This is a guest post from Daniel Whistler, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. A list of his publications and some pdfs can be found at his personal website. – APS
To begin, I want to state my admiration for this book. It manages to be both concise and thrilling, both innovative and rigorous; quite simply, it manages to speak more truth in 150 pages than most of us will manage in several hefty tomes.
I envisage each chapter of On Diaspora as charting a series of effects emanating from the cry, ‘Immanence!’. This is important because, as Barber himself pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one should expect no starting point, no transcendental argument for the possibility (or even existence) of immanence. Immanence is posited and is only to be justified by the productivity of its effects. Indeed (and I return to this at the end), I would contend that Barber is committed to the dismantling of the transcendental/critical project in its entirety (replacing it with something like a pragmatic constructivism). At any rate, Chapter One narrates the onto-methodo-linguistic effects of a theory of immanence and does so in three parts: a modelling of the relay between names and nameless excess (‘The Paradox of Immanence’), a preliminary schema of various perversions of this relay (‘Rival Paradigms’), and a final epilogue on Spinoza foreshadowing the constructive project to come (‘Surplus Naming’).
Immanence for Barber consists in the destruction of hierarchy: no entity, class of entities or field of being exists in splendid isolation (or ‘autoreferentiality’, one of Barber’s favourite insults); rather, everything reciprocally constitutes everything else. But immediately Barber problematises this initial definition with the question, ‘But how are we to speak of immanence?’ – how can naming cope with this perpetual process of reciprocal constitution? (This is a problem of individuation.) The answer, of course, is that naming too is caught up in the self-same process of reciprocal constitution, generating a series of ‘improper names’ that determine, qualify and intensify each other. Spinoza’s refusal to choose between God and Nature is emblematic. The issue is ultimately one of excess: immanence is excessive, so naming is too. However, as soon as it is claimed that one or more names manages to fix, determine or ‘congeal’ immanence, this surplus is negated – and so such names fail. They install a transcendent plane which contradicts the excessive character of immanence. So, ‘Immanence, properly speaking, is nameless.’ (p. 6) Hence, the names generated in this act of excessive naming must be considered fictions: they are both contingent and inadequate in themselves, but nonetheless necessary by-products of immanence’s self-naming. Therefore, immanence now receives a more precise definition in terms of inconsistent signification: it consists in a perpetual relay between nameless excess and fictive names. This is the model that will recur in the pages that follow.
I have aired my reservations about this model elsewhere and don’t want to repeat them in any detail here. Basically, I wonder if Barber does not surreptitiously reintroduce a hierarchy, in which being is prioritised over language, by insisting on the namelessness of immanence (e.g. compare ‘An immanent relation is one in which neither term can be made utterly prior to the other’ (p. 1) with ‘Philosophical and theological discourses [i.e. names] belong to something that, while expressed by each of them, is prior to them’ (p. 21).) In other words, if immanent excess is constituted immanently by names just as much as names are constituted immanently by immanent excess, in what way is immanence ‘properly speaking’ nameless?
A slightly different reservation I have concerns the role played by fiction. Here is Barber later in the book rephrasing the idea of the relay, ‘Immanence… proceeds… by a double affirmation – an affirmation, that is, of both the world as such, or the namelessness of immanence, and the signification that immanence necessarily produces.’ (p. 104) What I worry about here is this idea of ‘affirming the signification’, because it is not so much the names themselves that are being affirmed (or even the act of naming) as their fictiveness. And to affirm the fictiveness of names is a weird modality of affirmation: it is to affirm in a critical, deflationary or ironic key; to affirm a name while simultaneously doubting (or not committing to) that affirmation. It strikes me that this has repercussions for any theory of faith implicit in On Diaspora: there is a level of cynicism (or at least reflection) intrinsic to asserting a fiction that sits uncomfortably with faithful affirmation. It is, of course, possible to respond that such fictiveness corresponds precisely to the believer’s humility in using names for God, but I think this turns Barber into precisely the sort of negative theologian he doesn’t want to be (p. 8).
The second section, ‘Rival Paradigms’, then turns to the various ways in which immanence can be perverted or corrupted: they all, to varying degrees, assert the adequacy of a certain set of names and so forget the ultimate namelessness of being. In each case, the relay between names and namelessness – the lifeblood of immanence – is precluded. What is more – and this is what makes this section of the book so alluring – Barber links this to the relations between philosophy and theology in the twentieth century: each perversion congeals into a philosophical or theological stance, for it is a certain type of theological or philosophical name which is installed transcendently. (This is still true of PE to the extent that philosophy is contaminated by theology in the name of philosophy.) What is so fascinating about Barber’s argument here is that rather than seeing the philosophy/theology relation as a founding, axiomatic decision which gives rise to theory, it is reinterpreted as a symptom of a theory’s comportment to immanence.
I must admit I love this schema (and even cited Barber’s earlier development of it at the opening of my doctoral thesis); it also resonates with abiding preoccupations on this blog. However, I would caution (and here I think that I am implicitly following Barber) against putting too much weight on it. These abstract schemata reveal more about our scholastic desire for pigeon-holes than anything else – and (on my reading at least) Barber realises this: he uses the schema to whet our appetite for the far more important, constructive discussion of the philosophy/theology relation in the later chapters (especially p. 122). Key here is to realise the fallacy in responding too quickly to Barber’s critique of these perversions of immanence. One could easily reply: Barth or Heidegger (for example) just don’t accept the model of immanence that such a critique presupposes and so of course they fail to live up to the idea of a relay between namelessness and names. Barber at this stage has no comeback (I think) and this is because, as I’ve already suggested, he is not interested in a prolegomenon that decisively argues for immanence over transcendence. He does not want to get sucked into a game of justification. Rather, the cogency of immanence can be gleaned solely from its effect – effects it will take the whole book to map. So, while at this stage Barber has no comeback, he does not need one: the book circles back again and again to the advantages of immanence. This, then, is why I consider the schema presented here so preliminary – a foretaste of adventures in concept-construction to come.
To conclude, I want to draw attention to one detail of this schema that intrigued me. In his presentation of PD, Barber writes,
[PD presupposes] that philosophy… sets the conditions for theological discourse’s production of names. Yet this is precisely what I have denied by asserting the reciprocal dynamic between namelessness and signification. (p. 13)
To me, this seems a pretty direct rebuttal of Brad Johnson’s claim at the end of his 2010 essay, ‘Making All Things New’,
There is, of course, a crucial difference between a theologian, the one who names, and a philosopher, whose attention is to the conditions of naming itself… Perhaps only the latter, the non-theologian, can be truly attuned to the promise that crosses religious divides.
I am not interested in whether or not Dan had Brad in mind, nor who is right (I am drawn to both positions); instead, I merely want to draw attention to the fact that a debate seems to be developing around the legacy of Philip Goodchild’s thinking (to name a figure whose influence on many of the contributors to this blog cannot be overemphasised): while Johnson espouses a form of orthodox Goodchildianism, in which there is a critical discourse named philosophy able to adequately describe the pieties which orient naming what matters most, Barber proposes a deviant Goodchildianism, for which no single discourse is adequate (hence my earlier comment about his dismantling of the transcendental framework in its entirety). Whatever the respective merits of these positions, what is thrilling here is the emergence of, in Anthony’s words, ‘actual new debates‘ in continental philosophy of religion.