Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated 2

Following in Anthony’s footsteps, I too will provide a few books that seem to me to have been particularly formative. Like Anthony, I find that many of these books seem to be from an “early” stage of my graduate work, but I also notice that a few of them tend to be books that I used as reading texts for foreign language study — something that forced me to slow down and in a way brutally imposed those texts on me.

The first book I ever read in a foreign language was Derrida’s Donner la mort (translated as The Gift of Death). I not only read the book but also produced a translation of the final essay (untranslated at the time), which served as my masters thesis, and I have also published an article on it — so it probably still remains the book I’ve most thoroughly engaged with. This text mostly influenced my approach to reading the Christian tradition, predisposing me to watch for times when an earthly logic admitted to be destructive is “displaced” onto a transcendent plane, opening up space for something else here and yet in a way even more insidiously reinforcing the displaced logic — or more generally to watch for “displacements” of all kinds.

My other primary foreign language reading text was Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which had a profound influence on my thinking both about the Christian tradition and about the genealogical method. This passage from essay 2, section 12 keeps coming back to me:

…there is for historiography of any kind no more important proposition than the one it took such effort to establish but which really ought to be established now: the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated…. the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.

This insight still hasn’t fully penetrated historiography, though it should have — you still often hear people saying, for example, that Augustine just took this idea from Manicheanism, etc., as though finding the origin answered some major question. Instead of asking where Augustine’s (or whoever’s) ideas came from, I want to look at what role they’re playing in the particular configuration Augustine (or whoever) puts them into. It has also informed my openness to liberation theologies and other radical theologies — where many people view them as somehow illegitimate insofar as they depart from the “official” teaching while still holding onto the name Christianity, I always think: “These ideas are here for the taking. Why not put them to a new and better use?” (This is surprisingly hard to convince undergraduates of.) I also found his critique of debt-based understandings of Christianity to be really profoundly moving even simply on a literary level, and I’ve continually come back to it.

I suppose I can’t get away without mentioning Zizek here. What I most take from Zizek is what I found in the first book of his I read, The Ticklish Subject — namely his “amoral” ethics (which I later came to understand as basically homologous to “gospel”-style ethics) and, perhaps more importantly, his concept of the big Other, of a social order that’s somehow autonomous or more than the sum of individual actions. The latter is a concept that has profoundly structured my thinking, both in my intellectual project and in the way I interpret day to day occurences. (The first two chapters of my book really crystalize my understanding of the big Other in Zizek’s work, in a form that is probably more accessible than just diving into The Ticklish Subject.)

I would also be remiss if I didn’t bring in the Bible, albeit in Ted Jennings’ style of reading it — as exemplified in his Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul and Insurrection of the Crucified, although his course on Romans was really the most formative influence here (and he is currently at work on a full commentary based on the course, which can’t come out soon enough). Much more than Zizek, Badiou, or Agamben, he taught me to read the Bible — and subsequently the Christian tradition — in a “materialist” way. The two texts from the tradition that I’ve probably found most productive from such a standpoint are Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism and Augustine’s De Trinitate (and to tie back to the beginning, I intensely studied portions of this text in the original Latin). Both of them proved particularly surprising, at least when I brought to bear a reading style that expected to be surprised.

Overall, then, my journey seems to have gotten me away from “orthodoxy” just as Anthony’s has, but it was a journey that caused me to take up a weird kind of position within the Christian tradition, with a new way of navigating it.

17 thoughts on “Influential Books: AUFS for the Uninitiated 2

  1. It means first of all not to wall off the texts as though they are talking about something called “religion.” A key example of this is avoiding the temptation of translating common terms used by the authors into a kind of religious jargon — so Ted will insist that we have to replace the jargon term “righteousness” that crops up in translations with “justice,” because Paul uses the same word that everyone would’ve used to refer to “justice.” In short, read them as though they’re human texts intervening in the human world just like any other text tries to do.

  2. This materialist reading is very important — and I’ve personally enjoyed Jennings writings, as well as the writings of several others writing from this perspective — but we should always keep in mind that this spiritual/material divide is one that did not exist at the time of Paul (or any of the other biblical authors and editors). So, while I think that Jennings and others are offering a very important corrective to many of our traditional theological readings we must remember that this is not an either/or but a both/and.

    I’ve struggled with this in the current piece I am writing on Paul and it is part of the reason why I have chosen to leave some terms untranslated (especially the word ekklesia!) as I don’t think any of our contemporary English words(‘church’, ‘community’, etc.) properly capture the nuances and overtones found in the original context.

  3. You know, right after I posted my comment, I thought that I should have included the word ‘assembly’ instead of throwing in the ‘etc.’ given that church, community, and assembly are the ‘big three’ in terms of the ways in which ekklesia is translated (damn my intellectual laziness!).

    That said, there is a lot going for that translation — in particular, it creates a nice overlap in terms of Paul’s relationship to his OT/Second Temple Jewish context (scholars who favour this background argue that Paul’s use of the term ekklesia is drawing on the scriptural language of Israel as the ‘assembly of YHWH’) and his relationship to his G-R context (with the term ekklesia referring to the assembly of citizens). It is worth noting that, in both of these contexts, the term assembly carries significant political overtones (a point often neglected or implicitly denied by those who wish to root Paul more exclusively in Second Temple Judaism — in order, for some, to undercut more political readings of Paul). However, my concern with employing that term in my own writing is that (a) these overtones are lost in our understanding of the word; and (b) Paul is also putting a unique and provocative spin upon what or who constitute this ‘assembly’.

    So, while I appreciate the concern that leaving terms untranslated can lead to mystification (Heidegger, I’m looking at you, you bastard!), I’m hoping that explaining my understanding of the term ekklesia, and then continuing to employ that term, will help people to keep my understanding in mind while they read my text.

  4. If you can give your readers the right overtones for a foreign word, why can’t you just as easily give them the context to understand “assembly”? I guess I’m just suspicious of any reading that makes it seem like Paul is coming up with “insta-jargon.” Yes, he’s putting his own unique spin on the idea of an “assembly,” just like he’s putting his own unique spin on the idea of “justice,” but in both cases he’s starting with the language he actually speaks — and even if “assembly” isn’t very often used in English, it’s still an immediately recognizable word and not a code word (as many students of theology tend to throw around “footnote Greek” terms).

    That said: it’s your paper.

  5. Hmmmm… interesting. I have no interest in making it appear as though Paul is coming up with “insta-jargon”. In fact, by retaining the Gk, I was hoping for the opposite impact — that we would allows Paul’s context (and not his innovation) dictate more of our understanding of him. To be honest, I’m actually pretty opposed to a lot of the “insta-jardon” that floats around in the elitist argot of academia (Derrida groupies, I’m looking at you… but, yes, this also applies to what you say about “footnote Greek” terms) and I am hoping to write a text that, while being scholarly, is accessible to a broader audience (it’s not just a paper I’m writing, I’ve got a book deal going here).

    In defense of using ekklesia, I think that it might actually be easier to give readers the right overtones for a foreign word, rather than employing an English word because the foreign word carries no preconceived notions with it. Regardless, you’ve given me something to think about.

  6. Not to belabor this, but “assembly” does begin with the baseline connotation of “a gathering of people,” plus it includes political connotations (some states have “state assemblies”) but isn’t necessarily a political term (as in “assmeblies” in school). For American readers at least, it might also have potential religious connotations because of the fairly widespread “Assemblies of God” denomination. Ekklesia, on the other hand, is a complete blank slate for most readers, or else a religious code-word (think of the emergent church “Ekklesia Project” for example).

    In short: your book will be an absolute failure in every way if you don’t follow my advice!!!!!! Or it could work fine.

  7. Mmmmm, I love intellectual biographies.

    Knowing what you know now, if you had to advise someone on whether to become a high school teacher or pursue graduate studies in philosophy/ theology, what would you say?

  8. Thanks for the straight answer, after writing the question I thought it looked a bit trollish.

    APS says “I found the book helped me to understand my situation” and Adam that the Big Other structured “the way I interpret day to day occurrences”.

    This is an underappreciated aspect of ‘theory’, and seems to be central to the experience of many blogging theorists.

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