The Difference Between Consuming Flesh in the Market and During the Liturgy

One of the hosts of The Eucatastrophe podcast remarked on air that the rhythms of the liturgy act as a form of resistance to capitalism. In particular, in being so repetitive, the liturgy resists capitalism’s drive for perpetual innovation.

Many decades before podcasts ever existed, and a continent away, a scene unfolded that was beamed into televisions across the country. It was a scene from an episode of the Walking Dead entitled “Them.” A roaming band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse are holed up in a barn, surrounded by “Walkers.” The group band around Rick Grimes, a former police-officer and unofficial leader. Grimes tells the survivors to do what is necessary to survive, which meant presuming themselves to be dead in order to live.

Rather than erect a wall between themselves and the undead outside, Grimes says “we tell ourselves “we are the walking dead.” The scene culminates in the band pressing up against a worn out barn door, trying to stop an incursion of undead. Intermittent lightning strikes reveal the faces of the zombies on the one hand, and the survivors on the other. Over time, the face of one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Though made years and continents apart, these two examples are profoundly linked—liturgy is that link. I argue that the zombie is not only a pop culture icon—one that will be more in our face than usual as Halloween and the compulsory trick-or-treating approaches. The zombie is also a highly potent cultural critique. The zombie and the survivors enact this critique by being protagonists of a liturgy, a “liturgy of the zombie,” one that mimics but ultimately parodies the liturgy of the Eucharist mentioned in the podcast. At the center of these two liturgies is flesh, divinized and devoured.

Flesh

In focusing on liturgy, capitalism is not let off the hook. For if flesh lies at the heart of both liturgies, then capitalism is caught up in both because of its peculiar relationship to the flesh. For capital needs flesh to extract surplus. However automated the global economy has become, flesh is still deployed in order to keep the system humming, whether it is pressing a button, maintaining machines, purchasing a product, or selling a body.

To do this, capital must first commodify flesh and turn it into an economic unit to be exchanged and managed. We see this commodification most immediately in turning workers into units of labor, bank and insurance accounts. What we do not see, however, is the subtler outworking of this commodification, one that is more immediate to the liturgy of the zombie. This is the drive to divinize our flesh and become what Graham Ward calls the “postmodern angel.”

Understanding how this occurs requires the unlikely aid of psychoanalysis, as articulated by Slavoj Žižek. For him, human persons are more than mere biology. He draws upon Lacan's idea that life has an ineffable excess, an “essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail.”[1] For Žižek, everyone lives with an “excess of life” by which the human organism is driven to exceed the limitations of biological life and realize its status as an “infinite creature.” We become “infinite creatures,” however, not by tapping into a transcendent horizon lying beyond immanence, but by pulling that infinity within immanence.[2]

To paraphrase Ward, we pull the angelic life into our fleshly life, augmenting our flesh with the prostheses of infinity, making our flesh live longer by making it look better, move faster and be more flexible economically and socially. These prostheses of infinity are what capitalism has commodified and turned into products to be sold, bought and consumed, as fashion, music, cars, food, finance and travel. A business shirt does not just cover up a man’s nakedness, but unfurls his capacity to generate untold surplus by generating profits and social connections. Where a body is not covered, a woman can still shine forth in celestial light, garnering the attention of this heaven’s hosts, so long as it is covered with the right cream to fight the signs of aging. Infinity is not merely accessible; it can be bought. It must be bought. With the right amount of liquidity, we are able to bring heaven down to earth, with immortality packaged into a consumer product.

Death

However, something rots underneath the shimmer of the boulevards of this immanent heaven, the flesh of its angelic citizens and the coin that binds them all. Beneath the visage of eternal youth, something threatens to expose its shallowness and ephemerality. Consumers might notice an irony at work wherein the desire for immanent immortality comes as the shelf lives of the goods we consume get shorter and shorter. My inner Hegelian might consider this a dialectic coming to a synthesis, an immortality through the constant consumption of increasingly perishable goods. Two parallel discourses are brought to bear on the consumer. The first goes “consume, because this is not going to be around for long.” The second goes, “consume, because once you do, you will be around forever.”

However, as one synthesis emerged at the close of the 20th century, so does another dialectic open up at the dawn of the 21st. This time, however, it is a dialectic where immortal flesh meets dead flesh. The more we try to make our flesh bear the transcendent, the more our flesh dies. This is because eternity is a cross that flesh cannot bear on its own. Yet, the tragedy of the drive to bring heaven down to earth is that this heaven is one without the God who holds both heaven and earth together. This postmodern heaven on earth is one that is self-enclosed, immanent, and quarantined from the transcendent. Bearing the heft of eternity requires an openness to the transcendent, and the transcendent is the very thing that this late modern heaven has refused.

When flesh is both cut off from the transcendent and expected to bear the weight of transcendence alone, flesh will fold in upon itself and collapse under the weight of those expectations. Ultimately, not only is the longed-for heaven lost. Flesh itself is crushed to death under that cross of eternity. This curving of the flesh upon itself is most acutely displayed in the growing normalization of plastic surgery. In the name of attaining the flesh of angels, human flesh is nipped, tucked, sliced off, and generally aborted as so much medical waste. 

Still, we willingly surrender ourselves to this death to attain a postmodern life without death. And we do it repeatedly, consuming ever more and ever newer lines of products with increasing anxiety—new makeup, new electronics, new bodies real and virtual. We do so in the hopes that the next “in thing” can deliver the heaven that previous lines failed to deliver. In other words, we willingly subject our bodies to this infinitization that will eventually kill us all, over and over again. Psychoanalysis calls this seemingly unending urge to attain eternal life even if it kills us the “death drive.” More pointedly, Žižek calls this state “undeadness.” Capitalism’s ongoing feeding the frenzy in the name of an immanent infinity is a liturgy that comes with an inbuilt zombie. The flesh of Christ then enters into this feeding frenzy of flesh.

Eucharist

The Eucatastrophe episode on liturgy is intriguing in describing the liturgy’s ordinariness as a lexicon for resisting capitalism’s liturgy of perpetual novelty. However, if capitalism is a liturgy of bodies, it is possible to go further. I argue that the Eucharistic liturgy is a site of resistance to the zombie liturgy of capitalism. The former is a liturgy that inserts itself into the feeding frenzy of the latter, redeems the death drive and recodes the pattern of feeding of those the death drive has killed.

Before going any further, we need to turn our attention what we do not mean by “redeem.” I am not equating redeeming with overcoming. From the Eucharistic standpoint, redemption is not an erasure of either the striving for eternity on earth or the human need to consume, including consuming unto immortality. In other words, the Eucharist does not erase the “death drive” or the feeding frenzy of the dead. What I do mean is that, in the Eucharistc flesh, Christ inserts himself into the “death drive” and recodes it.

On its surface, the Eucharistic liturgy looks very much like the feeding frenzy of the zombie. The congregation, having arrived at the altar from the world of the undead and driven by the same need to consume and desire for immortality, consume the flesh of Christ, remain for a time and then walk back into the world of the Walkers. However, stopping at this apparent similarity between the Eucharistic and zombie liturgies ignores the fact that Christ's Eucharistic body has a corporeal logic very different from that of the zombie. 

In the zombie liturgy, flesh is torn from an unwilling victim and consumed to satisfy a drive to take something else for one's own. By contrast, the Eucharistic feeding is a victim’s willing surrender of his flesh. This is expressed by Jesus who exhorts his disciples at the Lord's Supper to “take and eat” his body. He then willingly breaks it and gives it over to be consumed. As opposed to the normalization of possessive consumption, Christ declares to the world that it is the pattern of surrender that articulates the ends of the “death drive.”

As Christ surrenders his body to us, he also hands it over to his Creator: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In Christ, we see a radical openness to the transcendent as the way to bringing out the immortal subject of psychoanalysis.[3] Žižek champions Christ as the one who abandons the God who abandoned him at the point where:

God loses the character of the transcendent Beyond and enable[s] direct communication between God and humanity . . . because there is no longer any transcendent God with whom to communicate.[4]

By contrast, the abandonment prescribed by the Christian tradition is a participation of flesh in that very transcendence, for that is what completes the death drive.

In the Eucharist then, we do not merely consume the flesh of Christ. We become enfolded into its dynamic. As the body is enfolded into Christ, the body becomes extended to make way for God to abide in it, as the Body of Christ in turn stretches and maps itself onto creation.[5] In this co-abiding, what the death drive desires—the bringing of the eternal into the immanent—becomes fulfilled. While the liturgy of capitalism ultimately possesses and negates the body, Christ’s liturgy of embodiment affirms and extends embodiment, manifesting a new embodiment that escapes physical limitation.[6] It is an embodiment where being broken, multiplied, and consumed is the prelude to extension unto infinity. In the surrendered flesh of Christ, flesh can appear and relocate, it makes the lame walk and the blind see, it dies and rises, it lives on earth and ascends into heaven.

Conclusion

The Christian life, when set against a Eucharistic backdrop, is one of mutual co-abiding between the transcendent yet immanent flesh of Christ and our own merely immanent flesh. Human flesh gets the life of angels only insofar as it part-takes of what Aquinas in his Sacris Solemnis hymn called the “bread of angels,”the panis angelicus. Set in a Eucharistic key, the “death drive” can only be fulfilled if that drive for transcendence causes flesh to not only reach beyond oneself, but also constantly surrender itself to God and to others. It is not that we stop consuming—the trick or treaters among us will rejoice—rather, our consumption is now patterned according to Paul’s exhortation to the Christians of Rome, where we “offer [our] very bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”[7]


[1]    Jacques Lacan, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanlaysis, 1954-1955, Jacques-Alain Miller ed., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, II (London: Norton, 1991), 164.

[2]    Ola Sigurdson, “Slavoj Zizek, the Death Drive, and Zombies: A Theological Account,” Modern Theology 29(3) (2013): 366.

[3]     Sigurdson, “Death Drive,” 367.

[4]    Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion (London: Verso, 2001), 51.

[5]    Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Cambridge: Blackwell, 2005), 177.

[6]     Ibid.

[7]     Rom 12:1.

Featured Image: Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.

Author

Matthew Tan

Matthew John Paul Tan is a theologian based in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and is adjunct senior lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is the author of two books, his most recent being Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.

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