The Real State of Exception?

An Illinois legislator named Darren Bailey has convinced a judge to overrule the governor’s stay-at-home order for him — and him alone. It is worth pondering the peculiar form of life that emerges as one individual is excepted from the general state of exception. He is able to move freely, unencumbered by social distancing requirements, and yet every other resident in the state is obliged to stay away from him. He can leave his home freely, and yet there is nowhere for him to go. He is an outcast insofar as he is the only resident of the “normal” society that the stay-at-home order suspended. His civil rights thus enter into a state of pure inoperativity, rendered useless by the very order that supposedly vindicated them.

Is Bailey a messianic figure? The response of the sovereign — in this case, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker — may tempt us to think so. Yet it is a curious messiah who promises only to lead us back to the normal functioning of law. To be truly messianic, Bailey would have to renounce any claim to serve as a precedent, choosing instead to live out his peculiar form-of-life in a way that enacts its absurdity. We can imagine that solitary vigil as a kind of performance art piece that repeatedly exposes the limit of the bourgeois rights he has uselessly reclaimed.

The messianic condition is one in which all the rights of citizenship will be useless in their current sense — pointing to the potential for a new, unheard-of use.

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”

The Customer Service Representative and the Messiah

We never encounter customer service directly, only its representatives. Every quest after customer service is a Kafkaesque ordeal, in the purest possible sense. We are all the man from the country, waiting at the threshold to customer service without ever entering. Like the guard, customer service representatives exist to wait us out, to convince us that our demand can never be fulfilled. There is always another department, another number we should have selected from the phone tree, another interminable wait on hold.

We all want to ask for the manager, that sovereign who can decide to solve our problem, but we are by and large stuck with the incompetent customer service representative, who stares helplessly at the computer system that will not let them do or change anything. They tell us of the labyrinthine internal processes, not to empower us, but to convince us that nothing can be done. The computer isn’t showing that. Someone entered it wrong but no one can fix it.

Even explaining what the problem is requires the patience of Job. The customer service representative has a limited number of templates, it seems, and the particularity of your problem never fits. All they have to offer are solutions that implicitly blame the customer or presume that the customer is stupid. Have you tried resetting it? No, because I’m a total idiot who has never used any technology before. They just thawed me out of an ice block.

The question that arises for me is why every customer service representative isn’t a manager. Why even put us in contact with these pathetic souls who are forbidden from directly solving our problems? The answer is clear: they serve as human shields for our anger, in two senses. First, our frustration becomes displaced from the company that has wronged us to the fools in the customer service department. Second, and more insidiously, our anger is disqualified, delegitimated — after all, we shouldn’t take it out on this poor hapless underemployed petty bureaucrat. It’s not their fault, they’re just following orders.

But their orders are to systematically deprive us of service. The customer service phone tree is a trench in the war of attrition against customers’ justified demands. They are understaffed and underpaid because their role is to discourage us from seeking redress. They deny us a solution on the off chance that we will give up and pay the extra charge rather than go through the bother. And they wouldn’t continue to exist, despite being a byword and a terror to all customers everywhere, if they didn’t pay for themselves. The door really was meant for us alone, and the customer service representative stands ready to close it.

The messianic age will come when we finally see customer service face-to-face.

Just a little different

The last night before I graduated from Olivet Nazarene University, I lay awake in bed. Looking back, I can now see that I got a lot out of my education there, but at that moment, it seemed like four wasted years — and worse, it seemed like it had set me up for a wasted life. My initial attempts to get into grad school were a failure, and a few weeks previous, I had a heated conversation with my mom, who told me I needed to take a fifth year to get a teaching certificate and redeem my “useless” degree. And so as I lay there, I pictured how things could have been different. First, I pictured going to other colleges, where I wouldn’t have had to deal with the evangelical shit, where I wouldn’t be marked for life as a religious fanatic, where I would have had more opportunities. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have much guidance in the process of applying for college, and I basically gave up on the idea of applying anywhere else when it was clear I’d get a full-tuition scholarship to Olivet. What was I thinking?!

Then I took a step further back: why had I wasted so much time on irrelevant things in high school? Continue reading “Just a little different”

Like a business

Surely we are all tired of the mantra that everything should be “run like a business.” Surely we all realize that the government, or the health care system, or the education system, or your family are not businesses and should work according to their own immanent logic rather than according to the norms of business.

Yet it occurs to me: is anything inherently a business? We normally think of a bakery as a business, for example, but isn’t it actually a place where people bake things? One can imagine a bakery operating under many different economic systems. The examples multiply. A clothing retailer is a place where people come to get their clothes. A convenience store exists to provide people with easy access to frequently used items. A car factory exists to make cars. Even a bank exists primarily to intermediate between people’s different financial priorities (e.g., saving vs. spending), rather than to make money as such. All of those things are typically “run like a business” in Western countries, but that doesn’t mean that they directly “are” businesses.

Only one type of pursuit is inherently a business: hedge funds. Continue reading “Like a business”

Walter White as White Messiah

Few genres are as durable as the White Messiah story: a white man shows up in a foreign culture and turns out to be better than the natives at whatever their specialty is, or the only person who can save them, or (preferably) both. Think of Karate Kid or, more recently, Avatar or the Christopher Nolan Batman films. Even Alice in Wonderland has been recast as a messianic narrative of this kind.

After reading some tweets from Malcolm Harris pointing out that in the current episodes, basically all non-white characters have been killed, it occurs to me that Breaking Bad is a weird kind of variation on the White Messiah theme — based on the hugely racist premise that the characteristic talent of Mexicans is drug dealing. He and Jesse make better meth in their RV than the cartel has been able to produce in their ample super-labs. And despite their general incompetence and their tragically sacrificed moral sense (totally lacking in the Mexican characters), they somehow manage to outlive all the ruthless killers they come in contact with. We have to wait until next summer to figure out the precise shape the “redemption” will take, however.

A FOOTNOTE: I’ve also been noticing more explicitly spaghetti Western themes in my second viewing, which I’m not sure how to connect with the White Messiah theme. For instance, one could see Hank, Walt, and Tuco as parallel to the trio in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (where the “ugly” Mexican protagonist is also literally named Tuco). The nom de meth “Heisenberg” also indirectly evokes the namelessness of Clint Eastwood’s character (called “blondy” by Tuco). I’m sure that if I rewatched the Sergio Leone trilogy, I’d see a lot more parallels.

Messianism and meritocracy

Yesterday, The Girlfriend was watching the SyFy miniseries Alice. We had recently watched the Tim Burton adaptation of Alice in Wonderland as well, and I remarked that it seemed strange to me that the two most recent versions of the story had taken it weirdly “seriously” — in both, Wonderland is treated as a more or less coherent “sci-fi” world living under an oppressive ruler (the Red Queen), and only Alice can overthrow her. Interestingly, both also show some awareness of the previous version — in Tim Burton’s film, Alice is literally the same girl from the book, but she’s grown up and forgotten about her adventures; in the TV series, Alice is depicted as reading the original book — but even so, they trade in the surrealistic whimsy of the original for a plodding “hero’s quest.”

As we talked about why that might be, The Girlfriend remarked that in the original, Alice was mostly a passive observer, which doesn’t fit with most people’s expectations of a movie today — the point of view character has to be an active agent. And particularly in a fantasy or sci-fi film, that character has to be a messianic agent, the “only one” who can defeat the evil ruler.

Continue reading “Messianism and meritocracy”