The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Angels and Flies

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Beatrice Marovich is an assistant professor of theological studies at Hanover College. She works at the intersection of philosophy and theology and is currently working on a book called Creature Feeling: Political Theology and Animal Mortality.

Gilles Deleuze was no great proponent of theology. But he did recognize a kind of potency that was present, at least historically, in the concept of God. In a lecture on the early modern work of Spinoza, Deleuze posed that, prior to the 17th century, the figure of God gave philosophers a kind of creative freedom. This is not to say, of course, that these thinkers weren’t constrained in many ways by church authority. But, Deleuze suggests, philosophers were nevertheless able to work with these constraints in order to render them, instead, “a means of fantastic creation.” Working with the figure of God offered these thinkers a kind of conceptual opportunity—to think right alongside a figure that was, itself, entirely free of constraints. “With God,” Deleuze suggests, “everything is permitted.” Concepts, when pushed up against the figure of God, became free of the task of representation. Concepts could take on “lines, colors, movements” they would never have had “without this detour through God.” There was, Delezue suggests, a kind of joy in this intellectual labor.

For Deleuze, the creative joy of thinking with God was essentially a thing of the past. But in The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern Alex Dubilet seizes upon this old conceptual opportunity like it’s a live wire. Alex is not particularly interested in doing theology, at least not in the manner that contemporary academic theologians tend to self-consciously understand their intellectual labor. But Alex is invested in, as he puts it, “deactivating the battlefield of disciplinary polemics” that draws and re-draws the methodological boundary lines between religious and philosophical discourses over and over and over again. “Before we are philosophers or theologians, we are readers and thinkers,” Alex writes. And so, against these embittered polemics, Alex confounds the disciplinary boundaries between philosophy and theology, refusing to allow his project to be contained by either normatively religious or secular discursive limits. He takes some of his own detours through the figure of God. And he seems to find a contemplative but irreverent joy in this intellectual adventure. Yet he doesn’t stay on those roads, either. Instead he charts a winding footpath along the edges of philosophical and theological thought that is much more enticingly odd, and singular.

He has his conversation partners, of course: chiefly they are the medieval theologian Meister Eckhart, the modern philosopher G.W. Hegel, and the postmodern thinker Georges Bataille. Alex’s book has given me a new appreciation for each of these figures. And I love the curious connections he illuminates between them. But I want to spend a little time reflecting on Alex’s reading of Eckhart who, at least in my assessment, is something like the protagonist of this book. It is Eckhart who appears in the first two chapters of the book, and who helps Alex introduce and frame the important concepts that develop over the life of the text. More than that, things happen to Eckhart in Alex’s book. This reading of Eckhart is surprising and creative—it is a reading that seems, itself, to have taken a kind of “detour through God”, freeing Eckhart from centuries of readings of Eckhart.

Eckhart, as Alex makes clear, has never been presented as a simple or one-dimensional thinker, in the secondary scholarship. Nevertheless, his work is often contextualized within broader movements of thought. In much contemporary scholarship, Eckhart has come to represent a negative or apophatic theological approach. In this way, the kenotic or self-emptying moments in Eckhart’s texts are read as apophatic forms of kenosis. And so when Eckhart famously prays, to God, to free him of God this is often read as a plea that God clear away the kataphatic detritus that prevents Eckhart from seeing God clearly. The prayer seems to intimate that Eckhart wants to see God, without being confounded by the many idols that creaturely language has made of God. And when Eckhart argues that the creature is nothing, this might simply be read as his way of emphasizing that the negativity of the creator is deep within the creature. The true nature of the creature is the mystical nothingness of the creator within.

What such a reading risks, Alex argues, is a misunderstanding of the novel dimensions of Eckhart’s kenosis. What goes unspoken in the above formulation (wherein the creature’s true nature is revealed to be the internal nothingness of the creator) is the fact that in orthodox theological thought, the negative dimensions of the creator are understood to be transcendent. The mutual nothingness of creature and creator appears—from one angle—to be the revelation of a form of solidarity. But, says Alex, this mutual immanence of creature and creator tends to be merely temporary in orthodox formulations of self-emptying. “By the end of the passage, the fundamental difference between the human condition of humility and the divine condition that is to be exalted is reasserted,” he writes. The split between creature and creator tends to be read as absolute—they are figures divided by a line that the creature cannot cross. The creature, as mortal and finite, will always fail to actualize the divine dimensions of its own nothingness, which perpetually transcend it. Eliot Wolfson has described this re-insertion of transcendence—into negative, apophatic, theologies—as a kind of “theomania.” Alex argues that this reappearance of transcendence, in negative theology, confines this spiritual posture to “self-castigating prostrations toward an exalted other.”

This is not, however, the affective state that Alex believes Eckhart presents us with, in his performance of self-emptying. Instead, says Alex, Eckhart’s work presents us with a critique of the finitude that appears to confine the creature. When Eckhart calls, in his sermons, to become “dead to all things”, Alex argues that this is not merely a turning away from all creatureliness that conditions us. If this were all we were turning away from, then we would find ourselves naked before a transcendent force beyond the creaturely. Instead, Eckhart presents—additionally—a movement that turns away from the creator as creator. It is a double abandonment of both ones own creaturely sense of self and an abandonment of God as transcendent. This pulls us into the “uncreated ground”—a site that both precedes and exceeds the difference between creature and creator. This is a site of mutual immanence and joyful indistinction, in which both creature and creator are stripped of the determinations that render them other to one another. Eckhart’s self-emptying strips both creature and creator of all kataphatic determinations and illuminates them, instead, within a mutual “inhabitation of namelessness.” And so, in essence, Alex argues that in Eckhart’s thought there is no longer creature or creator. Instead, Eckhart offers a subversion of the entire theological framework that splits creature from creator. God becomes, “not something to believe in” but instead, “a site and an opportunity for thinking freed from the chains of creaturely finitude” in which the creature “would ultimately be powerless to do anything but affirm the ineffable transcendence of God.”

I am, at the end of the day, a thinker with a severe hangover from this seemingly endless theoretical battle between the powers of transcendence and the powers of immanence. Because of this, Alex’s critique of finitude (which he later refers to, in conversation with Hegel, as the “annihilation of finitude”) did initially raise the hairs on the back of my neck and set me to growling, a bit. Was the uncreated ground, I couldn’t help but wonder, an erasure of finitude and creatureliness that was ultimately letting transcendence have its way with us again? How could the annihilation of finitude be anything other than the triumph of the untethered infinite?

This is where the mutual self-emptying of both creature and creator becomes so essential. It is the mutuality that ultimately facilitates a disarticulation with transcendence. And so, in essence, the creature is unable to be uncreated, so as to become like the creator. Neither is the creator descending into mere creatureliness. Instead, creature and creator emerge into a form of mutual immanence. There is not a finitude that is erased, in order to render it infinite. Nor is there a fixed infinite that remains in place to triumph over the finite. Rather, the split or fracture between the finite and the infinite is undone in a mutual immanence.

This is not a unification of creature and creator, in the uncreated ground. Rather, it is the assertion that creature and creator already one. Not only are they mutually immanent to one another, but they take part in a kind of “uncreated, pre-ontological equality” in which (as Eckhart puts it), “the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal.” This is an unconstrained immanence: one that does not belong within anything, or become immanent to anything, but is instead an immanence that always preceeds and exceeds the divisions that make things immanent to one another. It is life that has not been made subservient to transcendence, or subservient to anything. This is, says Alex, Eckhart’s “life without a why.” Affectively, this is not a “hopeful orientation toward a future, a suffering for a distant ontological homeland, or a faithful commitment to militant truth.” Eckhart’s thought offers none of these things, often promised by theological discourse. Instead it an “impersonal joy” that is “revealed in the detachment from the imperatives of hope and salvation, a joy without a subject and without a future.” Gone, perhaps, is that divine drama staged in the creature-creator encounter. But gone, too, is the political theological violence that has—for so long—played out in this dramatic encounter.