The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Out of Out

This post is by Joseph Albernaz, who is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

In Chapter 2 of his singular, intense, and profoundly generative new book (generation being one of its key concepts), The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern, Alex Dubilet mentions one of Meister Eckhart’s “beloved hermeneutic techniques, that of linguistic extraction, in which a word or a phrase is temporarily isolated from its semantic context and becomes an independent site for conceptual experimentation” (70). Here Alex is discussing Eckhart’s transmutation of the two word prepositional phrase “with God” from the opening of the Gospel of John (“…the Word was with God…”). With apologies to John the Evangelist and to Eckhart, I’d like to propose performing such an extraction and exfoliation on a recurring linguistic and syntactic cluster in Alex’s own language (though language, like life, as Alex writes, is never anyone’s “own”). (In paying attention to the book’s literal, linguistic grammar, I am also thinking of how “grammar” is another of the text’s most important meta-conceptual figures, in its repeated invocation of the particular “conceptual grammar” and “grammar of life” that kenotic immanence makes possible and pursues: the grammar of “a life without a why.”)

The grammatical figure that interests me consists of two prepositions sutured together. It is common enough in everyday language, but traverses several important sites of Alex’s book and opens out onto some of the larger responses and questions I have: “out of.” This syntagm “out of” first appears early in the introduction, in a speculative formulation of the stakes of the book’s thought of immanence: “immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceeds the structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds” (3). Later formulations include injunctions, via Eckhart, to “live out of what is common,” and via Hegel “to live and think out of infinity…and out of absolute immanence,” among a few others (57, 138-139).

Out of. A question immediately emerges: what is “out of” immanence, if common, generic, impersonal immanence (literally “dwelling in,” im-manere) is that which is essentially “without an outside” (61)? What is the relation between the life (or world or god) that lives out of immanence, and immanence itself? This tension seems already inherent in the phrase “out of,” the two prepositions working on each other in a kind of double mediation: “out” suggesting removal and separation, “of” suggesting being part of something and properly, internally related to it. “Out of” in the first instance evinces emergence—something emerging out of something else, as in a person walking out of a dwelling—and this emergence is and makes possible a distinction and separation: the thing or force that emerged, and the site whence it emerged, are separated. How are we to think this kind of separation between the forms that spiral groundlessly out of immanence and their common “ground” or “innermost” (to use two of Eckhart’s terms), given that absolute immanence refuses all determinations of “distinction and separation” (143)?

The reason why radical immanence can be claimed to not itself be transcendent vis-à-vis the world, is because the world is not real, but only a “mutilat[ion of] life” through imposed orders of separation, mediation, individuation (120). To maintain the claim of immanence immanent to itself, the separated shapes of the world must be denied, or undone. But what is or what comes “out of” immanence if not (at least certain of) these shapes, the mutilations that life already is (Bataille: “the open wound that is my life”)? Can shapes, practices, names, and experiences in the world, collective and common and dispossessive, disclose what is out of this world? Perhaps ex-perience is just this: the (non)knowledge that emerges from going out of (ex-) nothing and coming back in—emptying out of, a ke-gnosis. Here Alex’s generative work helps us think—thinking out of The Self-Emptying Subject helps us think—these figures, shapes, practices and experiences neither as cultivations of the self (as in the late Foucault), nor as receptivity to an/the “other,” nor as goals with ends, but forms of intensive communization as destitution, living according to an “outside not beyond” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Paul Ricco), being and getting “out from out” or “out-from-the-outside” (Fred Moten). Elsewhere Moten formulates the alien bond of immanence and its emergent “out of,” i.e. immanence and emanation, in relation to the common outside: “immanence and emanation, the outside we live (in), our making and joining and renewal of the real assembly” (Black and Blur 197).

What else might be extracted from the extraction of the syntagm “out of”? “Out of” can signify depletion, exhaustion, deprivation, a final loss—as in being out of time, out of options, out of hope. This modality of “out of” as “pure loss” aligns with the book’s darkly coruscating final chapter on Georges Bataille’s ethics of “irrecuperable loss” and “useless life,” seared by an immanent negativity that is out of things to do (151, 158).

“Out of” also suggests a shedding of (the) inside, a breaking out of an enclosure (immanence is “what is without enclosure” (3)), an escape and fugitivity: e.g., the phrase “let’s get out of here.” Getting out of here is getting the “out” out of the here—it involves the realization that every “here,” every position in the world, covers over and forecloses its own “out.” Indeed, perhaps positionality is nothing other than the situatedness of this foreclosure. Positions in the world foreclose the “out” of “infinite immanence” in their own ways, but since the foreclosures and their pseudo-stability are always doomed to fail, they also crumble in their own ways (137). Could living and thinking out of radical immanence entail attention to, and assembling alongside, the moving form of the world’s unmoorings? The book’s final paragraph enjoins us to face and open up to such questions, asking: “What ethical practices, what lived experiences, what affective intensities are opened when we no longer assume that we are first and foremost subjects relating to transcendence?” (177).

The Eckhartian technique of what Alex calls linguistic extraction is itself an operation involving the logic of “out of”—ex-traction consists in taking a phrase out of the context or site of its proper mediated totality, bringing it to the outside of thought (the outside that is thought and that thought is). Still, it moves out of its site to the outside in its way. Its perforated contour is generated alongside this site, and what is or opens out in the extracted phrase is its immanent “out,” its excess, its occult shape of unbecoming, its “otherwise within” (to use another compellingly apt two-word phrase from the book) (73). The logic of this technique of language and thought (linguistic extraction) metonymically opens the door to thinking the figures of the world not only as mutilations of life, but of singular disclosures of a groundless common immanence in the very shapes of their constant, collective undoing. Along these lines, can there be other modalities of separation than the violent regimes of enclosure? These would be, not separations introduced into immanence to subjectivate and subjugate life, but rather, as in the cut of Apelles, operations that separate the world’s separations in order to disclose “shared, dispossessive immanence” through and out of the uniquely cut cracks in the world’s pseudo-enclosure (141). The groundlessness that this separation opens would be a generic space of sharing (partage) and assembly, radiated in and out the inflected rhythm that a life takes from its forms, even as it suspends and renders inoperative its own situated facticity. The beauty of The Self-Emptying Subject leaves us with so much, which is to say, nothing but a broken remainder, a life emptied, outside in, not beyond, otherwise within, a life “live[d] out of what is common” (57).

Just as Alex’s book theorizes an immanence that is indifferent to the mediations of the world even as it bears on them and loosens their pseudo-stability, the book itself immanently pursues its own thing, “immanence in excess of disciplinary polemics,” even as it bears on and undoes mediating disciplinary structures of academic discourse, unworking them from within and without (168). Indeed, a characteristic aspect of the book’s general magnanimity—where “great-souled” might be taken in Eckhart’s sense of the impersonal “innermost of the soul”—is the releasement (to use another Eckhartian term) it grants one, or least that it granted me, regarding possible anxieties about having the disciplinary competence to respond to it properly. This in turn also had me thinking about how often disciplinary conventions prevent us from having conversations with people we want to have conversations with.