The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event – Becoming Unrecognizable

This is a response from Alex Dubilet.

The appearance of a first book is a somewhat singular event, especially, perhaps, for those of us who carry a strong bibliophilic streak within them. Yet, even as one’s name appears among the other books on the bookshelves, the satisfaction, if felt at all, turns out to be less intense than was expected. The solidity and stability that should have come with one’s, so to speak, transformation into book form does not arrive. Whatever metabolic processes go into creating a book, they are not without remainders. I experienced the physical appearance of the book at first as a kind of non-event, receiving it with a perplexing non-reaction. After all, by the time the book emerges as a physical object, a separate and distinct being, one (one’s thoughts, investments, anxieties…) is already somewhere else. The book is a belated form. It always lags in relation to the self. The book’s appearance hides the fact that its questions, arguments, and readings, its psychic resistances and scars, its meanderings and deviations – many of them are five, six, or even seven years old. So, it appears, but I am elsewhere – thinking other thoughts, reading other texts, asking other questions, struggling with other problems. And yet the delay indexes that a kind of objectification has taken place: the book carries a name, but it is no longer identical to the self. It becomes a strange semi-autonomous object – with an air of purposelessness about it, bespeaking the truth of Lacan’s pun: it all seems closer to poubellication. Rather than fulfilment, it appears merely as a by-product of a thought process (that had to be groomed for publication and given form, to be sure). But now, one is elsewhere, thinking other thoughts, amidst other conversations.

This original estrangement does not persist. Others recognize you in the object, not least because it bears your name. The authorial function, which had to be affirmed legally, professionally, and perhaps even intellectually, works. Another temporality commences – one that this book event directly attests to and participates in – that of dispersal and circulation. The bibliophilic object scatters. The book begins to be experienced indirectly, through the ways it becomes reflected by others. It comes to be experienced and animated through the clusters of affect and thought of others, in shards of circulation that return to you. Indirectly hearing of someone reading it, receiving an unexpected email with a set of thoughts on it, or someone telling you they got a copy and are looking forward to reading it. Fragments of circulation surge up and become visible. And so, perhaps, the book is less the intellectual equivalent of the mirror stage, and more a kind of entry into the symbolic, where one finds oneself with a name, which one has to somehow avow, despite oneself, whatever the ambivalences entailed, when others recognize you by it, in the object that carries your name on its cover. And, the trouble with the proper name, recognition, and circulation goes deeper: many of the conversations, thoughts, stakes, and problematics were always, even before this moment, more and less than one’s own; something one tapped into, transformed, took up and put back down; something fundamentally impersonal and communal – never quite one’s own, always more and less than one, but always immanent to a dialogue, to an endeavor – or happening in-between or within a site that no one could properly claim as their own.

This book event has allowed me to experience the book through the eyes of others, through their reconstructions, engagements, critiques – and I want to thank Marika Rose for her work in putting it together. It has allowed me to encounter my own work with a difference – across the hands and words of others. What appears a clear and perhaps even distinct method of immanent reading in Jordan Skinner’s generous reconstruction – something that can stand in distinction to Alain de Libera and Michel Foucault – was one such moment of encounter. For what appears as coherent was, and still is, just an ongoing process of thinking and reading, a long process of putting pieces together, of thinking across textual domains, of arriving and mis-arriving at questions and problems. And perhaps method is the name for the belated, retrospective reflection on the bricolage practice of experimentation and invention. Yet, the solidity of the book and the soundness of method are necessary fictions, behind which lie invention, experimentation, reading and thinking, struggling with the phantasmatic problems that arise – everything else is a post-facto justification, an attempt to articulate what one has done. Statements of method become part of the process of creating the illusion of solidity and stability, along with the other elements of the object – layout, font, binding, and Egor Rogalev’s mesmerizing cover image. Between covers and with a method – there is finality and stability.

