Today we compiled and submitted the final manuscript for Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the edited volume on Agamben’s many interlocutors that Carlo Salzani and I have been working on for seemingly all eternity (in reality, at least 18 months). Thank you to Carlo and to all the contributors for what has turned out to be an excellent volume that we hope will become a standard part of every Agamben’s fan’s reference library!
It never fails. Any time someone expresses approval of a protest, a nice liberal will come along and declare that it’s counterproductive because it makes Trump (or whichever right-wing figure) look like a victim, further legitimating him in people’s minds. This cliche really came into its own after Richard Spencer was punched, but now it’s being trotted out in connection with the protesters who prompted Betsy DeVos to flee a public school. And it’s wrong-headed concern-trolling at its very worst, on every conceivable level.
First, these moves were not counterproductive. Both cases represented powerful symbolic actions, memorably and vividly demonstrating that people passionately oppose the targets and are willing to put their bodies on the line. And both actions carry possible concrete consequences — Spencer has complained that he feels less comfortable speaking in public and acknowledges that that hurts his cause, and billionaire Betsy DeVos could conceivably discover that her vanity cabinet appointment isn’t worth being constantly hassled by protestors.
Second, they do not make their targets look like victims. The punch made Spencer look like the buffoon he is, and the protestors at the public school made Betsy DeVos look like a coward.
Third, even granting that the targets look like victims, how is this legitimation effect supposed to work? I wish someone would find me the person who said to himself, “I used to oppose Neo-Nazi ideology, but once I saw that some guy got punched for espousing it, I gave it a second look” or “I was a big supporter of public schools, but after seeing that Betsy DeVos fled from five or six protestors, I now advocate liquidating them and privatizing the education system.” But they can’t, because there is no such person.
And that’s because perceived victimhood does not automatically grant authority. Sometimes perceived victimhood can be instrumentalized to reinforce authority, but it can just as easily be explained away — ask Black Lives Matter about the latter phenomenon. And claiming victim status is always risky, because you could wind up looking like a pathetic whiner and undermining your own cause. Like, say, if you espouse an ideology claiming you’re part of the master race but are scared to go out in public because you might get punched. Or if you’re a billionaire who doesn’t even try to engage with what is objectively a really, really small group of peaceful protestors. Or if you’ve been installed as President of the United States and spend all your time complaining about perceived sleights.
But this post is probably self-undermining, because by subjecting liberal concern-trolls to such a harsh critique, I’m just making them look like victims and legitimating their position.
It’s fair to say that I am a productive person, both academically and more generally. I view getting my work done as an opportunity to finally get some work done. I’ve written before about the somewhat sad origins of this productivity, which started as a survival strategy of being always above reproach. But I do mostly enjoy my symptom. Last week, for instance, I far exceeded my own expectations by finishing a talk and a major administrative task, both of which I thought would dominate much of the next week and a half — and that evening I was riding what can only be described as a productivity high.
Normally, I try to schedule things so that a project is ramping up just as another is winding down. As I was finalizing the manuscript of The Prince of This World, for instance, I was already beginning to work with Carlo Salzani on our edited volume, Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage. Every so often, though, I “clear the decks” in a situation where I am in no real position to start something new, where I can just barely keep treading water with my day-to-day obligations of teaching and doing things associated with deaning. I am living in one of those moments: all the irons in my fire for the past few months are either finished (an article based on my Australia/New Zealand talk, my Loraux translation) or tantalizingly close (wrapping up the edited volume).
Notionally, being “done” is the goal of all my labors. Sometimes I catch myself thinking things like, “It’ll be nice to be able to do things like read Proust once I’m done” — as though I could be globally done with every project and finally relax. But as anyone who has skimmed a summary of Lacan could tell you, that’s not actually how it works. I may once have done my chores promptly as a means to the end of having them done and clearing out — in the style of Cool Hand Luke — a brief respite of freedom. As a fully-baked adult, though, I have turned that fateful corner so that the ostensible goal is only a means to the means themselves. And so, “clearing the decks” could be better termed “falling off a cliff.”
That’s when it becomes clear that I still bear the scars of the original formation of my routine, which I adopted to quell anxiety and assert some minimal control over my situation. And the same reversal holds — in the absence of the defense mechanism, anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness arise unbidden, regardless of whether they are objectively justified. Right now, I have plenty of things to sincerely worry about, from Trump all the way down to the major institutional transition Shimer is going through. But I know from past experience that the surplus-anxiety released by idleness can attach itself to anything: the potential health problems of a healthy dog, for instance, or whether our landlord will renew our lease when there’s literally no possible reason he wouldn’t.
Maybe on some level these periods of workohol withdrawal are healthy for me. Maybe it’s okay to do the bare minimum sometimes, to sit with the fact that a lot of very important factors in my life are beyond my control. Or maybe — wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before — learning to relax can be my next task!
On Thursday, February 16, I am doing two events at Northwestern — a discussion of the intro and chapter 1 of The Prince of This World and a talk on political theology and neoliberalism. Details are included in this PDF flyer.
The Hebrew Bible and New Testament both say very unequivocal things in favor of helping the poor and excluded, welcoming the stranger, and a host of other topics immediately relevant to our political environment. But unfortunately, all of the people who should be receptive to those teachings have been systematically inoculated against them. The Bible is not a challenging word for any mainstream Christian, but rather a license for conformism. The existence of a few oddball radicals who actually take the biblical demand for justice seriously only serves to highlight the inert mass of Christians counting on a fix of cheap grace.
The situation is much worse on the conservative side. I grew up in that environment and remained in it as an alienated college student, and there is one thing about conservative Christian culture that is absolutely certain: if you mention the moral teachings of Jesus, they will literally laugh at you. I have seen it a hundred times. Presenting Jesus’s teachings as an actual guideline to what you should actually do is the mark of a theologically naive rube — all the more so if you believe it’s a guide to specifically political action. On issues of social justice, the guiding concept is the “necessary evil.” Oh sure, it would be nice to be able to welcome everyone into our country, but in this fallen world, etc., etc. By contrast, on issues of sexual morality (and here I include abortion), no compromise is possible — no one talks about managing the abortion rate or trying to support the less promiscuous and risky forms of homoerotic practice as lesser evils. Anything that enables me to judge and lord over others is non-negotiable, whereas anything that might challenge my right to seek the maximum for myself and my family is hand-waved away.
On the liberal side, I think they are closer to the truth. The problem comes when the radical demand for justice in the Bible is simply collapsed into a traditional liberal-progressive laundry list. This produces a complacent conformism of a different kind — a less toxic and destructive kind, but still a problematic one. My complaint isn’t so much on the level of content, because it is clear to me that many of these biblical precepts really do sound a lot like liberal-progressive priorities, while the conservative position is obviously a convoluted perversion of the plain demand of scripture.
What the liberal Christian position is missing is precisely the sense of judgment that is so toxic in the hands of the conservative Christian. When you equate the gospel to what you hear on NPR, you’re missing the sense that this is a divine mandate that may be dangerous — indeed, that you might go to hell for failing to live up to. Saying that Jesus wants us to be nice and tolerant to each other is laughably thin — here I do maintain the instincts my conservative upbringing inculcated in me — but saying that, for example, Donald Trump is an Antichrist whose followers will be joining him in hell might be something worth taking seriously.
In typical liberal fashion, though, the liberal Christians lodge their objection to the conservative Christians on the formal level — conservative Christians are too judgmental, too hung up on sin, etc., so we should cast that stuff aside. But the real problem with conservative Christians is that they are perverting the divine demand for justice and thereby calling God’s judgment down upon themselves. They are exchanging the truth of God for a lie and holding God’s truth captive. The problem with James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and all the rest of them isn’t that they’re too intolerant or too mean, it’s that they are preaching a demonic doctrine. And from a theological perspective, maybe God really is using Donald Trump — to show all the world their absolute theological and moral bankruptcy, to show that their only real value is cruelty and spite, to make them a byword and a curse among the nations.
But in American Christianity, that is a message without a messenger and without a community ready to receive it.
Like everyone, I mocked the tweet. Deep down, I never thought it could happen to me. Now I wish I had stopped to think things through, because I didn’t know how to respond. A terrorist had actually kidnapped my baby. By all indications, he had rigged the poor little tyke with a bomb set to go off in one hour. Somehow, miraculously, I had wound up in the same room with him. And now I faced a terrible choice: do I torture the terrorist, or let my baby be blown up, by the bomb that he had rigged the baby with, and then left the baby at some remote location while winding up in a situation where he could be tortured by me?
I couldn’t help but pause and think about the improbable series of events that had led me to this awful juncture. In a way, I was naive. As the President or CEO of a major company or important inventor or celebrity or whatever the fuck I would have to be for someone to even bother to kidnap my infant child, I had been too lax on baby security. Continue reading “It could happen to you”
One thing that is strange about the debate over free will between Erasmus and Luther is that they are arguing on two very different levels. Erasmus is the voice of common sense — “if we don’t have free will, then how can we be morally judged?” — whereas Luther takes the apparently loony position that we both lack free will and stand under the most severe possible judgment.
I think one way to understand the shift in perspective is not the term “will,” which I don’t believe Luther denies to human beings, but rather the term “free.” Erasmus means “free” in the straightfoward sense of unconstrained or autonomous, whereas Luther means “free” as opposed to “enslaved.” And in that sense, there can be no “free will” — every human being is enslaved to Satan until God rescues him and restores him to his rightful status as a slave of God. The problem isn’t the specific things we do with our wills, but rather the fact that we will as though we were “free” in the sense of being autonomous alongside God. The problem is that we presume to believe that God needs our go-ahead for salvation, which is tantamount to saying that God should obey our will in the matter of salvation. But that’s not how it works: we’re God’s slaves, and so anything we do that claims autonomy or anything like “rights,” anything we do on the assumption that we have been freed from the divine service, is sin.
Interestingly, Erasmus is the one who introduces the image of a slave, asking whether a just master would punish a slave for something he can’t help. This imagery is kind of strange in a culture where there hadn’t been slavery (at least by that name) for centuries, and presumably it comes from the New Testament and the Greek literature that Erasmus is steeped in. Luther turns around and takes this literally — if we are slaves, which the New Testament says absolutely constantly, then we have no claim on our master. You don’t morally exhort a slave, you give orders. The good slave isn’t one who has refined his will through moral striving, but the one who sets aside his will entirely and obeys.
There’s a lot to say about the fact that a more radical and literal theological concept of slavery asserts itself just as European culture is set to readopt slavery on the largest possible scale. For the moment, I will content myself to make an observation about Agamben’s recent study of slavery in The Use of Bodies. He claims to be discovering some new potential in Aristotle’s figure of the slave, but Christianity already made all human beings into slaves — and I would even say that for Luther, we are slaves in precisely the Politics Book 1 sense. Agamben uses the study of slavery to claim that we need to rediscover the realm of use, but Christianity had already made “use” the guiding concept — not only in Paul (where we are to make use of our social status), but most spectacularly and systematically in Augustine (where we make use of the faux-peace of the earthly city to spread the gospel).
In short, I wonder if Agamben is laboriously rediscovering Christianity.
There’s a lot of common advice that amounts to political due diligence: know who your representatives and other elected officials are, hold them accountable by contacting them about important matters, support more progressive candidates wherever possible, vote tactically…. There’s one possibility that comes up so seldom that I wonder if it’s even thinkable for people: run for office yourself. That would be an extremely concrete way to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
No matter how much political pressure we put on these politicians, there’s no replacement for actually being the person with decision-making power. And particularly for academics, it’s clear that no one is going to stand up for us and our values except, you know, one of us. But academics especially seem uncomfortable with the idea of actually wielding institutional power.
Part of it is surely the sense that it’s hopeless, but that may stem from an excessive focus on the federal level. Yes, we can’t jump straight to being a US senator. But the Republicans have shown over the past decade how amazingly powerful state and municipal offices can be. They are not expensive offices to campaign for — indeed, many are uncontested. Republican gerrymandering has done a lot of damage, but so has the Democrats’ failure to even show up to the fight.
I suspect it’s not just fatalism, though. For academics especially, but also for many with convictions to the left of the Democratic party, there is a serious distrust of the political structure as such, a gut-level rejection of the idea of becoming part of it. And there is also the fact that doing this seriously would mean disrupting one’s life — something that is equally unappealing whether you are thinking of interrupting the trajectory toward full academic privileges or whether you already enjoy them.
Obviously this is not something that I’m doing or planning to do in the near future. I write this post not to pass judgment, but to ask why the option of actually seeking political office seems to be so radically absent from the common political wisdom of “how to make a difference,” especially in lefty academic circles. So: what do you think?
Yesterday, a dapper Nazi was punched while giving an interview about how the white race has an inborn right to domination. (I am not naming him in an effort to shield myself from the attention of his ilk; I imagine his identity is easily ascertainable via Google, if you don’t already know what I’m talking about.) I, and many in my social media circles, exulted in this event — someone advocating outright Nazism was humiliated and silenced. It was a cathartic moment in the midst of terrifying events.
And of course, the nice liberals won’t let us have this. Continue reading “On the punch”