The Rest of the World, pt. 1: 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”

Agamben on philosophy and theology

[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”

Our post-apocalyptic condition

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.

Whiteness is the crisis

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”

Fantasies of Violence

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”

A theological reflection on the Obamacare repeal vote

Today, I hope there is a hell. If such a place has a use, it is to house people who celebrate with a cold beer after voting to endanger the lives of millions to enrich the already wealthy. These people should be trembling in fear before the justice and wrath of God. But since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.

How will we know it’s over?

The Trump budget proposal is a nightmare — petty and vindictive, short-sighted and cruel. Inexpensive programs that literally save lives are being cut, apparently out of sheer spite. Surely, we are in the terminal phases of what I once called the society of go fuck yourself. Why do we need a travel ban? Why do we need to turn away refugees? The official reason is that they may pose a threat, but surely the real reason is that they are not our problem, so they can go fuck themselves. Similarly, why do we need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? Supposedly they’re stealing our jobs, leeching off our public services, and committing crimes. But come on: the real reason is that we don’t owe them anything and they can go fuck themselves.

All of these programs will thwart human potential at best and kill people at worst. Any idiot can draw those consequences, and my personal experience “interacting” with them has taught me that the license for cruelty is part of the libidinal charge of Trumpism for the most hardened followers. They will follow him to their death if he lets them hurt the people they hate along the way. The amount of pent up resentment and ugliness he has brought out into the open has already been more corrosive to our frayed social fabric than we can fully grasp.

But I still find myself holding out a small sliver of hope. Namely, I hope they don’t start publicly saying that the poor, elderly, and disabled should just die if they can’t fend for themselves. That is the logical implication of everything they’re doing. The most charitable spin is that they don’t want those people to die, but don’t actually care if they do. That’s where we objectively are as a nation, under the leadership of a cruel and vindictive man who has never let anyone trick him into doing anything kind or beneficial in his entire sick parody of a human life.

If they say it, though, that’s the end. Yes, people will recoil in outrage. Republicans who are only 95% right wing instead of 300% will distance themselves. Elzabeth Warren will get some good tweets out of it. But it’s a funny thing: once it appears on the CNN scroll, it’s a part of the public debate. It’s one position among others for the talking heads to debate. A society in which “the poor should just die” is one position among others — even if it’s an unpopular position that people argue passionately against! — is no longer a society. It’s a death camp waiting to happen.

On the coming apocalypse

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Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us. Continue reading “On the coming apocalypse”

The Electoral College will kill us all

I remember back the last time the Electoral College delivered us an incompetent overreaching fool — one of our watchwords in those years was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And so, on November 9, Obama should have said, “We all know the Electoral College is nonsense, and so I am going to begin the transition process with President-Elect Clinton.” I’d rather the bit about the Electoral College be a dead letter than the emoluments clause, for example.

Is it a dangerous precedent? Not as dangerous as the precedent that the person who loses the election takes office and we all act like it’s God’s fucking will.