Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event: A Contribution from Amaryah Shaye Armstrong

This post is by Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Neoliberalism’s Demons is an exciting development in Adam Kotsko’s thought. The most significant contributions here are, I think, methodological. With this book however, Kotsko offers up a helpful rearticulation of political theology that exchanges obligation to the Schmittian sense of political theology for a more heuristic sense. Overcoming some of the stalements of what I’ll call the “classic” form of political theology, Kotsko provides a clear and concise sense of political theology that finally catches up to the multitude of analyses that have been taken up under its banner. I primarily found his examinations of the the link between the political problem of legitimacy and the theological problem of evil to be a very astute insight that subtly but effectively shows the conceptual homologies that tie questions of governance to questions of meaning and value. This definition in particular stayed with me:

Political Theology is a holistic genealogical inquiry into the structures and sources of legitimacy in a particular historical moment. Political theology in this sense is political because it investigates institutions and practices of governance… and it is theological because it it deals with questions of meaning and value… And it is both simultaneously because the structures of governance are always necessarily caught up with questions of meaning and value and because the answers we offer to questions of meaning and value always have direct implication for how the world should be governed–in other words, the structures and sources of legitimacy tend to correlate conceptually.

It seems obvious now that Kotsko has stated it so clearly, but having spent time with some stodgy old white men doing “political theology” in what felt like a deeply stilted and unecessarily narrow sense, it can’t be understated how helpful this is as an intervention into the more “traditional” sense of political theology. Along with his rearticulation of the relationship between the political and the theological, Kotsko also helpfully revises the conception of economic such that political theology’s bias against it is able to take more seriously its structuring of everyday life. This will go a long way in overcoming some of the hang ups of the field that have prevented useful analysis of the political, theological, and economic to emerge.

Aside from the methodological, the book is generally accurate in its intuitions of how neoliberalism operates as a political theological paradigm. However, there were places that felt thin or underworked, specifically around demonization and blackness, that revealed the extent to which political theology needs a serious engagement with black studies. Primarily relying on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the gestures to race in Neoliberalism’s Demons while not wrong per se, are not at the theoretical level of the rest of Kotsko’s sources. This belies not only a gap in Kotsko’s argument, but a gap in political theology that is worthy of significant study. Such study would, I think, shift the terms of enunciation for more than just Kotsko’s argument, but there are specific ways I think it would apply here.

In the book, there seems to be the sense that neoliberalism demonizes everyone, and while there’s a vague attempt to note that not everyone experiences this in the same way, the desire to present neoliberalism as a total worldview seems to ignore the sense in which antiblackness is the total worldview that gives order to the economic arrangement on which neoliberalism depends. For instance, to track the sense in which individuals are now scapegoated in the name of freedom and become captive to debt is to ignore the sense in which blackness was already structured as that permanently demonic figure of wretchedness, Fanon’s damned, for centuries preceding the emergence of the neoliberal paradigm. What neoliberalism seems to reveal is the extent to which the carceral techniques that have structured the antiblack economy of the world have developed into a unique set of justifications, practices of governance, and technologies of control through which to manage non-black people now, albeit according to a different logic of reproduction. And it is this inability to perceive that the situation that white people are now subject to is not a novelty in black life, but has been its persistent climate (what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather” in her book In the Wake), that sometimes left me frustrated with the book. To use a black colloquialism, when white people have a cold, black people have pneumonia. A more attentive tracking of not only the disparate racial formations that structure neoliberalism, but a sense of how the liberal democratic project was always already funded by antiblack carcerality would shift the tone of the book toward a more precise sense of the novelty of neoliberalism and its extension of and dependence on the antiblack justification of carcerality that long precedes it.

In her groundbreaking work, Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams inquires into the persistent oversight of the oppressed of the oppressed in theology. And not just dominant theology, but black liberation and feminist theologies. Her methodological intervention, rereading and a womanist hermeneutic of identification-ascertainment highlights the urgency of reforming perception prior to even beginning critical analysis. With this rereading and reorientation to material, Williams write, “heuristics and issues emerge.” In what sense does Kotsko’s helpful diagnosis of neoliberalism as a political theological paradigm highlight the sense in which antiblackness as a political theological paradigm continues to be the unthought that produces novelty in other fields? Such a pervasive and persistent imperception of the ways that black studies has been theorizing and surviving these problems reveals the depth of structural white supremacy that orients most fields of study. Blackness either becomes an illustration of a more general problem or is unthought. What would it mean to take this moment of methodological reorientation in political theological to also radically reorient it, rereading it, such that it can be thought as a heuristic in service of a radically black mode of inquiry? By this line of questioning, I simply mean to say, what would it mean to think from the underside of neoliberalism and its demonizing machinations? It is only through such thought that a clearer picture of neoliberalism’s operations emerge and, in so doing, we can recognize what is truly novel about it while resituating within the antiblack economy as a new conflict in white governance that continues the deadly effects of white governance for black people the world over.

Now that white people are subject to extensions of antiblack protocols of governance, many are beginning to wake up to the death-dealing of antiblackness and its carceral economy. This is not an “I told you so.” In some sense, since the invention of modern racial slavery and global antiblackness, it’s always been too late. The blackness of justice is that it is never timely but of its own time. This can be a lesson for us in becoming adequate to our own time, always living in the failure of being too late. Still, our lives depend on making something of that lateness, and Neoliberalism’s Demons provides an occasion for just that.

Introduction: Neoliberalism’s Demons Book Event

I’m pleased to announce the start of our book event on our own Adam Kotsko’s most recent book, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford University Press: 2018). We’ve got a very exciting lineup of contributors, listed in our schedule below.

The starting point for Kotsko’s intervention in the book is his rejection of what he terms “Arendt’s Axiom.” The notion of a division between the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ as distinct spheres of human activity maintains a high degree of inertia within studies of political theology. Kotsko argues that this is, at least in part, due to the highly influential roles of both Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt in the formation of political theology as a field of inquiry. Schmitt’s focus on the concepts of law and sovereignty in both Political Theology (1922) and The Concept of the Political (1932) was motivated in part by an attempt to explain the qualitative distinction between politics and other spheres of human social life. Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) argued—on the basis of a highly idiosyncratic reading of Aristotle—that an original Greek experience of the oikos and the polis as distinct spheres of human life, with distinct logics and activities proper to each, had undergone a transvaluation through late antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages; with the ‘economic’ sphere coming, in modernity, to dominate and threaten to extinguish its counterpart. Proceeding on the basis of this division—the aforementioned ‘axiom’—a good deal of early work in political theology either ignores or explicitly rejects the idea of conceptual transfer between these two fields, whether from economy to sovereign polis or from polis to oikos. And this assumption is visible even now, Kotsko claims, in recent inquiries into economic theology by Giorgio Agamben and Dotan Leshem, or inquiries into the neoliberal condition by writers like Wendy Brown.

Proceeding instead from the assumption that any division between the political and the economic is a division made and remade by new political-theological-economic paradigms, Kotsko turns to an investigation of the specific form taken by the ‘political theology’—which is also to say the ‘economic theology’—of neoliberalism. Key to this move is a focus on the question of neoliberalism’s legitimation. That is: where previous studies (focused on the seemingly hermetically sealed paradigms of political sovereignty or economic governmentality) draw attention to the nature of the ‘god’ endemic to either the political or the economic sphere, Kotsko focuses on the way obligation to that god is engendered: through the demonization of the neoliberal subject. That is: the political-theological paradigm that is neoliberalism is neither simply a political nor an economic agenda, on Kotsko’s reading. It reaches into every facet of social life, making its subjects culpable for their own economic and political condition, while at the same time unable to change the nature of that condition. It entails a specific model of human agency, one which has to be actively made for its subjects. In its treatment of religion, family structure, gender and sexuality, and racialization, Neoliberalism entails the re-narration of subjective agency in such a way as to make the victims of its worst effects responsible for their own suffering and demise. Neoliberalism, in other words, “makes demons of us all.”

Contributors’ posts will be posted next couple of weeks, and this page will stay updated with links to new posts. Our projected schedule is as follows:

The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event – Becoming Unrecognizable

The appearance of a first book is a somewhat singular event, especially, perhaps, for those of us who carry a strong bibliophilic streak within them. Yet, even as one’s name appears among the other books on the bookshelves, the satisfaction, if felt at all, turns out to be less intense than was expected. The solidity and stability that should have come with one’s, so to speak, transformation into book form does not arrive. Whatever metabolic processes go into creating a book, they are not without remainders. I experienced the physical appearance of the book at first as a kind of non-event, receiving it with a perplexing non-reaction. After all, by the time the book emerges as a physical object, a separate and distinct being, one (one’s thoughts, investments, anxieties…) is already somewhere else. The book is a belated form. It always lags in relation to the self. The book’s appearance hides the fact that its questions, arguments, and readings, its psychic resistances and scars, its meanderings and deviations – many of them are five, six, or even seven years old. So, it appears, but I am elsewhere – thinking other thoughts, reading other texts, asking other questions, struggling with other problems. And yet the delay indexes that a kind of objectification has taken place: the book carries a name, but it is no longer identical to the self. It becomes a strange semi-autonomous object – with an air of purposelessness about it, bespeaking the truth of Lacan’s pun: it all seems closer to poubellication. Rather than fulfilment, it appears merely as a by-product of a thought process (that had to be groomed for publication and given form, to be sure). But now, one is elsewhere, thinking other thoughts, amidst other conversations.

Continue reading “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event – Becoming Unrecognizable”

A Tale of Three Mommies: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Editor’s note: This continues the conversation between Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko about Star Trek: Discovery that began with this post. Now that we have caught up on our backlog, we are tentatively planning to do a conversation on each individual episode. Today’s installment is Season 2, Episode 3: “Point of Light”.]

AK: That… was a weird one.

SJ: Mommy issues to go with our daddy issues!

Clearly this Family shtick is the thing
As an episode I think it was the most coherent so far this season but like also WHAAAT

AK: Yeah, that was nuts — but much better-paced than the first two.
That was more or less Game of Thrones in space.

SJ: I have not watched Game of Thrones!

AK: Oh wow. You’re so lucky! I kind of hate Game of Thrones.
Basically, the factors that reminded me of Game of Thrones were the aesthetic of the Klingon spaces, the use of “the old ultra-violence,” and the fact that the episode was a formless grab-bag of plots.
Continue reading “A Tale of Three Mommies: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

A Feminist Ethics of Self-Emptying?

This post is by Kris Trujillo. Kris is Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University where he teaches and researches the Christian mystical tradition, queer theory, and Latinx literature.

How do you write a history of theory? How does the writing of history present itself as an act of theorizing? These questions are implicitly raised by Alex Dubilet’s The Self-Emptying Subject not only because its subtitle announces a treatment of kenosis and immanence from the Middle Ages to modernity but also because Dubilet identifies as the primary aim of his text “a theoretical intervention into debates within contemporary philosophy of religion through an engagement with the history of philosophy and theology” (20). Dubilet makes a bold—and, I think, certainly correct—methodological move by insisting on a genealogy of modern theory that draws from medieval theology in order to challenge a secular narrative that draws strict and limiting distinctions not only between premodernity and modernity but also between the disciplines of philosophy and theology.

And through this genealogical disruption, Dubilet comes to articulate an ethics of self-emptying that discloses “an immanence that precedes and exceeds the division of life into self and other” or, as he puts it elsewhere, “a life without a why—an Eckhartian expression explored in chapter 1—a life untethered from the demands of labor, salvation, and justification, which are repeatedly imposed on it in its interaction with transcendence” (15, 18). That this project is ultimately an ethical one thus begs an ethical rephrasing of my initial question: how should you write a history of theory? Should the ethics of writing with history reflect the ethical project that this history treats? Or are the demands of historiographical labor irrelevant to or incommensurate with an ethics of self-emptying?

I ask these questions about methodology because in so many ways Dubilet and I share a methodological investment in undoing the restrictions of a form of historicism that relies upon a determinative form of causality. I embrace the theoretically generative potential of nonlinearity, anachronism, or what Carolyn Dinshaw has famously called a queer “touching across time.” For Dubilet, these historical displacements are liberating: “They allow us,” he writes, “to suspend the historicizing imperative and thereby to resist thinking that moments of speculation and theoretical articulation must necessarily be tied down securely to a material moment or a historical period that would exhaustively determine them” (20–21, my emphasis). Dubilet goes on, then, to remind us, “Temporality is not abstraction, a pure container into which we place events of thought or discourse, but something that has to be established each time anew in relation to the particularities of one’s material” (21, my emphasis). So, how do we distinguish between the constrictive form of materiality that enforces historical determinism and the constructive form of materiality upon which a particular notion of historical time depends? How, in other words, do we decide which historical details matter?