And therein would lie my answer to Kris Trujillo’s initial set of questions about how to distinguish between constrictive and constructive forms of materiality, about how to determine which historical details matter for a given figure or interpretation: they are determined less through a method, I would propose, than through the ongoing experimentation with intellectual bric-a-brac, a result of the kind of thought one is trying to articulate and the specific set of questions one is formulating, perhaps through a kind of discernment of spirits. In the case of Eckhart, this is why the mystical and Beguine inspired readings of Eckhart can be as productive as the philosophical Aristotelean ones. Both of these trajectories (and not only these) are discursive materials and hermeneutic frames that matter. This is why reading Amy Hollywood or Bernard McGinn, on the one hand, and Burkhard Mojsisch and De Libera, on the other, can be such a rich experience.[i] The question that remains central is what a given trajectory of reading, thinking, and writing is after. For me, in this project, it was the attempt to articulate a logic of annihilating the subject that would not leave transcendence in place in a way that would cut across our presumptions about disciplinarity and periodizing organizations. Eckhart was particularly fruitful for this endeavor, even more so than Marguerite Porete, precisely because he has been such a focal point of polemical contestation between philosophical and theological investments and appropriations. But there are, to be sure, quite different uses to which he can be put, and they will determine what constellation of texts and frames matter. I would resist, however, Kris’s characterization of what is occurring as a philosophical disavowal: The Self-Emptying Subject attempted to trouble philosophical readings, distributions, and operations no less than theological-mystical ones. It was less a philosophical abstraction of mystical texts and contexts than a kind of un-disciplining of the modes of organization and normative expectations standardly imbedded in the polemics between philosophical and theological thinking.

But there are other questions than questions of method. I want to dwell with the question posed by Steve Shakespeare in the first post of the event: “But is there a word to spare? A word for the wretched of the earth as wretched?” There are several interlaced trajectories towards a possible response. We may recall that the wretched of the earth were first Les Damnés de la Terre. And the damned are not so by nature, but are produced as such, as the obverse side of or the counterpart for those who consider themselves the saved. The pronouncement of damnation is made from the perspective of the (to-be-) saved – and it is the drive to salvation that creates a distinction and the split into two. (This is why universal salvation has always sounded like such a scandal to orthodoxy.) Without the imperative and operation of salvation, across its various theological and secular forms and guises (or in some Christian-modern amalgam), the damned as such would not have been produced. If one of the ruses of was subjection, the other is the displacement of what is not properly subjected or subjectable – too material, fleshy, undisciplined, abject – elsewhere, through operations of a disavowal and division. Without a drive to salvation, there would be no damned either – and one thing that we find in Eckhart is precisely an attempt, using theological resources, to deactivate the operation of salvation. Or, put slightly differently, we might say there is nothing but the damned, except for those who disavow their damnation, in order to attempt to purify themselves and position themselves as saved, only to displace and enforce the redoubled damnation elsewhere. Salvation is a ruse that produces damnation as its other, elsewhere.

The production of the wretched or the damned does not only belong to the history of the violent Heilsgeschichte of the supposedly-saved, but also to the secular history of modernity and its imposition of the subject form. What I was interested in the book is thinking through the way transcendence, whether secular or religious, produces subjection; but, insofar as modernity imposes the form of the subject as fully individuated, as self-possessed, it also either disciplines or eliminates everything that does not fit the form – the idle, the abject, the wretched. It is here that one may say that the secular modern produces the wretched as wretched, the damned as damned. The interpellative matrix of the individuated, disciplined, and productive subject constituted in relation to a transcendent call (so central to Weber’s articulation of the Protestant ethic) is also a sorting apparatus, an apparatus for dividing those who are coherent as individuals, who cohere as subjects, and those who do not: a moral distribution between the proper subject and all that is improperly individuated across the Atlantic and the globe. It is the latter, as modernity progresses, that are either disciplined, eliminated, or branded as the wretched.

The resulting question (which is touched on in the introduction to the book, but which I have discussed more explicitly in several presentation at communal events with Dan Barber and Anthony Paul Smith in Berkeley and New York a few years back) is what it would mean to affirm dispossession without thinking that it can be saved through appeals to the self-possession of the subject and the security that it promises. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney warn, “it is the recourse to self-possession in the face of dispossession … that represents the real danger.”[ii] It is necessary to affirm dispossession, in an ante-ontological sense, as preceding all claims to possession and self-possession – and thus to think the wretched without reduplicating or reinforcing, through the abstractions of theory, the normative ascriptions and valuations offered by the world. It is this logic that I have tried to elaborate in The Self-Emptying Subject at the boundaries of philosophical and mystical-theological discoursesand, more recently, in relation to Moten and Harney, François Laruelle, Clarice Lispector, Louis Althusser, to name a few of the proper names that act as both materials and interlocutors.

To see what is at stake, we might recall Eckhart’s claim that the soul is not only subjected or creaturely, but also, and more originarily, nameless and uncreated. Eckhart is more significant here than dominant negative theological logics because he ties namelessness to the radically immanent uncreated ground of the soul, rather than indexing it to the radical transcendence of the divine. Namelessness is not something to strive for as the unitive beyond or to be achieved ecstatically, but what ante-ontologically ‘insists.’ The nameless ground is uncreated or in-prior-priority (to use a Laruellian term) to the countable field of naming that delimits and subjugates. But we should also recall Saidiya Hartman’s claim that “‘Stranger’ is the X that stands in for a proper name.”[iii] and her suggestion that to give up your name is to inhabit the field of the commoners, the stateless, and slaves, those without masters – outside of the mediational networks that establish the field of kinship’s proper namings. The stakes would not be, then, to affirm the name, the proper, possession or the subject – despite the fact that those are, in a sense, all mechanism of protection, security, secular salvation – but see in them all mechanisms of violence.

This is part of the trajectory of thought I have tried to undertake in a more explicitly politico-theological orientation under the general rubric of a political theology of delegitimation (which would cease playing the secular and the Christian off each other in endless games of legitimation), something that I have pursued in independent work and in the workshops I have organized with Kirill Chepurin in recent years in Berlin.[iv] And it is here that I might address a concern brought up by Beatrice Marovich, who writes, after thoughtfully engaging my interpretation of Eckhart: “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.” Beatrice understood my argument about Eckhart and theology quite fully – and I would only say that there are other political theological dramas than the one between the creature and the creator that become salient in its wake – ones that confront the ways in which the secular and the religious thrive by means of their endless polemics against each other.[v]To subvert the operations and mechanisms by which groundless dispossessed life is subjected and made productive is precisely a political theological task, rather than being a merely secular or a merely theological one.

There are several other questions that were posed across the book event that I want to take up and consider, however briefly. In his insightful engagement, Tim Snediker poses the following question: “Why does the so-called immanence of contemporary continental philosophy sound so damn much like classical transcendence?” The question arises amidst Tim’s observation that the very language of preceding and exceeding that I use in referring to immanence seems to echo the kind of anteriority attributed to God, to a Good beyond Being. I appreciate this posing of the question and Tim’s attempt to think through it. First, it makes me reflect on the specific linguistic and conceptual choices, but also the crutches that one develops in writing. In this way, by focusing on the syntagma “precedes and exceeds” Tim is suggesting a similar thing to Joe’s magisterial deconstruction of my use of “out of.” What it makes me realize is that both formulations were at once weighty for the work, but also more provisional than it would seem: even the level of prepositions requires conceptual experimentation more than repetition or rigid adherence. It reminds me of the ways in which Laruelle in General Theory of Victims(and elsewhere) uses the term to insist instead of to exist to avoid replicating a certain temporal transcendence within his terminology. Across his oeuvre, Laruelle (and he is only an example, though perhaps a particularly notable one) repeatedly enacts this kind of conceptual tinkering and transformation – with the end result being that such an accretion of modification that what the reader encounters is quite a hermetic, if not to say a private, conceptual language.

