A Feminist Ethics of Self-Emptying?

This post is by Kris Trujillo. Kris is Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University where he teaches and researches the Christian mystical tradition, queer theory, and Latinx literature.

How do you write a history of theory? How does the writing of history present itself as an act of theorizing? These questions are implicitly raised by Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject not only because its subtitle announces a treatment of kenosis and immanence from the Middle Ages to modernity but also because Dubilet identifies as the primary aim of his text “a theoretical intervention into debates within contemporary philosophy of religion through an engagement with the history of philosophy and theology” (20). Dubilet makes a bold—and, I think, certainly correct—methodological move by insisting on a genealogy of modern theory that draws from medieval theology in order to challenge a secular narrative that draws strict and limiting distinctions not only between premodernity and modernity but also between the disciplines of philosophy and theology.

And through this genealogical disruption, Dubilet comes to articulate an ethics of self-emptying that discloses “an immanence that precedes and exceeds the division of life into self and other” or, as he puts it elsewhere, “a life without a why—an Eckhartian expression explored in chapter 1—a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on it in its interaction with transcendence” (15, 18). That this project is ultimately an ethical one thus begs an ethical rephrasing of my initial question: how should you write a history of theory? Should the ethics of writing with history reflect the ethical project that this history treats? Or are the demands of historiographical labor irrelevant to or incommensurate with an ethics of self-emptying?

I ask these questions about methodology because in so many ways Dubilet and I share a methodological investment in undoing the restrictions of a form of historicism that relies upon a determinative form of causality. I embrace the theoretically generative potential of nonlinearity, anachronism, or what Carolyn Dinshaw has famously called a queer “touching across time.” For Dubilet, these historical displacements are liberating: “They allow us,” he writes, “to suspend the historicizing imperative and thereby to resist 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” (20–21, my emphasis). Dubilet goes on, then, to remind us, “Temporality is not abstraction, a pure container into which we place events of thought or discourse, but something that has to be established each time anew in relation to the particularities of one’s material” (21, my emphasis). So, how do we distinguish between the constrictive form of materiality that enforces historical determinism and the constructive form of materiality upon which a particular notion of historical time depends? How, in other words, do we decide which historical details matter?

In particular, I am interested in the characterization of Meister Eckhart’s singular formulation of kenosis found, most explicitly, in Sermon 52, “Beati pauperes spiritu.” In order to distinguish between true and misdirected forms of poverty, Eckhart offers the following definition of the poverty of the soul, which Dubilet quotes in full:

So long as a man has this as his will, that he wants to fulfill God’s dearest will, he has not the poverty about which we want to talk. Such a person has a will with which he wants to fulfill God’s will, and that is not true poverty. For if a person wants really to have poverty, he ought to be as free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist. For I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

According to Eckhart, to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is to disavow one’s own will, want for nothing, and desire to fulfill God’s will. But to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is still, fundamentally, to have a will; therefore, it does not reflect true poverty of the will, which is, instead, “to have a will and longing for nothing” or to liberate oneself from the created will and become uncreated.

Dubilet offers an astute reading that articulates Eckhart’s critique of the attachment to external exercises associated with poverty like fasting, vigils, manual labor, and mendicancy—works, in general—and, ultimately, suggests, “Using the scriptural quotation as his nominal guide, Eckhart explicitly restricts his explorations of poverty to its spiritual manifestations, thus bypassing the medieval debates on the status and validity of material or ‘external’ poverty that were very much alive in Franciscan circles” (29). For Dubilet, Sermon 52 does not concern itself with lived forms of Christian poverty. What is not mentioned, however, is the extent to which this sermon echoes important theological moves in the beguine Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls so much so that some have argued that Eckhart’s Sermon 52 was written as an homage to Porete’s text. Like Porete, Eckhart calls for a poverty based on wanting nothing, knowing nothing, and having nothing. Like Porete, Eckhart formulates a radical move beyond God godself. But, perhaps most importantly for this inquiry, like Porete, Eckhart troubles himself with a question central to the beguine life—a discussion about the ideal form of poverty. In other words, by situating Eckhart’s discussion of poverty within the context of beguine spirituality, his concern for external displays of poverty emerges more clearly even as he maintains the ideal state of spiritual poverty.

As contemporary thirteenth-century hagiographies demonstrate, the injunctions against female mendicancy and performances of the active life reflect a clerical suspicion of female expressions of these ideals and an attempt to emphasize enclosure as the only suitable form of female religiosity. Thus, even while hagiographical evidence might call for spiritual poverty, even for women, it clearly does not authorize actual begging or manual labor. While Eckhart seems to follow this clerical move against mendicant female spirituality, his borrowing from Porete seems to suggest more of an alignment with than opposition to the beguines. Indeed, his appreciation for beguine concerns comes to the fore in Sermon 86, “Intravit Jesus in quoddam castellum,” which famously treats the story of Mary and Martha. While most medieval interpretations of this story align Mary with the contemplative life and Martha with the active life in order, ultimately, to privilege contemplative forms of piety, Eckhart offers a novel reading that not only praises Martha over Mary because of her association with the active life but also essentially assigns both women to the active life. Mary will, according to Eckhart, begin to work as soon as her contemplative desire is fulfilled. This reading, thus, leads Eckhart to warn against those who might call for the total escape from the active life: “Now some people want to go so far as to achieve freedom from works. I say this cannot be done. It was not until after the time when the disciples received the Holy Spirit that they began to perform virtuous deeds.” What Eckhart suggests is that one cannot attain total freedom from works but, rather, that works are made possible by the contemplative life even despite the call for detachment and uncreated being.

And this recognition on Eckhart’s part parallels a similar admission by Porete that despite the call to move beyond God, the living Christian is inseparable from works. In chapter 119 of The Mirror of Simple Souls, Porete offers the following reflection on her book:

Now I understand, on account of your peace and on account of the truth, that this book is of the lower. Cowardice has given refuge to it, which has given its perception over to reason through the answering of Love to Reason’s questions. And so it has been created by human reason and human judgment; and human science and human judgment know nothing about the deepest love, deepest love from Divine knowledge. My heart is drawn so high and fallen so low at the same time, that I cannot complete it. For everything that one can say or write about God, or think about him, God who is greater than what is ever said, is thus more like lying than speaking the truth.

This putative statement about the impotence of writing because it “is of the lower” suggests that Porete denigrates, to some extent, the value of works. And yet, it is only through the very work of literature—the work of writing a book—that Porete as author is able to transform into Love and live “without a why.” Despite Porete’s apparent devaluing of works, she is never able to escape the work of her book.

Like Porete, Eckhart figures his own working with language as a kind of work. As Amy Hollywood reminds us in The Soul as Virgin Wife, “This is one aspect of the ‘work’ of the soul unified with the divine—one outcome of that union. Through contradiction and paradox, Eckhart sets language in motion; the signifier of the Son, for instance, is never allowed to become static and objectified, for it describes an action, process, or movement, its own eternal birth, rather than a figure or entity” (158). But even as Eckhart identifies the true work of the eternal birth of the Word in the soul, he is unable to divorce this spiritual work from the material work of his texts.

My claim, throughout, has been that to set Eckhart in the context of beguine spirituality may have an important impact on Dubilet’s project and not because this historical condition is exhaustively determinative. What Dubilet calls a “life without a why,” for example, also comes from beguine writers like Marguerite Porete, but what the above treatment of beguine works suggests is that the very process and performance of the active life is preserved in the theory of language to which both Porete and Eckhart adhere. This theory of language is dynamic and resists the static objectification of its terms because it is tied to the eternal birth, which is the work of the soul. So might it be important to reclaim the terms that Porete and Eckhart deploy—“living without a why”—to maintain such dynamism?

In the end, I wonder if it is possible to arrive at an immanence that is prior to and in excess of the subject if we think of The Self-Emptying Subject as, itself, a working of discourse and, thus, inseparable from external conditions. Does the act of writing a book with history “collude in subjecting life, in putting it to work” (16)? Dubilet rightly worries about the restrictions of historicism and externalities, yet can a philosophical disavowal of these terms not only yield liberation but also operate according to a logic of exclusion? Might gender be one such external condition? Indeed, with gender in mind, do all subjects have the same kind of access to an ethics of self-emptying? What, finally, might a feminist ethics of self-emptying look like?