Theorizing Political Practice (II): On Why the “Democracy to Come” Is Not the Perfection of Liberal Ideology, and May Be Its Cure

(Half way through writing this, I got my hands on Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding.  I was able to incorporate insights from pp.114-123 into this post, but beyond what I have been able to garner from those pages, I have very little sense of Critchley’s argument as such.  Any misrepresentations of his position are simply the result of my ignorance.  On the whole these are a series of reflections spawned by Žižek’s reflections on Critchley’s book.  Nonetheless, I want to be sure to acknowledge my debts.)

As I was saying, before being so oddly interrupted by such a pertinent event: since the form of Milbank’s position requires the content of Žižek’s, and vice versa, the encounter of one with the other signals the terminus of a dialectic.  Each is proven true only in tandem with the other, and that demonstration is likewise their negation.  This is nothing more than a point about the impotence of any revolutionary politics developed out of an Idealist metaphysics (including dialectical materialism), which seeks to achieve a concrete, material realization of an abstract universal (cf. Critchley, 119.)  The prior discussion of Milbank and Žižek is simply illustrative of this more fundamental point.  It is fair, I believe, to claim that the very appearance of these two thinkers signals the apotheosis of Idealist metaphysics inasmuch as each respectively is the concrete, material realization of its dual transcendental and materialist trajectories.    

I suggested at the end of the previous post that this fact signaled a return to Kant – though under erasure – inasmuch as the fundamental rejection of limit functions to constitute socialism as a regulative ideal.  Critchley is keen to note that the concept of “communism” is fundamentally tainted by the Idealist notion of species-being; and, I am here developing his impulse to suggest that, when viewed in light of the mutually assured destruction of the Milbankian and Žižekian positions, their invocations of “socialism” function as a regulative ideal inasmuch as the purpose of “socialism” or “proletarian dictatoriship,” as they invoke the terms, appears to be to ensure that thought itself always remains properly proportionate to itself in its self-representation (Critchley, 118.)  In doing so, the gesture rather ingeniously conceals, beneath that very thought of that proportion, the fact that the concrete actualization of the concept is impossible. 

This is clearly revealed, in essays such as this, where  Žižek conflates the idea that the reward of a moral deed is the deed itself with the preservation of the privilege of looking at oneself in the mirror.  The latter is clearly not the former, but by equating them, Žižek reveals that what is significant for him is not the deed, but the thought of the deed.   The point is that, on this model of conceiving subjectivity and ethics, the deed is superfluous, as long as the subject’s self-representation is constructed so as to be proportionate to the thought of the deed that will determine that representation.  This is either the height of delusion, or the ontologization of turpitude.  And, the same point can be made regarding Milbank, who, despite all his foot-stomping about the “paradoxical” reciprocity of gift-giving, refuses to acknowledge that he is eradicating the very conditions of the possibility for both the bestowal and reception of gifts [1.]   In his case, simply replace “subject” with “ontology” and everything remains the same as with Žižek. 

Now, as I said, all of this pertains to the “democracy to come.”  First, if the above observations are correct, then both of the above positions are then to be interpreted, especially when taken together, as the perfection of the ideology of liberal, parliamentary proceduralism.  What matters to both positions is not the political act, but the idea of the political act.  This marks the perfection of liberal ideology insofar as it effectively incorporates parliamentary proceduralism into the very mechanism by which the thought of a militant, revolutionary, and/or socialist subject/ontology is constituted.  

Second, I have already suggested, along with Critchley, that this is principally due to Idealist metaphysics.  But, it is more properly due to a simple metaphysical mistake – one which may not strictly map onto the Idealist vision, even though falling into its trap.  Even if both thinkers retain some sense of the excess – or in Žižek’s case void – of being in relation to thought, they nonetheless mistake the idea of political action for actually thinking political action as such.  That is, although we must understand thought as a mode of political action and engagement, non-action itself is still action, and thus there exists a mode of thinking political action that is tantamount to this non-action.  It occurs as the thought of the idea of political action, and not as political action itself.  To be clear: this is not a facile claim about theory not being political engagement; on the contrary, it is a claim that theory is only politically valuable insofar as it is irreducible to non-action.[2.]     

It should be quite clear, at this point, why the idea of “democracy to come” is, if not the most proper way for a radical politics to proceed [3],  then far superior to the alternatives discussed so far [4.]   The reason is quite simple.  Despite the failures of any number of the theories – and there are many – of its adherents, the framework that Derrida established with the notion of “democracy to come” does not refuse abstraction as such, but only its formulation and development outside of the relation of engagement.  That is, the thought of radical politics can itself only come-to thought on the basis of and through acts of ethico-political engagement, and not as the prescriptive incarnation of universal principles into concrete, material particularities.  What is here being refused is any theory that would be deployed in such a way as to be reducible to non-action.  And, it is a peculiarity of the “Democracy to Come” that it cannot be invoked without simultaneously insisting on the priority and non-neutrality of the ethical demand to act; and, this action itself always already occurs in the domain of the political – not only is it compromised, but it is partisan [5.]   In this sense, although I have not read anything of Critchley’s book other than the pages 114-123 quoted here, I am heartened by his idea of “ethics as an anarchic meta-politics,” if for no other reason than that he equates the State with the Idealist “fantasy” of the idea of political action, which simply is the very basis for liberal, parliamentary proceduralism.  As far as I can see, his project is an absolute refusal of all such illusions – without reserve – and signals the most fruitful way forward for a radical politics. 

[1] Despite the obvious brilliance of essays like “Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic” [Modern Theology, 11 (January 1995), 119-61], Milbank’s reading of Derrida on this matter is simply obtuse – and that because of other egregious theological errors that condition that reading.  Remember, anything philosophy can do, theology can do better!  Cf. also his essay here.  And, keeping the work of Graham Priest close at hand, the mere fact that the law of contradiction is violated may – repeat, may – qualify as a paradox, but this does not, nor can it, be elided with theological mystery.   (As an aside, in light of Priest’s work, when considered alongside the notion of theological mystery, it might be important, against Lubac’s claim in The Drama of Atheist Humanism (but in continuity with his impulse), to preserve Kierkegaard’s use of “contradiction” rather than follow his suggestion that “paradox” is more appropriate.)