More substantively, I want to add two elements to Tim’s question. First, it is only from the perspective of the enclosure of the world that dispossessed immanence appears as transcendence. One might say that for the world, everything that is excluded seems transcendent, whether from below or above, whether as anomia or sovereignty, whether as dispossessed immanence or exalted transcendence. And yet, these differences must be maintained, if we are to avoid falling back into the polemics between the secular and the (Christian) theological – and instead construct alternative pathways of political theological reflection. Second, perhaps one way to distinguish the difference between immanence and transcendence, when they begin to sound alike, would entail tracing the uses to which they are put and the effects they produce. That is, we need to remember that immanence and transcendence are not purely theoretical schemas. The Self-Emptying Subject repeatedly centers on the effects of subjection and servility because they are indices of transcendence at work – and, by contrast, immanence always is proximate to dispossession and annihilation or with the dispossessed and the annihilated. I take this to be part of Tim’s own conclusion when he formulates the problem under the laconic formulation of “the subject is the place.”

Anthony Paul Smith reposes a classic question in his post: “So why is there something rather than nothing? Moreover, why are there all of these somethings, rather than nothing?” I want to think this with Anthony’s earlier claim that immanence needs no ethics. I think these two elements need to be thought together: precisely insofar as there are being or beings (or, something or somethings) – we are in the realm of ontology – and it is here that ethics is necessary. This is the power of Eckhart’s strange assertion that I tried to recover: univocity does not belong to being – because being is hierarchical, only the nothing is univocal. Univocity in destitution and dispossession, and no longer in possession or individuation.  What makes this claim so difficult to hear is precisely that we have learned, from Gilles Deleuze onwards, to theoretically affirm univocity of being and trace it back to Duns Scotus and Spinoza. Eckhart’s position insists on a univocal nothingness that we all bear: his is a rather singular interlacing of univocity, immanence, and nothingness – one that histories of philosophy and theology alike have colluded to render invisible.

Another way to look at why there is something rather than nothing, or why ethics is necessary, is to note that we find ourselves always already subject, always already in the midst of subjection and individuation. What interested me is the way Eckhart both theologically stages this schema and radically inverts it by prioritizing an ante-ontological groundless ground as what is precisely not individuated and, insofar as uncreated, also unsubjected. This is something that I begin laying out in the introduction to The Self-Emptying Subject and have keep exploring in the yet-unpublished writing over the last few years. Ethics that affirm dispossession are necessarily precisely because one finds oneself always already subjected and in the world. The subject is there to function, to work, to mediate the world into being – and this mediation forecloses dispossessed and impersonal life by projecting it indefinitely into the future, repositioning it as transcendent. And, one could say, there is something rather than nothing precisely because of these imperatives of futurity, mediation, and labor – which displace this untamed and unbearable life (as Lispector describes it in The Passion According to G.H.) and its anonymous joys.

A couple of other responses to Anthony’s post. It seems to me the broader question than defecation lies in the narratives (and the materialized realities they produce) of teleological maturation that structure not only psychoanalysis but much of continental thought. I am thinking not only of Freud, but in different ways, for example, of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. And what concerns me are the various levels of nameless, dispossessed life that are sublated within those narratives – and the effects of those sublations. I think, for example, about the convincing analysis that Mary-Jane Rubenstein offers showing the ways in which Levinas’s ethics of the other relies on the sublation and ultimately disavowal of impersonal life of the il y a.[vi] One thing that the ethics of self-emptying sought to do is to undermine the standing of these teleological maturation narratives. And, insofar as such narratives partake in shoring up autonomous and self-possessed subjects – a masculine dream present not only in Levinas – I would hope (to begin answering the open-ended question Kris posed) that the ethics of self-emptying and dispossession would be read as containing a feminist valence within it.

