Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

The goal of this post is to put onto ‘paper’ some thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s rendering of tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and the way in which tragedy functions in Plato’s The Republic. I have prepared these thoughts within the context of writing a paper on Nietzsche and Bloch and preparing the syllabus for the introduction to philosophy course I am currently teaching at California State University Bakersfield. As I am now unable to produce anything like a lucid non-academic blog post, I have chosen to write this in essay format.


The confrontation Nietzsche seeks throughout his project with the figure of Socrates, I argue, is summarily available to his readers through the way in which Plato construes tragedy negatively as an inappropriately imitative form of art. My thesis is that Plato’s censorship of particular genres and modes of storytelling reflect the positive content Nietzsche locates within tragedy for the unleashing of the human without the constraint of a purely Apolline, epistemic, ontological commitment.

Defining Key Terms

Several key terms forms the basic building blocks for my argument and necessitate clear definition – aesthetics and tragedy. Ancillary concepts, which I define within the body of the essay, are “affirmation” and “repetition.” The order of my argument follows: aesthetics, tragedy, repetition and affirmation as tragic, and hope.

By aesthetics, I am referring to the realm of experience in which concepts of beauty, terror, or any other example within the range of human being finds expression through art and by which art elicits from people such emotions and experiences.[1] Such experiences do not occur in abstraction from philosophical concerns regarding ontology and politics, rather, the aesthetic names an integral doorway into such concerns, engaging them in ways that formal discourse cannot reach.[2]

By tragedy, I refer to particular aesthetic performances on dramatic stages. Such narratives are those that frame heroic existence against the background of the inevitability of the heroes demise. Fate will always destroy the life of the tragic person. Yet, the person continues to fight, she resists her fated destiny even to the point of death. It is precisely this resistance that occupies my attention; tragedy renders individuals in-themselves, against any transcendental grounding or guarantee of their ontological identity.

What Aesthetics Do

Insofar as I identify the tragic as a particular kind of aesthetic production capable of producing specific effects in the political lives of persons, the role of aesthetics in relationship to other modes of inquiry becomes clear; the aesthetic dimension acts together with other modes of human creation as an access points into the metaphysical realities of the world. Poetic prose, musical movements and other formations of creative art expose what Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, refers to as the primordial one. The primordial one is the basically immanent unity from which individuated entities, social formations and power relations all arise. The one is the causal core of the world, its common substance. This “one” is precisely that which individuated being, in its initial formation before the tragic experience, denies in its persistence to remain individuated, within the status quo’s projected ontology.

With regard to the general concept of art in this context, the aesthetic moves the person from the everydayness of life in which people find themselves individuated in their notions of identity and truth. The presupposition is that the ways people exist in societal structures of power correspond to reality as such. Hierarchical thinking in morality, religion and politics serve as examples for this initial state of the person in the world.

The critical function of aesthetic production is to collapse the structure of being, to render the world to the audience as essentially one with regard to its causal contingency, its lack of teleological grounding. Such a collapse disorients notions of propriety with regard to social relations. Thus, Nietzsche’s writing on the genealogy of morals proclaims, “It might even be possible that what constituted the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.”[3]

The aesthetic is always metaphysical even as it seeks to project an anti-metaphysical posture; the aesthetic is in a verbal sense, claiming something about the nature of reality within its moving of individuals toward a reflexive awareness of one’s connection to nature’s unified causal meaninglessness. The critical nature of tragedy is that the tragic performs the function of instilling in the audience a reflexive posture with regard to such meaninglessness.

The reflexivity Nietzsche wishes to engender through tragic drama is not the sort of posture one finds in the form of idealist thought. Rather, in affirming that existence, that nature itself, is an aesthetic phenomenon, Nietzsche advances a vision of human being that turns the nihilist pain of nature’s being into a resource for what Deleuze refers to as “the joy of affirmation as such,” the reorienting of the self to the immediacy of experience. The problem is not individuation in-itself but rather the sort of individuated structures of life that obscure primal realities of chaotic force in the erection of concepts of meaning.

