What I hate about online debate

Everyone is so sure. Everyone has the formula. We already know, apparently, how to overcome racism. There is already a fully articulated, correct way to talk about transgender people and their experience. Solutions to complex problems like dealing with students’ experience of trauma in the classroom not only exist, but they are totally common sense. If you do not already know and subscribe to these well-known correct answers, you are must either not understand said solutions, in which case you get an exposition, or else, in a time-saving approach, are told that your view is obviously wrong without any guidance or detail — or, if you persist in your objections, you are probably a bad guy, or at least indifferent to providing aid and comfort to the bad guys. Because we already know what is to be done! All we need to do is present our answers in their crystaline perfection, in their uncanny combination of radicality and total obviousness, and everything will fall into place.

I don’t think this is a question of “political correctness,” but reflects a confluence of urgency (which is justified), good intentions (which are genuinely good), and heavy internet use. All of these obvious answers trace their origin to real-life experience of concrete communities, but they are propagated as memes. Whatever else they are, the “trigger warning” and “privilege checking,” for example, are memes. And that means that, in addition to the practical recommendations the terms encapsulate, they function to generate an in-group. The term itself is a shibboleth.

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Why I have no time for Girard

In lectures and conference presentations, I often have occasion to mention the ransom theory of atonement, or the crucifixion more generally. As such, I am very, very frequently asked how my work relates to Girard. And my answer is: it doesn’t, because I have never read Girard, indeed never even held one of his books in my hand.

I don’t expect that I ever will. Why? Because — although I’m sure there is a vast archipelago of nuance and subtlety that I’m missing here — every summary of Girard that I have ever read or heard sounds like a simplistic social theory that just so happens to make Christianity unique and central. In fact, I suspect that it’s the simplicity of his theory that makes it such a go-to for Q&A sessions, because it makes Girard the one theorist of the cross everyone can remember.

Admittedly, I may be falling victim to the paralogisms of pure dismissal insofar as I’m giving reasons for dismissing Girard. And it could be the case that there’s a valuable counter-reading that I could find if I studied his work intently, reading against the grain, etc. But given the unanimity of the summary accounts, I just can’t imagine that there would be some amazing nuance that would save Girard and make his theory useful to me.

On Agamben and Mondzain

I have been rereading Mondzain’s Image, Icon, and Economy lately, and the topic of the relationship between this book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory came to mind. I already wrote several years ago about how I thought that Mondzain accomplished a tighter articulation between economy and spectacle than Agamben — indeed, her work is more tightly articulated in general, which is unsurprising given the bagginess of K&G.

Over the years, I have noticed that people who discover Mondzain often draw the conclusion that Agamben ripped her off in some way, or downplayed her influence on his work. Returning to the work after spending several years pondering over K&G, I have to say that such accusations are based on a very superficial comparison. Both talk about the concept of economy, both tie it to images or the spectacle, and both gesture at a connection with modernity. Sometimes they also seem to say similar things about economy.

But their approaches are totally different. Mondzain focuses on the iconoclastic controversy, and her entire presentation of the history of oikonomia is aimed at showing that the notion of economy demanded a consideration of the image. Agamben only turns to the question of the spectacle in the chapter on angelology, where he explicitly leaves behind economy to focus on glory separately; in his previous exposition on economy, there is no indication of a central role for the image, visibility, etc. Her center of gravity is the Byzantine period, his is the early patristics. The whole question of the reversal of “economy of the mystery” into “mystery of the economy” — which is so central to Agamben’s argument — is completely absent in Mondzain, who is comfortable attributing the notion of economy as providential plan directly to Paul.

Some of their patristic points of reference are the same, but even within this realm, they are drawing on substantially different archives, because Agamben privileges “theoretical” texts instead of the sermons and other rhetorical performances that Mondzain discusses at length. Coming at it from another angle, Mondzain strongly emphasizes the systematicity of Christian economic thought, while Agamben focuses on the non-conceptual nature of economic thought and even coins the notion of the “signature” to provide some means of tracing its effects. Agamben winds up moving through the Latin West, which is totally irrelevant to Mondzain’s project, and of course his whole argument is framed with the debate between Schmitt and Peterson, which Mondzain does not remotely mention.

The most likely explanation of the lack of explicit attention to Mondzain’s book is that he noted it was a specialized work on the iconoclastic controversy — which, you know, it is — and didn’t pay close attention to it. Such a choice seems defensible given that there is little evidence of the iconoclastic controversy having much impact on Western Christian thought, which he justifiably takes to be more relevant for modernity. Indeed, most scholars I have read seem to agree that there was almost no one in the West at this time who was intellectually equipped to even understand the iconoclastic debate.

You can definitely make the point that Agamben should have engaged more with Mondzain’s work, but the idea that he is somehow plagiarizing her or downplaying her influence is inflammatory and unfair. When he draws on a scholar, he is not shy about it — why would she be singled out for this treatment when he is quite happy to base half of Stasis directly on a reading of an essay by Nicole Loraux, for example?

In conclusion, to the extent that the books sometimes sound similar, it’s because they’re on similar topics — but within that framework, the differences are much more pronounced in my view.

Fall Semester Plans

I have had my first faculty meeting of the semester, and classes start on Monday — in short, summer vacation is officially over. This semester, I am teaching the senior capstone course, which meets four days a week (syllabus), and we will have some work to do for the transition to North Central College, so I may wind up having less research time. And come to think of it, I need to develop a syllabus for the second half of the capstone over the course of the semester as well….

My one non-negotiable goal is to get the Agamben edited volume ready for publication. Chapters are already starting to trickle in, and I imagine we will have all but a few by the end of September. I am also planning to turn my “Neoliberalism’s Demons” talk into an article and allocating my augmented train reading time toward that end. I imagine that the notes I generate will also prove relevant for my longer-term project on the Trinity and governance. Finally, I just signed a contract for a new Agamben translation, but the book hasn’t been published in Italian yet (meaning that I don’t feel comfortable sharing details publicly, sorry) and so I don’t have a final text.

Editing chapters, taking reading notes, and working on a translation are all good tasks for afternoons when I feel drained after teaching. As for the writing, I imagine that an argument I have delivered a half-dozen times will prove relatively easy to draft once I sit down to do it. But we shall see! Maybe all I’ll wind up accomplishing is rewatching Star Trek: The Animated Series.

What about you, dear readers? What academic hopes fill your heart as fall approaches?

The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

Donald Trump’s latest “gaffe” is his claim that Obama is the founder of ISIS. Now even Trump seems to admit — to the extent compatible with his “never back down” policy — that this is a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama’s Mideast policies “caused” ISIS to come into existence. We can easily imagine a leftist making a similar claim about George W. Bush, insofar as there is a very plausible case to be made that ISIS never would have come into being if not for the disastrous and criminal Iraq War.

I would suggest, however, that neither Obama nor Bush “caused” ISIS to exist. In reality, the founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS. There was no inner necessity growing out of the Iraq invasion of 2003 that leads to the ISIS of 2016. Is it likely that a militant Islamist organization would emerge under the circumstances created by the Iraq War and its aftermath? Absolutely. But there was no necessity that it should take this particular form and pursue these particular goals. The organization and its priorities are the product of its own leaders and membership, who exercised their own agency in circumstances that they did not choose and cannot fully control. The emergence of something like ISIS may have been predictable to some extent, but the existence of the ISIS we actually know is a contingent outcome of historical forces and human decisions.

The very fact that the Iraq War is at the root of the phenomena we’re discussing should actually highlight the role of contingency in this process. One of the greatest critiques of the war is that it was a war of choice, taken up gratuitously and arbitrarily by a particular circle of politicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) with the ear of a pliable president and a submissive public. To some extent it was a “natural outgrowth” of the long-standing US policy favoring regime change in Iraq, which is probably why it attracted bipartisan support, but the shitty equilibrium that had persisted for over a decade (Saddam in office, but hemmed in by sanctions and a no-fly zone) could presumably have persisted indefinitely. There was no inner necessity that Saddam should be removed right then.

And indeed, the reference to Trump should further emphasize the role of contingency in politics. Yes, Trump is riding on certain deep trends in American politics, and his success thus far was predictable to some extent — though I suspect that many such predictions are more like lucky guesses. But Trump is a very particular person, with a very particular life trajectory, and the “movement” that has coalesced around him seems to be very, very dependent on Trump the individual. After all, there were over a dozen empty suits who were clearly willing to take up Trump’s “message,” but none of them seemed to pass the laugh test for Trump supporters.

What does all this add up to? Basically, I’m tired of reading too-clever-by-half post-hoc analyses of how everything that happens grows directly out of historical necessity — the “I can’t believe you’re surprised by this” school of political commentary. There has to be some way to acknowledge the contingencies growing out of human agency without collapsing into individualistic moralizing.

Just a little different

This is the second-to-last day of my Australia-New Zealand trip, and the day of my final lecture on the theme of “Neoliberalism’s Demons.” I would like to repeat my thanks to Monique Rooney (of Australian National University) for the initial invitation and the help coordinating my trip, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Catherine Ryan and Bryan Cooke (of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for helping me to extend my stay by hosting me at their institutions. All the events have been very lively and well-attended — apparently the audience for weird arguments associating neoliberalism with Satan is bigger than one would have thought!

In many ways, undertaking such a big trip was a stretch for me. I am a homebody by disposition, and it has also taken me a long time to get over a personal history where travel was almost always something for me to endure rather than enjoy. So living out of a suitcase for nearly a month, with no practical “escape route” if I wanted to bail out ahead of time (other than a 24-hour ordeal which would also be hugely expensive), feels like a major life achievement. There are further frontiers — most notably, traveling outside the Western world — but at this point, I don’t think I can claim to be intimidated by travel as such.

One strange thing has been the many small differences. On the surface, Australia and New Zealand are much like the US — above all in the shared language. When visiting Belgium or France, I expected things to be very different and somewhat incomprehensible simply because of the language issue, but I found that it constantly took me by surprise here. I still instinctively watch for cars in the wrong direction, though I have made progress since Canberra (where I may have had some actual brushes with death), and our one driving outing was not exactly an unqualified success. Even stranger, though, was the fact that my incompetence seemingly “reset” every time I moved on to a new city. In Canberra, I had figured out that Australians have “reverse” air conditioners that do heating as well, but when I arrived in Sydney, I was in a near panic because my hotel room only had air conditionining (and hence no heat, in American terminology). And it’s definitely been odd to be continually served an uncanny imitation of “my own” cuisine at half the restaurants, due to the trend of “American food.”

The best part of the trip hasn’t been the destination — though I have seen some truly awesome natural wonders — but the people I’ve met. Everyone has been extremely friendly and generous, making me feel welcome in this foreign land. I don’t know whether I’ll have any occasion to come back to this part of the world, but if I do, I will look forward to seeing all the many new friends I’ve made here.

A critique of The Kingdom and the Glory

Tomorrow, I will be giving a masterclass (PDF flyer) at the University of Auckland, where we will be discussing my Crisis and Critique article (PDF) as well as a paper I gave at a conference earlier this year at Loyola University Chicago, entitled “Agamben and the Problem of Evil” (PDF). I have been reluctant to post the latter, as I was pondering turning it into a proper article, but since it is being distributed for the masterclass, I might as well make it available. It gives an overview of The Kingdom and the Glory‘s argument and its place in Agamben’s project, then critiques it from the point of view of the problem of evil. In many ways, it reflects and expands upon my critique of K&G in The Prince of This World (preorder link), so perhaps you can consider it an indirect preview.


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