The Trouble with Thanksgiving

It is my considered opinion after 36 years of experience that Thanksgiving and Christmas are too close together. There are many reasons to complain about the timing of the two holidays — the burden of traveling twice during the most dangerous and delay-prone time of the year, for instance. What I want to focus on is the academic consequences. Put simply, the existence of Thanksgiving wreaks havoc with the academic calendar, particularly on the semester system. There is just no non-awkward way to schedule around Thanksgiving, and the existence of Thanksgiving typically prevents the occurence of a week-long Fall Break, which — let me tell you — would be nice.

I propose that we move Thanksgiving to the second Thursday of October. It is not usually snowing anywhere in the continental US by that point, whereas Thanksgiving tends to be the time of year (at least in the midwest, where the crucial hub of O’Hare is located) when you get the first big snow storms. Travel will therefore be safer and less stressful. Everyone will also be happier and calmer, knowing that they’re not staring down the barrel of another family visit within four weeks. Indeed, it would rationalize the mainstream American holiday system by providing four quarterly opportunities to travel and visit family (Christmas, Easter, any number of mid-summer get-togethers, and New Earlier Thanksgiving).

This schedule creates a natural mid-semester break. And if adopted soon, that break would occur next week. Let’s get to work. I don’t think it’s too late.

A brief note on biopolitics

Is the “bio” of biopolitics precisely bios in the Agambenian sense? The common reading (at least as far as I can tell) would align it more with zoè — and one could even read the Agamben of Homo Sacer in that way. If we take The Use of Bodies as our guide, though, it could seem that the problem with biopolitics is that it attempts to establish a bios by presupposing and excluding zoè.

After all, what could a political order do with zoè (taken in itself) other than presuppose it? I don’t think anyone thinks modern society has become or even could become a totalitarian baby-making machine. What it has become is an ever more fine-grained system for the production of what we might call life styles — which is to say, the realm of bios. The political order isn’t “making us live” in the sense of literally forcing us to stay alive, but it is constantly trying to make us live in certain ways.

The examples in the end of Homo Sacer are somewhat misleading if we don’t have a handle on this. For instance, putting someone on life support may look like a way of forcing them to live — and certainly it seems that way to many people (myself included). From the perspective of this analysis, though, the problem is that it is treating a raw fact of zoè — the moment of death, which has traditionally been radically beyond human control — as though it were a factor in bios. It includes the moment of death itself in the range of quality-of-life factors that the savvy biopolitical subject can shape according to his or her preferences. Similarly, Nazi eugenics treat the raw fact of ethnic or “racial” heritage as something that can be consciously cultivated — converting zoè into bios (and thereby accelerating the production of “bare life” as that third category that doesn’t fit into the system).

Constructing a tradition

As most readers of this blog know, I teach at a school in the Great Books tradition. While Shimer is more liberal and open to contemporary sources than most schools in that tradition, our curriculum remains pretty firmly within the classics of the “Western tradition.” I think it’s fair to say that the current faculty are all pretty convinced of the need to add further diversity to our curriculum, though there are disagreements on how best to go about it. For classes with a modern focus, it’s a little easier, because there are more texts and other materials reflecting diverse gender, sexuality, race, class, etc., backgrounds available — “diversity” in the sense it is normally used in contemporary discussions. For classes with a pre-modern focus, the problem is often harder. Read the rest of this entry »

Some thoughts on Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Early this summer, I received an unsolicited review copy of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault — true proof of divine providence, given that I was working on a project connecting political theology to neoliberalism. It is a fascinating study of the concept of oikonomia, with its center of gravity in the era of classical orthodoxy (Nicea and Chalcedon).

Leshem hit on the idea of a genealogy of oikonomia around the same time as, but independently of, Agamben’s study in The Kingdom and the Glory. The book evinces a certain anxiety to differentiate itself from Agamben, which in my view sometimes leads to overhasty critiques. I prefer to view them less as competitive than as supplementary to each other. Agamben focuses on the formative moment of Christian economic thought (Pauline and proto-orthodox), whereas Leshem focuses on developments within established orthodoxy itself. When we add Mondzain’s account of the decisive role of economic thought in the iconoclastic controversy, we wind up with a fairly comprehensive view of the role of oikonomia in pre-modern Christian thought. This is not to downplay the very real differences between the authors’ approaches, of course — a truly comprehensive account has yet to be written, but it will need to start with the labors of these three.

I learned a great deal from Leshem’s study, which in many ways does a better job of following up in detail on Foucault’s suggestions about the role of Christian pastoral in forming modern subjectivity. He also deals much more closely with Arendt, who is claimed as a major source of the Homo Sacer series but mostly stays in the background. His study is based around the “human trinity” of economic, political, and philosophical, and the text is punctuated by helpful diagrams illustrating how this trinity keeps getting reconfigured over time. This provides clarity and orientation to a study that is not afraid to delve into the fine details of doctrinal and pastoral theology. What worries me about this approach is that it pitches Christian doctrine primarily as a development of Greek and Roman thought — as in Agamben, the Hebrew roots of Christian thought are comparatively neglected. I wonder whether that same “trinity” would apply to the Hebrew biblical tradition, and if not (which is my suspicion), how that might require us to reconceive the genealogy of oikonomia.

The weakest point of the book, in my view, is the title itself. The warrant for the book’s claim to establish “the origins of neoliberalism” is that Christian Orthodoxy establishes the dominance of the economy over the other hypostases of the human trinity and neoliberalism also forcefully asserts the dominance of the economy over other areas of life. The genealogical connections provided are even sketchier than in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory, and explicit discussions of neoliberalism are few and far between. The subtitle is misleading as well, given that the pre-Christian Greek concept of oikonomia is the real starting point, not Jesus (who is not a major figure in this book, given the absence of references to oikonomia in the Gospels).

I like to imagine Leshem’s book with a more accurate title. What it achieves is an important and formative contribution to the genealogy of oikonomia, one that places him into an emergent “canon” alongside Agamben and Mondzain. From this point forward, anyone investigating the place of economy in Christian theology will have to engage with Leshem’s work.

Against “the political”

Everyone knows that according to Aristotle, there is a sphere called “the political.” It is dependent upon but fully distinct from the economic, which is the realm of necessity and slavery. By contrast, the political represents the realm of freedom and full human dignity; it is the chief end of man. For all its faults, Aristotle’s account is taken as normative by a powerful line of political theory that runs up through Arendt and Wendy Brown, among many others.

Returning to Book 1 of the Politics in my class after engaging with a range of Greek texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides) and Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City, I am deeply, deeply skeptical. First of all, I am not sure why the idealized self-image of Athens needs to be normative for all future political thought — especially because Aristotle’s rosy picture of a peaceful, natural hierarchy presided over by free and equal men is obviously a sheer fantasy with almost no relation to the actual highly conflictual history of Athenian institutions.

Second, the teleology of the political serves to justify a whole laundry list of evils. It legitimates elitism, strict patriarchy, and slavery. It serves as a sign of Greek cultural superiority — because weirdly, this “natural” institutional structure has never managed to appear among the barbarians — and justifies imperialism. I understand why early modern political theory would latch onto this structure; it is less clear why a contemporary critical political theory would take it as normative.

Finally, Aristotle’s account empties the political of nearly all content. Division of labor, gender relations, economic exchange, and even some wars (against people who are “naturally slaves”) are not sites of political contestation for Aristotle — they have a “natural” form that serves as a support for the political. Aside from war, the only thing that really results from the profound dignity and freedom of the political is public displays and monuments to glorify the city. So the city is great because it grants 10-15% of the population the freedom to bring glory to the city. I’m unimpressed.

“The political” in Aristotle’s account is a classic empty master-signifier. It’s good because it’s good. It’s the goal of everything because he says so. And this connection becomes clearer when we compare Book 1 of the Politics to Pericles’ funeral oration — which is open propaganda, arguing that Athens is great because it provides us all with such amazing opportunities to contribute to its greatness. Was Athens really so great and unsurpassable, though? Is a slave society that kept its women trapped in the home, dominated over its neighbors, and wrote really cool plays really normative for all subsequent politics?

Neoliberalism’s Demons: A Lecture Transcript

[This represents the final version of the talk on the devil and neoliberalism that I gave at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and subsequently at various universities in Australia and New Zealand as well as the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. I have been reluctant to post the text because I am working on an article, but there have been so many requests that I have finally relented. Please do not cite without permission.]

This lecture represents a development of a project that I have been working on for many years – a reinterpretation of the devil from the perspective of political theology. Last year, I completed the first phase of the project, which took the form of a historical genealogy of the devil, tracing the development of the figure from his roots in the Hebrew Biblical tradition up to his decisive role in Western medieval Christianity.

My guiding thesis is that the devil is at once a theological and a political figure, because the God of the Hebrew Bible (and subsequently of Christianity) is at once a theological and a political figure. God is envisioned as the direct ruler of the Israelites – he ensures their survival, liberates them from slavery, hands down their legal code, and secures their territory for them. Everything that an earthly ruler does, he does. But over time, the biblical authors become more and more convinced that God is not merely the ruler of Israel, but in some sense the ruler of the entire world as well. And this means that his truest rivals are not the pagan gods – who are usually dismissed as laughably inadequate, mere statues made of wood and stone – but others who presume to rule in this world.

In the book, I argue that we are still in some sense living in a version of the “minority monotheism” that emerged in ancient Israel and that if we want to understand the relationship between medieval Christianity and secular modernity, the most productive lens is the set of political-theological problems that emerged around the figure of the devil. And now that my book has established that historical genealogy in broad terms, I want to narrow the focus and show how my thesis can help us understand the dynamics of neoliberalism as a particularly extreme and self-destructive manifestation of the modern secular political theological paradigm. Read the rest of this entry »

Reminder: God and Difference Book Event

A brief reminder that in late October/early November this year we’ll be hosting the next AUFS book event on Linn Tonstad’s recent book God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of FinitudeLinn was recently appointed Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, and her book examines Christian accounts of the trinity through the lens of queer theory. Special thanks are due to Linn, who went above and beyond to make sure we could get copies of the book for all our participants. Be sure to get a copy of the book for yourself or order one through your local library so you can join us for what looks to be a great event, scheduled to run as follows:

Friday, October 21 – Introduction by Marika Rose

Monday, October 24 – Ashon Crawley

Wednesday, October 26 – Beatrice Marovich

Friday, October 28 – Adam Kotsko

Monday, October 31 – Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Wednesday, November 2 – Anthony Paul Smith

Friday, November 4 – Response by Linn Tonstad