Posted by: Dan | April 28, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part VI: The Reformation of Desire

I had intended to continue this series by talking about some of the other forms of sharing that I think should define the Christian community. However, as this series progresses, I am continually confronted with the fact that one of the largest obstacles to embodying a form of Christianity that offers a genuine alternative to capitalism is that we just don't really want to live another way — thus, in Part II, I wrote about a “crisis of willing” and, in Part V, I spoke about the “hold” that a consumer lifestyle has on most Western Christians.

Therefore, in this post, I would like to take a step back, and explore why this is such a problem. And, to do that, I would like to begin with a quote from Slavoj Zizek.

Jenny Holzer's famous truism 'Protect me from what I want'… can either be read as an ironic reference to the standard male chauvinist wisdom that a woman left to herself gets caught up in self-destructive fury — she needs to be protected from herself by benevolent male domination: 'Protect me from the excessive self-destructive desire in me that I myself am not able to dominate.' Or else it can be read in a more radical way, as pointing towards the fact that in today's patriarchal society, women's desire is radically alienated: she desires what men expect her to desire, desires to be desired by men. In this case, 'Protect me from what I want' means: 'Precisely when I seem to express my authentic innermost longing, “what I want” has already been imposed on me by the patriarchal order that tells me what to desire, so the first condition of my liberation is that I break the vicious cycle of my alienated desire and learn to formulate my desire in an autonomous way.
~ Slavoj Zizek, How to Read Lacan, 38-39.

I choose to quote this passage from Zizek in full at the opening of this post because I think he provides an excellent example of one of the ways in which our social setting conditions and alienates even our most “authentic and innermost longing.” What we learn from Zizek (and even more from Foucault!) is that society disciplines our desires — it forms us in such a way that we “naturally” end up finding some things desirable and other things undesirable.

Thus, those of us who live in a society dominated by capitalism need to recognise that even our most “authentic and innermost longings” have been conditioned by capitalism. What we desire ends up being that which sustains and strengthens the structures of capitalism, and what we find undesirable is that which challenges capitalism.

What Zizek's example shows is just how insidious this conditioning of desire can end up being. Thus, even those who realize that their desire has been conditioned, still find that their longings function in an alienated manner. In Zizek's example we see a woman that awakens to the realisation that patriarchy has conditioned her to desire to be desired by men… yet she still desires to be desired by men. Thus, her cry becomes: “Protect me from what I want!”

It is not hard to think of other examples. I know many Christian men who have awakened to the realisation that capitalism conditions them to treat women as (sexual) objects (after all, if people can be made into objects, then they can become goods that can be bought, sold, and consumed). However, these men also discover that they are still attracted to those things that present women as (sexual) objects — objects that even desire their own consumption! In this way we end up with a great deal of Christian men addicted to internet pornography. Their cry also becomes: “Protect us from what we want!”

What really got me thinking about all this in more detail was something a friend of mine wrote recently. He and his wife are rooted in an innercity neighbourhood and trying to find ways of journeying alongside of the people there. He wrote this:

I've talked about doing a lot of things… I wanted to have people over for dinners, to invite those I find on the street into my home to hang out and eat. I also wanted to be involved in the local school… I want to spend time with my neighbours… However, as days, then weeks and finally years go by, and I haven't acted…I begin to ask myself why.

[A]nd the answer always comes back…because I don't really, truly, want to. If I did, then I would.

Therefore, if the Christian community is to exist as a truly genuine alternative to capitalism we need another Reformation. However, we need something that goes deeper than a re-formation of doctrine; what we need is a re-formation of desire. How then can we begin to engage in such a re-formation?

Awakening to the truth of our situation is an important first step. Later in his book on Lacan, Zizek argues that Lacan believed that our desires have become conditioned because our lives are based upon fantasy. Fantasy, according to Zizek, serves two functions: first, it serves as a screen that protects us from being overwhelmed by the truly traumatic truth of the reality of our situation; and, second, it literally teaches us how to desire. This second point is especially instructive, for, as Zizek says, “fantasy does not mean that when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality I fantasize about eating it,” rather, he goes on to say, fantasy is that which teaches me to desire the strawberry cake in the first place (consequently, we learn why capitalism and modern technology fit so well together — the internet, television, and film, along with all forms of advertising, become the means of inundating us with fantasies that teach us how to desire). Thus, Zizek concludes that: “For Lacan, the ultimate ethical task is that of true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy that controls us even more when we are awake.”

