You must change your life

Pondering Bonhoeffer’s idea that there is a form of moral stupidity that requires more than persuasion — it requires conversion. You have to become a fundamentally different kind of person who lives a different kind of life.

I’m not a moral exemplar by any means. Ultimately, the only morally significant decision I made, coming from a conservative evangelical background, was to get the hell out of Dodge. However else I have evolved since then, it absolutely required being away from those people. To the extent that I actually manage not to be a prickly white male asshole about the concerns of other groups, it came from the choice to spend a significant chunk of my life at Chicago Theological Seminary, a genuinely diverse and progressive place.

One big problem with standard liberalism is that it is implicitly asking people to change their lives and break with their families and communities, and it offers them absolutely NOTHING, no way to imagine a different life or community — other than just “being right.”

Imagining if I had stayed in the evangelical orbit. Maybe I would have had formally “correct” opinions in some ways, but they would have been couched in the terms of that community and mostly represent my own personal pride and arrogance rather than any real alternative option. And I’m sure that, with the thin gruel on offer there, I would have been more vulnerable to online conspiracy thinking, etc. — again, out of intellectual pride and a desire to define myself over against my surroundings. That’s what happens when you don’t offer genuine education.

Sometimes I regret my decision to go to Podunk Christian College, but maybe marinating in that corrupt environment, learning that it really was “that bad,” was ultimately more productive for me. I don’t think I would have thrived in the elitist, competitive ethos of some schools. The evangelicals would have felt more like “home” — I could picture myself retreating, convincing myself that I was making the better and more counter-cultural choice, etc. It’s hard to think of all the ways my life could have basically been lost.

Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event: Introduction

I am happy to announce that we are beginning the book event on Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology: Hegel, Taubes, and Malabou (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). Recently published in paperback, you can buy the book at the usual places online, though if you are in the US you may want to try Bookshop.org and in the UK there is Hive.co.uk. Lynch begins his study with the gnomic phrase, “It seems like a good time to write a book about the end of the world (1).” Though these words were only published about a year ago, the acceleration of the end of the worlds, of the many individual worlds that comprise this world, makes it seem like this statement was made decades ago. Over the next couple of weeks we will post interventions that engage and explore aspects of the apocalyptic political theology developed by Lynch. It seems that some of us, even when everything is falling apart, are still drawn to think about all of this that is coming to an end, to the very idea of an end itself.

Thomas Lynch is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion and the Programme Director for the BA in Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Chichester, UK. In addition to his work on political theology, he has published on the relationship of the construction of the concept religion with the conception of race in European philosophy and politics, on Lacan and his influence on liberation thinking in philosophy and theology, and the contradictions in liberal political framing of religious communities. In Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology he makes a significant contribution to the field of political theology and the relationship between continental philosophy of religion and political theory by taking seriously the apocalyptic demand to end the world. After a short Introduction, Chapter 1 provides both a theory of the world and the methodology for the study. Lynch’s understanding of the world is dependent upon a bringing together of theorists like Frank B. Wilderson III with the reactionary political theology of Carl Schmitt. Lynch, who valorizes the work of those like Wilderson and rightly critiques Schmitt, deftly reads them together to argue that the world is structured by a set of divisions and antagonisms that is theologico-political at its heart. The cascading violence of these divisions is the very reason why those who are oppressed call for the end of the world. Any true liberation likes beyond the logic of this world, we are told. Methodologically, Lynch provides a helpful typology of various forms of political theology operative today, before telling us that in this study political theology is a way of philosophically engaging with ideas about the world.

What remains to be thought is an apocalyptic political theology, or a philosophical engagement with theological and political materials that takes seriously the call for the end of the world.  He does this by marshaling a significant body of literature in a succinct way by focusing them through concepts operating in Hegel’s “implicit political theology,” Taubes’s “spiritual disinvestment,” and Malabou’s concept of “plasticity” which is transformed into a “plastic apocalypticism.” The analysis and development of these concepts make up three of the main chapters of the book.

The philosophy of Hegel is the lynchpin that holds the three figure chapters together, but the book is not an investigation of Hegel as such. While Lynch impressively marshals a huge body of scholarship on Hegel, religion, philosophy, and apocalyptic thought, he is more concerned with treating Hegel as a material that emerges in response to a particular problem of a world that is intolerable and must be ended. The chapter on Taubes is important for being one of the few studies of Taubes’s work with an eye towards its cohesion as a whole. What emerges in part from Taubes’s own engagement with Hegel and apocalyptic political theology is a contradiction between affirming the end of the world as it is and some form of investment in a possible world. This contradiction is often the beginning of complicity with reproducing the world, and often a flight into transcendence, and yet Taubes condemns such complicity and such a flight to transcendence, to authotity. By turning to Malabou’s theory of plasticity Lynch is able to offer a way of understanding an apocalyptic that is “immanent, material, and desired for its own sake (141).” This crossed reading of Taubes and Malabou is original and is made possible by the isomorphism of Taubes definition of apocalyptic and Malabou’s definition of plastic as both “form destroying and creating.” This allows for an interesting consideration of the problematic between necessity and contingency that is central to any political thinking of radical change.

The book ends with a provocative conclusion that asks how we might live apocalyptically or negatively in a world that requires our investment in it for something like “a life.” While much work in political theology calls for the complicity decried by Taubes, Lynch manages to take seriously the true necessity that this world end with the trauma that comes form such a call, to say nothing of the reality of the end. Here, engaging mostly with the queer negativity of Lee Edelman and the hyperbolic demand for Black liberation that can only mean the end of the world found in Wilderson’s Afropessimist theory, Lynch sketches new lines of inquiry for political theology.

I hope you will join us in exploring and discussing these ideas.

Schedule (these will be updated with links to the posts as the event unfolds): 

 

Academic Publishing: An Odyssey

Over three years ago, I was invited to write a review of a handful of recent books by Giorgio Agamben. Since the books represented material from throughout his career, I used the opportunity to reflect on his intellectual development. After an unexpected round of editorial review, the text of my contribution was finalized and ready to go. That will have been approximately three years ago this fall.

Around the same time, I completed a translation of Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy, a reflection on the artwork that thematically overlapped with his first book, The Man Without Content. I hadn’t read the earlier book for a long time, so I decided to pick it up just to compare. It turned out to be very, very different, which piqued my interest in returning to Agamben’s earlier work. Gradually, this investigation evolved into an attempt to reread Agamben’s entire body of work in as close to chronological order as possible.

It became clear that this was my chance to make my definitive statement on Agamben’s work. As I finished my own read-through, I reviewed the relevant secondary literature. I began planning a book proposal and applied for (and received) institutional funding to travel to Italy to interview the man himself about his intellectual development. I gave papers on the topic in multiple venues. Then I wrote the book, got through the review process, and most recently, completed copyedits, proofs, and the index.

The book is coming out in September. I recently got an email that my book review has been scheduled for publication — in September. So in the time this journal has been sitting on a review that it solicited from me, I will have conducted a research program, obtained travel funding, then drafted and published a book on the same topic as that review. This has to mean something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)

Alongside a bigger project about angels, I’ve been working on an article about angels and film, and by ‘working on’ I mean I’ve been watching a lot of films with angels in, taking the Wikipedia page on “Films about angels” as my guide. The page title is a bit misleading, actually; it’s more properly a list of films with angels in, often in fairly marginal roles. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, for example, features angels only very briefly, in the form of pastel-clad flight attendants checking people’s tickets as they arrive in heaven (air travel being a frequent association with angels going at least as far back as  1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan, in which grey-suited angels check people onto planes presumably transporting people to heaven). Anyway, point is I’ve watched a lot of angel films at this point, and thought it might be worth trying to jot down some thoughts about them here as I go, so consider this your welcome to a new occasional blog series from me about films with angels in.

Spoilers ahead

Continue reading “A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)”

Book Event Announcement: Thomas J. Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology: Hegel, Taubes, Malabou

For our next book event we will be reading and discussing Thomas J. Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology: Hegel, Taubes, Malabou. We have gathered a number of AUFS regulars and new faces to examine with Thomas the themes explored in his book. The book has recently been published in paperback and we encourage you to get a copy from your local bookseller or online retailer and read along with us. The schedule and book description are below.

Monday, July 13th: Anthony Paul Smith (introductory post)
Wednesday, July 15th: Adam Kotsko
Friday, July 17th: Ole Jakob Løland
Monday, July 20th: Marika Rose
Wednesday, July 22nd: Joel Kuhlin
Friday, July 25th: Alana Vincent
Monday, July 27th: Ulrich Schmiedel
Wednesday, July 19th: Response from Thomas J. Lynch

Hegel’s philosophy of religion contains an implicit political theology. When viewed in connection with his wider work on subjectivity, history and politics, this political theology is a resource for apocalyptic thinking. In a world of climate change, inequality, oppressive gender roles and racism, Hegel can be used to theorise the hope found in the end of that world.

Histories of apocalyptic thinking draw a line connecting the medieval prophet Joachim of Fiore and Marx. This line passes through Hegel, who transforms the relationship between philosophy and theology by philosophically employing theological concepts to critique the world. Jacob Taubes provides an example of this Hegelian political theology, weaving Christianity, Judaism and philosophy to develop an apocalypticism that is not invested in the world. Taubes awaits the end of the world knowing that apocalyptic destruction is also a form of creation. Catherine Malabou discusses this relationship between destruction and creation in terms of plasticity. Using plasticity to reformulate apocalypticism allows for a form of apocalyptic thinking that is immanent and materialist.

Together Hegel, Taubes and Malabou provide the resources for thinking about why the world should end. The resulting apocalyptic pessimism is not passive, but requires an active refusal of the world.

New Article: “Not Persuasion, but Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”

The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary — our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers…. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.

Read the rest of my scathing indictment of the entire world here.

Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion

[Translator’s note: Agamben has asked me to translate his latest reflection on the coronavirus crisis.]

That science has become the religion of our time, that in which people believe they believe, has been obvious for some time now. In the modern West there have coexisted and, to a certain extent, still coexist three great systems of belief: Christianity, capitalism, and science. In the history of modernity, these three “religions” have often intersected, entering from time to time into conflict and later reconciling in a different way, until they progressively reached a sort of peaceful, articulated coexistence, if not a true and proper collaboration in the name of a common interest.

What is new is that between science and the other two religions there has ignited, without our noticing it, a subterranean and implacable conflict, the successful results of which for science are daily before our eyes and determine in an unheard-of way all aspects of our existence. This conflict does not concern, as happened in the past, theory or general principles, but, so to speak, cultic practice. Indeed, science too, like every religion, knows diverse forms and levels through which it organizes and orders its structure: to the elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatic there corresponds in practice an extremely broad and widespread cultic sphere which coincides with what we call technology.

It is not surprising that the protagonist of this new war of religions should be that part of science where the dogmatic is less rigorous and the pragmatic aspect stronger: medicine, whose immediate object is the living body of human beings. Let us attempt to fix the essential character of this victorious faith with which we must increasingly settle accounts.
Continue reading “Giorgio Agamben: Medicine as Religion”

Beneath contempt

Every American public intellectual must eventually face a hard truth: American electoral politics are not worthy of sustained analysis. Only when placed in a broader context of economic transformations and extra-electoral struggles do they take on any genuine interest, and even then the strictly electoral aspect is bound to be the least compelling part of the narrative. Taken as a whole, our ruling classes are beneath contempt — an ensemble of short-sighted, corrupt mediocrities — and the few exceptions are basically a rounding error.

The response to such a dispiriting situation might seem obvious, namely, to avoid talking about or engaging with electoral politics unless strictly necessary. That difficulty, however, is that the whole of what passes for American public life is oriented around electoral politics. Policy decisions are normally discussed solely in terms of possible electoral strategies and outcomes, and even private conversations about politics tend to devolve into a binary choice between Democrats and Republicans. It is not enough for us to show up to vote — we must be perpetually campaigning for our preferred side, which means maintaining the party discipline of all those around us.

There is a difference between Republicans and Democrats. It is not as large as I wish it were, but it is large enough to make a difference and large enough to make the trouble of voting worth it for me as a harm reduction measure. Whenever there’s a primary, I vote for the left-most Democrat, and whenever there’s a general election, I vote for the Democrat. These elections happen, at most, once or twice a year, and they represent an important, but fundamentally uninteresting binary choice. No one needs the amount of political news the average American — much less the average “very online” American — consumes in order to make that choice. If the goal is to affect election outcomes, then we are all wasting an unfathomable amount of time, in the outer reaches of a region light-years from the point of diminishing returns.

We used to hear a lot in the early Trumpocene that we should not allow Trump’s latest antics to “distract us” from the truly important things we should be paying attention to. People seem to have grown tired of that rhetorical pose as it has become increasingly clear that there is no underlying agenda behind the antics — he really is as racist and callous and self-aggrandizing as he appears. The surface is the reality. As annoyed as I was by their rhetoric, though, I’d suggest that the distractionists actually did not go far enough: all of it is a “distraction,” none of it is real. Yes, it has real effects, and yes, it makes a difference. But all of our politicians are, with certain admirable but marginal exceptions, corrupt opportunists who are responding to forces more fundamental than those tracked by polling and pundits. The really interesting questions are why they act like they do, why our ramshackle apartheid “democracy” keeps producing these results, why the news media invests billions of dollars annually in convincing us that the petty grievances and bad-faith arguments of this class of sad losers is the most important and interesting thing in the world.

The challenge, though, is that to be heard at all in what we laughingly call the public sphere, the intellectual must — or at least feels they must — somehow contextualize their point in the struggle between the sad losers everyone hates. So that sucks.

The Real State of Exception?

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

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

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