Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

Below is a long review of two of Jacob Taubes’ recently (relatively) translated works. This was originally written for a journal, but I was not able to speak to the ideological commitments of the journal and so it has languished as they’ve waited for me to correct it. At some point I realized I would never really be able to meet their requests for a variety of reasons and so decided to pull it so they might find a more suitable reviewer. I’m not sure those who are familiar with Taubes or Continental philosophy of religion will find anything new, but since I had spent some time on this (though years ago now) I am posting it here for those who might be interested.

Review of Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford UP, 2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford UP, 2010).

Anthony Paul Smith (Spring, 2012)

During the mid-point of the Bush-Blair years two intellectual inquiries rose to prominence: questions relating to sovereignty, focused around a renewal of interest in the work of German far-right jurist Carl Schmitt, and questions relating to the so-called “return of religion”, which resulted in a number of para-Marxist engagements with the thought of the Christian apostle Paul. What drove both of these trends from being simply passing academic fancy to something actually reflective of live questions operative within cultural consciousness was their connection to the practice of sovereignty undertaken by the Bush regime and the seeming return of religion into the public sphere, especially in the form of resurgent fundamentalisms vying for political power. These two lines of thought came together in 2004 with the publication of Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul in English-translation, which was originally published posthumously in German in 1993 but originally delivered as lectures in 1987. The seminar from which the book comes was to be Taubes last and during its preparation and delivery he was suffering from the final stages of an advanced form of cancer. According to Aleida Assman, the editor of the lectures, Taubes could not stand “even for a moment” during the seminar and delivered his lectures lying down in great pain. This book joined other left-wing philosophical readings of Paul’s writings, like Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, Slavoj Zizek’s own engagements in The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf, and the less well-known engagement by Jean-François Lyotard in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. While there are a number of important theoretical differences at work in these books, though perhaps more minimal with regard to Agamben’s text due in part to shared sources (primarily their working with Benjamin’s theory of time), the crucial difference is that Taubes understood his reading of Paul to be the culmination of his intellectual work. His commitment to give the lectures reveals that Taubes’ intellectual work was more than just an academic interest, but a real struggle with themes and concepts that Taubes believed were of ultimate concern for Occidental history. In the writings of Paul, specifically his “Letter to the Romans”, Taubes finds within Paul, essentially a thinker whose ideas had been completely absorbed into the World (that is, the State, the Church, and all other forms of authority and law), a radical example of the living out of the experience of apocalyptic temporality, an experience that Taubes claims is to be expressed in the philosophical and theological thinking of all true revolutionary moments in history. Read the rest of this entry »

A Debate over the Generic and the Secular

Some of the readers here already listen to my occasional podcast, My Name Is My Name w/ APS, and so will have seen this already. Daniel Barber, Alex Dubilet, and myself have been working on a tri-authored book over the past few months. The impetus for the idea goes back a few years though to discussions occasioned by discussion of the “generic secular” in the Editors’ Introduction that Daniel Whistler and I wrote to After the Postmodern and the Postsecular. We are carrying out the work on the book in public through a series of workshops. At these workshops we aim to present very evocative versions of our work to elicit discussion amongst those working the various disciplines we are engaging with. The first of these workshops, for example, took place at Berkeley where serious work in anthropology and rhetoric around post-secularism finds its home. We recorded our papers for that event and you may listen to them via the podcast.

We will be presenting the next phase of the work this week in Liverpool for the biannual Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion, an important audience for this work. We will be recording our talks there as well. However, these workshops are expensive and we are hoping to cover some immediate costs as well as planning for future ones. If you are able to support us please check out our GoFundMe page where you can find more information about the project as well. These funds are only to cover our costs, including future renumeration for a fourth participant in the project who will be acting as a moderator for one part of the book.

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The World and Deracination — Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

There are a number of questions I have for Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate that I simply lack the resources and framework to ask well. For example, the question of violence came up for me at many times reading his book. Violence of Muslims against Muslims, what it means to speak of Islamism without speaking explicitly about takfiri Islamism, what it means to talk about the caliphate and an Islamic state in the midst of others who claim that they have brought about this very thing. All these questions feel like well-devised traps, though, set to disempower any real engagement or meaningful criticism of Recalling the Caliphate. Such questions will need to be asked, and in many ways have been asked throughout this book event, but in my own attempt to phrase they remains questions that are framed by what Sayyid has called “Westernese”. Under this framework certain questions of Western violence—especially American imperial violence—are purposefully obscured, even from me, as a colonized-colonizer subject. So I want to ask these questions, but I do not know how to do so as someone who, if I were a Muslim, would likely never rightly pass for one. Such “rightly passing” would be denied me in part because of the binary logics at play in politics between the West and the rest or the umma and those who remain in ignorance and do so ontologically.

Instead of asking these questions, which perhaps would betray personal stakes that, precisely because of the frameworks involved, would be embarrassing and laughable, I want instead to focus on the question that I take animating the book. For whatever issues I have with Sayyid’s argument, I accept that there is a subtly to it and that many of the issues, say regarding the question of authoritarianism that arises with the setting of any state or institution, are not unknown to him. But there are a number of concepts which continue to frame his attempt to think a decolonized umma that strike me as retaining significant characteristics of colonialism. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

With the end of the Spring semester just a few weeks ago I have finished three years of teaching at my current institution. During our third year here we have to finish a third-year pre-tenure review, which I found to be as unenjoyable an experience as you might imagine by that name. While I found some of the process confusing and ultimately unmoored, that doesn’t appear to be an indictment of my institution in particular and seems to be the norm generally for these sorts of bureaucratic exercises. Really though I suspect the impetus behind these reviews comes from a good place and I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to approach it as a moment of self-reflection. Some of that should be a way to acknowledge for yourself the good things you’ve done over the course of the three years, but it also offers a place to consider weaknesses to work on in the coming years. I’m sure that all of this is not unproblematic and there are nefarious neoliberal tropes underlying all of it, but I am also very committed to becoming a better teacher and found this a good way to make use of the required bureaucratic exercise. One thing became clear to me as I read over my students evaluations and those of my more established peers: I am not a very good disciplinarian in the classroom and more importantly I do not know how to work on that within the pedagogical framework I have tried to construct.

First, I hate nothing more than begging. Those who have in the past contributed to online fundraising efforts may find that surprising, but by begging I don’t mean virtual panhandling. Asking for money from people willing and able to give is simply asking. They don’t have to and I do not hold it against them if they feel their money is better spent on other things. Begging in the sense I mean it can only take place within a situation that is effectively governed by a contract where one of the parties only carries out their obligations because they are required to. I mostly teach courses that students take to complete their general education requirements and while they have signed up to a liberal arts education most students resent what is required of them to attain a liberal arts education. When I first began to teach in the US I did find myself wanting the students to like the classes and it felt like I was begging them to. I got over that pretty quickly as it just feels pathetic and embarrassing. But I didn’t give up because I trusted in the contract, I gave up because I saw the (not very good) Hannah Arendt biopic and realized how many of the students I come across could easily become camp guards (or may become part of the prison-industrial complex) after graduation. I began to read a lot in critical pedagogy (mostly works by Friere, bell hooks, and George Yancy). And that work has been really useful and I’ve come to be very happy with the direction of my teaching. But when it comes to dealing with issues of discipline and punishment in the classroom I’m a bit lost. In fact, when I take punitive measures against my students for using their cell phones in class or not attending or even doing something really stupid and unambiguous like plagiarizing I feel like I am back in that position of begging them. It feels like I’m begging them to care about the work, to care about the class, to care about becoming a more interesting person, to care about what’s being said in class even when it’s the boring but necessary parts.

The thing is, when students aren’t interested in taking responsibility for their education then it isn’t clear to me what the response should be from the perspective of critical pedagogy. What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking? Is the classroom an appropriate space to think through these sorts of prefigurative ideas? Or is the classroom too overcoded by the same carceral logic as the wider society? These kinds of questions are even more pressing for me because of how many first-generation college students I have in my classrooms and many more who are products of a society that has not prepared them for the kind of work that I ask them to do.

Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”

Run the Jewels just released a video for one of my favorite songs on their recent album. The video is hard to watch, if only because there is something hard to watch in the fictional violence against a black man that is expressive of the images of real violence we have seen every month and that others have been seeing long before social media made this available to wider audiences. The video is open to lots of poor readings, including one I saw on Facebook by a certain popular, nihilistic appropriator of black culture. It’s not really important to name names here, but the reading he gave was that there is a certain reversibility in the image of the struggle between the white cop and the black man. It’s a poor reading in large part because it takes an abstract expression captured by film as if it were supposed to be a documentary or even as if these images were supposed to be didactic. But it’s also poor simply because the supposed reversibility is not present. The cop expresses his positionality as an instance of an institution with his uniform, with his gun, his mace, with his handcuffs, with this lights and sirens, and so on. These are progressively lost throughout the video, but it isn’t as if the black man gains them, or takes on the position. The only one who is able to issue a command, to make a declaration, thereby being the voice of an institution, is the cop (“Don’t you fucking run!”). Of course the only response to such a demand is to start running and to look for a weapon as you do. In so far as the black man expresses he does so through without the recourse to language, without the structure that would project him into transcendence, he has no ground but his own existence, his own expression in the flesh.

Generally I tend to avoid reading an artist’s statement on their own work. The work itself expresses and when I write on that work I like to think I’m building and riffing off the work, rather than providing the true reading of it. But I see the artist’s statement as their own act of riffing and building, without any particular access to the truth of the work either. So I’m largely setting aside AG Rojas’ remarks aside. But, he is very clear that these two figures are not meant to stand for the reality, that these are precisely archetypes in his words. Instead of looking at the video as an instance of reversibility, shouldn’t we see it rather as an instance of the struggle between the master and the slave? And perhaps this exhausted tussle is an advance upon the mixed determination present in Hegel of these figures. That they are an abstraction is the point. They are an abstraction in the form of thinking through the problematic of America, not just police violence against black people, but America as such as a country built upon violence against black people and that’s why the video is largely successful in my view. As the tussle plays out upon a background emptied of any people, of anything but the struggle, we are given a meditation on the relationship of blacks/whites as such. In that relationship the few glimpses of triumph or relative transcendence are scenes of the black man. Free from the relationship with the cop as such, but this only exists as a virtual possibility as they sit on the marriage bed, a loveless marriage to one another as the train that calls itself progress rings in the distance.

One of the first things that struck me as I was watching was a remark that James Cone made in an interview with Bill Boyers some years back.

JAMES CONE: […] Now, you don’t get away from that by not talking about it. That’s too deep. Germany is not going to get away from the Holocaust by not talking about it. It’s too deep. So, America must face up that we are one community. We– you know, if anybody in this society– if anybody is brother and sister to the other, it’s black people and white people because there is a– there is a tussle there that you cannot get out of. It is a– it is deeply engrained in our relationship to each other in a way that’s not with anybody else–

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

JAMES CONE: –in this land.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAMES CONE: Because 246 years of slavery, number one. We have built this country. White people know that. Then, after slavery, segregation and lynching, we still helped built this country. So, it’s a history of violence […]

This familial tussle (either between brothers or something more sinister) plays out as exhaustion in the video. The relationship is one of exhaustion precisely because politics is exhausted in this relationship. While one form of (white supremacist) politics is constituted by this relationship (a politics we are all exhausted of), even the higher politics is exhausted by this relationship. Even the cop, a willing pawn in the construction of the exhausting politics, is exhausted. Or, as Fred Moten puts it to white people regarding any possible coalition, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I can think of no better filmic expression of the feeling of exhaustion than this video, of being exhausted before the present political options, and so expressive of the need to think of something else. Or at least to find a way out of the exhausting relation of this kind of politics as such. Or at least that’s my reading.

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Villanova Philosophy Conference: New Encounters in French and Italian Thought (updated flyer)

A remainder about an upcoming conference that Philly-area people may be interested in.The Villanova Philosophy Conference taking place on March 13th and 14th. The schedule and other relevant information may be found on the flyer.

Poster 11 by 17 FINAL

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Draft Translation of an Interview with François Laruelle from Actu Philosophia

I was having a bit of writer’s bloc the other day and in an attempt to break it I decided to translate a recent interview conducted with François Laruelle by Florian Forestier for Actu Philososphia. I have posted that draft translation for you below and have compiled this as a PDF for those who prefer to read the interview that way. This is a once through translation, so some rough patches and bits I may have missed, but generally I like translating Laruelle’s interviews as I feel less constrained to retain the syntax of his writing for which there are good theoretical reasons but often frustrating English formulations. Anyway, I would not use this for citation purposes, but feel free to share.

Interview with François Laruelle: Author of Christo-Fiction

By Florian Forestier

Saturday, January 17th 2015

Draft translation by Anthony Paul Smith

Longtime professor at the University of Paris-X Nanterre, François Laruelle is behind a difficult and abundant oeuvre, boasting more than twenty books, amongst which Le Principe de minorité, Une biographie de l’homme ordinaire, Philosophies of Difference, En tant qu’Un. La « non-philosophie » expliquée aux philosophes, Principles of Non-Philosophy, Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy, Introduction aux sciences génériques, Philosophie non-standard: générique, quantique, philo-fiction, and more recently Christo-fiction, a book we will explore in detail. His recognition internationally grows strongly, as shown by the colloquium La philosophie non-standard de François Laruelle held at Cerisy in September 2014 and bringing together researchers coming from different disciplines and different countries, form Russia to the United States and as far as Taiwan

If this recent rediscovery of François Laruelle’s work is in particular due to the vitality of what is commonly called speculative realism (regardless of the precision of this term), the perspectives and preoccupations of which François Laruelle is indirectly associated, it is necessary nevertheless to examine his thought in its particularity, a thought which, with the risky term non-philosophy, attempts to set up a new use for philosophy and a new use for what Laruelle characterizes as philosophical material. In an article published in 2003, Ray Brassier described François Laruelle as the most important unknown European philosophy, in that he develops not an original thesis on this or that classical object of philosophy, but a way of thinking and appropriating philosophy.

According to the formulation offered in the Cerisy colloquium announcement, non-philosophy or “non-standard philosophy” develops a new theory and new practice of the philosophical act, outside of its traditional norms of self-modeling. It puts variables that can be conjugated to work together, a traditional philosophical structure like the transcendental structure and a kernel of thought extracted from quantum physics. It is not, however, concerned with a philosophy of science but rather with an association in equal parts of philosophy and current [actuelle] science.

My thanks to François Laruelle for his receptiveness and generosity during the interview he granted me. Read the rest of this entry »

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