Another interview with Colby Dickinson on Agamben

After our joint interview over Agamben, the Brazilian publication Unisinos has asked both of us to do our own solo interviews, Colby’s over his recent book Between the Canon and the Messiah (which is apparently printed in pure gold, judging by the price) and mine over Zizek and Theology. The original English transcript of Colby’s interview is posted below; I will post my own tomorrow.

1. What are the peculiarities of faith in contemporary continental thought?

In many ways, I think we are continuously reiterating a particular historical tension, that between a normative measure (or rule) and those who seek to oppose or undo it, what I would call the supposed ‘antinomian’ (anti-nomos or ‘law’) movements that we still don’t know what to do with in either religious or political terms. For its part, antinomianism arose as a label used during the Reformation to describe those who were seemingly wanting to do away with law altogether—those who in effect read Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic system (i.e. its ‘rules’, canon law, system of indulgences, etc.) as being a departure in some sense from all law. In many ways, this response was something already embedded in Jesus’ positioning of himself in relation to Judaic Law, and this possibility only further inflamed the passions of some of Luther’s most devout followers. Luther, however, as we know, had to try to stop such antinomian measures from going too far away from the ‘rule of God’, which Luther himself still wanted to maintain in some form. As we recall, there were still too many connections for Luther to draw between the established Church on earth and existing structures of political power; he sought therefore in his writings to maintain some allegiance to the form of law and its ‘necessity’, and its ability to utilize the ‘sword’ in order to restrain its unruly citizens was something he took great interest in linking to God’s ordering of society.

What I am particularly fascinated by today is the manner in which contemporary continental thought has returned us to the contemplation of this fundamental ‘antinomian’ impulse that undergirds many revolutionary political and religious movements. In many ways—and Jacob Taubes takes this up directly in his lectures on The Political Theology of Paul—Christianity itself is perhaps the original antinomian impulse in relation to Judaism (Judaic Law, or Torah). This is something he extracts from Gershom Scholem’s studies on messianic movements within Judaic history, in particular the story of Sabbatai Zevi. As Giorgio Agamben would later rehearse such impulses (and with citations of Sabbatai Zevi being present in his work as well), there is an internal messianic ‘antinomian’ impulse perhaps within Judaism that challenges its normative representations of itself (as when the prophets cry out against the structures of religious ritual, when a notion of a Messiah first develops, etc.). This last point is seemingly only further underscored by Jacques Derrida’s many formulations of the messianic as an internal deconstructive force working within a given structure, a sentiment which has been read as being either Jewish (G. Ofrat), atheistic (M. Hägglund) or even Christian (L. Lawlor). My response to such diverse readings has been to say that all of them are correct in a sense, because all are trying to access that central, messianic core of our political and religious thought that continues to motivate the restructuring of our given (social, cultural, political, religious and even economic) norms. We continue to try to find new ways to describe why we are constantly giving birth to new paradigms, and we continuously come up against a wall: where does revolutionary reform come from? How do we alter the structures that appear to be unchangeable and upon which so many people depend (‘have faith in’) for their everyday lives? Derrida’s answer, much like Agamben’s in this regard, is that it comes from within what was already operational as a canonical structural form, but one that has been pushed to its limits and is in the process of becoming aware of its limitations within a new context and its need for more justice to be done.

What I sense at present is that the foundations of (organized) faith is being given a second glance within contemporary continental-philosophical thinkers because it seems to adhere to (or perhaps even generate) the fundamental dynamics that lie beneath our political and ethical paradigms in the West. As much as we might culturally seek to turn away from organized religious traditions, there is something persistent within them that deserves attention, even the attention of self-proclaimed atheists (and I think the current Pope is aware of this, and playing to some of this desire with his public remarks). I read Slavoj Žižek’s continuing reference to Christianity as just such an example of how we are greatly in need today of reformulating what it means to read the relationship between religion and politics as central to our present grid of culturally intelligible forms—even, perhaps especially, when people think that faith is becoming obsolete for many.

2 . In this context, what is the relationship that can be established between the concepts of messianism and canonical forms?

