My SBL Presentation

[The following is the text of my presentation at this year’s SBL, entitled “Philosophical Reading Beyond Paul: Jean-Luc Nancy on the Epistle of James.” Page numbers refer to Déclosion; translations are my own. (In some cases, antecedents have been supplied for the sake of clarity in oral delivery.) I am normally a “use the whole buffalo” kind of guy — i.e., don’t write something unless you can use it at least twice — but I don’t think this is publishable as it stands. It has been suggested that this paper needs some more explicit materials about what makes this reading of James specifically “Nancean,” which would perhaps make it more reusable. Further suggestions along those lines are welcome.]

As is well-known, in recent years certain figures in continental philosophy have displayed a renewed interest in the writings of Saint Paul. Stanislas Breton, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Bernard Sichère, and Slavoj Zizek are among the figures who have devoted book-length treatments to Paul, and interest in these “philosophical readings” seems-perhaps surprisingly-to be growing rather than abating in the English-speaking world. Though some have tended to treat this interest in Paul as a surprising departure, in fact it is in continuity with a long tradition in modern philosophy, stretching back to at least Spinoza. Just as the early modern philosophers generally attempted to recruit Paul to the side of the modern secular state, so also contemporary readers have tended to envision Paul as a precursor of the modern revolutionary leader.

In both cases, there has been relatively little interest in parts of the New Testament other than the Pauline epistles. Several of these readers of Paul more or less explicitly explain why they do not address the later New Testament writings-Badiou, for instance, is interested only in Paul’s revolutionary subjectivity and not in its empirical results (i.e., Christianity), and Zizek views actual existing Christianity as a betrayal of its Pauline origins. I propose, however, that whatever the explicit reasons given, the underlying motivation for addressing Paul rather than any other New Testament writings is the sense that Paul is the only New Testament writer truly worth dealing with, the only truly formidable mind among the apostles. Beyond that, Paul’s letters-particularly Romans, which has tended to attract the most attention-seem closer to the genre of a philosophical treatise than do the gospel narratives or Revelation.

This bias toward Paul, while understandable, has in my opinion cut off certain promising possibilities. Contemporary scholarship recognizes all the New Testament writings to be grounded in particular Christian communities and has tended to understand those writings as survival strategies within those communities’ particular contexts. Thus, for example, the “household codes” in the deutero-Pauline epistles have tended to be interpreted not so much as expressing a divine preference for certain social structures, but rather as attempts to preserve a counter-cultural movement that was suffering persecution. Such strategies should certainly be of interest to those who are looking to Paul’s Christian collectives as a model for present revolutionary practice. Their authors may not be gifted speculative thinkers, but arguably neither was Lenin. Hence I have hoped for some expansion of the philosophico-political reading of Paul to the rest of the early Christian literature.

So far, however, philosophical readings of New Testament literature other than Paul have stemmed from another tendency in European philosophy: the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology represented by figures such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry. Henry’s I Am the Truth is welcome in the attention it gives to a narrative text, but it is a reading of the Gospel of John, long recognized as the most “philosophical” gospel. A more radical departure can be found in Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay, “The Judeo-Christian: On Faith,” which treats a text neglected by philosophers and theologians alike: the Epistle of James, which Luther called “epistle of straw.”

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Nancy’s book on Christianity is due out just in time for Christmas. When I wrote my review of the French edition, I remember thinking repeatedly that I was glad that I didn’t have to produce a final translation, particularly of the title: La Déclosion. I conclude with a clever little thing on the meaning of the title, based on the fortunate accident of stumbling across a pairing of “déclosion” and “éclosion” in The Inoperative Community, but I had no real idea how an official translation should render it.

“Déclosion” is a rare word in contemporary French — it does not appear in the unabridged Collins-Robert — and so simply translating it more or less literally as “disclosure” might be misleading. The neologism “dis-enclosure” does get more directly at the meaning Nancy intends, and it also has the benefit of making it clear that Nancy is proposing “déclosion” as a kind of substitute for “deconstruction.” The hyphen is perhaps a bit clunky, but given that any translation is going to be unsatisfactory, I think that the translators essentially made the “least bad” choice.

My advisor informed me yesterday that the essay on the Epistle of James, which formed the centerpiece of my review and will be the topic of a paper I’m giving at SBL this year, has now been translated as part of the volume of responses to Derrida in which it first appeared, entitled Judeities. Having an extant translation to consult will be a definite time-saver.

Jean-Luc Nancy, “Psyche”

“Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nicht davon.” This is a posthumous note of Freud’s. The psyche is outstretched, without knowing it. Everything ends, thus, with this brief melody:

Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nicht davon.

