Following in Anthony’s footsteps, I too will provide a few books that seem to me to have been particularly formative. Like Anthony, I find that many of these books seem to be from an “early” stage of my graduate work, but I also notice that a few of them tend to be books that I used as reading texts for foreign language study — something that forced me to slow down and in a way brutally imposed those texts on me.
The first book I ever read in a foreign language was Derrida’s Donner la mort (translated as The Gift of Death). I not only read the book but also produced a translation of the final essay (untranslated at the time), which served as my masters thesis, and I have also published an article on it — so it probably still remains the book I’ve most thoroughly engaged with. This text mostly influenced my approach to reading the Christian tradition, predisposing me to watch for times when an earthly logic admitted to be destructive is “displaced” onto a transcendent plane, opening up space for something else here and yet in a way even more insidiously reinforcing the displaced logic — or more generally to watch for “displacements” of all kinds.
My other primary foreign language reading text was Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which had a profound influence on my thinking both about the Christian tradition and about the genealogical method. This passage from essay 2, section 12 keeps coming back to me:
…there is for historiography of any kind no more important proposition than the one it took such effort to establish but which really ought to be established now: the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated…. the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.
This insight still hasn’t fully penetrated historiography, though it should have — you still often hear people saying, for example, that Augustine just took this idea from Manicheanism, etc., as though finding the origin answered some major question. Instead of asking where Augustine’s (or whoever’s) ideas came from, I want to look at what role they’re playing in the particular configuration Augustine (or whoever) puts them into. It has also informed my openness to liberation theologies and other radical theologies — where many people view them as somehow illegitimate insofar as they depart from the “official” teaching while still holding onto the name Christianity, I always think: “These ideas are here for the taking. Why not put them to a new and better use?” (This is surprisingly hard to convince undergraduates of.) I also found his critique of debt-based understandings of Christianity to be really profoundly moving even simply on a literary level, and I’ve continually come back to it.
I suppose I can’t get away without mentioning Zizek here. What I most take from Zizek is what I found in the first book of his I read, The Ticklish Subject — namely his “amoral” ethics (which I later came to understand as basically homologous to “gospel”-style ethics) and, perhaps more importantly, his concept of the big Other, of a social order that’s somehow autonomous or more than the sum of individual actions. The latter is a concept that has profoundly structured my thinking, both in my intellectual project and in the way I interpret day to day occurences. (The first two chapters of my book really crystalize my understanding of the big Other in Zizek’s work, in a form that is probably more accessible than just diving into The Ticklish Subject.)
I would also be remiss if I didn’t bring in the Bible, albeit in Ted Jennings’ style of reading it — as exemplified in his Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul and Insurrection of the Crucified, although his course on Romans was really the most formative influence here (and he is currently at work on a full commentary based on the course, which can’t come out soon enough). Much more than Zizek, Badiou, or Agamben, he taught me to read the Bible — and subsequently the Christian tradition — in a “materialist” way. The two texts from the tradition that I’ve probably found most productive from such a standpoint are Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism and Augustine’s De Trinitate (and to tie back to the beginning, I intensely studied portions of this text in the original Latin). Both of them proved particularly surprising, at least when I brought to bear a reading style that expected to be surprised.
Overall, then, my journey seems to have gotten me away from “orthodoxy” just as Anthony’s has, but it was a journey that caused me to take up a weird kind of position within the Christian tradition, with a new way of navigating it.