Agamben, theology, and me

The other day, Stephen Keating asked me what attracted me to Agamben initially, and I had to confess that at first it was simply a desire to see what the big deal was about Homo Sacer. I found the book pretty baffling, and out of stubbornness (and with some nudging from Ted Jennings), I read further to see if I could make sense of things — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve found many books baffling, and I didn’t wind up learning to read in a foreign language in order to keep up with their authors’ work, nor have I translated them, etc. The key, I think, is my strange disciplinary position. I do a lot with philosophy and really enjoy it — and yet I very often feel like I’m stuck in an “expositional” mode, as though I can’t fully inhabit the discourse in the way necessary to do creative work with it. It’s different with theology. There I feel like a genuine internal critic, and I feel confident that I can make creative contributions to the discourse.

From this perspective, Agamben is appealling to me because he occupies a similar position with regard to the Christian tradition. His readings of the theological tradition are much more interesting and daring than the majority of confessional theologians’ — particularly in the Paul book and in his bold rewriting of the entire history of Christian thought in The Kingdom and the Glory. Despite his immersion, he is still able to approach the tradition with genuine freedom, and despite his critical stance, he is able to approach the tradition with the initial sympathy needed to detect what is at stake in theologians’ often recondite debates. Agamben can make the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem as though it has urgent contemporary consequences, and yet that importance emphatically does not at all imply that we should become Christians.

This basic resonance makes Agamben at once a deep influence on my way of thinking and the philosopher that I feel most able to critique. And this weird stance toward philosophy and theology may explain my position on other philosophers. For instance, I have long had a gut feeling that delving deeper into Badiou’s work would not be the best use of my time, despite his obvious relevance for my work on Zizek — and I suspect that may finally be because his reading of Paul is deeply reactionary and anti-Jewish. Similarly, my interest in Zizek has waned as his theological work has reached a kind of dead end, where he can keep repeating the same basic point but seems unable to develop it further or fully integrate it into his system.

An interview over Zizek

As promised, below is the English transcript of my forthcoming interview over Zizek and Theology.

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Notes on the death drive

Yesterday in the DAAD seminar led by Eric Santner that I’ve been participating in, we talked about Triebe und Triebschicksale and Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Prof. Santner emphasized the fact that the concept of “drive” is more the name of a problem than a solution and the fact that the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself. As we turned to the (bizarre!) sections of the text that deal with speculative cellular biology, I shared that I had found it somehow funny that Freud pictured the first living being coming into existence and experiencing it as a huge imposition: “This sucks! I want to go back to being primordial soup!” But once you start down that road, it seems as though there’s no reason not to push the point further. Perhaps consistent matter resented its condition and wanted to go back to being indeterminate quarks, for instance. Then Prof. Santner had a brilliant and hilarious insight: the idea that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could be put forward not as an occasion of wonder, but as a complaint.

It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome. Zizek of course puts this refusal forward as the only possible ground of political change, and it seems that there is justification in Freud’s text insofar as he associates the death drive with the Wiederholungszwang or repetition compulsion that pushes neurotic patients to relive the painful experience that has (mis)shaped them — but it’s all in order ultimately to refuse that particular vicious cycle and shape themselves differently.

I wonder if we can make a connection to the Heideggerian being-toward-death here. What drives Heidegger to investigate the phenomenon of death, at least in my reading, is not so much that death is the “end” and therefore “completion” of a human life, but rather that death as such is a potentiality that always necessarily remains potential, that can never be actualized. After all, once “my” death occurs, “I” no longer exist. The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with. Being-toward-death is his way of articulating and grasping that potentiality so as to get a complete grasp of Dasein’s peculiar mode of being (as actuality and potentiality). Just as with Freud’s death drive, the emphasis on death as such may be partially misleading or distracting, but there’s a moment of truth insofar as “death” names a radical negativity in human life. For both Freud and Heidegger, then, it would be this negativity that gives us access to the potentiality to do something other than our automatic daily routines of neurosis or everydayness.

Balance and imbalance

Which comes first, balance or imbalance? Which is more primordial? Many would have it that balance comes first, that there is a preestablished harmony that is then disturbed, often by human willfulness. In our contemporary world, for instance, many would hold that the market is inherently balanced and is only thrown off by extraneous human interventions — a modern-day notion of the inexplicable intrusion of original sin into God’s perfect creation.

Yet there can be no such thing as a permanent, inherent balance, because balance always presupposes at least two things. If we see something that looks like a balance and is permanent and inherent, then it is only a balance by analogy — really, we are just looking at parts of one thing and noting how they go together. Balancing always means balancing things that are not the same, that are not inherently compatible, that don’t automatically fit together. Balance is always an achievement, and one that must be continually renewed.

This provides us with one way of interpreting Zizek’s claim, based in his reading of Hegel and Lacan, that the gap is primordial, that difference actually generates what seem to be its positive terms. Read the rest of this entry »

Transgression: that’s how they get you!

Christian Thorne has a really great essay on Zizek up, which promises to be the first of three. He argues that the main point of Zizek’s work is to provide a way out of the deadlock of enjoyment on the left — neither the ascetic and over-intellectualized Old Left nor the loosey-goosey, sexually liberated New Left have managed to deal with this problem adequately. Though Thorne doesn’t use the Lacanian lingo, the way he poses Zizek’s solution can be described essentially in terms of the shift from desire (which is based on the law’s inherent transgression) to drive (an autonomous jouissance that does not need any reference to authority to sustain it).