[2] On this point about the priority of action, thought as a mode of action, and thinking action as distinguished from thinking the idea of action, cf. Maurice Blondel, L’Action: essai d’une critique de la vie et d’une science de la practique (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1950.)

 [3] I am undecided on this point since there is something I need to think about regarding these claims and Deleuze. 

[4] One would have to include Badiou in this group as well, not only because of the function of the Void in this work, and his Platonism, but also because of what are, in my terms, the blatant proceduralism in his construal of fidelity to the event.  He demonstrates this more clearly than any other thinker with his category of the “mystic,” which clearly shows his utter inability to actually think the priority of political engagement over the idea of that engagement itself.   

[5] As such, when Caputo says that if he did politics, he would develop a liberal democracy, it seems to me he is actually violating the ethical demands implicit in his invocation of that messianic vision. 

42 thoughts on “Theorizing Political Practice (II): On Why the “Democracy to Come” Is Not the Perfection of Liberal Ideology, and May Be Its Cure

  1. “That is, the thought of radical politics can itself only come-to thought on the basis of and through acts of ethico-political engagement, and not as the prescriptive incarnation of universal principles into concrete, material particularities.” I think this point is strengthened in defense of your thesis even more when one considers that Milbank “agrees” with liberation theology on this point–before moving beyond them of course…and that is significant, that he must move beyond them on precisely this point–but for Milbank this begins and ends as a theorized principle of a universal…quite the opposite is obviously the case for liberation theology when they make this same claim…it grows from out of their engagement in the base communities, with the political situation of the poor in the various contexts of Latin America.

    Also, on Kierkegaard’s “contradiction”: absolutely. The “paradox” in SK is “the absurd,” not for its logical contradictoriness but because of the impossibility of thinking the God-man…Christendmom is in that sense much easier to swallow. What is even better, Johannes Climacus requires the next step: to think that which cannot be thought.

    Where is that Caputo quote from?…that’s really disappointing (like a [BAD] negative play (a double-negative, as we’ve come to expect from Caputo) on Heidegger’s “If I were to write a theology the word Being would not appear in it”). I’ve been saying for years that the most brilliant thing that Caputo has ever formulated is the insight from Prayers and Tears that one must ceaselessly pray for that which cannot arrive to come…as if it is coming.

    These are all kind of asides…I’ll respond to the main thesis later…I’m crazy-writing right now. By the way, I have a new baby girl.

  2. Congratulations!

    I intend to track close to Latin American liberation theology here.

    Also, the Caputo reference is lifted from Anthony’s AAR paper – the seventh paragraph of the post, “Thinking Hierarchy Beyond Weakness and Nostalgia.”

  3. While I am taken by the ingenuity of your analogy between Milbank & Zizek, I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of “non-action.” To point at the thinking of non-action is not to diminish the demand to act. It is “non-active” only in the sense that it escapes conceptualization, not that it hasn’t happened.

    The originary decision (for Schelling / Zizek, the decision to begin) is a more real decision prior to its conceptualization than it is after. It may only make sense after the fact or retroactively, but even then there is a haunting of the remainder, the haunting of this non-act impossibly and actually acting — the trauma of that originary act that is not a part of the “proportionate” reflection that turns it into something. As such, in my view, the thinking of the non-act is itself a more sustained engagement than what you cite as preferable. In effect, the “democracy to come” has always already come, and it is the task of “therapy,” aka reflective engagement, now to engage the trauma of it having done so. (In this sense, Z.’s appeal to the “not-all” is helpful.) The trauma of the non-active political act, of a disproptionate democracy that is not reducible to thinking, for me, opens it to a new kind of activity: that of beginning anew repeatedly (each time, in a sense, always, “for the first time”).

  4. Brad, Thanks for this. It was helpful. I really was not happy with how this part turned out. It felt too tortured. But, it had been a couple of weeks and I wanted to at least get it out.

    re: “To point at the thinking of non-action is not to diminish the demand to act. It is “non-active” only in the sense that it escapes conceptualization, not that it hasn’t happened.”

    I think you misunderstood me. My point is simply that we can think the idea of political action or we can think that action itself. Thinking the idea of political action is an action, but only as that of not-acting. So, I am not suggesting that the demand to act is diminished, only that it has been – and perhaps this is not the best word – “sublated” into the thought of the action itself inasmuch as the “haunting remainder” has been conceptualized. I am trying to point to the political satiety that is engendered when the subject’s thought achieves a certain proportion to its self-representation – a proportion that is perfected in the very fact that it can conceive non-conceptualization as constitutive for thought. And, any political thinking conducted in this way has actually reached the ideological perfection of liberal proceduralism precisely because it can continually begin “anew repeatedly,” producing that self-representation that is not disproportionate to the image in the mirror – and this, always, independently of whether the deed itself has actually occured. It can infinitely produce the self-representation of a militant, revolutionary subject, even supply a way of conceiving the engagement of that subject as this production – isn’t this basically what Zizek and Badiou’s projects amount to at the end of the day? – and never actually think the engagement itself.

    This is why I, quite frankly, find his remarks about Subcommandante Marcos at the end of his most recent essay utterly infuriating, despite what the real Left might have to say.

  5. Okay. Yeah, this is more clear to me now. Thanks.

    In fact, as I think of it, it is a fine way of saying a critique I’ve batted back and forth with Adam. Where Z. cites the Event or decision as the ethical act, I (like you, I think) am not sure he can do that on the terms he’s set up for himself. The “ethics” of this act are only ever in hindsight. He might argue for a different order of ethics, distinct from content; but even then, I’m not sure how he can — beyond a prefab universalistic / idealistic matrix. Which, I would imagine, he’s completely fine with. I enlist Adam to come in and defend the Zizekian perspective here, as he has w/ me on numerous occasions. Perhaps elucidating the discourse of the analyst as a way out of the impasse?