Psyche is outstretched, partes extra partes; she is but a dispersion of infinitely parcelled out places in locations that divide themselves and never penetrate each other. No encasement, no overlap; everything is outside another outside–anyone can calculate their order and demonstrate their relationships. Psyche alone knows nothing of this; for her, there is no relationship between these places, these locations, these bits of a plane.

Psyche is outstretched in the shade of a walnut tree, as evening falls. She is resting; the slight movements of sleep have partly uncovered her chest. Eros contemplates her, with both emotion and malice. Psyche knows nothing of this. Her sleep is so deep that it has taken from her even the abandon of her pose.

Psyche is outstretched in her coffin. Soon it will be closed. Among those present, some hide their faces, others keep their eyes desperately fixed on Psyche’s body. She knows nothing of this–and that is what everyone around her knows, with such exact and cruel knowledge.

(Translated by Emily McVarnish in The Birth to Presence, pg. 393.)


A recent post over at Larval Subjects calls for a more fully developed account of agency. This is something that is frequently called for — indeed, one could have a successful career as a participant in academic seminars if one criticized literally every author for not “leaving enough room for agency” or, if they try to “leave room,” for not giving a good enough account of it. Absolutely no one does agency right, which leads me to wonder if there is something about the concept of agency that leaves it, as it were, intrinsically “underdeveloped.”

Let’s think about what we associate with the concept of agency (or free will, or subjectivity, or whatever else we call this). If we reduce it to choosing between options or weighing “reasons,” it somehow seems impoverished, but we don’t want it to be sheer arbitrarity. I think that Jean-Luc Nancy heads in the right direction in The Experience of Freedom by introducing the concept of surprise. Free agency is that which takes us by surprise. If we developed a robust account of it, it would no longer be surprising. That also seems to me to be what’s at stake in Butler’s attempt to show how interpellation misfires, etc. — that subjects, once formed, and even in the process of their formation, can do surprising things.

Sinthome, in his post and in the comment thread, seems to have a very specific idea of “materialism” in mind — he says that many accounts of agency seem to fall back on a kind of creatio ex nihilo, which true materialism cannot countenance. I wonder if this particular idea of “materialism,” however, might be front-loading things and artificially generating the problem of “where” we can locate agency. Even though modern science does not present us with a universe where such is the case, I think that when many of us think “materialism,” they think of a universe fully saturated by mechanical laws of causation. In such a universe, there simply doesn’t seem to be “room” for agency — and so we’re caught between the impossible poles of either giving a “mechanical” account of agency (which is intrinsically contradictory) or renouncing one of the most fundamental experiences of human existence (i.e., that we are not “robots”).

Here again, Nancy’s idea of freedom as going all the way down seems to me to be a great way of getting past this impasse. In many ways, Nancy’s thought here is very similar to Whitehead’s, which of course was attempting to respond philosophically to the advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If we reject the idea that the universe is saturated by mechanical laws of causation (or say that “Being is freedom,” that is, Being is surprising), the presenting problem disappears. “Agency” then becomes the particular surprising ways in which a being of a high level of complexity and self-reflexivity can and does act.

Zizek’s appropriation of the Lacanian “non-all” also heads in this direction, and he engages directly with science, such as his analysis of quantum mechanics in The Indivisible Remainder (recently reissued) and of cognitive science in Parallax View — the latter giving an impressive account of how human agency arises in the course of the evolution of consciousness.

Of course, none of these accounts can give a positive grounding for surprise or for the openness/non-saturation of the laws of causation — they all make an end run around this problem precisely by placing surprise at the foundation (this is perhaps less true in the case of Butler). It is a paradigm shift whose time has come, and seems to me to be consistently materialist — perhaps more consistently materialist, in that it does not impose the dogmatic frame of fully saturated causality on the data.

It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table.

Deconstruction Qualifying Exam

I’m getting ready to take the infamous 20th Century Theology exam within the next month or so. After that, I’ll have to take four exams of my own choosing as well as one in our “methodology” (which can, like the 20th Century exam, be taken separately, something I plan to take advantage of). I am planning on using deconstruction as my methodology, despite the fact that properly speaking it’s not a methodology, because it fulfills two crucial requirements:

  1. I already know a lot about it.
  2. Out of the available options, it best approximates my actual methdology — reading books and commenting on them.

