‘Subtraction: Jewish and Christian’ by Slavoj Žižek

Paper as published in Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy Volume 14 (2003): Spinoza: Desire and Power, 68-88.


When we are dealing with an erotic-religious text like The Song of Songs, commentators hurry to warn us that its extreme and explicit erotic imagery is to be read allegorically, as a metaphor: say, when, in the poem, the lover kisses the woman’s lips, this ‘really means’ that He imparts on the Jews the Ten Commandments. In short, what appears as the description of a ‘purely human’ sexual encounter, symbolically renders the spiritual communion of God and the Jewish people. However, the most perspicuous Bible scholars themselves are the first to emphasize the limits of such a metaphorical reading which dismisses the described sensual content as ‘only a simile’: it is precisely such a ‘symbolic’ reading which is ‘purely human’, i.e., which persists in the external opposition of the symbol and its meaning, clumsily attaching a ‘deeper meaning’ to the explosive sexual content. The literal reading (say, of The Song of Songs as almost pornographic eroticism) and the allegorical reading are the two sides of the same operation: what they share is the common presupposition that ‘real’ sexuality is ‘purely human’, with no divine dimension discernible in it. (Of course, the question arises here: if sexuality is just a metaphor, why do we need this problematic detour in the first place? Why do we not directly render the true spiritual content? Because, due to the limitations of our sensual finite nature, this content is not directly accessible to us?). What, however, if The Song of Songs is not to be read as an allegory, but, much more literally, as the description of a purely sensual erotic play? What if the ‘deeper’ spiritual dimension is already operative in the passionate sexual interaction itself? The true task is thus not to reduce sexuality to a mere allegory, but to unearth the inherent ‘spiritual’ dimension which forever separates human sexuality from animal coupling. Is it, however, possible to accomplish this step from allegory to full identity in Judaism? Is this not what Christianity is about, with its assertion of the direct identity of God and man?[1]

There is a further problem with The Song of Songs. The standard defence of ‘psychoanalytic Judaism’ against Christianity involves two claims: first, it is only in Judaism that we encounter the anxiety of the traumatic Real of the Law, of the abyss of the Other’s desire (‘What do you want?’); Christianity covers up this abyss with love, i.e., the imaginary reconciliation of God and humanity in which the anxiety-provoking encounter with the Real is mitigated – now we know what the Other wants from us – God loves us, Christ’s sacrifice is the ultimate proof of it… Second claim: do texts like The Song of Songs not demonstrate that, far from being (only) a religion of anxiety, Judaism is also and above all the religion of love, an even more intense love than Christianity? Is the covenant between God and the Jewish people not a supreme act of love? However, as we have just indicated, this Jewish love remains ‘metaphoric’; as such, it is itself the imaginary reconciliation of God and humanity in which the anxiety-provoking encounter with the Real is mitigated. Or, to put it in a direct and brutal way, is The Song of Songs not ideology at its purest, insofar as we conceive of ideology as the imaginary mitigating of a traumatic Real, as ‘the Real of the divine encounter with a human face’?

How, then, do we pass from here to Christianity proper? The key to Christ is provided by the figure of Job, whose suffering prefigures that of Christ. What makes the Book of Job so provocative is not simply the presence of multiple perspectives without a clear resolution of their tension (the fact that Job’s suffering involves a different perspective than that of religious reliance on God); Job’s perplexity resides in the fact that he experiences God as an impenetrable Thing, uncertain as to what He wants from him with the ordeals to which he is submitted (the Lacanian ‘Che vuoi?’), and, consequently, that he – Job – is unable to ascertain how he fits into the overall divine order, unable to recognize his place in the divine order.

The almost unbearable impact of the Book of Job resides not so much in its narrative frame (the Devil appears in it as a conversational partner of God, and the two engage in a rather cruel experiment in order to test Job’s faith), but in its final outcome. Far from providing some kind of satisfactory account of Job’s undeserved suffering, God’s appearance at the end ultimately amounts to pure boasting, a horror show with elements of farcical spectacle – a pure argument of authority grounded in breathtaking display of power: ‘You see all that I can do? Can you do this? Who are you then to complain?’. So what we get is neither the good God letting Job know that his suffering is just an ordeal destined to test his faith, nor a dark God beyond Law, the God of pure caprice, but rather a God who acts as someone caught in the moment of impotence, weakness at least, and tries to escape his predicament by empty boasting. What we get at the end is a kind of cheap Hollywood horror show with lots of special effects – no wonder that many commentators tend to dismiss Job’s story as a remainder of the previous pagan mythology which should have been excluded from the Bible.

Against this temptation, one should locate the true greatness of Job with precision: contrary to the usual notion of Job, he is not a patient sufferer, enduring his ordeal with the firm faith in God – on the contrary, he complains all the time, rejecting his fate (like Oedipus at Colonus, who is also usually misperceived as a patient victim resigned to his fate). When the three theologian-friends visit him, their line of argumentation is the standard ideological sophistry (if you suffer, it is by definition that you must have done something wrong, since God is just). However, their argumentation is not limited to the claim that Job must be somehow guilty: what is at stake at a more radical level is the meaning(lessness) of Job’s suffering. Like Oedipus at Colonus, Job insists on the utter meaninglessness of his suffering – as the title of Job 27 says: ‘Job Maintains His Integrity’.[2] As such, the Book of Job provides what is perhaps the first exemplary case of the critique of ideology in the human history, laying bare the basic discursive strategies of legitimising suffering: Job’s properly ethical dignity resides in the way he persistently rejects the notion that his suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for his past sins or the trial of his faith, against the three theologians who bombard him with possible meanings – and, surprisingly, God takes his side at the end, claiming that every word that Job spoke was true, while every word of the three theologians was false.

