An Inconsolable Demand: Lament, Desire, Hope

What if we defined lament not as the mourning of a loss, but the refusal to accept any consolation for that loss?

An Inconsolable Demand: Lament, Desire, Hope

I had the privilege to offer this presentation at a series of workshops hosted by the Princeton Initiative for Catholic Thought at Princeton University last weekend. The aim of these working groups was to engage DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) as a properly religious discourse, taking up the central questions of that discourse in a theological tone. I was tasked with addressing "lament," and this is what I wrote.

Note: this presentation took me about 18 minutes to deliver.

Pressing into the contradictions

My invitation to speak today asked that I address the theme of lamentation from a theological perspective with hopes of shedding light on the contemporary landscape of American ethical discourse, especially as the concept is mobilized by advocates of DEI, a discourse which exercises immense influence in radical, academic, and managerial circles today.

However, rather than provide any answers, this presentation advances the conversation by seeking to intensify whatever contradictory intuitions we may be feeling about lament. Only by pressing further into the interdependence of lament’s immense power and its profound danger will be able to reckon with the problem which lament poses to us today and at all times.

My own reflections about the experience of lament stem from a central question — Why does lament make us so uncomfortable?

The one who laments refuses to be satisfied, and consequently they refuse to let us be satisfied. Nietzsche’s critique of compassion (mitleid) reminds us that what we feel when we witness another’s suffering is actually our own pain, and that compassionate actions find their first movement in our own drive to extinguish the pain which we feel within ourselves.

We witness another person who has lost a loved one, weeping and wailing, and everything in us cries out for it to stop — but can we bring back what was lost? Can we suture that wound? No, we must simply look on in helplessness, sitting with the contradiction the way that Job sat down naked in the ashes to wait for God.

This then is the inherent danger of lament — the demand to “do something! and especially the way that the urgency with which this demand **is experienced issues more from our own pathologies than the nature of the situation at hand.

In contrast to the imperative to “do something” which continually bombards us today, Slavoj Žižek implores us, “don’t act, think.” Those who press us with the demands of lament today offer us prescriptions which purport to relieve the painful tension of the contradiction in which we find ourselves, but Žižek’s injunction cautions us against embracing these solutions under the urgency of lament’s demand.

Nonetheless, refusing to take action at this moment does not permit us to remain disengaged forever, for the point of stopping to think is to evaluate how we might become engaged again.

This then would be the other great temptation for us, that we would turn away from the contradictions and antagonisms which ground our civilization and which shape us as individuals, for precisely these dysfunctions are the root of lament in our society. Whether we act in the wrong way or we refuse to act, we are culpable and there is no escape from this responsibility.

I think that we’re here in this workshop today because we sense that those who seek to remediate suffering in our society today may be offering us some bad options and false alternatives when it comes to the question of addressing our contemporary social antagonisms.

How then can we truly align ourselves with the key contradictions at work in society today to unravel the real sources and structures of immiseration? This is the most radical possible position to take, for it opposes both the Right and the Left at the level of policy, and instead chooses to occupy the standpoint of lamentation which makes an inconsolable demand.

Here we have come close to some of the key claims in this presentation — what if we defined lament not as the mourning of a loss, but the refusal to accept any consolation for that loss? What if lament is the practice of refusing any compensation for that loss, and seeking instead to inscribe that loss back into the world itself, thereby changing the world forever?

This conception of lament would, interestingly enough, make it the other side of hope. Hope is seen as a positivity or an affirmation, which it is, but we can also see it through the lens of lament as a power which negates the present by refusing to accept the cheap consolations of man, instead demanding the arrival of God’s promised reality. Both lament and hope have desire as their foundation, but a desire which refuses to be satisfied, and this refusal of satisfaction creates a piercing negativity with the power to cut through the entire social field.

In the first section of this presentation, I draw on the work of Hegel (with Žižek and Lacan working in the background) to elaborate what I mean describing lament as an inconsolable negativity, how this negativity is grounded in a dogged commitment to honoring the ultimate unsatisfiability of desire, and why we can construe this persistent negativity of lament as the practice of hope.

In the second section, we will look at two figures of this negativity — Job and Fr. Rodriguez of Silence. Job embodies the infinite negativity which we are exploring in this presentation, while the Fr. Rodriguez presents for us a failure or a turning away from this infinite negativity of lament, instead falling into an elaborate and cynical form of despair. Together these two figures begin to paint a picture of the interrelationship of hope, lament, and desire.

Lament and the violence of the negative

To build upon what we have already asked — What if we understood lament as a force of negation, as a movement of desire, and one which refuses the consolations offered by the present state of affairs? Through this shift in perspective, we can see how our own discomfort with lament, and our consequent desires to control and re-direct it, stem from its immense power of negativity.

The negativity which operates in lament introduces a rip into the fabric of reality. No object will satisfy the one who laments, for no object can correspond to the lack which has irrupted in their world. No-thing could properly replace what was loss. Lament therefore desires something other than what is, and in doing this, the demand which issues from this desire inserts a nothingness into reality by relentlessly gesturing at this loss.

This movement of adding a lack to reality transforms the state of affairs, for this lack is simultaneously a void which appears within reality as a gap, but also a corresponding excess which breaks out within our life-world, becoming an excessive element which cannot be accounted for within the current state of affairs.

The violence of lamentation which carves a lack into the world corresponds to what Hegel refers to as the “Understanding” in paragraph 32 of the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit

I quote Hegel at some length here:

“The activity of dissolution is the power and work of the Understanding, the most astonishing and mightiest of powers, or rather the absolute power… this is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I.’ … But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or false, and the, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called the Subject…”

Hegel moves from a description of the Understanding’s mighty powers of negation and dissolution to identifying this power with the Subject, that point of reference within the system of knowledge at which the system breaks down and loops back on itself in self-reference.

The Subject is the system’s perspective on itself, a point which it must at once include but which must also confront it and exceed it. And, what else would be the Subject par excellence than the one who laments, that point at which the present order has broken down and the human being has come face to face with death, the ultimate absurdity and non-totalizable horizon of life?

Lament becomes for us a fulfillment of the task which Hegel lays out here, of tarrying with the negative, transforming lament into a form of understanding which is able to produce new concepts and formations of the Absolute, whether that be a conceptual system or a new social totality. For Hegel identifies this destructive power of the Understanding as precisely that which creates, which possesses “the magical power that converts [the negative] into being.”

The creative powers of this negativity depend upon our continuing to insist on this lack and to tarry with it, rather than to turn aside to a false positivity. Lacan embodies this mandate in his words that the only thing one can be guilty of is to give ground with respect to one’s desire.

Out of context, this sounds like a gross hedonism or another ‘do what thou wilt’ of Satanism, but a few comments will suffice to indicate that Lacan is endorsing something much more radical than simple hedonic consumption. In the case of one who laments, to remain faithful to one’s desire is precisely to not turn aside to seek an impossible satisfaction in the objects of the world, but to instead doggedly persist in demanding what one truly desires — the remediation of the lost object.

Lacan argues that desire does not actually want satisfaction — desire wants to go on desiring. This is because, for Lacan, desire is a lack which pushes us towards objects, not a pull which arises in response to the attributes of objects. What Lacan wants us to see is that the satisfaction of desire is, strictly speaking, impossible. We fall for desire’s trick when we try to satisfy for it, for every desired object which we obtain will always fall short — “this isn’t it,” we say.

The great irony of the human then, and this is also what Hegel relies on in his comments, is that it is this demand of the impossible object which precisely makes possible the emergence of a new and higher reconciliation. The twisting and turning of the pragmatist to tinker on the edges and make modest proposals ultimately fails just as the hedonist finds that the drugs, the alcohol, and the sex were not really what they were looking for. They compromised on their desire, and in the process, lost the very thing they thought they were seeking.

Two Figures of Negativity

There is much more we could say beyond this provisional sketch, but in the interest of time and clarity, I’d like to turn to two figures which demonstrate for us the sort of negative power of lament which I have been describing here. These are the figures of Job, from the book of Job in the Torah, and Fr. Rodriguez from Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence.

In the character of Job we are confronted with a relentless hope which is at once a negativity and a refusal, whereas in Fr. Rodriguez, we witness the ways in which we are tempted to withdraw from this engagement with the negativity of lament, choosing instead to retreat into a private spirituality and a complicity which betrays the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Job — the negativity of hope

One of my favorite videos on the internet is a lecture by Slavoj Žižek delivered at Calvin College on November 10th, 2006 — it’s titled “Why only atheists can believe.” Imagine being a clueless evangelical undergraduate who accidentally wanders into an auditorium with standing room only where a bearded man in a t-shirt is sniffling and snuffing on stage, talking about interpretations of movies about 9/11 which he somehow parlays into an interpretation of the book of Job.

In this lecture, Žižek wants his audience to notice something very precise about the way that Job endures his suffering — he does not sit quietly and bear it like a Stoic, but rather he complains and laments constantly. As he sits in the ashes with his potsherd, and his friends come to him, they attempt to offer him potential rationalizations for his situation. They are “three theologists, the providers of meaning,” as Žižek calls them. All three try to provide a consolation which would make sense of and justify what Job is experiencing.

When confronted with Job’s suffering, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar feel compelled to provide “answers,” all of which Job steadfastly refuses to accept. It’s precisely this refusal to accept the meaning-making function of his counselors that God actually praises Job for when He finally appears to address them out of the whirlwind (Job 42:7-9). When Job asserts that in his flesh he will see his savior, we find the first glimmer of the Gospel story which will neither justify evil nor sweep it under the rug, but rather engage it with the violent negativity of the cross and its correlative excess of the resurrection.

Thus, the story of Job presents us with a powerful image of how lament, hope, and negativity intertwine to produce an undead insistence against the cheap consolations of man and their attempts to remediate suffering through metaphysical justification. Job’s profession of faith that his eyes will see his savior becomes the power that negates his present circumstances and enables him to rise above the sophistry of his well-meaning friends. Ultimately, God vindicates Job’s refusal of this false consolation, and instead presents him with an extended non-answer which does not truly make sense until the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fr. Rodriguez — the guilt of turning away

What sort of story would Job have been if he had taken his wife’s advice to simply curse God and die? I think we get a glimpse into this problem of turning away from lament, and the manifold temptations which we face today in this regard, in the story of Fr. Sebastian Rodriguez, the main character of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence.

For those who haven’t read the book or watched the movie, I apologize, but there are spoilers ahead. Two newly-ordained Jesuit priests, Fr. Rodriguez and his accomplice Fr. Garrpe, quietly infiltrate Japan during the 1630’s, just as Christianity is nearing total extinction in the islands. The persecution of Christians has been brutal, so brutal in fact that these two have arrived in Japan seeking to confirm the word they received about their former teacher Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy.

In the decades leading up to Fr. Rodriguez’s arrival in Japan, the Tokugawa regime had been undertaking a systematic project of national unification. In order to achieve this long lasting political peace, the Tokugawa regime developed a novel religious-cultural synthesis by drawing on indigenous religious traditions and Confucian ethics. This required scapegoating Christianity as a foreign religion, ultimately using Christianity as a proxy for the social antagonisms which needed to be expelled to found a new coherent social whole.

Endo’s novel tells the story of Fr. Rodriguez’s capture and trials at the hands of the Inquisitor Inoue, all the way up to his meeting the apostatized (ex-)Fr. Ferreira, whom he eventually joins in his apostasy. Fr. Rodriguez steps on the fumi-e, a bronze-cast image of Christ, symbolizing his rejection of the Christian faith, and he becomes a silent collaborator with the regime by sitting at the harbor every day to sort through incoming goods to identify whether they contain any Christian symbols or artifacts.

Does not Rodriguez in his stepping on the fumi-e present for us an image of the one who fails to tarry with the negative, and instead turns away from the irruption which Christianity represents within Japanese society? Christianity in Japan took root most strongly amongst the poor, even sparking the largest peasant revolt in Japanese history, the Shimabara Rebellion, but in the name of compassion for the poor he retreats into a private and ineffectual faith which collaborates with the interests of power in persecuting and oppressing the Japanese-Christians who truly are “the least of these” in the words of Christ.

As Rodriguez apostatizes, he hears the groaning and the cries of Japanese-Christians being tortured, hung upside down in pits. Their horrifying voices of lament saturate him as he approaches the image of Christ, and his mind is cast back to the squalid and oppressive conditions under which the Japanese-Christians languish. In his apostasy he turns away from this immense negativity, and instead enjoys a secret faith which he carries silently to his grave.


I’ve covered a decent amount of ground in this presentation as I’ve attempted to provoke you with the conundrum of lament, both its necessity and its terrifying destructive power, in hopes that we can further explore what it means to put ourselves at the disposal of this horrifying negativity. What have we put ourselves at the mercy of when we have the courage to remain open to the cry of lament, the force of its negativity, and the piercing power of its hope?

These workshops have tried to understand concepts within DEI as the properly theological concepts which they are. I want to close my presentation then with a consideration of the contradictory scenario in which we make ourselves potential victims ripe for manipulation when we put ourselves at the mercy of lament’s infinite demand, a weapon which the HR clerisy wields with a calculated mien, and yet how we deny the power of lament and the reality of loss when we attempt to re-direct or siphon off this energy into a pious heat-sink, such as private prayer.

This last point in particular indicates where I would nuance Dr. Gibson’s presentation from last year, which seems to indicate that the two primary ways that we channel the power of lament into action is through prayer and liturgy. While it’s certainly true that we should bring our laments to God through the mediation of His Son, and that we should do this both privately and corporately, choosing these examples runs the risk of signaling to those who lament that mobilizing their lament in a political context is not a legitimate or “Biblical” way to handle their suffering.

Because lament amplifies itself, forming an intensifying spiral which holds the potential to introduce a violent cut into reality, our temptation is to deaden this violence by re-directing it into something of a lightning rod in order to ground its power. There is a sense in which DEI represents precisely this approach — to channel the power of lament into programs and language games which fundamentally maintain the status quo and uphold the structure of capitalist society whilst nonetheless trafficking in a faux-radicalism.

We must therefore, I contend, be wary of committing this same mistake ourselves, and thereby making ourselves only marginally better than our ideological adversaries. The issue at stake is to identify the causes of desire at work in people, and to, with Lacan, encourage them not to betray their desire, instead seeking a higher and more beautiful synthesis which can emerge only when we have the courage to sit with the pain of the negative.

Thank you.

The critical feedback I received and the ensuing conversation at the workshop has already begun to spark ideas for how to write an improved second draft which elaborates on the power of lament and the contradictions we encounter as we try to tarry with its negativity. I'm looking forward to revising this talk into a future iteration.

A final note – there is still time to register for the upcoming event "Anti-Worldview, or how I broke up with Van Til." It costs $5 to attend, but feel free to contact me directly if you can't make that work with your current finances. I'd love to see you there to discuss the idea that we don't have worldviews, and how we can start to see people as individuals rather than avatars for philosophical systems.

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