A Feminist Ethics of Self-Emptying?

This post is by Kris Trujillo. Kris is Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University where he teaches and researches the Christian mystical tradition, queer theory, and Latinx literature.

How do you write a history of theory? How does the writing of history present itself as an act of theorizing? These questions are implicitly raised by Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject not only because its subtitle announces a treatment of kenosis and immanence from the Middle Ages to modernity but also because Dubilet identifies as the primary aim of his text “a theoretical intervention into debates within contemporary philosophy of religion through an engagement with the history of philosophy and theology” (20). Dubilet makes a bold—and, I think, certainly correct—methodological move by insisting on a genealogy of modern theory that draws from medieval theology in order to challenge a secular narrative that draws strict and limiting distinctions not only between premodernity and modernity but also between the disciplines of philosophy and theology.

And through this genealogical disruption, Dubilet comes to articulate an ethics of self-emptying that discloses “an immanence that precedes and exceeds the division of life into self and other” or, as he puts it elsewhere, “a life without a why—an Eckhartian expression explored in chapter 1—a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on it in its interaction with transcendence” (15, 18). That this project is ultimately an ethical one thus begs an ethical rephrasing of my initial question: how should you write a history of theory? Should the ethics of writing with history reflect the ethical project that this history treats? Or are the demands of historiographical labor irrelevant to or incommensurate with an ethics of self-emptying?

I ask these questions about methodology because in so many ways Dubilet and I share a methodological investment in undoing the restrictions of a form of historicism that relies upon a determinative form of causality. I embrace the theoretically generative potential of nonlinearity, anachronism, or what Carolyn Dinshaw has famously called a queer “touching across time.” For Dubilet, these historical displacements are liberating: “They allow us,” he writes, “to suspend the historicizing imperative and thereby to resist thinking that moments of speculation and theoretical articulation must necessarily be tied down securely to a material moment or a historical period that would exhaustively determine them” (20–21, my emphasis). Dubilet goes on, then, to remind us, “Temporality is not abstraction, a pure container into which we place events of thought or discourse, but something that has to be established each time anew in relation to the particularities of one’s material” (21, my emphasis). So, how do we distinguish between the constrictive form of materiality that enforces historical determinism and the constructive form of materiality upon which a particular notion of historical time depends? How, in other words, do we decide which historical details matter?

In particular, I am interested in the characterization of Meister Eckhart’s singular formulation of kenosis found, most explicitly, in Sermon 52, “Beati pauperes spiritu.” In order to distinguish between true and misdirected forms of poverty, Eckhart offers the following definition of the poverty of the soul, which Dubilet quotes in full:

So long as a man has this as his will, that he wants to fulfill God’s dearest will, he has not the poverty about which we want to talk. Such a person has a will with which he wants to fulfill God’s will, and that is not true poverty. For if a person wants really to have poverty, he ought to be as free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist. For I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

According to Eckhart, to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is to disavow one’s own will, want for nothing, and desire to fulfill God’s will. But to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is still, fundamentally, to have a will; therefore, it does not reflect true poverty of the will, which is, instead, “to have a will and longing for nothing” or to liberate oneself from the created will and become uncreated.

Dubilet offers an astute reading that articulates Eckhart’s critique of the attachment to external exercises associated with poverty like fasting, vigils, manual labor, and mendicancy—works, in general—and, ultimately, suggests, “Using the scriptural quotation as his nominal guide, Eckhart explicitly restricts his explorations of poverty to its spiritual manifestations, thus bypassing the medieval debates on the status and validity of material or ‘external’ poverty that were very much alive in Franciscan circles” (29). For Dubilet, Sermon 52 does not concern itself with lived forms of Christian poverty. What is not mentioned, however, is the extent to which this sermon echoes important theological moves in the beguine Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls so much so that some have argued that Eckhart’s Sermon 52 was written as an homage to Porete’s text. Like Porete, Eckhart calls for a poverty based on wanting nothing, knowing nothing, and having nothing. Like Porete, Eckhart formulates a radical move beyond God godself. But, perhaps most importantly for this inquiry, like Porete, Eckhart troubles himself with a question central to the beguine life—a discussion about the ideal form of poverty. In other words, by situating Eckhart’s discussion of poverty within the context of beguine spirituality, his concern for external displays of poverty emerges more clearly even as he maintains the ideal state of spiritual poverty.

