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.

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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.

Who decides?!

In my previous post, I advocate excluding harmful ideas (my example is white supremacy, but I would include Holocaust denial, climate change denial, and others) from the public sphere. Whenever this kind of suggestion comes up, it is inevitable that someone will ask, “Who decides?!” This comment is not meant to open up a discussion along the lines of “Well, maybe we could form a committee, etc.” No, it’s meant to shut down the discussion altogether, because presumably the idea of some particular human agent being in charge of such decisions is utterly intolerable. No one, no one could possibly be trusted with such power!

This response is, to put it simply, stupid. In reality, all the institutions we could classify as the public sphere — the media, universities, etc. — are run by particular human beings who make decisions about what to publicize and what to exclude. So when I suggest that Charles Murray should be excluded from the public sphere, I mean that universities should not invite him to speak, respectable publications should not include or discuss his work, publishers should not offer him a book contract, etc.

None of this constitutes oppression. No one has a “right” to speak at Middlebury College, or be published in the New Yorker, or get a book contract from Simon & Schuster. When Milo’s book contract was revoked, a lot of people were wringing their hands, because if the publisher could revoke his contract, they could revoke anyone’s! And a chorus of non-idiots pointed out that we already live in a world where that can happen. That’s just what it means to have a publisher — they make decisions about what to publish.

And none of this requires any kind of legal or political intervention in violation of the First Amendment. All it requires is for universities, editors, and publishers to take their responsibilities as custodians of the public sphere seriously. In the case of Middlebury College, the administration served its responsibilities poorly by allowing Charles Murray to be invited. The students — who are also a part of the university, with a personal, reputational, and financial stake in its integrity as an institution — did everything they could to correct the administration’s error, and they are to be commended.

Is student activism a sustainable way to make such decisions in the long run? Probably not — and that’s why administrations need to wake up and stop making stupid, irresponsible mistakes in lending the university’s legitimacy to people. The best of all possible outcomes would have been for student protest to be unnecessary, because he wasn’t invited in the first place.

The Genius of C.L.R. James: A Small Example

Having just finished teaching The Black Jacobins, I wanted to pay tribute to C.L.R. James’s genius by pointing to one short passage — namely, the first two sentences of the fourth chapter of that book:

The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement.

In the space of a few lines, he demolishes the traditional Marxist view of slavery as some kind of pre-modern holdover, as well as the privileging of the industrial proletariat in the narrow sense. The plantations were already factories in the relevant sense, and far from representing an antiquated anachronism, the slaves in San Domingo were the most advanced by far of any group of workers in the world — making them the natural agent of revolution. And a few lines later, there comes the kicker: “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” Far from being a primitive superstition or a necessary opiate, the syncretistic religion improvised by the slave population was an integral part of their revolutionary movement.

This all happens elegantly and organically, without picking theoretical fights or dropping footnotes. James presents his major theoretical innovations as though they are the most obvious thing in the world.

A defense of the classroom

Miya Tokumitsu’s Jacobin article on lecture pedagogy is something of a mess. It does argue that lectures at their best can be engaging and community-building, but almost everything it is saying could be recouched as a defense of in-person learning and, more generally, of the traditional regime of college education (non-flexible courses, etc.). Indeed, there’s a fundamental incoherence here insofar as many active-learning methods, most notably discussion seminars, require greater routine attendance — your roommates can share their lecture notes, but they can’t bring up your points in discussion for you.

The submerged point of Tokumitsu’s argument is how neoliberalism undermines the traditional regime of university coursework in an insidiously self-reinforcing way: first it requires students to take on an unreasonable burden of wage labor during school, then it uses this very self-imposed necessity to justify more “flexible” learning methods. And I have to say, the method is effective, even at the resolutely traditional Shimer College — students there do have to work way too much, and even they have sometimes asked for more flexible formats such as online learning.

The real problem is forcing students to “work their way through college,” when college is already hard work in and of itself. The world can make do with fewer baristas and waiters while the next generation takes full advantage of the education that we are constantly told is absolutely crucial to personal and national success. It seems to me that a left-wing publication should probably find a way to make that point clearly and directly instead of obscuring the point with a frankly click-baity “contrarian” framing.