Interview by Richard Marshall.
'The ‘post-secular’ condition does not mean some kind of simple return to a previous ‘religious’ condition of society, but is rather a way of pointing towards the ambivalent relation between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’.'
'If you live in a society with an established religion, like Sweden until the millennium, then you can take religion for granted in a way that almost makes it invisible. But if this majority religion becomes disestablished, then the different religious options will become more visible as such, including the particular religion that earlier was taken for granted (by many if not all). Up until 2000, the Church of Sweden was the established religion of Sweden, and even if not everybody belonged to it or even believed although belonging to it, its disestablishment means that it becomes visible as one option among many. As I take it for granted, from a philosophical point of view, that we become who we are as persons through social formation, this also goes for religion. In that sense, the post-secular condition makes us (and this is, I think, a European but perhaps even more so Scandinavian ‘us’) aware of the social embodiment of religion in a way that was not the case in early and high modernity.'
'Nietzsche has some brilliant insights, but I would not trust him as a faultless guide to the history of embodiment in Christianity, nor do I think he offers the final word on Plato or the Gnostics for that matter. As I read Nietzsche, he is more interested in philosophical intervention than in understanding history, and as a challenge to his contemporary versions of Christianity the critique of nihilism in theological somatology might very well be precise, but not as a general statement on theological somatology as such.'
'Eagleton has more of a kind of British wit and works a lot with understatements; this is something he has in common with one of his intellectual precursors, the Dominican friar and philosopher Herbert McCabe. Žižek’s version of humour is more explicit or drastic, and less subtle, often drawing upon the distance between the ‘high’ matter under discussion – philosophy, Hegel, Lacan – and the ‘low’ form of the joke through which he wishes to illuminate the matter at hand.'
'I think one of the reasons that theology resonates with both Marxism and Psychoanalysis is that they share a sense of a fundamental alienation at the bottom of human existence that makes us invest in our own misery. This alienation is not only a surface phenomenon likely to go away through more education or prosperity, or piety for that matter, as other, more optimistic philosophies and theologies tend to think.'
Ola Sigurdsonhas developed a broad range of research interests, one being the intersection between traditional systematic theology and continental theory. He has written about the question of embodiment in the Western philosophical and theological tradition. Another area of interest has been political philosophy and political theology. He has interest in the theology of culture and works on developing a theological reflection on contemporary popular culture such as film, literature and music. Here he discusses the philosophical issues of embodiment, globalisation and secularisation, post-secularisation, modernisation and religion, Eucharistic theology, phenomenology of religion, religion and women's bodies, Nietzsche, incarnation in Christian theology, the philosophy of the gaze and embodiment, emancipation as style in the work of Eagelton and , the theology of Eagelton and Žižek and their Marxism.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher, and a philosopher of religion in particular?
Ola Sigurdson:There is no one reason I became a philosopher/philosopher of religion/theologian. Applying for university during the last term of my secondary school where I did chemistry, engineering and natural sciences, I thought I wanted to become an engineer. However, I tore the first set of application papers and instead applied for philosophy and comparative literature which I subsequently studied at the University of Gothenburg. Well into these studies, I once again had a change of heart, taking up economy at the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg while finishing my B.A. in philosophy; I was unsure whether I would ever land a job with just a degree in philosophy. During a year of community service (instead of the then obligatory military service in Sweden), I felt the need to also do some theology before devoting myself to studying whatever it was that was to become my occupation. Three years of theological studies at a seminar was decisive, not only because of the theology, but also because of the very amplitude of the education: languages, history, sociology, psychology and philosophy. In 1991 I started out on the doctoral program in systematic theology at Lund University. At that time, many of the students on this program were interested in so-called continental philosophy (the dominant tradition in Sweden has been Anglo-American analytic philosophy since WW2), and this stuck. More or less, I have been working in the intersection between theology and philosophy, mostly the phenomenological tradition, since then. I’m increasingly tired of the labels of academic disciplines, but I think it would be fair to say that I mainly work within philosophical theology.
