A Note: On Apocalypse, Moby-Dick & Job

[Originally posted over at my joint, but given the meandering path it took into things religious I thought I'd cross-post it here.]

Dear _______,

Your note has made my day, and it’s only yet 9 a.m. It reminds me of a conversation I was having last night with a friend in which I tried to explain why I don’t regard myself as a pessimist, in the face of all contrary evidence and claims by others.  I am, I insisted, under the influence of maudlin-making ale, an idealist who feels there is no place for ideals in the world. Of course, I know this sounds pessimistic through and through, but in my reckoning it is what feeds the Romantic / apocalyptic experience you mention.

The failure of words (& other communicative / artistic media) is necessary to their creative function. My friend and I don’t wholly disagree on this, but he seems more inclined than I to speak of one’s engagement with art as ultimately, if not immediately, disentangled from the world. While I agree that art is not wholly determined by the limitations set in stone, some quite literally, I am allergic even to a conversational nod that it ever stands beyond the fray, disinterested, hands-clean or abstract. You and I agree, romanticism & apocalypticism are indelibly linked, and as such remain inevitably messy. This messiness needn’t necessarily be a flaw, any more than existence as a whole is a mistake. I don’t see a position from which we can make such an evaluation without, in the process, doing much real-world damage. Though this has not stopped us from doing either. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aesthetics, art, Job, Melville. Comments Off

Sermon: “That Dagonne Dagon! (The Sins of Paterni)”

The following is a sermon I’ve been kicking around for a while, and will soon deliver.  I’ve been thinking about how to preach the collapse of the idol of Dagon in a way that is not triumphalistic but as an idol of desire.  I’m not sure this is the  most theologically uniform sermon I’ve ever developed and it’s definately still a work in progress.  The tearing down of the Paterno statue in State College, PA, and the community’s reaction immediatley called me to connect this Bible Story to current events.

The Sandusky / Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal is tragic and unfortunate, and disturbing.  It has also been interesting for me, as someone native to central Pennsylvania, to see how the unraveling of facts from the Sandusky case and the cover-up have de-centered central Pennsylvania culture.  I also write this as someone who has a formal connection to Penn State, too, as an adjunct professor, and as a teacher I have a deep resepct for the academic culture and mission of Penn State.  (I found this article, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, be be a particularly interesting take on how all of these events may or may not impact the academics of Penn State.)  As a pastor in a rural part of Pennsylvania whose church’s context is directly connected with agribusiness and farm culture, I am also a fan of the positive impact of Penn State’s agricultural extension programs.

The preaching lection will be long 1 Samuel 4:2-11 and 5:1-12.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Political Theology of Lincoln and Melville

It’s hard to think of any historical moment that more deserves political theological reflection than the American Civil War, yet a very quick Google Scholar search turns up only one book (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis) that uses the phrase “political theology” (once, in passing) in its discussion of the event. Why is the Civil War so richly deserving of entering the ranks of privileged political theological points of reference (along with Schmitt’s and Benjamin’s focus on the European Baroque with its doctrine of absolute sovereignty, or Agamben’s camp and the Musselman, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to name a few)? Consider the constellation of factors: the crisis of sovereignty, the friend-foe decision, the state of emergency, the status of the human reduced to bare life, and, not the least significant factor, the claim made by North and South to be waging a battle for the future of Christendom. And there are two texts from the period that I think deserve a place in the canon of political theological thought from Paul to Augustine, and from Hobbes to Arendt (I rank her Human Condition as one of the 20th century’s top political theological works). The great thing is that they are both short, even shorter than Epistle to the Romans. One of them is amazingly short: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other is a little longer: Herman Melville’s Supplement to his Civil War poetry collection, Battle Pieces. (Here is a PDF link to Melville’s collection; the Supplement begins on pg. 178.) I want to talk a little bit about both texts, starting with the second.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Kind-of Follow-Up Post Re: Investments

I’ve been meaning to post something about this for a couple of months, but kept putting it off until yesterday when I was engaged in an off-blog conversation about the engaging/frustrating/etc. comment thread accompanying Adam’s finance/retirement thread. There was an interesting dynamic at work in it and other similarly themed threads here and abroad in which there was a palpable defensiveness from the word go alongside a striking propensity to interpret even self-deprecation as rhetorically aggressive behavior. I don’t say that as a chastising administrator. I mention it now merely to flag the motivation for my remembrance of a post from HTMLGIANT a couple of months ago that I intended to mention then but didn’t. I waited so long, in fact, that for some reason the entire post has since been deleted–presumably, given the subject, the comment thread became malignant and had to be removed from the blog entirely, lest it take down the entire enterprise. Thank heavens for Google Reader! (The post in question was in reaction to the comment thread here, which is probably worth clicking if the following paragraph makes no sense to you.) Read the rest of this entry »