    Having said this, I’m still not comfortable with the “to come” aspect you cite as preferable. Perhaps our disagreement is covered over by one of your footnotes, and we m ight find a concept more workable, or at least agreeable, via something like Deleuzian intensity, or even aesthetic sublimity — neither of which Z. (and near as I can tell, Milbank) have taken all that seriously.

  6. Also, on Kierkegaard’s “contradiction”: absolutely. The “paradox” in SK is “the absurd,” not for its logical contradictoriness but because of the impossibility of thinking the God-man…Christendom is in that sense much easier to swallow. What is even better, Johannes Climacus requires the next step: to think that which cannot be thought.

    While not denying that Kierkegaard’s language of contradiction is important, I would still agree with de Lubac in Drama of Atheist Humanism on the point of keeping the language of paradox, which I still think is much stronger for Kierkegaard than contradiction in the Philosophical Fragments and the Postscript. Mainly, I would want to maintain ‘paradox’ over ‘contradiction’ because of the Hegelian connotations of an all-the-way-down contradictoriness of everything (it would seem like Climacus would want it that way, no?). And also, because for Hegel, the contradictions work themselves out in history into a new thing, which in turn is a new contradiction. Precisely because of Kierkegaard’s and especially de Lubac’s insistence on the suspension in the paradox (see the opening pages of de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith) do I think this is important to maintain. I admit I may be reading you wrong here because there is a confusing (misplaced?) period in that sentence in your footnote.

    I am not denying that the paradox is a contradiction, and indeed, it is absurd, but I guess I would say there is something halting about a true paradox (and not just p and ~p, as Dave Belcher indicated above — in Roy Sorenson’s book on the history of paradoxes he is convinced that we will probably end up figuring out new ways to solve the paradoxes that have arisen given enough time and new ways of figuring them out [very much imbibing Russell’s spirit about figuring out paradoxes + a Hegelian working-things-out, it seems], so it would seem there would need to be a move beyond just logic).

    Also, it is interesting to me that you mention Graham Priest because I have been reading him a lot in the past couple weeks. I think he is more interested in showing the limits of a bivalent system of logic and declaring that “some” contradictions are true (dialetheism), and he does this in an unashamedly Kantian (think the antinomies) and especially Hegelian way (as he says at the beginning of In Contradiction), although he does not have an all-the-way-down notion of contradiction like Hegel. He is very careful over and over again in his work to distinguish between “all” and “some” contradictions. In fact, he actually doesn’t think that contradictions are so bad, and even contests what Aristotle even meant by the LNC (see his “What is so bad about contradictions?” Journal of Philosophy vol. 95 no. 8 [August 1998]: 410-426), so he’s not even so worried about the moment of encounter with contradictions, exchange of gifts, etc (although I haven’t looked yet at his Doubt Truth to be a Liar and Beyond the Limits of Thought to know the other implications he thinks his work has). Because Priest just wants to logically affirm that some instances of (a ^ ~a) are true, it seems like this is still quite a bit different than a kind of paradox that cannot even be thought. He just shows that these dialetheias make better ‘sense’ when thought along the lines of paraconsistent logic.

    I know this really isn’t that pertinent to your point as I am referring to parenthetical statements in footnotes (thus probably making this a footnote to a footnote!) but I really don’t know much about Zizek, so I’m not going to even try.



  7. Eric, I’m not sure I’d agree with the characterization of Hegel as “contradiction all the way down.” Just as for Kant, there is no anti-thetic to reason for Hegel. The contradictions are resolved in the absolute as the Idea unfolds historically. So, my point is that, when Lubac affirms that a paradox marks infinite knowability over infinite unknowability, a la contradiction in the Aristotelian LNC-sense, he and those who uncritically follow him fall into the trap described in the post.

    Additionally, there seems to be a category mistake in the assumption that the intellect’s encounter with a “paradox” can be mapped directly onto the notion of a “theological mystery.” For example, the relationship between God’s freedom and human freedom may be a “mystery,” but it is not automatically one just because we don’t know how to solve it; and, it doesn’t necessarily help matters to shout “paradox” every time we encounter such things. What you might be marking with the “paradox” is your own failure to properly locate the mystery.

    The only reason I said it would be better to use “contradiction” instead of paradox is that it is a better way of retaining the meaning of theological mystery that Lubac wants, but without the potential confusions noted above.

  8. I should clarify, I do not mean to suggest that a theological mystery is infinitely unknowable; I am only trying to point to the sense in which that mystery is not principally a matter of thought.

    Also, I thought it was obvious that period was supposed to be a comma. But, I’ve fixed it.

  9. I disagree that Zizek is saying that the properly ethical act is only recognizable as such in retrospect — in the “normal” case, the ethical act that founds a new symbolic order is evil both from the p.o.v. of the order it abolishes and from the p.o.v. of the order it founds. It is radically unaccountable.

    What he seems to be trying to do with the discourse of the analyst in the later works is to come up with a “morning after” where the ethical act would not be covered over by a new ideological order — where the very desire to account for it would be abolished. As he puts it somewhere in Ticklish Subject, drive would be viewed not as a traumatic intrusion, but as directly productive — or creative might be a better word.

    [Sorry if this is too compressed — it’s aimed at Brad and JD, both of whom have read my Zizek ms.]

  10. Adam, Thanks. This is interesting. The notion of an ethical act that effectively abolishes the desire to account for it is interesting. I am still not sure it obviates what I am tracking in the relationship between action and the self-representation of the subject.

  11. Also, I am not quite sure that I am suggesting that the ethical act is only recognizable in retrospect for Z. I am saying that the ethical act is only “ethical” for Z. if and when it is proportionate to the subject’s self-representation. I am thinking of the examples of Kaiser Sose and Johnny Utah in Point Break – these are examples that are disporportionate to, and therefore “evil,” within a given symbolic order; but, they are strictly proportionate to the thought these subjects desire to have of themselves in their self-representation. They can look in the mirror and see the “heroic” or “resolute” figure they desire themselves to be. This doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with ethics at all; and, it is completely possible to achieve this regardless of whether one acts.

