On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 5, “The Differentiality of Differentialities”

The first line of Barber’s introduction (as other commenters have already noted) cautions that the book is “not easily placed.” Indeed, parsing through the bibliography and table of contents of this boldly named book with a flesh-tone cover, I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of it. But, by the third chapter, I’d become somehow convinced that it was directly responding to the guttural concerns about religion that sucked me into the field in the first place. I once found it inspiring to be an uncounted (and unaccountable) nomad in the world of “identitarian” religious belonging. I had an intuition that uncharted space existed—that some religio-spiritual intellectual space existed that was open to play and invention, where people might crib from those dominant traditions when necessary, without feeling the need to be accountable to them by some form of blood pact. Years ago, I convinced myself that theology was a suitable place to do this. But, almost in spite of the speculative absurdity of its own history, theology remains a discipline that’s deeply bound to the stolid structures of academic Christianity. I’ve gotten a bit weary. Perhaps some of the spit and vinegar has seeped out of me. Barber’s project is a little breath of possibility, for the way that it both occupies and yet also deterriotorializes that theological infrastructure. The book may not be easily placed, but there’s something in its intrinsic logic that I find easy to affirm.

What does this fifth chapter do? It begins by drawing our attention explicitly to what will have already become painfully obvious to the sympathetic reader: we’re afflicted. The public structures (Christianity, religion, secularism) that compete for loyalty appear, upon analysis, as forms of dominational affliction. “What would it mean to be cured of this affliction?” (115) It would mean, first, that the cure is not to be found in some outside order—some transcendent plane. The always too immanent poison will (something like a vaccination) have to be the cure. This is because, Barber argues, transcendence works like a kind of fantasy that “functions to conceal the very nature of the affliction.” (116) Transcendence is the opium. In this case, the cure then resides within the problematic discursive tradition itself.

Barber engages, in this chapter, two primary interlocutors who—by his account—appear to create diasporic relations with the Christianity in question. They work to cure it from within. In the work of John Howard Yoder, Barber finds a new form of “history-telling” and, thus, a more diasporic form of temporality. Using the example of the Christian-Jewish schism, Yoder points to the contingency of history (it didn’t have to be this way). The implication is that this reveals the contingent and “differential milieu” (119) from which Christian history and identity emerge. Christianity has always, in other words, been contingent and discontinuous. It is originarily problematic. It is here that Barber sources Catherine Keller’s work on Christian origin stories and the creatio ex nihilo doctrine. Against the orthodox claim that the Christian creating god made the world out of a zero-material state, Keller points to the Genesis image of God’s breath working its way across the tehomic deep space chaos that is already there. Barber stresses that this isn’t an origin story that simply replaces the transcendent creator with a transcendent chaos (130). Instead Barber threads this back into his apocalyptic, suggesting that what Keller calls the “tehomic ethic” (that bears with the ever-present chaos), indicates that “there is no origin nor end, only an immanently apocalyptic depth of reality.” (131) The act that Barber calls “fabulation” (the diasporic mode of [hi]story-telling that counters rigid identitarian forms) constructively experiments with this chaotic, apocalyptic potentiality. Due to the fabulative “origins” of Christianity, religion, and the secular Barber calls for each to abandon heresiology and cultivate a new relation with this chaotic excess. He ends by evoking what sort of secular we might be left with, in such a scenario: a secular that functions not as a plane but as “power of namelessness” (144) that stirs in interparticularities and seeks “commonality.” This would be, as I read it, a secular that does not transcend but—rather—gets into the marrow of the bones of public life. It would work interstitially.

There are many things I could say here, and many things I’d like to. But I will try to keep my comments brief.

First, I wish there had been more reflection on the particular sort of secular that he’s illuminating: the diasporic secular. I feel that the secular turn in his book occurred rather late and I was left wanting some concrete examples of what this “power of namelessness” would look, or sound, like in action. How it would work, in other words. I have intuitions. But those aren’t always accurate.

I was also wondering why Barber didn’t make reference to Keller’s work on apocalyptics. He shifts from her work on the tehomic in Face of the Deep into his own reading of the apocalyptic. I would have been interested to know how Barber’s apocalyptic might have been conversant with Keller’s “counter-apocalyptics” (Apocalypse Now and Then or God and Power) which resonates selectively with the script of apocalypse but reads it differentially.

