On Dionysius, Mystic Discourse, and Catastrophe: A Theology of Failure Book Event

Post by Alex Dubilet

            It is always fascinating to see a book finally appear, the first elements of which one encountered in much earlier forms. I remember hearing Marika Rose present her initial work on Dionysius the Areopagite years ago at conference in Liverpool (the occasion also of our first meeting, if I remember correctly). No less than Žižek, who appears in the subtitle of the book, it is Dionysius who structures the parameters of the theological problematics in A Theology of Failure. I will return below to ask after the stakes of commencing our theological reflections with Dionysius, but I want to begin with the book’s ending, because it is there, at least to my mind, that we find one of its most unexpected and original theoretical explorations. In the last chapter, Marika argues for a convergence between the logic of Dionysius’s Mystical Theology and Lacan’s theory of the four discourses. She convincingly demonstrates a parallel between the Dionysian stages of “naming, proliferation, denials, and then the collapse of denial itself” (154) and Lacan’s four discourses: the master’s discourse, the university discourse, the hysteric’s discourse, and the analyst’s discourse. The detailed parallels that she presents are illuminating and contribute to the tradition of thought that resists seeing psychoanalysis as a resolutely secular science, seeing it instead as articulating ways of speaking (but also ways of thinking) that harbor unexpected intimacies with the history of theology. This strand of thought – I am thinking of such works as Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasies: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History and Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam – has produced some of the most interesting writing and reflection on psychoanalysis and on mysticism in recent years.
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Theology and The Failure of Order: A Theology of Failure Book Event

While I don’t typically anticipate theology books anymore, Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure, was one I was waiting on from the moment I heard about it. I’ve often said that Marika is the only person who could get me interested in Zizek’s work, and this book not only proves that, but forwards a genuinely compelling set of questions regarding the nature and task of theology and the possibility of practicing this mode of inquiry in a way that is unconcerned with the reproduction of confessional Christian norms of speech, creatively re-uses Christian theological material, and aims to actually attend to and become accountable for the devastation Christian theology has wrought in the Western world. In all, Marika presents a book which I’m very excited to be in conversation about, and I simply want to extend a set of reflections that followed me throughout the book.
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Theology of Failure Book Event: Introduction

I am excited to announce that we are starting a book event on Marika Rose’s new book, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence, recently published by Fordham University Press. This remarkable study takes Žižek’s intervention into theology more seriously than any previous work — indeed, perhaps more seriously than Žižek himself takes it — by situating it in terms of a theologian who has been an important source for contemporary theological discourse and many other thinkers of the “religious turn,” though not for Žižek himself: Dionysius the Areopagite. This juxtaposition allows Rose to demonstrate the ways that Žižek’s thought, including those aspects that are not explicitly theological, responds to the inherent deadlocks of apophatic theology.

At the same time, the choice of Žižek as interlocutor allows her to escape the trap, common among those working at the intersection of philosophy and theology, of presenting the philosopher as some kind of moral authority who passes judgment on the failings of conventional theology. No one can mistake Žižek for a spiritual guru, and his problematic interventions on issues related to gender, immigration, and other political issues make him an unlikely candidate for a progressive exemplar, or perhaps even as a progressive ally. Rose is clear-eyed about Žižek’s failings, which make him an especially fruitful interlocutor for a tradition that has failed again and again to deliver the benefits — love, liberation, authentic community — that it claims sole proprietorship of. The result is a thorough-going critique of theology as a discipline that goes beyond the quest for a “good version” of Christianity, yet without giving up on the task of theology altogether.

Our tentative schedule is as follows. (After each author posts their contribution, a link will be added here to provide a handy reference.)

Wednesday, September 18: Amaryah Armstrong
Friday, September 20: Alex Dubilet

Monday, September 23: Ben Fulford
Wednesday, September 25: Tapji Garba
Friday, September 27: Rajbir Singh Judge

Monday, September 30: Eric Daryl Meyer
Wednesday, October 2: Anthony Paul Smith
Friday, October 4: Marika Rose (response)

The fantasy of high school

So many cultural tropes around high school are attempts to make our actions and experiences at that time make sense, when in reality we were all just flailing at random and mostly hated each other and ourselves most of the time. There is something humiliating about remembering — truly remembering — that we were once high schoolers. That’s why teenage dramas cast 20-something supermodels who move effortlessly within a clearly legible social hierarchy, to allow us to forget.

