Bad Versions

Observing the contemporary theoretical terrain, there’s a certain operation that I find rather striking — both in its valorization and in its predominance. We might call this an operation of resuscitation, revival, or rejuvenation (though, for my own reasons, I would call it — or at least locate it within a field of — conversion). This operation is one in which a term, or point of reference, that appears to have become outmoded is taken up and (re)valorized. I imagine that there are a number of instances of such terms, but the ones that jump out to me most immediately include “universalism,” “normativity,” and “Hegel.” While there may be various differences between the specific versions of such revalorizations, I am interested in an overarching commonality among them. This commonality, once again, is operational: the revalorized term is advanced in connection with a readiness to turn aside critiques of the term as belonging only to the “bad version” of the term, but not to the revalorized term. In other words, the operation goes something like this: “of course I understand that you have a deeply critical relation to ‘universalism / normativity / Hegel,’ and you are absolutely right to maintain such a relation — provided that you come to realize that this critical relation belongs to the bad version of ‘universalism / normativity / Hegel,’ and thus not to my revalorized version of this term.” (Shorter versions of this include “trust that your problems have been recognized and — at least in principle — overcome” and “Dad is not so bad.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

Historic Gift Given to General Theological Seminary

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the past weeks about the future of seminary education, which has been prompted by scandals at a handful of fairly prominent East Coast seminaries.  Information for some of these scandals has been kind of hard to come by and rather gossipy–twitter reports about who did and did not attend Andover Newton’s presidential inauguration, for example–but some new information and resolution has emerged about the situation at General Theological Seminary in NYC.

If you haven’t been following, the majority of their faculty made a statement that they are unwilling to work with the new President and Dean, and the board of the seminary responded by accepting their resignations.

Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with D. G. Leahy

AUFS reader, Aimee Quesada, passed along this link with a great interview with the late D. G. Leahy.  Here it is.

Gil Anidjar speaking in NYC tonight

Readers of the blog who live within range of Columbia University may be interested in this event tonight at Book Culture. I’ll be there, so say hi!

‘Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular?’ Call for Papers

The next conference of The Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion takes place July 10-12 2015 at Liverpool Hope University, UK. We’d love to welcome more readers of this blog to our northwestern corner of a faded imperial power.

Keynote speakers are Saba Mahmood (Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject), Catherine Keller (The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming), Katharine Sarah Moody (Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist) and Richard Seymour (Against Austerity).

Conference Description
Political theology names a key site where contemporary philosophical engagement with religion takes place. Through notions such as sovereignty, messianism, apocalypse, hope and fidelity, a thinking of political grounds and transformations is never far from the theological. The nature of that relationship is, however, sharply contested.
Is the postsecular a way back to retrieving traditional sources for political sovereignty, or the opening of new possibilities for religion and politics to interact? Does it represent a further victory for Eurocentric understandings of religion and politics, or a way to undermine and move beyond them? As the possibility of revolutionary political change is confronted by the ‘capitalist realist’ sense of the impossibility of imagining how things could ever be radically otherwise, can political theology provide resources for creative advance, both theoretically and practically?
The conference will invite critical and constructive interventions in this debate. Relevant thinkers and traditions of enquiry will include, for example, Agamben, Zizek, Butler, Derrida, Pui-Lan, Schmitt, Taubes, Hardt and Negri, Spivak, Macintyre, Habermas, Mahmood, Foucault, Cone, postcolonialism, new materialism, radical orthodoxy, liberation theologies, feminist theology, queer theology and pragmatism.

Submission of Abstracts
Abstracts of 200-300 words to Steven Shakespeare:

28th February 2015

A defense of Contemporaneanism

For adherents of the ground-breaking philosophical school of Contemporaneanism, it’s been a wild ride. Side-stepping traditional academic institutions, we stepped directly into the public sphere by using online technologies like blog posts and Twitter links to blog posts. The results have been astounding: in the last couple minutes alone, Contemporaneanism has gone from zero adherents to one. That rate of growth puts us on pace to take over every academic field within thirty minutes. And not unexpectedly, the powers that be in the Ivory Tower are nervous.

Some people are still asking themselves, “What is Contemporaneanism?” Questions like that always make me impatient. If too many people ask, I start to wonder if there’s a coordinated campaign to discredit Contemporaneanism. I certainly wouldn’t put such a thing past the adherents of Pastism (a blanket term I literally just coined to cover all previous philosophers insofar as they reject the main tenets of Contemporaneanism). With their comfortable tenured bon-bons, they have the most to lose when Contemporaneanism completely changes the intellectual landscape. Sure, they cover up their systematic persecution with specious claims like “We’ve never even heard of Contemporaneanism” — but we see right through that. They’re running scared.

We continually remind ourselves that radical new schools of thought always face opposition. What if Plato, Kant, and someone you’ve never heard of whom I’m putting forth as a self-evident part of the philosophical canon just gave up the first time someone asked them what they were talking about? And really, are we even properly a “school” at all? Isn’t Contemporaneanism more of a sensibility, a shared set of concerns, than a “movement” — at least a “movement” in the sense that we could be held responsible for some determinate positions and arguments? What’s striking to me is the radical diversity of Contemporaneanism. And you know what? It’s not my job to point out examples of the many people who adhere to Contemporaneanism (in such a way that it doesn’t constitute a determinate “movement” that can be criticized). If you don’t keep up with the most important and exciting developments in your field, that’s on you.

God. Can’t someone start a philosophical movement without having to constantly argue with people?!


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