“The new patristic”

From Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth:

The intellectual is thus not “out in front” to determine the movements of history or “on the sidelines” to critique them but rather completely “inside.” The function of the intellectual today, though in many ways radically different, shares some aspects with the one developed in the context of the patristics in the first centuries of Christianity. That was in many respects a revolutionary movement within an Empire that organized the poor against power and required not only a radical break with traditional knowledge and customs but also an invention of new systems of thought and practice, just as today we must find a way out of capitalist modernity to invent a new culture and new modes of life. Let’s call this, then, only half facetiously, a new patristic, in which the intellectual is charged with the task not only to denounce error and unmask illusions, and not only to incarnate the mechanisms of new practices of knowledge, but also, together with others in a process of co-research, to produce a new truth. (118)

Unfortunately, they don’t follow up on this at all.

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29 Responses to ““The new patristic””

  1. Hill Says:

    I think this is cool, but how exactly is patristic functioning as a noun here. Like I get what they are saying, but shouldn’t it be a “new patristics” or a “new patristic strategy.”

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I worry this will only encourage people like James KA Smith who asked, seriously, if the multitude wasn’t really the church.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I agree with Hill that the usage is weird.

  4. Hill Says:

    Maybe they think that patristics is composed of various instances of patristic, this being a new one for the 21st century. I think the original problem is that “patristics” itself is pretty bizarre, seeming to be a plural when it isn’t really. I suppose it is an academic convention to shorten a field according to the form: “patristic studies” -> “patristics.”

  5. Andy Says:

    I agree with Anthony. But it has to be said, ascetic patristics has always been somewhat in competition with the urban church…

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I do like how this puts a kabash on the whole “Alain Badiou is better than you” separation of Negri and his own work.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Explain your last comment, Anthony.

  8. michaeloneillburns Says:

    yes anthony, please do explain.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    From a paper co-written with Dan Barber:

    “Negri’s philosophy is thoroughly materialist. But the question is what kind of materialist is Negri? He opposes his materialism to transcendence and the logic that such transcendence fosters. In the logic of transcendence, especially the logic of transcendence that calls itself materialist, there is nothing but stratified Power – a theological dispositif. In his way Negri is like Diogenes the Cynic, who fostered a cynical materialism in response to the Platonism of his day: he responded to Plato’s definition of man as a featherless biped by bringing a plucked fowl to the academic lecture room. During the delivering of a set speech, Diogenes began to eat lupins – taking attention away from the orator and causing him to express feigned surprise that the assembled should be so distracted by the eating of lupins. His origin legend concerned the defacing of coinage or what was used to transcendentally express the value of material as a general equivalent. Thus, rather than allowing philosophers to be concerned abstractly with eternal ideas, Diogenes directed their attention to materiality – the edible lupins and the mortal chicken.

    Alain Badiou has labeled this materialism ‘democratic materialism’. Claiming that it is the dominant ideology of the age, Badiou says that the axiom of democratic materialism is, ‘There are only bodies and language.’ Badiou posits his own materialism, dialectical materialism, as concentrated in the axiom, ‘There are only bodies and language, except that there are truths.’ (See Alain Badiou, Logiques des Mondes (Paris: Seuil, 2006), pp. 9-17.) How seductive Badiou is being here, for who does not want to be for truth? The seduction continues, for the implicit claim is that his philosophy of materialism opens up to truly revolutionary politics that moves beyond the community and the individual, while the materialism of Negri, and his philosophical allies like Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, is complicit, if not collaborative, in the dominant postmodern and neo-liberal regime. But the logic of Badiou’s dialectical materialism, the materialism of the void, the materialism of contingency, is not so dissimilar from Negri’s. At the heart of both is an affirmation of contingency. Both affirm a contingency of bodies and language, a subject or subjectivity that comes after the event (Badiou), or a more radically open event, kairos (Negri), and, despite Badiou’s attempt to make Negri untruthful, both affirm eternal truths. So why, given these similarities, does Badiou draw a distinction? Badiou would want us to wage our struggle at the level of abstraction – a materialism of the void or a materialism of the flesh. While we reject the very terms of debate, Negri’s philosophy could be called something like a materialism of the flesh if the purpose was not disfigure it and wage a negative campaign against it on the basis of this disfigurement. For the true difference between Badiou’s modern day Plato and Negri’s modern day Diogenes is between quantia and qualia. While Badiou goes further than St. Paul and subsumes the poor under a universal truth, Negri’s poor constitute the truth of the common, which is to give humanity the common name of the poor.”

