Some Seasonal Thoughts on the Passion of Torture: A Response to Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World

The first response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Bruce Rosenstock, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I’m beginning to write my response to Adam Kotsko’s wonderful new book, The Prince of This World, in the midst of my preparations for Passover, Pesach in Hebrew. It’s one of the strange coincidences of our so-called Judeo-Christian heritage that the Septuagint transliterates Pesach as Pascha, creating a proper name with the accidental appearance of having a root in Greek, found in the verb paschein and the noun pathos, meaning “suffer” (Latin patior -> passio). Although Pesach in Hebrew is derived from the verb pasach, to skip or limp, and has nothing to do with suffering, there is nonetheless a clear thematic connection between the festival of Passover and suffering: the “cry” of the Israelites under the lash of the Egyptian taskmasters reaches God and prompts his redemptive response. pid_23793The Book of Exodus does not represent the suffering of the slaves as a punishment, nor does it seem intended to have an educative purpose. To be sure, the Book of Deuteronomy does enjoin Israel to remember their historic suffering in Egypt when, every Sabbath, Israel releases slaves and animals from their painful burden of forced labor. Prompted by his “knowledge of the soul [nefesh] of the slave,” the Israelite householder was supposed to imitate the redemptive action of God. He was supposed to lift rather than assume the burden of pain. Suffering, in other words, was not thought to be in itself redemptive. Action, not passion, redeems. That, arguably, is the message of Passover. The rabbis mentioned in the Haggadah as spending the whole night recounting the Exodus were, in fact, plotting an action against the Romans, one whose end was to lead to the martyrdom of the most famous member of the that group, Rabbi Akiba. His skin was flayed by iron combs (pectines). This is a point that Adam makes: action and passion reverse redemptive valences when the human body is unmade through the machinery of torture. This is the theme that I want to develop in my comments.

Continue reading “Some Seasonal Thoughts on the Passion of Torture: A Response to Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World”

Engels and Evolution

It is no great insight to point towards Engel’s admiration of Darwin and his desire to place his and Marx’s theory in the vein of scientific advance: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” However, I am curious about how this analogy functions for good ol’ Friedrich. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels outlines how his scientific aspirations (“To make a science of socialism, it had to first be placed upon a real basis”) run up against dialectical materialism’s philosophical precursor: Hegelianism. After recognizing the “great merit” of Hegel and his revival of dialectics, Engels argues that Hegelianism is Darwinian, and vice versa. “Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically.” Nevertheless and as we all know–Hegel’s fatal flaw–he’s an idealist. “To him the thoughts within the brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realised pictures of the “Idea,” existing somewhere from eternity before the world was.” But we, dialectical materialists, know that all past history is the history of class struggles. Bring on the real!

With Marx, we are told, “idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history.” He goes on, “Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes–the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (emphasis mine). History is and always has been driven by class struggle, but Marx showed us that the scientific outcome of this history, the evolutionary leap upon which we (in 1880) are surely upon the precipice, is communism. At this point, with all the talk of inevitability, I’m starting to wonder why I’m spending so much time studying this stuff. Continue reading “Engels and Evolution”

Take me to the multiverse that doesn’t have Donald Trump

This is a guest post by Lisa Gasson-Gardner. Lisa is a PhD student at Drew University. She is writing about revelation, affect, and evangelical politics.

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverI did not watch the August 6th GOP debates (though I cannot get over this video of Trump) but I did do a search for mentions of science, particularly of climate change from the event. What came up was not claims about how God created the world and would not allow climate change to destroy the planet (or about how young the earth is or whatever), but silence. Science reporter Seth Borenstein specifically watched the debates to fact check claims about science. The fruit of his two hours of television watching? Nothing. Rather than outright antagonism against the claims of science, the GOP candidates simply avoided the topic all together. This is, of course, not to say that the individual candidates have not said some insane things about climate change. Here’s Trump saying on Twitter in 2012 that China invented climate change to make US manufacturing “non-competitive.” Trump’s comment is not about religion, but rather about production—about money. Add to this blatantly capitalistic take on climate change the fact that only two of the GOP candidates faced 13,000 evangelical Christians on July 27th at the annual convention of the Southern Baptists in Nashville, TN and it appears that the relationship between certain kinds of evangelical Christianity and the Republican party might be changing. (This is not to say there wasn’t plenty of God-talk during the debate, but see: here and here.)

Two goals of Mary Jane Rubenstein’s book Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse—both having to do with power— are relevant to the shifting relationship between Republican politics, certain kinds of fundamentalist Christianity, and science. My aim here is to draw out the political/ethical layer that is so important to Rubenstein’s work and to think about its implications for contemporary politics. Continue reading “Take me to the multiverse that doesn’t have Donald Trump”

Introduction: Worlds Without End book event by Catherine Keller

This introduction comes from Catherine Keller

Mary Jane Rubenstein’s

Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverThere are many second books that this multigifted philosopher of religion might have written. Why this one? Mary-Jane Rubenstein could have staged another round of the dazzling conversation staged in her first, Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe. With Derrida, Heidegger, Nancy she had probed Western philosophy’s tendency to parlay its initiating wonder into a calculating certainty: that is, to shut down the wonder that provokes philosophy in the first place. She reopens awe—and so philosophy itself: just where it reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary. Just where, tinged with Kierkegaardian fear and trembling, ethics and theology enter the dance. But then why has she escaped the universe of continental philosophy of religion for the physics of the multiverse?

Or has she? For here, the most everyday—the matter of any material world—turns almost unthinkably strange. Speaking of incalculability: our home universe of 15 billion galaxies each with about that many stars is already unheimisch. But now a growing number of astrophysicists postulate an infinite universe—worse, a possible infinity of universes. Rubenstein lays out for us—any of us who might follow An Und Fur Sich, for instance–the multiplicity of these new theories, and at the same time, because she is a nosy philosopher, an entire genealogy of multiverse theories that includes atomists, stoics, Aquinas, Cusa, Bruno, Kant…

If it is the wondrous weirdness and the irreducible multiplicity that had attracted her—cosmic support for the boundless pluralism and the ethical indeterminism wanted now, wanted philosophically—she delivers it. Continue reading “Introduction: Worlds Without End book event by Catherine Keller”

The Caliphate and Its Poetic Possibilities – Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

This is a guest post from Asma Afsaruddin, Chair and Professor, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington.

With the term “caliphate” being bandied around so much lately, often in a negative vein, S. Sayyid’s thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of what this term has come to signify for contemporary Muslims is to be welcomed.  As he eloquently phrases it, “The caliphate is in a state of suspension between the ideal ethical state represented by the Medina polity and the various Kemalist states in which the historical sequence that began with the revelations to the Messenger of God is ruptured. The strategy for recalling the caliphate cannot have the character of a blueprint, but rather of poetic possibilities, which inspires and reorients Muslims to the practical task of protecting the ummah and projecting it into the future”.   Recalling the caliphate, he states further, is ultimately a political project that strives to decolonize the umma.

I am intrigued by Sayyid’s reference to “poetic possibilities” in contemporary Muslim reimaginations of the historic, idealized caliphate of the early period, specifically that of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs as they are named by the majority of Muslims who are Sunni. The Shi‘a idealize the reign of the fourth caliph only – ‘Ali b. Abi Talib – but basically for the same reasons that Sunnis revere all four. The author is right to emphasize that this recalling of the caliphate is not a call for a restoration of the institution itself and certainly not of that historical era — for in this poignant recollection is embedded the memory of “something less than perfect.” So if it is not the institution itself nor the period that is the goal of these collective reimaginings, then what is it? Here we are invited to dwell on what the range of poetic possibilities of such a project might be.

Certainly the modern nostalgia for the caliphate is tied up with the desire to create “a space in the world for the ummah,” that would allow for the prospect of reorganizing the current global political order. Yet this description still does not cut to the core –at least for me — of this intense nostalgia for the caliphate among some. The present global order is indeed enormously dissatisfying, and the caliphate does become a metaphor for Muslim struggles “to reorder the postcolonial world.” But this characterization still does not capture, as I see it, the primary reason for this deep-seated dissatisfaction. It is a dissatisfaction, which I would emphasize, has to do with contemporary global systemic injustices and Muslim aspirations to uproot them and replace a fundamentally unethical system with something much better. Sayyid does not articulate this desideratum explicitly, although it can be teased out from much of what he has to say on this subject. Justice and its realization, is after all the common leitmotif of all Muslim reformist enterprises today, as it has been in the past.

The umma – the transnational Muslim community — is the locus of this desired justice. The caliphate in its pristine conception was meant to ensure justice and law and order for all who lived within its geographical purview: Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The period of the first four caliphs is idealized particularly because in the umma’s collective memory, these successors to the Prophet attempted in good faith to deliver justice to their people. These rulers, who were the first among equals, were understood to be in possession of great moral excellence on account of which they had gained precedence in their community, not on account of wealth or blood-kinship. They promoted egalitarianism in their time and sought the consent and consensus of the people they ruled over through consultative processes. And, most importantly, they held themselves accountable to the people and, as Abu Bakr (the first caliph) is reported to have proclaimed, were liable to be removed from political office if they became despotic, unjust, and/or corrupt.  There is no denying it – the early caliphate is remembered as being democratic in its tendencies and challenges the Orientalist grand political narrative focused on the simplistic dichotomy distilled in the statement: “Democracy is Western and despotism is Oriental,” as pointed out by Sayyid. Just, democratic, and egalitarian – excellent attributes for any polity, especially one that wants to be remembered by posterity as having ushered in a golden era.   Certainly the golden era was imperfect as all golden eras ultimately are; it was witness to civil war, political assassinations, and rebellions. But the Rightly-Guided Caliphs are remembered for having risen above the fray with their personal integrity and devotion to the highest ideals within Islam drawn from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s lived example, even under the most trying circumstances.

The Arabic term shura – meaning consultation — came to encapsulate all that was right with the Rightly-Guided Caliphate, despite the vicissitudes of the era. The caliphate was not a divinely-mandated institution; there is no reference in the Qur’an to any kind of political entity that Muslims are duty-bound to establish. It was a pragmatic arrangement arrived at by the early Muslims through consultation with one another and represents one of the earliest and most significant practical enactments of the Qur’anic principle of shura in the post-prophetic period. When Muslims today conjure up the term caliphate, for the most part they are paying homage to the values enshrined in this concept, not necessarily to the institution itself. The caliphate becomes a synecdoche for righteous and just governance in any era and in any place.

This fundamental fact is lost upon people like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the imposter caliph) and his ilk in Iraq today, who believe that the mere evocation of the term caliphate will cause Muslims everywhere to rally around his cause. But as Sayyid reminds us forcefully — it is the ethics, stupid! The author’s emphasis on this critical point is worthy of notice; ethics, he says, “describes the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be” and seeks to be true to the spirit of the law, not its letter. A caliphate devoid of ethics and the principles it must seek to uphold is a moral outrage; when murder, mayhem and oppression are carried out in its name, it represents a gross travesty, as is the current situation with ISIS. There is no genealogy of ethics between al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate of the twenty-first century and the Rightly-Guided Caliphate of the seventh century. This is a critical point that is lost on Graeme Wood and other gullible political commentators who would reduce Islam to mere political and legal shibboleths denuded of moral content, much like ISIS does.

Although Sayyid and I are on agreement on these larger issues, I must disagree with him however regarding his characterization of the umma as a diaspora. I would argue instead that the transnational concept of the umma allows Muslims to feel at home wherever they may be and wherever they are free to be Muslims – veritable global citizens of our time. If by the very notion of the umma Muslims are not bound to a nation-state as such, they are perforce called upon to realize their Muslimness wherever they are and rise above parochial nation- or region-bound designations. Some pre-modern jurists, like al-Mawardi in the eleventh century, were already able to articulate this when they conceived of an expansive Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) as the physical manifestation of the metaphorical umma. In this capacious conception, the Dar al-Islam was wherever Muslims could practice their faith safely and openly, regardless of whether such a realm was ruled by a Muslim ruler or not. The bottom line is that a just world order is what ensures the well-being of Muslims and of people of other faiths and no faith. “Caliphate” is what some Muslims today choose to name this elusive but highly desirable just world order.

Sayyid in the SCTIW

Our event on S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate is kicking off on Friday and readers interested in an appetizer can find his review of Cotton, Climate, and Camels over at SCTIW. A small sample:

The same conflict between ideology and knowledge can be seen in the so-called culture wars in US academies. The significance of these campus culture wars is more than just an account of a bloodless game of thrones that characterizes academic careers (who is promoted, who has been tenured, who blocked who, etc.), for the battle lines are drawn between those who want to promote the idea of a self-contained Western canon and those who want to decolonize it. Those who want to imagine something that transcends the Western order of things are very often admonished not to worry about the color of cats but to focus on catching mice. In other words, an “ideological” critique is invalid and the academic should undertake research and teaching that adheres to the old verities and virtues of academia, that is, disinterested pure knowledge easily accessible and unencumbered by obtuse postcolonial or postmodern thought, the assumption being that academic knowledge, done properly, would be an uninterrupted tale of a world that goes from Plato-to-NATO.

Find the rest here, and tune in this Friday for more disruption of the Plato-to-NATO pipeline.