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In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about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’.

Special issue of Angelaki: ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’

You might be interested to know of a special issue of Angelaki just published entitled ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’. Co-edited by Patrice Haynes and Charlie Blake, it comprises papers from, and inspired by the theme of, the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion‘s 2009 conference ‘Towards a Philosophy of Life’.

The issue includes work by AUFS regulars Anthony Paul Smith [the first 50 of you can download my article for free using this token, but please only use if you don’t have library access – APS] and Joshua Ramey, plus a host of others, many of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog: John Ó Maoilearca, Jim Urpeth, Colby Heath Dickinson, Frank Ruda, Michael Burns [again, first 50 of you can download this using this token – APS], Alastair Morgan, Patrice Haynes and Benjamin Noys.

Immanence and Hadewijch

Readers might be interested in a series of posts being written by David Driedger, who is of course a long-time participant at AUFS. Titled “Excessive Love,” they address the intersection between immanence and Hadewijch. From my understanding, there’s one post still to arrive, but Parts One, Two, Three, and Four are already up.

Some thoughts on secularity-without-secularism and non-philosophy more generally (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Rather than offering an overall perspective on A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature in this post, I wanted to highlight several moments that I found particularly insightful to think and wrestle with.

1. The most viscerally powerful moment for me in the book was the image it offered for the possibility of what a generic secular might look like. Anthony recounts a dual act of solidarity that occurred between the Muslim Community and the Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. The first was the act of solidarity by Egyptian Muslims who, in the wake of a suicide bombing against the Coptic community, encircled a Coptic Christian Church to provide the worshippers a human shield that would allow them to safely celebrate Christmas. The second image is likewise an encircling of protection. During the Tahir square occupations, a number of protestors carried out their religious duty and prayed during the calls for prayer, and in so doing, left themselves vulnerable to police harassment and brutality. This time it was the Coptic Christians who encircled the Muslims, constructing a human shield and allowing prayer to continue free of harassment and intimidation. Continue reading “Some thoughts on secularity-without-secularism and non-philosophy more generally (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

Deleuze and the Naming of God Now Available

This is just a quick announcement that my book, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Postsecularism and the Future of Immanence, is now out. Which is to say that physical copies have appeared, that it’s available on Amazon (at least in the US and the UK), and so on.

The introduction is available online. The cost of the book is rather prohibitive, as it’s being published now only in hardback. If you’re able, though, it’d be great if you could ask your library to order a copy. This might aid the eventual publishing of a paperback version. Also, EUP would no doubt distribute review copies.

AAR Audio and Reflection

You can download the audio for the unofficial AUFS panel at the AAR this year. The panel, as part of the Theology and Continental Philosophy Group, was entitled “Figures of Immanence: Beyond Incarnational Logic” (though this “beyond” is questioning by Beatrice Marovich and Daniel Barber at the end of the discussion, as you’ll hear). For those who want to skip ahead to specific talks, it begins with Thomas Lynch introducing Steven Shakespeare talking about his new re-reading of Kierkegaard as a thinker of immanence. At 29:34 Alex Dubilet’s paper on Bataille on immanence with some remarks at the end on animality. At 1:00:13 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s paper on conversion and the now begins. 1:31:02 you will find my paper on Hallaj and conceptions of immanence with in Islam. Beatrice Marovich’s response to the panel begins at 2:03:10 with concluding remarks from the rest of us following her response. The recording in general is good, but to hear questions from the audience (which follow each paper) you may need to wear headphones and turn it up quite significantly. Feel free to continue the discussion or move it in a different direction in the comments, though of course I can’t guarantee individual authors will respond. Continue reading “AAR Audio and Reflection”

The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation. Continue reading “The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time”