    Basically, I have always found the idea that Negri’s materialism is summed up in the notion of “there are only bodies and language” to be woefully inadaquate polemic in a book that is supposed to be the second volume of a philosophical masterpiece (I’ve only read a few sections of LOW, but I do see that it clearly is a very important philosophical work). Negri does discuss truth and is not averse to truths breaking into a situation. This passage also makes that clear. I’m not saying Negri is better than Badiou, I am simply saying that Badiou’s critique (like that of Zizek) misses the mark.

  10. Austin Says:

    I like this quote. It reminds a lot of Walter Benjamin’s material critiques of capitalist modernity.

  11. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    They don’t follow up on any of the interesting stuff, unfortunately. I read it all the way to the end (a rare fit) and found nothing, so sad. That stuff about “minor Kant” looked so promising in the beginning…

    So what is this damned “commonwealth” then?

  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Mikhail is dissatisfied. This is new.

  13. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Good point. But no seriously, I liked sections of it, but I found these cool bits with cool promises and then they weren’t fulfilled at all, as in never even mentioned – is that too much to ask?

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Oh I was kidding. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t really have an intelligent discussion about it.

  15. Patrik Says:

    I haven’t read it yet, but this is quite in line with the way they work in Empire and Multitude – they have these poetic really interesting bits thrown in between the other stuff and often these bits are the most interesting, and seldom worked out much. But certainly the reference to patristics is confused – what they refer to is in fact the theological development of the early church and I have never heard that referred to as the patristic – patristics is the study of that development, and as Hill pointed out patristic is not a noun.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I should say that Mikhail pointed this passage out to me before I read the book. I should also say that my impression was the opposite of Mikhail and Patrik’s — I found it to be much more focused and to flow much better than the previous volumes. In fact, I found it downright invigorating.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I wrote to Michael Hardt to ask if he had anything further to say about “the new patristic,” and he essentially just said no:

    “I recognize the frustration of the readers on your blog that we don’t continue with any more on the patristics but at the moment I don’t think we have anything more to say on the topic. It was just an analogy that came up while we were talking that seemed helpful to us at the time. I’m glad it intrigues you and I guess it’s up to specialists like you to take it further.”

  18. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Adam, I hope you make more sense of it in your review – I think my problem is that I haven’t really read the previous two books with much attention. This “minor Kant” (dare to think vs think how to dare) business in the beginning really got me interested so I read it through to make sure I see where it is developed and I honestly don’t think they ever went back to it.

    Maybe it was just as he says, a kind of conversation about issues and interesting images came up and were written down. I guess you can get away with it at this level of writing, but still…

  19. kvond Says:

    MH: ““I recognize the frustration of the readers on your blog that we don’t continue with any more on the patristics but at the moment I don’t think we have anything more to say on the topic. It was just an analogy that came up while we were talking that seemed helpful to us at the time. I’m glad it intrigues you and I guess it’s up to specialists like you to take it further.”

    I like Michael Hardt alot, his attitude is remarkably clean and open. Sometimes I get the sense that Negri and Hardt are like Deleuze and Guattari lite. There is the same prodigious text, the ocean-liner set to cross the big sea, but, for instance in this occasion, the metaphor/analogy remains undeveloped, is somehow a less-deep metaphor, less intrinsic to their thought. In a certain way, and recently talk of the difference between philosophy and poetry, the sweep of the text lacks anchorage (and I am speaking only of Empire and Multitude, assuming the same). The text is less embedded in its thought, while taking advantage of some of the same privileges (not to be unkind).

    I say this with some contrast to Negri’s book on Spinoza, for instance, which is incredibly dense, but paid off the many hours spent uncoding/unraveling it. There the texture, every ripple and fold reflected something that was happening within (or so it seemed).

