This post is by Jordan Skinner, who is a PhD student at Princeton University.
The philosophical history of the “subject”—the theological and philosophical emergence of subjectivity with the subject and its instantiation as the modern subject—has absorbed philosophical attention for centuries and remains one of the central philosophical concerns today. Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject takes up the philosophical concern of the relation of subordination which is presupposed through the formation of the subject by turning to the Middle Ages where the conceptual germination of the subject took place. However, Dubilet’s historical concerns are not the same as Nietzsche’s or Foucault’s who examine the historical formation of the modern conception of the self through power, labor, sexuality, and subjection. Nor does it follow the path paved by Alain de Libera’s three volume Archéologie du sujet which seek to understand how and why the Aristotelian subject, the article substrate of accidental properties, the Hypokeimenon, become the psychological and ethical subject of action and passion, the human subject, the knowing subject called “I” in the Middle Ages. Instead, Dubilet turns to medievalism not only as the site of the subject’s philosophical gestation but also as the site of its own erasure. Therefore, Dubilet turns to medievalism in order to highlight a history where the subject becomes that which must be evacuated, abandoned, even annihilated. This is a counter-history of the formation of the subject—it is a history of its annihilation.
Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject, as its title reveals, is a study of the conceptual movement whereby the self actively empties itself of itself in order to reveal a ground without subjection, without transcendence, and without sovereignty. To do so, Dubilet first turns to Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century preacher who sermonized and argued for a radical undoing of the self, and he uses Eckhart’s own hermeneutic techniques to examine the way ‘the self-emptying subject’ subsequently functions as a central component of the works of Hegel and Bataille. Therefore, this medieval “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” allows Dubilet to find a new way of reading across temporal demarcations. His methodology, therefore, can only be called an immanent reading which attempts to use conceptual tools unearthed in a number of different locations. This immanent reading employed throughout the Self-Emptying Subject finds continuities across its subject matter while retaining the textual specificities, both historical and conceptual, which gets interrogated with scrupulous close readings. In this way, Dubilet attempts to understand the original text in its own context and its own conceptual system, while resisting “thinking that moments of speculation and theoretical articulation must necessarily be tied down securely to a material moment or a historical period that would exhaustively determine them”. In the analysis which follows, I take Dubilet’s turn toward the Middle Ages to be an attempt not only to find a past which destabilizes the “history of the subject” but also to overturn the temporal boundaries between the contemporary condition and the pre-modern repository of figural and conceptual speculations. To penser au Moyen Âge, therefore, is to reactivate unexpected dis-continuities between the medieval archive which make it possible to think contemporary philosophical debates anew.
Unlike other attempts to turn to the Middle Ages to retrieve, to unearth, or to locate an origionary moment, Dubilet’s text is neither genealogical nor archeological. It also does not urge a return nor a retrieval of something essential and it does not presume to have found the birth of our modern mode of thinking. Instead, Dubilet forms what he calls a “counter-archive” which finds textual evidence for the self-emptying subject from the 13th century through to the 19th and onto the 20th century. Therefore, Dubilet states that his text “calls into question the parameters that construct and govern the genealogies into which those texts are typically distributed.” In so doing, he resists the idea that historical junctures of medieval speculation and theoretical articulation must necessarily remain the historicist’s fodder—‘the way it really was’ (Ranke)—instead finding deep theoretical tools, even armament, in late antiquity and the Middle Ages in order to rethink the genealogies that underpin our knowledge and disciplines in the wake of the dislocation of the modern episteme. Therefore, by ordering these historical moments alongside one another their temporal demarcations give way in order to allow conceptual continuities to emerge. Dubilet writes:
Constructing a counter-archive requires tracing novel modes of thinking, speaking, and giving voice to an impersonal immanence—without subjection and without any relation to transcendence—an undertaking that might well put into question what we take as possible and necessary in our contemporary moment within the theoretical humanities.
This theoretical counter-archive traces a counter-history of the subjectby following the historical innovations of the concept of “kenosis”, the self-emptying of the subject which comes from the Greek verbal form κενόω “to empty”. Kenosis is a concept which lies at the bedrock of Christian theology and comes from Paul of Tarsus’s Letter to the Philippians 2:7 where he writes “[Jesus] made himself nothing”/”[Jesus] emptied himself”. This Pauline concept of kenosis has troubled theologians for millennia and has given rise to a rich spiritual tradition spanning, as Dubilet recounts, from Anthony the Great and the Desert Fathers to late Medieval spirituality of Henry Suso and Thomas à Kempis and on to Simone Weil who writes: “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” Dubilet scours the history of kenosis to pinpoint a number of thinkers who make use of the concept in unexpected ways and push it to its extreme.
In addition to building an archive which spans both the medieval and the modern, the book’s other methodological concern is the attempt to think theology and philosophy together. It does this not as one and the same project but as dissimilar similarities, to borrow Pseudo-Dionysius’s medieval turn of phrase, without a hierarchical division. This attempt was recently articulated by Frederic Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future where he writes:
Medieval theology […] is an extraordinarily elaborated and articulated system of thought, developed after the emergence of classical philosophy as such and in full awareness of the latter’s conceptual and linguistic subtleties and of the richness of its problematics. Theology thus constitutes a repository of figuration and figural speculation whose dynamics were not recovered until modern times, with psychoanalysis and Ideologiekritik. But it is important not to confuse this remarkable language experiment with religion as such, and better to focus on its fundamental mechanisms, rather than on any alleged subjective content. Those mechanisms are summed up by the word allegory, which, as enigmatic as it may be, must always offer the central challenge of any attempt to go to the heart of the medieval.
Dubilet’s project, it seems to me, examines the fundamental mechanisms of theology’s conceptual grammar, which Jameson reminds us produced remarkable experimentation, and finds three conceptual nodes where the notion of self-emptying gets pushed to the extreme edge of its previous conceptual conditioning. These instances of conceptual experimentation arise in the works of Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille.
In addition to retrieving the notion of kenosis, Dubilet also astutely follows Deleuze in showing that throughout the history of thought the nominal and conceptual form of “God” “becomes a site for radical conceptual experimentation” and shows that for Eckhart God becomes a “site for the articulation of immanence and a mechanism for desubjectivation.” Eckhart writes:
When I stood in my first cause, I then had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing, for I was an empty being, and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted; and so I stood, empty of God and of everything. But when I went out from my own free will and received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was. But when creatures came to be and received their created being, then God was not “God” in himself, but he was “God” in the creatures.
God as a site of experimentation is not only relegated to the medieval past but also remains, well after the death of God, a spectral site for Bataille’s philosophical atheology:
The word God, to have used it in order to reach the depth of solitude, but no longer knowing, to hear his voice. To know nothing of him. God: final word meaning that every word, later on will fail…
With Dubilet’s immanent reading, therefore, Eckhart becomes an interlocutor with the modern which allows the medieval to take hold and infect the textuality of contemporary philosophy. In this way, Dubilet’s Bataille, who preached an infinite Kenosis, is shown to be simultaneously the student of Kojeve’s Hegel and also that young librarian and paleographer who attended seminary at Saint-Flour and graduated from l’Ecole des Chartes as a medievalist librarian; this medieval Bataille was one who aligned himself with the 13thcentury mystic Angela of Foligno and Meister Eckhart during his train commute:
On a crowded train standing up, I began reading Angela of Foligno’s Book of Visions. I am copying it out, uncontrollably excited—the veil’s torn in two, and I’m emerging from my fog of flailing impotence.
 See the extensive work by Alain de Libera in Archéologie du sujet. Bibliothèque d’histoire de la philosophie. Paris: Vrin, 2007; Archeologie Du Sujet: II La Quete de l’Identite. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J Vrin, 2008; Archeologie Du Sujet: La Double Revolution: L’acte de penser. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J Vrin, 2014; L’invention du sujet moderne : cours du Collège de France, 2013-2014. Bibliothèque d’histoire de la philosophie. Paris: Vrin, 2015.