Preemptive Columbus Day Post: “With all due respect, Mr. Fitzgerald, Murder’s on the pulse…”

It’s a day of shame.  There’s an obvious reason for this, having to do with the capacity of a nation-state to enshrine as one of its “holidays” the commemoration of a figure who represents the colonizing project.  As Nas once put it:  “The Indians helped the Pilgrims / and in return the Pilgrims killed them / I call your holiday hellday.”  Columbus Day, like Thanksgiving, is adequately understood as a hellday.

Yet there is another, less considered reason for feeling shameful on Columbus Day, and this has to do with the “construction” of its commemoration.  For, nowadays at least, the celebration of Columbus Day is bound up with Italian-Americans’ need for a day that would recognize their own particular contribution to “American culture.”  Columbus Day is meant to be a day of pride for Italian-Americans—and this, I am trying to say, bears its own peculiar shame.  Columbus, it will be noted, was Italian—but what is an Italian? And what does Columbus have to do with Italian-Americans? Read the rest of this entry »

‘And so I tell myself to myself': A Dissertation!!

This [PDF warning], as it turns out, is an unpublishable book. Oh, I suppose I could keep shopping it around until something just short of a vanity press accepts it and churns out fifty hardcover editions to “sell” (in theory) at an ungodly price. Or, I could just keep sending it to more-or-less legitimate publishers, and probably drive myself batty in the process. I think most of us can agree that the end result of neither alternative is particularly attractive. Thankfully, there are are other options. (Thanks, Scribd!) Read the rest of this entry »

“Ecstasies before bunnies’ burrows”

In a certain way, I think the likes of Herman Herman — for whom “‘though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright” — might very well agree with the cynicism, much bemoaned & beloved, expressed by Michael Houellebecq about nature.

I have no time for those pompous imbeciles
Who go into ecstasies before bunnies’ burrows
Because nature is ugly, tedious and hostile;
It has no message to transmit to humans.

How pleasant, at the wheel of a powerful Mercedes,
To drive through solitary and grandiose places;
Subtly manipulating the gearstick.
You dominate the hills, the rivers, and all things.

The forests, so close, glitter in the sun
And seem to reflect ancient knowledges;
In the depths of their valleys must lie such marvels,
After a few hours you are taken in;

Leaving the car, the irritations begin;
You stumble into the middle of a repugnant mess,
An abject universe, deprived of all meaning
Made of stones and brambles, flies and snakes.

You miss the parking-lots and the smell of petrol,
The serene, gentle glint of the nickel counters;
It’s too late. It’s too cold. The night begins. The forest enfolds you in its cruel dream. (via Collapse IV)

Reading this today, I most immediately thought of Lewis Mumford’s wonderful bit comparing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Melville:

Emerson was the perpetual passenger who stayed below in bad weather, trusting that the captain would take care of the ship.  Melville was the sailor who climbed aloft, and knew that the captain was sometimes drunk and that the best of ships might go down.

Where the lesson of one such captain, Ahab, drunk with monomania if not drink, was that the “pasteboard mask” covering such truth might ultimately be there for a reason, and that one should strike through it with care; it seems to me that Houellebecq exemplifies one possibility of what becomes of us when there is no mask at all, when it, perhaps, has already been stricken.

