Out, damned spot: Blood Book Event

‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ – Lady Macbeth

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas addresses the problem of the vials of Christ’s blood so plentifully held in reliquaries across Europe. If Christ ascended bodily to heaven, he asks, then where did all this blood come from? Was it left behind when he rose, ascending to heaven bloodless and dessicated as a Eucharistic wafer? No, Aquinas says: rather, ‘the blood preserved as relics in some churches did not flow from Christ’s side, but is said to have flowed miraculously from some image of Christ when struck’. It was not enough, it seems, for Christ to die for our sins once: if we are to have his blood the violence must be visited upon him over and again.

Elsewhere Aquinas considers the ways in which the Eucharistic blood of Christ might be corrupted. Read the rest of this entry »

Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

There is a quote from Varro that Agamben uses in the essay “Notes on Gesture” (included in both Infancy and History and Means Without End):

“For a person can make [facere] something and not act [agere] it, as a poet makes [facit] a play and does not act it [agere also means ‘to recite’], and on the other hand the actor acts [agit] it and does not make it, and so a play is made [fit] by the poet, not acted, and is acted [agitur] by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the imperator [the magistrate invested with supreme power] in that he is said to carry on [gerere] affairs, in this neither makes [facit] nor acts [agit] but carries on [gerit], that is, assumes and supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who carry burdens [onera gerunt], because they support them” (Varro, 6.77)

In this early essay, what is at stake is finding some third kind of human action beyond the Aristotelian dichotomy of poiesis and praxis. For Agamben, what both of these modes of action share is their reference to some end or goal — the produced object in poiesis and the action itself in praxis — and the sphere of gerere or “gesture” seems, by contrast, to be a “pure means” without any reference to an end or goal.

In Opus Dei, the exact same quote appears with a completely different valence. Instead of pointing toward something hopeful or redemptive, it forms a part of the “archeology of office or duty” that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible. This is part of a broader pattern where figures and concepts that appeared to be the “good guys” in earlier writings take on a sinister edge in the Homo Sacer series (the most striking example being potentiality) — a trend that I don’t know quite what to do with.

What interests me here is the connection between the sphere of gesture and the notion of “supporting” something. In contemporary political circles, “support” has emerged as a key category — we “support” troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes. When we are asked to take some concrete action (donating money, signing a petition, voting), it is sometimes directly equated with “supporting” the political entity in question, but more often it is a means of showing one’s “support.” Taken in itself, “support” does not issue in any external action or result, and any such action or result is merely a way of demonstrating or pointing toward “support.”

In other words, the central political act of “supporting” belongs to the sphere of pure gesture, divorced from poiesis or praxis. Indeed, it seems to colonize the spheres of political poiesis and praxis themselves. Legislation is crafted in order to signal support for a key priority or constituency, even and especially when it has no chance of becoming law. The House of Representatives in recent years has reduced the act of legislation to an empty gesture, signalling again and again their “support” for a repeal of Obamacare. And is there not a sense that even in activist circles, one engages in activism primarily to show “support” for a cause, or even “support” for the very idea of activism itself? It’s not unimaginable that someone could view themselves as “supporting” true activism to such an extent that they refuse to participate in any activity that falls short of that lofty ideal.

Our moral standing is reduced to what we “support.” We are good or bad people, in the eyes of whichever circle we choose, based on whether we hold the correct opinions or not, “support” the appropriate causes or not. When we seek to create moral and political change, we are always working on the level of opinions — using persuasion to get someone to switch their “support” over to our cause. We often make vague reference to the idea that changing hearts and minds will lead to some concrete change, but that’s not really where our passionate engagement is. In any case, such persuasion is of course very rare, so that engagement with other viewpoints seems to function primarily to confirm the rightness of the causes we “support,” to affirm our political and moral rectitude.

Our actions — or rather, our lack thereof — show that we believe very deeply in this sphere of “support,” of pure, empty gesture.