And it is with regard to this assertion of the meaninglessness of Job’s suffering that one should insist on the parallel between Job and Christ, on Job’s suffering announcing the Way of the Cross: Christ’s suffering is also meaningless, not an act of meaningful exchange. The difference, of course, is that, in the case of Christ, the gap that separates the suffering desperate man (Job) from God is transposed into God himself, as His own radical splitting or, rather, self-abandonment. What this means is that one should risk a much more radical reading of Christ’s ‘Father, why did you forsake me?’ than the usual one: since we are dealing here not with the gap between man and God, but with the split in God himself, the solution cannot be for God to (re)appear in all his majesty, revealing to Christ the deeper meaning of his suffering (that he was the Innocent sacrificed to redeem humanity). Christ’s ‘Father, why did you forsake me?’ is not the complaint to the omnipotent capricious God-Father whose ways are indecipherable to us, mortal humans, but the complaint which hints at the impotent God: it is rather like the child who, after believing in his father’s powerfulness, discovers with horror that his father cannot help him. (To evoke an example from recent history: at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, God-the-Father is in a position somewhat similar to that of the Bosnian father, made to witness the gang rape of his own daughter, and to endure the ultimate trauma of her compassionate-reproaching gaze: ‘Father, why did you forsake me?’…). In short, with this ‘Father, why did you forsake me?’, it is God-the-Father who effectively dies, revealing his utter impotence, and thereupon rises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Ghost.

Why did Job keep his silence after the boastful appearance of God? Is this ridiculous boasting (the pompous battery of ‘Were you there when…’ rhetorical questions: ‘Who is this whose ignorant words / Smear my design with darkness? / Were you there when I planned the earth, / Tell me, if you are so wise?’(Job 38:2-5)) not the very mode of appearance of its opposite, to which one can answer by simply saying: ‘OK, if you can do all this, why did you let me suffer in such a meaningless way?’. Do God’s thundering words not render all the more palpable his silence, the absence of an answer? What, then, if this was what Job perceived and what kept him silent: he remained silent neither because he was crushed by God’s overwhelming presence, nor because he wanted thereby to signal his continuous resistance, i.e. the fact that God avoided answering Job’s question, but because, in a gesture of silent solidarity, he perceived the divine impotence. God is neither just nor unjust, but simply impotent. What Job suddenly understood is that it was not him, but God himself who was effectively on trial in Job’s calamities, and he failed the test miserably. Even more pointedly, one is tempted to risk a radical anachronistic reading: Job foresaw God’s own future suffering – ‘Today it’s me, tomorrow it will be your own son, and there will be no one to intervene for him. What you see in me now is the pre-figuration of your own passion!’.[3]

Since the function of the obscene superego supplement of the (divine) Law is to mask this impotence of the big Other, and since Christianity reveals this impotence, it is, quite consequently, the first (and only) religion to radically leave behind the split between the official/public text and its obscene initiatory supplement: in it, there is no hidden untold story. In this precise sense, Christianity is the religion of Revelation: everything is revealed in it, no obscene superego supplement accompanies its public message. In old Greek and Roman religions, the public text was always supplemented by secret initiatory rituals and orgies; all attempts to treat Christianity in the same way (to uncover Christ’s ‘secret teaching’ somehow encoded in the New Testament or found in apocryphal Gospels) amount to its heretic re-inscription into the pagan Gnostic tradition.

Apropos Christianity as ‘revealed religion’, one should thus ask the inevitable stupid question: what is effectively revealed in it? That is to say, is it not that all religions reveal some mystery, through the prophets who carry the divine message to humans? (Even those who insist on the impenetrability of the dieu obscur imply that there is some secret which does not resist revelation, and in the Gnostic versions, this mystery is revealed to the selected few in some initiatory ceremony). Significantly, Gnostic re-inscriptions of Christianity insist precisely on the presence of such a hidden message to be deciphered in the official Christian text. So what is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content, but, more specifically, that there is nothing – no secret – to be revealed behind it. To paraphrase Hegel’s famous formula from his Phenomenology, behind the curtain of the public text, there is only what we put there. Or, to formulate it even more pointedly, in more pathetic terms, what God reveals is not his hidden power, but only his impotence as such.

Where, then, does Judaism stand with regard to this opposition? Is it not that God’s final appearance in the Job story, in which he boasts about the miracles and monsters he generated, is precisely such an obscene fantasmatic spectacle destined to cover this impotence? However, things are here more complex. In his discussion of the Freudian figure of Moses, Eric Santner introduces the key distinction between symbolic history (the set of explicit mythical narratives and ideologico-ethical prescriptions that constitute the tradition of a community, what Hegel would have called its ‘ethical substance’) and its obscene Other, the unacknowledgeable ‘spectral’, fantasmatic secret history that effectively sustains the explicit symbolic tradition, but has to remain foreclosed if it is to be operative.[4] What Freud endeavours to reconstitute in his Moses book (the story of the murder of Moses, etc.) is such a spectral history that haunts the space of Jewish religious tradition. One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted ‘between the lines’, through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition – as Fernando Pessoa put it: ‘Every dead man is probably somewhere still alive’. Judaism’s stubborn attachment to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement, enabled the Jews to persist and survive for thousands of years without land and common institutional tradition: they refused to give up their ghost, to cut off the link to their secret, disavowed tradition. The paradox of Judaism is that it maintains fidelity to the founding violent Event precisely by not confessing, symbolizing it: this ‘repressed’ status of the Event is what gives Judaism its unprecedented vitality.

