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”

Dazzling Darkness: Mysticism and Philosophy Syllabus

We’ve launched a new MA programme at Winchester this year, and I’m looking forward to teaching postgraduate students again. We run a theology, a religious studies and philosophy module every year and this year I am designated philosopher, syllabus as follows and, as you might expect, featuring several of my co-bloggers and friends of the blog:

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Packing up my mind

A few days ago on Facebook, Jason Read compared packing up your house with creating a systematic philosophy: when you start up, everything is so perfectly organized, but by the end you’re throwing things wherever they will fit. We just moved this weekend — my entire library is pictured above, in cube form — and I have been thinking a lot about that analogy. It seems to me to work on a lot of levels.

Most notably, the point of packing up your house is not to have a final account of your belongings. In other words, the goal of packing is to make it easier for you to get somewhere else. There is something satisfying about imagining everything in its perfect and predestined place, but aside from the intrinsic appeal of organization, the real goal there is to make unpacking easier, almost effortless — or in other words, that you will have developed concepts that can effectively guide action.

After a certain point, of course, an excess of systematicity can become a problem: it slows you down on both ends, as you misguidedly dwell on the packing process and then waste time explaining the beautiful seamless rationale to those assisting you. Similarly, on the philosophical level, too all-encompassing an account can be paralyzing. Take Hegel, for example — if you read his work and ask, “What do I do now?” the answer is mostly, “Keep reading harder to make sure you get how everything fits together.” The same problem doesn’t arise with something simpler and more rough-and-ready like existentialism, where it doesn’t take long before you can start thinking about your life in terms of the basic concepts. (Similarly, in theology, Karl Barth’s vast system can easily become an end in itself, while Paul Tillich’s more broad-strokes approach is much easier to apply — something I find myself doing a lot despite not being much of a Tillich “fan.”)

Obviously simplicity isn’t an unalloyed good — existentialism might be more like jumbling everything together into boxes and sorting it out when you get there, which is a suitable approach for the dorm rooms of those who most enjoy existentialism but less helpful for a more fully-developed adult household.

I could probably extend this metaphor sooner, but the more systematically I develop it, the less room there will be for others to riff on it.

Philosophy and Gender

I’m putting the final touches on my Philosophy and Gender course. This is a new one for me. In the past, I’ve taught Feminist Philosophy, but I’ve never taught a course on gender broadly construed. Of course, I leave out some classic pieces due to time constraints. I also rely on excerpts instead of larger texts since this is an intro level course–the majority of my students will take this to satisfy a gen ed philosophy course–and is intended to be a survey. The course schedule is below.

This course will explore philosophical issues relating to sex, gender, and sexuality as considered by historical and contemporary philosophers and other associated theorists. Recent work by feminist philosophers will be emphasized.

Dear readers, do you see any major omissions? Put differently, do you feel like there are some “must reads” that I have failed to put on the reading list? Or, perhaps you think the list is good and might want to point out some assignments or discussion points to accompany the readings. (One thing I’m trying to incorporate is a few in-class skype interviews between the students and scholars. Let me know if you are interested in participating.)

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Radical Theologies: Why Philosophers Can’t Leave Christianity Alone

I recently edited a special edition of Modern Believing looking at the relationship between philosophy and Christianity; it’s out now and you can read it here (hit me up if you want to read anything in there but don’t have institutional access). Alongside my editorial, the special edition includes the following articles:

Beverley Clack: ‘On Returning to the Church: Practicing Religion in a Neoliberal Age’
In 1999 I wrote an article ‘on leaving the church’ (Craske and Marsh 1999). In this article I revisit this theme having recently returned to church. I explore the themes that led to me leaving (the Christian contribution to the history of misogyny and the desire for liberation, coupled with the desire to have the freedom to think); themes which, paradoxically, are not dissimilar to the reasons behind my return. The paper engages with the reductionist functionalism of the dominant social and political paradigm of neoliberal consumerism, and engages with Michèle Le Doeuff’s claim that the framework provided by religion for life is attractive, precisely because it allows for uncertainty and a deep engagement with the realities of being human.

