Rich Misreads… Zizek (part 1)

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One day, when I blog with regularity, I’m going to have a subset series every so often blog called “Rich Misreads…” and then insert the name of a thinker or author I interact with and I’ll go on to merrily (mis)appropriate their thoughts and ideas despite the fact that I don’t get what they’re talking about.

The First installment is the following:

Rich Misreads Zizek – Bureaucracy.

Let’s say you have a desire.  You’d think that the way to achieve joy would be the fulfillment of that desire.  But the quest for fulfilling that desire – the means you use, the methods you employ – can also be a source of joy.  That “joy” would be what Zizek calls surplus enjoyment (I think I got that right…).

An example would be being drawn to the “thrill of the chase.”  Whether it’s a romantic pursuit or an entrepreneurial pursuit…  Sometimes the “seeking” is more invigorating than the “finding.”  Or think of a voracious reader who can’t wait to read that new book by their favorite author.  They get it, they devour it, they love every minute of it.  But when they come to the end…  now what?

The desire is achieved but the joy of anticipation and pursuit is gone.

Maybe, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.  I heard Peter Rollins talk about this and reference Wile E Coyote.  What if Coyote actually caught Road Runner?  Sure, he’d have a great meal and sense of satisfaction… but what then?  Family Guy did an episode on this where Wile E Coyote caught the bird, enjoyed eating it, and then sunk into depression smoking, drinking, and binge watching TV because his purpose in life was gone.

Maybe this is what we’re getting at when we say the journey is as important as the destination.  When a group comes together and collaborates and achieves something great…  Sure the achievement is great, but isn’t the collaboration and process often more beautiful?  In what other areas of life does this apply?  The implications in terms of sexuality are obvious, but even in theology, NT Wright has often described our inability to live in the already / not-yet eschatological tension (God has made all things new / we’re still waiting for God to make all things new) as a cultural inability to appreciate the value of “delayed gratification.”  Related to this, renouncing a desire (fasting, going on a diet, etc.) can also be a source of “surplus enjoyment” as much as pursuing a desire.

But… the dark side to this surplus joy is hopefully also obvious.  The womanizer who is always chasing romantic partners but is not really interested in a relationship clearly has some work to do.  And it may be the case that Wile E Coyote will be “happier” if he never catches Road Runner, but maybe he’d be happier still if he got on the therapists couch and worked out just why he’s so obsessed with this bird in the first place…  Because he’s living telling himself that catching the bird is what he wants, catching the bird would bring him joy…  but that’s bad faith and inauthentic…

So that brings me to bureaucracy.  Zizek’s claim is that bureaucracy is formed in order to get things done, but then very quickly, the primary goal of getting things done gets replaced with making sure there is always more to do, ensuring its own ongoing necessity.  He cites the movie Brazil as a brilliant mock-romp on all things bureaucratic (and it is brilliant!  The main character at one point early in the movie has a plumbing or electrical problem, the officials come to his apartment, make observations, give him the right forms to fill out and phone numbers of departments to contact, outline a process but do nothing to fix it.  Then Robert DeNiro’s character is this underground figure who just goes ahead and fixes it in minutes for a couple of bucks bypassing the bureaucratic processes which then leads to an arrest and all kinds of trouble.  Anyway, the whole movie is a brilliant celebration of self-perpetuating bureaucracy.)

So why do I care about this?  Well I’ve been a pastor in a denomination for 15 years but now I’ve taken a job with the denomination.  In church life, I’ve always had a congregational bent – wanting to see institutions exist for the sake of contexts where ministry / life happens and not the other way around.  I’ve always been a cheerleader for bottom up, not top down governance.  I’ve always been suspicious of denominationalism… Absolutely, I see the value of a denomination as a collective structure that empowers, equips, and supports local churches, ministries, projects, etc.

But…  I’m suspicious that institutions in general, even the most well-meaning institutions, have an inherent tendency to self-perpetuate and “make-work,” so to speak, to justify their own existence and ensure their own survival.  I think we do this in churches, too.  If we are empowering people to become more whole and engage their whole lives as the site of God’s moving…  they should become less dependent on the institution, not more.  But it’s awfully tempting to invent new apron strings!

I think a missional orientation can actually help keep churches and denominations steer away from the temptation of self-perpetuating “surplus joy” of bureaucracy…  but that will have to be part two…