A Prospectus

The foundation of my argument throughout this volume is that in the quintessential sailor cum novelist, Herman Melville, we can identify an aesthetic conception of a productive political dissent at its most theologically dynamic. In his life and fiction we find embodied a radical aesthetic engagement with the theological bases of subjectivity and sovereignty. By reading the evolution of Melville’s conception of duplicity and identity through the transcendental self-reflectivity of early German Romanticism, the dialectical materialism of Friedrich Schelling, and the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière, we identify a shocking new frame for an aesthetically conceived political theology. In so doing, we locate a creative intensity at the heart of subjectivity, that is, in the duplicitous poetics of subjective self-characterization. By recasting theology through the materialistic and political contours of aesthetics, we thus argue that the subject of theology, the beginning and the end of subjectivity as such, is not on the far side of theological reflection and/or discourse, as a transcendent object; nor is it fully a vitalistic and immanent presence or process. Rather, we conclude that the subject of theology, the subject par excellence, that which secures the twin matrices of power, subjectivity and sovereignty, is that of one playing a character. In this most characteristic theology, the subject of theology is that element of creativity that is itself most self-creative. The theological significance of theology, as such, is precisely in the materiality of this self-creativity; that is, its self-characterization in and as a Melvillean masquerade, the duplicitous posing in and as self-creative subject and sovereign.

To achieve this I begin in section one by presenting a biographical portrait of a young Herman Melville consumed by the questions of and the doubts about his own authorial self-becoming. Fresh from the sea at an early age, Melville was a natural storyteller, but perhaps not so natural a novelist. Indeed, as is especially clear in his first novel, Typee, his writing has never been without a sustained structure of duplicity and self-doubt or the attendant desire for self-destruction. We find in his desperate autobiographical groping an echo of the opening paragraph of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, “— and so I tell my life to myself,” and a participation in the dilemma of self-creativity heralded in the eighteenth-century by Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, meditated on by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and popularised at the turn of the twenty-first century by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

I then argue in the following two sections that Melville’s ambivalence regarding self-destruction and self-assertion can only be adequately understood when held in relief to the 18th-/19th-century political and philosophical climate the gave birth to the modern novel. While it may initially seem a departure from the narrative begun in the preceding section, Melville’s presentation of subjectivity throughout his novels is so closely aligned to the convergence of aesthetics and subjectivity found in Kant and in the theory of the romantic novel developed by early German Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, that he in many ways is their American counterpart. In them I locate and explicate a patently modern subjectivity; that is, subjectivity as a self-presentation, that is itself an aesthetic self-creation or self-calling.

In recent years Giorgo Agamben has described the provocative philosophical and political implications of this self-presentation in terms of a sovereignty and the “state of exception.” Per his reading of Carl Schmitt’s classic (and resurgently popular) treatise on the subject, Political Theology, Agamben recasts the state of exception as essentially a theory of sovereignty. In short, this is because the sovereign subject is that which (a) decides on the state of exception, whilst (b) also guaranteeing its relation to the juridical order that has been suspended. That is to say, because its decision is that of annulling the norm, the sovereign is beyond the normative order of things; and yet, inasmuch as it is ultimately responsible for deciding whether it is even possible for the normative order to be completely annulled or suspended, the sovereign also necessarily emerges from that order which is being annulled/suspended. What is being described here is nothing short of a miracle, whereby the sovereign subject is that which “calls” itself into being.

I extend this analysis further and call this the speculative function of the Romantic/Idealistic self-calling; the calling of that which is called to become-itself, the self-called sovereign subject. There are, as we see in subsequent sections, profound theological points to be made here about the production of the Absolute as “fictionalized” exception, in which the self-presentation of the one who is called is possible only through the dialectical act of its self-characterisation as the one who is called. In this case, the sovereign power of the call, the one who decides on the state of exception and the status of exceptionality, is not, strictly speaking, God; rather, it is the God that is instantiated/embodied in and as that which is called

It is with this in mind that, the formal similarity between Melville and Romanticism notwithstanding, I locate his enduring significance in the agonistic resistance to the appropriation of Romantic ideals by several of his American contemporaries, particularly what he regarded as the dehumanised ethics and spiritual esotericism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As such, in section three I trace the transition of Melville’s ambivalent though philosophically complex embrace of Romantic political and aesthetic ideals. Beginning with his definitive self-assertion and declaration of authorial independence in “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” and culminating in the complex “apocalypse of the self” in Moby-Dick and Pierre, I argue at length that Melville’s intellectual-artistic journey is profoundly symptomatic of Friedrich Schelling’s aborted philosophical aim of articulating the materialistic melancholy of subjective self-creativity. For indeed, in Schelling’s Ages of the World and Melville’s Pierre, we no longer have aspirations of self-creative wholeness and unity, but a tempestuous tension and excess at the very foundation of subjectivity that threatens to consume it.

Drawing from and commenting extensively on the recent work of Jacques Rancière, I argue in the remaining fourth and fifth sections of the book that Melville does not offer us a fully viable political theology until after the nihilistic apocalypticism of Moby-Dick and Pierre (or even the short story “Bartleby”) so often celebrated by late-20th century philosophy and theology. This does not happen until the full manifestation of self-creative duplicity in his final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Here, no character is as though he or she seems, but only because there is always an excess of characterization in each. The con man is potentially the conned, and innocence never far removed from potential guilt. Interestingly, the excess of identity in Melville’s Masquerade does not issue merely in nihilistic indeterminacy, but in the inescapably creative capacity of a subject always to be more than itself, and for such an excess to come from within and not to be imposed from without.

In Rancière, we find the political significance of the masquerade is most pronounced in terms of Aristotle’s ideal commuity. Here, the soul of the master is identified as one of deliberation and discernment, which gives to him the natural right of sovereignty, rule and law. The slave, however, has no such capacity, and indeed has no soul or essence at all; as such, while the slave can understand the reason and law of the master (thus allowing the slave to obey the master’s orders), she lacks the capacity or essence to participate in the sensibility of reason or law, or . These are, rather, effected upon the slave. Indeed, the slave only has a proper place in the aesthetico-political community insofar as she obeys her master. Hers is a natural/essential place of non-creative, non-sensible subservience, “doomed to the anonymity of work and reproduction” (Disagreement, 7).

Politics, Rancière argues, is the rare event that occurs when slaves cease to be subservient. That is, when they forcibly partake in the aesthetic field that both constitutes and represses the occurrence of politics, and thus in the distribution of the sensible; when, in rejecting their essential place in the political commuity, that of the no-place with no voice, they make a claim on sensibility and freedom.* Importantly, this claim to freedom is fundamentally different than that of a claim to wealth and/or nobility, and to their attendant administrative status. These assert particular qualities as proper and/or essential to those who lay the claim. In terms of Aristotle’s ideal community, such claims are just insofar as the wealthy and noble live up to the roles they are naturally and essentially capable of fulfilling in the community. A slave’s claim to freedom, however, is an immediate claim, devoid of any justification by way of their proportional, contributing quality. In such a claim, the slave insists that the correlation between social position/role and natural capacity is purely theatrical, and thus artificial to the core.

By exposing the duplicity at the heart of the political community, however, we should not mistake the slave’s egalitarian claim to freedom as any more an unmasking of truth than what takes place in Melville’s Masquerade. Indeed, for both, the claim to self-creativity exposes the masquerade as such in order that it might become a masquerade par excellence. That is to say, not the truth behind the masquerade, but the truth of the masquerade, i.e., its singularly and necessarily arbitrary nature. Inasmuch as they speak forth themselves as free, they do so only by knowingly speaking forth a lie. This is, in short, an appeal to the radical creativity ordinarily suppressed by the communal masquerade and role-play, but in no way put an end to the masquerade as such.

By reading Rancière through Melville’s Masquerade, I conclude that our political theologies can identify the emergence of subjective sovereignty and power as a kind of duplicity, where masks do not obscure or defer the revelation of a transcendent truth or ultimate kernel of self-identity, be it that of divine revelation, mystical silence, pantheistic All, or nihilistic void. By reading Melville’s Masquerade through Rancière, the masquerade becomes the political materialisation, or characterization, of truth, of justice, and of the self—such is the denial of essence for the sake of identity. When read together, we identify a re-attuned aesthetic awareness and begin our approach toward a political theology that thinks through the paradoxical, though essential and characteristic, freedom and bondage of self-characterization. Such a thinking is concerned less with the necessity of what is or must be than it is with the immanent possibilities our conceptual categories keep dormant (or worse, repress), and is thus marked by the attention paid to the unthought intensity and excess of self-characterization. In this we become aware of the infinite capacity for new, finite beginnings, and a materialistic/anthropological theology of “a new creation” takes shape.
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* It is not merely an anecdotal convenience for one writing about Melville that on several occasions Rancière identifies those denied aesthetic sensibility–what he terms “the demos” (of democracy)–not as slaves but as sailors, and freedom as smelling of salt. Indeed, Rancière asserts that the political project of the classical philosopher, beginning with Plato, has been “an anti-maritime polemic,” in which only the mountains that surrounded Athens protected the city and its politics from the drunken disorder of democracy coming in from the sea: “The sea smells bad. This is not because of the mud, however. The sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy” (On the Shores of Politics, 1-2).

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