My reading, in my Between the Canon and the Messiah, is that we are continuously in need of recognizing, maintaining and also addressing current configurations of the tensions that exist between given canonical-cultural forms (whether religious, scriptural, social, political, etc.), those seemingly permanent structures that have been passed down as part of our ‘tradition’, and their own internal messianic forces which constantly seek, whether they are wanted or not, to undo them in order to make them more accountable, and more just. That is—and demonstrating the oldest philosophical language we still use—there is a tension that exists between the desire to represent something and the presentation of the ‘thing itself’ that always seems to elude us, and which actually reveals the limitations of any representation. There has seemingly always lingered this idea within philosophical speculation that there is a thing beyond our representations that we don’t fully know, though if we did, we would immediately comprehend how limited (‘unjust’) our representations of this thing were. This is perhaps one of the oldest and most pressing religious questions, and one still needing very much to be thought out again from new perspectives, for we are no longer as certain that we can access a ‘thing in itself’ behind our representations of it, and yet many feel a certain limitation that they are being limited at times by the representations that define them. What I am trying to discern is the manner in which such a (religious and political) tension between a representation and a presentation beyond representation is very much caught up in the struggles of a ‘canonical’ representative form and its undoing (‘deconstruction’) by forces working from within it to reformulate it and make it a more accurate representation of something that cannot be named.

For someone like Derrida, such a tension could only be witnessed as the spectral presence of messianicity (never a historical ‘messianism’) working within any given canonical form, and that which identified, for him, the points most ripe for deconstruction in the name of a justice that was always active, always yet ‘to come’, within the canonical structure (or text) he was working with at that particular moment in time. Whether certain thinkers feel that such a tension cannot be maintained and that we should either admit that there are ever only representations before us (Derrida, Žižek) or that all representations should be done away with (what Agamben appeared for years to be suggesting as the true ‘antinomian’ approach, though perhaps not so much recently), we are still yet dealing with that same fundamental question of what are we to do with antinomian impulses? How do such messianic forces alter the (canonical) structures we have created, and how do we deal with the urge to destroy or reform such structures? Can we talk about the inherent desires we have to work against the system? Can we learn to see them coming and negotiate with them even while constructing current systems, as with those architects who will actually plan for future sites of expansion within a current project, and the like?

As a concrete example of this dynamic, when we fill in some standard (US) government forms, we are asked about what ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ we identify with—a notoriously difficult thing for some people to gauge—historically a very problematic working of percentages for some (i.e. Native Americans, who no longer qualify as such if deemed too far removed from their ancestry), or a completely being defined by a small percentage for others. When I was little, such representations consisted mainly of only ‘White’, ‘African American’, ‘Asian’, and ‘other’. Over the years, such limited categories were deemed not adequate (or ‘unjust’) and the categories were expanded to include many other groupings. We are seeing such continued expansion on behalf of more equal representation springing up all over the globe now, and including some things that were previously ‘unthinkable’, such as gender (e.g. Australia’s official ‘third gender’ category). Such expansions are what I am talking about when I speak of a canonical forms undoing amidst cries for more justice, and amidst a recognition that our current categories are capable of being undone from within, but this is only one small, convenient example among many others. National identity, immigration reforms, and many other issues still circulate on the periphery of this same fundamental dynamic.

I should add, as well, that the key to recognizing the undoing of a given ‘canonical’ form from within is an active mechanism of self-reflexivity, or self-awareness (related in many ways to the roots of ‘confession’, and the like). Just as Saint Paul was able to ‘divide the divisions’ of the ancient Jewish world, taking them from the division of Jew vs. Gentile to a deeper internal reflection on how even the Jew was divided within into Flesh and Spirit, so too are we able, if we apply similar mechanisms of self-reflection, to see the limitations of our own categorical (canonical) divisions. Reflecting long enough on what it means being (or performing) oneself as a ‘man’, as only one example among many, can quickly lead to profound insights on how whatever descriptors we seek to use to define such a thing can also be challenged, questioned and repositioned into other forms.

3 . By this logic, what is the contribution of Paul Ricoeur to the study of the concepts of messianism and canonical forms?