However, awakening to reality, and choosing to remain in the place where we are confronted with “unbearable, traumatic truth” (Zizek), is only half of the solution. For, as we saw above, we can learn that our desires our warped but that knowledge does not re-form those desires.

Therefore, it is useful to comment a bit more on my friend's example. The reason why my friend draws the conclusion that he does, is because he is reflecting upon something he recently read — a passage where a man, who had visited a monastery for a few days, asks a monk how he can continue patterns of prayer in his daily life. The monk responds with these words: “The first thing is that you have to want to pray. No amount of discipline or exercise or reading will do it if there is no desire.” The monk may be correct to assert that “no amount of discipline” will inspire prayer if there is no desire to pray. However, what the monk fails to mention (as far as I can tell) is that we must learn the disciplines that will condition us to desire to pray (of course, the paradox in this is that it is often the practice of regular prayer that disciplines us to want to pray so that we can pray regularly — which is why another monk once said, “Fake it, until you make it”!)

If the Christian community is to offer a genuine alternative to capitalism, it must be a place the exercises counter-disciplines to the disciplines of capitalism (this point is one that runs through the writings of Daniel M. Bell Jr. [cf. Liberation Theology after the End of History: the refusal to cease suffering] and William T. Cavanaugh [cf. Torture and Eucharist and Theopolitical Imagination]). In this regard, things like baptism, the Eucharist, the Church calendar, the liturgy, and the spiritual disciplines gain a new relevance. These things, far from being “spiritual” activities that are divorced from our day-to-day lives, are the practices that can re-form our desires.

However, developing counter-disciplines is also only a part of the solution. There is one more crucial component necessary for the re-formation of desire.

In Ro 7, Paul writes the following words:

For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want… I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good… I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

In this passage, Paul is describing a person who has awakened to the reality that his or her desire has been conditioned and warped by outside influences. However, although this person comes to this realisation (in “the law of my mind”), he or she is incapable of acting differently (because of “the law of sin which is in my members”). Thus, the person concludes by crying out: “Protect me from what I want” (i.e. “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”).

However, the crucial thing to realise is that Paul is not describing his experience as a Christian in this passage. Rather, he is describing his pre-conversion experience from a post-conversion perspective. After all, Ro 7 leads directly to Ro 8, where Paul goes on to describe his post-conversion experience, and, in doing so, he provides us with the answer to the question of “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” and the response to the cry: Protect me from what I want!”

In Ro 8, we learn that it is the Spirit of God who liberates our desire and makes new ways of living genuinely possible. This leaves us, rather uncomfortably, in a place of radical dependence. The re-formation of desire depends, ultimately, upon the in-breaking of God's Spirit.

By way of conclusion, it is worth recalling the experience of the disciples with Jesus. The disciples were those whose desires had been disciplined — they wanted Rome to be overthrown, they wanted the Jewish state to be restored, and they wanted to be the new rulers of that newly reconstituted state. In essence, their desires had been conditioned by their culture, and even though Jesus tried to teach them to desire other things (like desiring to serve others instead of desiring to be served by others) they never really got the point. Even when it looked like they understood what Jesus was saying, they were still unable to act out of that new understanding. Thus, even though we see the disciples all swearing that they would never betray Jesus, when the time comes we see them all run away. The disciples want to be loyal to Jesus, but their desires have been so disciplined that none of them are. It is only the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost that changes everything. After the Spirit comes we see the re-formation of the disciples desires, and we see those re-formed desires inspiring truly new, and wonderful, actions and results within the Christian community.

Now, what is particularly encouraging about all this (apart from the fact that it shows us that God's Spirit does break-in and re-form desire), is that Jesus commits himself to working with disciples whose desires have not yet been fully re-formed. Tom Wright captures this idea well when he writes the following:

[Jesus'] disciples, longing for a leader who would fulfill their dreams, were bound to hear his call to revolutionary love in terms of their own love of revolution. Jesus worked within that misunderstanding. It is just as well that he did. If the creator of the world had waited for a time when people would have understood his desire to save the world, and would have responded without ambiguity to that desire, he would have waited for ever (New Tasks for a Renewed Church, 50).

Therefore, let us continue to confront, and expose, the “traumatic” reality of our contemporary situation within capitalism, let us learn to develop the disciplines that re-form our desires, and let us continually cry out for the Spirit to be poured out upon us anew so that the re-formation of a Christian community out of capitalism will be fulfilled, all the while hoping that Jesus is, somehow, working, even now, within our misunderstandings.

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