Milton’s Dangerous Game

[Obligatory disavowal of any implicit claim to be saying something original about Milton.]

In the wake of the #CancelColbert saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about the attempt to “subvert from within” — not just Colbert’s method of subverting the right by portraying an (only slightly) exaggerated right-winger, but things like Watchmen or Game of Thrones that seem to want to expose the ugliness in their respective genres by amping it up a hundredfold. As I discussed with Gerry Canavan in a long-lost Twitter conversation, it doesn’t seem as though this strategy ever actually works. Right-wingers can happily watch Colbert, and audiences receive the “subversive” extreme version of a given genre as a particularly badass example of that genre. Even if it does sometimes achieve the desired end, adopting such a sophisticated, roundabout strategy is surely a dangerous game.

As I finish up Paradise Lost in my devil class, it seems to me that Milton is engaged in a similar dangerous game. He doesn’t merely want to join the epic tradition, with all the one-upsmanship that has always implied — he wants to destroy it from within, rendering the traditional epic impossible. In this view, the fact that the devil is the hero of the epic in traditional terms is not some scandalous secret, but rather the whole point: the heroes of traditional epics were wicked men, and the kinds of activities that were lauded in the epics (war, deception, etc.) are evil. Hence the devil does all of that, taking on the role of proud Achilles, crafty Odysseus, etc., and all of his actions are portrayed as being nihilistic and pointless. The hope is that Paradise Lost will break the spell of the traditional epic and highlight how much more amazing and meaningful the Christian narrative of redemption is.

Hence Milton was not secretly on the devil’s side — only his unshakeable faith could allow him to pursue this strategy so naively. Only a committed Christian could be so tone-deaf to how bad God comes across and expect proto-modern audiences to prefer God just because he’s God. As with other subversive meta-commentaries on a genre, the only person who would receive Milton’s critique as intended is someone who doesn’t need the critique. For everyone else, the extreme epic poem where the devil himself is the hero appears to be a particularly badass epic poem.

The theodicy of ethical consumerism

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ideological function of free will: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them. In the theological realm, the goal of granting us free will isn’t to enhance our dignity or the meaningfulness of our life, but to make sure God has someone to blame for all the bad things that happen — and I believe we can apply the principle of a homology between the theological and the political realm here as well.

A perfect example of this is dynamic is ethical consumerism. It often strikes me as bizarre that we’re even given a choice between the gross processed food and the healthy organic food, or between the hideously wasteful product and the ecologically conscious product — much less that the “price signals” are invariably tilted toward the bad option. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the bad option in the first place? Why is something so important left to arbitrary individual choice?

Here I think the fact that we know consumers will generally make the wrong choice is not a bug, but a feature of ethical consumerism. The political class and business elites have already collectively decided that ethical farming and environmental sustainability are not important goals — and so they have left them up to individual consumer choices so that they can disavow responsibility and blame all of us for not choosing correctly.

Whenever we’re offered a free choice, we’re being set up.

Agamben events at Northwestern

On the 15th anniversary of Giorgio Agamben’s Northwestern lectures the Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group presents with support from the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Program in Critical Theory, and the German department.

Friday, April 18, 12.30-3pm, Kaplan seminar room (Kresge 2-380)

Alessia Ricciardi – The Highest Poverty as Form of Life: Agamben’s Franciscanism and the Contemporary

Virgil W. Brower – “High Use”: Martin Luther as a hidden protagonist in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series

Wednesday, April 23, 2-3.30pm, German seminar room (Kresge 2-500)

Samuel Weber (in conversation with Peter Fenves and Anthony C. Adler, Yonsei University) – Politics of Singularity: Ontology, Theology, Economy

A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. Read the rest of this entry »

Is James Cone a postmodern theologian?

As I worked through God of the Oppressed with my students this week, a disturbing thought occurred to me: I began to detect a homology between Cone’s project (at least as represented in this particular text) and that of Radical Orthodoxy. Part of this may have stemmed from my somewhat questionable placement of Cone in the “postmodern” segment of the humanities capstone course — a choice that I made in part because I thought Cone was a challenging variant on something like “perspectivalism,” and that came to seem further justified by Cone’s implicit emphasis on social construction.

For Cone, it seems, social construction works. Oppression would be thoroughly determinative for the experience and identity of the oppressed if not for the transcendent reality of Christ. He says this over and over: the enslaved Africans never could have known they were human if Christ hadn’t been with them. They never could have survived and resisted slavery and oppression if Christ hadn’t been with them. Furthermore, he is aware of the danger that this transcendence could be viewed as a mere subjective fantasy of the oppressed, an imagined compensation — and so it must be objectively, historically attested in the life of Jesus.

The black experience is thus validated by its reference to a reality that is at once historical and transcendent. And if there wasn’t this transcendent, historically attested point of reference, then violence and death would have the final say — the earthly masters, with their power over life and death, really would be the ultimate masters. Here I can’t help but see strong parallels with the Radical Orthodox project of taking “postmodern” thought at its word — yes, everything is socially constructed, yes, we’re consigned to an endless power struggle with no ultimate meaning or goal — and then proposing that divine transcendence is the only answer.

The difference — and it is a hugely important difference — is that Cone grants authority to the church of the oppressed where Radical Orthodoxy places its hopes in the church of the oppressor. Nonetheless, I find the parallels alarming and I’m not sure what to do with them.

Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

A hypothetical course on Islam

Let’s say, just in theory, that a friend of mine were to be assigned to teach an introductory course on Islamic thought at a college with a discussion-centric pedagogy based on primary texts. Let’s say further that this friend of mine wants to strike a balance between Islamic scripture, legal reasoning, philosophy, art, and literature — perhaps capping off the course with a modern novel in an Islamic setting. What would you recommend to this completely hypothetical person?

In praise of the ACLA

This past weekend was my aforementioned seminar on Agamben at the American Comparative Literature Association, at which I delivered this paper (PDF). It was an excellent panel all around — all the papers were substantive, and the discussion was easily the best I’ve ever experienced at a conference.

In large part, this was due to the quality of the participants and the well-defined nature of our topic, but I believe that the unique format of the ACLA’s annual conference is a big part of it as well. Instead of having one-off sessions, the ACLA is organized around multi-day seminars, and all presenters are expected to attend all the sessions. This allows for an extended dialogue and — especially crucially in my view — allows everyone to know basically where everyone is coming from. In my experience, one of the things that makes conference Q&A sessions so futile is the fact that there’s no real back-and-forth that can allow you to know where a person’s question is coming from (a gap which people understandably, if lamentably, try to fill with the “more a comment than a question”). People other than presenters also attend at most sessions, but having a core group provides a center of gravity for the converstaion.

I’ve been told that the format doesn’t automatically lead to good results, as there are lackluster and disappointing sessions. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the ACLA’s format gives a superior baseline expectation — as opposed to the traditional humanities conference session format, where a really good panel is experienced as something of a miraculous event.

My ACLA Paper: “What is to be done? The Endgame of the Homo Sacer Series”

Here is my paper (PDF) for the ACLA session on Agamben that Virgil Brower and I organized. It was the final paper of the seminar and provided an oblique “preview” of the final Homo Sacer volume, The Use of Bodies.

Conference at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities: The Actuality of the Theologico-Political

We haven’t had enough conference announcements lately, so I thought I’d let you know of the forthcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London entitled “The Actuality of the Theologico-Political.”

I will be giving a paper there entitled “Political Theology from Below,” wherein I plan to argue for the necessity of a non-theocentric approach to political theology in terms that will be strongly reminiscent of my Harvard talk earlier this year on Agamben and psychoanalytic drive theory.

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