Affirmation in the context of the movement into the primordial pain and chaos of existence and back out into an individuated state of self we may term “repetition.”[4] I want to position “repetition” within Giles Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche; repetition denotes the affirmation of the validity of every singularity of being, different from the other and from transcendental definition. Repetition is the affirmation of every individuation that occurs after exposure to the primordial pain of reality humans experience through aesthetic exposure.[5]

Here I must be clear with regard to the differentiation between an affirmation of individuation and that of subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept reliant upon the structures of traditional ontological discourse. Repetition, however, is the affirmation of life’s unlimited singularity within the univocal reality of the world’s chaos. In this sense, Nietzsche’s tragic movement of the person constitutes an affirmation of agency in the moment.

Nietzsche’s tragic person corresponds to an agency of “will.” This is a notion of agency in which all transcendental conditions for “the subject” become diffuse across the plane of immanent exposure to the primal realities of life .

We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being…we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable….Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive.[6]

Nature as Aesthetic Phenomenon

Nietzsche defines nature as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon, and in so doing addresses the problematic political relationship between oneness and individuation. Individuation in the first instance denotes a political ontology of an authoritarian nature; it denies the primal oneness and contingency of the world, and subsumes the subversive transgression against nature that is human agency in light of contingent being. Only an ontology that abandons this notion of individuation within the order of nature is able to posit a concept of identity that does not subsume the person within a hierarchical, or theological, structure of being-qua-being.

Rather, the Nietzschean realisation of tragic being attempts to ‘ground’ singular existent persons on no thing other than their self-assertion, their will-to-be, in themselves.[7] Tragic individuation turns out to be a notion of agency, which denies nature’s order in the assertion of the person’s singularity against the backdrop of death. The person in everyday existence is transformed into a tragic hero insofar as she asserts her singular newness of life in the face of her fated being-in-one, insofar as she grabs ahold of the contingency of her being and lets go of the false individuations, which metaphysicians and moralists sale for comfort.

In order to undo the condition of un-reflexive individuation and reach the concept of subversive agency, Nietzsche must render nature itself as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon. Nietzsche’s assertion takes form in the theoretical arena of metaphysical problems concerning transcendence and immanence, oneness and plurality; the question is how does one justify existence in all of its individuated forms, which include Church dogma, when the nihilistic reality of oneness in-death looms overhead?

By posing the question in this context Nietzsche takes aim against both the theoretical underpinnings and the societal structuring of human reality itself. Tragedy is that movement of music, bodies on the stage and emotions that confronts the individuated audience and beckons them into reality’s inevitable unity. The tragic rendering of the gods, for example, illustrates this function of tragic drama insofar as the gods are made to live the lives of humans and represent the elemental forms of nature. Through this representation the gods seduce human beings to continue living through a catharsis of seeing the truth of their being mediated. Thus, Nietzsche calls nature as an aesthetic phenomenon “the only satisfactory theodicy,” justifying the world through solidarity as opposed to logic.[8]

Here the importance of thinking tragedy becomes clear with regard to religion; the gods who correspond to the capricious natural elements function in a mythological sense in the same way as the stage itself, creating the necessary distance in which the audience is able to approach the nihilistic core of being without being overwhelmed and destroyed. Religious imagery and experience will function for Bloch in a similar fashion, bringing the religious person into contact with parts of their political and ontological reality that are unknown prior to the aesthetic experience.

The Mechanism of Tragedy: Schein

I want to explain the mechanics of Nietzsche’s tragedy that allows for the creation of the necessary distance between the audience and the reality of the world through the gods and stage. I wish to draw attention to the role of “semblance” as the primary vehicle through which tragedy accomplishes its dual task of deconstruction and reconstruction of individuals. The link between ‘representation’ and metaphysics is the essential feature of Nietzsche’s theory of nature and semblance is where this link occurs; semblance is the artistic creation on which human meaning is founded.

Semblance names the aesthetic element that Nietzsche finds basic in human existence. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by accounting for the occurrence of dreaming as one instance of semblance’s appearance, denoting its basically hidden place in the constitution of human nature. Nietzsche writes, “When this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance…philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a…quite different reality…this too is a semblance.”[9] