On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 4, “Christianity, Religion, and the Secular”

In this chapter, Daniel Barber exposes the logic of what could be called “universalizing supersessionism,” a logic at work in the construction of Christianity in relation to Judaism and other “religions”, and then again at work in the construction of secularism in relation to religion. Barber describes the way the logic works this way:

In each case, what is at stake is the construction not only of a position of judgment, but also of a plane of reality in which such a position becomes normative. In other words, it a matter not only of asserting the dominance of a particular position—whether Christianity or secular—but of involving this position within a broader plane of reality, such that the dominance of this particular position is mediated by its full congruence with the plane itself. (100-101).

In a quotation from Gil Anidjar in which this logic is connected with the construction of “white” as the universal, supersessionist position in the category of race, Anidjar calls “white” the “unmarked race” (111). The reference to the “unmarked” position in the category of race offers us a way to understand in other terms the nature of the logic that Barber is describing. The logic of universalizing supersessionism is deeply embedded within the very structure of language itself. The linguist Roman Jakobson introduced the distinction between marked and unmarked terms as constitutive of semantic categories. For example, in the following binarisms, the first term is unmarked, the second marked: “high/low,” “wide/narrow,” “hot/cold,” “man/woman.” Before explaining what the distinction means, note something very interesting: in naming the category in each case, we create a universal concept that is derived from the name of the unmarked term: “height,” “width,” “heat,” “man” (when English casually used to employ the term “man” as equivalent of “humanity”). The unmarked term is the dominant term that serves as the paradigmatic position for the entire category. There is a judgment at work in these binarisms, not merely a neutral division of a category into two classes or kinds. Barber’s logic of unversalizing supersessionism precisely parallels the linguistic structure of marked and unmarked terms. Christianity is to religion as high is to height, as hot is to heat, as man is to woman, and (Anidjar’s case) as white is to race. Of course, the category and the unmarked/marked binarism arise at the same time: the universal concept and its paradigmatic expression are inextricably bound up together.

One can put it this way, using Hegelian terminology: the universal is concretized only in the unmarked term. The Hegelian dialectic works by exposing the way that the marked term (slave in relation to master, for example) can come to occupy the unmarked position and in so doing call for a new universality. Barber shows that Christianity constructs itself as the paradigmatic (unmarked) term within the new category of religion. If we use the word “faith” instead of “religion,” the logic is perfectly visible: Christianity is a faith, but it is also the faith, the only true faith. Barber argues, following Boyarin, that Christianity also creates Judaism as a faith, or religion. Barber notes that Christianity does more in constructing itself than differentiate itself from Judaism. Heresies are not given the right by orthodoxy to be called religions of their own, but rather perversions of the true faith. While the way that Christianity constructs itself as the paradigmatic instance of the category of religion or faith is therefore somewhat complicated, the logic of universalizing supersessionism is clearly at work.

And the logic is also at work in the way that secularism constructs itself as the paradigmatic instance of its new category. Barber argues that the new category is one in which the binarism is given as follows: the West (the unmarked term) and the rest (the marked term(s).) Barber clearly argues that in one way or another, the new category in which secularism positions itself as the unmarked term is a combination of race and territory (Aryan Europe versus all racial others within its borders and without). Barber doesn’t put it this way, but it would be compatible with what he says to put the universalizing logic of secularism this way: secularism constructs itself as the unmarked term in the category of “civilization,” where “civilization” is white, European, progressive, etc. (Timothy Fitzgerald’s Discourse on Civility and Barbarity nicely complements Barber’s analysis of secularism and makes this point about the modern construction of secularism/relgion binarism.) Within the category of civilization, “world religions” are ranked higher than all others, and world religions among themselves are ranked in relation to the ideal world religion of (Protestant) Christianity whose civilizing (morally uplifting) power is aligned with the imperial dominance of European humanity. Secularism, however, trumps world religion by bringing the pure essence of Christianity to expression (“civilizing” morality). This is the point that both Masuzawa’s Invention of World Religions and Fitgerald’s Discourse on Civility and Barbarity agree upon: secularism constructs its other, religion, within the larger category of Europe, whether understood racially (Aryan) or as the telos of a civilizing process. Barber develops this insight about the logic of secularism within his larger point about the working of the logic of universalist supersessionism that begins with Christianity’s construction of itself as the one true faith within the category of faith (religion). This takes us to Barber’s claim about how to break with this logic in favor of a logic of immanence and diaspora, the topic of the last section of his chapter, “Differential Antagonism.”