  12. Additionally, there seems to be a category mistake in the assumption that the intellect’s encounter with a “paradox” can be mapped directly onto the notion of a “theological mystery.”…

    I entirely agree with you here. There can very much be a kind of isomorphism here (but it hits a hard limit, i.e. the limit of thought), but I would never say that it is always the case, as your example (among many) show. I know you are referring to Milbank here, but I have to wonder if a distinction is between missed. In my reading of Kierkegaard and de Lubac, the encounter with the paradox always opens one up to the theological mystery, which of course is not an exercise of thought. …You have to forgive me because I’m not entirely sure which of the texts you’ve referring to concerning Milbank’s mapping of paradox->theological_mystery (it doesn’t appear in the FT article to which you linked and although I’ve read his “Can a Gift be given?” I don’t remember it that specifically).

    I guess my point is that contradiction doesn’t seem to really allow this for the very same reason I would want to distinguish between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction is just something logical, but assenting to something as paradox is to name it as something of either truth, value, or mystery as opposed to a contradiction that somebody just discards– but it would always be a truth, value (I know ‘value’ here is vague), or mystery about the contradiction. In other words, to say that something is a paradox is to say that this contradiction, at the very least, has some value; it is a contradiction that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human, but the paradox is that this is true. So yes, I agree that it is not just a matter of thought; there is a further signified always in mind at which we can only gesture.

    This is not in any way to declare that everything is a paradox by any means (a discussion of irony is something not even mentioned by either of us yet). As I guess you seem to be assuming a lot about what I am saying, let me additionally say that I would not say that the relationship between God’s freedom and our own is a paradox as a way to somehow solve it or enter into some theological mystery; but it is obvious that whatever that is, it is mysterious (the term ‘paradox’ is not required). Now, it could be a paradox (I just don’t know), but just because one has a distaste for the misuse of ‘paradox’ does not mean that it cannot be used at all.

    It would seem like when real paradoxes are encountered, we really run up against the mirror through which we see darkly and realize our finitude ever more clearly; locating the mystery is somewhere on the other side of that looking glass (as well as, of course very much immanently here).

    The only reason I said it would be better to use “contradiction” instead of paradox is that it is a better way of retaining the meaning of theological mystery that Lubac wants, but without the potential confusions noted above.

    Considering that de Lubac wrote two books on paradoxes (translated as “Paradoxes of Faith”, “More Paradoxes”) and structured The Mystery of the Supernatural‘s chapters around the word ‘paradox’, to say that de Lubac really wanted something else is a pretty huge claim to make, no? (I also really think that he doesn’t have those confusions in his own writing, but maybe you are making a historical case in Milbank.)

    All this to say, I see the confusions that you are talking about, but I think the concepts can be qualified (as I attempted to do above, as de Lubac does, et. al.), and still retain the usage of ‘paradox’. Would it be wrong to say that the confusions that arose did so historically and weren’t originally there? Or would you maintain that pre-Milbank (as you interpret him and thus your subsequent distaste for those who throw around the word), Kierkegaard and de Lubac were still confused? Thanks for the conversion.



  13. Eric, this was really just an aside in a footnote. So, I am glad to have the conversation, but I am just thinking that this might be chasing a rabbit down a hole.

    But, I have no assumptions about what you are saying other than what you did say. Second, I have no particular distaste for anyone who says “paradox.” I simply threw out a thought that was only intended to suggest a way in which the idea of theological mystery could remain irreducible to the category of paradox. It was not an argument – just a suggestion.

    But, my very short answer to your concerns is: Kierkegaard is Lutheran. Kierkegaard understands Luther. Lubac does not understand Luther.

  14. JD, I’m much better at staying “within” Zizek, so I may be missing what you’re really getting at — based on the general affect of Zizek’s writing, you could say that he admires heroism and resolve, but I don’t think that he would agree that he’s after heroism and resolve as such. There has to be the element of self-destruction, including a destruction of the subject’s self-image (as patriarch, for instance).

  15. Adam say: I disagree that Zizek is saying that the properly ethical act is only recognizable as such in retrospect

    Not sure if that was directed at me or JD. But, my point was to say that the ethical act is only recognized at all (versus “as such”) in retrospect. This gets to its unaccountability, and its inherent capacity to traumatize. The problem, as I see it, and I think I agree with JD here, is the degree to which Zizek can accurately identify “the act” as ethical at all (precisely because of the unaccountability of the act that tends toward self-destruction). This is something, but I’m not sure it squares with ethics.

    If anything, it seems like Z. needs to reframe it, re: the immanence of an ethics of thinking, of consciousness, etc — versus ethics as a thinking of the true (the truth, for Z., being that of radical evil). This would not necessarily shatter what he’s on about, even if he at times seems to think it would.

  16. Eric, my last statement was too cryptic, and I afraid came off curt.

    I think the difference I am trying to tease out is close to the difference between Derrida’s emphasis on the interrogation of religious phenomena according to the very “im-possibility” of their appearance, and Marion’s insistence on the fourth reduction’s bracketing of everything except the very givenness of the given itself. Kierkegaard’s “contradiction” (as analyzed by Lubac) is like Derrida, and Lubac’s “paradox” (as juxtaposed to Kierkegaard’s “contradiction) is like Marion. I was only suggesting that there is something important about the nature of theological mystery that is best preserved in terms of the former. My rationale for this claim would take us far too afield, and is not really a conversation I want to have in this forum anyway. Thanks for the engagement.

  17. Eric:

    I have just now had the time to read this exchange between you and JD on “paradox” in any depth, and so you will have to forgive the tardiness of this comment. But your posts raise some interesting questions for me about how you are using the word “paradox,” and I’d like to see what you think.