Vincent Lloyd: ‘Achille Mbembe as Black Theologian’
The Cameroon-born, South Africa-based Achille Mbembe is one of the preeminent theorists of race writing today. Leading the current wave of critical race scholarship that views anti-Blackness as a metaphysical rather than merely social problem, Mbembe’s work brings together the tools of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and postcolonial studies. In De la postcolonie: essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemparaine(2000),1 Mbembe focuses his critical lens on Africa as object of fantasy and resistance to fantasy; in his most recent work, Critique de la raison nègre (2013),2 Mbembe turns to the figure of the Black. While Mbembe himself offers provocative suggestions about the implications of his work for religious thought, his account of anti-Blackness as a metaphysical problem opens constructive avenues for re-thinking Black theology. When Blackness is defined by death, the critical practice Mbembe describes and commends may be understood as a form of resurrection, restoring death-bound-being to life. I argue that reading Mbembe as part of a conversation in Black theology can expand the Black theological imagination.

Katharine Sarah Moody: ‘The Death and Decay of God: Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity’
Radical theology has an intellectual heritage that can be traced to the idea of the death of God in western philosophy, and Christian theologemes remain of conceptual interest to a number of continental philosophers and philosophers of religion because this religion is, to quote Slavoj Žižek, ‘the religion of a God who dies’. I introduce readers to re-conceptions of the theologeme ‘God’ by John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek and illustrate how philosophical interest in Christianity is inspiring religious discourse and communal practices that aim performatively to enact the death and decay of God

Marika Rose: ‘The Christian Legacy is Incomplete: For and Against Žižek’
Slavoj Žižek’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Christian legacy as the only hope for the future of radical politics has, unsurprisingly, made him popular amongst many Christians and theologians in recent years. This article explores the underlying logic of Žižek’s celebration of the Christian legacy, arguing that his dual celebration of the Christian and European legacies not only reveals the entanglement of his argument with the white supremacist logic of Christian superiority but begins to expose the ways in which Žižek’s focus on Christian Europe is inconsistent with his own fundamental ontological claims.

Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Daniel Zamora – A Reply: Was Foucault Speaking in His Own Voice?

I want to thank Daniel for offering a reply post. If only we had time for a second round of discussion where we all referred to the exact same source material, but alas. -MWW

UPDATE: Seth Ackerman generously agreed to translate Daniel’s reply. The translation is provided above the original. -MWW

Daniel Zamora is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Later in 2015, a translation of Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale will appear in English. Two recent discussions by Zamora on Foucault and Neoliberalism can be found at Jacobin.

First I would like to thank the four contributors and AUFS for devoting this series to the theme of Foucault and neoliberalism. All the interventions are highly stimulating and take us to the heart of a debate of great current moment. Obviously I am not able to undertake a general discussion of all the interventions and all the central questions they pose. But I am sure that the debate will not end here, that it will continue when the book is published in English. However, I would like to revisit the reasoning behind my argument, and why I do not think that it is a problem of interpreting Foucault’s words.

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Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist

Thomas Nail is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, forthcoming). His publications can be downloaded at http://du.academia.edu/thomasnail

The Debate: So far the debate over Foucault’s relationship to neoliberalism is split between two positions. On one side there are those (Daniel Zamora, François Ewald, Michael Behrent, and others) who argue that Foucault’s “sympathy” for neoliberalism marks his later work as at least partially “compatible” with neoliberalism. On the other side many more (Stuart Elden, Peter Gratton, Steven Maynard, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and others) argue that although “Foucault’s mode of reading texts often makes it look like he is agreeing with [neoliberal] arguments, he is really trying to reconstruct them, to understand their logic, and so on.” Furthermore, given Foucault’s commitment to Leftist groups like Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons, GIP and others, the argument goes, Foucault could not have been a neoliberal.

But perhaps this debate has been made unnecessarily polemic. The question of the debate is not, “was Foucault a neoliberal or not?”. As far as I can tell, no one is explicitly arguing that he was, only that he shared “some sympathies” with neoliberal theory: some anti-statism, some anti-authoritarian values, and so on. Is it not possible to share some points of interest or critique with a position that one does not fully accept? Thus, the more interesting question I think we should be asking is, “what commonalities or shared interests might exist between Foucault’s political thought and certain neoliberal ideas, and to what degree?”

Continue reading “Foucault and Neoliberalism AUFS Event: Thomas Nail – Michel Foucault, Accelerationist”