The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: A Few Words for the Wretched (Immanence and Impersonal Life)

It is good to read a philosopher praising joy. Not the joy of subservience, gratitude and self-sacrifice; nor the pleasures of being the entrepreneur and curator of one’s own branded life. But a joy impersonal and common, liberated from instrumentalism, teleology and transcendent goals.
Reading The Self-Emptying Subject is an exercise in abandonment. It is – gloriously – a useless book. Its careful scholarship belies an intensity, a refusal to allow life to be co-opted and put to work in the service of some distant end.
I admit it: I am a little in love with this book. Not least its portrayal of Eckhart, who finds in Christian theology the material to experiment with the divine and speculatively affirm the immanence of life beyond the tragedies of the interpellated subject. Dubilet discovers an immanence which undermines the ethics of alterity and those of self-cultivation; an immanence which outstrips the mutual recriminations and positioning of the theological and the secular. Why be so mean, so confined in your darkened ego with its altars of bone? Why create yourself in the image of what you lack? You are uncreated, infinite life. A life without ‘a ‘you’ to care, or care for.
In a word: joy.
But is there a word to spare? A word for the wretched of the earth as wretched?
What I mean is: what is left in infinite, impersonal joy of the singular selves, of the indelible marks of their passage through the world? Or the violence of a passage they are made to undergo? What is left of their kinship and their touching – however constructed, however compromised? Is it more blessed to forget, to let go, to release . . . or is there a time and theory of stubborn resistance?
In her In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe writes of ‘wake work’. In the wake of slavery’s violent creation of race, in the wake of violence continuing to be visited on black communities, in the wakes of slave ships and those which mark a passage to death: what needs to be thought, held, remembered, noted, archived? Out of the violent constructions of black subjectivity, the ongoing imminence and immanence of black death, Sharpe affirms that antiblackness is not a ‘total climate’, that ‘We are not only known to ourselves and each other by that force’.
I am asking about the force of that ‘We’ – a ‘We’ woven out of battered threads of a specific history into a singular resistance and endurance (one which I cannot co-opt). Does it have a word to say in the uncreated and impersonal life of joy?
This is not intended as criticism, because I know that Alex is deeply engaged with these voices and currents of thought. In terms of The Self-Emptying Subject I think it has to do with his account of that dynamic immanence, in which the cause remains in the effect, rather than stationed hierarchically above it. This immanence is arguably that in virtue of which Sharpe can say ‘We are not only known to ourselves and each other by that force’, since it precedes and exceeds every act of subjection.
But Alex also affirms that immanence is itself affected by the effect, and so presumably by its specific expression in singular lives and events. How is this? How does immanence register such a passage, such a wake, without seeing it disperse into nothing? We know the whiteness of hate would like nothing better than to dissolve ‘identities’ (except its own). How do we honour the experience and wretchedness which has shaped us – (and there is more than one ‘us’) – without making a fetish of subjection? What is the immanent politics of memory? Is a non-instrumental identity possible in a life ‘without why’?
Thanks to this book, I appreciate more deeply and joyfully how immanent, uncreated life undoes the self whose sinews are resentment and debasement. There is an echo of this protest voiced in the Corpus Hermeticum: ‘But if thou lockest up thy soul within thy body, and dost debase it, saying: I nothing know; I nothing can; I fear the sea; I cannot scale the sky; I know not who I was, who I shall be;—what is there [then] between [thy] God and thee?’. Get rid of the prison you have created: between ‘thy God and thee’, the text affirms, there is truly only indistinction and equality.
What Alex’s book has also made me wonder is: beyond the debased body, within this life in common, can immanence still cradle a flesh which bears the marks of its own gravity and history?

Reframing Continental Philosophy of Religion: New Book Series Call for Proposals

Many AUFS readers will already be aware of this new book series, which I am co-editing alongside Duane Williams. We’re keen to get new proposals for it, and would encourage anyone interested to get in touch with us.

The series is being published with Rowman and Littlefield. You can get a sense of our vision for it from this post on Rowman’s blog and there is information on how to submit a proposal here. I’m also reproducing part of the series description below:

‘This series provides a home for emerging work in continental philosophy of religion. A particular focus is on those developments which challenge or extend the boundaries of the traditional Western canon of philosophy of religion. This means including and engaging with black, non-Western, and/or non-Christian voices, as well as offering heretical/alternative readings of canonical figures and themes.

The co-ordinates of much Western philosophy of religion have been set by an analysis of the existence and attributes of God, framed by analogical (and ultimately Christocentric) modes of relating the creature and the created, the immanent and the transcendent. This series promotes work which recasts or discards these theological co-ordinates and seeks to bring something new to birth.

Allied to this, the series also seeks to host interventions in continental philosophy of religion, which question its trajectory and offer new alternatives. The field grows out of Heidegger’s critique of ontotheology, but it remains closely tied to the themes and problems of the Christian and Jewish traditions (as evidenced by the use of theological motifs by Derrida, Levinas and so on). Without rejecting the ongoing fertility of these issues, the series seeks out work which offers constructive alternatives.

Work published in ‘Reframing’ will be aware of the contested power relationships which have defined the projects and foundations of philosophical thought, and will problematize the way the legacy of Western imperialism, orientalism and Islamophobia has disfigured thinking in this area. The series will therefore encourage submissions which bring continental philosophy of religion into fruitful dialogue with areas including postcolonial theory; Islamic studies; creative reimaginings of Western traditions, including the neglected, heretical and esoteric; religious forms of thought deriving from Asia and Africa; and critical studies of power, race, gender and sexuality. It will aim to publish new voices, and actively promote work by women and people of colour. In this way, the series will aim to challenge, intervene in and reshape both the theoretical and practical dimensions of the field.

In this way, the series will subvert the ‘continental’ in continental philosophy of religion. That tradition, its thematics and critical edge, remains a fertile matrix within which the concepts of religion can be thoroughly questioned and deconstructed. At the same time, it remains tied to a particular European trajectory. In retaining a link to the continental philosophical field, the series will not simply subject ‘other’ discourses to a Eurocentric philosophical gaze, but will aim to allow different discourses to interact and mutate one another on a mutual basis.

‘Reframing’ is open not only to traditional high quality monographs, but also to works which experiment with form without sacrificing rigour. For example, work which offered dialogues, or a combination of academic reflection and more creative writing, would be seriously considered, along with edited volumes which marked a significant shift in the area.’

Descartes: Epistemology as Theodicy

I am probably stating the entirely obvious, but taking a class on Descartes’ Meditations this year, it struck me for the first time how closely his epistemology is linked to a theodicy.

It is well known that God plays a significant role in the structure of the work. It is the proof for God’s existence in the third meditation which establishes the possibility of moving from the certain perception of one’s own existence to any confidence that the external, material world exists. Crucial to the argument is that the idea of God is the idea of a perfect being. By establishing that ideas possess a kind of reality which demands a causal explanation, and that a finite imperfect being cannot be the cause of an idea of perfection, Descartes builds his escape route from the cogito to an external reality.

However, as soon as the proof is given, we are presented with a new problem. If God is, in reality, perfect, why has he created a being like me who is obviously imperfect and prone to error? Descartes argues that, while my will and capacity for judgement is unlimited (like God’s), able to range over any object, my intellect is finite. Problems arise when I make judgements which surpass the reach of my intellect. Confine myself to what I can know clearly and distinctly, and I will not go wrong.

The problem facing Descartes is that he must maintain two things at once. On the one hand, he must present us with a clear and distinct idea of a perfect being, an idea we know to be that of perfection. On the other, he must maintain the limitation of the intellect, or his theodicy falls to the ground, and with it God’s perfection.

So we read that we do not need direct knowledge of actual perfections, but knowledge of attributes which imply a perfection; that it is not surprising that I do not understand how God acts; that perhaps there is a bigger picture in terms of which everything can be justified, but I don’t have access to it. Repeatedly, we are told that we cannot complain, that perhaps the answer is out there. Evil is a privation, not something God has made. And so on. At this absolutely crucial fulcrum of the argument, everything becomes clouded in an Augustinian fog.

It is striking, then, that at the heart of the radical, rationalist foundation of modern epistemology is a theodicy which demands a theological humiliation of knowledge. And I wonder if there is something haunting the continuing theological and forensic power of the language of ‘justification’ which has played such a key role in epistemology since then. It demands a kind of compliance with ‘what there is’. Our knowledge is guilty until we reach a point where it is justified by an external factor: and then, we have surrendered the right to complain.

Neoliberalism and the British Left: Hardworking, Aspirational, Racist.

Those outside the UK probably have better things to do than follow the current contest for the leadership of the Labour Party. However, it is potentially revealing of issues facing left politics in developed countries more broadly.

The UK general election in May was widely expected to result in a hung parliament. Instead, it ended in an outright Tory victory (albeit on a minority of the votes). Labour’s leader resigned and the process of electing a new one was set in motion.

Of the five candidates, one, Jeremy Corbyn, is a veteran of the left wing of the party. He is offering an anti-austerity platform and has zero chance of being elected. The other four are supposedly distinguished by varying degrees of loyalty to tribal markers of Labour identity, but offer a remarkably similar core narrative. It is a narrative which revolves around the themes of work, wealth creation, aspiration and race.

It was reported that Liz Kendall, most clearly identified with the right of the party, ‘praised one primary school for having an “aspirations week”, saying such programmes were needed to “teach girls and boys, particularly from white working class communities, about the chances in life they may not even know exist – like being an engineer, a chemist and even leader of the Labour party.”’ In another speech, she said ‘I want to lead a Labour party that’s genuinely as passionate about wealth creation as we are about wealth distribution.’

The centrist Yvette Cooper weighed in with this: ‘People should be working if they can. I’ve always worked long hours and always believed it was right to work hard and support your family. But I did have 12 months 20 years ago when I was too ill to work. I hated it and was desperate to get back to work, but I couldn’t. And I had to claim sickness benefit and housing benefit to pay the bills and the rent. So I will always support strong rules on contribution, on expecting people to work, including compulsory jobs. But I will never slag off people who are on benefits because they can’t work as ‘workshy’ or ‘scroungers’. That’s what Tories do. Not Labour.’ She also stated that ‘Our rhetoric can’t be set against the wealth creators and drivers of our future economic growth. We can’t be set against business, and too many believed we were.’

Finally, the front-running candidate Andy Burnham, considered the most left wing of those with a chance of winning, gave a speech to businesspeople, in which he said that Labour lost the election because the party ‘got it wrong on business … we simply didn’t say enough that we value what you do: creating jobs and wealth. We didn’t celebrate the spirit of enterprise.’ He stated that ‘The Labour Party I lead will be once again truly the “Party of work” — where, if people are prepared to put in the hard graft, their accent or background must never hold them back,’ whilst also arguing that ‘We need a package of changes so that there is no entitlement to benefits [for immigrants] for at least two years . . . freedom to work is not the same as freedom to claim. And I think that is where the commonsense view of most British people is.’

These candidates – supposedly drawn from across the political spectrum of the party from right to ‘soft’ left – are symptomatic of the homogenisation of mainstream politics. Their statements neatly distil into a celebration of the inherent value of ‘hard work,’ the self-validating feeling of ‘aspiration,’ the magic of ‘wealth creation’ and the racialization of identity.

Together, I suggest, these themes constitute a new spirituality of the neoliberal left. With the evacuation of class as a marker of identity in anything except cultural terms, the traditional parties of the left are caught between a valorisation of labour for its own sake (the harder the better) and a vacuous hope for betterment – a hope which, insofar as it is meant to be for ‘everyone’ is inevitably self-defeating. The very system which produces this abstract universal hope engineers out the possibility of its fulfilment, since we must rely for its possibility on the mystified process of wealth creation carried out on our behalf by a few heroic entrepreneurs – a kind of vicarious alchemy. Living in the strain of this impossible desire produces anxiety, an anxiety that can be displaced or mollified by a racialized discourse of pride in some rooted identity, by the opposition of a ‘British’ common sense to foreign parasites. Explicit and implicit appeals to race play a vital affective part, therefore, in rationalising and sustaining the ‘social’ and ‘universal’ aspects of the most visible left project as it has evolved in Britain.

If this is anywhere near the mark, then the response cannot be to replace affect with rationality or the parochial with the  universal, since the second term in each of these binaries is as implicated in this dynamic as the others. No baseline, simple, self-transparent (colourless) subject is available to us. The left still has a lot of learning to do from those whose black, Muslim, refugee, disabled bodies are deemed necessary sacrifices by the aspirations of the Party of Work.

Political Theology CFP Reminder

A reminder that the call for papers for The Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion’s conference ‘Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular’ closes at the end of February. The conference takes place at Liverpool Hope University, UK, from July 10-12. Keynotes are Saba Mahmood, Catherine Keller, Katharine Sarah Moody and Richard Seymour.

More information at http://www.hope.ac.uk/acpr under the ‘Events’ tab.

Radical Orthodoxy’s Cure for Misogyny

Call me nostalgic, but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of Radical Orthodoxy.

I’ve recently been writing on the controversy between John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ (my specific interest is how they disagree about the importance of Kierkegaard and the nature of paradox). In the process of reading the book again, I was stopped short by Milbank’s accusation that that Žižek ‘favors essentially gnostic thinkers (Boehme, Hegel and Schelling) for whom birth implies alienation and the involvement of evil, thinkers for whom birth must be painful, through ontological necessity and not mere ontological lapse. But it is just such metaphysical misogyny which Catholic orthodoxy alone has always challenged’ (194; my emphasis).

The implication is clear: Milbank accepts the literal sense of Genesis 3, in which childbirth is only painful because of the Fall. Originally, ‘in the (unreachable and untraceable) prelapsarian golden age . . . in which human beings took full part’ (171) there was no such pain. For Milbank, to argue otherwise is to give in to ‘metaphysical misogyny’, to present an ontology in which pain during childbirth is fixed in the nature of things.

This is a fascinating exercise in contemporary Catholic apologetics. It outbids feminism by claiming a higher form of feminism. In this ‘higher form’, all trauma and pain can only be seen as alien, and ultimately empty, intrusions of irrational evil. Ontologically, the only reality is a peaceful and harmonious one, in which women have babies without murmur. To suggest otherwise is to inscribe ‘hatred’ of women into the nature of things.

This is bizarre on a number of levels. First, it depends upon the pure fantasy of an Arcadian golden age, which stands in wilful denial of human evolution. Secondly, it attributes pain in childbirth to an ‘ontological lapse’ – to sin, basically. Rescuing us from the supposed spectre of a woman-hating pagan nature, it delivers us into the comforting thought that ‘if it hurts, it’s your own fault really’.

Finally, it ties in with a general orientation of this kind of thinking: secular feminism, it asserts, is predicated on the war of the sexes, upon the need to fight a positive evil. The radically orthodox feminist, by contrast, sees salvation in recalling the world back to a proper, harmonious ordering of things. In other words, this ‘higher’ feminism denounces fighting feminism as a symptom of the problem it seeks to cure, one which further fragments and traumatises the world. This is the line of Sarah Palin: secular feminism turns women into whining victims.The only alternative, then, is to remain within the hierarchical structures of family and church and to reorient them to their proper calling. A woman’s salvation can only lie in and through a restored patriarchal order. And, if we look beyond childbirth to issues of domestic violence and rape, we might wonder how this differs from the recommendation that an abused woman sticks with the abusive partner in the hope of redemption. The logical extension of this perspective is that the solution to women being made to feel like victims is to deny the process of victimisation exists. If you say rape is a reality, you are ontologising rape, and you are therefore a misogynist!

I am not attributing this kind of absurdity to Milbank. However, the logical structure of it is not far from what he actually says about childbirth. And I am tempted to see in this not merely an unfortunate symptom of contemporary conservative apologetics, but its constitutive core. Peace is proclaimed, but only via the myth of the pure, Edenic virginal mother who never was; the finite material world is celebrated, but only by dematerialising the female body; creation is liberated and healed, but only in and through women who keep their place – in silence.

‘Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?’

In March of this year an email was sent to Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London. It was written by Martin Wilkins, his line manager. In the email, Wilkins states ‘I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.’ Wilkins goes on to say ‘Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI . . . Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance’.

Grimm’s track record is impressive. He has a string of grants to his name, including one for £135,000, and over seventy publications.

Not enough, it seems, for Imperial.

Stefan Grimm was found dead in September this year. An inquest into his death is ongoing.

In an email which he asked to be circulated prior to his death, Grimm states ‘Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.’ He adds ‘What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine’.

Imperial College are conducting a review of their procedures to see if ‘wider lessons’ can be learnt. But there is no need for a review. There are no new lessons to learn. If you turn universities into businesses, you have recruited a highly motivated labour force, who have internalised all sorts of models of self-sacrifice and self-blame. And eventually, you will grind people down. We all know this. As Kate Bowles writes over on Music For Deckchairs:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

No internal review of bullshit HR procedures will tell us anything. Because the whole HR game is based on the premise that, as Catherine Malabou puts it, ‘anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear’.

What can we do? There is no short answer, which bypasses the need to organise, to build solidarity across and beyond academia, and to raise our own consciousness of what we have become. To find ways to refuse to play the game. To stop being ‘on’ all the time. To support each other to live and think proudly.

Otherwise, the last line of Grimm’s final email will be our only epitaph: ‘One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.’