A Brief Note on the Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism

A number of people on social media and in the news today have been expressing anger at the Sanders campaign for refusing to withdraw from candidacy moving into the Democratic National Convention. The campaign–so the complaint goes–has lost any serious chance at the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and should withdraw, because any refusal to withdraw at this point only serves to undermine party unity in the face of its opposition to Trump in the general election. This complaint is based on two related assumptions:

  1. That the only point to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency was to actually win the presidency.
  2. That disrupting the vote against the presumptive Republican nominee (Trump stand in here, but if it had been Cruz or anyone else, I don’t think we can imagine that the rhetoric would differ) is a tacitly conservative move, because the political arena is circumscribed by two electoral options.

These two assumptions seem predicated, however, on forgetting the terms of Sanders’ original run, and on foreclosing a host of alternative conceptions of politics. In the first case, those angry with Sanders’ continued run have forgotten that the original goal of the Sanders campaign was never to directly seek the presidency. The massive outpouring of support and momentum that made his nomination appear to be a real possibility during the primary season came as no less of a surprise to Sanders campaigners than it did to the political punditry. Instead, Sanders originally campaigned in a bid to pressure the Democratic platform in a leftward direction. This is not to say that the real possibility of gaining the nomination didn’t come as a pleasant surprise, or that it was hypocritical to reach for that goal while it appeared possible. Insofar as exerting platform pressure was the initial goal, however, and insofar as the tradition for Democratic candidates moving into the DNC after the primaries is to reposition rightward in an attempt to prepare for the general election, maintaining the campaign as long as possible is completely consistent with that goal, and building party unity would in fact be antithetical to that goal.

This, in turn, brings up the second issue: is disrupting the unity of the Democratic party a tacitly right-wing move, insofar as anything that’s not beneficial to the Democrats is beneficial to the GOP? While I’d hesistate to directly identify Sanders and leftism, what these reactions seem to obscure are a few fundamental differences between liberal and leftist politics, and those differences are worth reiterating, because they’re a helpful proxy for the obscured premise of the reactions in question.

It’s a basic tenet of any left theory of politics that the State, and thus electoral politics, are not the primary locus of political struggle. This is because, insofar as left theory incorporates some form of a critique of capital, it also entails a critique of the form of the liberal State. What this means, in brief, is that in contrast to liberalism, where the apparatus of the State (rightly ordered, of course) is taken to be the very thing that makes politics possible, leftisms have to theorize a locus for politics that logically precedes the State. The State has to have a genesis. Now, obviously, different forms of leftism are going to identify the key locus of politics, or the key antagonism that politics must address very differently. But it’s only for the liberal–who, by necessity, sees the form of the State as a condition for politics to be legible at all–that there are only two options, and that to harm the Democratic party is to benefit the right. For leftists, not only is the Democratic party itself part of “the right,” but the location of political antagonism is to be found elsewhere, as is the locus of political struggle. Involvement in the electoral process may or may not be tactically pertinent, but either way, it’s not the plane upon which politics plays out, as leftist movements have historically understood.

What if the ‘gun debate’ is, fundamentally, a confusion?

Bee_A1-536x409Or, America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a race problem.

Over the last few days, in response to the shooting deaths of a Virginia news team consisting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, a familiar cycle of debate has occupied news media and, if my own feed is any anecdotal indication, social media as well; the ‘gun debate.’ Columnist Nicholas Krystoff, for instance, reminds us that “more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.” Given such an ‘epidemic’ of gun-related deaths, one more-or-less unique to American society, it seems crucial to determine how, exactly one might reduce this figure. The form this debate has taken in the last several decades of American political theater should familiar enough to readers that I don’t need to rehearse more than the basic arguments here. Either–the story goes–the solution to the ‘gun problem’ lies in some form of increased regulation of access to guns, or it lies in distributing guns broadly enough to dissuade shooters from risking reciprocation. And so, invariably, the question is framed in terms of the appropriate form and level of ‘gun control:’ are there any, and if so what are the correct, limits to be placed on the ability to access guns? Presumably, mental health, the existence of a criminal record, etc. are common indices that such controls could be framed around. I want to suggest, however, that this approach to the question of gun violence in America is fundamentally confused, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate one occupies. It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of American society that gun violence itself simply indexes other antagonisms that structure American society. And, I want to suggest, it indexes one antagonism particularly directly: white supremacy, or, antiblackness. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that to frame the problem in terms of ‘guns’ is to reify the index at the expense of the antagonisms indexed. Without attempting to offer a comprehensive model or account of the racialization of American gun issues, I want to offer a few brief indicators that any analysis of gun deaths in America that presumes to actually address the problem needs to move away from the question of ‘gun control’ or its inverse ‘gun rights’ and directly address questions of antiblackness.

1. First of all, one cannot forget that the question of race is always tied directly into the history of ‘gun control’ debates. From the explicit framing of the Dred Scott decision in terms of keeping firearms out of black hands,1  to gun control’s place at the forefront of the KKK’s early agenda (culminating, notably, in the institution of the Black Codes), the early history of gun control in the United states is more-or-less explicitly the history of the disarmament of black Americans. One cannot forget, for instance, that the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was viable in large part as a response to the Black Panther party’s open-carry occupation of the California legislature in response to California’s own Mulford Act of 1967, which was explicitly framed to disarm the Panthers in the face of the police. If the history of the ‘gun control’ lobby is tied up with antiblackness however, it is not the case that, conversely, the emergence of an organized ‘gun rights’ lobby has been any less tied to this history of antiblackness. Gun shows, of course, are one of the most consistent places one can go to find far-right, explicitly racist organizations recruiting. Further, even the rhetoric of more mainstream conservative gun advocates relies on a barely concealed specter of racialized criminality for intelligibility. Homeowners should have guns because, after all, the ‘criminals’ will always-already have them, and homeowners should be prepared to defend themselves from criminal (read: black) interlopers.

2. Secondly, there’s the transparent disconnect between the incidents of gun violence that ‘bring up’ the gun control question, and those that make up the sorts of alarming statistics that Krystoff draws attention to. The perpetrators of the sorts of randomized mass shootings that make up the news cycle, after all, overwhelmingly take the form of young, white men. And yet, the faces on both sides of the figures Krystoff cites are overwhelmingly black. The difference in both kind and degree between these subsets of gun violence raises a host of racialized questions. What is it, exactly, that makes white men far more likely than any other group to take life indiscriminately when they feel slighted? Why is it that black Americans die of gun violence at such staggering per capita rates? (Blacks, for instance, accounted for 55% of deaths at the end of a gun in 2010, but only 13% of the overall population) To answer these questions would require asking about the conditions that connect blacks in America overwhelmingly to intractable poverty, poverty to violence, etc. It would require asking questions about white power and entitlement. It would require examining a whole host of questions that have nothing to do with guns per se.

3. Finally, taken together, these two indicators point towards possible explanations for the statistical confusion that underlies both sides of the gun debate. Advocates for both increased controls on gun purchases and for deregulation of gun ownership can smugly point to statistics that seem to indicate that their position, and the narratives that undergird it, more satisfactorily explain and can deal with the realities of American gun violence. Both sides would claim that these massive statistical variances can be explained by flaws in the research methodology of the ‘opposing’ side. But what if there’s a simpler explanation for the wide, almost random-seeming divergences between rates of gun violence and national gun policy? What if the factors effected by gun control legislations are more or less exogenous to the causes of gun violence in America? What if the only way to address ‘gun violence’ in America is not to address guns at all, but to address the ongoing operation of antiblackness in the structure of American society?

1.”For if [the protections of the Bill of Rights] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police […] It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, […] to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.

[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.

Atonement and Economy

First, a bit of a meta-comment: faithful readers will note that some promised posts (notably on mysticism) have failed to materialize. Sorry. I’ve been a little terrible at keeping up on blog stuff this summer, what with conferences, trips, and my independent study. I’ll try to get something out here in reference to my work on Marguerite Porete soon, but this is still not that post.

I’ve been working on a study of patristic and medieval atonement theories this summer, exploring connections between the concepts of atonement and economy in hopes that this connection might yield a thesis topic. I’m happy to say that this study has been massively ‘paying off,’ and that I’ll probably be proposing a thesis related to the topic this fall. In the meantime, as I begin synthesizing some of this work for a paper on Anselm, I thought that readers might be interested in some of my preliminary thinking, since it combines several of the native interests of the blog:

…two broadly speaking political paradigms, antinomical but functionally related to one another, derive from Christian theology: political theology, which founds the transcendence of sovereign power on the single God, and economic theology, which replaces this transcendence with the idea of an oikonomia, concieved as an immanent ordering—domestic and not political in a strict sense—of both divine and human life. Political philosophy and the modern theory of sovereignty derive from the first paradigm; modern biopolitics up to the current triumph of economy and government over every other aspect of social life derive from the second paradigm.[1]

In the sixteenth chapter of the first book of his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury begins a lengthy diversion from his otherwise meticulously [streamlined?] treatment of the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. Anselm’s digression picks up a prior Augustinian notion: the numbering and replacement by humans of fallen angels.

It should not be doubted that reasoning beings […] exist in a rationally calculated and perfect number known in advance by God, and thus it would not be fitting for it to be greater or less. For either God does not know what number would be best for reasoning beings to exist—a false supposition, or, if he does know, he will bring it about that they exist in the number which he will recognize to be most fitting for this purpose.[2]

The paradox is that either the angels were created in the correct number in the beginning (and thus there are now ‘gaps’ in that number) or God made ‘extra’ angels, and thus in some sense created the necessity that some would fall, since for there to be more angels than needed would contravene the perfection of God’s ordering of the angels.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, that the question concerning angels is a question of God’s economy.[4] How is it that this aporia is to be reconciled with God’s administration of the world? Indeed, it will also come as no surprise that the history of atonement is one of the privileged places where economic theology is worked out in explicit detail: after all, where is God’s administration of the world more evident than in God’s active intervention as the God/man? And so economic theology has always been concerned first of all with an economy of salvation, of a certain administrative dispensation according to which the world is reconciled to God’s order and purpose.

What this digression into angelology reveals, in addition to the connection between atonement and economy, is a certain relation between economy and theodicy. After all, the reason the problem of fallen angels appears as a scandal is that the choice isn’t simply between two versions of the ineffectuality of the divine economy, but between ineffectuality and something more sinister; between ‘gaps’ in God’s economy created by the fallen, and a God whose economy in some sense presupposes evil as integral to its effect.

The question that motivates me here is, in a sense, Anselm’s own: “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death […] restore life to the world[?]”[5] My intent, however, is to shift the emphasis of this question ‘by what logic?’ What sort of logical machinery has to be in place to render intelligible the death of the god/man in terms of a redemption; an economy that exchanges a murder for a reconciliation. “Given a certain effect,” we might ask, “what machine is capable of producing it? And given a certain machine, what can it be used for?”[6] Further, my wager is that in posing this connection between atonement and economy, what becomes clear is a concomitant connection between economy and theodicy—a connection that continues to condition the secularized governmental paradigm of economy.

A common objection to ‘economic’ treatments of atonement—and Anselmian atonement in particular—is that these treatments flatten a mysterious and gratuitous theological motif into simple exchange and bookkeeping. What these objections miss is that the economic field already exceeds the delimitation of a field of the calculus of exchange; a field of markets and commodities. The economic field concerns a government, or a dispensation, not only of the exchange of commodities but of the allocation of bodies, of production in the broadest possible sense. Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory already in some sense explores the theological development of this paradigm, but I think there’s something important that’s missed in his zeal to separate economic theology from its traditional locus in ‘redemption:’ certainly, it is necessary to challenge the thesis according to which economy and salvation are merely synonyms of each other; in other words, the thesis that the term ‘economy’ as it appears in patristic and medieval Christian thinking refers more or less to the general notion of a ‘divine plan of salvation,’ in contradistinction to non-theological usage of the term. But by focusing on the question of economy in relation to the paradox of a unified will that directs a diverse governmental dispensation, what’s left unthought is the relation between this development and its connection with theodicy and temporality. What makes the specifically Christian form of economy effectively governmental is that it brings along with it an economic theodicy and an economic time: a time that will render thinkable new formations of credit and debt. Further, the relations between these terms necessitate the ability to think economy in terms of modes of transmission and circulation: and so the history of blood and the history of economy begin to intertwine.

I plan to post two more blog entries on this before I start writing the proper thesis: the next one will be on the question of time and economy in Anselm, and the one after that will be on blood, economy, and theodicy.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 1.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, in The Major Works, 290.
[3] Anselm notes that one of the obvious solutions to this dilemma would be the restoration of each of the fallen angels to their original place. Such a reinstatement, however, is impossible for Anselm because of the terms under which any redemption must be effected. We will return to this point in a later section. For now, it is the concerns that animate the dilemma—rather than Anselm’s solution—that is of interest.
[4] While he does not deal specifically with Anselm, Giorgio Agamben has mapped the significance of this relation between angelology and economy—which Anselm inherits from Augustine, and which Aquinas will inherit from both—in his The Kingdom and the Glory. See especially the sixth chapter, “Angelology and Bureaucracy.”
[5] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 265.
[6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Wittgenstein, Realist?

This semester, my term paper for my Wittgenstein class was an attempt to read Wittgenstein in light of a Deleuzian account of immanence. I was interested in this in part because what became clear to me after a semester or so of reading Wittgenstein: contrary to what’s become the dominant continental reading after Meillassoux, and contrary to a lot of his antirealist interpretation in analytic circles, I don’t think that Wittgenstein’s thinking is rooted in a correlationism. Here’s some scattered thoughts on why I think such a project could be worthwhile—I’ve been thinking that it’s something I may come back to down the line to expand at greater length.

The conventional reading is summed up pretty well, I think, in terms of Meillassoux’s account of ‘strong correlationism’ in After Finitude. Basically, the correlationist reading of Wittgenstein would interpret Wittgenstein’s reservations about talking about a world outside of language, and of the impossibility of giving final grounds for language’s access to things-in-themselves, as referring to a situation in which you have a thinking subject on one side, who apprehends a world on the other, and whose access to that world is mediated by what renders her thinking intelligible: language. Subject and object are correlated in language, and thinkable only on the basis of language, and so language becomes the transcendental correlate without which neither subject nor object are considerable in-themselves. The subject’s only ‘access’ to the world, then, is via language-games that render the world intelligible, and so one is always forced into a position of skepticism about any knowledge that would claim to be real regardless of the formation of a given language-game. Meillassoux, of course, thinks that this formation leads to problems—ancestrality becomes unthinkable in any ordinary sense, and fideism becomes inevitable with regard to claims about the fact that ‘there is a world.’[1]

Wittgenstein himself, while reluctant to label his own position (in part because he was famously leery about ‘theory’ in philosophy) did at least provisionally use the term ‘realism’ to describe the basic orientation of his thought.[2] This should strike one as strange, if the correlationist reading is the correct one. What sort of realism is possible if, as Wittgenstein thinks, to ask about what is ‘outside’ language is always a confused project?

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why this has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will still keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. 

And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding,” they believe of course that they can see beyond these. [3]

To use a well-worn metaphor Lacanians like to throw around to talk about the Symbolic order, we might say that there is something going on with the structure of language, something akin to the way a slightly mis-sized rug produces wrinkles that make it look like something sits underneath the rug, causing the wrinkles.

Faced with this feature of our language, we are tempted toward two options. One temptation is to insist on the priority of what ‘lies’ underneath the rug: we attempt to discern the shape of the invisible givenness that ‘bends’ the rug, and in so doing we generate fantasms of transcendence which are retrojected as causes or conditions for the rug. We might detect something like this temptation in the fixation on givenness found in certain strains of post-Husserlian phenomenology, or even a in neoplatonic metaphysics of participation which underlies so much theological-philosophical thinking.

The other temptation that faces us is to flatten the rug—recognizing that nothing lies beneath it, we try to ’subtract’ this remainder. We might recall here the ideal-language philosophies of the early 20th century, or attempts to reduce the world to a ‘flat,’ de-mystified ontology, a scientism, or even the various speculative realisms. Here the emphasis is on ‘subtracting’ the subject to gain the world, to think the world apart from the subject and the ‘transcendences’ her language retrojects.

It’s here that—even though Wittgenstein doesn’t give anything like a theorization of immanence—there’s an opportunity to give Wittgenstein the sort of monstrous offspring that Deleuze liked to give to various philosophers.[4] Both of the above strategies, I think, enact transcendence. Both—in an attempt to think the world as it is before or without the subject—double the world in thought. Both think the world and something apart from the world: the world and the subject, the world and its transcendent condition—and this and, this possibility of doubling and the mediation entailed therein precisely is transcendence. Transcendence and immanence are, after all, relations before all else—relations enacted in thinking.[5] To think a radical immanence, then, is to refuse both of these temptations, and Wittgenstein thinks at least part of the way in that direction, proceeding in terms of an investigation into the ‘logic of sense’ that starts only from determinate sayings and follows their logic wherever it leads. Thinking from immanence, however allows us to suspend the remaining quasi-transcendence operating in Wittgenstein’s thought: namely, the relative transcendence of sense in relation to nonsense. It’s no secret that, for Wittgenstein, there is a certain priority to sense in the context of philosophical investigation; the task of a philosopher is to examine how meaning and sense are made, how words are used. What is excluded in this formulation is the way in which the question of sense may not in fact be the same as the question of use. The specter of madness consistently haunts Wittgenstein’s investigations; in examining how it is that words come to mean for their users, words and statements which do not mean—mad statements, nonsensical statements—are viewed only from the perspective of sense. Madness is broken sense, incorrect or incomplete sense. In light of an explicit theorization of immanence, however, we are able to think nonsense in its constitutive relationship with sense—not as a privation of a prior sense, but as mutually given alongside sense, as itself doing things in a variety of ways.


