The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Immanent Reading

This post is by Jordan Skinner, who is a PhD student at Princeton University.

The philosophical history of the “subject”—the theological and philosophical emergence of subjectivity with the subject and its instantiation as the modern subject—has absorbed philosophical attention for centuries and remains one of the central philosophical concerns today. Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject takes up the philosophical concern of the relation of subordination which is presupposed through the formation of the subject by turning to the Middle Ages where the conceptual germination of the subject took place. However, Dubilet’s historical concerns are not the same as Nietzsche’s or Foucault’s who examine the historical formation of the modern conception of the self through power, labor, sexuality, and subjection. Nor does it follow the path paved by Alain de Libera’s three volume Archéologie du sujet which seek to understand how and why the Aristotelian subject, the article substrate of accidental properties, the Hypokeimenon, become the psychological and ethical subject of action and passion, the human subject, the knowing subject called “I” in the Middle Ages.[1] Instead, Dubilet turns to medievalism not only as the site of the subject’s philosophical gestation but also as the site of its own erasure. Therefore, Dubilet turns to medievalism in order to highlight a history where the subject becomes that which must be evacuated, abandoned, even annihilated. This is a counter-history of the formation of the subject—it is a history of its annihilation.

Continue reading “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Immanent Reading”

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Abolish the Place!

The post is by Timothy Snediker, who is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in philosophy of religion. His interests include twentieth-century phenomenology, critical theory, political theology, and non-philosophy. His current research concerns the joy of living at the end of the world.

Early on in The Self-Emptying Subject, Alex Dubilet cites a rhetorical question posed by Deleuze in an early work on Nietzsche: “By turning theology into anthropology, by putting man in God’s place, do we abolish the essential, that is to say, the place?” (qtd. in Dubilet, 3). On my reading, Dubilet takes the rhetorical force of this question exceptionally seriously. Displacement is not enough. God will never be dead enough, poeticized enough, polemicized enough; ditto Man, ersatz figurine of modernity. It is not enough to replace the all-too-familiar theological schema—of a transcendent Creator and his creatures who ‘suffer’ from immanence—with a humanist or secularist schema, wherein human beings take up the ‘divine’ task of perfecting the world, thereby transcending their creaturely status. On the contrary, one must neither displace nor replace but abolish the place.

Yet such abolition does not—or must not, according to Dubilet—entail taking up arms for immanence against transcendence, for transcendence is the form of distinction, difference, ‘againstness.’ Transcendence is what ensures that an object—i.e. ein Gegenstand—and a subject appear, as against one another, not in spite of their relation but precisely qua relation. That is to say, transcendence insures itself; transcendence is sure of itself so long as it can ensure that there is an immanence—a subject—to which it relates itself. In order to abolish the place one would have to think immanence radically, outside of all relation. There where there is no insurance and no assurance, there where there is no there: a dispossessed life, a self-emptying subject—kenosis. This kenosis is given before the separation of immanence and transcendence, where these two topoi are taken as the terms by which a subject is ‘activated,’ as finite in relation to the infinite or as creature in relation to a creator. A kenotic immanence exceeds this activation; a life precedes this subjection; its whylessness echoes in heaven and earth.

Such an immanent thought—a thought that thinks immanence immanently—is not easily articulated. For instance, when Dubilet outlines the conceptual consequences of such a shift, we discern an old problem emerging.

Rather than simply being the affirmation of the human subject or a secular world (which would stand tacitly in opposition to theological transcendence), immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceedsthe structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds. (Ibid, my italics).

I have emphasized the words “precedes and exceeds” above, because this formulation—which appears passim as a refrain—immediately raises what is for me a very familiar and very vexing question. It is a question that I often encounter, for instance, when I am charged with articulating, say, the concept of radical immanence in François Laruelle. The terms even appear in my own description of kenosis in the paragraph prior. The question goes something like this: Why does the so-called immanence of contemporary continental philosophy sound so damn much like classical transcendence? Is it really enough to simply describe the ‘anteriority’ of immanence to the division between immanence and transcendence? Will this be enough to banish transcendence? Was not the transcendence of God precisely this anteriority? Does not this syntagm, “precedes and exceeds,” bespeak the distance and transcendence of a hyper-Being, a Good beyond Being? Have we yet again left the place intact? Is not this immanence but a transcendence inverted?

I sense in Dubilet’s book an implicit—and intense—struggle with this problem. Such a problem cannot and should not be resolved—but it can be thought. If Dubilet ‘succeeds’ in thinking this problem it is to the extent that, on the one hand, he realizes that resolution is a ruse. He is ‘resolved’ only to refuse resolution; he prefers the freedom of dispossession, the opportunity for conceptual experimentation (here Eckhart and Deleuze collide like protons) loosed from the “chains of creaturely finitude” (77). On the other hand, he succeeds to the extent that the ‘life without a why’ that comes into view in The Self-Emptying Subject is an inoperative life—‘laborless,’ disinterested in the work of relation demanded by subjection. Here immanence is not transcendence inverted but, in Eckhart’s terms, “birth without any distinction” (79), uncreated yet unproductive, equal to nothing, being-zero.

That is to say, Dubilet does not take the easy way out; he has no recourse to negative theology, which would in any case only redouble the problem. The question of articulating immanence cannot be dismissed by chalking up the difficulty to the impoverishment and impropriety of language vis-à-vis the object, for it is precisely this ‘vis-à-vis’ that is the problem. The struggle concerns not the specific terms by which immanence is designated but rather the conceptual grammars according to which immanence is articulated. Inasmuch as a grammar is itself unspoken but is that by which what is spoken is spoken, we can say that Dubilet seeks not to locate an immanent conceptual grammar (he does not search for the place or the ground of this grammar, for immanence is “without enclosure”) so much as he seeks to think according to this grammar. The grammar of kenotic immanence suspends the relation of the subject to its ultimate object and guarantor, namely, transcendence, be this transcendence God, World, or Man. At the same time, such a grammar allows, for the subject, a divestment of its finitude—finitude being that which passes for immanence when immanence is taken as immanent to something other than itself. According to this grammar, immanence refuses to be subjected.

“Any relation,” writes Dubilet,

of a subject to transcendence—no matter what form that transcendence takes—constitutes a single, complex mechanism of subjection. In other words, rather than opposing the subject to transcendence, transcendence should be understood as the ruse that produces and maintains the subject in its subjection. (173)

Against this ruse, Dubilet charts a discursive path from the middle ages to modernity, passing through and thinking with Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille, so as to see what effects are produced when their thought is (re)iterated according to a grammar of kenotic immanence. Of course, these effects are not limited to concepts; the rigid disciplinary schema of late modernity is at stake too. This is why Dubilet explains that his book should be understood

as an experiment in suspending the polemical antagonism that frequently exists between theological and philosophical discourses through the examination of three moments [namely, Eckhart, Hegel, and Bataille] where such boundaries are questioned and experimentally reconfigured. This work’s guiding intuition is that suspending the rigid disciplinary expectations about what philosophy and theology each can do allows for unexpected and strange effects to arise from the texts themselves… (21)

While one might be forgiven for balking (as I did) at the inclusion of Hegel in such a project, it is ultimately not a question of saving or salvaging Hegel so much as seeing what Hegel can do when the grammar of Entäußerung is substituted for the grammar of Aufhebung.

