Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 5 – Anxiety and the S(ub)lime Body of God



Freud reversed the relationship between anxiety and repression in his later career. Originally he believed anxiety was a response to repression, but in his later works he argued that anxiety is primary. This chapter attempts to set up an encounter between and anxiety and theology by appropriating Lacan’s logic of sexuation through Zizek’s reading of the Kantian mathematical and dynamical sublime. Crockett outlines two alternatives for mapping out the relationship between theology and anxiety. First, theology produces anxiety because it represses the body (hence the body of God). Secondly, by reading Lacan’s view of not-all Crockett equates theology with anxiety, which would create a “theology of anxiety would be a s(ub)lime theology, and would attend to the slime nature sloughed off by God as traces of divinity” (82).

The Jouissance of the Other

For Lacan, the Other represents the social unconscious, and it can be compared to the Kantian universal. We never encounter the universal as such instead it serves as the base through which the particular emerges. Similarly object petit a is the particular through which we grasp begin the universal Other. If man’s desire is the desire of the Other then the purchase of the latest commodity is an instance in which we conform to the desire of the Other. The Other’s desire is manifested through our desires, and our desires are not own because our choices acknowledge a social order that invests particular objects with meaning and value. Jouissance is enjoyment at the extreme, which is pleasure taken beyond the limits of the Law. Consequently, this sexual enjoyment is often destructive, and Lacan associates the jouissance as being a prime example of the death drive. Jouissance is not merely the satisfaction of a biological need, but is directed towards a satiation of the drive, which is “an option within the social field” (84). Keeping Lacan’s definition of desire in mind, Crockett reminds us that agent of jouissance is the Other not merely the individual. A mob lynching is an example of the outbreak of jouissance in which a ground of people sacrifices an individual to satisfy the desires of the social Other. The individuals do not merely each decide this is what they desire, but rather they are caught up in a frenzy whose sole motivation is to appease the Other.

The Slimy Subject

Zizek argues that jouissance is difficult to overcome. None of us can escape the all-encompassing influence of the Other. Following Zizek, Crockett writes, “this relation between subject and jouissance of the Other is not simply an external relation, but an intimate one that constitutes the subject as subject” (86). Furthermore, the subject only comes to be by rejecting the slimy, formless substance of jouissance. After expulsion, this subject is horrified by this jouissance that was once internal to him. Subjectivity is “constituted in the process of sloughing off one’s body – which is perceived as sublime – and this externalized body encountered as substance provokes horror and sublimity” (86-7). In Seminar II, Lacan discusses Freud’s dream when he gazes into the utter formlessness of the Irma’s throat. The anxiety Freud experiences in this dream emerges by his realization that we are simply this vulgar, formless flesh. Freud experiences severe anxiety by understanding himself through jouissance of the Other because the body has already been rejected as other.

Freud’s Anxiety

In this section Crockett offers two reasons to explain why Freud changed his view to see anxiety as preceding repression. First he proposes that later on his career Freud began to understand castration as developing more explicitly in biological terms. The little boy experiences anxiety because he notices that women do not possess a penis (castration anxiety), and he also recognizes that his penis is considerably smaller relative to his father. The young boy must disavow this knowledge as it is too threatening. The little girl upon realizing her lack of penis desires it. Also, Crockett argues that the structural model in which the ego negotiates the punitive demands of the superego and the impulsive id contributed to shift in Freud’s thinking. The ego’s fear of castration also contributes to excessive anxiety, which inevitably leads to the development of ego defenses to ward off this threat. While feminists have critiqued the first reason for being essentialist and sexist, whereas Lacan critiqued the stable ego as opposed to the shifting subjectivity of the unconscious, Crockett wants to stay true to the idea that anxiety produces repression. He then raises the unsettling question that how would our understanding of theology change if we understood it as a discourse of repression generated by a free-floating anxiety.

God’s Body

God’s body has been a continual source of anxiety for theologians. Although, all theologians would agree that God is immaterial, how do we reconcile the notion that man was made in God’s image? Even if we assume the image was the human soul, is it possible for us to avoid the unfortunate spirit/body dualism. Crockett goes on to analyze Luther and draws attention to the fact that Luther’s anxious discourse betrays extreme horror of the body of God. This “disavowal of the body of God by man theologians leads to a return of the repressed, understood as an experience of absolute sinfulness of damnation” (90). Our desire to uphold God’s rationality and goodness invariably leads to a repression of the body of God. Of course, it returns and is best exemplified by the sublime horror we experience when encounter the slimy body and wildness of nature.