On a more existential level, one reason for my choice of pursuing a career in philosophy and theology is curiosity, pure and simple. I find that I am drawn to certain problems, but not only to problems but also to reading as a source of learning (as Bildung). I think you need a strong desire for learning to even begin to think of pursuing a career in philosophy or theology, given the bleak prospects of the academic labour market. Another important reason for becoming a philosophical theologian was (and is) my friends. Among those I grew up with, especially at secondary school, there was a lot of interest in artistic, existential and religious questions, and the level of engagement in politics was comparatively high. I don’t really believe that one’s choice of career takes place in a social vacuum, so thanks to my friends, I developed a curiosity that extended beyond economy or engineering. A final reason is of course my own existential engagement; I have always been deeply touched by political and religious issues. Today, I find it easier to identify myself with Christianity as my own religious tradition, than with any concrete political alternative, although I do think politics need to be put into practice and not just remain an abstract political philosophy or theology. In these turbulent times we live in, both in Europe where I live and globally, I find that the intersection between philosophy and theology is a good place to be to be able to think about such issues in a critical way.
3:AM:One of the things you’ve considered are philosophical issues of embodiment. You see the body as having a ‘double bind’ – can you sketch what this is and why it is philosophically important – and does it relate to animalism?
OS:To begin with, the understanding of the body that I am working with is a phenomenological conception of embodiment. This means, among other things, that I don’t primarily regard the body as an object, but start out with the human experience of being embodied. In other words, we don’t have bodies as much as we are bodies, even if that distinction must not be overdrawn. Being embodied is a precondition for (the experience of) having a body. Our experience of being embodied creatures are manifold, and this is where the ‘double bind’ comes in: the experience of embodiment is always ambiguous. The ambiguity comes in different versions, like in the dualism sometimes ascribed to ancient philosophy and religion, where the body is both perceived as a prison for the soul as well as subjected to the control and discipline of the soul. As Nietzsche so wisely stated in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated elude definition; only that which has no history is definable’. Which means, in this case, that the body has a history. The experience of being embodied changes throughout history.
In my main work about embodiment in the Christian tradition, the book Heavenly Bodies, I try to explain this ambiguity through the notions of the erotic and the grotesque: our experience of being embodied creatures is an experience of both pleasure and pain. Another way of talking about the ambiguity of being an embodied creature is to speak of human vulnerability. I think one of the reasons that embodiment has been held in contempt by philosophy and theology – and by no means only the one or the other or just in ancient thought – is an attempt to flee this vulnerability, to be in control. But being embodied goes along with being vulnerable and dependent, and as this is an ambiguous experience, there is a human tendency to try minimize the surface where we can be hit. If this were to succeed, we would be terribly lonely, as the body could be regarded as an organ of relationality. The body is, in a sense, nothing ‘private’, but social. I think, not very surprisingly, that issues of embodiment are quite central to philosophical and theological anthropology because they concern how we regard ourselves. But as the quote from Nietzsche above indicates, I think any anthropology is historically mediated, which means that you have to deal with historical understandings and experiences of embodiment as well as contemporary, to be able to develop a philosophy and/or theology that stays true to the life-world and not just tries to impress its own concept of the body on experience.
Does the understanding of human beings as embodied creatures relate to animalism? If by ‘animalism’ we mean the notion that human beings too are animals so sure. According to its Latin root, ‘animal’ means ‘living being’. Usually it is a notion used to make a distinction between ‘animals’ and ‘humans’, but I assume that the perspective I am suggesting could be much more prone to emphasise the solidarity between human beings and other living beings through a shared embodiment. To be more concrete, if our bodies are organs of relationality, this relationality does not only include other human beings but also, for instance, other living beings. Human beings have a history of living in symbiosis with other animals, and if our interaction with these animals is not primarily cognitive and these other animals are not regarded in purely mechanical terms, then there is a vast field to be explored, as I am sure it already has been, by a phenomenology of animal life. To be embodied, to be a vulnerable dependent creature, would mean to be exposed to the other, whether this other is another human being or an animal – or the divine, come to that. This would not mean that we are all the same; there might be something distinctive in being a human being as well as there would be something distinctive about being a cat. This is not my field of expertise, however, neither academically nor personally. I would think, nevertheless, that this might be a way of overcoming the human/animal dualism as well as the mind/body dualism.
