The last stage of writing is decathecting.

Going over my Agamben manuscript yesterday, I found myself unaccountably depressed. More than most of my other books, this was purely a labor of love. I don’t think I need to establish my expertise in Agamben at this point, nor do I especially urgently need to add another item to my CV. I wrote it because I had done the chronological read-through project, because I had the opportunity to meet him, because it just felt like time. And as I was going through the text, there were so many layers of good memories — of the first time I read the texts, the reading groups I had done, the chronological read-through itself, the events in Toronto and Prague where I tested my ideas, my conversation with Agamben, the vacation to Venice it made possible, and the writing process itself. The latter was sometimes a struggle, as I was pushing myself to complete the manuscript over the course of an abbreviated summer vacation, but it was also a joy, as I continued to find new creative connections.

All those good memories and associations, though, only served to highlight how much of a slog the editing process was and how little connection I felt to the intellectual energy and excitement that had gone into it. And it strikes me that something similar happens every time I put a book out — getting it out the door means losing that connection to it as a living process. An intellectual adventure runs aground in trying to make sense of formatting requirements and filling out forms. The production process only redoubles the alienation, as copy-editing, proof-correction, and (above all) indexing reduce the manuscript to gibberish in our own minds, a pile of potential errors and clarifications and oh my God why did I use this stupid concept so often.

In the cold light of day, I recognize that this process of decathecting is necessary — even a mercy. It helps us to let go of the project and hand it over to the reading public, who will make of it what they may. And it gives us permission to be done, at long last, as we realize that, even if this book could in principle be improved, we are not in any condition to make those improvements. We only really know we’re finished when we can no longer bear to look at the thing.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

Out walking the dog this morning, I thought about the church across the street from our building and reflected on how totally absent church has become from my life — even as an absence. For a long time, probably longer than I like to admit, not going to church felt like a positive act, and Sunday morning still felt “different” somehow. I would often do something to mark it negatively, such as listening to a Requieum mass (God being the deceased). Now our Sunday routine is different from other days — we get the print NYT, My Esteemed Partner does cooking for the week, we normally have homemade pizza for dinner, and there are certain TV shows that feel more like Sunday shows for whatever reason — but it doesn’t seem like a replacement for church.

This process went faster with prayer before each meal. For a long time it felt weird not to do it — I had to pause somehow before eating, even after I’d forgotten why. Now it feels very strange if someone wants to do it, even if they don’t draw attention to it and silently pause before they start to eat. Obviously the fact that I eat multiple meals a day made it easier to get used to the absence.

In the most formalistic terms, neither of these things — regular community time with people who share our values or taking a moment of thoughtful gratitude before eating — is necessarily bad or harmful. In fact, both sound pretty good! Am I still letting my upbringing spoil both? Is the next step in the process that I figure out a way to reaffirm both in my own terms? Or — more likely — does it just not matter?

Surprisingly disappointed: thoughts on the UK election

Yesterday was my first opportunity to vote as a UK citizen. As someone coming from the United States, I am well versed in electoral disappointment. Yet, just as the election of Trump felt different than previous political events, so too does the ascension of Boris Johnson seem to indicate something more significant that the triumph of one political party over the others.

There are many reasons for this sense of political frustration: the absurd behavior of a politician hiding in a fridge or snatching a reporter’s phone; the obvious and well tracked effort of political parties to lie to or mislead the public; the vacuity of debates in which many sounds are made but very little said; and the failure of long-standing media institutions to comment on this state of affairs from a variety of critical perspectives. Nothing new, of course, just a little salt in wound that never quite heals.

Fortunately, I long ago abandoned hope that any political party in either my country of birth or my adopted home has the capacity to enact meaningful political change. I am a pessimist. I (like most people who read this blog) don’t think the major problems confronting the UK or the rest of the world—staggering inequality, climate change and the inability for people to peacefully coexist despite a wide range of differences—are a matter of who is in power. The problem is the systems of power themselves. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between the parties. I’d much rather live in a country that is strengthening the social safety net rather than severing its last remaining strands. I just don’t think anyone is bringing answers or solutions.

So, I find my remnants of hope surprising. Last night, I waited for the exit poll results with a small, but nonetheless existent hope that somehow Labour would do ok. I went to bed shortly after the exit polls were announced, still hoping that they would be wrong. I don’t know where this hope comes from, but it is an unwelcome guest. It is a reminder that my effort to disinvest from the world (as Taubes might say) is incomplete.

I think that this hope is not really a hope that one party will win over the other, but a hope in other people (maybe the most dangerous). A hope that confronted with the images of children on hospital floors, a lifetime of racist statements and Donald fucking Trump’s endorsement, people might be persuaded to think twice. It’s a hope that a nation of people who have suffered through years of austerity, watching as public institutions crumble under increased pressure, might look at the blustering embodiment of every form of privilege and be repulsed. That they are not means I must confront the fact that there may be nothing I can do to persuade these people that a more equal, kind and caring society is better than what we have now.

Already people are calling for unity. We must respect each other as British citizens and be careful not to let hate slip in along with the disappointment. Rage is unproductive. I’m not so sure (not that productivity has to be the criteria for judging our feelings). These pleas for the nation to come together are rooted in a conviction that we Britons are all (or mostly), deep down, decent people. We may differ about who should lead the country, tax policy or membership in the EU, but at the end of the day we can all have a pint together down at the local pub. The desire to reunite post-election continues to invest in the hope that if we look at the facts carefully and discuss them politely, we’ll eventually arrive at a better society.

I see little historical evidence that this is a rational hope. The ability to overlook differences in views about immigration or inequality is an indication of how important those issues are to you in the first place. If leaving the EU is enough of a reason to vote for someone whose racism has been on full display for decades, that is another way of saying that racism doesn’t matter that much to you. If you find that you can’t overlook those issues, either in voting or in conversation, then you are beginning to acknowledge a deeper form of division. There are some people I have no interest in meeting down at the pub.

I’ve spent much of the last year reflecting on Schmitt’s theory of the enemy. I don’t think Schmitt gives us a sufficient understanding of enmity, but he’s a natural enough place to start for someone working on political theology. What Schmitt helps us start to think is that there are real differences that matter. There are lines that must be drawn. There is no deep-down common humanity that unites us as a nation or a species. As long as we continue to invest in that cruel hope, we will be distracted from the real political work of refusing to accept injustice in the name of unity.

Updated Introduction to Political Philosophy Syllabus

I’m making some tweaks to my Introduction to Political Philosophy syllabus this year, so thought I’d post an updated handbook here. The two key changes are that I’m dropping Robert Nozick (who’s basically just Mill on steroids anyway) and replacing him with Carl Schmitt, whose discussion of politics as fundamentally concerned with the distinction between friends and enemies offers a more meaningful contrast with mainstream liberalism; and I’m getting rid of the free choice week I used to have in week 12 in order to introduce some anarchism via Errico Malatesta. I kept finding that I wanted to articulate something like the anarchist emphasis on our mutual dependency and the centrality of mutual aid to human survival as a contrast with the more individualist and sovereign visions of the human person that we were reading in Locke and Mill, and Malatesta’s Anarchy does a good job of articulating that in terms that make sense in the context of the tradition as I’ve constructed it here. So I’m hoping these switches will make for a slightly more rounded sense of the different alternatives at play within modern Western political philosophy. As ever, if you’d like to see any of my teaching materials, I’m very happy to share them – drop me a line on

You can see from the weekly overview the way I’ve structured the module. The class has one two-hour teaching session per week, so I use the second half of one class to introduce a key concept and the thinker whose discussion of the concept we’re going to be reading; then the students go away and do the reading; then the first half of the next class we spend discussing the set text via a mixture of general questions and detailed analysis of extracts from the text. The module as a whole is still pretty indebted to Robin James’ Social and Political Philosophy syllabus.

The full module handbook is as follows:

Continue reading “Updated Introduction to Political Philosophy Syllabus”

Theology and Continental Philosophy at the AAR

As co-chair of the Theology and Continental Philosophy programming unit, I’m pleased to announce the sessions that we are running this year. A summary of the titles, days, and times follows, with full information “below the fold.”

“Bataille, Blackness, and the Tumultuous Sacred,” Saturday, 1:00 PM–3:00 PM
“The Devil and the Demons: Neoliberal Theology in the Work of Adam Kotsko,” Saturday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
“The Jew, the Christian, and the Ends of the World,” Monday, 3:30 PM–5:00 PM
“Mormon Theology and Continental Thought,” Monday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
“New Frontiers in Phenomenology of Religion,” Tuesday, 8:30 AM–10:00 AM

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Miraculous & Extremely Fragile: A Theology of Failure Book Event response

In my book, I argue that for Žižek there is a difference between love according to desire, which is ‘to believe in a false vision of purity and perfection’, suppressing and disavowing the inconsistencies and imperfections of the one beloved; and love according to drive which confronts ‘imperfection and incompleteness in all of their grotesque materiality’ (139). I am so grateful for the close attention that the respondents to my book have paid to what I have written; for the probing questions which push at the incompleteness and inconsistencies what I have written. But, as I also write, ‘real love may resemble cruelty’; reading these responses has opened new questions for me and reopened questions I thought I had settled; has had me teetering on the edge of exhilaration and despair; has me sat, now, trying to do justice to the careful attention which has been given to me.

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Never Enough; the Unanswerable Demand of the Heretic, the Whore, the Witch, and the Slave: A Theology of Failure Book Event

A Theology of Failure could be described as a book about taking responsibility. Not the responsibility invoked by conservatives and reactionaries whose demand is always put to those they cast as irresponsible: the poor, single mothers, the entire Black community, or whatever oppressed grouping of subject-positions is at the moment convenient to cast as disrupting society’s wholeness. Marika’s is a call to a form of responsibility that is normally disavowed by casting responsibility as adherence to the symbolic law. Grow up, get a job, settle down,  buy a house, have kids. Actions that are, in terms of their reality, impossible to achieve within the symbolic and ultimately life-denying and death-dealing when one tries too hard to achieve them. The responsibility that is denied by cleaving to these symbolic demands and falling into their snares is much harder to respond to.  It is the demand carried in the  ethical maxim (mis)attributed to Lacan: “do not give up on your desire.”[1]

This ethical axiom arguably misreads Lacan’s original claims, but has been developed by Žižek and Zupančič as a way to speak about the subtle shift from the logic of desire to drive.[2] For in not giving up on your desire one is caught up into the constant return to the question “what is my desire?” and finds that it is nameless and demands to not be turned away from in the making of a fetish as some object or name whose capture is impossible and so anxiety producing. This maxim speaks to the central importance of the concepts of desire and drive and their distinction in A Theology of Failure. Continue reading “Never Enough; the Unanswerable Demand of the Heretic, the Whore, the Witch, and the Slave: A Theology of Failure Book Event”