I have been very interested in Ricoeur’s adherence to hermeneutical methods, especially as they seem at times to offer theology the only way to understand how it must formulate itself in the midst of a series of (political) tensions between canonical norms and their messianic undoing, and especially as such a tension is at the heart of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. I think that Ricoeur himself points toward such an understanding at many places in his work, notably in his discussion of the tensions within the Pharisaic attitude in The Symbolism of Evil, as well as in his Memory, History, Forgetting, where we are reminded of canonical versions of history and their distortions, but also their efforts to bring about a more accurate vision of history.

I often read Derrida as really being far more hermeneutical than he often acknowledged, and I think he was often misread on this point; he is far closer to Ricoeur than many might suspect. For his part too, Agamben’s more recent work The Church and the Kingdom seems to offer a more hermeneutical tension akin to Ricoeur than might have been sensed at first in his work, which might often have appeared to side too closely with only those ‘antinomian’ tendencies I have already spoke of. His declaration there that a genuine community can possibly be found by maintaining a tension between law, on the one hand, and Church (or messianic forces), on the other, is a real eye opener, and something that seems to illustrate some of Ricoeur’s finer hermeneutical points quite nicely, though much more remains to be said on this connection.

In my own work, I have tried thus far—but only really preliminarily—to envision what a ‘radical theological hermeneutics’ might look like, following Ricoeur’s work in many ways as a guiding point. I am not sure if my version of hermeneutics ends up still being a hermeneutics at all in the end or whether it is too ‘radical’ (sharing in that sense perhaps too much with the use of the word ‘radical’ in Clayton Crockett’s Radical Political Theology), but I like to think some form of hermeneutics is always at work in my readings of contemporary contexts and writers.

4 . How are we to understand the “violence” of the Canon?

In many ways, and here one might look at the work of Jan Assmann for more on this, any canonical representation may be said to exercise some degree of violence in its inscription of what we might call its ‘canonical subjects’—those whose identities are formed in relation to a given canonical culture. Even the entrance into language, for all of us, is a certain experience of being limited in our expressions. We only have a certain, specific lexicon to use in describing what our experiences are, and we are unable, for the most part, to express a sentiment beyond the use of these words. So there is a violence undergone in identifying with a specific canonical form and in allowing certain representations to identify us. For example, I am accurately labeled as a ‘white, American, male, heterosexual, Catholic, etc.’, though I am also well aware that such terms do not adequately relate much of who I am, and, further, that, at times, I am bound by such descriptors in ways that I am uncomfortable with, and which I rebel against. I try as well as I can, in fact, to interrogate such terms as they apply to me and to challenge what such words mean when they seem almost as much not to apply to me as they do apply to me.

This oscillation between accepting a given canonical norm as inevitable and as the sacrifice necessary for a shared sense of cultural intelligibility (or language) and seeking to undo some of the more constrictive or violent aspects of a given cultural-linguistic system is itself an inevitable and necessary tension. Try though we might, we cannot do away with it, though we may be able to form a ‘pure’ form of critique that allows us to reconceive the tension. I think that this is what has motivated Agamben’s work, for example, from the start, trying to identify what such a critique might look like and how we might engage it on a daily basis. It certainly, to my mind, is what continues to animate certain ‘antinomian’ presuppositions about how we should approach a given canonical norm or structure.

5 . What relationships can be established between violence and the sacred? Is this pairing of terms helpful today in understanding religious phenomena? Why?

We spend so much time trying to differentiate between the various religions and scriptures out there today, as well as the varied interpretations of such traditions that continue to proliferate over time, though I’m not really convinced that most of this discussion does us much good. The standard criteria used to sort through these religious traditions is often a very empty one: which one of these is true? I would rather that we began to address the various religions of the world—which is always to address each particular interpretive strand of a given religious tradition, and which may or may not be able to be gathered under one name (Derrida’s ‘Judaities’ is a term that comes to mind)—by asking about their proximity to violence, another measure of ‘truth’. Which of a series of given faiths condones or condemns violence? And what does their proximity to violence—as well as the reality of their admittance or denial of such a proximity—tell us about their continued existence? In other words, are certain religious traditions (even within a given ‘religion’) capable of deconstructing themselves and of confessing that they are willing to engage in violent actions for certain, circumscribed ends? Are those ends justifiable, in the end? And are they transparent (self-reflexively aware) enough even to acknowledge their relationship to specific, existent violences?