In a more general sense, I appreciate the way Barber strategically turned Christian discourse back on itself (the old “poison is the cure” thing). I like the way that the immanentized eschaton functions as form of careful attention to interparticularity and, especially, the relations that exist in those interparcticular spaces. I read this as the cultivation of a hope or faith in the deep potential of differential relations—one that’s respectfully teased out from the the cracks between confessional treasures…those ancient icons of thought. I do realize, however, that using the poison as an intellectual cure is not quite the same thing as a vaccination. I’m wondering what would keep a diasporic “cure” from becoming an apologetic.

I do think, personally, that this immanent and diasporic apocalyptic has real potential to refresh the sort of impetus that once resided in the now stale figure of a pluralistic universe (this is, of course, the sort of cosmic pluralism that William James was originally envisioning in his 1909 A Pluralistic Universe). And Barber does suggest that there is some inherent resonance between pluralism and diaspora, that diaspora is a “tendency toward pluralism” (125). But, of course, to the extent that pluralism itself functions as a transcendent subset of the secular, with its own universal regulations that dictate identitarian belonging, diaspora would resist it. I think this is helpful and actually seems more able to nurture the co-existence and co-constitution of pluralities than the classic pluralistic paradigm.

My deepest curiosity about the text, at this point, is whether diaspora is dissonant—to some degree—with theological advances made by William James and A.N. Whitehead. What I’m speaking of, particularly, is the decoupling of the divine and the absolute that James argued was so necessary and Whitehead worked out meticulously through his ontological cosmology in Process and Reality. I’m speaking, especially, of how these thinkers resisted Christendom’s assertion that God is the absolute, the “outermost sphere” (to put it in more Schmittian terms). The philosophical issue of the absolute is not the central theological question (this was James’ issue with the British Hegelians of his day). The intimacy between humans and the divine, James suggested, was not between a tiny creature and a totalitarian forcefield of power. Instead, as Whitehead suggested, God was a creature, too. The only non-temporal creature, but a creature nonetheless—an earthling, or perhaps simply a worlded entity. God becomes an actualized particularity who is also, like other creatures, vulnerable. This affects the kind of metaphysical work that the divine is able (and willing) to do. It affects the relations between creature/creator, human/divine. Implications are myriad. I wont get too caught up in them here. Suffice it to say that James believed that a pluralistic universe would include the gods and was not governed or contained by them—they were part of the mix, part of the mess, and were perhaps (from some angles) another form of “cosmic litter”.

The decoupling between the divine and the absolute hovers (if only suggestively) in the background of Keller’s tehomic ethic. I say this because Keller has been deeply influenced by the Whiteheadian process tradition of thought. This decoupling illuminates the relational distance between the creative breath of God and the Deep that this figure—poised for creation—hovers over. As I understand, it is this relational distance which opens up the space for a love that allows us (as Barber quotes her) to bear with the chaos. God’s distance from the Deep (the divinity’s position within what James would call the pluralistic universe) creates the breathing room for us to cultivate this love connection that feeds the tehomic ethic.

The relation between God and the absolute in Barber’s work is still not crystal clear, to me. My suspicion is that, insofar as one can speak of things divine in Barber’s scheme, God and the absolute are deeply entwined. The name of God appears, in this text, in the Spinozan sense. We have the one immanent substance (could this, here, accurately be called the absolute?) that’s named God or Nature. To be fair, this scheme does not stage the divine name as a transcendent absolute. But the split-identity of substance seems to bear the name of either God or Nature and thus appears to belong to an absolutely immanent substance. And Barber problematizes the creatureliness of the divine as part and parcel of a “rival paradigm”  that he names “Philosophical Delimitation” (PD). He criticizes Heidegger, especially, for his charge that god-talk “must be classified together with all other statements regarding beings.” (12) That is, God too is dependent upon a kind of horizon that mortalizes him into a being. God, too, is contingent. Barber doesn’t appear to have problems with the limits that this would place on God. Instead, he contests the disciplinary limits that this places on divine logics (theology) from the vantage point of philosophy. But I’m worried that his determination of the “proper” role of theology might actually foreclose on some theological options—potentially heretical ones, at that (as we might remember that there is an old orthodox allergy to the creatureliness of Christ, better understood as The God-Man.)