    My question, quite simply is this: Do you take “paradox” as you are reading it in Kierkegaard and Lubac fundamentally to be a modality of intellection? I ask this because it seems to me that what you are after in your use of “paradox” is a kind of ontology unburdened by the arbitary structures of cognition (“thought”). And yet it seems that there is a real irony here: For insofar as you seem to want to maintain that paradox opens for us onto a higher mode of intellection, by which is discernible a higher ontology (the ontology of “mystery,” if you like), I’m not sure you are able altogether to escape reduction to the question of cognitive adequation. That is, your talk of paradox as holding a “further signified always in mind” by which is affirmed a truth about the cognitive contradiction, still evinces a fundamental desire to discern the proper ratio between the knower and the thing known, even if this ratio nevertheless be that of a kind of divine excess. So it seems as if your invocation of paradox affirms the intellection of a “truth” whose emergence through paradox yet still turns upon the way in which our finite non-cognition of God is “paradoxically” adequate the assymetrical excess of the divine intellect. This, it seems to me, would be the really more Idealist move (and if you’d like, we can drop the name “Hegel”), which yet deploys paradox as a “concept” by which we might properly isolate contradiction so as to “locate” the divine mystery vis-a-vis the intellect.

  18. P.S. It should perhaps not go without saying that, as I understand what JD is saying above, it is this usage of paradox as fundamentally a category of intellection that is dubious about Lubac’s deployment of it, vis-a-vis that of Kierkegaard.

  19. Nate,

    Thanks for the comments. My aim in entering this conversation was two-fold: to question JD’s spurious invocation of Graham Priest and also to attempt some clarification by what he meant by paradox, which didn’t seem that coherent.

    That being said, I do not mean a kind of ratio, especially in the sense that per Kant, this is the best he can do with analogy (see Milbank’s critique of this in the first chapter of his Word Made Strange).

    Three things on this, though. First, this is a real clear limit to language here, right? Kierkegaard wants to think that which cannot be thought. So, it is necessarily difficult to articulate something that ultimately has nothing to do with thought outside of any excess, etc. So, I admit some of my language may be a bit confused as I am still working through these things myself.

    Second, when I spoke about paradox signifying some sort of truth about a contradiction, I was not speaking in the Kierkegaardian nor de Lubacian sense — but at the most general level, as I have been thinking about paradox in general and then how different people articulate this (and have recently finished another paper on contradiction and paradox but this time in the work of Graham Priest). Reading through Sainsbury’s work on paradox, Sorensen’s history of the paradox, etc., they all have different readings as to just what it is or is not. And these are all very different from what Kierkegaard and de Lubac say. With that being said, I would need to clarify that my definition can only go so far. Kierkegaard uses ‘infinite qualitative distance’, so there is some ratio of sorts, but it’s also thereby infinite, so it also seems not to be. (I’m almost starting to sound like talk about the analogia entis here.) A second sub-point here: when I presented my paper on paradox in Kierkegaard and de Lubac in Granada, the first question I received had to do with my use of paradox because it was not the ‘usual one’ — the usual one being some sort of mere limit of thought itself (Zeno, Eubulides, name your paradoxer and your paradox), but that there was a kind of opening up of one beyond, and I was very specific about the Christological nature of this in the paradox of the God-Man and how very different this is because it requires faith. I don’t know Marion or phenomenology that much really, so I do not even want to say ‘excess’, let alone the fact that I don’t know what those connotations are, as I do not mean that, either (because wouldn’t that imply some sort of phenomenological reduction of sorts? I don’t know, that isn’t what I have in mind — hah, see, but it’s not in my mind?).

    Lastly, I really don’t think that Kierkegaard’s deployment of ‘paradox’ in the Mystery of the Supernatural is the same as when he is giving a treatment of Kierkegaard in Drama of Atheist Humanism. Kierkegaard’s use is so much more halting, abrupt, forcing a decision. Whatever this ‘beyond’ is, for Kierkegaard it was more halting and disruptive, but for de Lubac it is more of a sense of calling one, ultimately, toward one’s divinized end, no? De Lubac focuses quite a bit on the ‘more’ which language cannot describe. (In a discussion between Amy Laura Hall and John Milbank, for instance, Hall made the point that it does not seem like Kierkegaard actually goes beyond the cross, and this language of his is very indicative of that, I think.) In DAH, de Lubac would rather say ‘mystery’ or ‘marvelous’ where Kierkegaard says ‘paradox’ or ‘improbable’ (p. 110). So we already see that de Lubac is distancing himself from Kierkegaard and does not ’employ’ it in the same way at all. I really don’t see how one can say that de Lubac is talking about the same thing when he is critiquing Kierkegaard on this point. De Lubac would much rather side with Kierkegaard’s “deeper immersion in existence” (as he ends his treatment quoting, p. 111) than this halting moment, and this is very evident as something different all throughout Mystery of the Supernatural, I think.

    I know that was a bit belabored, but now it’s your turn, if you don’t mind: how would you describe that which cannot be described, which has no intellectual ratio? Thanks for calling me to clarify. I don’t know if I’ve done an adequate job, but there ya have it.



  20. Nate, to directly answer your question (sorry), no, I do not think that Kierkegaard nor de Lubac’s use of ‘paradox’ is one that is fundamentally a modality of intellection.

    Anticipating a possible answer to the question I asked you, would you perhaps say that one ultimately needs to go beyond any kind of apophatic or cataphatic language about the Supreme Paradox into a language of praise? (I’m culling directly from an account of Marion on Augustine that he gave at a recent conference.)



  21. How was my invocation of Priest “spurious?” Have you been thinking this whole time that I was appealing to him in support of my position? I was actually just saying, even keeping in mind that Priest has shown us that certain contradictions are true, this is not necessarily “paradoxical” in the Lubacian sense of opening out to mystery. And, then, as a separate thought altogether – but, one which was wholly suggestive – I mused that, in light of this fact, it might be helpful for us to reconsider Lubac’s comments, favoring “contradiction,” precisely because, post-Priest, that term better fits his use of “paradox.”

    So, I really don’t think you need to make comments like “spurious” or charge me with incoherence.

    Two other things:

    First, Lubac’s deployment of the term “paradox” may be fluid, but it is intimately linked with the basic concerns of his entire authorship: the recovery of thick, organic, integral, humanist vision of sacramentality, catholicity, communion, scripture, culture, spirituality (mysticism), etc. I mean, it is clear, his reason for rejecting Kierkegaard’s contradiction is that it is too “thin,” too “dialectical” – he specifically says dialectic always requires synthesis, meaning a telos, in a specifically Platonic-Idealist register (this may be in Sur les chemins de Dieu, an equally early work) – too “individualistic,” etc. Lubac wants the encounter with paradox to open out onto something more; but, in a world where certain contradictions can be true, the temptation is to mistake the paradoxical truth of the contradiction to be, simply by virtue of the fact that it is true, functioning so as to open out to “something more” as it does in Lubac. Thus, I suggest “contradiction” might better serve those purposes now.

    But, most likely where one comes down on that matter will be determined by how one judges the value of Lubac’s argument for an integral, organicist vision – which is not to be equated with an assessment of an integral, organicist vision in general.

    Second, I think that it is most likely Milbank’s discussion of ratio in the essay your quote that Nate is implicitly rejecting.

    Third, just as a pet peeve I have regarding the English use of French proper names (I was corrected by Lacoste): as Edward D. Seeber puts it, “the particle de may be used after a given name or title, but not with a surname alone: one writes, for example, ‘Alexis de Tocqueville,’ ‘Tocqueville,’ but not ‘de Tocqueville'” The exceptions are: “(1) in one-syllable names(De Retz, De Thou) or two-syllable names that end in mute e, i.e., that are pronounced as one syllable (De Gaulle, De Grasse, De Maistre); (2) in names that begin with a vowel or mute h (D’Alembert, D’Holbach)…”

    (Citation and first page of article here. for those that care about such things. I found it helpful.)

  22. JD, no I had no illusions whatsoever that you were appealing to Priest for support, I just wanted more clarification, so thank you for now doing that. You made that claim in a footnote, after all.

  23. Eric:

    Okay, this got too long to be one comment. So I am going to break it up into two comments. The first a response to your remarks on Kierkegaard, and the second (probably tomorrow evening) a (briefer) response to your question as to “how I would describe that which cannot be described.”

    So first let’s begin with Kierkegaard. I have four points.

    (1.) There is an important point to be made here, which is that it was Climacus who said, “The passion of the thinker is to think that which cannot be thought.” Climacus says this on his way to saying that “Truth is subjectivity,” and precisely thereby, on his way to saying “subjectivity is untruth” — sin. The all-important point here is that from the ethical point of view, “faith” can only ever be described as the paradox of thought. The paradox as such remains governed by the “caprice” of metaphysics. This is the whole subtle message of Climacus’ authorship, as I read it: “Paradox” in-itself and as such is nothing more than a marvel, and is not itself sufficient to, nor simply a “given” of, faith. The paradox comes instead only as the giving of the condition (qua the paradox of thought) for the grace by which occurs the movement into the paradox of existence — faith. Within Kierkegaard’s dialectic, however, the paradox of thought is thus at one and the same time the condition for sin, one becomes sinful precisely as one recognizes the paradox of thought as a condition for faith, and yet seeks to retain the paradox as such, qua the paradox of thought. To confuse the condition with the means, is thus to evade faith, through recollection. To make the movement of faith, however, is to be transformed “from para-doxa to para-doxa, if you will, by way of repetition. It is also interesting to note too that the language of “mystery” and “marvel” is used by Kierkegaard in the pseudonymous works as terms according to which the ethicist describes faith. “Mystery” and “marvel” are how one describes faith from the perspective of unfaith, that is, from the perspective one still caught within the logic of the universal and of recollection.

    (2.) On the “haltingness” of the Moment, or the “disruptive” grace of paradox: We have to understand this very specifically within Kierkegaard’s (apocalyptic-eschatological) suspension of “teleology.” Kierkegaard actually would not deny the language of “divinization” (certain passages in his journals suggests he quite likes it); what he would deny is that we can at all speak of “one’s divinized end,” in-itself and as such. Apart from the irruption (the Moment), Kierkegaard says, any talk of one’s “end” will remain teleological, and will reduce again to some form of the logic of recollection. Furthermore, it will simply not work to juxtapose this irruption/rupture to some kind of “deeper immersion into existence.” This is in part because, on the one hand, the whole language of “deeper immersion into existence” belongs to that “inwardness” language according to which subjectivity becomes and remains “untruth” — sin. And it is also due to the fact that, on the other hand, Kierkegaard doesn’t himself juxtapose the language of rupture to the language of “existence.” The rupture, or the Moment, is rather the ever-new transformation into a qualitatively new existence, via repetition. The Moment is, then, not an evasion of deification, but rather our very participation in eternity, which is itself alone “the true repetition.” So much, then, for the myth that Kierkegaard eschews either “participation” or “deification”: No, he alone may save them from the “caprice” of metaphysics.

    (3.) This is all premised upon what Kierkegaard calls the “infinite qualitative distinction between eternity and time.” Contrary to what you say, Kierkegaard never uses the phrase “infinite qualitative distance,” as you attribute it to him above. This is why the paradox cannot remain for faith the paradox of thought, precisely because as such it still thinks the eternity-time relation according to a hierarchical distance, which qua distance would still seem to be a ratio “of sorts,” and yet qua infinite would seem “not to be,” as you say. But this is just another kind of (phenomenological) description of the paradox as a coincidentia oppositorum, which for Kierkegaard is the “passion of thought” brought to its highest intensity, the apex of “metaphysical caprice,” the sin of unfaith. Insofar as you can move smoothly from “paradox” to talking of a coincidentia oppositorum to talking of an analogia entis, as you do, Kierkegaard would say that you are yet once-again duty-bound to the hierarchical metaphysics of recollection. But if we are speaking rather of an infinite qualitative distinction, then we find ourselves within that space of an impossible possibility by which eternity might in fact enter time, irrupt it, and transform us into the time of repetition.

    (4.) Finally, on the (presumably detrimental) point that Kierkegaard does not go “beyond the cross.” Kierkegaard’s response would plainly be that the very logic of Christendom is not to go “beyond the resurrection.” That is, Kierkegaard would say that the real failure is not to “not go beyond the cross,” but rather to not know Christ as the one who is ascended to the right hand of God the Father and is to come again in glory. Any espousal of a resurrection which would move one “beyond the cross” would for Kierkegaard be precisely the very denial of the resurrection as an event, and would instead make of the resurrection a hermeneutical key for some kind of teleo-eschatological schematic of recollection. On the other hand, not to move beyond the cross in history is precisely to believe that Christ is resurrected as ascended and coming again, for the sake of our own apocalyptic-eschatological participation in his resurrected life, via the movement of repetition. And this, to say it plainly, seems really to be the more “creedal,” the more primitive (and yes, one might even say “radically”) “orthodox” perspective. Any theological jutification of Christendom would require precisely the denial of this Credo, and the illusory construction of its own creedal “matrix.”

    That should suffice for Kierkegaard. And all of that is prefatory to my forthcoming reply to your real question, which now, thanks to this tortuous post, can be much briefer.

  24. Sorry for all the italicized sentences and what-not. I hate HTML. If I could go back in and edit my post so as actually to italicize the words I really want to italicize, I would.

  25. Nate, this reminds me of many a conversation you and I used to have about our good friend Soren (long ago, of course)…I miss those. I’m convinced that you must write your first book on Kierkegaard (after your dissertation of course), and particularly on repetition…I’ve thought that for some time actually.

    Incidentally, in a later comment by JD above, he links (with which I was concurring in my own comment) what you are getting at with SK here (by way of “contradiction”) with the “impossibility” of arrival of Derrida’s gift (above he uses the “im-possibility” of the appearance of religious phenomena in distinction from Marion/Lubac)…is this not what I’ve been saying for five years? I know I’ve never been as articulate as either you or JD (I actually feel like my thought is reversing rather than maturing!), but I guess I was curious of where you come down on this since you’ve been convinced about Derrida for about that long (well, actually longer…but that’s about the time we’ve been talking about these issues)…so any change of heart?

    Thanks for this comment…extremely helpful.

  26. Nate,

    Thank you. Mainly, I think you protest too much and are reading far too much into what I said. I will only address number 4 and 3, in that order.

    All I mean about ‘moving beyond the cross’ is that Kierkegaard does not seem to give much of an account of what life in the church is beyond this non-identical repetition. That is fine. I honestly don’t think it is detrimental to him as you took me to think, nor did I mean it that way, as I really love Kierkegaard; I was just merely stating this as something that is indicative of his situation: if he actually were already living within something like a non-Christendomized community, then he might have something to point to that would constitute more descriptions of that life beyond what he give us. Honestly, that’s all I meant (and that’s all I took Amy Laura Hall to say as well in the context of their talk). So that being said, you would be right if I meant the other thing in the way you took it to mean.

    Regarding your stuff about whether or not Kierkegaard said ‘distinction’ or ‘distance’. I will have to say I just messed up on that because I didn’t have the texts in front of me and I forgot, but that being said, I still think you protest too much; so, what you say doesn’t really follow, I don’t think, as if my getting ‘distance’ mixed up with ‘difference’ somehow unravels all my thought. In my own writing on this I got it right, and he actually uses ‘infinite qualitative difference‘ (which is what I meant, sorry, I know this is important though), at least as Anti-Climacus. Now, there are most likely some issues here concerning his pseudonyms (as your rightfully pointed out), but these are from Anti-Climacus’s work The Sickness Unto Death:

    “God and man are two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference. Humanly speaking, any teaching that disregards this difference is demented—divinely understood, it is blasphemy. In paganism, man made god a man (the man-god); in Christianity God makes himself man (the God-man)” (p. 126).

    “The existence of an infinite qualitative difference between God and man constitutes the possibility of offense, which cannot be removed” (p. 127).

    And these are from Practice in Christianity, also written by Anti-Climacus:

    “And thus it is unrecognizability, the absolute unrecognizability, when one is God, then to be an individual human being. To be the individual human being or an individual human being (in a certain sense it is a matter of indifference when he is a high-ranking or a low-ranking person) is the greatest possible distance, the infinitely qualitative distance, from being God, and therefore it is the most profound incognito” (pp. 127-8).

    “The possibility of offense, as we have tried to show, is present at every moment, confirming at every moment the chasmic abyss between the single individual and the God-man over which faith and faith alone reaches. … But take away the possibility of offense, as has been done in Christendom, and all Christianity becomes direct communication, and then Christianity is abolished, has become something easy, a superficial something that neither wounds nor heals deeply enough; it has become the false invention of purely human compassion that forgets the infinite qualitative difference between God and man” (pp. 139-40). [These are all from the Princeton Hong translations]

    Oh wait, Kierkegaard actually does say ‘distance’ there in that penultimate quotation from Practice. See, I just don’t think you can make as much out of what you’re saying, unless you want to claim that that is a bad translation, and that would be a fine argument to make, but still, the word before it in that quotation is also translated as ‘distance’. He obviously does use ‘distinction’ and ‘difference’ a lot more (depending upon your pseudonym), but you just can’t make the case that he 1) avoids it altogether (unless you want to make a case of bad translation, which I do not have the skills to do at this point), and 2) that he a fortiori argues explicitly against using ‘distance’ as if this would somehow unravel what he means precisely because we have at least one instance where Anti-Climacus uses it.

    (There is probably something to be said concerning the difference between Climacus and Anti-Climacus here, as well as the fact that I am ignorant of the fact of whether or not ‘distinction’ and ‘difference’ and ‘distance’ are the same Danish word being translated differently.)

    But other than that, this has been very helpful, so thank you. You are a far more adept reader at Kierkegaard than me, and I still haven’t had a chance to read all of his works yet, either, so I have more work to do.



  27. Nate, just so you know, I think all your points about Kierkegaard breaking out out the metaphysics of recollection are correct (as Climacus points out in Fragments), I just don’t think you can build your case on a single word. There’s probably more to it than that.

  28. I know this is just one of his quirks, like when he says “blah, blah” every once in a while, but when he employed the Kantian distinction between negative and infinite judgment (negation of a predicate as opposed to the affirmation of a non-predicate) in relation to the claim: “Material reality is all there is,” and he said: “This is Idealism: ‘Ha Ha, there is something else,'” I about lost it.

  29. Eric:

    That is a very interesting passage from Practice in Christianity. I wish I were at my office so that I could look it up in the text. I will do that straightaway when I get to school tomorrow.

    We could go round and round on this Kierkegaard stuff, and I’m not entirely interested in doing that, and mostly because I wouldn’t know when to stop. But I would like to insist that the whole set of points (and for that matter any “case”) that I was making in my previous post does not simply turn on (my analysis of) your use or misuse of the word “distance” in Kierkegaard. I was arguing against several things. For one: the way you moved from the idea of the “infinite qualitative distance” in Kierkegaard to reading him as allowing a “ratio” of sorts, a coincidentia oppositorum, and an analogia entis is entirely inconsistent with either his articulation of the paradox of faith, or his use of the phrase in question, in any of its variations. But also I wanted seriously to call into question your idea that you could have Kierkegaard’s “deeper immersion in existence” without the halting, irruptive, apocalyptic Moment, as Lubac seems to want. Or even that one could properly think of divinization apart from this halting, decisive, irruptive Moment. Those issues, as much if not more than your use of the word “distance,” are what signal to me the inability finally to escape the idealist metaphysics of recollection. There is even for Kierkegaard a notion and usage of the idea of “repetition” that does not escape this metaphysics, insofar as it still thinks repetition as merely a matter of “recollecting forward.” This kind of “recollection forward” is what I fear is going on when one eschews the apocalyptic Moment for the teleological “calling” to divinization. And this understanding of “repetition,” just as the “paradox of thought,” still yet requires a “ratio” between divinity and humanity, if even a negative one. So I wouldn’t too quickly dismiss my challenges as a matter of protesting too much over the usage of a single word.

    On the question of Kierkegaard’s failure to “move beyond the cross” with respect to his talk of the church, I have to admit that I really have no idea what it would mean to do this. I could write too much on Kierkegaard and the church, so let me just say this. For Kierkegaard (and I really am drawing upon journal entries here), to read the New Testament correctly is to understand that the church is actually there before the cross, in the whole journey of the disciples with Jesus to Jerusalem, and preeminently in the Last Supper. It is precisely the church itself, as the eucharistic “brotherhood” [sic!], that prevents us from going “beyond the cross.” Why? Because the church is through eucharistic repetition precisely the cruciform movement of reconciled humanity setting it’s face upon the new Jerusalem (and this as it exists within the space opened up by the resurrection/ascension and the second coming of Christ). It is clear that Kierkegaard really does believe that the “eucharist makes the church,” as Lubac would say. He interprets the New Testament as articulating the Lord’s Supper as “the originally true center in the church.” The Lord’s Supper “squeezes the church together.” So, tellingly, what Kierkegaard critiques about “Christendom” is precisely its loss of the proper sense according to which the eucharist does indeed “make the church”: a loss of the “communion of saints” as a liturgically existential, and not merely metaphysico-ontological, reality of faith. So I really don’t have any idea what Amy Laura Hall is talking about, if she means what you say she means. (And I’m not sure here: I know the conversation you’re referring to, and I remember reading that and thinking that it was part of that whole weird concession on her part to Milbank’s total rejection of the tragic.)

    Now, I should answer your question, if not least because I said I would do so. How does one describe that which cannot be described, or “thought”? My answer would be that you do not “describe” it, insofar as for theology faith is not a “given” which is there for description. Theology is not reducible to a “higher phenomenology” in this regard. When it comes to description, faiths transports us to the realm, again, of what Kierkegaard calls “silence.” That silence can only speak as a lived testimony, a witness, a confession. Faith for the theologian is not a occasion for language, as a description of the “higher,” but is rather the exigency of an act. So you are right to anticipate that the direction I would turn here is towards doxology. But doxology is not here a “language of praise,” in any usual sense of that phrase. This is the problem I have with much use of “doxological” trope these days: doxology is not merely a manner of speaking which opens us onto the “mystery” or the “marvel,” or onto the filial “distance” of the Son and the Father (to use Marion’s imagery). Doxology is rather, to use Kierkegaard again, the work of “praising love.” Doxology just is discipleship — the outgoing movement of love by which we follow Christ into a world in which he is always-already ahead of us, in a manner that itself “repeats” our ecclesial “coming after.” Yes, that is paradox! But it is most decisively doxology as liturgy, where our lives are so wholly participatory in Christ that there can be no evasion of the singularity of action which his historicity requires, by way of appeal to a supposedly “doxological” or “liturgical” participation in or enactment of something which is somehow, albeit concretely, more “universal” — “transcendence,” “excess,” the “divine esse,” etc. Theology, I think, is not the description of the paradox of faith, but rather an enactment of it, as a certain work of “praising love.” (And I surmise that theology would look quite a bit different and would be quite a bit more unruly and unpredictable than what is usually carried out under the label “theology,” if we were to take this work seriously.)

  30. Incidently, speaking to John Milbank yesterday, he said that the book he is writing with Zizek (which is Z writing and M responding seemingly) is in his view the clearest exposition of Zizek’s overarching project yet, mainly because it concerns his reading of Hegel, which John reckons is spot on.

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