Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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 »

The Glory of the Lord

In the devil class, we noted out a strange feature of the New Jerusalem as portrayed in Revelation: the kings of all nations come to pay tribute there. It seems that we are to envision the continued existence of the system of “the nations” in the Kingdom of God — and that God’s glory somehow requires glorification, not just in general as Agamben points out, but specifically from the rulers of this world. This trope has deep roots in the prophetic expansion of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, an expansion that made YHWH an actor on the world stage. Even when God is using a pagan ruler as a mere tool, the glory of that ruler seems to contribute to God’s prestige — all the moreso when God ultimately rejects and punishes that ruler, showing himself to be the true sovereign.

It is in this context that we must understand Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. This might seem surprising, because in many ways the text renders the Last Judgment an awkward afterthought, instead emphasizing very this-worldly concerns — Christ’s victory over idols, over pagan oracles, over the fear of death, over sensuality, over violence…. These strangely “empirical” proofs of the reality of the resurrection take priority over Athanasius’s metaphysical musings about the corruptibility of the flesh, and indeed, one almost gets the impression that God sets himself a hard problem (how to fix human corruption while nonetheless remaining true to his word that humans must suffer death for their disobedience?) so that it will be all the more awesome when he solves it. At every step, Athanasius emphasizes that God in Christ is as strong as possible, as glorious as possible, an insistence that is all the more striking when he tries to “spin” his death on the cross as the greatest possibly glory rather than as a mark of the deepest shame.

The text was most likely written before Constantine’s conversion, but it seems that such an event is a logical outgrowth of the general scheme Athanasius lays out — after all, what could be more glorious than for the ruler of the unprecedentedly large and powerful Roman empire to testify to Christ’s divinity and victory? The development of Christianity into an imperial religion was not the only way it could have played out, perhaps, but it was also not arbitrary. Desire for recognition on the world political scene is built into the apocalyptic paradigm within which Christian theology traces its idiosyncratic path.

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.

A brief review of a brief book: Taubes, To Carl Schmitt

Only a Christian would make a deal with the devil. That’s what’s so disturbing about the gesture of selling your soul — it only makes sense if you know what’s at stake, yet it’s precisely because you know what’s at stake that it doesn’t make sense. It seems to me that this is a possible lens through which to view Jacob Taubes’s complex relationship with Carl Schmitt, as expressed in the brief collection To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, which the introducer of the volume, Mike Grimshaw, has already announced and discussed here on AUFS.

What makes Schmitt a great thinker in Taubes’s eyes is that he really did understand what was at stake in his historical moment. He just chose the wrong side in the decisive conflict that was unfolding. Taubes grapples with this gap between the diagnosis and the course of treatment throughout the fragments collected here, and he never comes to any firm conclusion on Schmitt the man. On Schmitt the thinker, though, he is unequivocal in asserting his brilliance and signal importance — an assertion for which he can draw on the authority of Walter Benjamin. In what for me is one of the most interesting passages in the collection, Taubes makes his point by means of the passage from “On the Concept of History” about the “tradition of the oppressed” and the “real state of exception”:

Schmitt’s fundamental vocabulary is here introduced by Benjamin, made use of, and so transformed into its opposite. Carl Schmitt’s conception of the ‘state of exception’ is dictatorial, dictated from above; in Benjamin it becomes a doctrine in the tradition of the oppressed. ‘Contemporaneity,’ a monstrous abbreviation of a messianic period, defines the experience of history on the part of both Benjamin and Schmitt; both involve a mystic conception of history whose principal teaching relates the sacred order to the profane. But the profane cannot be constructed upon the idea of God’s empire. This is why theocracy did not, for Benjamin, Schmitt, and Bloch, have a political meaning, but solely a religious significance. (17)

Sandwiched in between Benjamin and Bloch! All of them understand that this world is permanent, that no worldly structure can claim God’s allegiance or legitimation, but that they are all ways of heading off the apocalypse. Yet Schmitt can see in the apocalypse nothing but destruction. He sees the horizon of this world, yet cannot see anything of value beyond it — and so throws his weight behind a katechon who turns out to be the Antichrist. Taubes continues in an enigmatic paragraph that follows up on the implicit reference to the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the mention of Bloch evokes:

If I understand anything at all of the mystical historical construction that Benjamin here constructs with one eye on Schmitt’s theses, then this: what is superficially a process of secularization, of desacralization, the dedeification of public life, a process of step-by-step neutralization right up to the “value freedom” of science as an index of a techno-industrial form of life; this process also has an inner face that testifies to the freedom of God’s children (as in the letters of St. Paul), hence an expression of a reformation that is nearing its completion. (17-18)

The alternative that Taubes, with Benjamin, is gesturing toward here remains unclear to me, but the reflections in this slim volume convince me of the value of reading Schmitt against the grain in order to think toward it.

Posted in political theology, Schmitt, Taubes. Comments Off
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