critiqued as we are called into subjectivity, the faithful community, united behind the sword that strikes at structures of oppression. This idea is all good and revolutionary. The irony is that Žižek sees the church as the form of this new social relationship. There is no Greek or Jew, male or female, not because these differences evaporate but because they are inconsequential in the new forms of hierarchy governing social (economic and political) relations. Milbank’s counterargument, that the family is an organic location of education and support, is true, but incomplete. Firstly, it is undeniable that the family has been the location of oppression. Second, this family is not annihilated, but mutated in the new forms of relationality advocated by Žižek. Žižek offered as an example, the kind of relations that emerge in a political movement generated by the political will of a community.

Milbank then returned to the Dawkins discussion, suggesting that it is merely an attempt to make science an ideology because all other secular ideologies have collapsed.

The talk concluded with a question about the anthropocentric nature of the discussion. The questioner wondered how the debate might be expanded. Žižek and Milbank had more or less congruent responses. Žižek said that ecology in all its forms its anthropocentric, if at times unknowingly so. Milbank said the balance must be found in understanding the human as a rational animal: animal in its rationality and rational in its animality. To privilege either side amounts to destruction of the environment.

To be perfectly honest, I found the exchange refreshing. I find myself closer to Žižek than Milbank, but the discussion seemed to be a general discussion more than people yelling past each other. I was impressed with the questions, which were all genuine questions, a rarity at such events (especially with such polarising speakers). I was surprised that only one person questioned the premise that Christianity has anything to offer. I was also surprised that Žižek seemed to come under the heaviest criticism.

Regardless of what one thinks of the two, I think it is clearly admirable that they had a focused, constructive debate that managed to avoid devolving into the rhetorical flourishes and cheap dismissals that tend to characterise such meetings.

Oh yeah, and Richard Ayoade was there.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to type up these notes. A few things were unsurprising, like Blond’s remarks, and it sounded like a generally charitable meeting. Still, a number of claims made just seem to be thrown out there without any argument or support. Like what does Zizek’s comment about ecology mean? Why is that only Christianity can do “the awesome” like Milbank suggests? Why does politics needs metaphysical statements? Etc., etc.

    Moss from the IT Crowd – nice.

  2. That was my immediate question. It doesn’t seem to me at all necessary for politics to have high level metaphysics, or indeed any metaphysics at all. Political movements aren’t built on the back of abstractions of this kind, but organisation. A successful political campaign depends on harnessing the skills of different people and coordinating them in such a way that the campaign succeeds. If you read Saul Allinsky, he isn’t banging on about high level metaphysics. For example, the question of “accounting for multiple wills” might seem baffling to Phillip Blond reading Zizek’s perspective, but from the perspective of a political actor is a nonsense. When you encounter the will of another you talk to them and try and persuade them that your perspective is better. Do we need metaphysics to do this? Ultimately, ‘we need a good metaphysics’ is weirdly the ideology of capitalism “we need everything worked out before we start else Stalinism or something”. It breed impotence, the idea that you can’t make a start. But the point is to make a start. This is of course not to say that metaphysics is not an important question, but the idea that it is central to radical politics is nuts.

    It seems to me that metaphysics is the least concrete grounds for politics, and the most contestable. This is proved by the fact that despite their wildly different metaphysics, both Zizek and Milbank can agree on certain things, including the fact that capitalism is bad, it needs to be transformed into some kind of non-state socialism etc.

    I’m also pretty bored of everyone throwing liberal around as an insult. Let us face it, it wasn’t theological organic conservatives fighting the good fight for slaves, blacks, women and gays to be recognised as people, it was liberals. This is a plain fact of historical record. Read John Steward Mill. Yes he is the founder of utilitarianism, yes he is a bit of a bore, but he was the one saying women should be treated as equals and putting it into practice. Reading his work is absolutely striking on this point (co-written by his partner) and he anticipates all the critiques of feminism by a good while.Eugene McCarraher makes this point well in a bracing manner:

    All that said, I’ve come to dissent somewhat from William Cavanaugh and Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank and others who see almost nothing but perniciousness in the liberal tradition. Look, let’s be honest: the heroes of the antislavery movement, of the movements for women’s rights and for civil rights for nonwhites, all employed the language of liberalism in addition to the language of Christianity. Why? In large measure, because Christian tradition had legitimated a language of hierarchy and duty and subordination that even Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and Milbank can’t stomach anymore. Perhaps because I’m a mere historian, I have to respect the indisputable evidence that Christians certainly weren’t citing the church fathers when they demanded that the slaves’ shackles be loosened or that women get the right to vote and be educated. For all that it’s perverted the Christian account of personhood, the liberal account of freedom and rights has preserved and, yes, even enhanced vestiges of the Christian tradition. So enough liberal-bashing; it has gotten boring, and it’s not entirely accurate historically, anyway.

  3. Anthony:

    I think you’re right about unsubstantiated statements, though to be fair, it was only an hour and a half long debate. That said, it’s not as if a similar charge could not be made regarding their written work. I too found Zizek’s comment on ecology odd. Given his recent seeming improvement on the issue, I was taking it as ‘to act like we are not reasoning with the best interests of humanity in mind, is disingenuous.’ So, even if we advocate an ecologically aware political praxis, it is still anthropocentric because it is not as if we are motivated by an ecological charity; we still want what is best for us. That interpretation, admittedly, requires a lot of assumptions, but that was how I took it. I may need to go back and listen to that section again, though.


    I agree to extent. If the question is ‘what is required for the mobilisation of the oppressed?’ I would agree that metaphysics doesn’t rank very high on the list. If the question is ‘what is require for a sustainable alternative arrangement of wide scale political economy?’ I think metaphysics must be addressed. The dominant traditions of Western metaphysical thought, of which Christianity is a part, helped provide the framework for the expansion of capitalism by validating colonialism and slavery. The question ‘what is a human?’ is equally political and metaphysical. That isn’t to say that one should wait to abolish slavery till we’ve answered that question, but it does mean that abolition is itself a metaphysical statement.

    Maybe I’m just victim to the naïve desire for political ontology, but I think it is just as dangerous to discount the abstract and theoretical as it is to insist on having a universally accepted metaphysical charter for political action. I should also say that I think disputes over metaphysics or theory should not prevent collaboration in political actions unless absolutely necessary.

    I agree with your objection to the use of ‘liberal’ as some kind of slur. Perhaps the problem is one of accuracy, though. There are differences between the kind of liberalism that says ‘everyone has the right to vote’ and the kind sometimes-invoked in statements like ‘no one should wear a religious symbol because the sight of it is a violence against my identity.’ Surely you would agree that identity politics could undercut the collaboration needed for political action?

  4. Tommy,

    It is, as you intimate, a case for balance – after all, I’d be out of a job if I didn’t think abstract thought was not worthwhile! But insisting that only a certain kind of metaphysics can support radical politics seems misplaced. Political movements are largely thrown together, ad hoc, and pragmatic and we should remember this. I think your “the abolition itself is a political statement” is a very interesting thought indeed, and you should pursue this I think – in that sometimes praxis comes first, or that there is some bound relationship between the two.

    I’m not sure that identity politics does reduce collaboration. I have observed activists who are very much infused with elements of identity politics successfully get along both internally and externally in situations that call for solidarity with groups who are not particularly bothered by them, for example faith groups. For a large scale version, climate camp springs to mind. Again it seems like theorists worry about this kind of stuff (“how could this possibly work! different people with different ideas!”), but activists get on with it. I’m, as with everything, a bit Wittgensteinian about this “look and see” instead of thinking “well this will never work”.

    As an aside, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the idea that these critiques of identity politics are both brave and new is something of a misnomer, as Marxists of all stripes have been saying this for a while – Zizek just says it is a rather more striking manner.

  5. I’m pretty much out of my depth here, not being an academic philosopher or theologian (just a ‘jobbing’ non-conformist Christian minister) so I’m very grateful for the synopsis of the debate. I’m trying to read the book, but it’s doing my brain in.

    I’ve also just joined the (UK) Green Party on the grounds that a political programme has to sit on a fundamental ‘platform’ analysis, and the relationship between the human species and the planet seems like a more fundamental ‘platform’ than, say, Marxist class analysis – important though that is. The time has come for a radical reappraisal of the political fundamentals, and I don’t feel that existing politics can adapt (because it’s too dependent on its own ‘platform’).

    Therefore the debate above is crackling with relevance for me : questions regarding ‘what is it to be human?’ in the light of a reappraisal of our species’ place in the universe – but also the persistence of the underlying metaphysical question “Why is there anything at all?” which is probably unique to our consciousness. The answers to this metaphysical question have big implications for people’s willingness to risk loving, dare hoping, act with humility yet conviction. These things are amongst the key engines of change. The power of both Žižek and Millbank, if I’m getting anything, is a much-heightened sensitivity to the all-too-easy descent of real theological struggle into religious ideology.

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