Thus far, I plan on hitting the canonical Derrida texts (Grammatology, Dissemination, etc.) and also looking at other figures in deconstruction. Thus far, my list includes Jean-Luc Nancy (see requirement #1 above), Paul de Man, Peggy Kamuf, Drucilla Cornell, John D. Caputo, and Mark C. Taylor. Is there anyone I’m missing? (I originally had J. Hillis Miller on the list, but Ted said that I should just choose one of the classic literary deconstructors.)

Oh, and of course, I’ll be reviewing issues 37-39 of DC Comics’ Justice League Europe (April-June 1992).

Wesley with Nancy

[This is the concluding section of my forthcoming WTS paper. It follows directly on the section I excerpted in the post “Exposition of Nancy.” The beginning of the paper is a schematic presentation of the differences between liberalism and sectarianism, in which I conclude that in both cases, the atomistic individual is inextricably tied to a “Borg collective” model of community. (I do not literally use the term “Borg collective,” though it’s not too late to change it.) The two form a polarity rather than an opposition, and I argue that certain Wesleyan sects illustrate this polarity particularly well.]

…One could say, then, that for Nancy we are where sense happens—but that sense isn’t something separate from “us.” Rather, it is precisely sense as the concrete and always singular relationships that constitute our being-with that makes us us rather than simply “a cloud of juxtaposed beings” (Being Singular Plural, 39).

This idea of the “cloud of juxtaposed beings” can be understood in terms of the relationship between liberalism and sectarianism as discussed in the beginning. Liberalism would tend to emphasize the “juxtaposed beings,” the atomistic individuals. Sectarianism would emphasize the unity of the “cloud,” though they would likely prefer something more substantial for their end of the metaphor. Nancy’s thinking of the being-with seems to me to offer a genuine alternative—not simply as the “middle ground” between two “extremes,” but as a way of getting around the polarity altogether. Having traced out this alternative, the task that remains is to investigate whether Wesley offers a similar alternative. It seems to me that there are elements in Wesley’s thought—as indeed in the New Testament and the Christian tradition more generally—that would be compatible with Nancy’s very expansive use of “we” to designate humans, animals, rocks, etc. For the sake of this discussion, however, we will provisionally limit the investigation to inter-human relations. A good place to start this investigation—and within the time remaining, this can only be a start—is Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” (references are to section numbers in this linked text). This sermon suggests itself not only because it is one of his best-known, but also because he so often seems to veer toward a kind of generic liberal tolerance (one version of the “cloud of juxtaposed beings”) while at the same time insisting that “indifference to all opinions” is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (III.1) This very proximity will help us to measure more accurately the distinctiveness of Wesley’s approach.

The text for this sermon is 2 Kings 10:15—“And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered: It is. If it be, give me thine hand.” When I was considering the specific sermon of Wesley’s that I could use in this presentation, this one came to mind in connection with the title of Derrida’s book on Nancy, On Touching, because of the phrase, “give me thine hand.” On the face of it, this is a fairly superficial connection, but that short phrase introduces a bodily element into the usually bloodless and abstract discussion of how to deal with differing opinions. Wesley follows up on this with persistent imagery that blends together the bodily and the emotional. Most of the time, this is a matter of the “heart,” but there are also occasional references to a depth of feeling that penetrates even to the “bowels” (I.17, III.6). The purpose of this recourse to the bodily and emotional is not to sidestep religious opinion, but rather to situate it in the context of the whole person—and of the porous boundaries between persons.

Wesley makes two basic moves in this respect. First, he argues that a particular person’s body of beliefs, taken simply on the intellectual level, must necessarily be lacking and inconsistent: one “knows in general that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes he does not, perhaps cannot, know” (I.4; emphasis added). This lack of self-consistency and self-transparency in belief undermines the possibility of treating opinions as an autonomous or self-enclosed matter. Second, Wesley argues that one’s beliefs are not entirely under one’s control: “It does not depend on my choice. I can no more think than I can see or hear as I will” (II.1). This is because “invincible ignorance” is always coupled with “invincible prejudice… which is often so fixed in tender minds, that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root” (I.5). False beliefs that are the product of “invincible prejudice” may not be culpable, because “all guilt must suppose some concurrence of the will”—that is, all “my” beliefs are not necessarily “mine” in the same sense, and in the end, only God can finally sort them out (Ibid.).

To be indifferent to someone’s opinions would be to fail to love them as they really are, because one’s opinions are always formed through the same passionately charged relatedness that produces the person—as singular, to use Nancy’s terminology. But this very acknowledgement of the singularity of each person means that “love” cannot mean the same thing between every person. Wesley specifically asks that he be loved in a particular and intense way (namely, “as a friend that is closer than a brother”) by the fellow-worker who will take his hand, a way that is different from the love extended to humankind in general, to strangers, to enemies (II.3). This intense love is not, however, limited to members of a particular defined group aside from Christianity at large—which in Wesley’s context would’ve been practically everyone. If Wesley is here positing an ecclesiology or a vision of Christian community, it is one that, like Nancy’s vision of being-with or “being singular plural,” is open-ended and irreducibly multiple. It is a vision of an intense relatedness that is not necessarily always harmonious—certainly because of inevitable contingent conflicts, but also because of a purposeful form of conflict whereby each member would ask the others to “smite me friendly, and reprove me” (II.6). Wesley no doubt would have approved of Nancy’s formulation: “Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness” (BSP, xiii).

In the long run, this vision was not sustained, and was perhaps unsustainable: Methodism made the transition from an emergency measure to an institution and thereby became one denomination among others. If it is the case that the mutual coimplication of “individualism” and “communitarianism” is particularly evident in certain Wesleyan denominations, it is a testimony to how powerful and at the same time how fragile such a vision is—and to the dangers posed by its breakdown.

Exposition of Nancy

[This is from my forthcoming WTS presentation on Nancy and Wesley, which deals primarily with Being Singular Plural. Parenthetical references are to the English translation of that work.]

So first, the title: Being Singular Plural, or in French, être singulier pluriel. In his elucidation of this phrase, Nancy first points out the indeterminate syntax. It is not a complete sentence, and it is unclear which, if any, of the words is to be taken as a noun. Être is the infinitive form meaning “to be,” but French infinitives are also frequently used as nouns—[as when être is used to translate Heidegger’s Sein, the capital-b Being of English translations.] In addition, as in other Romance languages, adjectives in French can be substantives. For Nancy, this indeterminacy is a way of indicating the mutual implication of the three terms. The apparent contradiction between “singular” and “plural” is resolved, or at least attenuated, by recourse to the etymology of the word “singular.” The Latin word from which “singular” derives is singuli, an adjective meaning “one by one.” Interestingly, singuli—as is evident from its form—appeared most frequently in the plural. Nancy capitalizes on this to declare that the singular is always already in the plural, because the singular “designates the ‘one’ as belonging to the ‘one by one’” (32). Coming at this same insight from another direction, Nancy argues that the “one” can never be indicated except by reference to the “more than one,” or that you can’t count “one” without counting more than one. A pure “one” with no reference to the plural would not be “one” at all—indeed, wouldn’t “be” at all. But by the same token, this “singular” that only finds its place in the “plural” is not simply dissolved into an undifferentiated mass. The singular is really singular precisely in its being-with other singular beings—not simply the generic being-with of juxtaposition, but each time in a singular way.

To emphasize the fact that the singular being is not simply absorbed into an undifferentiated blob, Nancy points out the spacing between the words “being singular plural.” Simple spaces allow Nancy to avoid the subordination that other punctuation marks would imply and thereby to avoid predetermining the precise relationships among the terms[1]—yet it is nonetheless the case that any particular reading of the terms will necessarily place them in a particular relationship. The terms aren’t simply randomly juxtaposed; rather, they are with each other, they appear together. One could say that their co-appearance has some meaning to it, and this wouldn’t be completely foreign to Nancy’s intention, as the French word sens—which can denote “sense” or “meaning”[2]—is one of the key words of Nancy’s philosophy. But it does seem clear that Nancy leans more toward sens as “sense” than as “meaning.” Staying with our example of the phrase “being singular plural,” were one to seek its “meaning,” one would most likely have in mind something outside the phrase (such as in the writer’s mind) that the phrase points toward. But seeking its “sense” connotes more of a philological enterprise, as when one reads some ancient text and tries to construe the grammatical relationships among the terms so as to give the most satisfactory “sense.” Though one should not push this contrast too hard, the “sense” of the phrase seems to be more immanent to the phrase itself—not completely foreign to “meaning,” of course, but indicating a meaning that arises out of the phrase itself, more than a meaning that would be pointed toward or intended.

