On Radical Orthodoxy’s Qutbism

A certain theoretical homology between Radical Orthodoxy and Qutbism hit me this evening while doing some background reading for the Speculative Medevialisms event. The connection was made while reading Bruce Holsinger’s chapter on Derrida’s medievalism in The Premodern Condition, which uses Catherine Pickstock’s polemic against Derrida in After Writing as a foil. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Pickstock, but Holsinger’s criticisms seem to me unassailable and crystallized some misgivings I had with Pickstock’s texts way back when about the flatness of her reading. But, that isn’t surprising since, after all, this was Holsinger’s goal. What is, well, perhaps not surprising, but interesting, was the structural similarity between Pickstock’s “utter lack of rhetorical modesty” (as Holsinger diagnoses her constant use of words like ‘only’, ‘optimum’, ‘alone’, ‘genuine’, ‘real’, and the like) and the same lack of rhetorical modesty in the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb.

For those who don’t know about Qutb, he is a Sunni Egyptian Muslim who features in Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares, where he serves as Islamic counterpart to the birth of Western neoconservatism. He’s an interesting character, a self-proclaimed anti-modernist (another familiar trope found in RO, but also conservative Catholic theologians in the early and mid-20th century, the influence of which can be felt on the current Pope), who saw within Islam a finished system of everything. A theological-political system that, when it was genuine, was the truth. Moreover, and I will come back to this later, he argued that violence could be used not only against infidels (i.e. Westerners and non-Muslims), but against other Muslims who were effectively not genuine, who were under the state of jahiliyyah. He, importantly, focused his strongest attacks on the modernizers (or Westernizers in his vocabulary) within Islamic society itself, specifically in his own homeland of Egypt.

Obviously, I’m making a strong claim here, but what is common to both Pickstock and Qutb is the notion of a “genuine” liturgical-political (the two are inseparable for both Qutb and RO) core to their respective religions predicated on a false split within the religion itself. It bears repeating a chunk of Holsinger, who first remarks “For Pickstock, in fact, Derrida’s gravest error is his failure to comprehend the medievo-liturgical presence at the core of the tradition he critiques, and thus it is no mistake that After Writing envisions itself as elaborating a specific premodern archaeology grounded in what is putatively the most ‘genuine’ medieval artifact of all (127).” Now, here he quotes Pickstock, and I’ve added emphases to show a certain kind of  internal separation predicated on genuineness. “I have chosen as my paradigm of genuine liturgy the mediaeval Roman Rite rather than the more recent revised liturgies of the Anglican and Roman Church because the latter, although ostensibly the result of an attempt to interrupt the drift towards decadence characteristic of the liturgical practice of the seventeenth century, and to recover a purer and more ancient liurgical structure, nevertheless can be seen to have (unwittingly) incorporated the linguistic and epistemological structures of a modern secular order.” This is where Halsinger gets his “gotcha” moment, because, he tells us, the liturgical text that Pickstock relies on throughout After Writing, her “paradigm of genuine liturgy”, is, in fact, not an edition of any genuinely medieval liturgical text. Rather, it is a text of the post-Tridentine Rite, the uniform liturgy that Pius V imposed after the Reformation to regulate local liturgical performances by abolishing them. In other words, what the Quran is for Qutb, the Roman Rite is for Pickstock – an object whose placement within Worldly flux must be disavowed for the rest of their theory to hold together.

Now, some will remark, that RO abhors violence, positing an originary ontology of peace lacking in Islam, beholden as it is, they tell us, in its main forms to voluntarism. But this is pure misdirection. Qutb’s own advocated a “material despoiling of the Europeans”, that is, their technology, which was disordered under what he say as the modern secular society of Europe and would find its true fulfillment in an Islamic society, the true society. This is part of a similar ontology of peace, which holds that it isn’t within the essence that something is violent, but its relation as fallen within the whole of creation. Note, after all, that the mainstays of RO’s entrance onto the political scene, like Milbank and Blond, are fine with and even defend violence in the name of the Good. Which, sure, sounds at first like it somehow could avoid being just another defense of State-sanctioned violence, since, after all, the State is a parody of the Church. In reality, though, what you have with Red Toryism and RO in general as its theoretical underpinning is a kind of market-friendly anarchic mutualism, which in practice is absorbed easily by the neoliberal destruction of the welfare State in favor of the State that protects the flow of capital. The proclaimed anti-capitalism of both should also be noted, since, after all, Qutb advocated both a benevolent dictatorship (monarchy) and anarchy as more genuinly Islamic than democracy or true egalitarianism.

In each case the distinction made by Guy Lardreau in ‘Lin Piao comme volonté et représentation’ between ideological revolution and cultural revolution is helpful here. It is a minimal difference, but one that makes all the difference when it comes to rebellion. Cultural revolution, which Lardreau locates both in the furor surrounding the early Christian Church and in the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural revolution, is the refusal of the Master tout court. It strives to change the very conditions of thought, to move from one world to another. While ideological revolution simply moves from one form of the Master to the other, when the cultural becomes the ideological then the Master returns under a new form and the conditions ultimately remain the same. While the cultural revolution must always appear at first as an anti-culture, the anti-modernism of RO and Qutbism doesn’t even reach this level, because it advocates, not a new world, but an old world, the traces of which are actually built into the very foundations of this world. Anti-modernism is the domestication of true separation from the World (or the State of the situation, or the dominant culture, whatever word you want).

Addendum – Did this email, where John Milbank basically comes out and says that the movement is straight-up conservative and leaving queer theologians like Graham Ward off the list of RO thinkers, not make the rounds on theology blogs? I should warn you, that goes to the blog of an idiot.

19 thoughts on “On Radical Orthodoxy’s Qutbism

  1. Glad you’ve been reading The Premodern Condition which as you might remember I was loving while writing about Bataille and Thomism in my MA year as well as bringing up his critique of Pickstock to certain RO lovers who couldn’t answer it them as they can’t now.

  2. _very_ interesting. Thanks also for Lardeau’s helpful distinction.

    The obvious question: how do you see the work of the seemingly ‘ex-‘RO such as Ward, Rowland, etc.?

  3. I see Ward as a real theologian, but one stuck between the tensions of tradition and certain contradictory realities. Rowland is just a conservative Roman Catholic. Hate her stuff. I think she was only left off the list because she differentiates herself from RO on the basis of her Roman Catholic identity. Why do you ask?

  4. Good to know. I’ve been intending to read Ward’s ‘City’ series for a while, but haven’t had time yet.

    Two more: did Daniel Bell and William Cavanaugh ever really qualify as RO enough to be now ‘ex-‘?

  5. Cavanaugh would identify himself as not RO and I don’t think he ever did – just as some sort of Dorothy Day influenced Catholic anarchist. Ive heard he vehermently denies being RO. Like him, Bell is closer to Hauerwas in general tendency – both are basically pacifists for one, whereas I’d think now the party RO line doesn’t permit this.

  6. Michael,

    Can I ask why you care? Doesn’t seem to affect the post itself.

    Cavanaugh I’d put in the same boat as Ward, though from a position mediated largely by American Roman Catholicism. Daniel Bell I’d locate as an attempt to carry out the ideational imperialism of RO from a Protestant position that is destined to failure. He’s also, on a personal level, a nice guy, if, on a theoretical level, wrong.

    Gerard Loughlin needs to write another book. He has the one amazing film and theology book in existence and the rest, well, is under-explained. As a gay man I want to see him come out with more than Ward.

  7. I think he vacillates between the flat statement of “is” and the moral prescription of “shouldn’t.”

    It’s not ontically possible (or shouldn’t be) because it’s not ontologically possible (or shouldn’t be).

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