Does, however, this mean that the split between the ‘official’ texts of the Law with their abstract legal asexual character (Torah – the Old Testament; Mishna – the formulation of the Laws; and Talmud – the commentary of the Laws, all of them supposed to be part of the divine Revelation on the Mount Sinai), and Kabbalah (this set of the deeply sexualised obscure insights to be kept secret – recall the notorious passages about the vaginal juices) reproduces within Judaism the tension between the pure symbolic Law and its superego supplement, the secret initiatory knowledge? A crucial line of separation is to be drawn here between the Jewish fidelity to the disavowed ghosts and the pagan obscene initiatory wisdom accompanying the public ritual: the disavowed Jewish spectral narrative does not tell the obscene story of God’s impenetrable omnipotence, but its exact opposite: the story of His impotence covered by the standard pagan obscene supplements. The secret to which the Jews remain faithful is the horror of the divine impotence – and it is this secret which is ‘revealed’ in Christianity. This is the reason why Christianity can only occur after Judaism: it reveals the horror first confronted by the Jews. It is thus only through taking into account this line of separation between paganism and Judaism that one can properly grasp the Christian breakthrough itself.

What this means is that, in forcing us to face the abyss of the Other’s desire (in the guise of the impenetrable God), in refusing to cover up this abyss with a determinate fantasmatic scenario (articulated in the obscene initiatory myth), Judaism confronts us for the first time with the paradox of human freedom. There is no freedom outside the traumatic encounter with the opacity of the Other’s desire: freedom does not mean that I simply get rid of the Other’s desire – I am as it were thrown into my freedom when I confront this opacity as such, deprived of the fantasmatic cover which tells me what the Other wants from me. In this difficult predicament, full of anxiety, when I know that the Other wants something from me, without knowing what this desire is, I am thrown back into myself, compelled to assume the risk of freely determining the coordinates of my desire.

According to Rosenzweig, the difference between Jews and Christian believers is not that the latter experience no anxiety, but that the focus of anxiety is displaced: Christians experience anxiety in the intimacy of their contact with God (like Abraham?), while for Jews, anxiety arises at the level of their being a collective entity without a proper land, threatened in its existence.[5] And, perhaps, one should establish here a link with the weak point of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (the ‘illegitimate’ passage from individual being-towards-death and assuming one’s contingent fate to the historicity of a collective): it is only in the case of the Jewish people that such a passage from individual to collective level would have been ‘legitimate’.

In what, then, does the Christian community differ from the Jewish one? Paul conceives of the Christian community as the new incarnation of the chosen people: it is Christians who are the true ‘children of Abraham’. What was, in its first incarnation, a distinct ethnic group, is now a community of free believers which suspends all ethnic divisions (or, rather, cuts a line of separation within each ethnic group) – the chosen people are those who have faith in Christ. We have thus a kind of ‘transubstantiation’ of the chosen people: God kept his promise of redemption to the Jewish people, but, in the process itself, he changed the identity of the chosen people. The theoretical (and political) interest of this notion of community is that it provides the first example of a collective which is not formed and held together through the mechanism described by Freud in his Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism (the shared guilt of the parricide) – are not further versions of this same collective the revolutionary party and the psychoanalytic society? ‘Holy Ghost’ designates a new collective held together not by a Master-Signifier, but by the fidelity to a Cause, by the effort to draw a new line of separation which runs ‘beyond Good and Evil’, i.e., which runs across and suspends the distinctions of the existing social body. The key dimension of Paul’s gesture is thus his break with any form of communitarianism: his universe is no longer that of the multitude of groups which want to ‘find their voice’ and assert their particular identity, their ‘way of life’, but that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism.

How, then, does the Christian subtraction relate to the Jewish one? That is to say, is a kind of subtraction not inscribed into the very Jewish identity? Is this not why the Nazis wanted to kill them all: because, among all the nations, Jews are ‘the part that is no part’, not simply a nation among nations, but a remainder, that which has no proper place in the ‘order of nations’? And, of course, therein resides the structural problem of the State of Israel: can one form out of this remainder a State like others? It was already Rosenzweig who made this point:

But Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the formation of ever new remnants. […] In Judaism, man is always somehow a survivor, an inner something, whose exterior was seized by the current of the world and carried off while he himself, what is left of him, remains standing on the shore. Something within him is waiting.[6]

Jews are thus a remainder in a double sense: not only a remainder with regard to the set of ‘normal’ nations, but also, on top of this, a remainder with regard to themselves, a remainder in and of themselves – the rest, that which remains and persists after all the persecutions and annihilations. These two dimensions are strictly correlated: if Jews were to be only a remainder in the first (external) sense, they would form just another self-identical ethnic group. So when Jews are conceived of as a remainder, we should be very precise in defining that with regard to what they are a remainder: of course, of themselves, but also of humanity as such, insofar as it was abandoned by God. It is as such, as ‘out of place’, that Jews are the place-holders of universal humanity as such. And it is only against this background that the Paulinian ‘transubstantiation’ of the Chosen People (no longer only Jews – a particular ethnic group – but anyone, irrespective of his/her origins, who recognizes himself/herself in Christ) can be properly understood: Paul, as it were, just switches back to the universality, i.e., for him, Christians are the remainder of humanity. In other words, we are all, humanity entire, considered as redeemed, as a rest – but of what?