There’s a deep, but probably unfixable cruelty to the fact that our “choices” — if we can call them that — in high school shape our lives so profoundly. And there’s something in us that is so seduced by the fantasy of retrieving that moment and doing it right this time.

That’s the innovation of neoliberalism — it provides a clearly legible benchmark for what it means to do high school right. And parents are so eager to feed their children to that machine, because they wish so dearly that they had had that kind of clarity and purpose. The result is a generation who wasted their childhood — precisely by not “wasting” it, by treating childhood as a job. And maybe that means that they will be the first generation to grow up, to know for a fact that they did all they could in high school and it didn’t matter.

Adorno and the Origins of “Never Again”

Ever since then candidate Trump began calling for mass deportations and religious bans, comparisons to the Third Reich have consistently been made. While many of these comparisons fall short, it is not too difficult to see why and how they have been drawn. For decades, both of the political parties in America have laid the groundwork for a hard turn right, and now that a repugnant egotistical bigot is in office, many of our worst nightmares are coming true (see Trump’s latest tweet that ICE will soon begin said mass deportations). American fascism will look different than European fascism, but there are already enough similarities that many of the post-World War II sentiments have become common to invoke. In particular, the phrase “never again” has been heard consistently, with the added emphasis that “never again is now.” I believe that it is important to briefly account for the origins of “never again” to understand why it is more important than simply being a declarative catch phrase. 

It is Theodor Adorno who is commonly associated with coining “never again” and there are two places where he articulates precisely what he means. In his essay “Education after Auschwitz” Adorno states quite strongly that, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again…Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.”[1] After stating this claim, Adorno goes on to make two additional points in the essay: 1) the fundamental conditions of society that culminated in Auschwitz have mostly remained unchanged. This is particularly troublesome for Adorno because 2) the fact that Auschwitz occurred reveals a strong social tendency towards genocide. In other words, genocide is not an exception, but a norm of modernity. One is hard pressed to find much hope in Adorno’s work, but in the face of this tendency he insists that, “nevertheless the attempt must be made” to resist the pull towards barbarism.[2] Committing to “never again” potentially creates the possibility of negating creeping fascism, for Adorno.

Beyond simply a declaration, though, there is also an ethical dimension to “never again” that Adorno articulates in Negative Dialectics when he famously writes that “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[3] Without getting into the Kantian elements of this sentence, it is simple enough to make the obvious point that a categorical imperative is, in fact, an imperative. This imperative requires, as Adorno says, that both thoughts and actions undergo a transformation, or else Auschwitz will happen again. “Never again” is both the demand upon all education, and a categorical imperative that we all must heed.  

The average American deeply suppresses the fact that America is one of the most barbaric empires the world has ever known, and therefore lives with a general sense that we are a mostly good people. This means that calls for “never again” tend to ring hollow, and almost sound offensive, because we have convinced ourselves that “that” could never happen here. Adorno was aware of this, and he was not naive about the historical amnesia of the west. For Adorno, there is a strong indication that Auschwitz will certainly happen again, and the only way to possibly prevent that is when political instruction “devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities” to “never again.”[4] 

At the end of “Education After Auschwitz” Adorno recounts the time that Walter Benjamin asked him if there were really enough torturers in Germany to carry out the orders of the Nazis.[5] There were enough. And were President Trump to order that his own concentration camps become death camps, there would be enough Americans to carry out the order. We should not be naive about this reality. The catastrophe of American fascism is well underway, and there is no clear sign that it will slow down. In light of this, “never again” as a statement will not accomplish much in preventing the disaster. As an imperative, though, I think Adorno is correct that “never again” “can still manage a little something.”[6] 


[1]Theodor Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models, 191. 

[2]Ibid., 192. 

[3]Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365.

[5]Ibid., 204. 

[4]Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz”, 191.  

[6]Ibid.

The right-wing reaction is part of the legacy of the fall of the Soviet Union

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).

In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.

The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.

(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)

If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)

Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”