Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated 4

Dan articulates well my own dilemma as I began the process of reflecting on influential books. Because I’ve largely been self-taught, no matter what the CV says, the evolution of and occasional allegiances to ideas has always been more important to me than their individual champions. That, and my notoriously bad memory has long coupled with my miserly tendency rarely to buy books (preferring instead the amazing library access I’ve, until recently, enjoyed), making it all the more difficult now to recall specific titles.

My larger projects are, I think it is safe to say, peculiar. I have been told by friends that somebody came to my research center in Glasgow a year or so after I moved back to the States and presented a paper on some aspect related to that wonderfully vague topic “Herman Melville and religion.” It was mentioned to him at some point that I, too, had recently completed a thesis on that very subject, to which he asked a polite question along the lines of, “Oh, so was he looking at how religion has informed some of Melville’s ideas?” Allegedly, my supervisor responded, “No, that would make far too much sense for Brad.” Well, quite.

I have, I guess, a natural fondness for experimentally large canvasses (so to speak). I stand in front of, for example, one of the massive works at the Cy Twombly gallery in Houston, and where some people might be overwhelmed by his desire to paint “it all,” even to the point of perhaps not painting anything at all, and I want nothing more than never to leave. You can have your Rothko chapel! (ed. Check them both out, though. They’re amazing.) To be clear here, mine is not some phallocentric fixation on literal size — e.g., big paintings that take up entire gallery walls, or large novels like The Recognitions, though admittedly this is often the case — but with the conceptual size/depth of any given piece’s complexity. Not, that is, that such works must attain a certain indeterminate level of inscrutability or difficulty, but complex in the sense of its capacity to sense and tease out connections — to involve itself in the emergence of apparently rogue thoughts unrelated to whatever the perceived “matter at hand” might be. To the extent this is true, and I do not doubt my ability to fool myself on this score, I am most interested in vaguely duplicitous works that are not always what they appear.

The most obvious influence in this regard is Herman Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. This was the first work of non-biblical literature I’d ever invested considerable energy in studying. I poured myself into not merely the book, but also the reception that met the book when it was first published and the evolution its various readings have undertaken since. (This doesn’t count as a book, per se, but if we were to include essays, I’d have to point to my long-standing devotion to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator.” Since encountering this I’ve been committed to the notion that texts and ideas in general have a kind of organic life-cycle — deformations, repressions, internal squabbles, decay, death, afterlife, etc. — and cannot imagine approaching them in a de-contextualized, non-materialistic way, even if this means, as it must, that all such thinking is radically incomplete. If I were to continue this passing comment into a full-fledged paragraph I’d go on at length about how W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn illustrates all this perfectly, but I’ll just leave it as a parenthetical aside.) Reading The Confidence-Man provided me with the means, in fits and starts and via a warren of wayward paths, to cast about for a sense of theological subjectivity immersed in the complexity of its own self-creativity. I’ve come a long way since this, and none of the Melville stuff has seen the light of day in any official capacity, but perhaps one day.

I ran into a number of philosophical impasses in the course of this project. I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the tools deconstruction was offering, as I was no longer convinced by the status of the ‘freedom’ it described. It was fortunate, then, that I discovered Friedrich Schelling’s Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom. Where Adam and Anthony found themselves changed by Nietzsche, Schelling was it for me. Though not as immediately “sexy” as Nietzsche, the middle-period of Schelling’s work is no less intense. I read this book at the perfect time: it harmonized in a shocking way with how I’d been reading Melville in particular; it was engaged in a profound philosophical dialogue that was not so much contradictory as excessive to the assumptions about Being that inform deconstruction; and, even more, it was written in a typically Teutonic non-clever tone whose mesmerizingly poetic cadence summoned a disturbing image of a God-who-is-created that emboldened me to keep advancing in my reflections on aesthetics in the thinking of ontology and theology.

I’ve actually not thought of this book in years, but another philosophical text that was absolutely crucial for me in this period was Michel Serres’ The Parasite. Nothing else embodied the “network” (which I would now probably call “ecology”) of creativity I sought to theorize like that work — certainly not in that voice, which always seemed to simultaneously say more and less than it seemed. I felt as though Serres was beckoning his readers not merely to consume his work and ideas, but insisting instead that we had an ethical, indeed even a biological, responsibility both to consume and then shit out his ideas, for in that shitting we were fertilizing the field for something else. Whether we owned the field or laid claim to the crop, or whether we were trespassing, it mattered not, since the ideas weren’t really possessions — momentary sustenance, if anything. I can’t say that Serres’ philosophy has carried into my recent work, but this spirit, or at least the one I took from it, certainly has.