Here, one should return to the Hegelian point that every universal Whole is divided into its Part (particular species) and its Rest. The Part (particular as opposed to universal) is the obscene element of existence – say, at the level of the law, the obscene unwritten supplement that sustains the actual existence of the universal Law, the Law as an operative power. Recall the tension between universal and particular in the use of the term ‘special’: when one says ‘We have special funds!’, it means illegal or at least secret funds, not just a special section of the public funds; when a sexual partner says ‘Do you want something special?’, it means a non-standard ‘pervert’ practice; when a policeman or journalist refers to ‘special measures in interrogation’, it means torture or other similar illegal pressures. (And were not, in the Nazi concentration camps, the units which were kept apart and used for the most horrifying job of killing and cremating thousands and disposing of the bodies, called Sonderkommando, special units?). In Cuba, the difficult period after the disintegration of the Eastern European Communist regimes is also referred to as the ‘special period’.

Along the same lines, one should celebrate the genius of Walter Benjamin which shines through in the very title of his early essay ‘On Language in General and Human Language in Particular’. The point here is not that human language is a species of some universal language ‘as such’ which comprises also other species (language of gods and angels? animal language? the language of some other intelligent beings out there in space? computer language? the language of the DNA?): there is no actually-existing language other than human language – but, in order to comprehend this ‘particular’ language, one must introduce a minimal difference, conceiving it with regard to the gap which separates it from language ‘as such’ (the pure structure of language deprived of the insignia of human finitude, of erotic passions and mortality, of the struggles for domination and the obscenity of power). The particular language is thus the ‘really-existing language’, language as the series of actually uttered statements, in contrast to the formal linguistic structure. This Benjaminian lesson is the lesson missed by Habermas: what Habermas does is precisely what one should not do – he posits the ideal ‘language in general’ (the pragmatic universals) directly as the norm of the actually-existing language. So, along the lines of Benjamin’s title, one should describe the basic constellation of the social law as that of the ‘Law in general and its obscene superego underside in particular’… The ‘Part’ as such is thus the ‘sinful’, unredeemed and unredeemable aspect of the Universal – to put it in actual political terms, every politics that grounds itself in the reference to some substantial (ethnic, religious, sexual, life-style…) particularity is by definition reactionary. Consequently, the division introduced and sustained by the emancipatory (‘class’) struggle is not the one between two particular classes of the Whole, but the one between the Whole-in-its-parts and its Remainder which, within the Particulars, stands for the Universal, for the Whole ‘as such’, opposed to its parts.

Or, to put it in yet another way, one should bear in mind here the two aspects of the notion of remnant: ‘Rest’ as what remains after subtraction of all particular content (elements, specific parts of the Whole), and ‘rest’ as the ultimate result of the subdivision of the Whole into its parts; when, in the final act of subdivision, we no longer get two particular parts or elements, two Somethings, but a Something (the Rest) and a Nothing. In this precise sense, one should say that, from the perspective of Redemption (of the ‘Last Judgement’), the unredeemed part is irrevocably lost, thrown into nothingness – all that remains is precisely the Remainder itself. This, perhaps, is how one should read the motto of the proletarian revolution ‘We were nothing, we want to become All’ – from the perspective of Redemption: that which, within the established order, counts as nothing, the remainder of this order, its part of no part, will become All…

The structural homology between the old Jewish or Paulinian Messianic time and the logic of the revolutionary process is crucial here: ‘The future is no future without this anticipation and the inner compulsion for it, without this ‘wish to bring about the Messiah before his time’ and the temptation to ‘coerce the kingdom of God into being’; without these, it is only a past distended endlessly and projected forward’.[7] Do these words not fit perfectly Rosa Luxemburg’s description of the necessary illusion that pertains to a revolutionary act? As she emphasizes against the revisionists, if one waits for the ‘right moment’ to start a revolution, this moment will never arrive – one has to take the risk and precipitate oneself into the revolutionary attempts, since it is only through a series of ‘premature’ attempts (and their failure) that the (subjective) conditions for the ‘right’ moment are created.

Agamben maintains that Paul only became readable in the 20th century, through Walter Benjamin’s ‘Messianic Marxism’: the clue to Paul’s ‘end of time’ is provided by the revolutionary state of emergency. This state of emergency is to be strictly opposed to today’s liberal-totalitarian emergency of the ‘war on terror’: when a state institution proclaims the state of emergency, it does so by definition as part of a desperate strategy to avoid the true emergency and to return to the ‘normal course of things’. Recall a feature of all reactionary proclamations of the ‘state of emergency’: they were all directed against popular unrest (or ‘confusion’) and presented as a decision to restore normalcy. In Argentina, in Brazil, in Greece, in Chile, in Turkey, the military proclaimed the state of emergency in order to curb the ‘chaos’ of overall politicization: ‘This madness must stop, people should return to their everyday jobs, the work must go on!’.

In some sense, one can effectively argue that, today, we are approaching a kind of ‘end-time’: the self-propelling explosive spiral of global capitalism does seem to point towards a moment of (social, ecological, and even subjective) collapse in which total dynamism and frantic activity will coincide with a deeper immobility. History will be abolished in the eternal present of multiple narrations; nature will be abolished in its biogenetic disposability; the very permanent transgression of the norm will assert itself as the unconditional norm… However, the question ‘When does ordinary time get caught in the messianic twist?’ is a misleading one: one cannot deduce the emergence of messianic time through an ‘objective’ analysis of historic process. ‘Messianic time’ ultimately stands for the intrusion of subjectivity irreducible to the ‘objective’ historical process, which means that at any point, things can take a messianic turn, time can turn ‘dense’.

