Text of my devil lecture

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil,” and the text of my talk is available in PDF form here. The talk is aimed at an undergraduate level, and so I did not include much theoretical or scholarly discussion. You can get a sense of how I see these ideas relating to the discipline of political theology, however, if you keep in mind that this recent post was written while I was drafting the lecture.

9 thoughts on “Text of my devil lecture

  1. Thanks for yesterday’s talk. I really enjoyed it.

    Now I don’t mean to raise my fumbling manner of asking questions to the level of world-historical tragedy. However I’m afraid it’s so, that my every public failure at performing my intellect during Q&A insists itself upon my memory AS IMPLACABLY AS ALL FAILED REVOLUTIONS upon the left’s collective one.

    Regrouping on the subway ride home, I thought I might redeem yesterday by posing two of my questions more succinctly. I admit that my questions too, however clearer now, remain at an undergraduate level perhaps not interesting the PhDs who read the weblog.

    1. Has there ever been a configuration of Judeo-Christian belief that explicitly exhorted the individual onto a reflexive, freely willed assumption and satisfaction of his demoniac drives, howsoever contradictory these drives may be? (I suppose that I specify “belief” and “explicitly” because I allow a Judeo-Christian community’s practice can secretly promise this kind of nihilistic enjoyment, even as the most socially effective, most widely avowed beliefs forbid wanting it.) Also, if the Devil is uniquely Judeo-Christianity’s figuration of drive, has the Judeo-Christian longing to be holy, godly, or saved (from anxieties over a besiged ethnos’s future, the rabbinate, imperial Rome, minority persecution, sin, corrupt imposters, the flesh … ) always been constituted in the tradition as desire? But couldn’t this desire as easily function as drive?

    2. One could have walked away from your compressed talk thinking this: the determinate “species” of Devil that a given period’s specific character made necessary was immediately recognized and generally accepted within its native time. I imagine you don’t think so. Still it occurred to me yesterday: your own account of the historical-dialectical background of humanity’s relationship to the Devil immanently suggests some latency between a periodicized Devil as it is “in itself” and this same Devil having become “for itself.” A certain historical logic (which is also a logic somehow manipulating categories constitutive of subjectivity) conveys a faction of a heterogenous Judeo-Christian community to power, maintains it there, and then undoes that power’s stability in coming to insist upon that power’s conditionality and its sharpening self-inconsistency; the particular power this logic grants in Judeo-Christianity, however, is so compulsively scriptural, textual, oratorical (I don’t know what to call it), that I wonder if Jewish and Christian elites, defending the social reproduction of their own primacy, were uniquely equiped to develop discursive ideology (in recensions, epistles, creeds) as a self-preservative tactic of frustrating the logic. Am I exaggerating the uniqueness of Judeo-Christianity’s scribalism? In any case, I was wondering how in either your book or your class next year you’d address what I suppose is really a historiographic problem: the contentious, ideologically fraught diversity of Devil-positions contemporary to each other, all to be squared with a series of Devils “in themselves” who each answer to and then absolve their own social-political coordinates.

    I could go on, but my ego’s healed. Note I’ve been no succinter than yesterday.

  2. Sorry to take so long to answer.

    1. I don’t know that there were actual Christian sects that promoted a form of hedonism, but the Church Fathers certainly believed that certain Gnostic lines of thought would lead in that direction. In my mind, this tells us less about the Gnostic thinkers themselves and more about the inherent temptations and tensions in the Fathers’ own positions. As for figuring the quest for holiness et al. as desire, Augustine is very explicit that the love for worldly, lesser things is the very same love as the love that loves God — it just got directed to the wrong object. And he also claims that we can’t help but testify to our desire for God even in our desire for lesser things, so that you could possibly read something like the shift from desire to drive into that dynamic. Lacan was an avid reader of Augustine, though I’m not sure if he deals with that particular discussion.

    2. The project as I see it is more of a “grand narrative” that treats intellectual debates as a more or less autonomous sphere — though not one that’s separate or independent of the historical-political sphere, as my argument presupposes a coordination of some kind between the two. Given the scope of the argument I’m trying to make, getting stuck on the nitty-gritty power plays of a particular period would not really work, but I hope that my general approach could inspire people with more fine-grained historical skills to investigate how those contemporaneous devil-ideas play themselves out. I should also add that part of my rhetorical strategy for the project requires a focus on “stone-cold classics” that are undeniably in the mainstream of the tradition, because I want to claim that this devil dynamic has been “hiding in plain sight” the whole time.

  3. Thanks for this very edifying text Adam. I just have one quibble, which concerns a point made in your introduction. You refer to the devil’s current status as a “half-forgotten novelty act, something out of a second-tier horror movie franchise. Where once he was offering Jesus all the kingdoms of this world if only he would bow down, now he contents himself with enticing mediocre guitar players to sell their soul.” This is no doubt true for much of the middle-class western world, but it seems a lot less convincing if we think about the some half a billion Pentecostals and charismatics. I’m particularly dismayed to see the marked success of what were once ‘niche’ deliverance ministries as well as the most violent sort of spiritual warfare talk in Nigeria over the past several years. It’s not like Ephesians 6:12 is new for these folks, but the devil and his legions have become HUGE. In my book I talked about how an obsession with the devil was already making waves in the 80s and 90s – a plethora of books and testimonies were published, such as “Delivered from the Powers of Darkness”, “Former Satan Deputy in the World Turned Follower of Christ”, and “Redeemed from the Clutches of Satan: Former Head of Seven Secret Cults Now an Evangelist”. I’m particularly fond of the classic by Emmanuel Eto, “The Works of the Devil” who clarifies Ephesians 6:12 in this way: The devil is an excellent administrator. He is the champion of the division of labour. He knows how to organise things in an evil way so as to finally achieve his goal. … in Satan’s governmental hierarchy, the four mentioned in the above Scriptures are: (a) the “principalities,” (b) the “powers,” (c) “the rulers of the darkness of this world,” (d) the ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.” … The “principalities” are the “Cabinet members” or the “Federal Ministers” of Satan. They are directly responsible to, and take orders from their “Prime Minister” or “President”—the devil.

    It’s not as though this is only just a weird postcolonial trend – my sense is that lots of American charismatics love this stuff too. Check out Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry. Its General Overseer, Dr D.K. Olukoya never tires of providing his academic bona fides, noting on his website and all his publications that he “holds a first class Honours degree in Microbiology from the University of Lagos, Nigeria and a Ph.D in Molecular Genetics from the University of Reading, United Kingdom. As a researcher, he has over seventy scientific publications to his credit.” And yet Olukoya also has 306 titles on Amazon Kindle US (!), 3 of which are ranked 7-9th in the top 100 books on “Religious Warfare”, and 88 titles in the regular catalogue, the most successful of which is 27th in the top 100 books on “Religion – Spirituality- Prayer”. The clients and commentators are in the great majority not Nigerians or Africans – try buying from Amazon US if you’re in Africa.

    Even it if is a postcolonial trend in its majority, it seems to me that half a billion people still need to be taken into account before we make sweeping proclamations. Much more can be said of course about how he’s adapted to the demands of the capitalist market-place, but then again, one would expect nothing less from the Prince of this world.

  4. Ruth, You’re completely correct. I was aware of such discussions of the devil (indeed, I taught a course on “Global Christianity”), and I should have mentioned them. My insufficient justification for not doing so was expositional simplicity — I was implicitly limiting my scope to “the Western world.” A lengthy discussion of such developments would not fall within the scope of my argument as I’m conceiving it now, but I will give them more attention in the intro. I shall have to pick up your book.

    It strikes me that these ways of conceiving the devil may be a way of “personifying” the rule of global capital.

  5. I don’t know if you needed to mention them, because you did make your scope clear, and in that scope, I’m not sure how important it is – which is why it was a mere quibble. I guess I always have a problem with the relation of externality that’s implied in these historico-analytical divisions of West/non-West. The devil is a Christian import into colonial space and participates in the work of breaking down such distinctions. (Meyer’s book on colonial Ghana, “Translating the Devil”, is good on this). As to the personification argument, it’s a perfectly reasonable insight, but I’m afraid I take great issue with the way its been developed by anthropologists (esp. the Comaroffs and their acolytes, tho I would exempt Taussig and his The Devil and commodity fetishism). I was going to say, of course you don’t need to read my book! But then again, I do talk at length about what I think is wrong with that approach in it. :)

  6. Ruth, that really is a good point. You’ve helped me put a name to something I detect whenever I read about the Ugandan anti-homosexual bill, which the country’s Anglican episcopate are lobbying for. A key difference between contemporary metropolitan Anglicanism and Ugandan: the polarizing, weaponized rhetorical uses that the latter makes of the Devil figure, and the absence of this same figure from rationales the former offers for its own political interventions.

    And, Adam, thanks for answering my questions. My first one now strikes me as awfully trivial (nobody out to assuage his ego is thinking altogether rationally of course): really, has there ever been a configuration of ANY belief that made absolute hedonism its chief moral imperative? No. I agree with you that a more useful question is what the ascription of hedonism to heterodox sects can tell us about Christian orthodoxy.

    The question I asked next, however — on how to divvy up the secret springs of Christian practice between drive and desire — led me to wonder how theologies of predestination could unsettle the Devil from a safe position among our drives. Just as you say, in Augustine a Christian’s desire is irreducibly intentional: even at its holiest this desire takes some object which certain act(ion)s, undertaken in view of this object, can secure for Christians. Meanwhile, I can picture — though I suppose it’s up to historical reality whether to follow me here — some theologian who affirmed both predestination AND the religious duty of the preterite to act exactly as the elect (could be anticipated to) do, even though a properly Christian act secures nothing but God’s unacting pleasure, and never the consummation of a Christian desire for grace. After Weber, the subjective experience of life under this belief would show anxiety over whether one’s will-to-benevolence is desire (for a contingently attainable object) or drive (for the same object, but now unattainable through deed or demand). For the condition of a Christ-like benevolence that manifests a drive would be its autonomy from all such heterogenous causes as the Devil, working through papists, dangles before desirous southern Europeans like so many human-commensurate goods. And here the Devil has become the Vatican and Sorbonne that maintain religious observance may rightly follow from a passionate subjective desire for reward, while the austere Calvinist saint, privately assured of his status gratiae since eternity, acts as fervidly for God’s greater glory but is heedless of whether this extravagant correctitude will be rewarded. Moreover, here a Catholic’s religion is rebuked for being immediately his subjective demand for grace, while the Puritan’s pursuit of religion, if it affords him any enjoyment, is mediated through an other, indeed the All-Knowing’s, will. This may not be authentic Lacanian drive. But I think it plays with all the germane ideas.

    This has all been examined before, right? Who’s the bastard that beat me to it?

  7. I’ll start with SEMINAR 7. I’ll berate myself for reading it in English after so many nights of my youth, my irrecoverable youth, not drinking, not bedding freshmen, but studying French — nights I shall have to admit to the world were wasted?! Et puis je reprendrai ma lecture avec SEMINAIRE VII en version originale. J’y trouverai un style d’écrire ultrasavant qui se situe — on dirait fort confortablement — dans une « circonscription » linguistique bien au-delà de tout ce que BONJOUR! VOLUME II WITH CD m’a déjà permis de franchir. Accablé complètement de toutes sortes de chinoiseries lacaniennes et de coqueluche de maître à penser je refermerai piteusement le livre. Je le lâche : effectivement des nuits gâchées. I’ll restart, and restart, SEMINAR 7. Ever more unhappily.

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