Secondly, to return to another of Anthony’s concerns, there are many readings and articulations of Bataille that are foreign to my project – for example the relation of transgression and law that Anthony brings up (via Slavoj Žižek). My reading of Bataille is rather particular – and traditional elements that have been central to our portrait of him, like transgression, recede from importance. It is not a recovery of Bataille that I was interested in – there is hardly a need for that – but a novel articulation and use of his works. In this, I would say Beatrice was right when she said that Eckhart was something of a protagonist of the book – and, if anything, it is Eckhart’s shadow that transforms Bataille in my hands, such that he becomes estranged from the kind of logics associated with him by Žižek and other polemical readers.

The conclusion of the book turns to Lispector because she offers a literary site for articulating nameless life not as something to be transcended, but as something to be insisted in, in and as useless immanence. Passion is a novel and yet it strangely does not seem in any simplistic or easy way to “ascrib[e] a story to what is without a name,” as Anthony puts it. Or, at least, it forces to us re-ask the question of what counts as a story, especially in relation to what is without a name, to dispossessed life in immanence. Here, I want to return to the generative and generous reflections offered by Joseph Albernaz, who takes up the dispossessive elements of my thoughts and transforms them, producing an interlaced thinking that resonates between nothing and something, between his own trajectory of thought and mine.  He asks: “Can shapes, practices, names, and experiences in the world, collective and common and dispossessive, disclose what is out of this world?” and then pushes us to consider “singular disclosures of a groundless common immanence in the very shapes of their constant, collective undoing … 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.” I am tempted to agree (perhaps in part seduced by the rhythm of Joe’s prose), even as I feel this not being my language, my trajectory of thought, or exact conceptual articulations. But I enjoy the different allocations and dislocations, textures of rhythm, distributions of annihilation and affirmation, dispossession and collectivity. It seems to me that here what is at stake is not exactly stories, but a proliferation, a dispersive distribution that is more rhythmic than ontological.

What I most appreciate is the way Joe, in his engagement, declines my thought, mutates it  just slightly, to the point of dispossessing me of it, making it seem not my own, something that is now, or was already before, held in common. At stake is not only being understood, then, but having your own thought become unrecognizable to you because it is no longer your own. This is what happens with the syntagma “out of,” which originally was an attempt to index that immanence could not be positioned as an ideal, as something towardswhich one moves, but has now become, in the aftermath of Joe’s reading, something transformed, infinitely enriched and expanded. I appreciate the formulations that Joe speculatively brings forth, even as I understand that they are somewhere in indistinction between my thought and his. As he writes: “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. Could living and thinking out of radical immanence entail attention to, and assembling alongside, the moving form of the world’s unmoorings?” This reflection seems to enact a generous and generative destitution, breaking down the demarcation of proper names and allowing for it to become indistinct and collective. The cracks and unmoorings are radiated throughout – indexing openings for communal destitution of communality, “forms of intensive communization as destitution.” Here, perhaps one could say, thought and writing becomes akin to a barbecue in which who brought what and who brought who doesn’t matter, was already forgotten, before they were even brought – and one no longer remembers when it began and when it is supposed to end.


[i] And it is even productive to read, I would suggest, someone as polemically-minded as Kurt Flasch, if one can somehow remain untouched by the polemical posturing itself. See my review of his recent book, Meister Eckhart: Philosophers of Christianity, :

[ii] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study(Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2013), 17.

[iii] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 8

[iv] German Idealism and the Future of Political Theology in 2016 and Political Theology and the Contemporary Moment: Beyond the Christian and the Secular in 2018.

[v] Kirill Chepurin and I articulate this distinct trajectory of political theology in our programmatic introduction to the forthcoming German Idealism and the Future of Political Theology: Kant to Marx. I also explore this issue in my contribution to the volume, “On the General Secular Contradiction: Secularization, Christianity, and Political Theology in Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’.”

[vi] Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe(New York: Columbia University Press, 2008),