The time of the Event is not another time beyond and above the ‘normal’ historical time, but a kind of inner loop within this time. Recall one of the standard plots of the time travel narratives: the hero travels into the past in order to intervene into it and thus change the present; afterwards, he discovers that the emergence of the present he wanted to change was triggered precisely through his intervention – his time travel was already included in the run of things. What we have here, in this radical closure, is thus not simply complete determinism, but a kind of absolute determinism which includes in advance our free act. When we observe the process from a distanced vantage point, it appears to unfold in a straight line; however, what we lose from our sight are the subjective inner loops that sustain this ‘objective’ straight line. Which is why the question ‘In what circumstances does the condensed time of the Event emerge?’ is a false one: it involves the re-inscription of the Event back into the positive historical process. That is to say, one cannot establish the time of the explosion of the Event through a close ‘objective’ historical analysis (in the style of: ‘when objective contradictions reach such a level, things will explode’): there is no Event outside the engaged subjective decision that creates it – if one waits for the time to become ripe for the Event, the Event will never occur. Recall the October Revolution: the moment when its authentic revolutionary urgency was exhausted was precisely the moment when, in theoretical discussion, the topic of different stages of socialism, of the transition from the lower to a higher stage, took over – at this point, revolutionary time proper was re-inscribed into linear and ‘objective’ historical time, with its phases and transitions between phases. In contrast to it, authentic revolution always occurs in an absolute Present, in the unconditional urgency of a Now.

It is in this precise sense that, in an authentic revolution, predestination overlaps with radical responsibility: the true hard work awaits us on the morning after, once the enthusiastic revolutionary explosion is over and we are confronted with the task of translating this explosion into a new Order of Things, of drawing the consequences from it, of remaining faithful to it. In other words, the truly difficult work is not that of the silent preparation, of creating the conditions for the Event of the revolutionary explosion; the earnest work begins after the Event, when we ascertain that ‘it is accomplished’…[8]

The shift from Judaism to Christianity with regard to the Event is best encapsulated with regard to the status of the Messiah: in contrast to Jewish Messianic expectation, the basic Christian stance is that the expected Messiah has already arrived, i.e. that we are already redeemed: the time of nervous expectations, of precipitously overcoming oneself towards the expected Arrival, is over, we live in the aftermath of the Event, everything – the Big Thing – already happened.[9] Paradoxically, of course, the result of this Event is not atavism (‘It already happened, we are redeemed, so let us just rest and wait…’), but, on the contrary, an extreme urgency to act: it happened, so now we have to bear the almost unbearable burden of living up to it, of drawing the consequences of the Act… ‘Man proposes, God disposes’ – man is incessantly active, intervening, but it is the divine act which decides upon the outcome. With Christianity, it is the obverse – not ‘God proposes, man disposes’, but its inversion: ‘God [first] disposes, [and then] man proposes’. It is waiting for the arrival of the Messiah which constrains us to the passive stance of, precisely, waiting, while the arrival functions as a signal that triggers activity.

What this means is that the usual logic of the ‘cunning of reason’ (we act, intervene, yet we cannot ever be sure of the true meaning and ultimate outcome of our acts, since it is the decentred big Other, the substantial symbolic Order, that decides) is also strangely turned around – to put it in Lacanian terms, it is humanity, not God, which is here the big Other. It is God himself who made a Pascalian wager: by dying on the cross, he made a risky gesture with no guaranteed final outcome, i.e., he provided us – humanity – with the empty S1, Master-Signifier, and it is to humanity to supplement it with the chain of S2. Far from providing the conclusive dot on the ‘i’, the divine act stands instead for the openness of a New Beginning, and it is to humanity to live up to it, to decide its meaning, to make something of it. It is like a Predestination that condemns us to frantic activity: the Event is a pure and empty sign, and we have to work to generate its meaning. ‘The Messiah is here’ points towards the terrible risk of revelation: what ‘Revelation’ means is that God took upon himself the risk of putting everything at stake, of fully ‘existentially engaging himself’ by way of, as it were, stepping into his own picture, becoming part of creation, exposing himself to the utter contingency of existence. One is almost tempted to refer here to the Hegelian-Marxian opposition of formal and actual subsumption: through the Event (of Christ), we are formally redeemed, subsumed under Redemption, and we have to engage in the difficult work of actualising it. The true Openness is not that of undecidability, but that of living in the aftermath of the Event, of drawing out the consequences – of what? Precisely of the new space opened up by the Event.

What this means, in theological terms, is that it is not us, men, who can rely on the help of God – on the contrary, we must help God. It was Hans Jonas who developed this notion, referring to the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who in 1942 voluntarily reported to a concentration camp in order to be of help there and share the fate of her people: ‘Only this one thing becomes more and more clear to me: that you cannot help us, but that we must help you, and in so doing we ultimately help ourselves. […] I demand no account from you; you will later call us to account’.[10] Jonas links this stance to the radical idea that God is impotent – the only way, according to him, to explain how God could have allowed things like Auschwitz to happen. The very notion of creation implies God’s self-contraction: God has to withdraw into himself, constrain his omnipresence, in order to first create the Nothing out of which he then creates the universe. By creating the universe, he sets it free, lets it go on its own, renouncing the power of intervening into it: this self-limitation is equivalent to a proper act of creation. In the face of horrors like Auschwitz, God is thus the tragic impotent observer – the only way for him to intervene in history was precisely to ‘fall into it’, to appear in it in the guise of his Son.