In particular, I am interested in the characterization of Meister Eckhart’s singular formulation of kenosis found, most explicitly, in Sermon 52, “Beati pauperes spiritu.” In order to distinguish between true and misdirected forms of poverty, Eckhart offers the following definition of the poverty of the soul, which Dubilet quotes in full:

So long as a man has this as his will, that he wants to fulfill God’s dearest will, he has not the poverty about which we want to talk. Such a person has a will with which he wants to fulfill God’s will, and that is not true poverty. For if a person wants really to have poverty, he ought to be as free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist. For I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

According to Eckhart, to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is to disavow one’s own will, want for nothing, and desire to fulfill God’s will. But to “have a will to fulfill God’s will” is still, fundamentally, to have a will; therefore, it does not reflect true poverty of the will, which is, instead, “to have a will and longing for nothing” or to liberate oneself from the created will and become uncreated.

Dubilet offers an astute reading that articulates Eckhart’s critique of the attachment to external exercises associated with poverty like fasting, vigils, manual labor, and mendicancy—works, in general—and, ultimately, suggests, “Using the scriptural quotation as his nominal guide, Eckhart explicitly restricts his explorations of poverty to its spiritual manifestations, thus bypassing the medieval debates on the status and validity of material or ‘external’ poverty that were very much alive in Franciscan circles” (29). For Dubilet, Sermon 52 does not concern itself with lived forms of Christian poverty. What is not mentioned, however, is the extent to which this sermon echoes important theological moves in the beguine Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls so much so that some have argued that Eckhart’s Sermon 52 was written as an homage to Porete’s text. Like Porete, Eckhart calls for a poverty based on wanting nothing, knowing nothing, and having nothing. Like Porete, Eckhart formulates a radical move beyond God godself. But, perhaps most importantly for this inquiry, like Porete, Eckhart troubles himself with a question central to the beguine life—a discussion about the ideal form of poverty. In other words, by situating Eckhart’s discussion of poverty within the context of beguine spirituality, his concern for external displays of poverty emerges more clearly even as he maintains the ideal state of spiritual poverty.

As contemporary thirteenth-century hagiographies demonstrate, the injunctions against female mendicancy and performances of the active life reflect a clerical suspicion of female expressions of these ideals and an attempt to emphasize enclosure as the only suitable form of female religiosity. Thus, even while hagiographical evidence might call for spiritual poverty, even for women, it clearly does not authorize actual begging or manual labor. While Eckhart seems to follow this clerical move against mendicant female spirituality, his borrowing from Porete seems to suggest more of an alignment with than opposition to the beguines. Indeed, his appreciation for beguine concerns comes to the fore in Sermon 86, “Intravit Jesus in quoddam castellum,” which famously treats the story of Mary and Martha. While most medieval interpretations of this story align Mary with the contemplative life and Martha with the active life in order, ultimately, to privilege contemplative forms of piety, Eckhart offers a novel reading that not only praises Martha over Mary because of her association with the active life but also essentially assigns both women to the active life. Mary will, according to Eckhart, begin to work as soon as her contemplative desire is fulfilled. This reading, thus, leads Eckhart to warn against those who might call for the total escape from the active life: “Now some people want to go so far as to achieve freedom from works. I say this cannot be done. It was not until after the time when the disciples received the Holy Spirit that they began to perform virtuous deeds.” What Eckhart suggests is that one cannot attain total freedom from works but, rather, that works are made possible by the contemplative life even despite the call for detachment and uncreated being.