Most recently, nothing has influenced me quite like Jacques Ranciere’s Disagreement. Here my overarching concern with aesthetics was re-articulated for me in a political register. Ranciere resisted the denigration of aesthetics in our political philosophies, and instead presented a way for me to move forward with my work on the theological value of duplicity and creativity. His work has inspired me to direct attention to the concrete extension (dare I say ‘praxis’?) of my understanding of aesthetics — toward the fully-embodied, present struggles and practicalities of life faced by those who are denied a self-creative sensibility.

And lastly, let me reiterate a book that both Anthony & Dan have already mentioned. Philip Goodchild’s Capitalism & Religion. Just a stunning piece of work. In my opinion, if you only pick up one of the books any of us have  mentioned, get it, and you’ll be well on the way to full-fledged AUFS initiation.

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10 Responses to “Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated 4”

  1. John Tyson Says:

    As a young, often confused and conflicted student, I want to express my gratitude for this series of posts.

  2. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Brad, I for one eagerly await your Melville/Schelling book. It is quite fascinating to see how unplanned coincidences shape one’s thought, like your reading Schelling’s Freedom essay and discovering a partner in dialogue with Melville. Of course, what is happening when such coincidences occur is anything but chance.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad we were all able to do this, and if there are any other regular posters or commenters who want to contribute a piece, let me know. (I must also confess that I’m a little embarrassed, as mine feels very half-assed compared to everyone else’s.) I’m also excited that Critical Animal has done one as well — hopefully it will continue to spread across other blogs.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks, Bruce.

    I should point out, too, that all the books I mentioned were influences that emerged during and after my doctoral years. If I were to identify something during grad. school, I’d probably have to identify something by Mark C. Taylor. He really lit a fire inside me for a while, particularly his book Disfiguring, and evidence of his influence can be seen in one of my earliest published pieces (even after I tried to edit most of it out). I’ve since moved away from his work, particularly since his book on money, which I absolutely hated, but continue to reference his fairly recent book The Moment of Complexity.

  5. Scu Says:

    I really liked all of these (I need to go update my post with the two new ones). And I also hope other people follow suit. It’s fun, and I think useful, knowing what other people find as philosophical keystones.

    Another random thought: Brad you said you were mostly self-taught. The funny thing is your influences are almost all of the things that were actually taught to me. Jason Wirth taught me Schelling, Bill Spanos (aka William V. Spanos) taught me Melville.
    Anyway, Schelling’s freedom essay, and Ranciere’s Disagreement and/or The Ignorant Schoolmaster both almost made my lists. As did Nietzsche’s Genealogy and The Gay Science, but cuts had to be made.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    Did you study with Jason? I love his work. Thankful that I got to meet him a couple of years ago. In fact, the Cy Twombly anecdote happened with him — during a break at a conference at which we were both attending. Nice guy.

  7. Scu Says:

    Jason is a totally nice guy, and yeah he use to a professor at where I went to undergrad. There were one and a half philosophy professors there, so I took several classes with him and he was my advisor.

  8. Milton Friesen Says:

    I first started reading Serres as a grad student ten years ago. I’ve been rather compelled by his ideas ever since and started up an English site for Serres readers (www.michelserres.com) some years ago. He provided a strong antidote to the ‘holy’ reductionistism that seemed to inform so much of what I was reading at the time for my philosophy of language work.

    Angels: A Modern Myth was such a very different kind of book than the academic texts I was immersed in, fascinating because it came from someone who was capable of writing in as cloistered and barricaded a fashion as other academics, yet he chose a different kind of writing, a more embodied exploration.

    His synthesis, connecting, calling prepositions the “pimps of language” all seemed to be singing in a different key than most of the anglo-american philosophy I had to wade through.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Ah yeah, I’d forgotten about his Angels book. Brilliant stuff. I found that by chance at the Glasgow library one day, and set everything aside to devour it, even though it had nothing to do with my research.

  10. Milton Friesen Says:

    Angels doesn’t have footnotes or references, includes numerous images, is a simple conversation that isn’t really simple at all – quite a distinctive piece of writing/imagining and well worth such a diversion.


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