Such a fall by means of which God loses his distance and becomes engaged, steps into the human series, is discernible in a classic joke from the German Democratic Republic in which Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker confront God, asking him about the future of their countries. To Nixon, he answers: ‘In 2000, the USA will be Communist!’, Nixon turns around and starts to cry. To Brezhnev, he says: ‘In 2000, the Soviet Union will be under Chinese control’. After Brezhnev also turns around and starts to cry, Honecker finally asks: ‘And how will it be in my beloved GDR?’. God turns around and starts to cry… And here is the ultimate version: three Russians who share the same cell in the Lubyanka prison were all condemned for political offences. As they are getting acquainted, the first says: ‘I was condemned to 5 years for opposing Popov’. The second says: ‘Ah, but then the party line changed, and I was condemned to 10 years for supporting Popov’. Finally, the third one says: ‘I was condemned for life, and I am Popov’. (And is it necessary to add that there effectively was a Bulgarian high Komintern functionary named Popov, a close collaborator of Georgi Dimitrov himself, who disappeared in the purges of the late 1930s?). Can this not be elevated into a model for understanding Christ’s suffering? ‘I was thrown to the lions in the arena for believing in Christ!’; ‘I was burned at a stake for ridiculing Christ!’; ‘I died on a cross, and I am Christ!’… Perhaps, this moment of stepping into the line, this final reversal by means of which the founding Exception (God) as it were falls into his own creation, is inserted into the series of ordinary creatures, is what is unique to Christianity, the mystery of incarnation, of God – not only appearing as a man, but – becoming a man.

This compels us to detach radically the Christian ‘love thy neighbour’ from the Levinasian topic of the Other as the impenetrable neighbour. Insofar as the ultimate Other is God himself, one should risk the claim that it is the epochal achievement of Christianity to reduce its Otherness to Sameness: God himself is Man, ‘one of us’. If, as Hegel emphasizes, what dies on the Cross is the God of the beyond itself, the radical Other, then the identification with Christ (‘life in Christ’) means precisely the suspension of Otherness. What emerges in its stead is the Holy Ghost, which is not Other, but the community (or, rather, collective) of believers: the ‘neighbour’ is a member of our collective. The ultimate horizon of Christianity is thus not respect for the neighbour, for the abyss of its impenetrable Otherness; it is possible to go beyond – not, of course, to directly penetrate the Other, to reach the Other the way it is ‘in itself’, but to become aware that there is no mystery, no hidden true content, behind the mask (deceiving surface) of the Other. The ultimate idolatry is not the idolizing of the mask, of the image, itself, but the belief that there is some hidden positive content beyond the mask.

And no amount of ‘deconstruction’ can help us here: the ultimate form of idolatry is the deconstructive purifying of this Other, so that all that remains of the Other is its place, the pure form of Otherness as the Messianic Promise. It is here that we encounter the limit of deconstruction: as it became clear to Derrida himself in the last two decades, the more radical a deconstruction is, the more it has to rely on its inherent non-deconstructible condition of deconstruction: the Messianic promise of Justice. This promise is the true Derridean object of belief, and Derrida’s ultimate ethical axiom is that this belief is irreducible, ‘undeconstructible’. Derrida can thus indulge here in all kinds of paradoxes, claiming, among other things, that it is only the atheists who truly pray – precisely by refusing to address God as a positive entity, they silently address the pure Messianic Otherness… It is here that one should emphasize the gap that separates Derrida from the Hegelian tradition:

It would be too easy to show that, measured by the failure to establish liberal democracy, the gap between fact and ideal essence does not show up only in [… ] so-called primitive forms of government, theocracy and military dictatorship […]. But this failure and this gap also characterize, a priori and by definition, all democracies, including the oldest and most stable of so-called Western democracies. At stake here is the very concept of democracy as concept of a promise that can only arise in such a diastema (failure, inadequation, disjunction, disadjustment, being ‘out of joint’). That is why we always propose to speak of a democracy to come, not of a future democracy in the future present, not even of a regulating idea, in the Kantian sense, or of a utopia – at least to the extent that their inaccessibility would still retain the temporal form of a future present, of a future modality of the living present. [11]

