After the Eschaton: The Prince of This World Book Event

Francis Fukuyama was right: we were at the end of history, the ‘happy 90s’ a brief millennarian period before the arrival of judgment day: the global financial crisis. We live now in

a secularized version of the medieval world structure. At the foundation is hell, where bare life is produced and reproduced, while the pinnacle is the global elect, that small minority on whose behalf all the glory is extracted from the damned. In between, there is the aspirational zone of purgatory, where by dint of hard work and sacrifice, we can all make it to heaven assuming we have all of eternity to work off their debt.

The Prince of This World, 202

We have entered, that is, what Will Davies calls the age of ‘punitive neoliberalism’, distinguished by ‘the sense that the moment of judgement has already passed, and questions of value and guilt are no longer open to deliberation’ (‘The New Neoliberalism’). The better angels of political liberalism have fled, leaving us with nothing but the cold heart of the social contract: the insistence that we are free and the intensifying desire to punish us for the uses we have made of that freedom. The world has already ended; can’t you hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth?

In the final chapter of The Prince of This World, Adam argues that we cannot simply escape our entanglement in the demonic logic of modernity by an act of new creation: ‘the fantasy of starting from absolute zero, of creatio ex nihilo, is the fantasy of a pure freedom’ (204) that is impossible. I want to suggest that this problem of freedom in the context of creation is deeply bound up with the problem of freedom as a solution to the problem of theodicy that runs throughout the argument of the book. Although it emerges out of the desire to account for and to resist suffering, it comes, both within the Christian medieval and the contemporary capitalist paradigms, to function as an ‘a trap … as an apparatus for generating blameworthiness’ (199).

As Adam discusses, the basic difficulty for Christian theology in the attempt to account for the fall of Satan, for the entrance of sin into the world, is that there is no way of accounting for this fall, for Satan’s decision to freely reject God. If evil is only negation then there can be no reason to choose it; the fall of Satan must, in the end, be an utterly inexplicable, unjustifiable act. The problem here is that this formal structure of Satan’s fall – an act of decision which cannot be explained by reference to what currently exists but only as a moment of groundless excess – is the same as the formal structure of the problem of creatio ex nihilo, at least in its classical form. Why did God create? Not for any reason or out of any need, but as an inexplicable, unjustifiable, groundless and excessive act which cannot be explained by reference to what existed prior to that act. It is not so much that Satan’s desire to be like God led to his fall but that the fall itself was Satan’s becoming-God. Freedom – understood in this sense as a groundless act emerging from nothing – is itself our original sin, and the most God-like thing about us. At best this means that there is nothing to choose between God and the devil except that God came first; at worst it means that the devil’s sin was not desiring to be more like God but actually becoming more like God. If God became the devil, as Adam suggests, then perhaps this is because the devil is (a face of) God, as Amaryah has argued.

This question of freedom is also, as Adam points out, a question of political ontology. If freedom is necessarily in excess of the world, of any reasons we might have for choosing one thing over another, then just as Christian theology struggled unsuccessfully to explain why the devil might choose what was so obviously not in his best interests, so too are contemporary politics incapable of imagining any reason why people might make choices, of accounting for the ways that our freedom is shaped and constrained by the options and resources available to us. But this dynamic also plays out in many recent conversations about radical politics. As Žižek makes clear, the question ‘how can something emerge out of nothing?’ is at the heart of the problematic of both creation and of fall; but it is also the question curled at the heart of the desire for apocalyptic or revolutionary politics. Žižek’s solution is to fully endorse both freedom and fate, to argue that the end of the (end of the) world is made possible precisely insofar as we freely accept our destiny. It’s a kind of reversal of that old saw: pray as if it all depended on you; act as if it all depended on God.

What Adam’s piece suggests, I think, is that we need to let go of the idea that revolution might arrive out of nowhere, as a miracle. This entails in turn that we must give up on the quest for a position of purity, of absolute newness, as though it is possible to think or desire or act in ways that escape determination by the existing order of things. This issue has become fraught in recent years, and requires careful unpicking, a difficult reckoning with our own entanglements in the systems of demonisation and punishment which Adam so elegantly describes. But there is something crucial, I think, in his argument that the fantasy of transformation as creatio ex nihilo must give way to the acknowledgement that ‘if we are to build an alternative order, we must recognise that we are shaped by that order and that we can only use materials that have been shaped by that order’. What does political engagement look like when there is no absolute outside to the existing order of things, when the Devil is God and we are all his creatures?

Academic writing tips

Approach the page with trepidation. Writing is a miracle of creation ex nihilo; to begin to write is to take a step off a precipice. There may be nothing there to stop your fall.

Procrastinate until you are too tired not to write, until it is easier to write than to defer writing.

