The bugbear of consistency

This morning I wrote a review of Carlo Salzani’s excellent new book Agamben and the Animal, which is a kind of critical rewriting of The Open, more explicitly grounding it in Agamben’s previous work and more directly engaging with animal studies scholarship, in order to find the Entwicklungsfähigkeit of his admittedly limited and anthropocentric approach to non-human animal life. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of the topics addressed.

One issue that Carlo’s book brings up is the question of consistency and continuity in Agamben’s work. Most Agamben scholars maintain, almost axiomatically, that Agamben’s work is remarkably consistent and continuous. Quarrelsome person that I am, I went so far as to write an entire book arguing that his project evolves and changes over time. Ultimately it may not be very important for interpreting or applying his ideas — certainly I’m not arguing there’s some kind of radical break where he explicitly renounces earlier work. And admittedly, one point the continuists have in their favor is the fact that it’s clearly very important to Agamben himself to see his own work as consistent and continuous. After completing the Homo Sacer project, for instance, he very explicitly returned to earlier themes and even dug up some unpublished (or, in the case of Taste, underpublicized) writings from very early in his career. When I interviewed him in preparation for my book, he gave me a great line that I have quoted at every opportunity: when he reads his older work, he notices that his more recent concepts were somehow already present there, but “I didn’t know it at the time.”

That statement seems to indicate a kind of continuity-in-change. His older writings remain relevant. They are related to his newer work. They shed light on it. But the light they shed is not anything he would have had in mind at the time. It is as though the writings themselves change as his philosophical project evolves, simply by being recontextualized. Different things about them jump out or seem important when we read them with the older works in mind. His work remains continuous in that everything is related, yet it remains continuous by changing, even and especially the portion of it that is already written.

At the same time I was taking inventory of Agamben’s philosophical evolution, I was also reflecting on my own. Like Agamben when he finished the Homo Sacer series (though obviously with much lesser impact), I had reached a stopping point in my research — in my case with the publication of Neoliberalism’s Demons and Agamben’s Philosophical Trajectory — and my next project, the essay collection What is Theology?, was more of a retrospective and a consolidation. Along with pulling out older essays I hadn’t thought of in many years, I found myself picking up books I hadn’t touched since my PhD exams when writing the new essays. It was weird.

What first jumped out at me, looking at the older materials, was discontinuity. Especially with the writings from around the time of my dissertation, such as the Bonhoeffer, Žižek, and resurrection articles included in the collection and especially the Augustine essay that I was very sad not to include but could not make a case for, and most of all in the dissertation itself, later published as Politics of Redemption, I had a real theological project going. I was trying to deploy Bonhoeffer’s notion of religionless Christianity to develop a theology that took a critical distance from the church and actual-existing Christian practice but was still constructive.

That was the style of theology that Ted Jennings modeled for me when I was his graduate student — though since his death, I have dug into some of his earlier works from the 70s and 80s and am frankly shocked at how pious and confessional they are. In those years, he was deeply concerned with concrete church practice in a way that I never would have guessed. He had opinions, strong ones, about how the liturgy should go. By contrast, the one time I prevailed upon him to lead communion when I found myself required to plan a chapel service, people were almost scandalized to see it. (Still in the late stages of my Catholic phase, I joked with him about whether he stood in apostolic succession as a Methodist minister, and he simply replied, “When I do it, it turns, baby — it turns.”)

In retrospect, I can see the seeds for the more critical and even secular approach to theology that Ted later took, his virtual abandonment of the liturgy for the Bible, but the difference is undeniable. I have no doubt that if you had asked Ted at the time, he would have been sure that he would remain a confessional, liturgically-oriented theologian for the rest of his career. The fact that it makes sense in retrospect that he did not, now that we can recontextualize his earlier works with his later ones, does not mean that the uncompromising radicalism of Outlaw Justice, his commentary on Romans, was somehow “already there” at that stage. Nor does the fact that he continued to teach on the liturgy — in his popular course “Eating and Drinking with Jesus,” which I regret was one of the few seminars of his I did not take — mean the discontinuity is any less real.

Thinking of my own work, one of the things that got me really thinking about the possibility of an essay collection was the fact that, at the end of Neoliberalism’s Demons, I found myself unexpectedly calling upon Bonhoeffer of all people. Bonhoeffer was the topic of my first course at CTS, with Laurel Schneider, as well as my first print publication. Though he was a central methodological point of reference for the above mentioned “constructive” writings, I had mostly laid him aside — it had probably been more than 5 years since I had even thought seriously about his work, much less cited it. Yet it felt like it was “just the thing.”

If I picture some young scholar connecting the conclusion to Neoliberalism’s Demons with my first essay on Bonhoeffer and somehow deciding “it was all there,” the very idea strikes me as absurd. At the time I wrote that essay, I barely knew the term “neoliberalism,” nor had I heard of the field known as “political theology.” I was innocent of Carl Schmitt, or Giorgio Agamben, or Wendy Brown. And yet I bet an enterprising young scholar with time to burn and no concern for their own career prospects or prestige could probably make a good case — simply because I wrote both the essay and the later book (so they must “go together” in some way, unless proven otherwise), and they both cite the same figure (hence the connection is stronger). Recontextualizing the Bonhoeffer essay with my very different book written over a decade later would make the essay read differently, it would highlight certain themes and patterns of thought that I may not have even been aware of at the time, it would transform that essay from a modest contribution to Bonhoeffer scholarship into a precursor of my unique approach. What a find!

I would find such an essay to be faintly absurd, but I would still be grateful that people were reading my Bonhoeffer essay, because I worked hard on it and I think it’s pretty good. And although Agamben’s own commitment to self-narrating his career as consistent goes much deeper than mine, I would bet something similar is going on there, too. Continuity and consistency is, in a sense, a marketing strategy, a way of granting retrospective value and gaining a new audience for works that otherwise might have been forgotten. In a hypothetical scenario where Agamben had been run over by a bus before writing The Coming Community and Homo Sacer, those earlier writings very well could have been forgotten, even though the insights from the later works are — according to his faithful scholars and supporters — of course “already there” in the earlier writings, making them every bit as valuable.

I’m reminded of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus, where he complains that a piece of writing is cut off from its father and unable to do anything but keep repeating the same thing over and over. Yet Plato himself guaranteed — through the sheer intricacy and difficulty of his works, and through embedding them in an academic community that would last through the generations — that the weird little zombie children represented by his writings would continue to find a new kind of life. It’s hard to fault the impulse.