As Dubilet remarks, we are readers and thinkers before we are philosophers and theologians (22), which is to say that there is a common life before philosophy and theology both. What results is not so much a ‘good version’ of Hegel as a refusal to distinguish between the good Hegel and the bad Hegel. The point is to take Hegel (and not only Hegel) not as the proper name of a philosophical friend or enemy, but as a reader and a thinker, a life, whose work constitutes an occasion for thought. Thus Dubilet presents us with a “counter-archive” to the predominant philosophical and theological archive, the latter which pits immanence and transcendence against one another, charting their mixtures and separations in thought as though they were reactants in a vast Cogito, as though they were two armies ‘mixing’ on the Kampfplatz of history. By contrast, Dubilet’s counter-archive

discloses the hidden collusions of these wars, between those who claim the banner of philosophy and secularity and those who claim the banner of theology and religion: all too frequently, both sides of the divide enforce forms of transcendence that have as their effect the subjection of life. (176)

In this sense, Dubilet’s conceptual grammar goes beyond even that of Deleuze, who arrogates immanence to philosophy and relegates theology to transcendence and illusion (cf. 4-5, 68-70). What Dubilet endeavors to demonstrate in his book is that the subject is the place. To abolish the place qua subject is to empty it, to let it empty, to let it go down. What is left? Only what was always already there: “Before life is subjected and put to work in an infinite deferral of agency and instrumentality, there persists, as an ante-ontological underground, a common, useless life, a life without a why” (158).

The immanent, impersonal, and common life with which Dubilet is concerned is common in at least two senses. It is common in the sense that, being nothing, it excludes nothing; it does not ‘precede’ its determinations as substance does, but is already determined to tolerate its determinations without being determined by them. And it is common in the sense that it is ordinary. There is nothing extraordinary about immanence; its ‘excess’ is its dispossession, its utter solitude, its uselessness—its joy. As Dubilet renders it in his recent translation (with Jessie Hock) of Laruelle’s Une biographie de l’homme ordinaire:

Ordinary man is devoid of qualities or attributes through a completely positive sufficiency. … There is no pejorative or minorative note in this ‘ordinary’ or this ‘minoritarian.’ I am a sufficient Solitude, too far below ‘solipsism’ to have to extricate myself from it. I am not a Cogito, a relation to a Site or to an Other. I am out-(of)-the-question: no question of man, no ontic or ontological primacy of the question of man. I do not find my essence in my existence or in my questions; I experience my subjective essence before these questions. I am the beginning of my life and my thought. (François Laruelle, A Biography of Ordinary Man: On Authorities and Minorities [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018], 9)

Immanence is not that which everything ‘has in common’ (it refuses all such transcendental pretensions) but is that life which, reveling in its whylessness, has lost everything.

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: Out of Out

This post is by Joseph Albernaz, who is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

In Chapter 2 of his singular, intense, and profoundly generative new book (generation being one of its key concepts), The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern, Alex Dubilet mentions one of Meister Eckhart’s “beloved hermeneutic techniques, that of linguistic extraction, in which a word or a phrase is temporarily isolated from its semantic context and becomes an independent site for conceptual experimentation” (70). Here Alex is discussing Eckhart’s transmutation of the two word prepositional phrase “with God” from the opening of the Gospel of John (“…the Word was with God…”). With apologies to John the Evangelist and to Eckhart, I’d like to propose performing such an extraction and exfoliation on a recurring linguistic and syntactic cluster in Alex’s own language (though language, like life, as Alex writes, is never anyone’s “own”). (In paying attention to the book’s literal, linguistic grammar, I am also thinking of how “grammar” is another of the text’s most important meta-conceptual figures, in its repeated invocation of the particular “conceptual grammar” and “grammar of life” that kenotic immanence makes possible and pursues: the grammar of “a life without a why.”)

The grammatical figure that interests me consists of two prepositions sutured together. It is common enough in everyday language, but traverses several important sites of Alex’s book and opens out onto some of the larger responses and questions I have: “out of.” This syntagm “out of” first appears early in the introduction, in a speculative formulation of the stakes of the book’s thought of immanence: “immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceeds the structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds” (3). Later formulations include injunctions, via Eckhart, to “live out of what is common,” and via Hegel “to live and think out of infinity…and out of absolute immanence,” among a few others (57, 138-139).

Out of. A question immediately emerges: what is “out of” immanence, if common, generic, impersonal immanence (literally “dwelling in,” im-manere) is that which is essentially “without an outside” (61)? What is the relation between the life (or world or god) that lives out of immanence, and immanence itself? This tension seems already inherent in the phrase “out of,” the two prepositions working on each other in a kind of double mediation: “out” suggesting removal and separation, “of” suggesting being part of something and properly, internally related to it. “Out of” in the first instance evinces emergence—something emerging out of something else, as in a person walking out of a dwelling—and this emergence is and makes possible a distinction and separation: the thing or force that emerged, and the site whence it emerged, are separated. How are we to think this kind of separation between the forms that spiral groundlessly out of immanence and their common “ground” or “innermost” (to use two of Eckhart’s terms), given that absolute immanence refuses all determinations of “distinction and separation” (143)?

The reason why radical immanence can be claimed to not itself be transcendent vis-à-vis the world, is because the world is not real, but only a “mutilat[ion of] life” through imposed orders of separation, mediation, individuation (120). To maintain the claim of immanence immanent to itself, the separated shapes of the world must be denied, or undone. But what is or what comes “out of” immanence if not (at least certain of) these shapes, the mutilations that life already is (Bataille: “the open wound that is my life”)? Can shapes, practices, names, and experiences in the world, collective and common and dispossessive, disclose what is out of this world? Perhaps ex-perience is just this: the (non)knowledge that emerges from going out of (ex-) nothing and coming back in—emptying out of, a ke-gnosis. Here Alex’s generative work helps us think—thinking out of The Self-Emptying Subject helps us think—these figures, shapes, practices and experiences neither as cultivations of the self (as in the late Foucault), nor as receptivity to an/the “other,” nor as goals with ends, but forms of intensive communization as destitution, living according to an “outside not beyond” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean Paul Ricco), being and getting “out from out” or “out-from-the-outside” (Fred Moten). Elsewhere Moten formulates the alien bond of immanence and its emergent “out of,” i.e. immanence and emanation, in relation to the common outside: “immanence and emanation, the outside we live (in), our making and joining and renewal of the real assembly” (Black and Blur 197).

What else might be extracted from the extraction of the syntagm “out of”? “Out of” can signify depletion, exhaustion, deprivation, a final loss—as in being out of time, out of options, out of hope. This modality of “out of” as “pure loss” aligns with the book’s darkly coruscating final chapter on Georges Bataille’s ethics of “irrecuperable loss” and “useless life,” seared by an immanent negativity that is out of things to do (151, 158).

“Out of” also suggests a shedding of (the) inside, a breaking out of an enclosure (immanence is “what is without enclosure” (3)), an escape and fugitivity: e.g., the phrase “let’s get out of here.” Getting out of here is getting the “out” out of the here—it involves the realization that every “here,” every position in the world, covers over and forecloses its own “out.” Indeed, perhaps positionality is nothing other than the situatedness of this foreclosure. Positions in the world foreclose the “out” of “infinite immanence” in their own ways, but since the foreclosures and their pseudo-stability are always doomed to fail, they also crumble in their own ways (137). Could living and thinking out of radical immanence entail attention to, and assembling alongside, the moving form of the world’s unmoorings? The book’s final paragraph enjoins us to face and open up to such questions, asking: “What ethical practices, what lived experiences, what affective intensities are opened when we no longer assume that we are first and foremost subjects relating to transcendence?” (177).

The Eckhartian technique of what Alex calls linguistic extraction is itself an operation involving the logic of “out of”—ex-traction consists in taking a phrase out of the context or site of its proper mediated totality, bringing it to the outside of thought (the outside that is thought and that thought is). Still, it moves out of its site to the outside in its way. Its perforated contour is generated alongside this site, and what is or opens out in the extracted phrase is its immanent “out,” its excess, its occult shape of unbecoming, its “otherwise within” (to use another compellingly apt two-word phrase from the book) (73). The logic of this technique of language and thought (linguistic extraction) metonymically opens the door to thinking the figures of the world not only as mutilations of life, but of singular disclosures of a groundless common immanence in the very shapes of their constant, collective undoing. Along these lines, can there be other modalities of separation than the violent regimes of enclosure? These would be, not separations introduced into immanence to subjectivate and subjugate life, but rather, as in the cut of Apelles, operations that separate the world’s separations in order to disclose “shared, dispossessive immanence” through and out of the uniquely cut cracks in the world’s pseudo-enclosure (141). The groundlessness that this separation opens would be a generic space of sharing (partage) and assembly, radiated in and out the inflected rhythm that a life takes from its forms, even as it suspends and renders inoperative its own situated facticity. The beauty of The Self-Emptying Subject leaves us with so much, which is to say, nothing but a broken remainder, a life emptied, outside in, not beyond, otherwise within, a life “live[d] out of what is common” (57).

Just as Alex’s book theorizes an immanence that is indifferent to the mediations of the world even as it bears on them and loosens their pseudo-stability, the book itself immanently pursues its own thing, “immanence in excess of disciplinary polemics,” even as it bears on and undoes mediating disciplinary structures of academic discourse, unworking them from within and without (168). Indeed, a characteristic aspect of the book’s general magnanimity—where “great-souled” might be taken in Eckhart’s sense of the impersonal “innermost of the soul”—is the releasement (to use another Eckhartian term) it grants one, or least that it granted me, regarding possible anxieties about having the disciplinary competence to respond to it properly. This in turn also had me thinking about how often disciplinary conventions prevent us from having conversations with people we want to have conversations with.

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: A Few Words for the Wretched (Immanence and Impersonal Life)

It is good to read a philosopher praising joy. Not the joy of subservience, gratitude and self-sacrifice; nor the pleasures of being the entrepreneur and curator of one’s own branded life. But a joy impersonal and common, liberated from instrumentalism, teleology and transcendent goals.
Reading The Self-Emptying Subject is an exercise in abandonment. It is – gloriously – a useless book. Its careful scholarship belies an intensity, a refusal to allow life to be co-opted and put to work in the service of some distant end.
I admit it: I am a little in love with this book. Not least its portrayal of Eckhart, who finds in Christian theology the material to experiment with the divine and speculatively affirm the immanence of life beyond the tragedies of the interpellated subject. Dubilet discovers an immanence which undermines the ethics of alterity and those of self-cultivation; an immanence which outstrips the mutual recriminations and positioning of the theological and the secular. Why be so mean, so confined in your darkened ego with its altars of bone? Why create yourself in the image of what you lack? You are uncreated, infinite life. A life without ‘a ‘you’ to care, or care for.
In a word: joy.
But is there a word to spare? A word for the wretched of the earth as wretched?
What I mean is: what is left in infinite, impersonal joy of the singular selves, of the indelible marks of their passage through the world? Or the violence of a passage they are made to undergo? What is left of their kinship and their touching – however constructed, however compromised? Is it more blessed to forget, to let go, to release . . . or is there a time and theory of stubborn resistance?
In her In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe writes of ‘wake work’. In the wake of slavery’s violent creation of race, in the wake of violence continuing to be visited on black communities, in the wakes of slave ships and those which mark a passage to death: what needs to be thought, held, remembered, noted, archived? Out of the violent constructions of black subjectivity, the ongoing imminence and immanence of black death, Sharpe affirms that antiblackness is not a ‘total climate’, that ‘We are not only known to ourselves and each other by that force’.
I am asking about the force of that ‘We’ – a ‘We’ woven out of battered threads of a specific history into a singular resistance and endurance (one which I cannot co-opt). Does it have a word to say in the uncreated and impersonal life of joy?
This is not intended as criticism, because I know that Alex is deeply engaged with these voices and currents of thought. In terms of The Self-Emptying Subject I think it has to do with his account of that dynamic immanence, in which the cause remains in the effect, rather than stationed hierarchically above it. This immanence is arguably that in virtue of which Sharpe can say ‘We are not only known to ourselves and each other by that force’, since it precedes and exceeds every act of subjection.
But Alex also affirms that immanence is itself affected by the effect, and so presumably by its specific expression in singular lives and events. How is this? How does immanence register such a passage, such a wake, without seeing it disperse into nothing? We know the whiteness of hate would like nothing better than to dissolve ‘identities’ (except its own). How do we honour the experience and wretchedness which has shaped us – (and there is more than one ‘us’) – without making a fetish of subjection? What is the immanent politics of memory? Is a non-instrumental identity possible in a life ‘without why’?
Thanks to this book, I appreciate more deeply and joyfully how immanent, uncreated life undoes the self whose sinews are resentment and debasement. There is an echo of this protest voiced in the Corpus Hermeticum: ‘But if thou lockest up thy soul within thy body, and dost debase it, saying: I nothing know; I nothing can; I fear the sea; I cannot scale the sky; I know not who I was, who I shall be;—what is there [then] between [thy] God and thee?’. Get rid of the prison you have created: between ‘thy God and thee’, the text affirms, there is truly only indistinction and equality.
What Alex’s book has also made me wonder is: beyond the debased body, within this life in common, can immanence still cradle a flesh which bears the marks of its own gravity and history?

Introduction: The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event

I’m very excited to launch our next book event, on Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern (Fordham University Press, 2018). We have some fantastic contributions lined up, from Steve Shakespeare, Joseph Albernaz, Timothy Snediker, Beatrice Marovich, Jordan Skinner, Kris Trujillo, Anthony Paul Smith; and finally a response from Alex Dubilet.

Dubilet’s book takes as its central concern the opposition between immanence and transcendence which has, for the past fifty years or so, come to be a concern for a range of disciplines within the humanities. The opposition between immanence and transcendence is often mapped onto the opposition between philosophy – understood by both its critics and its advocates as a discourse of immanence – and theology – taken, by contrast, to be a discourse of transcendence. Against this tendency, Dubilet tracks the theme of immanence and the critique of transcendence from Meister Eckhart to G F W Hegel to Georges Bataille, taking all three to be thinkers of immanence and to lend support to his central contention that, while the distinction between immanence and transcendence is crucial, it cannot be mapped onto the distinction between theology and philosophy.

While kenosis – the self-emptying of the subject and of God – is often taken to be central to the thinking of transcendence, what Dubilet finds in the trajectory leading from Eckhart through Hegel to Bataille is a model of self-emptying which affirms not transcendence but immanence, expressing a form of life without sovereignty, outside the grasp of either the self or of God because it precedes the processes of distinction which bring into being both the self and God. The self does not belong to anyone or anything, not even to itself; it is not subject to anyone or anything, existing not to serve a transcendent cause or purpose, not to be saved or to save others, but freely, without why – to quote Jared Sexton, not everything for everyone, but nothing for no one. The kenotic self-emptying so central to the Christian tradition can be understood not to express our absolute dependence on and subservience to God, but, instead, to affirm absolute renunciation, up to and including the renunciation of the distinction between God and the world, God and the self, the self and the world.

This account of the self-emptying subject is not, for Dubilet, merely an ontological affirmation of immanence but also an ethics and a politics. The self empties itself of subjection, of possession, of sovereignty and of teleology; the ethics of the self-emptying subject is an ethics of uselessness and dispossession, ‘a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on [the subject] in its interaction with transcendence’ (18).

Contributors’ posts will go up over the next couple of weeks, and this page will stay updated with links to new posts.

Steven Shakespeare: A Few Words for the Wretched (Immanence and Impersonal Life)

Joseph Albernaz: Out of Out

Timothy Snediker: Abolish the Place!

Beatrice Marovich: Angels and Flies

Jordan Skinner: Immanent Reading