Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Continue reading “Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality”

Forsaking Futurity and a Call for Feminist Theologies: A Response to Gender & the Studio, Part Three

Abstract: Rather than delve into the potential theo-logic of a Butlerian “constructivist” account of gender, this blog post proposes that we pause, and instead question the discursive operations undergirding the very idea of “the future of systematic theology.” The effort to secure the existence of systematic theology, I suggest, is idolatrous—rather, systematic theology needs to lose its own life in order to potentially save it, and can begin to move in that direction by attending to the concrete, historic, material, discursive realities of people’s lives, especially those on the underside. This “losing” is both practical and apophatic, in that it acknowledges that the task demands constant attention to the material realities of people’s lives and the discursive regimes that produce those realities, and that we cannot seek to grasp or claim or secure a telos or overarching discourse. I end, then, by turning briefly to the potentialities within a constructivist frame, and offering some suggestions for possibilities for Christian feminist theologies.

  Continue reading “Forsaking Futurity and a Call for Feminist Theologies: A Response to Gender & the Studio, Part Three”

Gender and Theology (and the Theological Academy): A Response to Tony Baker’s ‘Gender and the Studio’- Part One

Part One: The Pink Penis on my Desk (A Lengthy Introduction)

In addition to the random smattering of papers, books, and other odd objects that are strewn across my desk at various points, there are a few items that are consistent adornments—there  are the practical things: the external hard-drive , the file folder, the stapler; and the sentimental things—a stained glass cross I was given upon graduating from div school, a wine cork that reminds me of a particularly happy time in my life, and a bedazzled pink penis.

Often, people don’t comment on the pink penis, probably because they’re embarrassed, or think I’ll be embarrassed. But occasionally, the bold ones will ask,

“Why do you have a pink dildo on your desk?”

I explain to them that, actually, it is not a dildo, but rather, a water gun. When this answer proves unsatisfactory or incomplete, as is often the case, I tell them a version of this story….

Continue reading “Gender and Theology (and the Theological Academy): A Response to Tony Baker’s ‘Gender and the Studio’- Part One”

Grading as performative speech act

In my feminist theology class last year, I had occasion to explain the notion of performative speech acts to them. I used the standard examples: an oath exists simply by virtue of someone swearing an oath, the act of getting married consists of saying “I do” (under the appropriate circumstaces), etc.

And then it occurred to me — their grades are performative speech acts as well. They get the grades they get by virtue of me, the recognized instructor of the course, saying that’s what they get. Continue reading “Grading as performative speech act”

More Violence

Without making this too much of an ad hominem, I often get the impression that theologians and other Christians who loudly proclaim that violence is a necessary evil are much more focused on the “necessary” part than the “evil” part. All the good ends that the “necessary evil” of violence is supposed to serve fade into the background, and the result is essentially an outright defense of violence as such. One begins to detect a fascination with violence, seeing in it a heroism that arises not from the athleticism of war but rather from a certain supra-moral “toughness,” a willingness to “get your hands dirty.”

Such a stance should be unsurprising: Is there anything more distinctively Christian than the fascination with motiveless malignity, the desire to violate the law precisely for the sake of violating the law? When it comes to violence, this Christian nihilism is even more dangerous because violence really is fascinating.

Once in a seminar discussing Butler’s Precarious Life, I said that if a situation arose where I was, say, about to be mugged but somehow managed to get the better of the mugger, I would be tempted to beat the shit out of him — almost glad that he had attacked me, so that I would have a justification. I don’t think I’m a uniquely violent person, but everyone else protested: “No, of course not, I would never have that attitude, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

As I clarified after everyone defended their own peaceful instincts, I was trying to get at the point that it is naive to think that violence can be simply an indifferent “means to an end” — it has its own attraction. What possible meaning would the discipline of nonviolence have if not for this very attraction? If anything, a practitioner of nonviolence should be more conscious of the fascination of violence than an outright advocate of violence is — a practitioner of nonviolence precisely because everything in them wants to be an advocate of violence.

Butlerianism: On Elegant Couples

If one is pressed for time and can only read two books, it is my opinion that one can feel entitled to speak with a certain degree of authority about Judith Butler if one has read only The Psychic Life of Power and Precarious Life. No other combination of two books seem to me to deliver what this combination does — including any possible combinations of which Gender Trouble would be a member, since one would have to “waste” the second book offsetting one’s erroneous impressions of Gender Trouble.

This declaration gives me an idea for a potentially fun passtime that will help generate volume of comments I need to help me get through the remainder of this Butler paper (approx. 10 more pages). For any given author, what two books can one read to grasp the “whole” of the author’s thought in as elegant and economical a manner as possible? Bonus points for combinations that leave out the most obvious choices.

Here’s a stab at Kierkegaard: Repetition and Practice in Christianity.

(A possible drawback of this type of elegant combination: only after reading nearly all of an author’s work can one understand precisely why the elegant combination gives one the “whole.”)