Gil Anidjar: ‘Gaza: Banality of Morals’

I found this article by Gil Anidjar on Gaza from 2009. It’s worth taking a look at if you’re interested in seeing how he applies his work to the contemporary situation. Some of the arguments of Blood of previewed a bit. It’s on JSTOR here. If you need help accessing JSTOR, send me an email: stephen.keating@gmail.com.

Naming of the Trees

This is ordinarily something I’d keep to my own private haunt, Departure Delayed, but today is too special a day for my understandably minuscule following there. The 90th birthday of a man, William H. Gass, whose writing I perhaps too slavishly adore, requires eyeballs, even if they are likely set to blink and quickly flit away.

I recorded a while ago this small section I still read, perhaps too often. It’s from Omensetter’s Luck, arguably Gass’ greatest novel, and is where Henry Pimber walks into the woods and names the trees, like the first goddamned, depressed Adam, bound for a hanging high, improbably high, in the trees.

And in that spirit, I re-post it here:

Should you feel so included, other Gass-related excerpts and adorations can be found elsewhere

Oh, and yes . . . should you indulge in the vanity of Googling yourself, Mr. Gass, Happy Birthday. 

On bad academic writing

The article on bad academic writing that’s been going around strikes me as perhaps a little cruel, and as unlikely to actually get through to the people who most need the message — after all, it’s notoriously difficult to see the flaws in one’s own writing. As a peer reviewer, I’ve seen many articles that amount to a “paper in search of a thesis,” so I think there’s definitely a grain of truth in the problem the author diagnoses. And as an academic writer, I can testify that it’s good prudential advice. I’ve had disproportionate success in getting through peer review, and I credit that in part to the fact that I’m a clear, fluent writer.

Nevertheless, there’s something a little suspicious about the notion that every academic must be a “good writer.” First of all, nearly all the important theoretical sources academics study violate multiple norms of American academic writing — Europeans are much looser in their citational practices, for instance, and in general the authors who have entered into the Theory canon are much more comfortable with indirection and density. Reading these types of authors in translation certainly militates against the development of a fluent English style.

Further, I’m uncomfortable with the implied uniformity of style demanded here, particularly since an important motivation is not to make undue demands on editors and readers. It seems like we’re not too far from grading papers based in large part on how easy they are to grade. I understand that editors and readers are pressed for time, and I also realize that it’s unrealistic to think that a significant percentage of “bad” articles are actually using advanced stylistic and rhetorical approaches that enhance their meaning — but maybe some of them are, and the risk is that they will get thrown out because they didn’t follow a more convenient formula.

What do you think, dearest readers?

Did Obama get played in 2008?

[NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Girlfriend and I watched a lot of House of Cards and Scandal, so that must be kept in mind in reading this post.]

It’s easy to forget now, but in the summer of 2008, it really looked like John McCain would win. Only after the financial crisis really began in September — an event that apparently none of our political elites foresaw — did Obama’s victory become a fait accompli. It’s also easy to forget that when it comes to delegates elected by the people who voted in primaries, Obama and Clinton were pretty much in a dead heat. The deciding factor was the Democratic “superdelegates,” i.e., the party leaders who get to vote for the candidate of their choice at the convention regardless of primary results. Clinton could have won if the superdelegates fell in line behind her, but as the convention approached, more and more broke in favor of Obama.

With all these facts in mind, I’ve begun to wonder if Clinton, facing the prospect of an uphill battle against one of the most respected politicians in America (another thing that’s easy to forget!), calculated that it was better to let Obama be the sacrificial lamb against McCain and live to fight another day — either 2012, if McCain reaped the whirlwind from the Bush disaster, or else 2016 — and so “released” her superdelegates to Obama. This might also explain why she didn’t insist on the VP slot, not wanting to be tarnished by a defeat.

As it turns out, though, the whirlwind came more quickly than anticipated, resulting in Obama accidentally getting elected.

The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

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