My contention is that perhaps a conversation such as this might help us in discerning a number of things about religion in general, starting with our desires to label a given scriptural or liturgical tradition as ‘canonical’, to provide more rather than less definition of our communal bounds (who’s in, who’s out, inclusion/exclusion) and to enact violent representations when we are unable to solidify our community as such. In essence, such a critique stems directly from René Girard’s work on scapegoating, and the question needs to be asked more directly: which religious groups are willing to scapegoat others so that their own people feel safer, more united, more loyal to one another, precisely through the sacrifice of another person or group of persons? Girard’s powerful portrayal of this dynamic within many religious and mythological narratives is that such seemingly ‘sacred’ stories are in reality little more than ideological efforts to form a group’s sense of cohesion, and are that which other scriptures might actually reject (notably the Jewish and Christian canons, but also other ones, such as certain Hindu scriptures, among others).

One of the things that I would like to draw out more than Girard does is the manner in which his theory might help us see how even our quest for definitions, representations, certainty, and the like, can be viewed at times as formed from within such a quest for group cohesion and security. Indeed, I believe our very ‘logical’ deductions can often be a response to a perceived threat, and a moment of violent imposition upon a situation that should remain free from overdetermination. I am thinking in this regard specifically of how people today often try to ‘define’ their faith, and with a mentality that is trying to be ‘certain’ about it. John Henry Newman, for one, once pointed out how faith is a multi-layered thing that is arrived at through a complex series of probabilities (e.g. one’s context, family situation, previous experiences, rational argument, among others) that converge to bring a person to faith. Faith is not a simple ‘leap’ in the dark in this sense, though it may involve little leaps we are willing to make for very specific reasons at very specific points along the way, though these factors may also truly remain forever unknown to us. Trying to reduce this complexity to a specific ‘certitude’ means ultimately scapegoating something else in order to bring such a state about. That is, in order to tell myself that I have a faith shaped like such and such, I must forget about this or that, I must fail to engage the faith of my neighbor the Buddhist, etc. But such a reduction of the complexity of faith is so common today, and undermining so many possible readings of religion that often go completely unnoticed.

I just finished reading Žižek’s massive tome Less Than Nothing and I was quite pleased to see how in his conclusion there is a sort of back-and-forth between Girard’s theories and Agamben’s work, precisely on this point of violence and the sacred as it engages with ideology. Žižek’s claim is more or less that ideology, whether in its political or economic forms, is shaped by a certain relationship between the ‘sacred’ and violence, and which may have little to nothing to do with the actual claims of Christianity, a point he underscores in a manner that reminds me of Vattimo’s appropriation of Girard. What he in effect states is that Christianity is unique in that it points toward its own profanation, its own distance from God, something which, in the end, forms the zero point for a new way of thinking about the sacred. He thus slightly chides Agamben for suggesting that profanation is the sole goal here, as such an ‘absolute profanation’ seems awfully close to another way of revitalizing the sacred beyond the false notions of sacrality formed through practices of scapegoating. I suggested much the same thing at the end of my Agamben and Theology, and have written elsewhere about how such a reading shares with Girard’s basic thesis regarding violence and the sacred.

6 . What is behind a “theology of immanence” in our days?

There has been a good deal of interest in trying to ascertain what exactly a ‘theology of immanence’ might resemble today, and I have been fascinated by the number of theologians who, from time to time, engage in trying to assemble such a thing. Starting from the work on immanence of philosophers such as Deleuze and Agamben, for example, one might seek to make a link between these ontologies and those calls within certain contextual theologies for a more immanent understanding of the divine (e.g. M. Daly, G. Jantzen, S. Welch). What is often talked about less, I think, is how such calls for a theology of immanence are often really political challenges to traditional masculine linkages of transcendence to hierarchical structures and say little, if anything, about the nature of the divine—if anything at all could be said about the divine from a theological (qua philosophically-speculative) position.

I think, however, that any talk of a ‘theology of immanence’, viewed from within a traditional theological setting, is already a scary idea to many. Maurice Blondel, who himself once proposed a ‘method of immanence’ as a way to engage what lies before us and to see its limitations in and of itself, thus pointing us toward that which is ‘transcendent’ of us, was himself accused of denying God’s transcendence, and I think there are many within the Church today who are hesitant to even invoke a phrase like ‘theology of immanence’.

