Agamben the “left Heideggerian”

Matthew Abbott shared with me via Twitter an article of his in which he presents a thorough-going Heideggerian reading of Agamben, coining the term “political ontology” to set his work apart from both “political theology” and “political philosophy.” I need to think this through more, but on a first reading, it’s certainly a very convincing systematization — I also appreciate the parallels he draws with Nancy’s work, positioning them both as “left Heideggerians.”

A passage I just translated yesterday from Opus Dei speaks to this problematic of “political ontology.” Discussing Cicero and Ambrose’s introduction of the term officium into ethics and priestly practice, respectively, he writes: “But, as often happens, a terminological transformation, if it expresses a change in ontology, can turn out to be just as effective and revolutionary as a material transformation. Putting on the garments and mask of officium, not only the virtues but, with them, the entire edifice of ethics and politics meets with a displacement whose consequences we must perhaps still weigh” (pg. 95 of the Italian).

A puzzling paragraph in Being and Time

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been going through Being and Time with a student volunteer, in anticipation of teaching it. Yesterday we went over chapter 5 of the first division, “Being-in-the-World as Being-With and Being-One’s-Self. The ‘They,’” and there was a line that I found somewhat puzzling (in bold):

The world not only frees the ready-to-hand as entities encountered within-the-world; it also frees Dasein — the Others in their Dasein-with. But Dasein’s ownmost meaning of Being is such that this entity (which has been freed environmentally) is Being-in in the same world in which, as encounterable for Others, it is there with them. We have interpreted worldhood as that referential totality which constitutes significance (Section 18). In Being-familiar with this significance and previously understanding it, Dasein lets what is ready-to-hand be encountered as discovered in its involvement. In Dasein’s Being, the context of references or assignments which significance implies is tied up with Dasein’s ownmost being — a Being which essentially can have no involvement, but which is rather that Being for the sake of which Dasein itself is as it is.

Die Welt gibt nicht nur das Zuhandene als innerweltlich begegnendes Seiendes frei, sondern auch Dasein, die Anderen in ihrem Mitdasein. Dieses umweltlich freigegebene Seiende ist aber seinem eigensten Seins-sinn entsprechend In-Sein in derselben Welt, in der es, für andere begegnend, mit da ist. Die Weltlichkiet wurde interpretiert (§18) als das Verweisungsganze der Bedeutsamkeit. Im vorgängig verstehenden Vertrautsein mit dieser läßt das Dasein Zuhandenes als in seiner Bewandtnis Entdecktes begegnen. Der Verweisungszusammenhang der Bedeutsamkeit ist festgemacht im Sein des Daseins zu seinem eigensten Sein, damit es wesenhaft keine Bewandtnis haben kann, das vielmehr das Sein ist, worumwillen das Dasein selbst ist, wie es ist.

(M&R translation; Section 26; Heidegger’s page 123)

So on the one hand, we have this network of relations (significations, assignments), and on the other hand, something which “can have no involvement.” Read the rest of this entry »

Badiou vs. Nancy on Libya

Jean-Luc Nancy recently came out in favor of the Libya intervention, and Alain Badiou is disappointed.

On writing about Jean-Luc Nancy

When applying for postdocs last year, my stated research project was a study of Jean-Luc Nancy. His notion of “being-with” plays a significant role in my dissertation, and I’ve also thought about doing something on Augustine’s De Trinitate that would use Nancy, so really getting a handle on him seemed like a good idea — and it was also what my advisor suggested as a next step.

As time has gone by, however, my enthusiasm for the idea has flagged somewhat, and I think it might actually be because something like a “study of Jean-Luc Nancy” just isn’t a viable project. For me, Nancy is a source of great ideas or motifs: often very suggestive, and yet always needing to be “completed” somehow. Perhaps the model for a “study of Nancy” is Derrida’s Le Toucher: Jean-Luc Nancy, in which Nancy’s work provides a starting point and lens for a study of the philosophy of touch.