Not-all versus the Exception: Anxiously Writing the Body of God

Crockett acknowledges that previous reading of the return of the repressed of God’s body was reliant on the Freud’s first understanding of anxiety. This section attempts to conceive of theology as repression responding to anxiety by exploring Zizek’s reading of the mathematical and dynamical sublime. Zizek associates the female logic of sexuation of the not-all with the mathematical sublime, and the masculine logic of exception with the dynamical sublime. Zizek understands that the not-all focuses on the limit, while the logic of exception fixates on the beyond the limit. Following Kant, Zizek understands that the limit is constitutive of the beyond the limit whereas exceptionality presupposes that a limit exists which can be exceeded. The relationship between anxiety and repression can be elucidated by fleshing out these relationships Zizek maps out. A theology of exceptionality is exemplified by the Cartesian God who exists beyond the limits of finite man and raises him (in his dignity) beyond nature. Unfortunately, man’s dignity ultimately leads to the generation of the superego, because man views his dignity as being closely associated with his conscience. Next, Crockett appropriates Nietzsche’s concept of active forgetting (a precondition of happiness) to re-think of anxiety as preceding repression. This forgetting or repression is a response to anxiety because it requires what Freud though of as evenly hovering attention. “The limiting of attention does not create anxiety because anxiety exists prior to such a limiting” (94). This is an example of the not-all because the limit exists prior to the beyond. Following this model, a repressive theology would be one of finitude that “is constructively repressive in a self-aware manner because it attends to the anxiety, writing it large in and as the body of God” (95). This repressive theology focuses on the body of God because it focuses on the jouissance as sublime. Crockett agrees with Winquist that, “Writing is repression. Theology is writing. Theology is repression” (96). But, he wagers that this second model of theology that responds to anxiety is more productive and constructive, although the boundaries separating the two are porous and fluid.


4 Responses to “Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 5 – Anxiety and the S(ub)lime Body of God”

  1. clayton crockett Says:

    I think the distinction between a masculine logic of exception and a feminine logic of “not-all” is the key to understanding Zizek, although it comes from Lacan’s Seminar XX. Zizek explains the Real in Puppet and Dwarf as the shift back from the Thing to the symbolic screen. He puts it in Hegelian terms: first we have to posit the Thing (or God) as exceptional, as somehow beyond the symbolic order. We are finite human beings, so God is immortal, imperfect, etc. Then we realize that all of our explanations of God are produced by this Feuerbachian projection of human qualities taken to an extreme. But it’s the movement back from God as exception to God as not-all within the symbolic order that’s the key to Lacan and Hegelian dialectic, for Zizek.
    God is not “out there,” and he’s not literally “in here,” but the Real indicates the movement back from there to here, AND the realization that in here is not limited in the way that we think when we posit or imagine a crudely reductionistic materialism. It’s an opening up, or a deepening of human and natural experience, rather than a limitation of it in order to set God up outside of it.

    So if anxiety is the result of repression, then we already have a logic of exceptionality, to which we respond anxiously. But if as Deleuze says, we repress because we repeat, then this originary repetition or anxiety (which is always not-all, because it is based upon fundamental differences) produces repression, but there might be more positive and more negative ways to think about that, just as in the last chapter it’s a question of a more productive vs. a more negative or reactionary rejection/foreclosure/disavowal.

    Also, I think one of the challenges of this book is that it’s not really linear(why the hell did I do this?–Caputo, who graciously accepted it for his series, said I don’t make things easy on my readers and he’s right), but has a more circular structure. That is, all the essays kind of lead into chapters 6 and 7, which is the center of the book, and then back out of it. 6 and 7 were originally one long chapter, but the readers for Fordham asked me to split them into two.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    What I really liked about this chapter was how you juxtaposed Nietzsche’s active forgetting with Freud’s concept of evenly hovering attention. If we acknowledge that theology is anxiety then we can begin to rethink theology that actively represses, actively s

    Although I didn’t cover this in depth, I thought it was interesting how nature and the body become overwhelming, horrifying elements of a theology that fundamentally represses these elements. Anxiety inevitably results when we think about the chaotic nature or the vulgar body. You compare nature to this sort of alien, reptilian, monstrous reality that constantly threatens us.This reminded of Zizek’s reading of Job where God admits he is overwhelmed and terrified by his own creation. God himself doesn’t know what to do with what he’s created. He’s up to neck in his own shit.

  3. clayton crockett Says:

    Yeah, I think there’s definitely something disturbing about the body, and not only in relation to theology, but in terms of theology, the question of God’s body cries out to be raised. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has this great book God’s Phallus, where he analyzes the hidden and not so hidden references to God’s penis in the Hebrew Bible, and the anxiety that causes Israel, because Israel is feminized in relation to God, even while they try to uphold a masculine patriarchal order.

    Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror is a great text, by the way, showing how the abjection of the body interferes with the clean moral image of the body we create symbolically.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I remember reading about that in Ted Jenning’s work called Jacob’s Wound. There was a lot of interesting relationships between the ark and God’s phallus. I believe I remember him saying Michal’s anger at David’s dancing naked in front of the ark was jealousy over what was understood a sexual display for his male lover. I’d have to defer to Adam though because I suspect he could tease out more of the insights into the body of God in the Hebrew Bible.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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

%d bloggers like this: