Paradox v. Dialectics; or, Milbank v. Žižek (but only barely!)

I just finished read the majority of The Monstrosity of Christ, a sort of position-and-response collaborative work by the Marxist literary-critic-psychologist-cum-philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Anglican theologian John Milbank. They both diverge on a host of topics, oftentimes striding into tangents so long and circumloquacious that I ended up skipping the last 50 pages or so, as well as about 10 pages of Milbank’s contribution (Žižek wrote an opening position, Milbank responded in about 100 pages, and then Žižek responded to Milbank’s response). In any event, though I found the center of their disagreement interesting and relevant, they spent so much time on tracing out in excruciating detail that they never really honed in on the meat of the matter. Though the book itself is subtitled “Paradox or Dialectic” and this is indeed the crux of their debate, they never address the gap between them directly and explicitly.

I’m not well informed enough on dialectics to give any sort of systematic treatment of it–if you’ve never heard the term before, google it, and Hegel and Marx while you’re at it, and then rejoin me. I’m going to just jump right into what I personally find interesting in the dialogue between these two ontological approaches.

Žižek, unsurprisingly, applies a thoroughly dialectical treatment to reality, crafting a worldview informed heavily by Hegel, Lacan, and post-structuralist, almost hyper-existential thought. Ultimately, he finally rests his case on a sort of self-negating nihlism, at once denying any final unity to the world or ontological ground of hope and redemption while simultaneously committing himself all the more to need  for redemptive political and social action. On this socio-political emphasis he and Milbank, in fact, agree, but Milbank takes pains to paint out why exactly a human subject ought to have confidence that the struggle for meaning, justice, liberation, and enlightenment is more than a courageous fool’s errand. Centrally, where Žižek sees only the antagonistic conflict of polar opposites: transcendent v. immanent, objective v. subjective, impersonal v. personal, order v. chaos, form v. substance, etc., Milbank stresses the paradoxical identification of each of these opposites on a broader, unifying frame: granted that light and dark are counter-determined by one another, what is the underlying reality that allows them both space to be, or to act? Is there an underlying light-and-darkness, which allows each to play out, a stage, as it were, that opposites act upon?

Žižek seems to see only conflict; any two opposites compete in a zero-sum game of winner-takes all: when light appears, darkness is simply banished. There is, for him, no final unity “behind” or “above” or even “within” existence which binds all action, being, structure, and process. This forces him to propose an utterly “parallax” view of reality with no binding oneness, or being-in-itselfness, that accounts for the whole of existence. Each structure, each event, has only its own internal logic. Whatever reality is for me, yours is different, and they are irreconcilable.

This conflicts with the Christian view, certainly, but it also casts the whole scientific enterprise into doubt as well: is there a common logic of cause-and-effect that can be traced, probed, and relied on as we make sense of the world? Or is there only the subjective, existential moment in which we always exist: the “eternal now”? Žižek finally defines reality as the “non-All”, a contradictory term that attempts to build something out of nothing, meaning out of nihlism. It’s often hard to tell when he’s being authentic and when he might be engaging in self-contented sophistry: he is, after-all, a sort of philosopher-rock-star.

Milbank’s position not only preserves space for a teleological and theological discourse, but also–though I’m not sure he really intends or appreciates it–for scientific discourse as well. At the heart of the “paradoxical” vision of reality is a willingness to see things relationally rather than reductively. He refers to this as the “metaxological”, using an unnecessarily obscure term to point out that all existence is relational: the very forces of physics that comprise quantum mechanics explain what quantum particles do to and near each other and how they interact with space-time itself. They say nothing of any particle in isolation–and indeed they insist that such a particle would, for all intents and purposes, not exist. The reality of any one entity is always sustained, caused, contextualized, and valued by other entities in the universe: beings only exist alongside other beings. But instead of taking this to mean that all there is is the struggle of being v. being, Milbank recognizes the implicit ground of beings–Being-itself–that holds together all relationship, even, and infact especially, relationships of opposites. This ground of existence has been called non-dual, it’s been called the coincidence of opposites, but what Milbank stresses, when he cuts out the filler, is that this ground-of-beings–this Being-itself–can only be approached by a subject in a paradoxical–not dialectical–manner.

What interests me most about the distinction between dialectics and paradox is how the former seems to view the world outside of or without time. Hegel’s classic approach was to see the current thesis as existent in one frame of time, opposed to an antithesis in the same frame, and was resolved in a synthesis between them that came in a later frame, and became the new thesis. The old thesis and its antithesis were discarded. Dialectics is seen as a process between otherwise static states. Paradox, however, draws the states out over the stage of time, placing them in context with their causes, effects, and opposites in a network of existence that stands together. The past is not seen as a rubbish heap, but is seen as a necessary constituent in the present, and the future is what the present is doing, rather than an abstract and distant set of possibilities. The crucial difference seems to be that dialectics essentially treats time as exogenous, where paradox understands the opposites of past and future as yet one more polar set bridged by the unity of Being-itself…

…but I’ll be the first to admit my thoughts on this debate are far from worked out. I’m actually realizing the one could apply dialectical or paradoxical analysis to the distinction between paradox and dialectics itself…which, I think, only reinforces the hermeneutical nature of each approach: they don’t describe different realities, but different interpretations of the same reality. Still, I don’t think I’m saying anything that wasn’t already obvious if I throw my support behind paradox over dialectics, though I recognize the value of the latter. Anyway, I hope to have something more systematic and lucid to say about this later…sorry for the rambling!


2 thoughts on “Paradox v. Dialectics; or, Milbank v. Žižek (but only barely!)

  1. Halfway through this my head exploded and I had to clean up a big mess. Fortunately, I subscribed to the paradoxical approach before that happened and I was able to relate the pieces of my brain back together!

    That being said, re:” is there a common logic of cause-and-effect that can be traced, probed, and relied on as we make sense of the world? Or is there only the subjective, existential moment in which we always exist: the ‘eternal now’?” Why can’t their be both? Why can’t there be our experience as fallible biological structures as well as the possibility of some deeper thing that allows these relationships to come into existence?

    These types are arguments are interesting, I think, but they also don’t seem to take into account (or maybe they do, there’s no way in hell or heaven I’m gonna read that book) that we humans are fundamentally limited by the fallible processes of our own cognition. It seems that there’s a limit to what we can interrogate. I’m not really convinced we can ever be sure anything isn’t an outright illusion, or at least isn’t heavily peppered with our own interpretation. I think there’s a name for that type of thought, and we may have discussed it, but I’ve forgotten it. Also: apologies if this makes no sense!

    • Victoria: I absolutely agree with your point as to the objective v. subjective gap: I think there can be both. I was rather summarizing one of Zizek’s points; he ultimately argued that the only the subjective had any discernible, “real” content. Milbank (and I) would disagree–and it sounds like you would too!

      I also think you have a point about the limitedness of human observation, interrogation, and reasoning. But I think that folks like Milbank and Zizek are interested in pushing those boundaries further, of opening up more space, even if sometimes it’s highly speculative. And I think that that’s a valuable process, though it’s also important to always ground those discussions with a concern for ethics, political justice, and personal relationships.

      And yes, the idea that all stimuli might be or definitely are illusions is, broadly speaking, one of the central suspicions of the various schools of Idealism, though some trend more or less towards outright solipsism. Kant, for example, was one of the leading Idealists of the post-Enlightenment era, and though he ultimately rejected the independent reality of any objective isolated from a subject, I don’t think he really saw the content of subjective experience as truly illusory.

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