On Dionysius, Mystic Discourse, and Catastrophe: A Theology of Failure Book Event

Post by Alex Dubilet

            It is always fascinating to see a book finally appear, the first elements of which one encountered in much earlier forms. I remember hearing Marika Rose present her initial work on Dionysius the Areopagite years ago at conference in Liverpool (the occasion also of our first meeting, if I remember correctly). No less than Žižek, who appears in the subtitle of the book, it is Dionysius who structures the parameters of the theological problematics in A Theology of Failure. I will return below to ask after the stakes of commencing our theological reflections with Dionysius, but I want to begin with the book’s ending, because it is there, at least to my mind, that we find one of its most unexpected and original theoretical explorations. In the last chapter, Marika argues for a convergence between the logic of Dionysius’s Mystical Theology and Lacan’s theory of the four discourses. She convincingly demonstrates a parallel between the Dionysian stages of “naming, proliferation, denials, and then the collapse of denial itself” (154) and Lacan’s four discourses: the master’s discourse, the university discourse, the hysteric’s discourse, and the analyst’s discourse. The detailed parallels that she presents are illuminating and contribute to the tradition of thought that resists seeing psychoanalysis as a resolutely secular science, seeing it instead as articulating ways of speaking (but also ways of thinking) that harbor unexpected intimacies with the history of theology. This strand of thought – I am thinking of such works as Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasies: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History and Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam – has produced some of the most interesting writing and reflection on psychoanalysis and on mysticism in recent years.

When Marika maps Dionysius’s use of theological language on Lacan’s theory of the discourses, not all positions are affirmed as equal. Rather, the suggestion is that it is necessary to move away from the illusory completeness of the master’s discourse and the proliferating names and knowledges found in the university discourse. Both of these positions can be said to produce and reproduce the world as it is. It is only with the third position, the hysteric’s discourse, with its insistent denials, that, on Marika’s account, something like creaturely agency and resistance becomes possible. This also marks the transition into the two discourses that follow the logic of the not-all, which Lacan equates (in seminar XX and elsewhere) with the feminine. And it is the fourth discourse in particular that “represents genuine transformation – [though] not exactly completeness or success.” (168) As Marika summarizes this final position: “What is produced in the analyst’s discourse is a new master signifier, one for which the divided subject acknowledges responsibility.”  (171)

Another attempt to theorize this fourth discourse comes from Alain Badiou, who – as Marika recounts – theorizes it instead as the discourse of the mystic. This suggestion is problematized insofar as it is seen as expressing “the isolated position of the psychotic immersed in her/his jouissance” (Žižek, cited on 171). Instead, what is insisted on is that this discourse must retain its character as discourse, must retain a generative and creative capacity. But I wonder whether we might think of the mystic discourse differently, by turning to a different Lacanian-inspired theorization. In his extensive explorations in the history of mysticism, Michel de Certeau saw mystic speech, especially in its early modern form, as fundamentally marked by and giving voice to irreducible loss and dislocation.  These mystics and their mode of speech were “haunted by the certainty of extinction” (Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, 85). To follow this line of thought is to see in mystic discourse a kind of witnessing of the catastrophe of history, a speech that attests to the violences of modernity and its expropriating temporalities of progress. It would propose a discourse that avows the always already happening catastrophe of history or the apocalypse of the world, a breaking down of the horizon of meaning – producing in its constant wake a speaking of dispossession and wandering. Lacking the proper – because dislocated from it – it would be a speech from atopic sites that run counter to modernity’s enforcement of sovereign enclosures.

Such a formulation of a mystic discourse challenges the rhetoric of real transformation, because it avows loss, catastrophe, and extinction as always already occurring, as the obverse side of history or, at least, of modernity. It asks, in addition, what it would mean not to seek the institution of a new master signifier (even if this time it comes with new forms of responsibility), and instead take seriously that the catastrophe has been happening and no transformation remains possible. Put in a different register, we might ask about the difference between the real transformation or the institution of a new master signifier (now without the disavowal of the incomplete subject) inaugurated by the analyst’s discourse and the ambition to end the world and its reproduction? The mystic discourse might be said to dwell within deformation that is no longer mobilizable for further transformation. Instead, perhaps, the narrator in Lispector’s novel Passion according to GH was right when she uttered: “Because it was no longer about doing something: the neutral gaze of the roach was telling me it wasn’t about that, and I knew it. Only I couldn’t bear just sitting there and being, and so I wanted to do. Doing would be transcending, transcending is an exit.” (83) As that novel attests, no less than de Certeau’s explorations of glossolalia (in Mystic Fable II), this does not inaugurate a psychotic silence, but a proliferation of wild speech, avowing a kind of dispossession that does make any claims to possession or coherence.

A Theology of Failure doesn’t only end with Dionysius, it also begins with him. In an important way, the Dionysian corpus – and the contradictory and contested legacy of its theological imaginary  – establishes the theological parameters of the book. Dionysius is unquestionably a key figure in history of Christian theology, but what are the stakes and consequences of such a framing? How does the choice to give the Dionysian corpus the pride of place determine the kind of questions that we pursue and the kind of answers that we deem plausible? And, in general, how much does what we choose as our starting point (even if this is dictated in part by a certain sense of tradition, in part by a certain sense of disciplinarity) determine the parameters of the thinkable? Do we not (in)advertenly reaffirm as the fundamental background a set of logics, schemas, and moves when we take Neoplatonism as our origin for reflection? Even if they are to be negated, it seems that to establish this background as the thing to be negated makes sure that it will return through those very negations as what is thereby determinately negated. Do we not, in other words, get trapped, with this choice, within the logics and rhetorics of conversion and reversion, of mystical ascent and incorporation, of hierarchy and transcendence? What ultimately compels us to retell these stories and return to these logics? What would happen to our questions and theories, if we were to choose different starting points, say, the heretical life without a why, the gnostic tendency of refusal, or the mysticism of pure, annihilative, impersonal love (which Leo Bersani provocatively compared with the culture of barebacking in Intimacies)? How would our understanding of “the historical vicissitudes of Christian apophaticism” (29) – a formulation I very much appreciate – thereby be transformed?