Will the pope resign?

I’m reading the excellent Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher of k-punk, and came across a great bit that I wanted to share. Fisher writes,

What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement. As Marshall Berman explained, describing Stalin’s White Sea Canal project of 1931-33:

Stalin seems to have been so intent on creating a highly visible symbol of development that he pushed and squeezed the project in ways that only retarded the development of the project. Thus the workers and the engineers were never allowed the time, money or equipment necessary to build a canal that would be deep enough and safe enough to carry twentieth-century cargoes; consequently, the canal has never played any significant role in Soviet commerce or industry. All the canal could support, apparently, were tourist steamers, which in the 1930s were abundantly stocked with Soviet and foreign writers who obligingly proclaimed the glories of the work. The canal was a triumph of publicity; but if half the care that went into the public relations campaign had been devoted to the work itself, there would have been far fewer victims and far more real developments — and the project would have been a genuine tragedy, rather than a brutal farce in which real people were killed by pseudo-events.

Fisher explains how the logic of capitalism leads to a focus on public-relations value over real value; after all, the value of a company depends on the stock market’s perception of that value, rather than reality. Fisher continues:

Here, Žižek’s elaboration of Lacan’s concept of the ‘big Other’ is crucial. The big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead, we only ever confront its stand-ins. These representatives are by no means always leaders. In the example of the White Sea Canal above, for instance, it wasn’t Stalin himself who was the representative of the big Other so much as the Soviet and foreign writers who had to be persuaded of the glories of the project. One important dimension of the big Other is that it does not know everything. It is this constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function. Indeed, the big Other could be defined as the consumer of PR and propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe even when no individual can. To use one of Žižek’s examples: who was it, for instance, who didn’t know that Really Existing Socialism (RES) was shabby and corrupt? Not any of the people, who were all too aware of its shortcomings; nor any of the government administrators, who couldn’t but know. No, it was the big Other who was the one deemed not to know — who wasn’t allowed to know — the quotidian reality of RES. Yet the distinction between what the big Other knows, i.e. what is officially accepted, and what is widely known and experienced by actual individuals, is very far from being ‘merely’ emptily formal; it is the discrepancy between the two that allows ‘ordinary’ social reality to function. When the illusion that the big Other did not know can no longer be maintained, the incorporeal fabric holding the social system together disintegrates. This is why Khrushchev’s speech in 1965, in which he ‘admitted’ the failings of the Soviet state, was so momentous. It is not as if anyone in the party was unaware of the atrocities and corruption carried out in its name, but Khrushchev’s announcement made it impossible to believe any more that the big Other was ignorant of them.

This evocative passage got me thinking about all sorts of things we tell the big Other. For example, “America is the greatest country on Earth.” Or, in reference to Rogan’s post last week, “War doesn’t make soldiers at least temporarily into moral monsters.”

It also got me thinking about the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and specifically the pope’s involvement. It’s been known for years that Joseph Ratzinger was part of the coverup efforts; in 2001, as leader of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he sent a letter to all bishops claiming that sexual abuse cases were “subject to the pontifical secret” until 10 years after the alleged victim turns 18 (by which time the statute of limitations would likely have run out and the perpetrator would be free of legal penalty).

Somehow, the revelation of this letter in 2005 didn’t make much news. But now, another letter, this one from 1985, is having a greater impact. The letter urges delay in defrocking a priest who had been convicted of tying up and raping two young boys (and had subsequently been volunteering as a youth minister in his home parish).

Maybe it’s because it’s a more specific case, less abstract than “the pontifical secret.” Maybe it’s because the drumbeat of child-rape and coverup accusations has been getting steadily louder, including a couple of other recent revelations about Ratzinger. But it seems that this latest scoop is really making things difficult for the big Other of the Catholic faithful. A priest has called for the Pope to resign (which he is able to do, although the last time a pope resigned was in the 15th century). Reactionary elements in the hierarchy are flailing around, blaming everyone but themselves: the gays, the Sexual Revolution, the Jews.

The press, in true late-capitalist fashion, is full of meta-commentary about how what the Vatican really needs is a good media strategy. And my money is on the pope’s not resigning. But only because some core of the faithful will find something to tell the big Other that will make everything all right.

7 responses to “Will the pope resign?”

  1. Ridley Scott says:

    Movie idea: the Church makes the most currupt bishop into the pope so he has protection from the law as a sovereign, and is thus relatively untouchable.

  2. Stella says:

    I love the “big other” concept which is new to me, sorry for my little brain. It seems particularly present in the workplace. oh, and everywhere else in life too.

    I love the Vatican’s media strategy which at the moment is unfiltered indignation and is showing their true colors rather than their media savvy. It was a laugh/cry moment over easter when some senior priest compared their media coverage/persecution to that of the jews. Hey, ‘member when we f-ed over the semites for centuries and persecuted them – guess what…the media is doing it to us with their nasty words and facts!…that’s so wrong, dude.

    It’s also deeply stunning that this institution which encompasses gazillions of people in many diverse countries is still, at it’s core, too male, white, old and conservative to have any serious response to what’s going on. It would be funny if it weren’t so utterly criminal.

  3. Dave says:

    The “big Other” is new to my little brain, too, although of course the phenomenon it illuminates is quite familiar, and it’s nice to have a name for it. Fisher goes on to illustrate it with a story about Gerald Ratner, who (and Stella would know this; I didn’t) ran a chain of low-end jewelry stores in Britain. He made the mistake of giving an after-dinner speech in which he referred to the jewelry his stores sold as “crap.” Of course, everyone already knew it was crap, but the big Other didn’t know. His company lost £500 million in market valuation the next day, and he was fired.

  4. Greg F says:

    I had to break my head* over this passage for a while to get the big Other. I finally got it by thinking about corporations, and I think I may still not be quite following.

    The Pope will not resign. He’ll just keep poping along. I feel certain of this, less because of anything related to Zizek than to the idea of cognitive dissonance…there is the famous social psych example of the cult that expected to be whisked off by a UFO before the earth was destroyed, and when this failed to happen on the appointed date they decided their cult had believed with such power that they had saved the earth. In other words, people will change what they believe to be true, no matter how passionately they believed it, if it’s in conflict with something more important to what another school of thought might call ego integrity.

    So what I’m saying, I think, is that the Pope is the object of such deep cathexis, such powerful transference, that it would actually be easier to change basic beliefs than suffer the traumatic deidealization of depoping him. Hence the scapegoating, etc. Anything is easier to accept than a fallible Pope. There will be some attrition among more rational sorts and then it’ll blow over until the next terrible thing happens, I guess.

    I may sort of be saying the same thing you are in your last paragraph.

    *Russian phrase I may be inventing

  5. ScottyGee says:

    “poping” is my new favorite verb.

  6. Stella says:

    with some potential variations…mis-poping (what he’s doing now), dis-poping (when he resigns…or perhaps what the evil media has been doing to him…), and?

  7. Greg F says:

    Really given the length of his popature, I’d say JPII overpoped. (A calque fromt he Russian “перепопался”)