A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:
There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.
Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?
I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?
Continue reading “What is the chief end of man?”
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”
There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.
But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?
The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.
Looking at the primary results this morning, I wasn’t angry or outraged so much as sad. And there was something else in there I had trouble placing — almost a whistfulness or nostalgia, as though I was savoring the memory of that moment when I believed that a moonshot to the leadership of the Evil Empire was a feasible strategy. Ah, to be that young, that hopeful! I wish I could still be that person I was before 6pm yesterday evening! Most affecting, I think, was recalling some of my Twitter commentary, where I had bought into the Sanders narrative that mobilizing the grassroots would outweigh any chicanery on the part of the DNC. Who cares that a bunch of sad losers were lining up behind another sad loser? Who cares that another candidate is splitting the left-wing vote? Who cares that media coverage is one-sided and unhinged? At the end of the day, the people vote. And now Joe Biden is ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Continue reading “What if there’s no hope?”
[Editor’s Note: The following is the second part of a guest post by David Kishik, whose The Book of Shem: On Genesis Before Abraham was recently released by Stanford University Press. Part 1 is available here.]
It is unknown when exactly Genesis was written, but we can say with sufficient certainty that it was, in the eyes of whoever wrote it, a fourth-millennium composition. Put differently, it is a product of the middle of history, or a Wednesday around noon, so to speak. From this perspective, the axis around which history revolves may coincide with the very introduction of the text under consideration, along with the singular God at its center. This three-thousand-year-old midpoint is like the apex of a rainbow: the moment when thinking about the generative beginning of the world gives way to meditations about its idle ending. At this zenith, which is older than Socrates, the world begins its slow decline.
Continue reading “The Rest of the World, pt. 2: Guest Post by David Kishik”
[Editor’s Note: The following is the first part of a guest post by David Kishik, whose The Book of Shem: On Genesis Before Abraham was recently released by Stanford University Press.]
The God of Genesis declares his seventh day of creation holy, not because on that day something magnificent was made, but because nothing was. Hence the Hebrew word for seven (sheva) can also mean satiation or saturation (sova), while the word for Saturday (shabat) can also mean cessation or going on strike (shavat). God’s supreme act is not the creation of humanity, but his own recreation.
It is only in Exodus, after Moses received the Ten Commandments, that the Sabbath was instituted as a temporal temple to stop the linear flow of everyday life. But this weekly commemoration of the coda to the cosmogenic story is never mentioned in Genesis. To simply assume that the seven days of creation reflect the seven days of the week is to ignore another canonical interpretation, one that has been well established by the highest authorities of the Judeo-Christian tradition since early medieval times: millennialism.
According to this theory, one godly day represents a thousand earthly years. Hence all of human history is already encapsulated in the first chapter of Genesis. Everything is already written. Each day of creation is a prefiguration of a distinct millennial epoch. The true Sabbath is therefore not the last weekday but the seventh millennium. What the year 6000 will mark is not exactly the end of the world but the rest of the world, after which some say that it will begin anew.
Continue reading “The Rest of the World, pt. 1: Guest Post by David Kishik”
[Note: This text represents the introduction to a lecture I gave at the University of Copenhagen earlier this month. The remainder of the lecture investigates The Kingdom and the Glory at greater length. I felt that this section can stand alone and may be of broader interest.]
Giorgio Agamben is surely the most theologically erudite living philosopher. While theology has formed an increasingly important site of reflection for contemporary European philosophy—as seen in the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology and the more recent studies of the apostle Paul from a materialist perspective—there is no other single figure who has displayed such an imposing command of the full range of the Christian intellectual heritage, from the New Testament to the great theological debates of the 20th century, from doctrinal treatises to liturgical texts, from the stakes of the doctrine of the Trinity down to the smallest details of a monk’s habit. As a scholar of theology, I often find irritating errors in the works of other philosophers, but never Agamben. There is always room to nitpick—to lament that a certain scholar has not been cited, a certain theme left unexplored—but the quality of his work on Christian theology is unquestionable.
It is not only the depth and breadth of his engagement with Christian themes that sets Agamben apart from his contemporaries. If we compare him with another theologically astute philosopher such as Jean-Luc Marion, we see a clear difference in purpose. Whereas Marion, always a conservative Catholic thinker, has increasingly advanced a confessional theological agenda in his work, Agamben’s purpose has been unrelentingly critical and genealogical. Although he does have normative commitments that lead him to privilege certain figures in the history of Christianity—notably Paul and the early Franciscans—and view later developments as a kind of betrayal, he never advances a doctrine that takes those privileged sources as an authoritative canon. Instead, their successes and failures serve as materials for thinking through our own contemporary dilemmas.
Another way of putting this is that he draws no firm distinction between theological and philosophical materials. Continue reading “Agamben on philosophy and theology”
I have often joked that I would be willing to write a regular opinion column whose sole purpose is to remind people that George W. Bush existed. The Bush years were when I first became politically aware, and I remain deeply scarred by them, and deeply offended by how quickly those horrific events have been forgotten or explained away.
I’m not even thinking of the fact that Bush himself has become a kind of “cute grandpa” in media presentation. It’s less about Bush the man and more about the absolute disaster he unleashed upon the world. He presided over the worst foreign attacks on US soil since Pearl Harbor and the worst financial crises since the Depression. He left a great city to die. He introduced chaos and destruction into a whole region of the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and and global refugee crisis. He undid the tenuous progress toward action on climate change and virtually made climate denialism a pillar of Republican ideology in a way it had never quite been before.
In short, he blighted untold lives and contributed materially to the odds of human extinction. And what is most horrifying, perhaps, is that — for some of us at least, those with a certain level of privilege and security — it was all survivable. Things “went back to normal,” even if the new normal was an institutionalization of Bush’s state of exception. The fact that people can even argue that Trump is worse than Bush is a sign of the deep amnesia of American life. What does Trump want to do that even could be worse than the Iraq War? What does he want to do that is a greater crime against humanity than setting up torture camps all around the world? It is not promising, in this respect, that the one thing that may indeed be worse than a similar action by Bush — his abandonment of Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane — is the thing that has gotten the least attention.
Maybe he will turn out to be worse than Bush, and maybe that will turn out to be — again, for some of us — survivable. But the utter lack of any historical sense among American elites means that settling into a permanently worse condition can feel like “getting back to normal.” We can just keep waiting it out, keep letting the system work, keep on surviving — but mere survival cannot save us from the extinction-level event that is coming, and in many ways has already come.
A lot of times, when governments do horrible things, they can point to some kind of crisis. Maybe there is a war or insurgency going on. Maybe they are in the midst of an economic collapse. Maybe there is a major crime wave underway. In those kinds of circumstances, government officials feel entitled and even obligated to take extreme measures to get things back to normal. Sometimes they use the crisis to do something they wanted to to anyway, as with the Iraq War, but sometimes they are acting out of genuine fear and panic.
What we are seeing at the border today is not like that. The U.S. is in a state of undeclared war around the world, as it almost always is, but there is no substantial foreign threat to the U.S. mainland and no attempt to even claim that there is one. There are still economic problems, most notably wage stagnation, but unemployment is very low, the stock market is still booming, and the Global Financial Crisis is ten years in the rearview window. There is no evidence of an increase in attempted undocumented border crossings, nor of any crime wave associated with undocumented immigrants — just the opposite, in fact, as immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than good old native-born Americans. Nor are we coming off a period of lax enforcement of immigration law, as Obama (shamefully, in my view) stepped up deportations to an extreme degree. And yet here we are, witnessing children, even infants, being torn from their parents for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor.
From any reasonable viewpoint, this policy is completely gratuitous cruelty. Yet from the unreasonable viewpoint of the racists in charge of our federal government there is an emergency underway: the U.S. is in danger of losing its white identity. Continue reading “Whiteness is the crisis”
This week, we discussed the Oresteia in the Shimer capstone course. I have always marvelled at the conceptual daring of the Eumenides, which attempts to depict the transition from a divinely-sanctioned cycle of violence to a system of civil law. What Aeschylus does not foresee, however, is what is happening all around us: the weaponization of the system of civil law for the sake of vengeance, in which the system itself becomes not an alternative to civil war but the terrain of civil war.
In an ideal system of civil law, outcomes are based on persuasion and evidence, with the goal of depersonalizing disputes among citizens. That ideal is only ever approximated in practice, but there is still room to judge whether a given system is doing a better or worse job at any particular time. In our present moment, the American system is not even trying to approximate that ideal. Continue reading “Fantasies of Violence”