And this recognition on Eckhart’s part parallels a similar admission by Porete that despite the call to move beyond God, the living Christian is inseparable from works. In chapter 119 of The Mirror of Simple Souls, Porete offers the following reflection on her book:

Now I understand, on account of your peace and on account of the truth, that this book is of the lower. Cowardice has given refuge to it, which has given its perception over to reason through the answering of Love to Reason’s questions. And so it has been created by human reason and human judgment; and human science and human judgment know nothing about the deepest love, deepest love from Divine knowledge. My heart is drawn so high and fallen so low at the same time, that I cannot complete it. For everything that one can say or write about God, or think about him, God who is greater than what is ever said, is thus more like lying than speaking the truth.

This putative statement about the impotence of writing because it “is of the lower” suggests that Porete denigrates, to some extent, the value of works. And yet, it is only through the very work of literature—the work of writing a book—that Porete as author is able to transform into Love and live “without a why.” Despite Porete’s apparent devaluing of works, she is never able to escape the work of her book.

Like Porete, Eckhart figures his own working with language as a kind of work. As Amy Hollywood reminds us in The Soul as Virgin Wife, “This is one aspect of the ‘work’ of the soul unified with the divine—one outcome of that union. Through contradiction and paradox, Eckhart sets language in motion; the signifier of the Son, for instance, is never allowed to become static and objectified, for it describes an action, process, or movement, its own eternal birth, rather than a figure or entity” (158). But even as Eckhart identifies the true work of the eternal birth of the Word in the soul, he is unable to divorce this spiritual work from the material work of his texts.

My claim, throughout, has been that to set Eckhart in the context of beguine spirituality may have an important impact on Dubilet’s project and not because this historical condition is exhaustively determinative. What Dubilet calls a “life without a why,” for example, also comes from beguine writers like Marguerite Porete, but what the above treatment of beguine works suggests is that the very process and performance of the active life is preserved in the theory of language to which both Porete and Eckhart adhere. This theory of language is dynamic and resists the static objectification of its terms because it is tied to the eternal birth, which is the work of the soul. So might it be important to reclaim the terms that Porete and Eckhart deploy—“living without a why”—to maintain such dynamism?

In the end, I wonder if it is possible to arrive at an immanence that is prior to and in excess of the subject if we think of The Self-Emptying Subject as, itself, a working of discourse and, thus, inseparable from external conditions. Does the act of writing a book with history “collude in subjecting life, in putting it to work” (16)? Dubilet rightly worries about the restrictions of historicism and externalities, yet can a philosophical disavowal of these terms not only yield liberation but also operate according to a logic of exclusion? Might gender be one such external condition? Indeed, with gender in mind, do all subjects have the same kind of access to an ethics of self-emptying? What, finally, might a feminist ethics of self-emptying look like?

Daddy Pike: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first of several informal chats between Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko on Star Trek: Discovery. This first chat covers the first two episodes of the new seasons, as well as the shorts—but the first season inevitably comes up as well. Sarah is a new fan who came to Star Trek through Discovery, while Adam is a hardcore Trek completist who, unlike many longtime fans, is an ardent, though not uncritical, supporter of the new series. This conversation begins in the middle of a conversation about the “Short Treks” shorts. Unconventional punctuation and line-breaks are retained in the interest of authenticity.

SJ: also I have weird feelings about the short that was basically the star trek version of that joaquin phoenix movie where he falls in love with an ai

AK: That felt really random.

SJ: I feel like the shorts must all thread back up somehow? except maybe the Harry Mudd one which already does
which also may have been my favorite

AK: It was the most entertaining.
The Tilly one kind of made no sense? I think it should have been a full episode (or at least a b-plot) — it just moved too fast and felt slipshod to me.
SJ: yeah. I liked the character! I was intrigued! and then…
but I hope that one connects up the most I guess
AK: I hated the voiceover in Saru’s short — it felt like they didn’t trust the audience
SJ: I also liked Saru but like, wtf is this “you can never go back, you are a v v special kelpian, the rest of your people just have to go on being fucking oppressed” fals econsciousness shit

AK: They had to gerrymander the scenario so that Saru and only Saru could go — otherwise he’d be a monster for abandoning his sister
I guess it fits with Giorgiou following the rules to a fault — like when she spent the whole premier uselessly floating there.
Really, Saru should have mutineed and retreated.
What is the past participle of “to mutiny”? Mutinied?

Continue reading “Daddy Pike: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery