A Prospectus

The foundation of my argument throughout this volume is that in the quintessential sailor cum novelist, Herman Melville, we can identify an aesthetic conception of a productive political dissent at its most theologically dynamic. In his life and fiction we find embodied a radical aesthetic engagement with the theological bases of subjectivity and sovereignty. By reading the evolution of Melville’s conception of duplicity and identity through the transcendental self-reflectivity of early German Romanticism, the dialectical materialism of Friedrich Schelling, and the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière, we identify a shocking new frame for an aesthetically conceived political theology. In so doing, we locate a creative intensity at the heart of subjectivity, that is, in the duplicitous poetics of subjective self-characterization. By recasting theology through the materialistic and political contours of aesthetics, we thus argue that the subject of theology, the beginning and the end of subjectivity as such, is not on the far side of theological reflection and/or discourse, as a transcendent object; nor is it fully a vitalistic and immanent presence or process. Rather, we conclude that the subject of theology, the subject par excellence, that which secures the twin matrices of power, subjectivity and sovereignty, is that of one playing a character. In this most characteristic theology, the subject of theology is that element of creativity that is itself most self-creative. The theological significance of theology, as such, is precisely in the materiality of this self-creativity; that is, its self-characterization in and as a Melvillean masquerade, the duplicitous posing in and as self-creative subject and sovereign.

To achieve this I begin in section one by presenting a biographical portrait of a young Herman Melville consumed by the questions of and the doubts about his own authorial self-becoming. Fresh from the sea at an early age, Melville was a natural storyteller, but perhaps not so natural a novelist. Indeed, as is especially clear in his first novel, Typee, his writing has never been without a sustained structure of duplicity and self-doubt or the attendant desire for self-destruction. We find in his desperate autobiographical groping an echo of the opening paragraph of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, “— and so I tell my life to myself,” and a participation in the dilemma of self-creativity heralded in the eighteenth-century by Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, meditated on by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and popularised at the turn of the twenty-first century by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

I then argue in the following two sections that Melville’s ambivalence regarding self-destruction and self-assertion can only be adequately understood when held in relief to the 18th-/19th-century political and philosophical climate the gave birth to the modern novel. While it may initially seem a departure from the narrative begun in the preceding section, Melville’s presentation of subjectivity throughout his novels is so closely aligned to the convergence of aesthetics and subjectivity found in Kant and in the theory of the romantic novel developed by early German Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, that he in many ways is their American counterpart. In them I locate and explicate a patently modern subjectivity; that is, subjectivity as a self-presentation, that is itself an aesthetic self-creation or self-calling.

In recent years Giorgo Agamben has described the provocative philosophical and political implications of this self-presentation in terms of a sovereignty and the “state of exception.” Per his reading of Carl Schmitt’s classic (and resurgently popular) treatise on the subject, Political Theology, Agamben recasts the state of exception as essentially a theory of sovereignty. In short, this is because the sovereign subject is that which (a) decides on the state of exception, whilst (b) also guaranteeing its relation to the juridical order that has been suspended. That is to say, because its decision is that of annulling the norm, the sovereign is beyond the normative order of things; and yet, inasmuch as it is ultimately responsible for deciding whether it is even possible for the normative order to be completely annulled or suspended, the sovereign also necessarily emerges from that order which is being annulled/suspended. What is being described here is nothing short of a miracle, whereby the sovereign subject is that which “calls” itself into being.

I extend this analysis further and call this the speculative function of the Romantic/Idealistic self-calling; the calling of that which is called to become-itself, the self-called sovereign subject. There are, as we see in subsequent sections, profound theological points to be made here about the production of the Absolute as “fictionalized” exception, in which the self-presentation of the one who is called is possible only through the dialectical act of its self-characterisation as the one who is called. In this case, the sovereign power of the call, the one who decides on the state of exception and the status of exceptionality, is not, strictly speaking, God; rather, it is the God that is instantiated/embodied in and as that which is called

It is with this in mind that, the formal similarity between Melville and Romanticism notwithstanding, I locate his enduring significance in the agonistic resistance to the appropriation of Romantic ideals by several of his American contemporaries, particularly what he regarded as the dehumanised ethics and spiritual esotericism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As such, in section three I trace the transition of Melville’s ambivalent though philosophically complex embrace of Romantic political and aesthetic ideals. Beginning with his definitive self-assertion and declaration of authorial independence in “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” and culminating in the complex “apocalypse of the self” in Moby-Dick and Pierre, I argue at length that Melville’s intellectual-artistic journey is profoundly symptomatic of Friedrich Schelling’s aborted philosophical aim of articulating the materialistic melancholy of subjective self-creativity. For indeed, in Schelling’s Ages of the World and Melville’s Pierre, we no longer have aspirations of self-creative wholeness and unity, but a tempestuous tension and excess at the very foundation of subjectivity that threatens to consume it.

Drawing from and commenting extensively on the recent work of Jacques Rancière, I argue in the remaining fourth and fifth sections of the book that Melville does not offer us a fully viable political theology until after the nihilistic apocalypticism of Moby-Dick and Pierre (or even the short story “Bartleby”) so often celebrated by late-20th century philosophy and theology. This does not happen until the full manifestation of self-creative duplicity in his final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Here, no character is as though he or she seems, but only because there is always an excess of characterization in each. The con man is potentially the conned, and innocence never far removed from potential guilt. Interestingly, the excess of identity in Melville’s Masquerade does not issue merely in nihilistic indeterminacy, but in the inescapably creative capacity of a subject always to be more than itself, and for such an excess to come from within and not to be imposed from without.

In Rancière, we find the political significance of the masquerade is most pronounced in terms of Aristotle’s ideal commuity. Here, the soul of the master is identified as one of deliberation and discernment, which gives to him the natural right of sovereignty, rule and law. The slave, however, has no such capacity, and indeed has no soul or essence at all; as such, while the slave can understand the reason and law of the master (thus allowing the slave to obey the master’s orders), she lacks the capacity or essence to participate in the sensibility of reason or law, or . These are, rather, effected upon the slave. Indeed, the slave only has a proper place in the aesthetico-political community insofar as she obeys her master. Hers is a natural/essential place of non-creative, non-sensible subservience, “doomed to the anonymity of work and reproduction” (Disagreement, 7).

Politics, Rancière argues, is the rare event that occurs when slaves cease to be subservient. That is, when they forcibly partake in the aesthetic field that both constitutes and represses the occurrence of politics, and thus in the distribution of the sensible; when, in rejecting their essential place in the political commuity, that of the no-place with no voice, they make a claim on sensibility and freedom.* Importantly, this claim to freedom is fundamentally different than that of a claim to wealth and/or nobility, and to their attendant administrative status. These assert particular qualities as proper and/or essential to those who lay the claim. In terms of Aristotle’s ideal community, such claims are just insofar as the wealthy and noble live up to the roles they are naturally and essentially capable of fulfilling in the community. A slave’s claim to freedom, however, is an immediate claim, devoid of any justification by way of their proportional, contributing quality. In such a claim, the slave insists that the correlation between social position/role and natural capacity is purely theatrical, and thus artificial to the core.

By exposing the duplicity at the heart of the political community, however, we should not mistake the slave’s egalitarian claim to freedom as any more an unmasking of truth than what takes place in Melville’s Masquerade. Indeed, for both, the claim to self-creativity exposes the masquerade as such in order that it might become a masquerade par excellence. That is to say, not the truth behind the masquerade, but the truth of the masquerade, i.e., its singularly and necessarily arbitrary nature. Inasmuch as they speak forth themselves as free, they do so only by knowingly speaking forth a lie. This is, in short, an appeal to the radical creativity ordinarily suppressed by the communal masquerade and role-play, but in no way put an end to the masquerade as such.

By reading Rancière through Melville’s Masquerade, I conclude that our political theologies can identify the emergence of subjective sovereignty and power as a kind of duplicity, where masks do not obscure or defer the revelation of a transcendent truth or ultimate kernel of self-identity, be it that of divine revelation, mystical silence, pantheistic All, or nihilistic void. By reading Melville’s Masquerade through Rancière, the masquerade becomes the political materialisation, or characterization, of truth, of justice, and of the self—such is the denial of essence for the sake of identity. When read together, we identify a re-attuned aesthetic awareness and begin our approach toward a political theology that thinks through the paradoxical, though essential and characteristic, freedom and bondage of self-characterization. Such a thinking is concerned less with the necessity of what is or must be than it is with the immanent possibilities our conceptual categories keep dormant (or worse, repress), and is thus marked by the attention paid to the unthought intensity and excess of self-characterization. In this we become aware of the infinite capacity for new, finite beginnings, and a materialistic/anthropological theology of “a new creation” takes shape.

* It is not merely an anecdotal convenience for one writing about Melville that on several occasions Rancière identifies those denied aesthetic sensibility–what he terms “the demos” (of democracy)–not as slaves but as sailors, and freedom as smelling of salt. Indeed, Rancière asserts that the political project of the classical philosopher, beginning with Plato, has been “an anti-maritime polemic,” in which only the mountains that surrounded Athens protected the city and its politics from the drunken disorder of democracy coming in from the sea: “The sea smells bad. This is not because of the mud, however. The sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy” (On the Shores of Politics, 1-2).

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6 Responses to “A Prospectus”

  1. Clayton Crockett Says:

    I think this is absolutely brilliant stuff, Brad. Fascinating to read Melville together with Ranciere.
    In The Politics of Aesthetics, Ranciere discusses on p.30 the confusion/conflation of two ideas about the avant-garde, which he says “are in fact two different ideas of political subjectivity.” The strategic conception of the avant-garde gets caught up in “the archi-political idea of a party,” whereas a more properly aesthetic conception of the avant-garde opens up “the meta-political idea of global political subjectivity, the idea of the potentiality inherent in the innovative sensible modes of experience that anticipate a community to come.” This latter is what I see you wrestling with here.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:


    Thanks. Ranciere really rocked my world. I didn’t actually encounter his work at all until I was doing the final edit of my dissertation (from which, as you know, this is adapted). I was stunned at the parallel thinking, and the supplement that R. brought to what I’d done with Melville.

    R. read on his own is not that striking to me. I feel as though he himself needs a supplement. For example, I was really baffled at his aversion to the sublime _The Politics of Aesthetics_, until I began to read more of his work, and noted his attachment to Kantian categories. Now, what he does w/ the categories is really interesting, but I think he sells his own project (and Kant) short by not getting as serious about the relation of the sublime to the avant-garde. To do this, in my opinion, he needs to revamp his reading of Deleuze.

  3. Clayton Crockett Says:

    That’s interesting Brad. Obviously I think the sublime is important, and relevant for aesthetics, politics and theology, so you’re preaching to the choir–how can one not relate the sublime to the avant-garde?
    I need to read more of Ranciere’s earlier work, but I really liked Hatred of Democracy, I was struck by how subtle and profound his analyses are.
    I also thought it was interesting how anti-Platonist he is, and therefore how very Aristotelian. It’s an interesting contrast with Badiou’s Platonism, plus I read Deleuze in broadly Aristotelian terms.
    But yes, ultimately (again) I think it’s both productive and brilliant to read R. in terms of Melville’s aesthetic.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’ve actually not yet read Hatred of Democracy yet. The two books of his that I have liked the most have been The Flesh of Words and Disagreement. The Philosopher & His Poor is an excellent idea, and I really wanted to appreciate it more than I did. The idea behind it, though, is pure genius.

    You’re very right, re: R.’s Aristotelianism. This is partly why I get a little frustrated he doesn’t seem to get in The Flesh of Words (in his response to reading of “Bartleby”) what Deleuze is on about in his reading of “Bartleby.” I’ve played all this out in another comments field on another blog, but it bears repeating (if only for me!). Here, R. concludes that D.’s philosophy not only leads to but constructs an impasse to politics — i.e., because Bartleby effectively has no place from which to speak (and thus to change the common order). For R., where there is no speech (or sense), there is no reordering/redistribution of sense & order; and where there is no such change, there is no politics.

    One of R.’s points in his essay is that D.’s own image of “a wall of loose, uncemeted stones, where element has a value in itself but also in relation to others” illustrates this impasse. What R. misses, though, is that for D. the “loose stones” of the “wall” (or impasse) are the imperceptible/silent individuations that in fact constitute the status quo of perception and order. As such, D. is concerned to show that this world of perception & order, the status quo, is constituted through the holding together of that which differs in kind. Moreover, the imperceptible is force or intensity (not alien from the Kantian sublime) that registers within the world of perception & order its outside — that which can only be perceived.

    What I find interesting is the degree to which all this actually supports R.’s conception of politics, no matter what he says. For it actually gives a metaphysical robustness to R.’s claims that the appearance of the imperceptible (that which is w/out sense and sensibility) is a political act.

  5. Gabe Says:


    I like that you filed this post under “shameless promotion.”

    I do have a question concerning the note on Ranciere, classical philosophy, and the “anti-maritime polemic” as I am currently reading Foucault’s *Madness and Civilization.* Foucault discusses at length how the sea represents “unreason” and that those considered mad would be sent to sea with sailors in hopes that mad would eradicate mad. So when R. says, “…the sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy,” I can’t help but wonder at this connection. Is a democratic form of politics considered *unreason* in classical philosophy? In my reading of M & C so far, I don’t think Foucault has addressed this directly.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:


    Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. I’ve been a bit more busy of late than normal.

    I’m glad you reminded me Foucault’s note about the mad being sent to sea. It might be worthy of at least an anecdote, should I actually pursue everything in this prospectus. According to Ranciere, yes, ‘politics’ (which he tends to regard only in the register of democracy is regarded by classical philosophy as a kind of unreason. He reads Plato as trying to pacify this political unrest, and tame it via philosophy. Immediately after the quote from On the Shores of Politics, he writes, “The task of philosophy [classically understood, i.e., by Plato] is to found a different politics, a politics of conversion which turns its back on the sea.”

    I should add, however, that Ranciere’s conception of politics is not built on a sense of ‘unreason’ or madness, but as emerging in and from the state of tension between unreason and reason.

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