As contemporary thirteenth-century hagiographies demonstrate, the injunctions against female mendicancy and performances of the active life reflect a clerical suspicion of female expressions of these ideals and an attempt to emphasize enclosure as the only suitable form of female religiosity. Thus, even while hagiographical evidence might call for spiritual poverty, even for women, it clearly does not authorize actual begging or manual labor. While Eckhart seems to follow this clerical move against mendicant female spirituality, his borrowing from Porete seems to suggest more of an alignment with than opposition to the beguines. Indeed, his appreciation for beguine concerns comes to the fore in Sermon 86, “Intravit Jesus in quoddam castellum,” which famously treats the story of Mary and Martha. While most medieval interpretations of this story align Mary with the contemplative life and Martha with the active life in order, ultimately, to privilege contemplative forms of piety, Eckhart offers a novel reading that not only praises Martha over Mary because of her association with the active life but also essentially assigns both women to the active life. Mary will, according to Eckhart, begin to work as soon as her contemplative desire is fulfilled. This reading, thus, leads Eckhart to warn against those who might call for the total escape from the active life: “Now some people want to go so far as to achieve freedom from works. I say this cannot be done. It was not until after the time when the disciples received the Holy Spirit that they began to perform virtuous deeds.” What Eckhart suggests is that one cannot attain total freedom from works but, rather, that works are made possible by the contemplative life even despite the call for detachment and uncreated being.

And this recognition on Eckhart’s part parallels a similar admission by Porete that despite the call to move beyond God, the living Christian is inseparable from works. In chapter 119 of The Mirror of Simple Souls, Porete offers the following reflection on her book:

Now I understand, on account of your peace and on account of the truth, that this book is of the lower. Cowardice has given refuge to it, which has given its perception over to reason through the answering of Love to Reason’s questions. And so it has been created by human reason and human judgment; and human science and human judgment know nothing about the deepest love, deepest love from Divine knowledge. My heart is drawn so high and fallen so low at the same time, that I cannot complete it. For everything that one can say or write about God, or think about him, God who is greater than what is ever said, is thus more like lying than speaking the truth.

This putative statement about the impotence of writing because it “is of the lower” suggests that Porete denigrates, to some extent, the value of works. And yet, it is only through the very work of literature—the work of writing a book—that Porete as author is able to transform into Love and live “without a why.” Despite Porete’s apparent devaluing of works, she is never able to escape the work of her book.

Like Porete, Eckhart figures his own working with language as a kind of work. As Amy Hollywood reminds us in The Soul as Virgin Wife, “This is one aspect of the ‘work’ of the soul unified with the divine—one outcome of that union. Through contradiction and paradox, Eckhart sets language in motion; the signifier of the Son, for instance, is never allowed to become static and objectified, for it describes an action, process, or movement, its own eternal birth, rather than a figure or entity” (158). But even as Eckhart identifies the true work of the eternal birth of the Word in the soul, he is unable to divorce this spiritual work from the material work of his texts.

My claim, throughout, has been that to set Eckhart in the context of beguine spirituality may have an important impact on Dubilet’s project and not because this historical condition is exhaustively determinative. What Dubilet calls a “life without a why,” for example, also comes from beguine writers like Marguerite Porete, but what the above treatment of beguine works suggests is that the very process and performance of the active life is preserved in the theory of language to which both Porete and Eckhart adhere. This theory of language is dynamic and resists the static objectification of its terms because it is tied to the eternal birth, which is the work of the soul. So might it be important to reclaim the terms that Porete and Eckhart deploy—“living without a why”—to maintain such dynamism?

In the end, I wonder if it is possible to arrive at an immanence that is prior to and in excess of the subject if we think of The Self-Emptying Subject as, itself, a working of discourse and, thus, inseparable from external conditions. Does the act of writing a book with history “collude in subjecting life, in putting it to work” (16)? Dubilet rightly worries about the restrictions of historicism and externalities, yet can a philosophical disavowal of these terms not only yield liberation but also operate according to a logic of exclusion? Might gender be one such external condition? Indeed, with gender in mind, do all subjects have the same kind of access to an ethics of self-emptying? What, finally, might a feminist ethics of self-emptying look like?

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Immanent Reading

This post is by Jordan Skinner, who is a PhD student at Princeton University.

The philosophical history of the “subject”—the theological and philosophical emergence of subjectivity with the subject and its instantiation as the modern subject—has absorbed philosophical attention for centuries and remains one of the central philosophical concerns today. Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject takes up the philosophical concern of the relation of subordination which is presupposed through the formation of the subject by turning to the Middle Ages where the conceptual germination of the subject took place. However, Dubilet’s historical concerns are not the same as Nietzsche’s or Foucault’s who examine the historical formation of the modern conception of the self through power, labor, sexuality, and subjection. Nor does it follow the path paved by Alain de Libera’s three volume Archéologie du sujet which seek to understand how and why the Aristotelian subject, the article substrate of accidental properties, the Hypokeimenon, become the psychological and ethical subject of action and passion, the human subject, the knowing subject called “I” in the Middle Ages.[1] Instead, Dubilet turns to medievalism not only as the site of the subject’s philosophical gestation but also as the site of its own erasure. Therefore, Dubilet turns to medievalism in order to highlight a history where the subject becomes that which must be evacuated, abandoned, even annihilated. This is a counter-history of the formation of the subject—it is a history of its annihilation.

Continue reading “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Immanent Reading”

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Abolish the Place!

The post is by Timothy Snediker, who is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, political theology, and non-philosophy. His current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world.

Early on in The Self-Emptying Subject, Alex Dubilet cites a rhetorical question posed by Deleuze in an early work on Nietzsche: “By turning theology into anthropology, by putting man in God’s place, do we abolish the essential, that is to say, the place?” (qtd. in Dubilet, 3). On my reading, Dubilet takes the rhetorical force of this question exceptionally seriously. Displacement is not enough. God will never be dead enough, poeticized enough, polemicized enough; ditto Man, ersatz figurine of modernity. It is not enough to replace the all-too-familiar theological schema—of a transcendent Creator and his creatures who ‘suffer’ from immanence—with a humanist or secularist schema, wherein human beings take up the ‘divine’ task of perfecting the world, thereby transcending their creaturely status. On the contrary, one must neither displace nor replace but abolish the place.

Yet such abolition does not—or must not, according to Dubilet—entail taking up arms for immanence against transcendence, for transcendence is the form of distinction, difference, ‘againstness.’ Transcendence is what ensures that an object—i.e. ein Gegenstand—and a subject appear, as against one another, not in spite of their relation but precisely qua relation. That is to say, transcendence insures itself; transcendence is sure of itself so long as it can ensure that there is an immanence—a subject—to which it relates itself. In order to abolish the place one would have to think immanence radically, outside of all relation. There where there is no insurance and no assurance, there where there is no there: a dispossessed life, a self-emptying subject—kenosis. This kenosis is given before the separation of immanence and transcendence, where these two topoi are taken as the terms by which a subject is ‘activated,’ as finite in relation to the infinite or as creature in relation to a creator. A kenotic immanence exceeds this activation; a life precedes this subjection; its whylessness echoes in heaven and earth.

Such an immanent thought—a thought that thinks immanence immanently—is not easily articulated. For instance, when Dubilet outlines the conceptual consequences of such a shift, we discern an old problem emerging.

Rather than simply being the affirmation of the human subject or a secular world (which would stand tacitly in opposition to theological transcendence), immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceedsthe structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds. (Ibid, my italics).

I have emphasized the words “precedes and exceeds” above, because this formulation—which appears passim as a refrain—immediately raises what is for me a very familiar and very vexing question. It is a question that I often encounter, for instance, when I am charged with articulating, say, the concept of radical immanence in François Laruelle. The terms even appear in my own description of kenosis in the paragraph prior. The question goes something like this: Why does the so-called immanence of contemporary continental philosophy sound so damn much like classical transcendence? Is it really enough to simply describe the ‘anteriority’ of immanence to the division between immanence and transcendence? Will this be enough to banish transcendence? Was not the transcendence of God precisely this anteriority? Does not this syntagm, “precedes and exceeds,” bespeak the distance and transcendence of a hyper-Being, a Good beyond Being? Have we yet again left the place intact? Is not this immanence but a transcendence inverted?

I sense in Dubilet’s book an implicit—and intense—struggle with this problem. Such a problem cannot and should not be resolved—but it can be thought. If Dubilet ‘succeeds’ in thinking this problem it is to the extent that, on the one hand, he realizes that resolution is a ruse. He is ‘resolved’ only to refuse resolution; he prefers the freedom of dispossession, the opportunity for conceptual experimentation (here Eckhart and Deleuze collide like protons) loosed from the “chains of creaturely finitude” (77). On the other hand, he succeeds to the extent that the ‘life without a why’ that comes into view in The Self-Emptying Subject is an inoperative life—‘laborless,’ disinterested in the work of relation demanded by subjection. Here immanence is not transcendence inverted but, in Eckhart’s terms, “birth without any distinction” (79), uncreated yet unproductive, equal to nothing, being-zero.

That is to say, Dubilet does not take the easy way out; he has no recourse to negative theology, which would in any case only redouble the problem. The question of articulating immanence cannot be dismissed by chalking up the difficulty to the impoverishment and impropriety of language vis-à-vis the object, for it is precisely this ‘vis-à-vis’ that is the problem. The struggle concerns not the specific terms by which immanence is designated but rather the conceptual grammars according to which immanence is articulated. Inasmuch as a grammar is itself unspoken but is that by which what is spoken is spoken, we can say that Dubilet seeks not to locate an immanent conceptual grammar (he does not search for the place or the ground of this grammar, for immanence is “without enclosure”) so much as he seeks to think according to this grammar. The grammar of kenotic immanence suspends the relation of the subject to its ultimate object and guarantor, namely, transcendence, be this transcendence God, World, or Man. At the same time, such a grammar allows, for the subject, a divestment of its finitude—finitude being that which passes for immanence when immanence is taken as immanent to something other than itself. According to this grammar, immanence refuses to be subjected.

“Any relation,” writes Dubilet,

of a subject to transcendence—no matter what form that transcendence takes—constitutes a single, complex mechanism of subjection. In other words, rather than opposing the subject to transcendence, transcendence should be understood as the ruse that produces and maintains the subject in its subjection. (173)

Against this ruse, Dubilet charts a discursive path from the middle ages to modernity, passing through and thinking with Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille, so as to see what effects are produced when their thought is (re)iterated according to a grammar of kenotic immanence. Of course, these effects are not limited to concepts; the rigid disciplinary schema of late modernity is at stake too. This is why Dubilet explains that his book should be understood

as an experiment in suspending the polemical antagonism that frequently exists between theological and philosophical discourses through the examination of three moments [namely, Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille] where such boundaries are questioned and experimentally reconfigured. This work’s guiding intuition is that suspending the rigid disciplinary expectations about what philosophy and theology each can do allows for unexpected and strange effects to arise from the texts themselves… (21)

While one might be forgiven for balking (as I did) at the inclusion of Hegel in such a project, it is ultimately not a question of saving or salvaging Hegel so much as seeing what Hegel can do when the grammar of Entäußerung is substituted for the grammar of Aufhebung.

As Dubilet remarks, we are readers and thinkers before we are philosophers and theologians (22), which is to say that there is a common life before philosophy and theology both. What results is not so much a ‘good version’ of Hegel as a refusal to distinguish between the good Hegel and the bad Hegel. The point is to take Hegel (and not only Hegel) not as the proper name of a philosophical friend or enemy, but as a reader and a thinker, a life, whose work constitutes an occasion for thought. Thus Dubilet presents us with a “counter-archive” to the predominant philosophical and theological archive, the latter which pits immanence and transcendence against one another, charting their mixtures and separations in thought as though they were reactants in a vast Cogito, as though they were two armies ‘mixing’ on the Kampfplatz of history. By contrast, Dubilet’s counter-archive

discloses the hidden collusions of these wars, between those who claim the banner of philosophy and secularity and those who claim the banner of theology and religion: all too frequently, both sides of the divide enforce forms of transcendence that have as their effect the subjection of life. (176)

In this sense, Dubilet’s conceptual grammar goes beyond even that of Deleuze, who arrogates immanence to philosophy and relegates theology to transcendence and illusion (cf. 4-5, 68-70). What Dubilet endeavors to demonstrate in his book is that the subject is the place. To abolish the place qua subject is to empty it, to let it empty, to let it go down. What is left? Only what was always already there: “Before life is subjected and put to work in an infinite deferral of agency and instrumentality, there persists, as an ante-ontological underground, a common, useless life, a life without a why” (158).

The immanent, impersonal, and common life with which Dubilet is concerned is common in at least two senses. It is common in the sense that, being nothing, it excludes nothing; it does not ‘precede’ its determinations as substance does, but is already determined to tolerate its determinations without being determined by them. And it is common in the sense that it is ordinary. There is nothing extraordinary about immanence; its ‘excess’ is its dispossession, its utter solitude, its uselessness—its joy. As Dubilet renders it in his recent translation (with Jessie Hock) of Laruelle’s Une biographie de l’homme ordinaire:

Ordinary man is devoid of qualities or attributes through a completely positive sufficiency. … There is no pejorative or minorative note in this ‘ordinary’ or this ‘minoritarian.’ I am a sufficient Solitude, too far below ‘solipsism’ to have to extricate myself from it. I am not a Cogito, a relation to a Site or to an Other. I am out-(of)-the-question: no question of man, no ontic or ontological primacy of the question of man. I do not find my essence in my existence or in my questions; I experience my subjective essence before these questions. I am the beginning of my life and my thought. (François Laruelle, A Biography of Ordinary Man: On Authorities and Minorities [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018], 9)

Immanence is not that which everything ‘has in common’ (it refuses all such transcendental pretensions) but is that life which, reveling in its whylessness, has lost everything.

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Out of Out

This post is by Joseph Albernaz, who is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

In Chapter 2 of his singular, intense, and profoundly generative new book (generation being one of its key concepts), The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern, Alex Dubilet mentions one of Meister Eckhart’s “beloved hermeneutic techniques, that of linguistic extraction, in which a word or a phrase is temporarily isolated from its semantic context and becomes an independent site for conceptual experimentation” (70). Here Alex is discussing Eckhart’s transmutation of the two word prepositional phrase “with God” from the opening of the Gospel of John (“…the Word was with God…”). With apologies to John the Evangelist and to Eckhart, I’d like to propose performing such an extraction and exfoliation on a recurring linguistic and syntactic cluster in Alex’s own language (though language, like life, as Alex writes, is never anyone’s “own”). (In paying attention to the book’s literal, linguistic grammar, I am also thinking of how “grammar” is another of the text’s most important meta-conceptual figures, in its repeated invocation of the particular “conceptual grammar” and “grammar of life” that kenotic immanence makes possible and pursues: the grammar of “a life without a why.”)

The grammatical figure that interests me consists of two prepositions sutured together. It is common enough in everyday language, but traverses several important sites of Alex’s book and opens out onto some of the larger responses and questions I have: “out of.” This syntagm “out of” first appears early in the introduction, in a speculative formulation of the stakes of the book’s thought of immanence: “immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceeds the structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds” (3). Later formulations include injunctions, via Eckhart, to “live out of what is common,” and via Hegel “to live and think out of infinity…and out of absolute immanence,” among a few others (57, 138-139).

Out of. A question immediately emerges: what is “out of” immanence, if common, generic, impersonal immanence (literally “dwelling in,” im-manere) is that which is essentially “without an outside” (61)? What is the relation between the life (or world or god) that lives out of immanence, and immanence itself? This tension seems already inherent in the phrase “out of,” the two prepositions working on each other in a kind of double mediation: “out” suggesting removal and separation, “of” suggesting being part of something and properly, internally related to it. “Out of” in the first instance evinces emergence—something emerging out of something else, as in a person walking out of a dwelling—and this emergence is and makes possible a distinction and separation: the thing or force that emerged, and the site whence it emerged, are separated. How are we to think this kind of separation between the forms that spiral groundlessly out of immanence and their common “ground” or “innermost” (to use two of Eckhart’s terms), given that absolute immanence refuses all determinations of “distinction and separation” (143)?

The reason why radical immanence can be claimed to not itself be transcendent vis-à-vis the world, is because the world is not real, but only a “mutilat[ion of] life” through imposed orders of separation, mediation, individuation (120). To maintain the claim of immanence immanent to itself, the separated shapes of the world must be denied, or undone. But what is or what comes “out of” immanence if not (at least certain of) these shapes, the mutilations that life already is (Bataille: “the open wound that is my life”)? Can shapes, practices, names, and experiences in the world, collective and common and dispossessive, disclose what is out of this world? Perhaps ex-perience is just this: the (non)knowledge that emerges from going out of (ex-) nothing and coming back in—emptying out of, a ke-gnosis. Here Alex’s generative work helps us think—thinking out of The Self-Emptying Subject helps us think—these figures, shapes, practices and experiences neither as cultivations of the self (as in the late Foucault), nor as receptivity to an/the “other,” nor as goals with ends, but forms of intensive communization as destitution, living according to an “outside not beyond” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Paul Ricco), being and getting “out from out” or “out-from-the-outside” (Fred Moten). Elsewhere Moten formulates the alien bond of immanence and its emergent “out of,” i.e. immanence and emanation, in relation to the common outside: “immanence and emanation, the outside we live (in), our making and joining and renewal of the real assembly” (Black and Blur 197).

What else might be extracted from the extraction of the syntagm “out of”? “Out of” can signify depletion, exhaustion, deprivation, a final loss—as in being out of time, out of options, out of hope. This modality of “out of” as “pure loss” aligns with the book’s darkly coruscating final chapter on Georges Bataille’s ethics of “irrecuperable loss” and “useless life,” seared by an immanent negativity that is out of things to do (151, 158).

“Out of” also suggests a shedding of (the) inside, a breaking out of an enclosure (immanence is “what is without enclosure” (3)), an escape and fugitivity: e.g., the phrase “let’s get out of here.” Getting out of here is getting the “out” out of the here—it involves the realization that every “here,” 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 (137). Could living and thinking out of radical immanence entail attention to, and assembling alongside, the moving form of the world’s unmoorings? The book’s final paragraph enjoins us to face and open up to such questions, asking: “What ethical practices, what lived experiences, what affective intensities are opened when we no longer assume that we are first and foremost subjects relating to transcendence?” (177).

The Eckhartian technique of what Alex calls linguistic extraction is itself an operation involving the logic of “out of”—ex-traction consists in taking a phrase out of the context or site of its proper mediated totality, bringing it to the outside of thought (the outside that is thought and that thought is). Still, it moves out of its site to the outside in its way. Its perforated contour is generated alongside this site, and what is or opens out in the extracted phrase is its immanent “out,” its excess, its occult shape of unbecoming, its “otherwise within” (to use another compellingly apt two-word phrase from the book) (73). The logic of this technique of language and thought (linguistic extraction) metonymically opens the door to thinking the figures of the world not only as mutilations of life, but of singular disclosures of a groundless common immanence in the very shapes of their constant, collective undoing. Along these lines, can there be other modalities of separation than the violent regimes of enclosure? These would be, not separations introduced into immanence to subjectivate and subjugate life, but rather, as in the cut of Apelles, operations that separate the world’s separations in order to disclose “shared, dispossessive immanence” through and out of the uniquely cut cracks in the world’s pseudo-enclosure (141). 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. The beauty of The Self-Emptying Subject leaves us with so much, which is to say, nothing but a broken remainder, a life emptied, outside in, not beyond, otherwise within, a life “live[d] out of what is common” (57).

Just as Alex’s book theorizes an immanence that is indifferent to the mediations of the world even as it bears on them and loosens their pseudo-stability, the book itself immanently pursues its own thing, “immanence in excess of disciplinary polemics,” even as it bears on and undoes mediating disciplinary structures of academic discourse, unworking them from within and without (168). Indeed, a characteristic aspect of the book’s general magnanimity—where “great-souled” might be taken in Eckhart’s sense of the impersonal “innermost of the soul”—is the releasement (to use another Eckhartian term) it grants one, or least that it granted me, regarding possible anxieties about having the disciplinary competence to respond to it properly. This in turn also had me thinking about how often disciplinary conventions prevent us from having conversations with people we want to have conversations with.

Introduction: The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event

I’m very excited to launch our next book event, on Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern (Fordham University Press, 2018). We have some fantastic contributions lined up, from Steve Shakespeare, Joseph Albernaz, Timothy Snediker, Beatrice Marovich, Jordan Skinner, Kris Trujillo, Anthony Paul Smith; and finally a response from Alex Dubilet.

Dubilet’s book takes as its central concern the opposition between immanence and transcendence which has, for the past fifty years or so, come to be a concern for a range of disciplines within the humanities. The opposition between immanence and transcendence is often mapped onto the opposition between philosophy – understood by both its critics and its advocates as a discourse of immanence – and theology – taken, by contrast, to be a discourse of transcendence. Against this tendency, Dubilet tracks the theme of immanence and the critique of transcendence from Meister Eckhart to G F W Hegel to Georges Bataille, taking all three to be thinkers of immanence and to lend support to his central contention that, while the distinction between immanence and transcendence is crucial, it cannot be mapped onto the distinction between theology and philosophy.

While kenosis – the self-emptying of the subject and of God – is often taken to be central to the thinking of transcendence, what Dubilet finds in the trajectory leading from Eckhart through Hegel to Bataille is a model of self-emptying which affirms not transcendence but immanence, expressing a form of life without sovereignty, outside the grasp of either the self or of God because it precedes the processes of distinction which bring into being both the self and God. The self does not belong to anyone or anything, not even to itself; it is not subject to anyone or anything, existing not to serve a transcendent cause or purpose, not to be saved or to save others, but freely, without why – to quote Jared Sexton, not everything for everyone, but nothing for no one. The kenotic self-emptying so central to the Christian tradition can be understood not to express our absolute dependence on and subservience to God, but, instead, to affirm absolute renunciation, up to and including the renunciation of the distinction between God and the world, God and the self, the self and the world.

This account of the self-emptying subject is not, for Dubilet, merely an ontological affirmation of immanence but also an ethics and a politics. The self empties itself of subjection, of possession, of sovereignty and of teleology; the ethics of the self-emptying subject is an ethics of uselessness and dispossession, ‘a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on [the subject] in its interaction with transcendence’ (18).

Contributors’ posts will go up over the next couple of weeks, and this page will stay updated with links to new posts.

Steven Shakespeare: A Few Words for the Wretched (Immanence and Impersonal Life)

Joseph Albernaz: Out of Out

Timothy Snediker: Abolish the Place!

Beatrice Marovich: Angels and Flies

Jordan Skinner: Immanent Reading

Anthony Paul Smith: On Shitting, or the ethics of self-emptying

Kris Trujillo: A Feminist Ethics of Self-Emptying?

Knot of the Soul Book Event: Knots

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Thinking amidst the ongoing catastrophe of colonialism’s legacy in Morocco; in homes, hospitals and sacred places riven by trauma; alongside families, doctors and imams seeking if not for healing then for ways to survive, Stefania Pandolfo invokes Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. A central question of Knot of the Soul has to do, she says, ‘with the possibility of reorienting the existential and ethical position of the subject in the world by an act of imagination; of interrupting a habitus of entrapment, resentment, and self- reproach in relation to a history of loss, thereby transforming one’s relation to that history, opening up the possibility of living again— of futures unforeseen.’ I was struck, by the book’s resonances with the work of Sylvia Wynter, whose ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth /Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument’ ends by invoking the same text: ‘The true leap, Fanon wrote at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks, consists in introducing invention into existence. The buck stops with us.’

For Wynter, the central struggle of the contemporary world is between, on the one hand, those who seek to ensure that a particular (white, Western, masculine, property-owning) conception of the human continues to be seen as universal and normative and, on the other hand those who work instead for ‘the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.’ There is a complex interplay in Wynter’s work between, on the one hand, her rejection of modern accounts of the human and, on the other, her affirmation of our need to recognise that human life is what we make it, to take responsibility for our own collective self-fashioning, what Fanon called sociogeny; between, that is, the rejection of modern notions of sovereignty and the affirmation of human responsibility. I want to suggest that Pandolfo’s work is located in the middle of this tension.

Knot of the Soul plays out around two key figures of human life – the figure of jihad, struggle, and the figure of ibtila, ordeal. Jihad signifies struggle against the world and the self in order to transform them. It is both the ongoing grappling with ‘an internal enemy, impossible to eliminate, and in fact also necessary for life’ and also ‘a war against an external enemy’ the fight against the injustice and violence of the world which threatens to violently tear apart social bonds of care and solidarity. Ibtila, ordeal, calls instead for endurance and discernment; the ordeal ‘is not just what falls on us, what breaks our lives and hurls us into bereavement or disablement; it contains an address, the sign of a divine interpellation, even when we don’t understand its meaning.’ To struggle with the world but also to bear it; to resist violence and trauma but also to suffer them.

If the birth of modernity is characterised by the secularisation of theological concepts, including the transfer of characteristics previously attributed to God onto the figure of sovereign (white, wealthy, rational) Man, then the Copernican revolution of which psychoanalysis is a part signifies a second decentring of the world. Not only are human beings not the centre of the universe, Freud teaches us, but we are not even the centre of our own selves. For all that it might seem as though our minds revolve around our conscious intentions, for all that we might envision ourselves as prime movers of our own being, eppur si muove; we are in the hands of unconscious forces, endlessly locked in an ordeal in which we must endure what we is given to us, including our own selves. What does it mean, Pandolfo’s book asks, to struggle for a better world when we cannot control even that which is most intimately our own?

The book is marked by a commitment to kind and careful examination of madness, by an affirmation of Piera Aulagnier’s suggestion that sometimes, often, ‘people said to be crazy in the ordinary sense of the term, show us what it was necessary to do in order to survive’. It is significant, then, that the key moments when Pandolfo struggles to reconcile herself to her interlocutors’ ideas are those where she finds her belief in the crucial importance of revolutionary struggle to be at odds with that of the Imam (a Qur’anic scholar and healer, her most important interlocutor), for whom the Arab Spring is better understood not as faithful jihad, but as a refusal of ibtila. Like ‘people in the West’, too many of those around him ‘want to be the way they themselves want, but life, our life span, is decided by God. They end up clashing with the real … They are hit by reality; and in the end become sick.’ A similar conflict plays out too, in the theological debates Pandolfo describes between Kamal and Jawad, two young Moroccan men, who argue whether the decision to risk one’s life in the attempt to migrate illegally to Europe (l-harg, the burning), is better understood as the struggle for a better life for oneself and one’s family or as a failure of patience and endurance. What is at stake in this disagreement is not, for Kamal and Jawad, merely a question of tactical wisdom. Like the passage to Europe itself, the question of when to act, to struggle against the world, and when to endure, to bear with what is given to us, evokes ‘the sirāṭ, the traverse or narrow bridge over the chasm of Hell; the bridge thinner than a blade or a thread, which will widen up like a highway to let across the saved, or instead shrink like a blade to make the damned fall, pushed down into eternal fire.’

The buck stops with us; and to fully assume this responsibility Wynter says that we must come to sociogeny as a new object of knowledge, to learn how we are formed by the narrative principles which create the worlds we inhabit so that we might re-write them, tell different stories about our selves, introduce invention into existence. What Knot of the Soul suggests is that that task of knowing ourselves is endless; that to be human is to be constantly following the thread which ties our individual self to others, and to our cultural, linguistic and religious heritage. The ‘knot of the soul’ is the name that a mother Pandolfo speaks to gives to ‘a wound … the intertwining of her suffering with that of her son’; because what we are is the ways we have been broken by the world, the ways we struggle against and bear with that brokenness, the ways we inherit and transmit that brokenness. The buck stops with us; yet we are not ourselves but, as Lacan has it, that which is in us more than ourselves, that which is to be struggled against and endured, that which goes by the name of God, or the jinn; that which is nameless and unknown.

Christianity, Race and Colonialism

My other new course this year is a new module I’ve designed entirely from scratch on Christianity, Race and Colonialism, which I’ll be teaching to second and third year undergraduates. I’m really excited and also extremely nervous about it, but currently feeling pretty pleased with the syllabus. I teach alternate week advanced seminars with the third years, so for those sessions we’ll be focusing on more advanced theoretical material and trying to think through how those additional readings relate to the course. I’ve given all the students a relatively open brief for the oral exam at the end of the course and am really excited to see what they come up with. The syllabus runs as follows:

Continue reading “Christianity, Race and Colonialism”