Wait until the last minute; let panic be your engine.

Edit as little as possible. What is written is written, fallen from the womb ready to breathe and scream and fend for itself; tinker too much and you will deal only death.

Move to a new place regularly; after a day or two of increased productivity this place too will be steeped in struggle, despair, and suffering. Writing will hang heavy in the air whenever you return. It will weigh you down.

The page is a wall; throw yourself against it until you are bruised and defeated.

Do not give up on your desire.

A periodic reminder about social constructs

The mainstream debate about social constructs shows how deeply engrained individualism is in the American psyche. From an individualist viewpoint, there are two categories that a claim to knowledge can fall into: objective (existing “out there” in the real world) or subjective (all in your head). The concept of a social construct points toward a third option: human creations that are bigger than any individual’s arbitrary decisions.

A good example of this is the English language, which was created over many centuries by millions and millions of people. It is not a fact of nature in the same sense as the diameter of the Earth or the speed of light, but neither is it “all in my head.” It is something that is socially shared, and any changes in it come about not, for instance, because I up and decide to make up a word, but because a critical mass of other people adopt it.

Similarly, the legal code of the United States is not an objective fact in the same sense as the structure of DNA, but that doesn’t mean it’s “all in my head.” I can’t up and decide what is or isn’t legal, and in fact the only way to change the law is by following legal procedures. We might say that in certain exceptional circumstances, a judge decides what the law is — but that decision needs to be accepted by the broader judicial system to have the force of law in more than a temporary sense.

These concepts are incredibly simple. If anyone stopped and thought for a few minutes, they could grasp the meaning of a social construct. Even controversial claims such as “gender is a social construct” would make sense. Every society has had different gender roles, which it enforces in different ways. No one individual gets to decide what those roles are, and even if we concede that identifying someone’s gender is pretty straightforward in 95% of cases, there is still an element of recognition required.

Trans people may seem to be a special case, but they aren’t arbitrarily choosing their gender identity — they are (mostly) claiming that they can’t help but identify with a gender identity that does not match their biological sex, and they seek social recognition of that need (as well as medical treatment to help align their biology with their deeply felt gender identity). No one would make this request lightly, as shown by the scorn, derision, and even disgust that it arouses in many people. If it were possible to arbitrarily choose one’s gender identity, then trans people would have had every incentive to choose the “correct” one. We are dealing with something like an objective fact about the person’s psychological and physiological make-up and how it relates to a social construct — at no point is it a question of an individual just arbitrarily choosing to make something up.

In short, a social construct is social, meaning that it cannot be changed by an arbitrary individual choice. Social constructs can change, but only by social means — whether that is a vague social consensus (as in the inclusion of new words in the English language) or by explicitly codified means (as in legal systems). And the fact that this concept is so hard for most Americans to grasp is in fact evidence of an aggressive social construction of an artificial individualism — which unfortunately, I cannot change by arbitrary fiat, or else I totally would.

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”

To play devil’s advocate for a minute….

The brutal ejection of a paying and duly seated passenger from a United Airlines flight has prompted a flourishing of contrarian hot takes. “Actually,” our clever subversive thinkers opine, “if you’ll let me play devil’s advocate for a minute here, the powerful corporation should get to do whatever the hell it wants and we should obey!” I have long been a critic of contrarianism, whose root “contrary” claim is that the rich and powerful are an oppressed group who need our defense, but I kind of can’t believe that I have never specifically called attention to the role of the devil in their rhetoric.

One of the key themes of The Prince of This World (available wherever fine books are sold) is that the symbol of the devil emerges as a political-theological weapon of the Jewish community under conditions of unspeakable persecution and suffering. The imagery of the demonic allows them to name their oppressive rulers as illegitimate opponents of God’s justice — and to inscribe them into a narrative in which God will ultimately defeat them. Over time, however, as Christians appropriate this symbol and subsequently enter into alliance with the rulers of this world, the polarity becomes reversed and the imagery of the demonic becomes a tool of the oppressor, a way of scapegoating the already weak and victimized.

The service that the contrarian hot take-ist performs is to undo this reversal. The “devil’s advocate” who takes up the cause of the powerful against their victims actually names the illegitimate earthly powers as demonic. The gesture may seem subversive in a modern context, where the devil stands as a rebel against the even more questionable authority of the oppressive Christian God, but for those with eyes to see, it is actually sad and pathetic. Here we can look at Milton’s Paradise Lost, the subject of many contrarian hot takes to the effect that actually, the devil is the hero! Wow, edgy! But if we take the devil as a hero, we wind up rooting for the guy who manipulates two people with the emotional maturity of children into ruining their own lives, out of impotent spite.

If that’s what contrarian cleverness looks like, I’ll stick with boring, flat-footed common sense: the powerful do not need advocates, their victims really are victims, and the only person more pathetic than a bully is the snivelling toady who cheers him on.

Should the U.S. intervene militarily?

The only safe answer is no. Don’t get caught up on the merits. Don’t talk about how the Hitler-of-the-week may be bad, but the chaos we’ll create is even worse. Don’t get on your high horse about how U.S. meddling caused the situation in the first place. All of those paths are traps designed to force you into the terms of debate, which will either constrain you to embrace the war or set you up to look like a naive fool at best or traitor at worst.

I’ve seen this cycle happen again and again and again and again — it has been the story of U.S. foreign policy for literally my entire adult life. Treating the “debate” over the newest war as a sincere debate is always a mistake. It’s not a winnable debate because no one is arguing in good faith. By participating, you volunteer to be their straw man. So just say no, sight unseen. Your only question should be, “Is it a U.S. military intervention abroad?” Not “what strategic interests are at stake” or “what human rights are we supposedly going to be protecting” or even “have you even remotely thought about what to do in the aftermath.” All of those questions give the misleading impression that you are entertaining the possibility, and they inevitably suck you into the vortex where you must oppose the war because you love the oppressive dictator or want women to be silenced or don’t believe in democracy or whatever other stupid shit they have decided to browbeat people with.

The only winning move is not to play. Just say no.

The Philosophy of Complaining

The outraged traveller, the disappointed gourmet, the lazy tweeter, the postoffice grouser: there are as many complainer genres as there are varieties of neurosis or flavors of potato chips. Everyone’s a critic, but what possible theory can unite these diverse types? What could carping and griping, lamenting and whining, tell us about subjectivity itself?

InterCcECT welcomes Aaron Schuster to lead a mini-seminar on the art, science, and pleasure of the complaint. We’ll read selections from his book The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis, and his recent essay “Primal Scream, or Why Do Babies Cry? A Theory of Trump,” along with an excerpt from InterCcECTer Adam Kotsko’s book Awkwardness.

Join us Tuesday 18 April, 4:30-6:30pm at Volumes BookCafe 1474 N Milwaukee Ave (Blue Line: Damen). Coffee, booze, and snacks available amid the great indie book selection.

To request the readings, contact us.

Also on our calendar:

11 April “Designing Infrastructure”
13 April Jared Hickman, “Black Prometheus”
21 April Rodolphe Gasche

As always, get in touch to propose events, and follow us on facebook for frequent links and updates.

Enjoy your prohibition! On Mike Pence’s weird rules

I have taken particular joy in the jokes surrounding Mike Pence’s refusal to eat dinner with a woman other than his wife. This is because I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where such rules were very much in force — to the extent that they didn’t even need to be talked about. In fact, it is only the Pence controversy that made me consciously aware of how pervasive they were, and the experience has been like recognizing a pun for the first time in a phrase you’ve been repeating for decades.

The rule is that every male-female relationship tends toward possession — marriage being the logical endpoint, though dating is supposed to operate by the same logic. (By the way, to the women I dated while I was still processing all this: apologies for the weird possessiveness.) There is a felt pressure to stake a claim (one must “officially” be on record as being attracted to some member of the opposite sex at all times) and any interaction between your possession and another potential rival is a challenge. There is a certain egalitarianism in this, insofar as women are supposed to be just as possessive and suspicious. The ideal order of operations is to get married and then express the ultimate possession through having sex, but if the latter occurs first in an irreversible way (i.e., pregnancy), the order can and must be reversed.

My dad shared with me a tendency to prefer the company of women, and in retrospect I realize that this caused a degree of uncomfortable joking. Everyone realized that he wasn’t a threat, hence joking rather than hostility — but potential friendships were definitely thwarted. People, including family members, even joked around about his relationship with my aunt, i.e., his own wife’s younger sister whom he had known since she was a very young high schooler.

What is the purpose behind such norms and prohibitions? In retrospect, I believe it was actually to incite heterosexual desire. By making hetero-eroticism omnipresent, dangerous, and perpetually endangered, it aimed to introduce a certain drama and intensity to the ostensibly “natural” course of things. The difficulty, of course, is that a form of desire sustained by the danger of transgression is not going to be very functional once the prohibition is lifted — hence the proverbial decline in sex drive among married couples. The network of prohibitions remind you that your possession is never fully secure and hence that your claim must be perpetually renewed, but more importantly, the implication that you will attempt to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work reminds you that you are supposed to have these dangerous desires and must channel them in the appropriate directions. Without the prohibition to lust after another man’s wife, they would forget to lust after their own.

