The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Abolish the Place!

The post is by Timothy Snediker, who is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, political theology, and non-philosophy. His current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world.

Early on in The Self-Emptying Subject, Alex Dubilet cites a rhetorical question posed by Deleuze in an early work on Nietzsche: “By turning theology into anthropology, by putting man in God’s place, do we abolish the essential, that is to say, the place?” (qtd. in Dubilet, 3). On my reading, Dubilet takes the rhetorical force of this question exceptionally seriously. Displacement is not enough. God will never be dead enough, poeticized enough, polemicized enough; ditto Man, ersatz figurine of modernity. It is not enough to replace the all-too-familiar theological schema—of a transcendent Creator and his creatures who ‘suffer’ from immanence—with a humanist or secularist schema, wherein human beings take up the ‘divine’ task of perfecting the world, thereby transcending their creaturely status. On the contrary, one must neither displace nor replace but abolish the place.

Yet such abolition does not—or must not, according to Dubilet—entail taking up arms for immanence against transcendence, for transcendence is the form of distinction, difference, ‘againstness.’ Transcendence is what ensures that an object—i.e. ein Gegenstand—and a subject appear, as against one another, not in spite of their relation but precisely qua relation. That is to say, transcendence insures itself; transcendence is sure of itself so long as it can ensure that there is an immanence—a subject—to which it relates itself. In order to abolish the place one would have to think immanence radically, outside of all relation. There where there is no insurance and no assurance, there where there is no there: a dispossessed life, a self-emptying subject—kenosis. This kenosis is given before the separation of immanence and transcendence, where these two topoi are taken as the terms by which a subject is ‘activated,’ as finite in relation to the infinite or as creature in relation to a creator. A kenotic immanence exceeds this activation; a life precedes this subjection; its whylessness echoes in heaven and earth.

Such an immanent thought—a thought that thinks immanence immanently—is not easily articulated. For instance, when Dubilet outlines the conceptual consequences of such a shift, we discern an old problem emerging.

Rather than simply being the affirmation of the human subject or a secular world (which would stand tacitly in opposition to theological transcendence), immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceedsthe 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. (Ibid, my italics).

I have emphasized the words “precedes and exceeds” above, because this formulation—which appears passim as a refrain—immediately raises what is for me a very familiar and very vexing question. It is a question that I often encounter, for instance, when I am charged with articulating, say, the concept of radical immanence in François Laruelle. The terms even appear in my own description of kenosis in the paragraph prior. The question goes something like this: Why does the so-called immanence of contemporary continental philosophy sound so damn much like classical transcendence? Is it really enough to simply describe the ‘anteriority’ of immanence to the division between immanence and transcendence? Will this be enough to banish transcendence? Was not the transcendence of God precisely this anteriority? Does not this syntagm, “precedes and exceeds,” bespeak the distance and transcendence of a hyper-Being, a Good beyond Being? Have we yet again left the place intact? Is not this immanence but a transcendence inverted?

I sense in Dubilet’s book an implicit—and intense—struggle with this problem. Such a problem cannot and should not be resolved—but it can be thought. If Dubilet ‘succeeds’ in thinking this problem it is to the extent that, on the one hand, he realizes that resolution is a ruse. He is ‘resolved’ only to refuse resolution; he prefers the freedom of dispossession, the opportunity for conceptual experimentation (here Eckhart and Deleuze collide like protons) loosed from the “chains of creaturely finitude” (77). On the other hand, he succeeds to the extent that the ‘life without a why’ that comes into view in The Self-Emptying Subject is an inoperative life—‘laborless,’ disinterested in the work of relation demanded by subjection. Here immanence is not transcendence inverted but, in Eckhart’s terms, “birth without any distinction” (79), uncreated yet unproductive, equal to nothing, being-zero.

That is to say, Dubilet does not take the easy way out; he has no recourse to negative theology, which would in any case only redouble the problem. The question of articulating immanence cannot be dismissed by chalking up the difficulty to the impoverishment and impropriety of language vis-à-vis the object, for it is precisely this ‘vis-à-vis’ that is the problem. The struggle concerns not the specific terms by which immanence is designated but rather the conceptual grammars according to which immanence is articulated. Inasmuch as a grammar is itself unspoken but is that by which what is spoken is spoken, we can say that Dubilet seeks not to locate an immanent conceptual grammar (he does not search for the place or the ground of this grammar, for immanence is “without enclosure”) so much as he seeks to think according to this grammar. The grammar of kenotic immanence suspends the relation of the subject to its ultimate object and guarantor, namely, transcendence, be this transcendence God, World, or Man. At the same time, such a grammar allows, for the subject, a divestment of its finitude—finitude being that which passes for immanence when immanence is taken as immanent to something other than itself. According to this grammar, immanence refuses to be subjected.

“Any relation,” writes Dubilet,

of a subject to transcendence—no matter what form that transcendence takes—constitutes a single, complex mechanism of subjection. In other words, rather than opposing the subject to transcendence, transcendence should be understood as the ruse that produces and maintains the subject in its subjection. (173)

Against this ruse, Dubilet charts a discursive path from the middle ages to modernity, passing through and thinking with Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille, so as to see what effects are produced when their thought is (re)iterated according to a grammar of kenotic immanence. Of course, these effects are not limited to concepts; the rigid disciplinary schema of late modernity is at stake too. This is why Dubilet explains that his book should be understood

as an experiment in suspending the polemical antagonism that frequently exists between theological and philosophical discourses through the examination of three moments [namely, Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille] where such boundaries are questioned and experimentally reconfigured. This work’s guiding intuition is that suspending the rigid disciplinary expectations about what philosophy and theology each can do allows for unexpected and strange effects to arise from the texts themselves… (21)

While one might be forgiven for balking (as I did) at the inclusion of Hegel in such a project, it is ultimately not a question of saving or salvaging Hegel so much as seeing what Hegel can do when the grammar of Entäußerung is substituted for the grammar of Aufhebung.

As Dubilet remarks, we are readers and thinkers before we are philosophers and theologians (22), which is to say that there is a common life before philosophy and theology both. What results is not so much a ‘good version’ of Hegel as a refusal to distinguish between the good Hegel and the bad Hegel. The point is to take Hegel (and not only Hegel) not as the proper name of a philosophical friend or enemy, but as a reader and a thinker, a life, whose work constitutes an occasion for thought. Thus Dubilet presents us with a “counter-archive” to the predominant philosophical and theological archive, the latter which pits immanence and transcendence against one another, charting their mixtures and separations in thought as though they were reactants in a vast Cogito, as though they were two armies ‘mixing’ on the Kampfplatz of history. By contrast, Dubilet’s counter-archive

discloses the hidden collusions of these wars, between those who claim the banner of philosophy and secularity and those who claim the banner of theology and religion: all too frequently, both sides of the divide enforce forms of transcendence that have as their effect the subjection of life. (176)

In this sense, Dubilet’s conceptual grammar goes beyond even that of Deleuze, who arrogates immanence to philosophy and relegates theology to transcendence and illusion (cf. 4-5, 68-70). What Dubilet endeavors to demonstrate in his book is that the subject is the place. To abolish the place qua subject is to empty it, to let it empty, to let it go down. What is left? Only what was always already there: “Before life is subjected and put to work in an infinite deferral of agency and instrumentality, there persists, as an ante-ontological underground, a common, useless life, a life without a why” (158).

The immanent, impersonal, and common life with which Dubilet is concerned is common in at least two senses. It is common in the sense that, being nothing, it excludes nothing; it does not ‘precede’ its determinations as substance does, but is already determined to tolerate its determinations without being determined by them. And it is common in the sense that it is ordinary. There is nothing extraordinary about immanence; its ‘excess’ is its dispossession, its utter solitude, its uselessness—its joy. As Dubilet renders it in his recent translation (with Jessie Hock) of Laruelle’s Une biographie de l’homme ordinaire:

Ordinary man is devoid of qualities or attributes through a completely positive sufficiency. … There is no pejorative or minorative note in this ‘ordinary’ or this ‘minoritarian.’ I am a sufficient Solitude, too far below ‘solipsism’ to have to extricate myself from it. I am not a Cogito, a relation to a Site or to an Other. I am out-(of)-the-question: no question of man, no ontic or ontological primacy of the question of man. I do not find my essence in my existence or in my questions; I experience my subjective essence before these questions. I am the beginning of my life and my thought. (François Laruelle, A Biography of Ordinary Man: On Authorities and Minorities [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018], 9)

Immanence is not that which everything ‘has in common’ (it refuses all such transcendental pretensions) but is that life which, reveling in its whylessness, has lost everything.