Barber certainly affirms, in this book, fabulation and fictiveness. So I would assume that, in a general sense, the old intellectual icons that give names to the divine might play any number of roles in diasporic thought. But I’m curious to know how much this God-or-Nature figure would name the absolute. And would this indeed, as I’ve been musing, foreclose on the possibility that God (or the gods) might be creatures, earthings, or beings, as well? Could divinity ever be effectively actualized into a particular, contingent, entity? Would we be thrown back into an Augustinian logic, where the one divine substance has the “habit” of taking on quasi-mortal form (in Augustine’s case, either as God-Man or the spirit)? Diasporic thought accommodates contingent identities, but would it also be able to deal with the speculative hot mess that we get with contingent divinities, as well?

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9 Responses to “On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 5, “The Differentiality of Differentialities””

  1. dbarber Says:

    Beatrice, thanks for a really insightful and engaging response. There are so many lines of discussion here, so i’ll just try to pick up a few main points, perhaps others want to jump in as well. I think you are right about virtually everything you say, i.e. you are zeroing in on a lot of the fissures that i myself felt … for instance the question of a diasporic secularity, what exactly that would look like? And the question of whether diaspora could be used as an apologetic for certain traditions … while this is something that, by the letter of my text here, i think is strictly impossible, we all know that performance can go in a number of directions. (I know some people would want to read my work here as a kind of redemption of the historical Christian tradition, for instance, which again would be an apologetic, one that i hope it is explicit that my argument would prohibit.) Most importantly, i’m very sympathetic to the notion of divine creatures, divinities as cosmic litter, and so on … and I’m in agreement that i don’t really address it. It’s a great question, and my initial thought would be that my insistence on the necessity of signification might be read as one on the necessity of contingent divinities. I get into the notion, mainly, of substance as God/or/Nature, which is to focus on namelessness and signification, but it seems possible to think divinity not just in terms of namelessness, not just in terms of naming, or “the name,” but also in terms of a plurality of gods. Again, i’m completely in agreement, and i think i’d need to develop my account of signification’s necessity in this direction… in any case, this is an initial try at these really excellent qeustions.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    I, too, was struck by your use of the term & concept “cure.” Now, before I continue, I want to insure you understand my thought is more a kicking of tires on a vehicle I think will take me & many others potentially quite far, indeed.

    So, yes, “cure.” I rather wonder if this is word has the affective value that rubs, for example, Anthony the wrong way. I know that you’re not wishing to slip in some secret nod to teleological purity with this language — that “the cure” is not directed toward all that might ail, but rather specifically to the supercessionist affliction as it is respectively manifest in religion & secularity. But this notion of a cure, if it doesn’t speak of a pre-ordained or pre-existent purity, it does, it would appear on some level to speak to the kind of health borne of that a hearty authenticity, immanently rendered as “beginnings that lie not in their restoration of origins or their incarnations of the transcendent, but solely in themselves” (emphasis mine). So, to frame all that in the form of a question: is there in fact a immanent authenticity at work in a cure that takes to heart, qua diaspora, these beginnings?

    Related to this talk of disease & cure, I was struck, too, by your comment on p. 143: “Such a production of signification can, of course, go badly,” citing the possible sedimentation of tendencies to scream ‘heresy’ when a discourse for whatever reason takes a shine to its transcendent ambitions. What you say here seems unquestionably correct, but I have to wonder whether this is the only way in which this production might “go badly”. Namely, to put it rather baldly, I suppose I’d like ultimately to see (or conduct myself) an imagining of whether there are in fact dangers intrinsic to the realization of diaspora (and not simply of its being repressed). I’m not really prepared at the moment to explore the idea beyond metaphor, so I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin next to your discussion of secularity’s indication of “the improper — and thus truly excessive — character of signification is affirmed”: Cancer? (I’m aware of the obvious limitations of the analogy, what for metastasized malignancy indicating replication & repetition of some original. I’m merely pointing casually toward potential problems of unanticipated, seemingly uncontrolled multiplication.) I don’t mean to say the logic of diaspora is structurally cancerous, only that it doesn’t seem so hard to imagine that the necessary proliferation of significations that are harnessed by the inevitability of discrete fabulations could in some way get out of hand (or at the very least become counter-productive). I would like to think the pursuit of a cure remains preferable to the enduring of the affliction, but there are instances when the treatment is what does one in. Is there, I wonder, a need, and if so a means, to measure & monitor the health of the truly “cured,” diasporic body?

  3. dbarber Says:

    It’s an interesting metaphor. I wouldn’t want to play too much into this notion of limitation / restriction vs. flow, though perhaps i have. In any case, I think it’s important not to forget “namelessness,” which would cut against the idea of simple proliferation. Also, excess, for me, indicates not just a proliferation but also an asymmetry. In other words, and as you noted, replication is not diasporic. I suppose i’m adding that neither replication is excessive — for an excess would have to be foreign to what it exceeds. One other thing: i don’t think i ever speak of a body, and i think this is relevant. That is, i don’t think there could be such a thing as a diasporic body. Diaspora is really a milieu of relations, rather than anything individuated. The cure, then, wouldn’t have anything to do with preserving a body. (And my immanence of affliction and cure, i thought, would prevent any idea that curing is once and for all, much less teleological)

  4. Alain Epp Weaver Says:

    Dan–Thanks for a deeply provocative book. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I have a couple of inter-related questions that I’d love to have your reflections upon:

    1. In his writings (the essays from Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, but also other pieces like the exile or exodus article from Crosscurrents in the early 1970s) Yoder tends to use diaspora and exile interchangeably. Would you be able to rewrite On Diaspora as On Exile, or not? The term exile could suggest a transcendent point of origin, which your book vigorously contests. Could you envision articulating a radically immanent account of “exile”? Or is the term exile too wedded to notions of transcendence and origins?

    2. The term “exile” points more clearly than the term “diaspora” to a lost homeland, a place from which an individual or a people have been exiled. [This points, of course, to contested meanings of "diaspora" in sociological/anthropological literature, with people like William Safran offering definitions of diaspora which are tightly linked to notions of homeland, while Stuart Hall, James Clifford, and others given definitions of diaspora that are more focused on forms of post-national existence.] Similarly, the term “exile” is more tightly linked conceptually than “diaspora” to the companion term “return.” A couple of questions, then:

    What politics of land and “return” can your account of diaspora provide? What positive account of place can your “deterritorializing” account of diaspora offer? Can your diasporic theology be good news for refugees who for whom being “deterritorialized” names a material condition, not an intellectual stance of emancipation? You gesture at a possible answers, I think, when you write about the “space” of diaspora, which is a “space apart from the borders of identity by which space, with the aid of history-telling (of origins, ends, and necessities), has been carved up.” Could you flesh that out more, either in general or with regards to Zionism and Palestinian refugees (relevant because of Yoder’s own critique of Zionism from the perspective of exile)?

    Thanks again for an amazing book–I’ll be returning to it repeatedly.

  5. dbarber Says:

    Alain, thanks for your questions. I think you’re right in your suggestions as to why I might prefer diaspora to exile. The notion of exile, as you said better than I am, seems tied (at least connotatively) to notions of return, origin, transcendence. My orientation around immanence makes me wary of that trajectory. At the same time, my concern for signification’s necessity, as well as for discursive tradition, means that I’m also wary of the conceptual arrogance that would say, “diaspora good, exile bad.” Perhaps there are valences to exile that are quite valuable and that i wouldn’t want to lose by simply denying it in the name of diaspora. But yes, the dynamic of loss and return is one that i want to avoid. And in response to your questions i think it’s important to say that it’s the dynamic that’s the problem. Not the notion of return as such (if that makes sense). The idea of focusing on return and that of focusing on the permanency of exile are equally flawed, from the perspective of diaspora. There is something very bad about the “Christian” idea that the exile must, self-sacrificially as it were, stay in pure exile, without land. Thinking as i go, here, i would say that it is possible to differentially repeat an origin, such that the homeland is not lost, nor something to return to (at least not primarily), but is instead something to be re-created in new ways, with new relations. There have been and are many such places.

    I haven’t answered specifically, though, some of your questions, though i hope to have made some kind of beginning. Let me think on them some more.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    One other thing: i don’t think i ever speak of a body, and i think this is relevant. That is, i don’t think there could be such a thing as a diasporic body. Diaspora is really a milieu of relations, rather than anything individuated. The cure, then, wouldn’t have anything to do with preserving a body.

    Yeah, I cringed a bit when I wrote that, and reconsidered it several times. I went ahead w/ it, though, because it seemed that some bodies / communities / users of discourse would more readily fit into its milieu of relations than others. You want to avoid its adjectival use, but I’m less confident that that is entirely possible or even necessary. I wonder whether, just as names (& thus nouns) are improper but inevitable/necessary, the same might thus also be true of adjectives. At that point, if the nouns & adjectives that attach & attend to naming, particularly when they are improper, all take on the affect of metaphors. If that is the case, then even “a body” would not necessarily be something determinant or fixed, and whose preservation attends to the uncertainty “who knows what a body can do.” I’m being cryptic (it’s too early for me to be thinking through this, but I’m laboring ahead anyway), but I think in a way this in a way returns to Bruce’s concerns re: “human.”

