This spring, I did a series of posts on my course “Reading the Qur’an,” in which we studied the full text of the Qur’an, roughly in chronological order of revelation, paired with biblical parallels, classical commentaries, and a contemporary feminist interpretation. (You can find those posts here.) As I was finishing my class, I was also completing work on an Arabic textbook oriented specifically toward reading knowledge of the Qu’ran (link) and shifting toward the study of the Qur’an in Arabic. This whole process was helped greatly by sitting in on my colleague Esra Tasdalen’s Intro to Arabic class last fall, where I learned the intricacies of the alphabet and pronunciation in a way I literally never could have achieved through self-directed study. I wish I would have been able to do more with the Arabic in my class, but I am only one man.
One of the things that most interests me about Tommy Lynch’s remarkable book is his unique approach to political theology. As I often complain, practitioners in this field seldom clearly define their methodology, such that “political theology” can be taken to embrace both politically-engaged theology and the often, but not exclusively, genealogical studies of the interface between political and theological concepts in a particular historical era or tradition. With all due respect to politically-engaged theology—or, as we might more efficiently call it, theology—I view the more genealogical version as normative for the discipline and believe it is confusing and counterproductive to lump such studies together with more confessional or constructive theological work that wears its political commitments on its sleeve. I was relieved to find that Lynch shares my more “narrow” vision of what political theology is, at one point defining the field as follows:
political theology is a methodology focused on the relationship between political and theological concepts. It seeks to understand the political history and significance of theological ideas, the theological history and significance of political ideas and to use theological ideas to explore the nature of the political. (7)
In my work, I narrow the definition even further to specify that the root of the relationship between theological and political categories is their shared confrontation with the problem of legitimacy, but Lynch’s definition here would include my understanding of what I am trying to do in my political-theological investigations.
More puzzling to me is a second definition of political theology, which appears to have more direct bearing on Lynch’s understanding of his own project here: “Political theology, in the narrow sense, is a method of philosophical thinking that uses theological concepts to critique the world” (35). We can say that this is a further specification of his initial, broad definition, akin to my more narrow focus on legitimacy. But it is a specification that raises any number of important questions. What is philosophy as opposed to theology? Why should philosophy need to draw on theological concepts to carry out its work of critique? And why should we view such philosophical usage of theological concepts as constituting its own distinct field of inquiry? I want to tease out some of Lynch’s implicit answers to these questions by putting his work into dialogue with the contemporary philosopher who has arguably spent the most time and effort using theological concepts to critique the world: Giorgio Agamben.
Pondering Bonhoeffer’s idea that there is a form of moral stupidity that requires more than persuasion — it requires conversion. You have to become a fundamentally different kind of person who lives a different kind of life.
I’m not a moral exemplar by any means. Ultimately, the only morally significant decision I made, coming from a conservative evangelical background, was to get the hell out of Dodge. However else I have evolved since then, it absolutely required being away from those people. To the extent that I actually manage not to be a prickly white male asshole about the concerns of other groups, it came from the choice to spend a significant chunk of my life at Chicago Theological Seminary, a genuinely diverse and progressive place.
One big problem with standard liberalism is that it is implicitly asking people to change their lives and break with their families and communities, and it offers them absolutely NOTHING, no way to imagine a different life or community — other than just “being right.”
Imagining if I had stayed in the evangelical orbit. Maybe I would have had formally “correct” opinions in some ways, but they would have been couched in the terms of that community and mostly represent my own personal pride and arrogance rather than any real alternative option. And I’m sure that, with the thin gruel on offer there, I would have been more vulnerable to online conspiracy thinking, etc. — again, out of intellectual pride and a desire to define myself over against my surroundings. That’s what happens when you don’t offer genuine education.
Sometimes I regret my decision to go to Podunk Christian College, but maybe marinating in that corrupt environment, learning that it really was “that bad,” was ultimately more productive for me. I don’t think I would have thrived in the elitist, competitive ethos of some schools. The evangelicals would have felt more like “home” — I could picture myself retreating, convincing myself that I was making the better and more counter-cultural choice, etc. It’s hard to think of all the ways my life could have basically been lost.
Over three years ago, I was invited to write a review of a handful of recent books by Giorgio Agamben. Since the books represented material from throughout his career, I used the opportunity to reflect on his intellectual development. After an unexpected round of editorial review, the text of my contribution was finalized and ready to go. That will have been approximately three years ago this fall.
