Marxism and Religion Today
2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Mitchell M. Harris
University of Texas-Austin

"Is Anyone Ready for Zizek?:   Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ Responds"

Do not cite without permission of the author.




            The theoretical work of Slavoj Zizek has been, and continues to be, harshly criticized for its two nominal presuppositions--its odd mixture of Lacanianism and Leninist Marxism.   Who can forget the chilling merger of these two after the collapse of the Twin Towers, when Zizek came to announce that on September 11 th : "In a way, America got what it fantasised about"? or in a monograph like The Puppet and the Dwarf , where he theorizes that Western intellectuals "catastrophize" their current surroundings in order to justify their comfortable positions as academics? "[W]hat if," he asks, "what these unfortunate intellectuals cannot bear is the fact that they lead a life which is basically happy, safe, and comfortable, so that, in order to justify their higher calling, they have to construct a scenario of radical catastrophe?" (153-54). Statements like these often are discomforting, something one of his recent critics, Mark Bearn, tellingly reveals. Take, for example, his review of Zizek's latest book (one of three in the last year alone), Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle . Reminding his readers of the infamous quote above (what I might venture to claim the current synecdoche of Zizek's entire corpus), the "In a way, America got what it fantasised about," Bearn snarls back, "That 'in a way' is pure Zizek: moral relativism masked by rhetorical evasion" (GBP 16). I am apt to wonder, however, whether or not reducing Zizek's politically-charged theoreticizations of our time to this simple formula is all that useful for his readers. How might one counter Bearn's reading of Zizek's theoretical matrix, and make sense of the otherwise horrifying propositions? Tony Myers, one of two scholars to have published a monograph on Zizek's work last year, points out to his readers that the discomforting, indeed shocking, statements of Zizek are always predicated by "fetishistic disavowals," a rhetorical device not unlike apophasis --mentioning a subject by announcing that you will not mention it. Myers comes to conclude that, by employing these disavowals, he "shudders for us, in our stead, thereby allowing us to wallow in the enjoyment of his politically incorrect observations, free from the guilt they normally induce" (3). In this spectrum, the "in a way" acts not as Bearn's "moral relativism masked by rhetorical evasion," but as something far more stable and ontologically-grounded than the current ethics of Otherness (Levinas, Spivak, Derrida, etc.).

            Myers' lucid reading of Zizek's chief modus operandi requires us to understand both the fetish and its function. For a concise example (and there are many), I turn to his piercing critique of Western Buddhism in his short treatise, On Belief . "One is almost tempted," he begins (and let us note that this "One is almost tempted" is a fetishist disavowal), "to resuscitate here the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the 'opium of the people,' as the imaginary supplement of the terrestrial misery: the 'Western Buddhist' meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity" (13). This non-politically correct reading of Western Buddhism appears counter-intuitive to Westerners who have come to believe Buddhism (and let us not forget its more metabolized form, Yoga, and its now hip Jewish counterpart, Kabbalism, with much thanks to Madonna and Britney Spears) a means of sanctuary from Western, Eurocentrist, colonialist ideology. Zizek maintains though that such sanctuary is only a fantasy-construct--unauthentic, a mere semblance. Therefore, "Western Buddhism" fits the fetishist mode of ideology, where the fetish "is effectively a kind of inverse of the symptom. That is to say, the symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at which the repressed Other Scene erupts, while fetish is the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth" (13). In this spectrum, the only way to read Western Buddhism is as the embodiment of the Lie which allows one to "fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that [one] is really not in it" (15). Said crudely, Zizek is a totalitarian oppositionist in his philosophical relation to the fetish: he is committed to disavowing himself of the Lie/fetish, even if it risks appearing or sounding unethical, sexist, racist, bigoted, or even violent. It should come as no surprise, then, that his theoretical matrix is determined by one's ability to find and announce, in the symptomal mode, the "exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at which the repressed Other Scene erupts."

            Once here, one can only move forward (can only come to understand Zizek's theoretical spectrum) on the premise that he is not maneuvering with, as Bearn suggests, "moral relativism"; rather, Zizek knows full well what he is doing, and that it will shock, disturb, and offend. He does this, because he believes the members of particular, microscopic political interest groups (identity politics and all) who recoil at his statements to be the puppets that bow to and sustain the drive of the proverbial puppet-master, Ideology. This puppet-master is, of course, late-capitalism--the true target of his Leninist criticism. So how can he get us to realize the same? How does he enable us puppets to see the strings that bind us? Foremost, he carves out the idea of a non-ideological space from which one can criticize the concept of ideology itself. For Zizek, this entails going beyond the spectrum of the Althusserians, who, in his eyes, failed to recognize the gap between ideological interpellation and Ideological State apparatuses. Zizek was doing this from the very beginning of his entrance into Anglo-American scholarship with the publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology ; however, and I think this fair to claim, he never hit his stride until he became aware of Alain Badiou's work, something he demonstrates to us in his essay "Psychoanalysis in Post-Marxism: The Case of Alain Badiou." This essay would later become, in my view, the pivotal chapter of The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology , and the theories posited there have served him ever since. As Zizek suggests in this essay, the moment, or process, of subjectivization fundamentally escapes the Althusserians' theoretical scope, and Lacanian psychoanalysis remains the only thing capable of understanding, or at least describing, this empty space/gap.

            How so? In the Zizekian sphere, psychoanalysis is the gesture that allows one to traverse the fantasy--i.e., glimpse behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain, so to speak. Through this movement, one comes to realize that the zero point of subjectivity revolves around an emptiness/nothingness/Void (there is no wizard in Oz). The name for this Void in Zizek's lexicon is the Real, and the only way to it is through the Symbolic Order. Paradoxically, however, he insists that one can never truly enter into the Real/Void, but, nonetheless, the knowledge of its locus as "beyond" provides an imaginative space from which one can come to critique ideology, and such criticisms are most compelling when they recognize the rude intrusions of the Real into the Symbolic.   These intrusions, or antagonisms , explain why Zizek seems unflinchingly determined to irritate readers like Bearn. The antagonisms always reveal the "truth" of the "situation," and by noting and playing with them, we can better address the current political, economic, and cultural plight of the global economy. It is in this vein that I seek to address this past year's greatest pop-culture locus of antagonism, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ . By looking at its traumatic intrusion into the late-capitalist space, one can "write-with" Zizek--enact a certain praxis of his strange Marxist and psychoanalytic theories. I do this, because I believe that the Zizekian psycho-Marxist mode of criticism has much to offer Christianity, and, likewise, from my orthodox Christian perspective (a perspective that often conflicts with ?i?ek), I believe Christianity has much to offer in return (as it already has).

            Let us first recall that long before its entrance into movie theaters, The Passion of the Christ received an unprecedented buzz thanks largely in part to an ad hoc committee of well-intentioned, ethical, Western, liberal academics. From their reading of a working-draft of the screenplay, these scholars determined that much, if not all, of the film's content would border on, if not venture into, the anti-Semitic, and that, if Gibson were to be a good, conscientious filmmaker, he should take the necessary measures to empty the film of its erroneous and harmful content. Gibson, it was seemingly apparent, should be less fundamental and more nuanced in his appropriation of the Passion. Here are some bits of advice the ad hoc group offered in a telling section of their report, "General Recommendations": "1. The Roman nature of Jesus' execution must be stressed"; "2. Pontius Pilate must be presented as the superior of Caiaphas"; "4. It must be indicated that everything was done in haste"; and "5. The Jewish 'crowd' must be small, perhaps two dozen people" (7; italics are mine). Let me assess, in ?i?ekian terms, what this rapid succession of "musts" amounts to: what essentially perturbs the academic group is an Act that resolutely escapes the ethical sphere of their own hegemonic thinking. There is, so to speak, a gap between the ad hoc scholars and Gibson. In Badiouian terms, Gibson, the ill-educated fundamentalist, is not concerned with a truth-content in the film; he is not concerned in participating in the accordingly ethical Jesus Seminar--seeking for the historically contingent Jesus, the Jewish carpenter who leads a group of Jewish radicals but, in turn, eludes his messianic function. Rather, Gibson is more concerned with what Zizek might term the Evental Jesus--the figure who erupts at an epochal turn in the grand history of the world, who somehow captures the imagination of a people who elevate him not to the level of the Thing ( das Ding ), but reduce the Otherness of the Thing to a sameness (cf. Zizek, Puppet 138ff).