A Question Regarding Agamben

As a student whose research deals prominently with what Gil Anidjar refers to as the ‘Christian question’–the significance of Christianity for the distribution of things like the divide between religion and politics, philosophy and economy, etc.–I’ve found my attention drawn in most of my recent work (including my dissertation research) to materials that are probably best periodized as ‘medieval.’ That means that something that I find myself needing to think and rethink on a regular basis is the relation between two divides: the divide between the secular and the religious, and the divide between the medieval and the modern. As an old post of Adam’s points out, this puts me in the middle of a fairly common set of problems in political theology.

As someone who comes to these questions from (more-or-less) continental philosophy as the closest thing I have to a ‘home’ discipline, this puts me pretty squarely in the neighborhood of Giorgio Agamben. This is probably intensified by the fact that I’m working on medieval debates over categories we’d probably characterize today as economic, and by the fact that for better or worse, The Kingdom and the Glory still seems to be the most well-known take on the genealogy of economy, despite the existence of multiple takes that are at least as compelling. As a result, both for the sake of figuring out what exactly it is I’m doing in my own research and for the sake of a paper idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, I’m trying to think through my relationship to Agamben on the questions of Christianity, ‘secularization,’ and method.

One thing I find interesting in Agamben is that while secularization is a concept that he’s willing to schematize fairly specifically, Christianity isn’t–or at least (and I may be missing a very obvious reference here) he doesn’t seem to. That’s not to say that Agamben isn’t concerned with Christianity; on the contrary, it pops up everywhere in his work, from reflections on monastic life, to reflections on trinitarian debates, even contributing to the ‘turn to Paul’ in continental philosophy. But I can’t think of a place where Agamben reflects on Christianity ‘as such,’ despite a consistent concern with Christian materials.

Right now, I’m playing with a methodological hunch, and what I’d like from you–reader–is to know whether this sounds right or if there’s some reason to think that I’m totally off. I’m increasingly starting to think that it’s at the points in Agamben’s work where he’s most closely concerned with Christian materials that he’s also forced to be concerned with issues of genealogical method. Usually, this takes the form of explicit reflections on Foucault. From what I can tell, Agamben’s most sustained reflections on Foucault tend to appear in his writings between about 2005 and 2008. Extended meditations on Foucauldian concepts and methods appear in Profanations, “What is an Apparatus?,” and The Kingdom and the Glory, and are sustained through The Signature of All Things. All of these texts have in common a sustained attention to Christianity, and to the Christian-secular or medieval-modern divides. Foucault maintains a presence throughout the Homo Sacer series (starting with the first volume in 1995) as a resource for borrowed concepts and concerns. What doesn’t occur until this later period however, (as far as I can tell) is an explicit reflection on the nature of Agamben’s debt to Foucault. It may be, I’m tentatively suggesting, the form of the ‘Christian question’ that provokes Agamben to feel a need to give such an account. Or, more specifically, approaching the question of Christianity means that Agamben is forced to directly confront the relay by means of which ‘Christian’ concepts find their distribution across ‘political,’ ‘theological,’ ‘economic,’ and other ‘domains.’

What do you think, reader?

Debts to Zizek

For some reason, my mind has been drawn over the past few days to what I owe to Zizek, intellectually. I have not kept up with his recent work and have been mostly critical of his political “interventions,” but I think that there are some assumptions that I take from him that inform a great deal of what I am trying to do in my work. None of them require the full Hegelian-Lacanian apparatus to express, and hence I tend not to do that — indeed, some of these things are assumptions that I don’t even necessarily foreground.

  • Every social order is intrinsically incomplete. This is the idea that is variously expressed as the pas-tout (non-all or, as I prefer to translate it, non-whole) or “feminine” logic in Lacanese. I’m not sure I have any basis or need to extend it to the ontological level as Zizek does — though I am intrigued by that idea — but it would certainly apply to any human scientific account.
  • This is because every social order is trying to fix an unfixable problem. This seems to me to be what all the talk of “the Real” is getting at. The reason that social orders fail is that there is no final ground of legitimacy nor any final guarantee of control.
  • Social orders’ attempts to cover over this failure lead to tautology. This is where the Master Signifier comes in — the law is the law, let God be God, sovereign is he who decides on the exception, etc. Every claim to legitimacy is ultimately a tautology, “I am legitimate because I am legitimate.”
  • We get off on ideology. Here we come to the obscene supplement of jouissance, good old objet petit a, and all their friends. The reason ideology “hooks” us is that it gives us permission to enjoy — whether we’re enjoying recognition and a feeling of accomplishment or enjoying the lisence to vent cruelty. Ideology is therefore not just a matter of having wrong ideas or beliefs that can be cleared up through persuasion.