Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott

I just finished reading The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology by Mathew Abbott (Amazon link). I’ve linked approvingly before to Abbott’s work characterizing Agamben’s project as one of “political ontology,” and this book easily meets and exceeds my expectations based on that small preview. It is a brilliant reading and systematization of Agamben’s work that extends beyond Agamben himself to argue that the problem of political ontology can serve as a common ground between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and hence between analytic and continental philosophy.

Much of the first half of the book is taken up with laying out Agamben’s project and bringing it into contact with his primary sources, Heidegger and Benjamin. Abbott’s focus throughout is on the sheer givenness of Being as a unique and ungraspable “fact” that both grounds and ungrounds all human projects. The wager of political ontology, in Abbott’s view, is that this uncanny fact does not simply consign us to despair, but rather provides the basis for a positive political vision.

Having established his basic point of view, Abbott proceeds to contrast Agamben with Levinas and Nietzsche. These chapters were, for me, the most satisfying in the book, particularly the latter — ever since I first read Homo Sacer, I was struck by repeated points of contact between Agamben and Nietzsche, particularly Genealogy of Morals, but I’ve never stopped to dig further. Now I don’t have to!

The final chapters move beyond Agamben to stage a confrontation between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, using the Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” and Heidegger’s “world-picture” as a point of contact between the two. Abbott makes a case for the basic continuity of Wittgenstein’s work, claiming to find throughout a close parallel with Heidegger’s question of Being (as Abbott has laid it out previously). He claims that reading the two thinkers together can help us to overcome their respective deficits and to see that both analytic and continental philosophy originated out of the attempt to struggle with the same problems.

In the end, Abbott brings it all back to Agamben, taking the unexpected tack of introducing entire new topics (such as Marxism) in the final pages rather than concluding. For me, this section felt less convincing than the rest of the book, as Abbott seemed almost pressed for time. I have very serious questions about his formulation of Agamben’s “solution,” namely that we should recognize the exceptionality of the everyday — but it could be a matter of wording rather than substance.

Whatever my reservations, however, it seems clear to me that this text will stand as required reading for all Agamben scholars. Unfortunately, we may need to establish full communism to give everyone adequate access to it, because it’s one of those crazy $100 academic “hardcovers” (i.e., a shoddily produced “permabound” book reminiscent of the novels distributed in American public schools). I don’t understand why academic publishers seem so dedicated to the task of preventing people from reading important academic work.

A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Read the rest of this entry »

My review of Living in the End Times

I have a review of the expanded paperback edition of Living in the End Times up at Emmy Manuel’s excellent Global Comment. It is a partial refutation of Zizek’s own review of the book as largely bullshit.

Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

[This review appeared in Symplokē 18.1-2 (2011): 419-421, and is copyrighted by that journal. It appears here with permission.]

In the two decades since he came to prominence in the English-speaking academy, Žižek has already generated a substantial body of secondary texts, ranging from general introductions to works on specific themes. Yet it seems safe to say that among readers of Žižek, Adrian Johnston’s book Žižek’s Ontology was the most eagerly anticipated. According to the narrative that has been solidifying over the last few years, the initial reception of Žižek did not reflect the full ambition of his work. Focusing on his theory of ideology and his usefulness for cultural analysis, interpreters had missed the true philosophical core motivating it all: the attempt to develop a new theory of subjectivity, grounded in a synthesis of the insights of German Idealism (above all Hegel) and the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. For those who hold this view of Žižek’s reception, Žižek’s Ontology would finally break through the shell of the “cultural studies” reception of Žižek as well as the image of Žižek as a kind of entertainer, revealing once and for all the rigor and depth of Žižek’s properly philosophical work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

William T. Cavanaugh is well known in certain political theology (or “theopolitical” as some Christian theologians like to refer to it) circles because of his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ. The book is a very interesting study of the Catholic Church in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and details the theological background to the political relationship between Church and State. At times, though I’m willing to hedge here, it isn’t clear in the book if Cavanaugh doesn’t secretly think that the Eucharist is a more revolutionary act than, say, workers organizing to provide for themselves and resist Pinochet’s Chicago School led neoliberalism. It certainly has been used in that way by some of Cavanaugh’s enthusiastic readers and even, dare I say, mis-used in that way by members of the Radical Orthodoxy/Red Tory movement. His mix of Foucault and Roman Catholic radicalism does give the impression of a strange conservative anti-Statist and anti-Capitalist form of thinking. Still, I would feel uncomfortable simply regulating Cavanaugh to this pit of vipers since his own work is overwhelmingly negative in its approach (I’ll explain the meaning of this more below) and his own attempts at positive proscriptive political statements often are undertaken with great care and a deep grounding in a tradition of non-violence.  Weirdly, if I can indulge in a bit of biography before moving on to the more substantive comments, reading Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist was the reason I decided not to convert to Roman Catholicism when at the age of 19 I decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene. Simply stated the book broke any romantic illusions I had about the Roman Church. It seemed to me as compromised and fucked up as anything American Evangelicalism had going for it. Regardless of the beauty of its liturgy or the depth of its intellectual tradition, I just couldn’t imagine ever converting. Perhaps if I grew up in a Roman Catholic culture I’d engage with it in some sense (and in fact I do), but why would I ask permission to be a part of something that had a hierarchy I’d struggle against for the rest of my life? And, worse yet, refused to acknowledge its awful crimes towards, not just others, but its own adherents? Perhaps not the outcome hoped for by Cavanaugh… Read the rest of this entry »

Book Giveaways and a Future Christ Review.

In the end we ended up with a good number of people submitting to the After the Postsecular and the Postmodern book give away. I wrote all the names on slips of paper and had our departmental administrator draw a name from out of a bag. Happy to say that Drew Jaegle was the winner. In related news there is going to be an AAR panel focused on the volume as well.

Also, as I’m preparing for my trip to New York that was graciously funded by the readers here, I wanted to let you know that I did the same thing with those who donated money for the travel costs. Quite a few of you gave, but Jeremy’s name was drawn from the bag and so he’ll be receiving the copy of the Future Christ signed by Laruelle. The book, along with Philosophies of Difference, was given a short review in the Times Literary Supplement. I can’t provide a link, because the review isn’t online, but look for the print copy.


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