  7. david driedger Says:

    Dan, I am wondering if you have any comment about your work in relation to a concrete expression like L’Arche. It seems that Vanier definitely advocates for a sort of human essentialism but in choosing to ‘bear with’ what comes to us as chaos in the form of intellectual disabilities Vanier has also ensured a sort of inherent differential to this gathering. He also speaks of how this differential then plays out across religious and secular lines. I am not sure I am trying to completely advocate for this form but it is an interesting concrete and contemporary example that should provide some way of further discussing the relevance of this work.

  8. dbarber Says:

    Continuing to think about Alain’s question, I want to emphasize that what I’m evading somewhat is the dynamic of exile and return, rather than the reality of exile or the desire for return. Which is also to say that deterritorialization, for me, is not an intrinsic good. I think i mentioned in one of my previous posts that I am, in this book, trying to get away from the D&G notion of the priority of deterritorializatoin and the telos (it seems) of facelessness. These are moves that deny what i call the necessity of signification. And I think this has relevance for questions of place, i.e. the necessity of signification is also the necessity of place. There is always a place, there is no such thing as the question of whether or not to have a place. The question is how one understands, constructs, etc. that place, its nature and so on. So in this sense i would want diaspora to be about, not whether or not to have a place, not about place *versus* placelessness, but about the relations that constitute a place. Deterritorialziation should be situated in this context. So for instance deterritorialization would include showing the inconsistencies that pervade, and undermine, the identities / borders that have been carved up. Which is to say, for instance, that deterritorialziation can be used as a way of opposing history telling that ignores the Nakba, or that attends to the suffering of one group in such as way as to not attend to the suffering of another group. I wouldn’t, then, want deterritorialization to be seen as a literal good. Those who have been literally deterritorialized, or forcibly displaced, could see, in deterritorialization, a means of rendering the inconsistency in claims seeking to give meaning or necessity to the forcible displacement. (i.e. deterritorialization is not incompatible with the desire for return, or for being in a better place) Deterritorialization thus loosens up signs, and the relations fixed between them, to become material for a broader, or just different, imagination of possibilities and of judgments (for fabulation — which has everything to do with the (re)constitution of a new territory.

    As is probably evident, i’m not the smoothest in making this apply (at least not in a typed comment) — and David, unfortunately, i don’t know enough about Vanier to speak to your question, though it sounds interesting — but i hope this is at least helpful to some degree, in showing how my conceptual paradigm would not line up with the tendency (amongst some theories of difference and decenteredness) to make those who are displaced into beautiful souls. It’s very important to me not to do this, both personally and ethically, and also conceptually, because i do want the fetishization of namelessness, or the making transcendent of namelessness, to stop, just as i would want the fetishization of identitarian particularity to stop. A dynamic, i think, which is at work in the way we often think about place.

  9. Alain Epp Weaver Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Dan. It seems to me that the account of deterritorialization that you give in the comment about would be consistent with “reterritorialization” in the form of refugee return in some instances–not a return to a pure origin and not return as the restoration of a lost paradise, but rather return as establishing a new set of differential relations. I like that direction–and I think it’s consistent with Edward Said’s account of return in After the Last Sky, the Boyarins’ notion of diasporized states, and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s notion of living in exile in the land. I think that in the end I’m still more drawn to the language of exile than you might be, because of how it highlights the memories/imagined constructions that refugees have that connect them to particular places, connections that more powerful actors which to deny, suppress, or erase. But the language of diaspora can also accomplish much of what needs to be accomplished.

    Re. Vanier: I had the privilege a couple of years back of visiting a L’Arche community in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, one of a couple of L’Arche communities that are interreligious (with Christians, Muslims, and perhaps some Buddhists and Hinuds as well represented in the community). Hauerwas has expressed skepticism in the past about whether or not L’Arche communities can be successful without exclusive rooting in “Christian” practices, but from what I could tell, from my admittedly very limited exposure to the community in Mymensingh, was that the community’s lived experience was exposing Hauerwas’ skepticism as unwarranted. It’s L’Arche communities like those that could serve as great concrete examples of the deterritorialized, diasporic places you want.


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