3:AM:You see globalisation as having an impact on how we now see religion and you talk specifically of its new visibility in the light of global conflict and terrorism. How has what you call this ‘post secular’ context changed the views of religion towards the body – and is your take on this particularly Scandinavian even as it generalises?
OS:I think what has happened is that the European triumphalism with regard to the so-called ‘secularization thesis’ has been called in question by globalisation. As the British sociologist Grace Davie puts it in her book The Europe: Exceptional Case, ‘Europeans are prone to believe that what they do today everyone else will do tomorrow’; the belief that props up the secularization thesis is, to put it short, that the process of modernisation is by necessity correlated to the cultural and social disappearance of religion. The process of modernisation could take place differently in different parts of the world, and so we should not take for granted that the religious transformation that Europe has gone through say the last two hundred years would be repeated in other parts of the world. I think there are many ways of being modern, as the Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt has suggested with his notion of ‘multiple modernities’, and so the persistence of different forms of socially visible religion in other parts of the world than Europe does not suggest, per se, that they would be less modern than my part of the world. Someone, I think it is Charles Taylor, has suggested that the process of modernisation is correlated with ‘pluralization’ rather than the disappearance of religion, which is certainly true of Europe including Scandinavia. Not only as such but perhaps foremost in its ideological self-assertion, a Scandinavian nation-state such as Sweden has been massively homogeneous. Cultural, ethnic, political and religious homogeneity has been seen as a positive value, purportedly creating a unique political and social stability. Today, however, Scandinavia and Sweden are no longer as culturally, ethnically, religiously and socially homogeneous as they once were (if only relatively so). Even if it remains to be seen in what way Sweden, for instance, will be pluralistic, as it has to struggle with its historical predilection for consensus and homogeneity, I do not doubt that the time of a relatively homogeneous nation-state has long since passed.
This historical development is relevant to what I mean by the notion ‘post-secular’. The ‘post-secular’ condition does not mean some kind of simple return to a previous ‘religious’ condition of society, but is rather a way of pointing towards the ambivalent relation between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’. This would deserve a longer treatment, but to save that for elsewhere, I would suggest that Europe and even Sweden is post-secular in at least two different ways. First, ‘secularity’, as it has developed in Europe, is not just some kind of neutral container for everything that is not religious but has a religious genealogy, and so ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are always already intertwined with each other. The notion of ‘post-secularity’ goes against a kind of linear triumphalist philosophy of history that thinks it is one stage after the other, like in some versions of the secularisation thesis. Obviously this historical and contemporary intertwining looks different in different parts of Europe. Second, post-secularity, as I use it, also stands for the insight that religion has not disappeared, even in Europe or Sweden, but that it, sometimes in quite dramatic ways, has been transformed, away from the majority religion of national churches towards more fluid and plural varieties. ‘Post-secularity’ wants to draw the attention towards the fact that processes of secularisation and de-secularisation can exist side by side, creating all kinds of different hybridities. For instance, it often strikes me how very un-traditional some contemporary forms of conservative religion appear to be. They seem to lack a genuine knowledge of their respective traditions, instead preferring to invent what they take for a ‘classic’ position but has very little to do with any such viewpoint.
