January 24, 2010

Politics and religion must not be divorced from ethics

So what I’ve tried to do is name books that have functioned as shifting points in my patterns of thinking — books, that is, that have helped me solve problems, or that have helped me discover new, better problems (which is probably better).  As an aside, I should say that the only book that really functioned as a directly affirmative experience, in my memory, is one that Anthony already mentioned: Goodchild’s Capitalism and Religion.  Reading it, I had the intuition that yes, this is exactly how I think of the possible convergence of immanence and the theory of religion.

In any case, the first book I’d name is by Derrida, the one translated as Speech and Phenomena, with the essay “Différance” appended. 

This book brought together a number of directions of my thought: the phenomenological desire to bracket everyday perception in favor of a deeper, more essential encounter between mind and world; the Heideggerean emphases on unconcealment and concealment (presence and absence) and on the relationship between being and difference; the related (though not always obviously) questions of sense versus nonsense, logical impossibility, and undecidability.  I had read Derrida previously, but it was this book that brought together all of these problems at once.  What was so valuable for me was that while my encounter with the book brought about some signifcant advances, the advances resided in the tensions produced.
  • Was Heidegger’s sameness of thought and being the condition for difference, or was difference — understood now as différance — that which opened the field of ontological difference, or the history of being? 
  • Did Derrida’s demonstration of a constitutitive absence in the phenomenon sound the death knell of phenomenology, or did it simply signal the need for an innovative version of phenomenology?
I’m not sure I was able to entirely resolve these questions.  But this development was of real value for me, I suppose, because it expelled a number of paths of thinking.  The problem this book left me was tensive in itself.  It was precisely this irresolvable tension that forced me to look elsewhere, not to evade the problem, but to find a way to make the problem, as problem, generative.  I would guess (because that’s about all one can do in constructing such narratives) that it was this dilemma that pressed me to think more seriously about construction (or production, or creation).  Construction became the coefficient that I multiplied through the elements of this problem.

My second book: Deleuze’s Cinema 2.  This book, to put it as directly as possible, addressed an ethical need.  By ethics here, it is probably worth saying, I have in mind the meaning given by Aristotle or Spinoza, among others.  This is to say that my ethical need belonged to my desire to live life better, more powerfully.  Specifically, this need emerged via two registers.  The first register was political.  I had been getting deeper and deeper into a throroughly politcal account of existence, and I was doing so primarily through the so-called Italian Autonomist tradition.  While I was very much in agreement with the desires this tradition pursued, I felt it running up against a certain limit.  I had difficulty naming this limit, and Cinema 2 enabled me to overcome this difficulty.  
Now, I feel myself already being too “personal,” so in my attempts to evade going further in this direction, let’s just say that the limit was the inability of the Autonomist tradition to think time — this tradition always saw a problem of movement, never a problem of time.  Deleuze, in this book, showed the priority of time to movement, and furthermore, he showed how the priority of time can be expressed through the image, through the product (presuming that product was effected by a production stemming from time itself).  And this connects to the second register, that of religion.  This book, in my mind anyway, displayed the capacity of immanence to exceed the given in a way that was not iconoclastic (due to the importance of the product).  The key to liberation may involve the religious, but not a religion of the transcendent.  What matters are icons of immanence.  And these icons are to be generated by an encounter with what is intolerable in life.  Ethics, I saw, would have to turn on this, and politics and religion must not be divorced from such an ethics. 

Lastly, and much more recently, I’d point to Boyarin’s Border Lines.  What’s compelling for me here is not so much the positive/historical claims regarding the origins of the Jewish-Christian boundary, but rather the method displayed.  What is this method?  It’s hard for me to say, probably in large part because of the relative chronological proximity of encounter with it.  Yet I can say that this method involves a seriousness about religious traditions that refuses to turn this seriousness into an excuse for rendering radical criticisms of tradition into accidents of a traditional essence.  The success Boyarin acheives here is all too rare.  In this sense, I have gained powerful motivation from this book.  It shows that it is possible to take theological discourse seriously at the same time that one refuses to shy away from questions of ideology, interpellation, genealogy, and difference.  I’m probably a couple years away from being able to show, more elaborately, what this makes possible. Posted by danbarber

How would you say that your interest in Yoder (or Christianity more generally) or Adorno fits in with the above mentioned authors and works?

I’m not sure I have a good answer. Yoder’s account of Christianity, I can say, is one that i think connects quite well with the ethics that I mention with regard to Deleuze, and that as a method resonates well with Boyarin’s, though the latter goes further than Yoder. What’s intriguing for me is the sort of conjunction between immanence and Yoder. Adorno, as I see it, addresses questions of mediation that are left too indeterminate in Deleuze’s immanence. That’s the main use of Adorno for me. And I’d say that the tensions/problematics that I mention in relation to Derrida are made creative with the reading I have of Adorno.
I’m pretty sure that’s not an adequately systematic answer! But I’d be happy to try to be more explicit if you have specific/further questions.

I thought, given your comments on Boyarin’s justly praised “Border Lines,” you might also find interesting his latest contribution, “Socrates and the Fat Rabbis.” This book (from my own cursory glance at it) already registers those things I find so compelling in Boyarin’s works: his taking delight in methodological experimentation and profound scholarly humility.
In the former case, he has used across his books insights from Riffaterre’s theory of intertextuality, new historicism, gender/queer studies (esp. the work of his Berkeley colleague, Judith Butler), postcolonialism, and, now, in the latest book, a sustained employment of what surely emerge as a new insightful way of reading Bakhtin. Boyarin is a man who was already well-established within the circles of Talmudic and Midrashic study but chose to retrain himself, enlarging his academic work — a retraining that lead to his current position in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley. And his retraining ranges from teaching himself Greek so he could write his book on Paul to the many theoretical interventions he has been able to make in a diversity of fields (gender studies, late ancient Christianity, rabbinical Judaism, and many methodological reflections in the study of history and religion).
This methodological and research curiosity is so powerful, in my mind, because it is accompanied by a palpable sense of scholarly humility. He very frequently changes his mind. In the newest book referenced above, he revisits a set of issues on which he has already published a few essays (e.g., his contributions to the volumes “Toward a Theology of Eros” and “Queer Theology”). I’ve also heard him speak a few years ago on the issues, at which time he declared to the audience (and this was still prior to the availability of one of the essays) that he had already come to believe that his conclusions weren’t precisely correct. It’s truly rare for a scholar to publicly admit, in print or in person, that he has changed his mind.

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