The “sense” of a phrase has a certain closeness to the text, almost a physical or tactile quality—and of course the English word “sense” also operates in the register of physical sensation, a quality it shares with the French sens. In this respect, sens or “sense” overlap considerably with the German Sinn, which plays a prominent role in Heidegger’s thought in the compound word Seinssinn or the phrase Sinn von Sein, both customarily translated into English as “the meaning of Being.” Whether or not it was Heidegger’s intention in using the term Sinn, Nancy makes a great deal of the sensory and especially tactile dimensions of sens or “sense,” which allows him to think the (meaning or) sense of Being in a very bodily way—and not only in terms of human bodies. There is sense to the particular relationships among inanimate objects and among animals and among humans, as there is in the various relationships among the singular members of these groups. As Nancy says, “We would not be ‘humans’ if there were not ‘dogs’ and ‘stones.’” This is because of the way that we live with animals and stones, and the way that the animal-like and the stone-like (bone) live in us. For this reason, Nancy says that the world “is not so much the world of humanity as it is the world of the nonhuman to which humanity is exposed and which humanity, in turn, exposes” (18)—and so, he is able to use “we” and “us” in the broadest possible sense, to include the human, the animal, the inanimate. This is not simply a matter of sheer juxtaposition or leveling-off: the human relates to the non-human differently than vice-versa, most notably in language; and of course the relationships among humans have a different sense than those among animals, etc.

Even this talk of “having” sense may ultimately be misleading, however, as Nancy begins the main text of Being Singular Plural with a fragment entitled Que nous sommes le sens, which can be translated “We Are Sense.” The translators of the English edition, however, translate it as “We Are Meaning,” for an understandable reason: in this section, Nancy is addressing the widespread feeling of a “loss of meaning” or sens in our postmodern world. This bemoaning of the loss of meaning does indeed have a meaning, but a “meaning” that is nothing other than Nancy’s concept of “sense”—that is, this discourse of the loss of meaning “brings to light the fact that ‘meaning,’ used in this absolute way, has become the bared [dénudé] name of our being-with-one-another. We do not ‘have’ meaning anymore, because we ourselves are meaning [that is, sense]—entirely, without reserve, infinitely, with no meaning other than ‘us’” (1). This doesn’t mean that we make up the “content” that Being in general indicates or “means,” but rather that we—again, this is thought in the broadest possible sense—we are “sense as the element in which significations can be produced, and circulate” (2).[3] One could say, then, that we are where sense happens—but that sense isn’t something separate from “us.” Rather, it is precisely sense as the concrete and always singular relationships that constitute our being-with that makes us us rather than simply “a cloud of juxtaposed beings” (39).

[1] One can get at a similar insight by linking the three terms together using a hyphen, which is “a mark of union and also a mark of division, a mark of sharing that effaces itself, leaving each term to its isolation and its being-with-the-others” (37).

[2] It can also mean “direction,” but Derrida claims that Nancy does not use it in this sense in his book on Nancy, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), pg. 57.

[3] Translation altered, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Être singulier pluriel (Paris: Galilée, 1996), pg. 19.

A Modest Proposal

I have to write this paper in the next week or so.

Proposal for the 2007 Wesleyan Theological Society – Philosophical Theology Section

Title: “Singular Plural Catholic Spirit: John Wesley with Jean-Luc Nancy”


This paper will bring French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy into dialogue with John Wesley. The purpose of this perhaps improbable juxtaposition will be to ascertain whether certain concepts developed by Nancy can assist us in coherently bringing together Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection and Catholic spirit.

In Being Singular Plural (1996), Nancy critiques Heidegger for giving insufficient attention to the category of being-with, leading him to fall into what Nancy sees as the common trap of thinking only in terms of individuals—whether individual persons or monolithic collectivities. It is my contention that Wesleyan perfection, at least when taken in isolation from other characteristic Wesleyan themes, falls into this trap as well: on the one hand, it is normally thought in very individualistic terms, while on the other hand, the attempt to organize a community around that principle led in practice to a large number of regulations tending toward uniformity.

Nancy’s development of the category of “being-with” results in an open-ended multiplicity of singular beings, breaking decisively with the familiar zero-sum dichotomy between the individual and the collectivity. I will argue that Welsey’s sermon on “Catholic Spirit” moves in the same direction as Nancy’s critique of Heidegger, particularly in the image of a “joining hands” that does not demand uniformity. By reading the “love” that Wesley demands in that sermon in terms of Nancy’s “being-with,” I will attempt to rethink Christian perfection or perfect love as enabled by Christian community, but—precisely thereby—manifesting itself in a way particular to each person.

This is a further move in the direction of founding an academic discipline called “Wesley Juxtaposition Studies.” If I produce enough of these improbable papers bringing together Wesley and a random French person, I can put together an attractive volume, which Craig Keen has suggested I entitle John Wesley and Some French Guys: I Know….

(I’m already hard at work on next year’s proposal: “Susanna, Ma Mère: Reading Wesley Alongside Bataille.”)