Of course, one might say the same of Zizek, and I managed to do a fairly systematic study of his work — but before beginning research for Zizek and Theology, I already had a presentiment that it would be possible to find some kind of guiding thread by periodizing his work. With Nancy, though, it seems as though it’s irreducibly fragmentary.

Deconstruction of Christianity, volume 2

Given what happened with Being and Time part 1 and Derrida’s Given Time volume 1, I was not entirely sure Nancy would actually do the implied volume 2 of Deconstruction of Christianity, but it appears that he has. I’ve ordered a copy and will keep you, my loyal blog-readers, up to date on all relevant developments.

(Thanks to Brad for bringing this to my attention.)

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Nancy on the excessive use of the term “political”: the death of politics?

In his book Philosophical Chronicles (a published set of radio addresses), Jean-Luc Nancy deals with a host of issues from daily life from the perspective of a philosopher, and some of them are deceptively simple, yet profound. His address from January, 2003, which addresses the word “politics” [politique], makes two very important points that have been haunting me for some three months now. First, Nancy points out the excessive use of the word politics, and its use in realms not normally considered “political.”

In the artistic domain in particular, it is often seen as necessary to declare that a work or an intervention has a political relevance, a political sense, or even a political nature. Whereas in the past we would come across the notion of the political commitment of an artist (of a writer, a philosopher, or a scientist), today we must refer to a necessarily political dimension in their practice itself. What cannot be said to be “political” appears suspect in being only aesthetic, intellectual, technical, or moral. (24) Read the rest of this entry »

“The Prehistory of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Deconstruction of Christianity”

In keeping with a longstanding tradition, I am hereby making my AAR presentation on Nancy available to you all in PDF format. It was part of a panel including Clayton Crockett and Mary-Jane Rubenstein, with Laurel Schneider responding, and it was somewhat overshadowed by the other papers in the Q&A — perhaps rightly so, as you can determine for yourself.

In keeping with another longstanding tradition, I will not be posting my other AAR paper from this year, as I intend to work it up into an article at a later date. (That’s right: AUFS is where my non-reusable conference papers go to die.)


I spent most of today reading Laclau’s On Populist Reason. I still have a good chunk left — and in any case it’s too soon for me to respond intelligently to the theoretical content as such — but I thought that it was worth remarking that one thing I have always admired about Laclau is the clarity and rigor of his arguments. When I read Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, for example, I came away convinced that the economy really can’t be determinative “in the last instance,” and I don’t think that would’ve happened had they presented that portion of the argument in a more stereotypically “continental” style. (This book holds fewer surprises for someone familiar with Laclau’s previous work, so no such epiphanies have resulted so far.)

Even in the most extreme instances of “continental” style, though, such moments of crystal clarity do occur and are very powerful — for instance, early on in Nancy’s Inoperative Community, he lays out a very straightforward and compact argument that the “metaphysics of the absolute” is simply logically incoherent, and to my mind, the only possible response there is, “Wow, I guess you’re right.”

It seems possible, however, that if a text were simply the accumulation of such moments of crystal clarity, it would paradoxically lapse back into an absolute opacity.

Further Thoughts on Ontology

I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology — namely, the fact that the Radox authors baldly assert their Neoplatonic ontology of hierarchical participation because of its supposedly benificent moral effects. I suggested that perhaps ontology, which at least etymologically is supposed to have some relation to how things “are,” should take science seriously. At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.

I maintain that the trick the Radox authors attempt to pull would never have been able to succeed if the dominant strains of postwar philosophy had not fallen asleep at the ontological wheel. Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known, and the dominance of Heidegger and his successors in continental philosophy (in its various institutional incarnations) led to a similar suspicion of metaphysical claims — most often quasi-moral objections to metaphysics as a “totalizing discourse” that is somehow directly oppressive (“Hegel caused the Holocaust,” etc.). Jean-Luc Nancy has undertaken to do a kind of post-Heideggerian ontology over the past couple decades, though I’m not sure he’s really “taking off” among Americans; there may also be someone in the analytic camp pursuing something along these lines, though I’ve not heard of it.

The shame here, though, is that during the prewar period, there was a real flowering of ontologies of the exact kind that I advocate — perhaps the biggest names there are Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James. In each case, there is a recognition that the mechanical determinism (largely unconsciously) assumed by scientists is not adequately accounting to experience, and so the attempt is made to develop a more inclusive and realistic ontology.

Then in the postwar period, the whole thing apparently just shuts down in America, in both the analytic and continental traditions — the latter of which also spread to many other disciplines in the humanities where ontological reflection may have found a place. Certain contemporary developments — the rediscovery of Deleuze as a “real philospher,” the surprising prominence of Badiou in certain American circles, the aforementioned work of Nancy, Zizek’s more recent work — point toward the potential for a renewed interest in a truly contemporary ontology. The shame, however, is that in so many ways we in America at least have to reinvent the wheel because the prewar developments wound up getting prematurely cut off in our context.

My SBL Presentation

[The following is the text of my presentation at this year's SBL, entitled "Philosophical Reading Beyond Paul: Jean-Luc Nancy on the Epistle of James." Page numbers refer to Déclosion; translations are my own. (In some cases, antecedents have been supplied for the sake of clarity in oral delivery.) I am normally a "use the whole buffalo" kind of guy -- i.e., don't write something unless you can use it at least twice -- but I don't think this is publishable as it stands. It has been suggested that this paper needs some more explicit materials about what makes this reading of James specifically "Nancean," which would perhaps make it more reusable. Further suggestions along those lines are welcome.]

As is well-known, in recent years certain figures in continental philosophy have displayed a renewed interest in the writings of Saint Paul. Stanislas Breton, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Bernard Sichère, and Slavoj Zizek are among the figures who have devoted book-length treatments to Paul, and interest in these “philosophical readings” seems-perhaps surprisingly-to be growing rather than abating in the English-speaking world. Though some have tended to treat this interest in Paul as a surprising departure, in fact it is in continuity with a long tradition in modern philosophy, stretching back to at least Spinoza. Just as the early modern philosophers generally attempted to recruit Paul to the side of the modern secular state, so also contemporary readers have tended to envision Paul as a precursor of the modern revolutionary leader.

In both cases, there has been relatively little interest in parts of the New Testament other than the Pauline epistles. Several of these readers of Paul more or less explicitly explain why they do not address the later New Testament writings-Badiou, for instance, is interested only in Paul’s revolutionary subjectivity and not in its empirical results (i.e., Christianity), and Zizek views actual existing Christianity as a betrayal of its Pauline origins. I propose, however, that whatever the explicit reasons given, the underlying motivation for addressing Paul rather than any other New Testament writings is the sense that Paul is the only New Testament writer truly worth dealing with, the only truly formidable mind among the apostles. Beyond that, Paul’s letters-particularly Romans, which has tended to attract the most attention-seem closer to the genre of a philosophical treatise than do the gospel narratives or Revelation.

This bias toward Paul, while understandable, has in my opinion cut off certain promising possibilities. Contemporary scholarship recognizes all the New Testament writings to be grounded in particular Christian communities and has tended to understand those writings as survival strategies within those communities’ particular contexts. Thus, for example, the “household codes” in the deutero-Pauline epistles have tended to be interpreted not so much as expressing a divine preference for certain social structures, but rather as attempts to preserve a counter-cultural movement that was suffering persecution. Such strategies should certainly be of interest to those who are looking to Paul’s Christian collectives as a model for present revolutionary practice. Their authors may not be gifted speculative thinkers, but arguably neither was Lenin. Hence I have hoped for some expansion of the philosophico-political reading of Paul to the rest of the early Christian literature.

So far, however, philosophical readings of New Testament literature other than Paul have stemmed from another tendency in European philosophy: the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology represented by figures such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry. Henry’s I Am the Truth is welcome in the attention it gives to a narrative text, but it is a reading of the Gospel of John, long recognized as the most “philosophical” gospel. A more radical departure can be found in Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay, “The Judeo-Christian: On Faith,” which treats a text neglected by philosophers and theologians alike: the Epistle of James, which Luther called “epistle of straw.”

Read the rest of this entry »


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