            Badiou first formulated the notion of the Event in L'être et l'événement (1988), and expanded upon it in Saint Paul: La foundation de l'universalisme (1997), translated as Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism in 2003. Zizek's interest in Badiou's concept of the Truth-Event becomes apparent through his Marxist determinations. As he explains throughout The Puppet and the Dwarf , Marxists, in the post-Marxist climate, should not be concerned necessarily with the complementary notions of a radically changing world and its historic particulars, but instead become concerned with the notion of how things find the means to remain the same--the truly mystifying proposition for post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers. It is not of prime concern how capitalism came into being, but how it posited itself as an entity that remains in power. If one could determine this, then perhaps one could find a positive space in which to set up a new model of the political spectrum. For Zizek, Badiou, in his concern for St. Paul's functional status as vocalizer of the Truth-Event within the Christian tradition, provides the analogical means to understand how things come to remain the same--how one can replace the ideological paradigm ("make things new") and develop a universal Event available to all. Let me stress, these two thinkers are not orthodox Christians--both vehemently deny a physical resurrection and Christ's redemptive function (they are strict materialists). The two are simply interested in Christianity, because Jesus is the central figure (the epochal figure) through which one can modulate the material form of a Truth-Event. Furthermore, both concede that Truth-Events are historically contingent, localized, and bound to the Truth of a specific situation. Once articulated by a subject of the Event, however, there can be only one Truth to the situation, not an endless multiplicity of truths that radically destabilizes the status of the Event.

            If this theory is applied to The Passion of the Christ , then one might be able to suggest that the notion of the Truth-Event succinctly qualifies the case of Gibson and the ad hoc scholars. Gibson adheres to the Truth of the situation, while the ad hoc scholars seek to repress his voice to the Event (of the situation). What happens is not a clash between ethical and unethical, but a clash between two competing ethical spheres (hence the traumatic cut, the emergence of an antagonism at the point of contact). The scholars, as is fashionable amongst us, adhere to the historicist ethic. They continually point to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and the climate of the Jewish state under the brutal control of the Roman empire, reducing the film to another narrativization of the Passion (and a poor one at that) in a long line of narrativizations. (Gibson "must" express the Roman nature of Jesus' execution; he "must" represent Pontius Pilate as the superior of Caiaphas; etc.) On the other hand, Gibson breaks with the historicist ethic, and performs what one might call the "mad gesture"--rendering the title "Mad Mel" more suitable than presently perceived. He performs what Kierkegaard termed the "teleological suspension of the ethical"--the Act in which the individual finds him or herself at the traumatic breaking-point, the point where the most tempting sin of all is the ethical itself . In the case of Abraham and Isaac, Kierkegaard proposes that "Abraham cannot speak [to his wife], because he cannot say that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable): that it is an ordeal such that, please note, the ethical is the temptation" (115).

The same suspension is evident in the lives of Jesus and St. Paul. Both men are given ample opportunity to invoke the ethical and go about their merry ways. Gibson, in fact, portrays one such scene from the Gospel of John. Pontius Pilate, in a seemingly sympathetic gesture, reminds Jesus that he has the political power to stay his execution: "Speak to me. I have the power to crucify you, or else to set you free." While Jesus possesses the ethical right to accept Pilate's intervention, "please note," he never invokes it. Instead, he articulates what would come to be one of the more obscure passages of the gospels: "You have no power over me, except what is given you from above. Therefore, it is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin" (cf. John19.10-11). Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken columnist from Vanity Fair , is right to note that "Unscrupulously employed, this highly ambiguous verse--ambiguous because it's by no means plain who has done the 'delivering'--has caused the most appalling harm [to Jews]" (200). In the film, however, Gibson is careful to deliver this passage in full Kierkegaardian fashion--void of its potential fetish (anti-Semitism)--by keeping the camera fixed on Jesus' face and the backside of Pilate's blank, bald head. Here Gibson neither allows us to entertain the anti-Semitic reading by panning to the Jews, nor does he allow us the anti-Roman/anti-pagan view. Instead, the words begin and end with Jesus, exposing that all notions of political power are structured around a Void. Through the character of Jesus we witness "a commitment, an engaged position of struggle, an uncanny 'interpellation' beyond ideological interpellation, an interpellation which suspends the performative force of the 'normal' ideological interpellation that compels us to accept our determinate place within the sociosymbolic edifice" (?i?ek, Puppet 112). "Who delivered Him to Pilate?" we might ask, but there is no determinate answer to this question. Perhaps this explains why, when the camera reverses its field of vision as Jesus unleashes his scathing indictment of political power to Pilate, Pilate's face appears befuddled and impotent, and in this bewildering moment, the confused bald figure grows to look more and more like his bewildered bald Other in the film, Satan.

As an Early Modernist, I am tempted to make a Miltonic reading of the film at this point. Earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Gibson seems to borrow freely from Milton's Paradise Regain'd , where Satan, if we remember, believes the title "Son of God" to bear no single, intelligible meaning:

The Son of God I also am, or was,

And if I was, I am; relation stands;

All men are Sons of God; yet thee I thought

In some respect far higher so declar'd. (4.517-521)

Likewise, Gibson's Satan cannot understand the relationship of the Son with the Father ("Who is your father? . . . Who are you?"), perhaps explaining why during the infamous scourging scene, he mockingly carries a demon-baby behind the Roman soldiers. To put this indecipherable nature of the Father-Son relationship into Lacanian terms, the Miltonic connection renders Jesus as L'extimité (external intimacy)--the figure both inside and outside the ideological apparatus, the figure unable to be understood. In Freudian terms, Jesus is at the level of das Ding , yet Zizek repeatedly iterates that Christianity's chief accomplishment rests not in its ability to sublime its heroic figure (elevate it to the level of das Ding ), but rather in its ability to reduce the Otherness of its hero to a sameness (deliver the Thing itself ). Why is this so important for Zizek?

According to him, if Christianity were to give rise to the Truth-Event, it would need to offer the Act in universalist terms. In Kierkegaardian terms, the Absolute would need to come back to the Universal; in Badiouian terms, the Act would need to be available for all. The question to ask, then, is: what space is there in Gibson's film for the Absolute to arise (for the Thing itself to come forth)? Let us remember Zizek's statement that directly confronts the many critics who see Gibson's film as being sado-masochistic. Toward the end of The Fragile Absolute , ?i?ek claims that Christ's willingness to be beaten and crucified is "not stupid masochism, humble acceptance of one's humiliation, but simply [there] to interrupt the circular logic of re-establishing balance " (125). The "willingness" is none other than a rupture of "uncoupling"--the rendering of all ethnic substance powerless: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" ( NIV , Galatians 3.28). Such willingness, such love, is not passive, but active: "As every true Christian knows, love is the work of love--the hard and arduous work of repeated 'uncoupling' in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into" ( Fragile 128-29). When we arrive at this understanding of how Jesus comes to reduce his divine Otherness to a sameness ( ecce homo! ), we can see why the Passion is so traumatic: it is the radical betrayal of one's ethnic substance. It is the prime exemplar of the suspension of the ethical--the Act that begins with and ends with Jesus, the Act neither Jew nor pagan nor human fully understands.

Here, then, is where I am willing to risk the most for Gibson's film. Before the release of the film, it was well-documented that when Gibson shot the scene of Jesus' crucifixion, he decided to film his own hands doing the dirty work of nailing Jesus' hand to the Cross. Why? Gibson's repeated claim was that he, as a sinner, was personally responsible for Christ's death. In a sense, he felt that he had colluded with the depicted Roman soldiers and Jewish Sadducees, as well as all of humankind, in this crucifixion. In Zizekian ethics, when the critics of this film decide to shrug off Gibson's gesture as being merely another empty gesture--"Oh, he's just saying that to get the critics off his back"--they, perhaps, fall victim to the most enticing ideological monster of all, cynicism. Cynicism itself can act as a fetish, blinding us to the hidden potential of every antagonism. We must, then, find another way to read Gibson's actions. Let us return, once again, to The Fragile Absolute :

The person who mistrusts his others is, paradoxically, in his very cynical disbelief, the victim of the most radical self-deception: as Lacan would have put it, les non-dupes errant --the cynic misses the efficiency/actuality of the appearance itself, however fleeting, fragile and elusive it is; while the true believer believes in appearances, in the magic dimension that "shines through" an appearance--he sees Goodness in the other where the other himself is not aware of it. Here appearance and reality are no longer opposed: precisely in trusting appearances, a loving person sees the other the way she/he effectively is, and loves her for her very foibles, not despite them. (127-28)

To state the matter crudely, I believe the fleeting moment of the crucifixion scene to be the moment worth fighting for. Perhaps, however fragile and elusive, Gibson truly believes the crucifixion not to be an ethnic act, but a human act, and should we not trust this, believe in this, fight for this? As an instructor in the deep south, I have witnessed the cynical reading of fundamentalist Christianity all too often. What if, when we fear the encounter with the "fundamentalist" in our classrooms, we are enabling the perverse creation of a new fetish--simply displacing our anti-Semitism onto a new class of Other? For some reason, with regard to fundamentalist Christians it has become almost acceptable for otherwise culturally-sensitive individuals to ask the paranoid question of the ethnic fantasy, Che vuoi? , (what do you want from me?). What if the answer is something as monstrously benign as: "Nothing, except to learn a few things in your class"? Are we willing to receive that answer, love the fundamentalist for his/her very foibles, and disavow ourselves of our own fetishes? A more pressing question may be: Are we ready to apply Zizekian psycho-Marxism to the way we read the world? Are we ready for the radical shift? Yet every time I begin to ask myself this question, another seems to pop up, something like a perverse excess that comes close to providing an answer: Is anyone ready to search for the fragile absolute in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ ? The lesson of Zizekian criticism is that, yes or no, we should be willing to risk an answer before the fleeting moment passes us by.





Works Cited

Bearn, Mark. "On the Rampage" New Statesman 2 Aug. 2004: GBP 16.             < >

Boys, Mary C., SNJM, et al. "Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of The Passion ." May 2003. <>

Hitchens, Christopher. "The Gospel According to Mel." Vanity Fair Mar. 2004: 200. <>

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling . Trans. and eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose . Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957.

Myers, Tony. Slavoj ?i?ek . London: Routledge, 2003.

The NIV Study Bible . Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.

The Passion of the Christ . Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, and Sergio Rubini. Newmarket Films, 2004.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? London: Verso, 2000.

__________. On Belief. London: Routledge, 2001.

__________. "Psychoanalysis and Post-Marxism: The Case of Alain Badiou." The South Atlantic Quarterly 97 (1998): 235-261.

__________.   The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

__________. The Sublime Object of Ideology . London: Verso, 1989.

__________. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology . London: Verso, 1999.