If, then, there is a pluralisation of religious options in contemporary society rather than a disappearance of religion – to speak with the sociologist Hans Joas – I think this makes it visible why religion always has to do with a certain kind of social embodiment. If you live in a society with an established religion, like Sweden until the millennium, then you can take religion for granted in a way that almost makes it invisible. But if this majority religion becomes disestablished, then the different religious options will become more visible as such, including the particular religion that earlier was taken for granted (by many if not all). Up until 2000, the Church of Sweden was the established religion of Sweden, and even if not everybody belonged to it or even believed although belonging to it, its disestablishment means that it becomes visible as one option among many. As I take it for granted, from a philosophical point of view, that we become who we are as persons through social formation, this also goes for religion. In that sense, the post-secular condition makes us (and this is, I think, a European but perhaps even more so Scandinavian ‘us’) aware of the social embodiment of religion in a way that was not the case in early and high modernity. Ironically, this phenomenon is countered by what I would call an ‘institutional fatigue’ in Europe. Not only churches and other religious institutions but also, and sometimes even more so, unions, political parties and other associations of civil society suffer a lack of long-time commitment. I am worried that this will have a corrosive effect on the political situation but perhaps, in some small way, the idea of social embodiment in post-secular conditions could contribute to counter that effect.
3:AM:What do you mean when you say that the history of religious embodiment is also political history? Is it your belief that religion is always a cultural and social phenomenon and cannot be conceived of as a private one? This would seem to go head on against the likes of Kant, Schleiermacher, William James, Rudolph Otto, Eliade and others. How can this sort of dispute be decided?
OS:I think that this issue in Kant, Schleiermacher, James, Otto and (perhaps) Eliade are more or less part of a certain process of differentiation within the broader process of modernisation in the sense that they seek an essence of the religious beyond its social embodiment. The differentiation between different and autonomous spheres of society, like art, economy, politics, religion and science is a part of the process of modernisation in Europe, and this process is in itself a political quest on the part of the rising nation-states and their ambition of controlling their subjects. Early modern political thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw the nation-state as a social body, a body that only would keep its political integrity if it did not have to compete with other social bodies about the loyalty of its citizens. The state would provide for the spiritual needs of its subjects, and this had to mean that either there had to be a state church, or the state had to forge its own ‘civil religion’ that then might tolerate other religions, if they only were ‘private’ or ‘spiritual’ enough.
It is not so much, then, that you cannot conceive religion as something private, which demonstrably has been done. It is just that I think this particular configuration of the relation between soul/body, private/public and so on is not very helpful if you try to understand religion, society and so on. I have already referred to my assertion that human beings are embodied creatures, and so I think it will not work to suggest that religion is a purely individual phenomenon – and so I do strongly doubt that there is an essence of religion somehow beyond its social embodiment. There is no religion as such but only different religions. Further, I am committed to a pluralistic understanding of politics, like Hannah Arendt’s, namely how those who are different should co-exist with each other in a peaceful and just way. The hegemony of the nation-state is not exactly a pluralistic solution, whether in its religious or non-religious versions. We need to look elsewhere for solutions to this problem than early modern liberal political thought, I think, as in much of it, religion only seem to be pure when it lacks a body and a voice.
To be clear, given the times we live in, this does not mean that I think that the social embodiment of religion would solve this political problem in some easy way, especially not if this means the return to a symbiosis between state and religion. This is just a way of talking about religion that I think is truer to its actual appearance as well as how human beings are constituted, and so it might be helpful in terms of conceptuality. Also, we need to figure out new ways of living together that allows for difference, justice and peacefulness and that also do not prematurely try to reduce religious or other non-state social embodiments to something ‘private’. Perhaps I might draw the reader’s attention to an art project that I have been involved with recently – the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2017 – where the curator Nav Haq has chosen as its theme WheredoIendandyoubegin – On Secularity. We have been working with a definition of secularity as ‘a space for negotiation between different modes of life’, trying to avoid, as far as possible, to smuggle in a particular world-view or political doctrine or, for that matter, reducing religious or non-religious modes of life to something private. What this means in practice is of course far from obvious, and in the issue of PARSE that Nav Haq, Andrea Phillips and I have been editing, Secularity, as a catalogue for the exhibition, there are a number of approaches to this theme.
3:AM:What is Eucharistic theology and how does that help us understand the development of embodiment in history, in particular modernity?
OS:‘Eucharistic theology’ – which is a phrase I seldom use – would be a Christian theology developed from the liturgical praxis of the Lord’s supper, and which tries to understand how God could be present in material representation without being or becoming identical to that representation or materiality. In Christian theology, the understanding of the Eucharist is related to Christology and especially the doctrine of the incarnation, i.e. how God becomes a human being in Jesus Christ, but also to theological anthropology and ecclesiology. In other words, this is how Christian theology thinks about such matters as the relation between transcendence and immanence as well as human subjectivity and embodiment. In the development of Eucharistic theology during modernity, the understanding of the Eucharist has in theory as well as practice become spiritualized as well as individualized. It is not so much understood as a communion with the divine as an act of remembrance, and likewise it has become less of a communal meal and more of a personal confession. This is, I think, a part of the Entzauberung of materiality in modernity, which makes the material reality devoid of its sacramental quality – its possibility to host and communicate transcendence – and turns it into an inert asset upon which it is possible to act. With regard to embodiment, this is a parallel development to the instrumentalisation of the body, captured in René Descartes’ dichotomy between res extensa, i.e. the body, and res cogitans, i.e. mind (which, we should remember, is just one of Descartes aspects on embodiment). Through Eucharistic theology, it is possible to interpret modernity as a process or reification, but also how to develop, perhaps, a non-reified concept of materiality.
3:AM:How are we to understand embodiment from the perspective of the phenomenology of religion? Lévinas, Kristeva, Irigaray are key figures for you in this aren’t they in what ways are they specifically religious phenomenologists – specifically what is religious about their approach?
OS:I don’t think that I work with so-called phenomenology of religion as such, nor that Lévinas, Kristeva, Irigaray are particularly ‘religious’ phenomenologists. The thinkers I tend to work with are rather phenomenological philosophers – as well as critical theorists – that are helpful to illuminate phenomena such as alterity and embodiment, and those three, among others, certainly belongs to my interlocutors. For reasons hinted at above, I am wary of the concept of religion and what it has come to stand for in modernity; to the extent that I wish to overcome this modern understanding of religion (as something subjective, private and disembodied) they are helpful indeed. So there is nothing specifically religious about their approach, At least the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has in no uncertain terms made clear that she is an atheist. That is, in a sense, what makes them helpful for a philosophical theology interested in embodiment. In some ways, they clarify, for me, the question of the other in relation to embodiment more than, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception, which otherwise for me has been an indispensable book. For them, the body is not primarily understood as an object but as a human mode of living and experiencing to which belongs also the experience of alterity, including the alterity of one’s own embodiment. If my body is not so much the boundary of myself as the mode of my being-in-relation with alterity, then the body could also be seen as a dimension of myself that continually turns towards the invisible.
3:AM:Don't the main world religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam historically have a poor track record when treating women and their bodies and if this is right won't they oppose any positive aspects of feminist embodiment?
OS:Correct, they do have a poor track record in that aspect. But even if it is poor, I don’t think this suggests that they are beyond redemption. To begin with, all three religions have a long history and so it would be impossible to reduce anyone of them to just one, long history of oppressive understanding of embodiment. We need to differentiate between different notions of embodiment and different notions of agency throughout history, where some are less oppressive than others. This is what I try to do in my Heavenly Bodies with regard to Christianity, not to suggest that any one period of history would be a norm to all other periods, but to see if there are moments of clarity that would be used in a constructive way. Moreover, as some feminist philosophers and theologians have pointed out, to reduce these three world religions to a monolithic history of oppression would be to deny all agency to those women who have lived and worked and loved in these traditions and those who still do so. I think of Sarah Coakley and Saba Mahmood for example, who have both contributed to shattering the stereotypes that sometimes dominate the public opinion. All three religions are much too complex to reduce to a simple opposition between religious oppression and secular/modern/liberal freedom. Finally, there is no ‘they’ who could oppose any positive aspects of feminist embodiment: there is no ‘one’ Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Even within those traditions who the Western media would suspect stands for an oppressive understanding of feminist embodiment, and sometimes quite rightly so, there is opposition. I am sometimes surprised of their radicality when I read Roman Catholic feminist or queer theology, to take just one example. There are more things in Catholic theology than what happens in the Vatican. However, what I have said so far should not be taken as an occasion for whitewashing their poor track record. I am merely suggesting that a more nuanced understanding is a precondition for the very important work done by feminist philosophers and/or theologians today in criticizing those aspects of the world religions.
3:AM:Interestingly, you say you agree with Nietzsche’s criticism of certain elements of nihilism in theological somatology. Ok, so can you first sketch for us what bits of Nietzsche’sviews you agree with and which you don’t in respect to his attack on Christianity’s asceticism which most commentators agree is his belief that Christianity, Plato and the Gnostics all aimed at suppressing the body!
OS:In his Antichrist, Nietzschecriticizes Christianity for being nihilistic, meaning that it denies this world in favour of another, better world. And in Beyond Good and Evil, he suggests that ‘Christianity gave Eros poison to drink’. In congruence with my answer to your previous question about feminism, I think he is correct some of the time but not all of the time. Nietzschehas been instrumental in historizing the body, and so there is hardly just one notion of embodiment in the history of Christian theology. Nietzschehas some brilliant insights, but I would not trust him as a faultless guide to the history of embodiment in Christianity, nor do I think he offers the final word on Plato or the Gnostics for that matter. As I read Nietzsche, he is more interested in philosophical intervention than in understanding history, and as a challenge to his contemporary versions of Christianity the critique of nihilism in theological somatology might very well be precise, but not as a general statement on theological somatology as such. One may well think that there is another story to tell besides Nietzsche’s more pessimistic genealogy; one that begins with the Christian notion of the word becoming flesh in Christ, which has been interpreted as a divine affirmation of human embodiedness. Further, Nietzsche have some insights regarding the sado-masochistic tendencies inherent in the Christian theology of the cross, but nevertheless early Christianity’s affirmation of suffering and pain as an integral part of human existence and not as something remote from our true selves would be recognized by Nietzsche, I think. I’m not a Nietzsche scholar, but it seems to me that Nietzsche’s relation to Christianity is quite complex and nuanced, if you look at it closely. In my own work, I use Nietzsche’s thought as a critical instrument rather than a guide to my own position on these matters.
3:AM:So do you think the idea of incarnation in Christian theologyreduces or denies the embodied human in some way?
OS:I think the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God somehow became visible and tangible in Christ, is a vast affirmation of embodiment (not always recognized as such by Christianity, to be sure). This doctrine, i.e. the theoretical formulation that tried to make sense of the story of God’s presence in Christ, did not fall from heaven, however. I think an important part of the doctrinal controversies during the first centuries of Christianity’s history, had to do with the question how to understand this presence without compromising the integrity of neither humanity nor divinity. The temptation then was to reduce the humanity of Christ to a mere receptacle, overwhelmed by God, or turning Christ into a superman. This would obviously mean a denigration of human embodiment and agency. The council of Chalcedon in 451 offered a definition that, in essence, is a compromise formula that tries to avoid such excesses by safeguarding the integrity of human nature as well as divine nature. As it soon became apparent, this was not the end of the controversies, but rather the beginning of new controversies while remaining something of a horizon for all subsequent formulations. As this definition, like any other definition, is dependent upon its own historical context, there is obviously a need for re-interpretation if we wish to pursue Christology. But also from a phenomenological perspective, more interested in the experience of embodiment than in Christian theology, I find the ancient discussions on the incarnation hugely interesting, and they have returned again and again in the Western history of ideas, with regard to the philosophy of history in Hegel for instance, the relation between universal and particular in some recent debates in moral philosophy, but also in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body. The doctrine of the incarnation from a philosophical point of view has to do with the relation between transcendence and immanence, where transcendence here could be understood more as the anthropological possibility of transcending than some divine attribute.
3:AM:What are the issues of the theology of the gaze for embodiment?
OS:If embodiment is about relationality, then we understand that the human senses are ways or relating. In modern Western thinking, especially in Protestant theology and its cultural influence, sight has been connoted as active, even possessive, whereas hearing has been connoted as passive, receiving. Remember, according to Luther’s interpretation of the apostle Paul, ‘faith comes from hearing’. I want to show that the possessive characteristic of sight is only one mode of the relationality of sight and that, in fact, it is possible to regard something, even desire something, without wanting to devour it. Sight is not ‘a view from nowhere’ but embodied and consequently not unilateral but relational. Seeing is a human way of being-in-the-world, it is relational, embodied and erotic, and a theology of the gaze helps me develop an understanding of how our gaze can be an affirmation of the other’s alterity, not just an imperial endeavour of the self. Thus, I devote four chapters to it in my Heavenly Bodies, chapters that are historical, phenomenological and theological. My main reasons for doing this are two: to try to salvage a productive understanding of vision, especially for Protestant theology, but also, and mainly, to develop a more nuanced understanding of embodiment. In an ideal book, there would also be a number of chapters on the other senses – hearing, touch, taste and smell, with an emphasis on the last three – and how they contribute to an understanding of what it means to be embodied, but there were time limits writing this book which is already quite long.
3:AM:How can embodied humanity even imagine an embodied God so that it affirms embodiment? And how true to the history of Christianity and the other Judaic religions is it to say that embodiment is affirmed? Surely Nietzsche is right to say that the history of embodiment is one of denial by these religious forces?
OS:As I said earlier, the doctrine of the incarnation thematises the image of an embodied God – or, to put it more dynamically, a divine embodiment – and there are parallel images in Judaism and perhaps also in Islam (I know too little here). This has not always, to put it mildly, led to an affirmation of human embodiment in practice, but neither to a complete denial. The history of Christianity is chequered, like most other traditions I guess. But this is no reason to deny its constructive parts and through critical thinking contribute to a better future track record in this regard, especially as the potential is there.
3:AM:You have written about emancipation as a matter of style and brought together Terry Eagleton, a literary critic and Marxist and Zizek, a Lacanian Hegelian Marxist(!) to develop your idea. Can you explain how this works?
OS:Well, this is a kind of in-between experiment. I had just finished writing my book Theology and Marxism in Eagleton and Žižekand was about to start up another project, the one I am working on now, on humour, subjectivity and transcendence. I noticed while writing my book on them, as I think any reader of Eagleton and/or Žižek would, that these authors are quite funny, but funny in their own different way. Eagleton has more of a kind of British wit and works a lot with understatements; this is something he has in common with one of his intellectual precursors, the Dominican friar and philosopher Herbert McCabe. Žižek’s version of humour is more explicit or drastic, and less subtle, often drawing upon the distance between the ‘high’ matter under discussion – philosophy, Hegel, Lacan – and the ‘low’ form of the joke through which he wishes to illuminate the matter at hand. I am convinced that humour is not ‘only’ a matter of style, but is an important aspect of human subjectivity. Thus, I wanted to see if I could notice any correspondence between their differences in humorous style and their politics, especially their eschatology, and this made me write about emancipation as a matter of style.
With eschatology I mean here how they regard change is going to come about; will society after the revolution look anything like the society we have today or will it be totally different? This is related to how different Christian traditions imagined the end times, as a gradual transformation or a cataclysmic change. Eagleton’s more subtle wit corresponds in some way to a view that political change must not be a matter of utter discontinuity between now and then, whereas Žižek tends to be more apocalyptic in his joking. The idea that emancipation is a matter of style, then, is not a suggestion that salvation comes through our style, literary or other, but, more modestly, that a certain idea of emancipation also could have meaningful consequences for how we choose to put our thoughts into writing. It goes without saying, I suppose, that this thesis should not be overdone. Both Eagleton and Žižek are, each in their own way, gifted writers. Not all philosophical writers are equally gifted. Immanuel Kant, brilliant mind that he was, told three jokes in his Critique of Judgement, none of them very funny I think. We should not hold this against his philosophy; I say this out of self-preservation with regard to my own project on humour, subjectivity and transcendence.
3:AM:And how does theology look through the lens of Zizek and Eagleton?
OS:The short answer would be to say that Eagleton is a Catholic agnostic (at least in the way he puts it in some of his books) whereas Žižek is a Protestant atheist, typologically speaking. This has to do with both their theological influences and how they conceive their political philosophy. Eagleton’s main interlocutor is the already mentioned Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe who was a prominent promotor of analytic Thomism. You can see how Eagleton’s idea of how ‘nature’ relates to ‘culture’ corresponds to a Thomistic understanding of the relation between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’: as Thomas Aquinas puts it, ‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’. This also corresponds to his understanding of eschatology, in a political sense, where revolution does not mean a complete discontinuity with our present society. We do have some notion, here and now, of what a truly emancipated life would mean; if we were utterly and thoroughly alienated, emancipation would not make sense to us at all.
Žižek, on the other hand, is mainly influenced by Hegel in his understanding of theology, and Hegel is, even as a philosopher, rooted in the Lutheran tradition of emphasizing grace against nature. According to Žižek, ‘to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience’. The ‘Christian experience’ is the experience of being ‘born again’, which corresponds to the psychoanalytic experience of ‘subjective destitution’, meaning that one has to go through an experience of uprooting from one’s cultural, ethnic or social context. This means a more radial re-orientation of human subjectivity than in Eagleton and a more apocalyptic view on revolution. Significantly, Žižek chooses not to go along with Jacques Lacan’sinterest in pre-modern forms of religion and theology but sticks to Hegel.
There is more to be said about theology than is said by either Eagleton or Žižek, and they do not have any pretences of being professional theologians. But they do show, I think, how intertwined philosophy and theology really is, even if you, like Žižek, have no theo-logical interest in theology, but only wants to make sense of theology through Hegel and Lacan. This goes against any attempt to artificially separate philosophy and theology in intellectual history, but it is also a lesson for theologians, that the theological concepts and teachings have wider cultural, political and social consequences and not only ‘intra-religious’ or ‘intra-academic’ relevance. Even if I do not fully agree with neither Eagleton nor Žižek on almost anything, there is a lot to learn by reading them, on critical thinking as well as the relevance of theology for itself and in relation to philosophy and politics.
3:AM:And what kind of Marxism are we left with if via these two we can have theology?
OS:The Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn has in his From Marxism to Post-Marxismdistinguished between Marxism as political philosophy, as a mode of politics and as economic theory. The Marxism of Eagleton as well as Žižek is most of all a political philosophy, in some ways perhaps also a mode of politics, even though none of them are very concrete. Finally, there is very little of an economic analysis of capitalism in them. This means that their Marxism is more a kind of dialectical philosophy that takes anthropological, cultural and social contradiction seriously. None of them is Marxist in an orthodox, pre-1989sense. Even if Marxism and theology are two different fields of inquiry that historically have fought each other, there has also always been a deep resonance between the two (in their various forms) which has been shown by the Australian theologian Roland Boer in his five-volume work The Criticism of Heaven and Earth.
I think one of the reasons that theology resonates with both Marxism and Psychoanalysis is that they share a sense of a fundamental alienation at the bottom of human existence that makes us invest in our own misery. This alienation is not only a surface phenomenon likely to go away through more education or prosperity, or piety for that matter, as other, more optimistic philosophies and theologies tend to think. This means that there is, in Eagleton’s words, a ‘violence at our own core’ and the remedy would be a more radical remaking of our subjectivity. Sometimes I wish that they would be even more Marxist in the sense of engaging with the economic theory of Marx and not only discussing him as a kind of philosopher – Žižek very rarely discusses Marxism per se. It seems to me that Marxism has a lot to contribute to contemporary political philosophy and theology today, for interpreting the political situation in my part of the world at least, especially as the earlier dogmatic version(s) of Marxism has more or less disappeared.
3:AM:And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
OS:It is not easy to limit myself to only five books, but here is my list, in no specific order:
1. Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge, 2002.
3. Gillian Rose, Hegel contra Sociology, London: Athlone, 1981.
4. Gerard Loughlin, Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology, Malden, MA: Blackwells, 2004.
5. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.