Around the same time, I completed a translation of Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy, a reflection on the artwork that thematically overlapped with his first book, The Man Without Content. I hadn’t read the earlier book for a long time, so I decided to pick it up just to compare. It turned out to be very, very different, which piqued my interest in returning to Agamben’s earlier work. Gradually, this investigation evolved into an attempt to reread Agamben’s entire body of work in as close to chronological order as possible.
It became clear that this was my chance to make my definitive statement on Agamben’s work. As I finished my own read-through, I reviewed the relevant secondary literature. I began planning a book proposal and applied for (and received) institutional funding to travel to Italy to interview the man himself about his intellectual development. I gave papers on the topic in multiple venues. Then I wrote the book, got through the review process, and most recently, completed copyedits, proofs, and the index.
The book is coming out in September. I recently got an email that my book review has been scheduled for publication — in September. So in the time this journal has been sitting on a review that it solicited from me, I will have conducted a research program, obtained travel funding, then drafted and published a book on the same topic as that review. This has to mean something, but I can’t figure out what it is.
The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary — our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers…. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.
Read the rest of my scathing indictment of the entire world here.
[Translator’s note: Agamben has asked me to translate his latest reflection on the coronavirus crisis.]
That science has become the religion of our time, that in which people believe they believe, has been obvious for some time now. In the modern West there have coexisted and, to a certain extent, still coexist three great systems of belief: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have often intersected, entering from time to time into conflict and later reconciling in a different way, until they progressively reached a sort of peaceful, articulated coexistence, if not a true and proper collaboration in the name of a common interest.
What is new is that between science and the other two religions there has ignited, without our noticing it, a subterranean and implacable conflict, the successful results of which for science are daily before our eyes and determine in an unheard-of way all aspects of our existence. This conflict does not concern, as happened in the past, theory or general principles, but, so to speak, cultic practice. Indeed, science too, like every religion, knows diverse forms and levels through which it organizes and orders its structure: to the elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatic there corresponds in practice an extremely broad and widespread cultic sphere which coincides with what we call technology.
It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new war of religions should be that part of science where the dogmatic is less rigorous and the pragmatic aspect stronger: medicine, whose immediate object is the living body of human beings. Let us attempt to fix the essential character of this victorious faith with which we must increasingly settle accounts.
Continue reading “Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion”
Every American public intellectual must eventually face a hard truth: American electoral politics are not worthy of sustained analysis. Only when placed in a broader context of economic transformations and extra-electoral struggles do they take on any genuine interest, and even then the strictly electoral aspect is bound to be the least compelling part of the narrative. Taken as a whole, our ruling classes are beneath contempt — an ensemble of short-sighted, corrupt mediocrities — and the few exceptions are basically a rounding error.
The response to such a dispiriting situation might seem obvious, namely, to avoid talking about or engaging with electoral politics unless strictly necessary. That difficulty, however, is that the whole of what passes for American public life is oriented around electoral politics. Policy decisions are normally discussed solely in terms of possible electoral strategies and outcomes, and even private conversations about politics tend to devolve into a binary choice between Democrats and Republicans. It is not enough for us to show up to vote — we must be perpetually campaigning for our preferred side, which means maintaining the party discipline of all those around us.
There is a difference between Republicans and Democrats. It is not as large as I wish it were, but it is large enough to make a difference and large enough to make the trouble of voting worth it for me as a harm reduction measure. Whenever there’s a primary, I vote for the left-most Democrat, and whenever there’s a general election, I vote for the Democrat. These elections happen, at most, once or twice a year, and they represent an important, but fundamentally uninteresting binary choice. No one needs the amount of political news the average American — much less the average “very online” American — consumes in order to make that choice. If the goal is to affect election outcomes, then we are all wasting an unfathomable amount of time, in the outer reaches of a region light-years from the point of diminishing returns.
We used to hear a lot in the early Trumpocene that we should not allow Trump’s latest antics to “distract us” from the truly important things we should be paying attention to. People seem to have grown tired of that rhetorical pose as it has become increasingly clear that there is no underlying agenda behind the antics — he really is as racist and callous and self-aggrandizing as he appears. The surface is the reality. As annoyed as I was by their rhetoric, though, I’d suggest that the distractionists actually did not go far enough: all of it is a “distraction,” none of it is real. Yes, it has real effects, and yes, it makes a difference. But all of our politicians are, with certain admirable but marginal exceptions, corrupt opportunists who are responding to forces more fundamental than those tracked by polling and pundits. The really interesting questions are why they act like they do, why our ramshackle apartheid “democracy” keeps producing these results, why the news media invests billions of dollars annually in convincing us that the petty grievances and bad-faith arguments of this class of sad losers is the most important and interesting thing in the world.
The challenge, though, is that to be heard at all in what we laughingly call the public sphere, the intellectual must — or at least feels they must — somehow contextualize their point in the struggle between the sad losers everyone hates. So that sucks.
An Illinois legislator named Darren Bailey has convinced a judge to overrule the governor’s stay-at-home order for him — and him alone. It is worth pondering the peculiar form of life that emerges as one individual is excepted from the general state of exception. He is able to move freely, unencumbered by social distancing requirements, and yet every other resident in the state is obliged to stay away from him. He can leave his home freely, and yet there is nowhere for him to go. He is an outcast insofar as he is the only resident of the “normal” society that the stay-at-home order suspended. His civil rights thus enter into a state of pure inoperativity, rendered useless by the very order that supposedly vindicated them.
Is Bailey a messianic figure? The response of the sovereign — in this case, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker — may tempt us to think so. Yet it is a curious messiah who promises only to lead us back to the normal functioning of law. To be truly messianic, Bailey would have to renounce any claim to serve as a precedent, choosing instead to live out his peculiar form-of-life in a way that enacts its absurdity. We can imagine that solitary vigil as a kind of performance art piece that repeatedly exposes the limit of the bourgeois rights he has uselessly reclaimed.
The messianic condition is one in which all the rights of citizenship will be useless in their current sense — pointing to the potential for a new, unheard-of use.
The Arabic text displayed above means: “Muhammad is not the father of any one of you men; he is God’s Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything” (Qur’an 33:40, Haleem trans.). This is one of the most pivotal verses of the Qur’an, clarifying that Muhammad is not just one among many prophets, who happens to have been sent to the Arab tribes of Mecca, but indeed the conclusion to the sequence of prophets that has been continually reiterated and rearticulated throughout the Qur’anic revelation. It seems like a fitting verse with which to begin my final post in this series of reflections on teaching the Qur’an. Though my students have papers left to write (for which they have selected very interesting topics), classes have concluded, and we have both read through the entire text of the Qur’an and finished with an account of the conquest of Mecca, the farewell pilgrimage, and the death of the Prophet.
One of my primary emphases in the course has been the comparison with biblical stories, which helps to clarify the theological goals of the Qur’an. In some cases, the agenda guiding the Qur’an’s revisionism is clear — for instance, Qur’anic versions of the story almost always omit any of the moral ambiguity of the biblical versions. Taking a step back and looking at the full sweep of Muhammad’s career, however, I believe that there is a much more thorough-going revision and rearticulation of the monotheistic prophetic tradition than one would detect by focusing on the stories one by one.
During our sojourn in place, I have found myself unable to concentrate on much of anything beyond the immediate task in hand. Reformatting my courses for online delivery — then, inevitably, reformatting them again when the first version didn’t seem to be working — has been time-consuming, trying to keep the various discussions moving has been more draining than normal in-person classes, and keeping in contact with all the students who seem to be falling behind has been more difficult and stressful. This was in a semester when I already had three fresh preps in three radically different subjects, which is fun but also requires a lot of energy to keep up with. I am normally not able to do any considerable outside writing or research late in the semester, but at this point it feels like I am completely intellectually spent. I have actually welcomed the production work on my forthcoming monograph and translation, as relatively mechanical labor that keeps me busy without taking a lot of mental energy. Without the time commitment of commuting, I have been able to keep up more with studying the Qur’an in Arabic than I otherwise would have, but that too is more a matter of just putting in the time and flipping through the dictionary and trusting that I’ll gradually get better — I am not having startling creative insights so far.
Outside of those routines, I have mostly been binging TV, walking the dog, and drinking, on average, 10-15% too much. But I have found time for two intellectual activites: resuming my reading of Thomas Pynchon, whose work I have been revisiting during break periods for the last few years, and translating short pieces by Giorgio Agamben on the coronavirus crisis. Continue reading “On doing the thing”