Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings

[Note: Ted Jennings shared this text with a circle of friends who are mourning the recent death of Thomas J.J. Altizer. It is published here with his permission.]

When I first came to Candler School of Theology at Emory in 1964 I heard stories of Tom Altizer and his motorcycle, subsequently sabotaged I believe. I became aware that many of my favorite professors were part of what was then known as the Altizer circle (Boers, Hoffmann, Mallard, Runyon, and a couple of others) who exchanged papers they dared not publish on radical theology. After 1965 (when I had become president of the student body) I organized a debate between the philosophical (but very conservative) theologian on the Candler faculty and Tom. It filled the largest venue then available at Emory, complete with press. In the course of setting that up I had my first conversations with Tom, whose energy was matched only by his unfailing kindness and generosity.

Continue reading “Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings”

Clarification of my relationship with Zero Books

Since Angela Nagle, author of the Zero Books title Kill All Normies, has begun writing anti-immigration columns in pro-Trump publications, I thought it would be helpful to clarify my relationship with that imprint. Long story short, there was a complete and total turnover of editorial staff while Creepiness was in production. The new leadership obviously did not share the same values or editorial standards as the founders, as shown by the fact that they didn’t just publish Nagle’s deeply flawed, partially plagiarized book — they publicized it intensively. At the same time, they left “orphaned” authors like me to languish, even though I had already provided two of their previous bestsellers.

I had to do my own publicity for years, with very limited success, because I was told that they had no resources. So to see them finally put some effort into marketing for such a deeply questionable book was infuriating. Meanwhile, the New Yorker had requested a review copy of Creepiness and COULDN’T GET AN ANSWER from the publisher. They ignored a request from the New Yorker! I had to personally send them one of my author copies. When I complained about this situation, the new editor — who is now on record as saying that they don’t do editing and hence Nagle’s plagiarism is fine — offered to make it up to me by hooking me up with a podcast interview with a little-known Zero author. I declined.

So if anyone wants to paint me with a guilt-by-association brush here — you have your answer. They disowned me completely before I even realized what was happening.

The Messianic Turkey

Thanksgiving is turkey pardoning season. For decades now, the U.S. president has been ceremonially releasing a lucky turkey from its fate as a family dinner. It is a bizarre custom, and NPR reports that it has its roots in an attempt to distract the public from the Iran-Contra scandal, which had raised questions as to whether Reagan would pardon members of his own administration who had been caught up in it. George H.W. Bush formalized the ritual, and it has been with us ever since.

Thus the turkey pardon is associated with the president who ushered in the neoliberal order and was confirmed by his successor, who presided over the transition to the “new world order” that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the historical moment in which the U.S. President effectively became the global sovereign, unchecked by the counterweight of the Eastern bloc.

Giorgio Agamben teaches us that the fundamental activity of sovereignty in the Western political order is the production of bare life through the inclusion-by-exclusion of natural life or zōē. And it is certainly the case that the U.S. as global sovereign has consigned ever-increasing populations to the status of bare life, above all in the assertion of the power to carry out drone strikes anywhere in the world based solely on the president’s own decision.

In this context, the spectacle of the turkey pardon appears ironic or even parodic. At a time when the president can put virtually anyone to death based on his sole discretion, without any need for a legal trial or judgment, he also extends mercy to an animal, “including” it in the legal order by declaring its exemption from guilt. Yet what could this possibly mean? The turkey is not legally accountable for its actions and hence incapable of committing a crime. A pardon is not only superfluous, but incoherent. There have been cases of people who have maintained their innocence and therefore refused a pardon because it would imply a previous legal guilt. Yet the turkey is not even innocent — it is absolutely foreign the regime of guilt and innocence. To the extent that it is condemned to death, it is not for any kind of crime, but solely as a result of its de facto appeal as a human foodstuff. And even when it does have this strange encounter with the legal order, it does not generate new legal facts (aside, perhaps, from a transfer of ownership to the relevant wildlife sanctuary). Certainly it does not constitute the turkey as a legal subject with rights. Someone who killed the pardoned turkey would not be a murderer, but simply a jerk.

The encounter between sovereignty and the natural life of the turkey is thus a failed one, and therein lies the turkey pardon’s messianic promise. The ultimate sovereign prerogative of the presidential pardon falls idle in its application to a subject who is incapable of guilt or innocence. As against the “zone of indistinction” that opens up between law and life in the sovereign exception, here we have a separation of the two orders without any overlap — a law that is inapplicable, and a life that is simply lived, in blissful ignorance of the legal order. In the messianic kingdom, we will all, in a sense, be the pardoned turkey that is left to live out its life in peace.

The Political Theology of Trump

I have a new web piece up at n+1 on evangelical support for Trump. Here is a preview….

WHY DO EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS SUPPORT TRUMP? Again and again, through every new scandal, they have proven themselves to be among his most loyal and unshakeable defenders. This is an aspect of our bizarre political moment that has provoked widespread confusion and accusations of hypocrisy, but I’ve approached the topic with something more like urgent despair. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church and my parents remain active members. Both of them found a way to overcome their initial misgivings and support a strikingly amoral candidate. Hearing their rationalizations, hearing my mother in particular claim that she and her friends had thoroughly discussed the matter from a religious perspective and prayed together for guidance, I was shocked and angry—not only about the destructive agenda they had talked themselves into supporting, but about my entire upbringing.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?

Stefania Pandolfo’s book provides us with an intersecting account of the wounds left open by the trauma of colonization in Morocco. It is less a theoretical work than an attempt to be true to the lives and experiences of those to whom she has lent her ethnographic ear. Their lives and experiences are outlined and unfolded in terms of dialogue between Islamic psychology and psychoanalysis that she finds to be already well underway—not only in colonial and postcolonial debates over psychiatric practice in France and Morocco, but in the most authoritative texts of psychoanalysis itself. Yet even this framing is inadequate, as her rich exploration of the artwork produced by Ilyias while in a psychotic “state” (hāla) draws on the aesthetics of Aby Warburg and Giorgio Agamben as well as Islamic thought on the importance of the image and the imagination. Here above all, we can see that her theorization follows her ethnographic subject rather than the other way around—a priority that had already become clear in Chapter 6, “The Burning,” which is made up largely of her interlocutors’ debate over whether risking the passage to Europe amounts to suicide. Indeed, she concludes her work with a harrowing account of the Imam’s use of Qur’anic healing to drive out a jinn.

There is much in this work to instruct a Western reader—I certainly learned a great deal. Few academics in the West know much of anything about the history of public policy in any postcolonial society, and in that respect her discussions of the debates surrounding psychiatric care in Morocco were very informative. Here and elsewhere, she shows the Western debate to be parochial and narrow compared to what is found in the postcolonial world, where intellectuals engage with Islamic traditions and Western thinkers as a matter of course. Hence when she draws her own analogies with Freud, Lacan, Warburg, Agamben, or any number of other Western thinkers, it comes across as a suggestion or a hypothesis rather than an “explanation” in any strong or reductive sense. She never claims that the jinn simply “are” unconscious drives, for instance, even if psychoanalytic explorations of the drives can shed some light on the dynamics of the fraught relationship between human beings and jinn. If the Imam can live in a world in which Western psychiatry and Qur’anic healing can coexist without fully reducing one to the other, then so can she.

While I admire this approach, I did find myself wishing for more explicit theorization. Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?”

Interrupted tragedy

For the last couple weeks, my first year seminar on “Deals with the Devil” has been focusing on Goethe’s Faust. On the day when we read Goethe’s fragmentary and suggestive account of Faust and Gretchen’s tragic romance, I played for them Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” a youthful composition that revolutionized the approach to song in classical music.

This class exercise brought together two fascinations of mine. In addition to becoming ever more invested in Goethe’s Faust after teaching it for several years, I am also an amateur pianist and have been working at playing Schubert’s final piano sonata for a long time now. I will probably never have it performance-ready, but I am beginning to understand the piece in a way I have never understood a piece of music before — the complex development of key signatures, the parallel structures between movements, and above all, the abrupt and sometimes stunning transitions. (See score here.)

One thing that makes the piece approachable is that it is so clearly broken down into units of a page or a page and a half, which often seem to have nothing to do with what preceded them. Sometimes the effect is transformative — above all the abrupt shift into a pure C-major in the final lines of the second movement (pp. 15 to 16 in the PDF) — but often it is simply puzzling. For instance, one of my favorite passages in the first movement shifts the very recognizable “molto moderato” theme into a minor key (pg. 5), but the the chord that would resolve the melody line shifts into the beginning of a variation on an oft-repeated spritely theme that seems to shift back and forth promiscuously from major to minor. More striking is the most technically demanding passage of the fourth movement (pg. 24 of the PDF), which evolves out of the main theme of the movement seemingly without warning — only the shift from an eighth note to a sixteenth note on the first anticipatory beat of each phrase announces a change — and then shifts into a seemingly even higher gear in the following measures (pg. 25). But that “dramatic” gesture slowly fades, until we are simply reintroduced to the movement’s signature opening “chime,” as though nothing had happened.

I wonder, now, if Schubert was returning to his earlier fascination with Goethe. There is a fascinating article by Benjamin Bennett called “Interrupted Tragedy as a Structural Principal in Faust” (available in the Norton Critical Edition of Goethe’s play), where he argues that Goethe systematically undermines any cathartic moment — precisely so that the reader will not be able to purge or purify the emotions they are experiencing, but will be left to grapple with them. This seems to me to account for the abrupt ending of Part 1, where we get no resolution of the “main plot” involving the bet with Mephistopheles but are instead left to sit with the devastating human encounter between Faust and the woman whose life he has destroyed and whom he no longer loves. In most of Part 1, Mephistopheles is the tragedy-interrupter, injecting jokes and irreverence whenever Faust is having a “deep” moment of insight or tragic self-regard.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Schubert, where borderline-romantic passages, often in a minor key, often with a lot of black on the page, are abruptly interrupted with playful asides or simply left to fizzle out. And even the most sustained “serious” minor-key passage — the opening theme of the second movement — is constantly “deranged” by the repetitive left-hand gesture that jumps around the keyboard in seeming indifference to what the right hand is doing (beginning on pg. 12 of the PDF). Perhaps here we can recall Mephistopheles in his guise as a poodle, nipping at Faust’s heels as he muses about the restorative powers of nature and human companionship. This dynamic gives way (on pg. 13 and following) to a more “heroic” theme — but one that fizzles out, to be replaced by a return to the main right-hand theme that is even more insistently harassed by the left hand (pp. 15 and 16). Yet this is precisely the moment of the almost transcendent appearance of the C-major triad, a light piercing the darkness. But only for a moment.

“Reasonable people disagree.”

The fact that there is now going to be a “debate” over birthright citizenship is incredibly dangerous. Prior to Trump’s gesture toward eliminating it with an executive order, it was essentially a self-evident American value and institution. Indeed, most people I have talked to without a special interest in the issue have been surprised to learn that other countries don’t have birthright citizenship. Now, however, there is suddenly a “controversy,” and that means that “both sides” have to be treated with equal respect. Given the composition of American political elites, the “sides” will most likely be people who think we should mostly keep birthright citizenship but who admit that “anchor babies” are a problem and people who think we need to eliminate the system altogether.

This isn’t a total hypothetical. I’m old enough to remember when we suddenly had a “national conversation” about torture. As soon as the idea of the legitimacy of torture had the slightest toehold in the national discourse, every staged “debate” was oriented toward extorting torture opponents into admitting that there were some circumstances where it was warranted. Hence the infamous “ticking time bomb” scenarios. You see, absolute opposition to torture was an extreme position that couldn’t possibly be right — the truth had to be “somewhere in the middle.” And when the American people repudiated Bush and the Republicans to a degree unprecedented in the last forty years, Mr. Moderation himself decided that it was time to look forward and not backward and didn’t prosecute any of those well-intentioned patriots who let themselves get carried away and wound up doing a few regrettable things. And you have to admit, don’t you, that they kept us safe!

And I’m worried the same thing will happen here — that birthright citizenship will be permanently damaged by the very existence of this sham debate between the constitutional status quo ante of the last century and a half and this new idea that just popped into Trump’s head, both of which are equally legitimate “sides” in the brilliant “debate” that the media will be so proud of themselves for covering so even-handedly.

In reality, if we must have rights based on citizenship, clear and unambiguous standards like birth in the national territory are the only way to go. Do you want some government bureaucrat to be in a position to strip you of citizenship because the paperwork was wrong? There is no good outcome if we go down this road, just like there was no good outcome from opening up the question of torture. The extreme position is the correct one. But once you have to say it, the unquestionable norm is already gone and the damage is done.