In this vein, I have been very intrigued by the various ‘object oriented’ philosophers who try to collapse the traditional (misleading) distinction between the subject and its object. Bruno Latour’s efforts to dismantle this subject-object dualism, to my mind, signals something like the collapse of the standard transcendent-immanent division, and an opening toward a rethinking of the transcendence/immanence divide entirely, though much work remains to be done in this regard. Latour’s new book on religious language (Rejoicing) is helpful in this regard, as is Adam Miller’s new book on Latour, which is a step in the right direction, I think, and I would welcome much more research in these areas.

7 . Western society lives the paradox of a return to the sacred and yet a secularization which continues to deepen within our world. What are the limits and the possibilities that open themselves to faith and also to religious dialogue in this scenario?

I find such a moment as we live in now—caught between these tensions of an increasingly secularized culture and a certain return of religion—to be a double-edged sword. There are so many great opportunities to be seized in terms of redescribing the valuable role which religion plays and will continue to play in people’s lives in the future, but there is also, I think, a profoundly practical caution we should heed that many people will utilize such a space to lobby for more political power and to reassert the various fundamentalisms that already plague us. This is, again, why I think we must begin with a serious look at our own ‘confessions’, at the roots of self-reflexive awareness that are in us and which call us to be more conscious of the unjust labels we give ourselves and others. Without such a mechanism of self-reflexivity, we will continue to be lost.

In this manner, I think that simply accepting the apparent split between the sacred and the secular often misses out on the real dynamic to pay attention to, that the profane is already caught within the sacred and vice versa. Even this most fundamental cultural division for some can, and should, be divided. So many walls can be broken down if we realize how our experience of God must, but its own nature, be one that experiences the absence of God at times. There is a long tradition here, from Paul to John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and many more, that knows how to speak of such things, though it is a conversation many have left today. I think there are some very unique opportunities that are subsequently missed when we conclude that we have nothing left to say to one another, when the truth is that there is so much remaining to be said.

8 . To what extent do the attitudes and efforts of Pope Francis in dialoguing with other faiths build bridges between faith and contemporary continental thought?

As I mentioned already, we are continuously wondering how we are to change the religious and political structures that be, an especially difficult question when the structures we are talking about involve a deeply entrenched politics within those religious structures. I look at what Pope Francis is doing at the moment with the wide-open eyes I have seen on a number of theologians in the US at the moment. What will he change, and how will it come across to those he is pastoring to? His recent comments on clericalism as a closed-minded mentality have been illuminating in this regard, for he senses his own desire to be ‘anti-clerical’ when confronted with the structures (and their corresponding ideological fantasies) of clericalism. But, one should also note carefully, he began this particular interview with the admission (confession) that he is a sinner, and that it is only from such a recognition that he can proceed forward.

I would wager that Girard’s critique of our false communal foundations shares in the Pope’s critique of self-referential identifications made in order to make one feel more secure and more part of a united, but ultimately deceptive, community. And I suspect that his willingness to form his sense of community in a different way is less inclined then to define those members who need to be excluded from it (i.e. the ‘obsession’ many have had within the Catholic Church with homosexuals, those who sought abortions, divorced couples, etc.). What the Pope seems to want to emphasize is that Christianity has a deeper message than many have taken it to contain, one that explodes our very worldly sense of how community is formed, and that this message needs to be emphasized again and again. I think he is genuinely striking a chord not wholly unfamiliar to what contemporary philosophical ‘returns to religion’ have demonstrated: there is a core necessity to take down some walls of division and to do so from within those walls, working with the tradition in order to see it become more just in the present moment. I think the Pope is touching upon some possibilities in this vein, though only time will tell if he is truly committed to initiating such processes. At the moment, to my eyes, it seems as though he truly is trying to do just this. Following Žižek’s insights, perhaps the appearance of what the Pope is doing really is all that matters in the end: what we see the Pope doing is in fact what he is doing, and this is the image that will reshape the Church, and perhaps the world.

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One Response to “Another interview with Colby Dickinson on Agamben”

  1. Dave Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I have a review copy of the book that I really need to get working on.

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