It’s the familiar formula that Zizek’s been hammering away at from the beginning: transgression (rebellion, sexual deviancy, even knowing cynical distance) gets us nowhere, because the law has already factored that in. Early on, he tended to emphasize the more truly subversive power of over-identifying with the “official” ideology without reference to its obscene supplement of enjoyment, and in his later work, it seems that he’s tended more toward the inscrutable inertia of drive — which seems to him to be the only point of “leverage” for starting something new (i.e., something that is not conceived in terms of the order it’s supposedly rebelling against).

I think it’s at this point that we can see clear parallels between Agamben and Zizek, both in their diagnosis of the structure of the law (which includes its own transgression/exception) and their attempt to get beyond rebellion or resistence and simply build something new (either conceived positively in terms of drive or negatively as in the messianic “as if not” strategy). If this comparison holds, then it may explain why I’ve been so attracted to both figures, even though many have viewed them as coming from very incompatible places.

Why “materialism”?

I am finding myself increasingly puzzled by the use of the term “materialism” in contemporary continental philosophy. On the one hand, there seems to be a significant drive to claim the name “materialism,” and indeed to claim that one’s own position is the truest and most radical materialism. On the other hand, the positions claiming the term for themselves do not intuitively seem to be best described as “materialism” — certainly they are not the kind of reductive materialism that would be recognizable to an analytic philosopher, for example. Instead, the mark of a contemporary materialism seems to be an emphasis on something like negativity, ontological lack, the priority of difference, etc. And I should hasten to say that all of those conceptual motifs are things that I identify with and find productive for my own thought! Yet I don’t understand why “materialism” is thought to be the best heading under which to gather them.

A possibility that jumps out at me is that it’s a kind of overcompensation, a preemptive defense against charges of idealism that would naturally follow from the fact that many contemporary materialists find their most productive points of reference precisely in German Idealism. If we take the conflict between materialism and idealism to be a perennial one in philosophy, we might have arrived at a moment when materialism is not being asserted over against some alternative idealist position, but within idealism itself. The truest materialist position may be precisely to discover the way in which apparent idealists were always already rigorous materialists.

Another angle of attack: it’s an attempt to reclaim some territory that has been occupied by various thinkers who want to go back behind the Kantian critical move and claim some kind of immediate access to the real (certain Deleuzianisms, a certain Badiou, Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology, etc.). So again, it’s an attempt to vindicate German Idealism by claiming that, read rightly, Kant, Hegel, et al. already had what contemporary realism is looking for. (“Is not the obstacle that prevents German Idealism from gaining access to the Real the irreducible kernel of the Real itself, etc., etc.?”)

What do you think, dear readers?

Zizek the fascist

Reportedly this article is yet more evidence that Zizek is a fascist. (Indeed, my favorable view of Zizek has led certain internet personages to propose that I myself long for fascist authoritarianism.) In reality, though, it fits perfectly with my account of his strategy of over-identification.

If you think that an appeal to the necessity of strong leadership is inherently fascist, then I don’t know what to say. That view strikes me as the pinnacle of liberalism, not leftism — life as an endless committee meeting, tabling issue after issue until such a time as consensus emerges. And meanwhile we’re ruled over by a machine that is destroying everything, even the conditions for its own existence.

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Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Cutrofello’s objective correlatives: of Hegel and Hamlet

InterCcECT is delighted to present a talk by Andrew Cutrofello“Two Contemporary Hegelianisms,” Tuesday 19 March, 4pm, Newberry LibraryRoom B82.

Robert Brandom’s and Slavoj Žižek’s appropriations of Hegel seem radically different. Brandom’s Hegelianism takes the form of a semantic holism that is essentially normative and pragmatic. Žižek’s is a version of dialectical materialism that is avowedly perverse and revolutionary in intention. Curiously, however, there are significant parallels in the two philosophers’ conceptions of Hegelian spirit. These are evidenced in their respective readings of T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Nevertheless, Brandom’s and Žižek’s Hegels ultimately diverge with respect to the nature of reason and commitment. In my talk I will try to sketch these differences by bringing into play another of Eliot’s essays from The Sacred Wood, namely, “Hamlet and His Problems.” In this essay, Eliot develops his famous conception of the objective correlative, explaining why it goes missing in Shakespeare’s play. Brandom and Žižek, I suggest, have fundamentally different conceptions of Hegel’s “missing” objective correlative.

a few highlights from our calendar, which contains additional details:
8 March Issues in Phenomenology
13 March Gregory Flaxman at U of C
13 March Bill Martin, “Zen Maoism: An improbable Buddhist-Marxist synthesis”
15 March Paola Marrati on Deleuze

Posted in Chicago, Hegel, Interccect, Zizek. Comments Off

Altizer as the third rail of academic theology

Last night, I was in a strange mood that led me to look up reviews of my work on library databases. Reviews of Zizek and Theology happened to be most easily accessible — with reviews of Politics of Redemption, the vagaries of Shimer’s subscriptions meant that I could generally verify that the reviewer had faithfully summarized the goals and approach, but the limited preview meant I was left in suspense as to how and whether the other shoe dropped… — and I noticed an interesting pattern among theological readers: a deep, visceral response to my comparison of Zizek with Altizer. The basic move is visible in Ben Myers’ review, which is not behind any kind of academic paywall and which blames me for daring to associate Zizek with a theologian he would later publicly and enthusiastically embrace. (Milbank later took it a step further in his public denunciation of me — surely my proudest achievement as a theologian — claiming that I am little more than an Altizerian.)

I don’t want to dig up old debates about my book in specific or Zizek’s relationship to Altizer — at this point, I believe it could not be any clearer that Zizek is in fact a “death of God” theologian (and a huge admirer of Altizer’s work!) and that the attempted Radical Orthodox appropriation of Zizek was based on a huge misunderstanding. What is interesting to me is this visceral revulsion against Altizer on the part of traditional theologians.

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