1 The problem of ancestrality, for the uninitiated, goes like this: there seems to be a problem that emerges when ‘correlationist’  philosophies attempt to think a discourse that would claim to be able to speak about objects and events which are not only prior to the correlation in question, but in which the correlation itself arises as one event among others. It’s not that the correlationist philosopher has nothing to say about the discourse of the scientist, but that the she must posit a layer of meaning more primordial than the scientific one, so that what the scientist is really saying requires a kind of translation. The scientist’s language is subtly translated by the philosopher’s meta-reflection on the correlate: what the scientist’s reflections amount to more precisely is not simply ‘x occurred,’ or ‘there is y,’ but x occurred/there is y for humans, for the kind of observer who can make sense of x and y. Meillassoux thinks this forces you into a fideism, not with regard to manifest facts, but with regard to speculative claims about any absolute which gives the world as such.

2 “Not empiricism, and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.“ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 325.

3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 15.

4 Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical stance would, of course, preclude him from offering this kind of account.

5 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s reading of Deleuze has been invaluable in clarifying this point for me. See in particular Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

Theology’s Icon and its Idol

The following is largely excerpted from my upcoming talk on icons:

The icon has, from a very early time, marked a central trope in theological thinking about Christianity’s God. From Paul’s formula of Jesus as “icon of the invisible God” springs the icon as perhaps the paradigmatic object of thought for figuring representations of the divine in the finite, whether in terms of names, images, or concepts. In addition to an object for thought, the icon names a practice: the “writing” and the “veneration” of painted images, particularly on wood, of devotional figures in Orthodox Christianity. For theological thinking, these ‘icons’ have been thought as mirrors of each other: the icon as an object of theology legitimates and theorizes the icon as venerated image, while the venerated image provides specific content by which theology knows that it does not—when it speaks of the icon—speak in vain.

Insufficient attention has, I claim, been given to the distinction between these two icons; indeed, the linkage between the two is precisely a source of significant currency for the icon of theology, even in traditions in which the veneration of images does not figure significantly. Typically, the phenomenological engagement with the icon—schematized according to a looking “through” or “beyond” the icon to that which lies behind it—is compared analogically with religious speech. The structure is always one of a word, a picture, or a concept that stands in; the unique experience of seeing-through becomes the basis on which intelligible God-talk is possible without the reduction of that God to an entity given to metaphysics. It is in part this uniqueness that I wish to challenge.

The icon as I’m considering it here is primarily the icon as an object of thought; an object for theology and for philosophy of religion. To give an account of writing and veneration would always require a specificity of place, of material, of power and practice unavailable to theology’s presumed self-sufficiency to think the icon.

A Competition of Phenomenologies

Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being will serve as my model of theology’s use of the icon. Marion frames his account of the icon in terms of two competing visibilities. Eikōn is necessarily opposed to eidolōn; both are only available to traditional theological discourse as they are approached in their mutual antagonism. Rather than a conflict between, say, pagan and Christian art, the idol and the icon manifest “a conflict between two phenomenologies”[i] An object that manifests as an idol in one time and place might manifest iconically for another and vice versa. Thus, the distance between idol and icon is not a question of the choice of referent, which is why you can find Jewish and Christian prohibitions of “idols” of even the “correct” God. Both idol and icon are semiotic; their ability to take one or the other position depends on their ability to refer to something other than themselves. Each takes up a different relation to the gaze, and each ‘signs’ differently as a signifier of some signified.


The idol is, from the perspective of sense, primary for Marion. This is in large part because of the special relationship the idol holds with sense as such. The idol does not, strictly speaking, lie. It is not a question of an object that prevents one from seeing what is, or that shows one something that strictly isn’t there, but of perfect visibility; the currency of the idol lies in its ability to exhaust sense, to give sense perfectly, to construct the visible for the subject and (it follows) to construct the subject herself.

The gaze, then, “precedes” the idol; an object’s ability to exhaust visibility derives from the gaze that gives it sense. The idol is that object which “catches” the gaze, or which falls into the structural hole already opened by the gaze as the representation of sense. Rather than precipitating or suggesting a beyond, (as, we will see, in Lacan) the gaze cuts off a beyond for Marion, fixing on an object that renders all other thing visible; in other words, available to sense.[ii] The idol “concretizes” the gaze’s stop; its entry into full vision. Before the idol, the gaze does not strictly see, but ‘transparently transpierces’ the visible. Without the idol as the object that falls into the gaze and concretizes its arrival into the visible, no seeing—no sense—is possible. “The idol thus acts as a mirror, not as a portrait.”[iii] The idol gives the subject herself as constructed by the aims of her gaze. The idol is thus a model of perfect ideological interpellation: “If the idolatrous gaze exercises no criticism of its idol, this is because it no longer has the means to do so.”[iv]


How, then, is the icon’s visibility to be figured, in contradistinction to the idol? “The icon does not result from a vision but provokes one.”[v] The visibility of the idol is inverted in the notion of the icon. In the idol, the distinction that arises is between seen and not seen (or sense and nonsense), and what is not seen is figured as precisely unseeable; it’s simply not there; disqualified. Conversely, in the icon, the invisible is rendered as invisible; the invisible is figured as present but behind—or more correctly beyond—visibility. The invisible (nonsensical) manifests as excessive in the sense of an addition to­—or transcendence of—the visual field.

“The icon,” Marion writes, “lays out the material of wood and paint in such a way that there appears in them the intention of a transpiercing gaze emanating from them.”[vi] The gaze as figured in the icon then, is precisely the gaze from the icon. It is a gaze that manifests as emanating from the icon and apprehending the viewer, enjoining the viewer to peer beyond or behind the icon, towards the origin of the gaze. As we are seen, we see that we do not see.

Theology’s Icon and Ideology

The icon, in the traditional account, depends on its idol. The coherence of this form of the icon is guaranteed only by its distinction from an object that is strictly cut off from any gaze that is not identical with the look of the viewer. In this respect, one might note that the idol is structurally homologous with the panopticon of screen theory; it perfectly constructs the visibility of its viewer, leaving no indeterminacy. The idol is the enemy of uncertainty, of any indeterminacy on the part of the visible. On might pose a rather simple question, then, to this panoptic model of power: if the discourses that construct the subject construct her perfectly, then how do these discourses themselves arise in history? If the only terms for figuring the world are those already given, then the emergence of new regimes and new figurations cannot be accounted for; perfect construction leaves no room for the emergence of constructive discourses in the first place.This is not, on the face of it, of a problem for the idol/icon distinction, however. It is, in fact, precisely the argument that this icon depends on for its legitimation: if vision produces (only) vision, if sense produces (only) sense, then under the traditional argument, it follows that one needs a transcendent condition or outside provocation to figure the encounter with the gaze. The mechanism for any possible novum must come from beyond.What I want to suggest then is not that, in the duality of the idol and the icon, the icon is formally impossible. Rather, I want to suggest that it is the idol that is is formally incoherent. If the structure of vision as such depends on the interpenetration of sense and nonsense—if (as Lacan would tell us) vision is always-already haunted by definition by the play of light—then an object that functions as an idol in the traditional sense simply cannot exist. An object which refers to and makes sense of a thought world without the gaze of the Other—in other words, without some dimension beyond bare representation, an image—could not occupy the idol’s constitutive role as an infuser of sense into the surrounding world. The only way to maintain this division would be to divorce vision from its dependence on sense. Without this dependence, however, the traditional distinction between idol and icon again collapses; the whole phenomenological distinction by which an object might manifest variably as one or the other disappears. Without the idol to infuse the icon, we are left in the domain of the gaze, in which the icon as figured by the traditional account corresponds with the gaze as a means of control.[vii]

[i] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[ii] The concept is the privileged form of the idol in modernity for Marion. Art objects can’t, for the modern subject, as readily occupy this space as they once did.

[iii] Ibid., 12.

[iv] Ibid., 13.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 19.

[vii] I have in mind here a distinction that Gilles Deleuze highlights in the work of Michel Foucault; whereas disciplinary society reaches a zenith in the 20th century, “control” names the way formerly institutional sites of subject-formation (the school, the factory, the hospital, etc) that make up disciplinary society de-materialize into simultaneously differential and generalized forms under late capitalism. “The different internments of spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one us supposed to start from zero, and although a common language for all these places exists, it is analogical. On the other hand, the different control mechanisms are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry the language of which is numerical (which doesn’t necessarily mean binary). Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.” Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 4-5.

Shameless self promotion…

Hey. Sorry for the low content value of this post after such a great series by Joel, but just a heads up in case anyone is interested. If you’re in or around the southern California area, I’ll be giving papers at a couple of upcoming conferences in Claremont that may be of interest.

On Thursday, February 14, I’ll be participating in the pre-conference seminar leading up to CGU’s 35th Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference. My paper is entitled “We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead: On Hope, Futurity, and Temporality,” and is an attempt to think hope in terms of immanent refusal, couched in a response to Martin Hägglund’s realist reading of Derrida. Hope is this year’s conference theme, and Jürgen Moltmann will be giving the keynote address.

On Friday, February 21 I’ll be giving a paper entitled “The Problem of the Icon” at CGU’s 7th Annual Religions in Conversation Conference. This paper is in large part a critique of Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of the icon and the idol. Friend of the blog Tad DeLay will also be participating, giving a paper on psychoanalytic approaches to religion. The theme of this year’s conference is “Creating Expressions of the Sacred: The Intersection of Art and Religion”

The annual Religions in Conversation Conference is accepting paper proposals (limited to 200 words) on the general topic of the intersection of art and religion. Seeking to address issues of artistic expression within religious settings as well as the usage of art by religion and the usage of religion by art, the conference is aimed at examining the mutual influence and engagement of religious traditions and artistic expression through transdisciplinary scholarly engagement within the fields.

The conference invites papers in specific topics such as: icons, iconoclasm, religious artistic expressions, religious influences on specific subdivisions of art, artistic expressions of religious ideas (including painting, sculpture, drama, engravings, poetry, film, etc.), religion as art, art as religion, art in religion, iconoclasm, taboos in religious art, religious artists, curatorial decisions regarding religiously themed art, and religious authority’s embrace or denouncement of artistic expression.

Expect posts on both of these topics from me in the near future.

Pedagogy and Theology II, Or Sean’s Bullshit.


As Luke’s first post alludes, theology is—as an academic discipline—in some pretty serious trouble. The general commodification of university discourse, the fideistic reproduction of confessional identity, and the un-rigorous appropriation of other academic disciplines (especially philosophy and social theory) each threaten the credibility of theological work in an academic setting. This situation is not, I think, a new one; in my (extremely cursory) analysis, theology has been hobbled with just this sort of limp ever since the death of any serious traction held by the ontological argument for the existence of God.⁠1 With the severance of any sort of organic linkage between God and the basis for knowledge as such, theology necessarily turns elsewhere for authority. Because this situation is not new, I don’t think we should mistake this limp for a sign that theology’s days are coming to an end; theology has continued to be studied, and I think will continue to be for the forseeable future.⁠2 Luke, as I said, has offered a pretty coherent introduction to these problems in the way theology is done, and while I could expound further I’ll save that for another time. For now, what seems to me to be the more interesting question is: how does a theological discipline perpetuate itself so thoroughly baselessly? In other words, if we examine theological thinking as a certain sort of production, by what means do the relations of production reproduce themselves? How can theology have continued this long without needing to know what it is thinking for?


In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Roughly, traditional intellectuals are those cognitive laborers whose professions imply membership in a kind of distinguished class; the intellectual class is like one giant subject-supposed-to-know, imagined to be, in a sense, ‘unaligned,’ outside and objective with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals.” As one might imagine, the traditional intellectual is, in the last analysis, far from a neutral figure for Gramsci. Because the traditional intellectual is bound to a certain relations of production (the university, etc) that are themselves indebted in feudal Europe to the landed aristocracy and in capitalist societies to the wealth of the urban bourgeois (distributed either directly or by the state), traditional intellectuals are always materially tied to power. That this tie would color the inquiry of the traditional intellectuals is thus, pretty obvious; and we could talk about the rise of economics as a prominent and esteemed discipline as just that sort of obvious effect. What’s less obvious, but also at play, is that it is in the best interest of the hegemonic order to flatter the traditional intellectuals; as subjects supposed to know, they offer an air of legitimacy and necessity to the order that depends on their appearance of freedom and objectivity. If there are no non-functional, or dissenting disciplines and opinions among the traditional intellectuals, the spell of the traditional intellectuals are broken; their freedom to think against an order is, paradoxically, precisely why they never actually do anything to bring down that order.

If Gramsci’s discussion of traditional intellectuals teaches us one thing, it’s that the relations of production (capitalist, marketplace of ideas, etc) have already factored in the fact that many of us attempt to think against them. This is The Matrix Reloaded’s one good idea; (spoilers for a godawful movie) when Neo fulfills the function of the One, it turns out that the function of the One is, in fact, part of the setup of the Matrix; it is a kind of release valve on inevitable dissent. The ‘outside’ of the present set of relations is always already factored into the ‘inside’ or else the system could not have reproduced itself for this fucking long.

What does this have to do with theology specifically? Theology as a discipline depends on material ties to the academic apparatus, on the one hand, and denominational legitimation on the other. Most formal training in theology takes place in institutions (seminaries, divinity schools, etc.) that train pastors alongside researchers, and so, for most students, even work that questions or attacks confessional identities is done in the midst of material practices that are explicitly designed to reproduce those institutions and identities. Note, by the way, how neatly these two institutional demands (academy and denomination) map onto Lucas’ original divide between sets of resources (theoretical and traditional) that students in theology are expected to utilize. Note also that the more comfortably seminarian the learning environment, the less emphasis will be placed on the “theoretical” toolkit, and vice versa. That these two toolsets don’t mesh—don’t come with with a relation that is built into the grounds for theological inquiry itself—is just the kind of inconsistency that should alert us to the presence of ideology. It is precisely these inconsistencies that provide both the tensions and the release valves by which ideology can fully interpellate its subjects.


If we want to understand the material pressures to become certain kinds of theology students without need of a recourse to ‘why,’ we will also need to remember Louis Althusser’s treatment of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). To be wantonly brief, ISAs are those institutions and practices which reproduce ideology by interpellating subjects who recognize themselves in ideology; they act (mostly) invisibly, without any explicit threat to those who don’t conform. Althusser’s prime example is, of course, the school; it’s in school that you learn skills to interact in the world that shape your interactions for the ideological order. RSAs, on the other hand, are things like the police, militaries, etc; the hanging threat of force and consequence by which an order disciplines its subjects. To anyone who’s read my other blog posts here or elsewhere, this might come across as harping, but [1] I think we forget Althusser too often at our own peril, and [2] what I want to highlight here is what seems like it should be most obvious, but seems to go most unnoticed; when the theological academy’s function as an ISA begins to slip, when ideological interpellation doesn’t work quite correctly, the ISA will become an RSA pretty damned fast.

There are any number of repressive pressures that threaten the theology student who would question the basis for theological inquiry. Any student who gives enough of a shit to be studying theology at the graduate level probably has, or has had, some significant level of confessional investment. Thus, there’s a certain amount of threat inherent involved in probing the basis—or lack thereof—of theology; threat of psychological trauma due to loss of faith, loss of identity, altered relationships with friends, family, peers, and colleagues, all of which are heightened by the amount of time and money that has been poured into study; the student simply has a lot to lose. Additionally, success in the theological academy is contingent upon the approval of professors and other figures. There is a real and manifest power over student thought wielded by professors that shapes the bounds of legitimate inquiry for students. It’s frankly much easier to reproduce variations upon existing lines of thought then it is to question the basis upon which professors think, for fear of rejection.

The Theology Studio facebook exchange around Phillip Blond’s proposal of military academies in the UK is, unfortunately for my purposes, no longer accessible⁠3. Among the choice exchanges in that thread was a peculiar attempt at public shaming executed by a more academically, err, powerful, theologian against Craig Keen, one of my academic mentors. This theologian (I’m sure you can figure it out) used me, Craig’s student, as a sort of built-in audience for the shaming, directing his grand pronouncements about the vapidity of Craig’s thought towards me, as if he was showing me, rhetorically, just how out-of-bounds a thinker can get as a kind service. Craig and I actually found this strange encounter sort of hilarious, and I still remind him of the comical extremity of the insults hurled from time to time, but this was a very real attempt at shaming and thought policing, and one clearly directed at a student in order to keep them from following similar lines of thought.⁠4


Obviously, if you’re buying any of this, it’s pretty debbie-downer. I plan to follow this post up in the next few days with another, detailing possible modes of engagement with these institutional relations and pressures, along with my own working answer to Luke’s question: “why theology?” Since this post is already 1600 words, I’ll leave it for another day.


1 So, probably since about Kant, although it’s certainly not a clean break. I want to be clear, too, that I know there are still people who take the ontological proof seriously; I just think that those people are essentially equivalent to six-day-creationists or flat-earthers; at a certain point, only the most extreme partisans can place any weight on this sort of thinking.

2 By most accounts, affluent Western capitalists are getting less religious, of course, but these numbers aren’t playing out that way much of anywhere else. Why that means academic theology has a long life ahead of it even if it looks patently ridiculous is a long argument I’ll have to make at another time.

3 All those angry posts will be lost in time like tears in rain.

4 “You imagine you are a fallen astral being from the realm of the archons somewhere up in the supernovas. Thus civilisation washes over you from the outside like an earthquake.” Gotta give the guy credit for a robust insult.


The Theology of Star Trek


“What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”


A classic element of Marxist historiography is the responsibility taken on by the historian to the liberative possibilities that have gone unrealized. Just as the Marxist revolutionary takes on a certain responsibility to discern the contingent possibilities for revolutionary action and class intervention—possibilities which will not realize themselves according to any historical necessity—the Marxist historian commits herself to discovering the latent potentiality according to which history might have been otherwise. In a sense, there is a sort of apocalypticism to Marxist history; from the horizon of the hoped-for revolution, these latent possibilities are transformed from inevitable false-starts to the real birth pangs of a new world to come. In the work of Walter Benjamin, this responsibility appears in the notion of redemption through repetition: the task of remembering history is not to describe the bare facts of the past, tracing in them the source of the present situation, but to unearth hidden possibilities and failed hopes which continue to demand realization.

This retroactive movement is theologically fecund. Slavoj Zizek frequently claims that the natural tense of apocalyptic historicity is the future anterior, taking the form ‘it will have been.’ The Hegelian move, he argues, is to “reintroduce the openness of the future into the past, to grasp what was in the process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated [the] existing necessity.” These possibilities are specters that ‘haunt’ history—possibilities in search of actuality—from the point of view of the collective. This stance is what G.K. Chesterton called “thinking backward,” as an attempt to “render palpable this open moment of decision.” The collective—the gathered body—is to recognize the possibility and contingency that underlies the present order, its lack of necessity strictly correlative to the lack of a big Other to underwrite that necessity, by virtue of the spectral, failed hopes of the past.

The relation between authentic and ideological apocalypticism is visible in the gap that separates Lenin and Stalin. Lenin, for Zizek, represents the recognition of absolute contingency, and the concomitant need to act decisively, to take responsibility for the future that will arise if he does not act. Stalin, on the other hand, represents an order founded on its own historical necessity. The revolutionary, who lives fully within the death of the big Other, takes responsibility not only for the present, but for the failed hopes of the past.


It is precisely in the mode of the sort of history-as-necessity that apocalyptic historiography refuses that most readings of the Star Trek franchise proceed, whether optimistically or pessimistically. Traditional leftist praise for Star Trek revolves around the commitment to the notion that any truly utopian future society involves a future without money, without a labor force divested from the surplus they generate, etc. The multiracial cast of the original is often cited with positive regard, as well as the anti-militarist bent, and the structuring of stories according to the demands of a group of people solving problems they encounter in the unknown, rather than the logic of a hero’s journey, or some other vaguely conservative story structure. The criticisms, of course, operate on largely the same level; Star Trek is rarely anti-capitalist enough, or anti-militarist enough or whatever; something happens in any given Star Trek episode or film, something that can, in the end, either be regarded as liberative or conservative; entertaining or boring.

I should confess at this point that I’m a huge sucker for almost-masterpieces. Something in me is constantly intrigued by films, books, and music that approach something truly intriguing, but don’t quite become adequate to it, that break down before they can arrive at the destination they promise. That I’m such a sucker for “almosts” probably explains my deep love for the film Blade Runner. And it is in this spirit of “almost” that, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I have to confess that my favorite film has never been The Wrath of Khan, but the almost universally derided Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, with one notable exception, most of my favorite things about the film are precisely those things that are often cited against it. [1] For instance: it’s the only Star Trek film that’s actually about going out to meet some unknown horror together with open arms. The other films rely either on villainy or a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin whose nature is immaterial to the film to drive either an action film or an action-comedy. And I think the fact that the film plays so much of the time like a long, subdued waltz almost works with that; that it is a (for the time) high-budget visual effects movie with absolutely no explosions or bombast is really interesting to me. The film is driven into some really intriguing corners by the fact that it revolves around the Enterprise’s attempts to know an unknown entity that is simultaneously attempting to know the ship and her crew; Vger literally has to kill something to really understand it as a scientific object, and thus interprets the Enterprise’s scans as an attack. As poorly cast and executed as the character of Commander Decker is, I really like the idea that, at base, he’s right; there’s no reason Kirk should be in command except to satisfy his own ego; there’s no moment when Kirk gets to triumphantly demonstrate that he, by virtue of being a fiction character, is the “chosen one” who should always have his rightful place. There are all sorts of things like these that are almost happening in this film, but it’s important to note that for the most part they never do; the film circles around its own potential on all sides, illuminating a possible—but unrealized—moment, theme, film, etc. In The Motion Picture, Star Trek gets as close as it ever has to actualizing a certain happening that has lurked within it before and since. The specter of Star Trek hangs uniquely over this film.


According to most reviewers, however, the “best” Star Trek film is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And certainly, from the point of view of what actually occurs in the film, I’d probably agree. Where The Motion Picture is paced sluggishly, Khan wastes not a single moment of its runtime on redundant moments and lines. Where The Motion Picture reduces its characters to stoic, analytic problem-solvers who can barely be said to relate to one another, Khan both restores and surpasses the familial dynamic of the TV series, placing its narrative weight on the various sorts of families in which Kirk finds himself. There really is a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and it would be a mistake to say that the spectral possibility of Star Trek isn’t haunting this film; even as it leans on hero/villain conflict and reverses a lot of the prior film’s refusal to beatify Kirk as a creature of destiny, this is something different than, say, a Star Wars film; something else is at work, something whose play of appearance and disappearance gestures towards a different ghost.[2]

This ghost, though, is one that can only be missed, even in the most piously leftist analysis of The Wrath of Khan, as long as the primary attention is given to what appears, or what happens. It’s no accident that many of the worst moments of the franchise after Khan’s release consist of attempts to emulate or repeat Khan. Star Trek: Nemesis, in particular, is an attempt to repeat the tonal and structural content of that film, to universal and just dismay. The problem, here, is the same basic problem that haunts classical historicism: by enacting the point of narration and repetition from the horizon of what actually happens, what necessarily leads to the present, the ghost is disavowed, refused.


I’ve begun to repeat a specific anecdote when asked about my feelings on the new, J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek films. Growing up watching zombie horror, the moment I could never comprehend was the moment when a character can’t bring themselves to shoot their undead loved one. “It’s not him! It’s not her!,” I want to shout. And yet, on opening night, I found myself at a showing of Star Trek Into Darkness. It is only in light of this particular spectrality of Star Trek that one can make sense of the unique betrayal that Star Trek Into Darkness represents. On the level of content—of what actually happens—STID appears to be at least as faithful an entry in the franchise as, say, Star Trek: First Contact. The timeline divergence enacted in the first film covers over almost all continuity quibbles, and those that remain (how phasers work in this new timeline, the ability of starships to submerge in water, etc) can only appear to be relatively minor. And yet, something is horribly amiss.


Whatever could be wrong?

It’s probably not worthwhile to spend too long recounting the structural and thematic changes—a lot of this is pretty on-the-nose stuff. We find characters sipping labeled Budweiser beers, using Nokia phones, and engaged in heroic personal journeys to greatness in which they defeat ever-stronger foes. Star Trek has fucked up before; why is it these particular films in which we find not a distance or absence of Star Trek’s spectral promise, but films given over to another ghost entirely?

It’s hard to say, exactly. I know that the setup of this post probably promises an answer of some kind, but I’m not sure I have one. There’s simply very little in this iteration of the Star Trek franchise that doesn’t seem to be given over to exactly the sort of ghost that the ghost of Star Trek disrupts. That ghost seems to have very little to say in a film like Star Trek Into Darkness except “no.” It’s no coincidence, I think, that so much of this film is cribbed from The Wrath of Khan; in this case, what appears is an entire film given so wholly to what actually happened in Star Trek films of the past (in addition to the obvious TWOK nods, the film apes plot points from Deep Space NineStar Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis, to name only a few) that the ghost is given up entirely.


There’s a connection to be drawn here between the sort of living in a tradition this post enacts with regard to Star Trek and the sort that the Christian or the Muslim or the theologian might engage, but this post is already too long, so draw it yourself.


[1] That exception is, of course, the fact that the characters don’t really start interacting as characters until just about the last scene.

[2] “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else would be a waste of material.” Spock, to Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Doxological Theology Part IV: Derridean Objections

Given this play between saying and unsaying, in which the via negativa maintains priority without possessing for itself a kind of “last word,” how is the theologian after Dionysius to respond to the classic Derridean objection: is this not, in some important sense, a bluff? Negative theology, Derrida will claim, “is always occupied with letting a superessential reality go beyond finite categories of essence and existence, that is, of presence, and always hastens to remind us that, if we deny the predicate of existence to God, it is in order to recognize him as a superior, inconceivable and ineffable mode of Being.”⁠1 Negative theology “claims not to do what it nevertheless does all the time,” predicating Being—and the like—of God, and inscribing God back within the frame of what goes by the names “onto-theology” and “metaphysics of presence.”⁠2 Insofar as the via negativa passes again into a saying, is it not an attempt to ground a secure possibility of predicative speech? And does not this grounding re-inscribe God  as ultimately an object or function given for thinking the presence-at-hand of things in the world? Even as we affirm that God is not a being, God still, according to this line of accusation, remains a kind of being who is not a being.  How is this formulation not, in the last analysis, ideological?

According to Marion, “It could be answered that mystical theology obviously does not intend to re-establish in fine what it denied, but to pass, through the way of eminence, from predication (affirmative and/or negative) to a decidedly non-predicative form of speech, namely the prayer which praises (ύμνείν).”⁠3 The objection that remains, however, is that “one always praises with a title… or insofar as…, thus by naming.”⁠4 Marion responds to this in part via the logic of proper names; the proper name is proper to the named precisely by virtue of its impropriety towards the essence of the named. A proper name does not predicate an attribute, but gestures toward what it signifies without predication. Indeed, for Dionysius, God “falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being.”⁠5 Dionysius deals with this at some length in the first chapter of The Divine Names. “Realizing all this, [the independence of God from metaphysical determination] the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”⁠6 Dionysius frequently reflects on the proper namelessness of God alongside necessity of naming. Thus, according to this logic of im/propriety, “as Cause of all and as transcending all, [God] is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is.”⁠7 It is according to this logic that even those most essentially “proper” names are transgressed; thus, echoing Paul, Dionysius argues that the wisdom by which God is named “wise” is a form of foolishness. These names point, in the mode of icon, towards a confrontation that remains unpossessed by the names themselves.⁠8

1 Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, “In The Name,” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 21-22.

2 Marion, “In The Name,” 23.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 23.

5 Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” 141

6 Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” 54.

7 Ibid., 56.

8 Marion will also refer to this as a “saturated phenomenon.” Marion, “In the Name,” 39-40. A saturated phenomenon is differentiated from two options given for appearance by Husserl: that appearance which is adequate to what appears and that which is inadequate, where appearance fails to measure up to the concept to which it is submitted. Instead, the doxological moment is described as a moment in which appearance exceeds the concept given for it. His phenomenological description highlights both the limitations of phenomenalogical description per se and the necessity of faith; phenomenology can say nothing about whether this confrontation actually happens, since the third moment has nothing more to say after saying and unsaying, but instead listens for what may or may not speak. Thus, while the question of predication can be settled in theory (via the notion of saturated phenomena), the question of ideology remains theoretically undecideable, resting on the side of the confrontation itself.