    As for Intellectuals being the New Patristic, all we need now is a great Council of Nicaea, so we can get the Orthodoxy down straight, and clean up all those heresies.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think two factors might be at work here. First, they are writing in English and in an accessible style, which might make us “continental” types suspicious since French (or maybe Italian — in any case, something that has to be translated so that you can then go back and mine even more insights from the original, etc.) and density are the prestigious ways to present your ideas. Second, the reason for adopting this style is that they are trying to reach a broader audience. I’m not sure if that was the ambition for Empire, but once that one took off and they saw they had a much larger platform, the shift in style is extremely obvious.

  21. kvond Says:

    I guess since I have not read Commonwealth it was wrong for me to comment. I actually was commenting on the lack of density in Empire and even more so in Multitude, and took Commonwealth to be heading even further in that direction. Frankly, Multitud lost me as a “sincere” reader, despite having affection for Negri’s ideas, and Hardt’s ethic.

  22. Craig Says:

    I once asked Hardt about his use of “form of life” given that the phrase appears in a number of philosophical traditions. He told me that he was unaware that he had even used the phrase. This suggests to me that either the interesting stuff is written by Negri or that they are moderately careless writers when working in collaboration. Either way, it seems that “new patristic” is comparable to my “form of life” question.

    A while ago, talking to Warren Montag, I asked him if he thought that patristics was a pressing task (if not the pressing task) for contemporary critical theory, especially for those of us who are vulgar materialist atheists. We had been talking about his work on Spinoza and Old Testament interpretation. He laughed, but he didn’t reject the idea.

  23. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    The thing to avoid then, is the shift from patristic in the sense they have idealized (revolutionary, for the poor, invention of new thought and practices, etc.) to the “Constantinianism” which resulted in the late patristic age. I know the term may be too well-worn to be welcome around here, but this seems to me to be the real challenge for every revolution and commonwealth–how to avoid a betrayal of the impetus.

  24. kvond Says:

    Craig: “I once asked Hardt about his use of “form of life” given that the phrase appears in a number of philosophical traditions. He told me that he was unaware that he had even used the phrase. This suggests to me that either the interesting stuff is written by Negri or that they are moderately careless writers when working in collaboration. Either way, it seems that “new patristic” is comparable to my “form of life” question.”

    Kvond: This sums up my disappointment. One doesn’t want to risk that Negri is the idea guy and Hardt the translator, but this detatchment of the text from idea itself is something problematic. It is as if there is a divorce of idea from movement, with only text circulating in the void between. Are these the places from which a new patristic should ever come?

  25. kvond Says:

    Thomas: “The thing to avoid then, is the shift from patristic in the sense they have idealized (revolutionary, for the poor, invention of new thought and practices, etc.) to the “Constantinianism” which resulted in the late patristic age.”

    Kvond: The problem is that shifting the metaphor from being “out in front” to “inside”, which seems the impetus of the patristic reference still has it wrong (including the problems of what we might call Patristicism). Its the thought that intellectuals are the “core” of something (either a guiding core, or a leading core) is really the problem. Comparing themselves to “fathers” of any kind is, well, not just a problem of language (and history).

  26. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    What I meant was not about an intellectual core, but a historical point about the downfall of the patristic period as I see it (and I am not alone). I am not trying to asses the analogy of patristic/new patristic, only adding to it, saying that it needs to avoid betrayal.

  27. kvond Says:

    Sure. But I’m not sure that I follow you. You are making a historical point about Patristicism, BUT you are NOT assessing the analogy. On the other hand you are saying that “it needs to avoid betrayal”. What is the “it” if not the analogy of a new patristic? And are we to assume that there is a “good” patristic that does not eventually entail a “bad”?

  28. discard Says:

    Perhaps the aim of the book is to produce effects, connections, etc.

  29. bjk Says:

    I saw Hardt talking about Commonwealth on C-Span and the audience didn’t seem to get that he was drawing on Paul Roemer’s categorization of different types of property . . . It led to lots of mutual incomprehension. Strangely, Roemer is not in the index.


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