Here we get the difference between Hegel and Derrida at its purest: Derrida accepts Hegel’s fundamental lesson that one cannot assert the innocent ideal against its distorted realization. This holds not only for democracy, but also for religion – the gap that separates the ideal concept from its actualisation already inheres in the concept itself: in the same way that Derrida claims that ‘God already contradicts himself’, that any positive conceptual determination of the divine as a pure messianic promise already betrays it, one should also say that ‘democracy already contradicts itself’. It is also against this background that Derrida elaborates the mutual implication of religion and radical evil[12]: radical evil (politically speaking: ‘totalitarianism’) emerges when religious faith or reason (or democracy itself) is posited in the mode of future present. However, against Hegel, Derrida insists on the irreducible excess in the ideal concept which cannot be reduced to the dialectic between ideal and its actualisation: the messianic structure of ‘to come’, the excess of an abyss that can never be ‘positivised’ in its actual determinate content. Hegel’s own position is here more intricate than it may at first appear: his point is not that, through gradual dialectical progress, one can master the gap between concept and its actualisation and achieve the concept’s full self-transparency (‘Absolute Knowledge’). To put it in speculative terms, his point is to assert a ‘pure’ contradiction which is no longer the contradiction between undeconstructible pure Otherness and its failed actualisations/determinations, but rather the thoroughly immanent ‘contradiction’ that precedes any Otherness. Actualisations and/or conceptual determinations are not ‘traces of an undeconstructible divine Otherness’, but just traces marking their own in-between. Or, to put it in yet another way, in a kind of inverted phenomenological epoche, Derrida reduces Otherness to the ‘to-come’ of a pure potentiality, thoroughly de-ontologising it, bracketing its positive content, so that all that remains is the spectre of a promise; but what if the next step is to drop this minimal spectre of Otherness itself, so that all that remains is the rupture, the gap as such which prevents entities from reaching their self-identity? Recall the old reproach of the French Communist philosophers to Sartre’s existentialism: Sartre threw away the entire content of the bourgeois subject, maintaining only its pure form, and the next step was to throw away this form itself – is it not that, mutatis mutandis, Derrida threw away all positive ontological content of messianism, retaining nothing but the pure form of the messianic promise, and the next step is to throw away this form itself? And, again, is this not also the passage from Judaism to Christianity? Judaism reduces the promise of Another Life to a pure Otherness, a messianic promise that will never become fully present and actualised (the Messiah is always ‘to come’), while Christianity, far from claiming full realization of the promise, accomplishes something far more uncanny: the Messiah is here, he has arrived, the final Event already took place, and yet the gap (the gap that sustained the messianic promise) remains… One is almost tempted to propose here a return to the earlier Derrida of differance: what if (as, among others, Ernesto Laclau has already proposed[13]) Derrida’s turn to the ‘post-secular’ messianism is not a necessary outcome of his initial ‘deconstructionist’ impetus? What if the idea of infinite messianic Justice which operates in an indefinite suspension, always to come, as the undeconstructible horizon of deconstruction already obfuscates the ‘pure’ differance, the pure gap which ‘differs’ an entity from itself? Is it not possible to think this pure in-between prior to any notion of messianic justice? Derrida acts as if the choice is between positive onto-ethics, the gesture of transcending the existing towards another higher positive Order, on the one hand, and the pure promise of spectral Otherness, on the other – however, what if we drop this reference to Otherness altogether? What then remains is either Spinoza – the pure positivity of Being – or Lacan – the minimal torsion of drive, the minimal ‘empty’ (self-)difference which is operative when a thing starts to function as a substitute for itself:

What is substituted can also appear itself, in a 1:1 scale, in the role of the substitute – there only must be some feature ensuring that it is not taken to be itself. Such a feature is provided for by the threshold which separates the place of what is substituting from what is being substituted – or symbolizes their detachment. Everything that appears in front of the threshold then is assumed to be the ersatz, as everything that lies behind it is taken to be what is being substituted.

There are scores of examples of such concealments that are obtained not by miniaturization but only by means of clever localization. As Freud observed, the very acts that are forbidden by religion are practiced in the name of religion. In such cases – as, for instance, murder in the name of religion – religion also can do entirely without miniaturization. Those adamantly militant advocates of human life, for example, who oppose abortion, will not stop short of actually murdering clinic personnel. Radical right-wing opponents of male homosexuality in the USA act in a similar way. They organize so-called ‘gay bashings’ in the course of which they beat up and finally rape gays. The ultimate homicidal or homosexual gratification of drives can therefore also be attained, if it only fulfils the condition of evoking the semblance of a counter-measure. What seems to be ‘opposition’ then has the effect that the x to be fended off can appear itself and be taken for a non-x.[14]

What we encounter here yet again is the Hegelian ‘oppositional determination’: in the figure of the gay-basher raping a gay man, the gay man encounters himself in his oppositional determination, i.e., tautology (self-identity) appears as the highest contradiction. This threshold can also function as the foreign gaze itself: say, when a disenchanted Western subject perceives Tibet as a solution to his crisis, Tibet already loses its immediate self-identity and turns into a sign of itself, its own ‘oppositional determination’. In contrast with gay-bashing rape, where the homosexual desire is satisfied in the guise of its opposite, here, in the case of a Western Tibet worshipper, the utter rejection of Tibet, the betrayal of what the Tibetan civilization is accomplished in the guise of its opposite, of the admiration for Tibet. A further example is provided by the extreme case of interpassivity, when I tape a movie instead of simply watching it on TV, and when this postponement takes a fully self-reflected form: worrying that there will be something wrong with the recording, I anxiously watch TV while the tape is running, just to be sure that everything is OK with the recording, so that the film will be there on the tape, ready for a future viewing. The paradox is here that I do watch a film, even very closely, but in a kind of suspended state, without really following it – all that interests me is that everything is really there, that the recording is OK. Do we not find something similar in a certain perverse sexual economy in which I perform the act only in order to be sure that I can in future really perform the act: even if the act is, in reality, indistinguishable from the ‘normal’ act done for pleasure, as an end-in-itself, the underlying libidinal economy is totally different.

So here we encounter again the logic of reflexive determination, in which watching a movie appears as its own oppositional determination – in other words, the structure is again that of the Moebius strip: if we progress far enough on one side, we reach our starting point again (watching the movie, a gay sex act), but on the obverse side of the strip. Lewis Carroll was therefore right: a country can serve as its own map insofar as the model/map is the thing itself in its oppositional determination, i.e., insofar as an invisible screen ensures that the thing is not taken to be itself. In this precise sense, the ‘primordial’ difference is not between things themselves, and neither is it between things and their signs, but rather it is between the thing and the void of an invisible screen which distorts our perception of the thing so that we do not take the thing for itself. The movement from things to their signs is not that of the replacement of the thing by its sign, but that of the thing itself becoming the sign – not of another thing, but – of itself, the void at its very core.[15] This gap can also be the gap that separates dream from reality: when, in the middle of the night, one has a dream about a heavy stone or animal seating on one’s chest and causing pain, this dream, of course, reacts to the fact that one has a real chest pain – it invents a narrative to account for the pain. However, the trick is not just to invent a narrative, but a more radical one: it can happen that, while having a chest pain, one has a dream of having a chest pain – being aware that one is dreaming, the very fact of transposing the pain into the dream has a calming effect (‘It is not a real pain, it is just a dream!’).

And this paradox brings us to the relationship between man and Christ: the tautology ‘man is man’ is to be read as a Hegelian infinite judgement, as the encounter of ‘man’ with its oppositional determination, with its counterpart on the other side of the Moebius strip. In the same way that, already in our everyday understanding, ‘law is law’ means its opposite, the coincidence of law with arbitrary violence (‘What can you do, even if it is unjust and arbitrary, law is law, you have to obey it!’), ‘Man is man’ signals the non-coincidence of man with man, the properly inhuman excess that disturbs its self-identity – and what is ultimately Christ but the name of this excess inherent in man, man’s extimate kernel, the monstrous surplus which, following the unfortunate Pontius Pilate, one of the few ethical heroes of the Bible (the other being Judas, of course), can only be designated as ecce homo?



Photo still taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film ‘The Gospel According to Matthew‘.

[1] Is Catholic celibacy (the prohibition of priest’s and nun’s marriage) not ultimately
anti-Christian, a remainder of pagan attitude? Does it not rely on the pagan notion
that those who sacrifice terrestrial sexual pleasures thereby gain access to the divine

[2] According to Jung, in the conscious suffering of Christ, God atones for the
suffering of Job: ‘for, just as man must suffer from God, so God must suffer from
man. Otherwise there can be no reconciliation between the two’ (C.G. Jung,
Answer to Job (Princeton: Bollingen 1958), p. 39). The framework is here still that
of exchange: one suffering for the other…

[3] As for the ‘Jewish exception’, one is thus tempted to risk a radical rereading of
Freud, who attributed to Jews the disavowal of the primordial crime (the parricide
of Moses): what if even alternative Freudian readings which propose the hypothesis
of a displaced crime (effectively, it was Moses himself who was guilty of the
‘parricide’ by killing the pharaoh) are wrong? What if Moses’ true crime was not
the murder, but the humiliation of the pharaoh, the public display of his impotence?
Is this not worse than a direct killing: after the killing, the father returns as the ideal
agency of the Law, while the humiliated father just survives as a ridiculous impotent
excrement? What if this humiliation of the father was the precondition for
establishing Judaism as the first great religion which, originally and for most of its
existence, was not a state religion, but the religion of a group without a state
identity? And, furthermore, what if this is what renders the idea of the State of
Israel problematic?

[4] See Eric Santner, ‘Traumatic Revelations: Freud’s Moses and the Origins of Anti-Semitism’, in Sexuation, ed. by Renata Salecl (Durham: Duke UP, 2000).

[5] See Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (Notre Dame: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1985).

[6] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, pp. 404-405. Of course, I owe this
quote to Eric Santner, who developed in detail this notion of Jewish identity in his
outstanding Psychotheology of Everyday Life. Interestingly, this notion of being a
remainder is also part of the traditional Slovene national identity; the traumatic cut
in the Slovene history is the counter-Reformation offensive in the late 16th century,
as the result of which one third of the Slovenes were killed, one third emigrated into
Germany in order to remain Protestants, and the remainder, the scum who
compromised their fidelity, are the existing Slovenes…

[7] Rosenzweig, p. 227

[8] And it is perhaps at this level that we should also approach the old
question, which lately seems to regain its actuality, of the line of
separation between animal and man: at the level of positive being, there is
no difference, man is just an animal with specific properties and abilities; it
is only from the engaged position of being caught in the process of
subjectivation that the difference becomes palpable.

[9] Perhaps the most succinct answer to Christianity, to the Christian notion that the
Messiah is already here, was provided by Kafka’s claim that the Messiah definitely
will arrive, but too late, when humanity will already be tired of waiting for him and
his arrival will no longer matter, thereby leaving people indifferent.

[10] Quoted from Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality (Evanston: Northwestern
University Press 1996), p. 192.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (London: Routledge 1994), pp. 64-65.

[12] See Jacques Derrida, ‘Faith and Knowledge’, in Religion, ed. by Jacques Derrida
and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[13] See Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1995).

[14] Robert Pfaller, ‘The Potential of Thresholds to Obstruct and to Facilitate. On the
Operation of Displacement in Obsessional Neurosis and Perversion’ (unpublished
paper, 2002).

[15] And the same goes for the relationship of masking. In December 2001, Argentines
took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against
Cavallo, the minister of finance. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s
building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in
disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems
that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian
movement in Argentina – the fact that a thing is its own best mask. And is this also
not the ultimate definition of the divinity – God also has to wear a mask of himself?
Perhaps, ‘God’ is the name for this supreme split between the absolute as the
noumenal Thing and the absolute as the appearance of itself, for the fact that the
two are the same, that the difference between the two is purely formal. In this
precise sense, ‘God’ names the supreme contradiction: God – the absolute nonrepresentable Beyond – has to appear as such.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: