On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 1 “Immanence: Namelessness and the Production of Signification”

This is a guest post from Daniel Whistler, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. A list of his publications and some pdfs can be found at his personal website. APS

To begin, I want to state my admiration for this book. It manages to be both concise and thrilling, both innovative and rigorous; quite simply, it manages to speak more truth in 150 pages than most of us will manage in several hefty tomes.

I envisage each chapter of On Diaspora as charting a series of effects emanating from the cry, ‘Immanence!’. This is important because, as Barber himself pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one should expect no starting point, no transcendental argument for the possibility (or even existence) of immanence. Immanence is posited and is only to be justified by the productivity of its effects. Indeed (and I return to this at the end), I would contend that Barber is committed to the dismantling of the transcendental/critical project in its entirety (replacing it with something like a pragmatic constructivism). At any rate, Chapter One narrates the onto-methodo-linguistic effects of a theory of immanence and does so in three parts: a modelling of the relay between names and nameless excess (‘The Paradox of Immanence’), a preliminary schema of various perversions of this relay (‘Rival Paradigms’), and a final epilogue on Spinoza foreshadowing the constructive project to come (‘Surplus Naming’).

Immanence for Barber consists in the destruction of hierarchy: no entity, class of entities or field of being exists in splendid isolation (or ‘autoreferentiality’, one of Barber’s favourite insults); rather, everything reciprocally constitutes everything else. But immediately Barber problematises this initial definition with the question, ‘But how are we to speak of immanence?’ – how can naming cope with this perpetual process of reciprocal constitution? (This is a problem of individuation.) The answer, of course, is that naming too is caught up in the self-same process of reciprocal constitution, generating a series of ‘improper names’ that determine, qualify and intensify each other. Spinoza’s refusal to choose between God and Nature is emblematic. The issue is ultimately one of excess: immanence is excessive, so naming is too. However, as soon as it is claimed that one or more names manages to fix, determine or ‘congeal’ immanence, this surplus is negated – and so such names fail. They install a transcendent plane which contradicts the excessive character of immanence. So, ‘Immanence, properly speaking, is nameless.’ (p. 6) Hence, the names generated in this act of excessive naming must be considered fictions: they are both contingent and inadequate in themselves, but nonetheless necessary by-products of immanence’s self-naming. Therefore, immanence now receives a more precise definition in terms of inconsistent signification: it consists in a perpetual relay between nameless excess and fictive names. This is the model that will recur in the pages that follow.

I have aired my reservations about this model elsewhere and don’t want to repeat them in any detail here. Basically, I wonder if Barber does not surreptitiously reintroduce a hierarchy, in which being is prioritised over language, by insisting on the namelessness of immanence (e.g. compare ‘An immanent relation is one in which neither term can be made utterly prior to the other’ (p. 1) with ‘Philosophical and theological discourses [i.e. names] belong to something that, while expressed by each of them, is prior to them’ (p. 21).) In other words, if immanent excess is constituted immanently by names just as much as names are constituted immanently by immanent excess, in what way is immanence ‘properly speaking’ nameless?

A slightly different reservation I have concerns the role played by fiction. Here is Barber later in the book rephrasing the idea of the relay, ‘Immanence… proceeds… by a double affirmation – an affirmation, that is, of both the world as such, or the namelessness of immanence, and the signification that immanence necessarily produces.’ (p. 104) What I worry about here is this idea of ‘affirming the signification’, because it is not so much the names themselves that are being affirmed (or even the act of naming) as their fictiveness. And to affirm the fictiveness of names is a weird modality of affirmation: it is to affirm in a critical, deflationary or ironic key; to affirm a name while simultaneously doubting (or not committing to) that affirmation. It strikes me that this has repercussions for any theory of faith implicit in On Diaspora: there is a level of cynicism (or at least reflection) intrinsic to asserting a fiction that sits uncomfortably with faithful affirmation. It is, of course, possible to respond that such fictiveness corresponds precisely to the believer’s humility in using names for God, but I think this turns Barber into precisely the sort of negative theologian he doesn’t want to be (p. 8).

The second section, ‘Rival Paradigms’, then turns to the various ways in which immanence can be perverted or corrupted: they all, to varying degrees, assert the adequacy of a certain set of names and so forget the ultimate namelessness of being. In each case, the relay between names and namelessness – the lifeblood of immanence – is precluded. What is more – and this is what makes this section of the book so alluring – Barber links this to the relations between philosophy and theology in the twentieth century: each perversion congeals into a philosophical or theological stance, for it is a certain type of theological or philosophical name which is installed transcendently. (This is still true of PE to the extent that philosophy is contaminated by theology in the name of philosophy.) What is so fascinating about Barber’s argument here is that rather than seeing the philosophy/theology relation as a founding, axiomatic decision which gives rise to theory, it is reinterpreted as a symptom of a theory’s comportment to immanence.

I must admit I love this schema (and even cited Barber’s earlier development of it at the opening of my doctoral thesis); it also resonates with abiding preoccupations on this blog. However, I would caution (and here I think that I am implicitly following Barber) against putting too much weight on it. These abstract schemata reveal more about our scholastic desire for pigeon-holes than anything else – and (on my reading at least) Barber realises this: he uses the schema to whet our appetite for the far more important, constructive discussion of the philosophy/theology relation in the later chapters (especially p. 122). Key here is to realise the fallacy in responding too quickly to Barber’s critique of these perversions of immanence. One could easily reply: Barth or Heidegger (for example) just don’t accept the model of immanence that such a critique presupposes and so of course they fail to live up to the idea of a relay between namelessness and names. Barber at this stage has no comeback (I think) and this is because, as I’ve already suggested, he is not interested in a prolegomenon that decisively argues for immanence over transcendence. He does not want to get sucked into a game of justification. Rather, the cogency of immanence can be gleaned solely from its effect – effects it will take the whole book to map. So, while at this stage Barber has no comeback, he does not need one: the book circles back again and again to the advantages of immanence. This, then, is why I consider the schema presented here so preliminary – a foretaste of adventures in concept-construction to come.

To conclude, I want to draw attention to one detail of this schema that intrigued me. In his presentation of PD, Barber writes,

[PD presupposes] that philosophy… sets the conditions for theological discourse’s production of names. Yet this is precisely what I have denied by asserting the reciprocal dynamic between namelessness and signification. (p. 13)

To me, this seems a pretty direct rebuttal of Brad Johnson’s claim at the end of his 2010 essay, ‘Making All Things New’,

There is, of course, a crucial difference between a theologian, the one who names, and a philosopher, whose attention is to the conditions of naming itself… Perhaps only the latter, the non-theologian, can be truly attuned to the promise that crosses religious divides.

I am not interested in whether or not Dan had Brad in mind, nor who is right (I am drawn to both positions); instead, I merely want to draw attention to the fact that a debate seems to be developing around the legacy of Philip Goodchild’s thinking (to name a figure whose influence on many of the contributors to this blog cannot be overemphasised): while Johnson espouses a form of orthodox Goodchildianism, in which there is a critical discourse named philosophy able to adequately describe the pieties which orient naming what matters most, Barber proposes a deviant Goodchildianism, for which no single discourse is adequate (hence my earlier comment about his dismantling of the transcendental framework in its entirety). Whatever the respective merits of these  positions, what is thrilling here is the emergence of, in Anthony’s words, ‘actual new debates‘ in continental philosophy of religion.

21 thoughts on “On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 1 “Immanence: Namelessness and the Production of Signification”

  1. The part i found the most interesting in this chapter (and I realise that this probably shows that I find it hard to grasp the “point” of this discussion), is the typology of alternative approaches. First of all it seems to exclude what arguably could be considered the mainstream approach among theologians in the 20th century, i.e that theology and philosophy essentially is about the same thing, but with slightly different emphasis and language, e.g the approach of Tillich and the tradition emanating form him. I find it interesting that this approach is, so to speak, not on his map at all.

    The other thing I was thinking about, was if the approach exemplified by Barth is actually levelled against Hauerwas (the addition of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre seems to point in this direction. If that is the case I am not sure it is an adequate description of Hauerwas’s position. It would then be tempting to read this book into a group of studies that wants to read Yoder against Hauerwas (e.g. Kerr).

  2. Thanks for the really excellent response. I don’t want to start jumping in every second, but did want to just say a couple of things, quickly.

    – regarding the citation of me on p. 21, i think you too quickly, with the “i.e.,” elide discourses and names. Discourses would be equivalent to relatively consistent paradigms or traditions, whereas names would be more the material that is rendered consistent by paradigms or traditions. My critique on p.21 thus has to do with the way we relate names to one another (paradigm / tradition) rather than with the act of naming or the existence of a name as such. Hence my focus on intrinsic inconsistency of paradigm / tradition, which would be equivalent to the irresolvable differentiality of names — this differentiality of names/naming (and not the paradigm / tradition that fixes the relations of these names) is what’s mutually immanent with namelessness.

    – eh, more quickly this time: i hear you on fiction. This is a bigger question, but I’m not sure that the cynical attitude toward truth is universal. I try to develop this w/r/t fabulation later, but in any case (if i can play this card right now) it might be a more Christian idea that truth negates all fiction, whereas in many other traditions there is a much more fluid relation between these terms, truth and fiction (certain anthropologists of religion have attended to this, such as Mauss in dicussion of the sorcerer in _General Theory of Magic_ or Taussig, “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism”).

    – Patrik i have critiqued Kerr’s approach to Hauerwas here: http://www.jcrt.org/archives/10.3/barber.pdf

    Dan, thanks again for this. It raises a ton of really creative lines of discussion, far more than my quick responses indicate.

  3. This question may be due to either my dullness or my only having read the first chapter, but I am wondering about the necessity of naming (p.7). I understand that the names themselves are contingent and fictive, but I don’t understand why names are then conceived as “necessary by-products of immanence’s self-naming” (to use Whistler’s words). Speaking of the ‘necessity’ of naming seems to me to obscure the actual contingency of ‘mute’ being producing creatures that come to name things. (This may be my missing entirely the debate that Whistler alludes to regarding the prioritization of being over language.)

  4. The distinction between discourses and names makes a lot of sense now you mention it – I was wondering why you were so careful in your discussion of inhabiting discursive traditions in the last chapter, and now I have my answer!

  5. This is a great read for me, particularly after finishing a course on political theology and secularization.

    (1) I’m not sure I fully understand why exactly the act of naming is necessary [5-7]. Does the necessity arise from the one naming, from the relation between co-constituted objects, or from the objects in themselves (if we can even distinguish the latter two)? The non-objectivity of immanence denies the adequacy of a proper name–it is nameless–but “we cannot avoid naming it” [6]. This naming is continually redacted, and yet, it remains insufficient. My concern is this: why name at all? in what way is naming necessary? necessary for whom, beings with language? For me there would seem to be a historical contingency that calls into question the necessity of naming; namely, it could have been different.

    (2) Footnote 12, at least for me, was crucial for my being able to follow along after p.7. I had not thought about this before, but I like Dan’s modification of Deleuze, namely, that speaking of signification still has methodological import. I’m still not convinced, however, of “the inevitability of signs” [7].

    (3) I’m confused about the first few lines of the last paragraph on p.28. The claim is that Spinoza’s work cannot finally rest in either religious or philosophical discourse. I would first ask: should it finally belong to them? But, this is precisely the wrong question. I think Dan is correct that Spinoza’s work calls this distinction into question. To push this one step further, might one suggest that Spinoza’s work is paradigmatic of what both religious and philosophical disourse look like? In other words, the contamination of thought seems fundamental to both.

  6. It could have been different in various ways. For instance, beings that perform the act of naming might not exist. Or, there might be beings that do not perceive the world in way that allows for the world to present itself as God or nature. My concern isn’t the act of naming, only the claim that the act is necessary.

  7. I wish I had more time and a copy of the book. I just read Dan B.’s chapter in After the Postmodern and the Postsecular and was really taken by it. I can see that On Diaspora fleshes out many of these themes.

  8. The concern w/r/t the necessity of naming is really helpful. I definitely don’t develop my reasoning — I suppose there are a few things i had in mind. Primarily, starting as i was, de facto, within philosophical and theological discourses, I take it to be the case that naming is necessary. This is the case even amidst more mystical, apophatic discourses that stress the inability to name, etc. So, since i’m trying to theorize these discourses, my point can be taken as meaning that, within these discourses, naming is necessary. (This would be in line with what Dan W. is calling my pragmatic constructivism.)

    But if the question were posed at a deeper level, such as why is it that there must be an act of naming at all, prior to the emergence of these discourses? … I would say, first of all, and as has been proposed, that this is due to beings with language, but i would like to situate linguistic beings within a spectrum of beings, or objects. Such that the necessity would arise not from the nature of _linguistic_ beings but from objects themselves (of which linguistic beings are one kind). What i have in mind is not so much OOO-related stuff (though not saying this is to oppose it). Rather i’m thinking of the relation between so-called nature and artifice, as it is at work in D&G and developed particularly in Alliez’s book _Signature of the World_. Point being that what we call nature (not just human/linguistic being) is in a process of re-expressing, or artificing itself, whereby all expression is also construction. So the idea here is that every apparently given being or object is both the effect of a prior construction and effecting a construction of itself in the future. Always doubling itself. And naming, as i’m thinking of it, would be one instance of this more generic doubling.

  9. That’s helpful. Thanks. Would you entertain the idea that, let’s say, a dog names the world according to smells rather than linguistic markers of the human sort? Could other beings/objects on the spectrum also name, just not in the same fashion as you or me?

  10. – For what it’s worth, I definitely agree with Mark that footnote 12 is key.

    – Just going back to your earlier comment about faith, Dan: I guess you are saying (sorry to spell out something that’s probably obvious to everyone) that the invention of religion in early Christianity and the corresponding privileging of orthodoxy and heresy as the criterion for religious belonging (all discussed in a later chapter) brought about a new conception of faith – one that placed truth in opposition to fiction and (I guess??) opposed immediacy to mediacy… So, faith as fabulation is hunky dory once one thinks ‘in-between’ religion, Christianity and secularity.

  11. Well i don’t know if i’d say “hunky dory,” but yes, more or less. To clarify: i’m not saying that there’s no difficulty there, but i am saying that the presumption that (in the context of religion) fiction’s relation to the truth must be one of mutual exclusivity is one with a specific (Christian-secular) history. And what i’m claiming / trying to do, in this regard, is propose that it’s better to get back behind this mutual exclusivity than to start from it.

    So fabulation does not make everything hunky-dory, but i’d propose it as a placeholder for a mode of thought that would involve a different relation between fiction and truth.

  12. I’m just at the beginning of DB’s book, and just finished the “rivals” section of the first chapter. I very much like the PD, TP, TO, and PE delineations. I think it’s right to ask TP: “Does TP, in defending the power of signification expressed by theological discourse against PD’s transcendental strictures, also provide signification with an immanent relation to namelessness?” and so the charge regarding TP’s “forgetfulness that this signification is fictive, or that it is a contingent production that draws on the surplus character of immanence” (15-16). As something of a TPer myself, I think this is a really helpful question/observation, and one I’ve been trying to think through. Further, DB argues that TP misses the critical question of horizon raised by TO, and I would say this gets at why many TPers have been attracted to Rad Orthodoxy, as a way of situating things, both metaphysically but also methodologically within “the tradition.” Attempting to think through these issues (pressed by the first question but increasingly weary of Rad Ortho as the proper version of TO), I’ve found some space within ordinary language philosophy (Stanley Cavell, who offers a very different Wittgenstein then the one characterized) as well as contrary readings of Thomas (Victor Preller). Preller shows us why participatory ontologies may or may not be Christian, but they aren’t Thomist (in contrast, see j betz’ MOTH articles) and offers a very different account of analogy. Cavell shows why PD and PE both fail in the same way, that is, positing philosophy as possessive in ambition (see the end of CLAIM OF REASON, where Cavell speaks of Othello); Cavell is concerned to show that epistemological questions (about external worlds and other minds) cover over (often violently) separateness that requires one abide with that which cannot be possessed (by way of “knowing” or otherwise) but only acknowledged. Thus far, I find some resonance with DB here (similarly to how I’m imagining Judith Butler as somewhere in between (PD and PE) and look forward to seeing how he develops “immanence” accordingly (I am especially keen to see how Dan’s understanding of naming/excess relates to Cavell’s big claim that criteria are agreements in identity, not essence.). Any corrections/clarifications would be much appreciated, otherwise I’ll just continue to follow along.

  13. As I am rereading Dan’s first chapter I happen also to be rereading Schelling’s Essay on the Nature of Human Freedom. I am struck by the fact that both authors open their work with the question of immanence (Schelling calls it pantheism), and with a defense of immanence against the charge brought by theologians against philosophers that immanence simply reduces God to nature, and therefore destroys God’s freedom by reducing God to the infinite chain of cause and effect. Schelling was responding to the charge (made by the pro-theology thinker Jacobi) that ALL philosophy ends up in Spinozism. I mention the Schelling connection not at all to suggest that Barber is influenced by Schelling, but rather to say that I think that Dan’s book can stand up to being placed in relation to Schelling for its ambition and its argumentative power.

    I think that one of the most interesting parts of Chapter One is the discussion of reverse causation: where “B is the effect of A’s encounter with an X that it wishes to preclude from realization” (23). This is introduced to explain the way various philosophical pand theological aradigms seek to “ward off” the surplus of immanence. I wonder if reverse causation might be the way that immanence works in general, or call it the way that God and Nature are related: God seeks to ward off God’s reduction to Nature, and therefore affirms Godself as both God and Nature; or, put it this way: Godself wards off the possibility of being nameless by affirming a name against God’s namelessness: “I AM”. The affirmed name is neither a common noun naming a substance nor a proper name, but … what? I leave that question open. I think that the biblical scene of naming, though, can profitably be read in light of Dan’s distinction between namelessness and fictive signification, if by fictive signification we mean a signification that does not name an essence or substance (it is therefore wrong to translate the I AM as Mendelssohn does as “der Ewige”, the Eternal, a point that Rosenzweig made some time ago).

  14. Thanks to Dan W. for the great start to the book event and to Dan B. for such a succinct and challenging work. I’m reading along with the event, so I’ve only just finished chapter 1, but one of the more striking things to me so far is the end of the chapter which points towards the concept of diaspora. On p. 27, Dan writes that “To affirm immanence is not to affirm the below against the beyond, it is to refuse such an opposition.” For me, the summary in this paragraph is a really strong deployment of Spinoza’s thought and actually reminds me of an interesting comment that Negri makes in an interview where he says that he doesn’t care at all about adjudicating between transcendence and immanence. This flies in the face of the explicit starting point, but my reading is that something similar is going on here, and that this is actually fundamental to thinking immanence in the way that Dan does. I realize that I’m making a kind of circular argument, but this paradox lies at the center of the signification problem.

    With respect to Spinoza’s Ethics, I’m thinking that this task for thought is bound up with the affects, which I realize introduces a lot of lines of thought that, glancing ahead, don’t seem to be an explicit focus in the remainder of the book.

    I think Bruce is spot on to bring up Schelling, both in terms of thematic questioning and also argumentative force. We could also take up the tantalizing footnote on p. 9 about Hegel and dialectics, which in relation to Spinoza, is probably on the cusp of renewed discussion in English (now that the Macherey book has been translated, there is also a collection of essays coming out from Continuum called “Hegel After Spinoza,” edited by Jason Read and Hasana Sharp).

    Finally, one thing I’d ask is whether the term “paradigm” has any significance? I was just sort of taking it in a common-sense way, but as I got deeper into the chapter, wondered if I was missing a more technical use.

  15. Now that I’m further into the book (finished with the second chapter), I see indeed that a non-participatory Thomas is not imaginable for DB (such moves would only follow course with notions of rupture). Now this is very fascinating. I’m interested then in the question of witness as a mode of politics within DB’s account. Would it be correct to say that immanence does “witness” something, just not some transcendent form/content thing (such as trinity), but rather witnesses to immanence itself, that one can have an account of witness, just not one “spatialized” in terms of rupture/participation/analogy/dispossession i.e Barth/Plato/Thomas/Kerr–this is WHAT Jesus reveals, transcendence (dis)continuously within immanence, or maybe transcendence as this very discontinuity?

  16. Bruce, yes, precisely, this is where I would like to go — though didn’t manage to say it, in the book, as well as you have in your comment — in terms of the relation between God and Nature. I see what Spinoza is doing there (in concord with your interpretation) as being in real continuity with the dynamic of a God’s namelessness and God’s name. This sort of continuity has not, in my mind, been taken seriously enough. In many ways the question of God’s namelessness / name is what motivates my larger discussion of namelessness and signification.

    Dave, thanks for your comment. It’s true that, while I would pose immanence against signfication, the immanence I’m trying to develop is one that would not need to “defend itself” (as it were) agains the signification that is central to religious traditions that we see as transcendent. In this sense I am trying to get away from immanence’s alliance with secularism.

    Jonathan, I’m definitely into the idea of immanence witnessing to itself, and simultaneously refusing to see witness as witness _to_ something separated from the performance of witness. And I agree that discontinuity would be central here — discontinuity not as an interval between witness and witnessed, but rather intrinsic to witness. (I imagine Ry will have interesting lines of thought on this matter.)

  17. I’m coming into the conversation a little late, considering my own work was invoked in the main post. I would be very surprised if Dan was in conversation with my contribution in that essay. What’s more, I would resist the idea that he & I are in disagreement. Indeed, I feel a very strong affinity with Dan’s project. My intention in the essay quoted is to highlight what I regard as the normative practice of theology, which I believe the “Rival Paradigms” presented in chapter one of Dan’s book bears out. I would concede, however, that I perhaps overstate the case by emphasizing a “crucial difference,” as though things were set eternally in stone. I’d hoped to avoid this kind of steady-state certainty by citing in passing Anthony’s invocation of non-theology, but concede that I might not have been as clear as necessary in that regard.

    I also want to show my support for the idea of true fictions. Indeed, a true fiction, as I see it, operates on the level of immanence as well, inasmuch as assent & action are implicated with one another. Indeed, they can only be adequately understood to the extent that these fictions are not merely (or even primarily) objects of inquiry/analysis, but are rather operations of being. This, it seems to me, begs the question: what is a false fiction? On this, I side with Schelling, who identifies evil as occurring when the proper name/identity (“the Absolute I”) that was believed to have once been lost is identified as such (or at the very least a claim is made to the means for its proper identification). The false fiction, as such, is the one that brings fiction to its end. In my short, admittedly quite odd talk at the AAR in San Francisco, I tried to identify the consequences of this end. If it is not strictly evil, as Schelling tells it, it is in my telling depressive in the worst sense.

    At any rate . . . wonderful post. Great chapter. I’m very happy finally to be plowing through Dan’s book.

  18. Brad: I really didn’t want to imply that you and Dan were pursuing utterly different projects or that you were in disagreement about more than details – so apologies. All I was hoping to indicate was that despite the strong affinities of your projects, there is still a minimal difference: at the end of “Making all things new” you tentatively posit the name ‘philosophy’ as (in some way) a good name for a discourse that uncovers pieties, whereas Dan rejects such a move as a form of PD. Or, to put it another way, there is a vestige of the transcendental in that essay, which maybe comes from your fidelity to Schelling, which isn’t present in Dan’s book. And I think it is incumbent on philosophy of religion to start to think what that difference could even mean for its practice of thinking (i.e. everyone should read your work as well as Dan’s!)

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