To understand what Barber intends with his logic of immanence and diaspora, a return to the linguistic structure of marked and unmarked terms may be helpful. What would it look like to reject an understanding of, say, “width” as it is constructed through the binarism of “wide” and “narrow”? Instead of speaking about width as measuring two kinds of things, wide things primarily and narrow things as falling short of attaining the full measure of the wide things, we would talk rather about a force of extension that pushes outward from a center to the periphery. This force would not itself be measured in any finite width, but would rather operate within a differential field of extended objects, each occupying a certain width or span of space by virtue of the force pushing outward from its center to its peripheries. The expansive force would only be able to fill a certain region of space through these differential relations, and no single size or width would be identifiable as the defining or dominant center of the region. Nor is any single region of space the measure of the expansive force. Rather, the force grows greater by virtue of the multiplicity of the center-periphery divisions within the region, with new folds upon folds, proliferating within the topographic space. With Barber, one could say that there is no “measure of unity” within this differential space, but rather an “immeasureability of immanent surplus” (98) of expansive force. This immeasureable force is always expressed in a particular topography but it is also able to reconfigure every given topography. With greater differentiation comes a greater intensity of the force. What would this look like if we apply it to the Christianity/religion/secularism field? Barber suggests that the logic of diasporic immanence would seize upon the differential relations among the three terms and, rather than attempt to construct some higher synthesis at higher plane, it would rather multiply and intensify the particularities within and between the three categories. Barber calls for a sort of Babelizing of the categories (98). Babel is an apt image for the effect of diasporic immanence. Babel names the condition of possibility of translation (interparticularity as Barber calls it), of dispersion that disrupts the human effort to construct an all-embracing universal “name” to cover the earth. Presumably, the “name” that humanity sought to construct for itself was in competition with the “name” of God, the name that refuses to be instrumentalized (“I AM”), the only name of immeasureable and unnameable immanence that the Hebrew Bible is willing to give to God. But if “human” (adam) is one of the fictive significations of this name (the Bible would say, adam is created in the image of God), is it necessarily wrong to think of it as one name, as a universal name? Is the attempt by humanity to replace its name for God’s name necessarily flawed, so that only particularity remains? Is there no place for the concept of the oneness of humanity? This takes me to my final remarks:

I want to return to the case that informs this chapter and also earlier chapters: Christianity’s supersessionist construction of Judaism as a religion. While this may look like a case that only is important for the beginning of the story that Barber tells in this chapter, it also is important for secularism’s supersession of Christianity. In the work of Bruno Bauer that Marx made famous, On the Jewish Question, Bauer precisely sees the question facing the Germany nation to be tied to the question of the place of the Jews in the nation. For Bauer, if the Jews ask for rights, they cannot be granted rights. The Jews, so long as they ask for rights as a particular group, fail to understand that the modern, secular nation state only grants rights to individuals qua individuals. This point has been understood by Protestant Christians, says Bauer, who have agreed to make their religion a matter of private confession rather than part of their public, social identity. So, Bauer is constructing the state as the universal that supersedes religion within the category of the human. The citizen within the state, he says, is the paradigmatic instance of the universal category of humanity. It happens that Christianity is the religion most adapted to this universal category, Bauer argues, because it is most adapted to the freedom of religion that the state guarantees its citizens as individuals under the law. Jews, however, when they seek to have recognition by the state as equals under the law, do not understand that when they ask for equal rights as Jews they are only showing how little prepared they are for life in the state: they must ask simply for equal rights as humans, which means they must stop identifying themselves as Jews. (This is precisely the same argument we often hear today in Europe, raised against the alleged inability of Muslims to be participants in a liberal nation state.) We know what Marx responds to Bauer. He says: you think that the state, insofar as it guarantees equality to citizens as individuals under the law, is neutral in respect of religion. But this so-called neutral (secular) state has only brought Christianity to its formal perfection by creating a transcendent identity beyond all empirical (social) differences, the transcendent identity of the citizen. And, in the actual social life of the state where individuals are thrown into their empirical differences (as members of this or that profession, or as workers, soldiers, etc.), you are not free from religion either. You have only brought Judaism to its formal perfection, since Judaism is based on the abstract difference between God (as owner and producer) and the world (as product). So, the privatized social realm of economic competition is Jewish, and the universal realm of the law is Christian.

I take Marx to be making a polemical point against Bauer when he seems to disparage Judaism as the religion that, in its form if not its content, is perfectly adapted to capitalism (Jews worship Mamon). I think that Marx is attempting to uncover the logic of universalist supersessionism at work in Bauer’s defense of the liberal state. I therefore think that Barber’s analysis of secularism’s relation to Christianity can profitably be read against the background of Marx’s critique of Bauer. But Marx does not want to dispense with the category of the universal, humanity. This is what I find important and what I want to connect with my question about Babel and its aftermath. Marx disputes the identification of the human as such with the citizen of the liberal state, but his criticism of Bauer’s universalist supersessionism is expressed in the name of the oneness of (classless) humanity. Now unlike Marx, it seems that Barber wants to dispense with the category of the universal “humanity” altogether, since it is inevitably tied to the plane of reality that is (falsely, ideologically) transcendent. Barber rightfully charges the logic of universalist supersessionism with always constructing a dominant instance within the category that seeks to legitimize itself as the paradigmatic particular that embodies the universal. In place of the universal, Barber wants us to imagine a differential, interparticular immanence. And I am very sympathetic with this call to transcend transcendence, so to speak. But here is my worry: Could Jews have won equal rights in Germany under a regime of diasporic interparticularity? Marx, while criticizing the logic of universalist supersessionism at work in Bauer, in fact said that in the liberal state it is pure social prejudice that stands in the way of equal rights for Jews. Under the law, Jews and Christians should be treated equally, he argued. One should not require Jews to first become “Christians” (to sever their ties to the people and accept their identity as a private confession) in order to enter the state. Marx saw that the universal principle of equality before the law had emancipatory potential, but he did not think it was the end-point of emancipation. What drove Marx’s emancipatory claims was a conviction that humanity was not always only a contestation of classes or parties. I am not arguing for Marxian humanism, but I am worried about abandoning the idea (as a sort of Kantian Idea) of humanity (not reducible to our species, so perhaps we ought to find another name, or leave it as I-AM-FICTIVE-SIGNIFIERS, IAFS for short?). I think that Marx understood something that we, perhaps, take for granted: that the law, as a form of universality in which claims for recognition can be articulated by unrecognized (or “marked”) groups, has a powerful force for emancipating difference. Of course, it can also homogenize difference, but this is when the content of the word “citizen” is given one fixed definition. If we combine Barber’s call for diasporic interparticularity with an acknowledgment of the universality of the category of “human” as comprising those who can say “I AM” before the law and thus articulate (signify) a claim for equal recognition, could we not perhaps find a place for this one universal, so long as it is never concretized in a single unmarked term, but always open? And wouldn’t this be a way to secure a place for the law within immanence?  How can Christianity evade supersessionism so long as it only turns its back on the law? This is not a criticism of Barber, but a call for reflection about the possibility of a universalism beyond transcendence.

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24 Responses to “On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 4, “Christianity, Religion, and the Secular””

  1. Patrik Says:

    This is the chapter where I start to get a bit confused, that is by the use of “religion” here, the claim that Christianity creates the notion of religion. When is this supposed to have taken place? It certainly cannot be true if we focus on the term religion which is not used in that sense before the 17th century as far as I know, and than is created by the early secularism to denote primarily various kinds of Christianity. Or if you disagree with this view (as presented by e.g. Cavanaugh), that too might have been addressed. I may be to locked down into historical arguments here, but I would have appreciated a discussion on the term religion, since it plays such a central role in the argument from this point on in the book.

  2. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    @Patrick: Dan argues that the beginning of the construction of Christianity as the paradigmatic case of the category ¨religion,¨ which is also being constructed along with Christianity as the ¨unmarked” term in the category of ¨religion,” is in the first centuries of the Common Era. The point Dan makes is that religion ceases to be the traditional pattern of cultic behavior of an ethnic community when, following Paul, to be reborn in Christ is to be ¨disembedded” from oneś ethnic identification. Iḿ sorry to have left this out. The later construction of religion in the 17th century simply follows upon the identification of Christianity as the true religion, so that ¨religion¨ then mostly is shorthand for Religion, i.e., Christianity.

  3. dbarber Says:

    Patrik, I am familiar with the claim of Cavanaugh, and some others, that “religion” begins in early modernity. I argue in the book that while there is certainly something new happening here, this novelty should be seen as a transmutation of a concept of religion that goes back to early Christianity. Hence my citation of Lactantius, and my discussion of / reference to the scholarly work of Boyarin, primarily.

    Beyond the historical issues, there is a theoretical-political issue at work, namely that the Cavanaugh thesis, like the thesis of Milbank or even of Carter (of course we’ve had about this on this blog before – readers should see my footnote on Carter’s work), allows Christianity to exist at some point prior to its involvement in some “x” that must today be opposed. So, w/r/t religion, Cavanaugh allows a critical relation to religion and its role in modernity, but refuses to see the way the early modern emergence of religion is indebted to / a transmutation of Christianity *as such*. I take this to be an important point in this chapter.

  4. dbarber Says:

    Bruce, thanks so much for your post — it’s not just a sophisticated rearticulation of what I’m doing, it’s also a very challenging engagement. I am very much in favor of IAFS, i think… You are right that I am very suspicious of any kind of universality. This is because, among other things, I am not sure how to think the universal independent of the various genealogical-historical formations that I mention in this chapter, i.e. Christianity and secularism. I wouldn’t want to advance these, and my tendency is to wager that “better” forms of universalism are just the newest in a line of descent running from Christianity, to secularism, to the better form of universalism, etc.

    Of course I don’t think you are recommending this — first, because of the emphasis you give to fictive signification, and second, because of the subversive-interpellative agency that you emphasize. That is, you are not promoting a new, better universal (except at most ficitively), you are emphasizing the way a given form of universality can be used for ends that are not inscribed in that form by the “form-makers.” I’m very much into this line of thought. And let me add: i absolutely would not want interparticularity to do away with the law … doing away with the law is yet another version of the very Christian-secular development I’m trying to get out of. My sense / hope is that the import of discursvie tradition, the necessity of signification, etc., would stand against the use of namelessness for any abolition of the law.

    And it would be interesting to hear what others think on this issue, or on other concerns that emerge in the chapter…

  5. Patrik Says:

    I admit that the reason I get distracted by this issue is that I come from an Early Christian Studies background and I’m not a philosopher, but I’d still claim there is a problem here. I realize Dan is not trying to make a historical argument, but it seems to be an argument made on historical presuppositions. The problem is not so much if religion is a modern concept or not, but the fact that it is mostly treated as a stable concept which in content seems to be very close to the modern use of it. That is, even if we lay aside the question if the term religio was used in a widespread fashion before 1700, whatever we call religion would be very different things pre 380 and post for example, as well as during the high middle ages and so on. One could, for example, argue (though this would be to simplify) that that wheras the pre-constantinian church did move towards what could be called religion, because of the process Dan describes well, where the cultic practecies are divorced from ethnic identity, this process would at least in part be reversed with the gradual fusion between church and empire, so that, again, “the teachings of one’s ancestors … was essentially not open to question”. So which Christianity created religion?

    This means that I am not sure the Lactantius quote says what Dan wants it to say. As I read it what is new here is the concept that there is a false way to worship, not that the right way is a religion.

    I want to repeat that I think this is mostly an issue about clarity, that makes me confused about how and in what way the relationship about Christianity and the secular is perceived here, e.g. is it Christianity in power or not?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The explanation for why the concept of “religion” would be used here in a way analogous to its modern use is that the modern use is itself based on the Christian “invention” of religion. I do think that Dan is making a historical argument that has to be assessed on that level, but at the same time, I’m not sure the concerns you’re raising are relevant.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    For instance, it’s clear that Christianity became primarily inherited in the Middle Ages when everyone was a Christian. Nevertheless, theologians insisted that adult baptism was the normative form and infant baptism was a permitted exception — even though probably no one had seen an adult baptism performed. The conviction that religious identity was something achieved rather than simply given remained firm, even when it would have been easy to reimagine Christianity along the lines of pre-Christian “ethnic” religious traditions.

  8. Patrik Says:

    That’s a good point, though that just makes the question more pertinent – although that probably was true for theologians it probably wasn’t for most Christians. So who’s Christianity are we talking about here?

    I do not want to make this into a big deal, I guess I just would like some clarification as to *when* Christianity was supposedly turned into a “religion” – that is I do not question that it happened, I’m just not sure when Dan thinks it happens, which is relevant because it would clarify what kind of Christianity this happened to.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems pretty clear that we’re talking about “normative” Christianity, not folk Christianity or whatever — the kind of Christianity orthodox bishops and theologians espouse. That kind of Christianity presented itself as paradigmatic of a new form of achieved identity based on correct belief, i.e., what Dan is calling “religion” (in order to make the case that that new form of identity prefigures in some way the modern concept of “religion” that follows in the wake of secularism). It doesn’t matter whether the church fathers used the specific term religion or whether other people used the same term with a different meaning. The important thing is the conceptual structure, which I’m going to say is almost impossible to miss in the proto-orthodox church fathers.

  10. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Daniel, one of the things that I like very much about your book is its staunch refusal to jettison the categories that you call into question. There is, as you argue, a real problem with the Pauline claim to find a higher universality in Christ, a universality that transcends ethnicity. Of course, one would not want to embrace ethnicity as such, either, since that would–given the logic you expose in this chapter–turn to racism (as indeed it has).

    One point I would make in relation to the notion that Christianity constructs Judaism as a religion: all the biblical religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–differ from their inception with the cultic-traditional form of religion that is tied to ethnicity. Letś not forget that biblical Israel was always open to new members from other ethnicities (and the very term Hebrew very likely referred to border-crossing deterritorialized groups with no fixed ethnic identity.) The idea that Aristotle maintains about the superiority of the Greek ethnos in contrast to the barbaroi is foreign to biblical Israel. This biblical anti-ethnos principle, together with the biblical principle of the oneness of humanity, is not just one among many possible diasporic positions, but rather, I would like to suggest, the very same thing as diaspora. There can only be diaspora once we break the link between ethnos and territory and god, and this is the revolution that the bible brings about in the ancient world. I am pretty sure that you, Daniel, would not be willing to embrace an identification of diaspora with the message of the Hebrew Bible (letś say Deuteronomy to pick one exemplary text). You might object that I am creating a ¨pure¨ or ¨original¨ image of the Bible, and that it´s better to see diaspora as one configuration of the Bible, and not the ¨essential¨ one. But if you are right to put the invention of religion back in the first centuries of the Common Era, perhaps you will allow me at least to put the invention of diaspora back to Deuteronomy, perhaps earlier.

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    So I had read Dan’s book in manuscript form a little over a year ago and have always shared my writing with him. Dan is an incredible thinker on his feet, whereas I need to sit in a dark room for six months to figure out what I’m trying to say, untangling cliches from coherent thoughts, etc. But the one thing that really struck me about this chapter, in distinction to the rest, was I didn’t feel at home with it. With almost all of Dan’s other work I feel like I’m reading a better version of my internal dialogue, but I think we really differ on the question of the universal. I’m really taken by his critique, which is hard to argue with, but I worry that it sets up traditions/discourses as normative in themselves. I don’t think ultimately Dan will support that, since that would go against the differential character of diaspora, but my question is going to come from the opposite side of Bruce’s question (btw, great post!). Can one ever leave/escape their home discourse? I get the feeling almost that there is a sense of ground or even authenticity assumed in the chapter here that give me pause, or at least I could see someone exploiting this and running with it as a version of MacIntyre. So for me the problem of a universal can usually be escaped if it’s given a form like poverty or even diaspora (I think this would avoid the marked language), and this acts out the IAFS in a way that doesn’t trap the I am in a community.

  12. Brad Johnson Says:

    I think I align more closely with Anthony & Bruce on this question, though I am eager to see Dan’s response In response to Anthony’s question “Can one ever leave/escape their home discourse?” my sense is that, yes, one can — but only inasmuch as one has/lays claim to the freedom to name that discourse, rather than having it named (or marked) for them. For in laying a claim to a name — a name that itself, in turn, imposes names — is significant, I think, because it betrays the fictive nature not only of the names imposed on others, but the ones claimed of oneself. This is especially true for the most poor prol &/or slave, because her claim of, say, equality, is it itself an imposition on what “counts” as the right-to-name. Indeed, all the better when she makes no appeal to propriety in her imposition. She, properly speaking, “has no right” to assert her right; insofar as she devices a way to do so anyway, the right denied her is not so much now superseded by a new one as it is hollowed out as fundamentally & constitutively fictive.

    As such, in my view, then, the question is less “Can one ever leave/escape . . .” is perhaps less of a priority than the construction of “Can one ever create their home discourse?” If the answer to the latter is truly affirmative, than the implications seem that the former would be as well.

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    Relatedly . . . I’ve brought this up with Dan before, but thought I might put it “on the record here.” Re: Boyarin’s thesis concerning the Christianity’s conceptual construction of religion — this would, it seems, make Islam a striking (perhaps even singular) case in that it would not so much have been determined (w/ respect to Christianity) as a religion, but actually emerges on its own, by way of its own self-identification, as a religion? This may bring Barth’s comments re: Nazism & Islam into even more striking focus.

  14. dbarber Says:

    It is the case, as Bruce says, that I would be hesitant to ascribe an essential meaning to the Bible but, having said that, yes, I am very much in agreement with the idea that diaspora is Deuteronomic, for instance, in origin. Obviously one would want to have a diaspora of diasporas, such that are many versions of diaspora, etc., but this shouldn’t occlude that there is, historically, an invention of diaspora, and that this invention is biblical (in the sense, Bruce, that you put it). This is, from Anthony’s point of view, perhaps, to continue to overemphasize traditions. Of course I’d disagree, and along the lines of Anthony’s comment I’d want to ask what it is that makes what I’m saying advocate a *home* discourse. Certainly there’s nothing in diaspora that would call for anything like never leaving home, or of trying to make one’s home discourse out-narrate the discourse of others. In a sense, one can never be “in” one’s home discourse, given the namelessness that is inelidably there in each and any tradition.

    Or, to address the milder challenge, in what sense does this set up discourses as normative in themselves? It is the case, of course, that because I affirm the necessity of signification, i affirm the necessity of tradition, discourse, etc. But because i affirm namlessness, i see all traditions as intrinsically inconsistent, and ethics as requiring the affirmation of this inconsistency. So I’m not clear how this makes any tradition normative. Rather, what i’m getting at is the way there is no discourse about universality that is not indebted to the particularity of a tradition. Hence my affirmation of Bruce’s point that diaspora, as a kind of inoculation against and / or substitute for universality, arises from a particular tradition. I wonder whether Bruce would see the oneness of humanity as similar to what Anthony’s saying w/r/t a better universality?

    I am, to say it very clearly, absolutely for a horizon that would be what we call universal in scope. But I think the tradition of talking about the universal — and here i am very Freudian — could be seen as an attempt, by “the West,” to repress / refuse the insight about diaspora that Bruce locates already in Deuteronomy. Or, to paraphrase Taubes, i would say, as an apocalyptic, let universality go down! (i.e. i don’t think universality should be separated from sovereignty)

    Brad, I think i’m completely in agreement with the second paragraph of your first comment. That is, i don’t think it’s a question of getting out of one’s home discourse, to the universal or the simple unnamed, or whatever. This would be a fantasy. Rather, as you put it, it’s a matter of naming oneself through the signfication in which one already finds oneself, using the intrinsic inconsistency of signification for the task of re-creation / flight. (The Islam question is a really brilliant one … my hunch is to see Islam in terms of an oppositional mimesis of universality.)

  15. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    As I said, I find your critique of universalism very persuasive, but nevertheless I still feel drawn to something like the radical immanence or namelessness of creatural life prior to community. Still, my only way of criticizing your position is to ask about possible pitfalls, which isn’t a very strong approach and risks being rather tepid anyway. But, still, I guess I see it as a “home discourse” precisely because I am an American. We’re not a people in the historical sense of that term, American identity is pretty self-consciously constructed, it’s rootless, and yet our rootlessness still constitutes a kind of home discourse in that way. So, in part my concern is to be able to be diasporic in that context, to avoid diaspora itself failing, or becoming disfigured, the wrong state of things, transcendental illusion, or whatever you might want to call it. But that said, taking on board the idea that perhaps I’m repressing something, maybe my attraction to universalism arises in part because that is my home discourse as an American coming out of a family split between hardcore, White atheism (I think people will catch my meaning) and hardcore, White evangelicalism.

    I don’t know. This chapter has been a real challenge, one I keep thinking about it and I think I’m going to make the topic of a paper where I actually think through this more carefully.

    As a side note, what do people think about using On Diaspora in a class of non-major undergraduates?

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I used Dan’s article from the edited volume after assigning them selections from Asad and Boyarin, and they found it very difficult. The terminology was a big obstacle for most of them — but at the same time, they seemed to find it cool that it was so contemporary and by someone I knew, so that pushed them to work harder at it in some cases.

  17. david cl driedger Says:

    It seems that if you can figure out the appropriate preparatory work (as Adam seems to have tried) then I think Dan’s work is actually quite ‘clear’ in its internal development at least as far as broadly ‘getting’ when he is talking about. I think at least some readings in Dan’s work would be accessible. I would wager that most developed undergrads interested in the intersection of these things would be fairly invested in exploring ideas around transcendence and immanence that don’t readily map onto popular notions.

  18. david cl driedger Says:

    I also find it totally cool.

  19. Mark William Westmoreland Says:

    I’m not sure about non-major undergrads. I would definitely consider using chapter 4 in an upper-level philosophy course on Political Theology, in which the focus on the so-called secularization thesis. Similarly, I would use consider chapter 3 for an upper-level theology course on Pauline Literature.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Is it possible I’m the first person ever to teach Dan’s work? It seems like the only competition would be if someone used the Yoder essay in a class before me.

  21. Ahab Says:

    How would you, Bruce or others, define the essential difference regarding “a universality that transcends ethnicity” between “Pauline Christianity” and the fact that “biblical Israel was always open to new members from other ethnicities (and the very term Hebrew very likely referred to border-crossing deterritorialized groups with no fixed ethnic identity.)” That seems to be an important question in relation to Dan’s marvelous book.

    The reason I ask is because I wonder if there isn’t another way of thinking the “humanism” of Marx and therefore universalism as such, namely as a product of the real universalisation of man as proletarians that capitalism produces, and that this universalism more or less could be thought as a radicalization of the “disembeddedeness” that maybe Paul can be a symbol for. But, nota bene, only metaphorically.

    The reason why Taubes and Agamben, for example, returns to Paul, seems to be that they both want to radicalize the Pauline break with cultic behavior and ethnic community that for them both still seems to structure the West. Agamben and Taubes acknowledges the fact that it is Paul’s roots in biblical Israel, so to speak, that creates this possibility of a transcending of the tribal community of West, or at least the creation of a community based on the hos me. But is this really possible without a transcendent or at least universal notion of either man, god or change?

    What’s interesting with Taubes is that he never seems to break with the transcendence, as he says in relation to the Barth who wrote Der Römerbrief: if the door opens, it will open from the outside. Or to quote Taubes more directly: “Could not the theological negation of the mundane realm be catalytic for philosophy in developing categories of dialectics by which it can unmask the conventional element in what poses as man’s perennial nature and point beyond the status quo to the ideal standard by which man may be judged?”

    Dan’s book is of course an attack against “the ideal standard”, the universal, as such, but is it meaningful to think transcendence or universality as an empty, abstract form: that is as only a game of the marked and the unmarked. It seems more interesting to see how, for example, politics or “religion” tries to change the relation between the marked and the unmarked term and that we therefore have to think the universal and the transcendent as a concrete universal. I am not saying that D is not with me here but the transcendence that at least Taubes finds in Paul seems to imply a hope for a transcending of the dialectic between the marked and unmarked, immanence and transcendence, through a notion of a “Great Outdoors” so to speak. Taubes reading of Paul seems at last to imply some sort of absolute, or transcending movement, rather than that the marked term – the immanent – becomes a new universal. The genius with Dan’s book seems to be to accept that Paul failed, and that a return to, for example, a Pauline Christianity is always a nostalgic, nonsensical game of counterfactuals: “if only…”, “if only…” So even if we accept that the invention of diaspora is biblical we still have to ask with Anthony whatever that means as the Biblical tradition as such – not only Christianity – have failed to keep the compromise of the Diaspora. If I understand Dan right, it is this _fact_ that he tries to conceptualize and understand, but I wonder if the conclusion must be a rejection of universalism or transcendence in toto.

    For Marx, as a thinker of immanence par excellance, the universalisation that he conceptualizes seems to have no structural relation to Christianity or Judaism, but to the emergence of capital as a mode of production. This universality could be understood as related to Christianity, but that would only be a metaphorical understanding of the concrete universalisation that primitive accumulation creates in its real and universal proletarisation of man. It is this universalisation that creates a possibility for communism which necessary is a real break with both religion qua Christianity, but also and end of “religion” as the traditional pattern of cultic behavior or an ethnic community. Communism in this way seems to be an immanent transcendent notion, a rupture with what we are that are born from the fact that capital disembedds us from every ethnic, cultic or religious community. Many Protestant Theologians have tried to conceptualize this process of secularization as the truth of Christianity, but isn’t this just ideology? A way to escape the fact that capital isn’t shaped by the ideas of Luther, Calvin or the Church Fathers – whatever Weber or Agamben thinks – but rather by the historical and material processes that are reflected in philosophy and theology as thoughts and which therefore always can be reduced to “German Ideology”. To me it seems necessary to think emancipation as part of the universalisation of the proletariat as a concrete universal, and therefore as a concrete universalisation of the possibility of emancipation from the West – both the biblical and philosophical West – and religion as such. Am I wrong if I think that you are also up to something like the same, Daniel? Or maybe I just should keep on reading your fantastic book?

  22. dbarber Says:

    Ahab, those are really interesting comments, the sort i need to think about for awhile. I think you are very right to speak of what I’m trying to think of as *a fact* — a fact of failure, and a fact (to tie this back to the question of universalism) that tends to be ignored when we think about universalism, as if the fact of universalism’s failure, or of the various failures of universalism, were irrelevant to the need to conceive the universal. Yes, the universal has failed, but surely that’s all the more reason to re-conceive the universal (the king is dead, long live the king, etc.) … so the thought pattern seems to be. I think you are right to point out how this avoids the critique posed by materialism. Might there be something emerging, “universally,” that would require emancipation from the universal? This would be a Marx, slightly twisted perhaps. In any case, a proletariat, or even the multitude, which does sound somewhat diasporic. I am trying to move along these lines in my work, though such an idea is only briefly adverted to towards the very end.

    One question i’d ask, to Anthony or whomever would look for a universal, is: why can’t diaspora be the universal? or what is it that diaspora lacks, but the universal has? or what is it that diaspora is taking away?

  23. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Dan,

    Great response. And I would put the question back to you, “why can’t diaspora be the universal?” and the response created in our differential performance of that question could itself move towards reconfiguring how these words function. I guess I had avoided making that leap in part because it seemed like it was off limits, so would you say that diaspora could be the universal? And the only worry I have with diaspora is a question about whether or not it lacks the commons, in some sense, but not a commons that reduces humans and other creatural life to the dialectic of the unmarked and marked term (really helpful of Bruce to bring that in). So, it may be a repressed thing, but the fear of “OK, we’re disasporic, so if you leave the community, you’re giving in to the marked term of things”. But of course plenty of people within diasporic communities stand up to themselves to others within the community using resources from the diasporic community, so perhaps it is a white man’s fear. Still thinking about this.

  24. dbarber Says:

    Thanks for the response. My quick response to the question would be that diaspora cannot be the universal because the latter has failed, and that failure cannot be “forgiven.” And that every return to the universal, in new / redeemed / better form, is doing something like that. To paraphrase Malcolm X’s critique of Christian universality, some things just can’t be atoned for, sometimes atonement is impossible. So along those lines I’m looking just to do violence to the very name of the universal, and all that goes with it. Note, of course, that diaspora is not just the inverse of that, it is not sheer particularity, etc. So in that sense diaspora is neither “the universal” nor “not the universal.”

    I have a hunch that some of your concern about consequences of diaspora stem from the fact that you seem to think of communities *as* diasporic, i.e. you’re thinking of diaspora adjectivally. Whereas my goal (one that i may of course slip away from at times in the book) is to think of diaspora as noun. So diaspora wouldn’t be something that flows out of pre-determined communities, it would be the (perhaps eternal) differential relations on which any community depends (and usually denies) and which undermine any community’s identity, including the community of those without community.


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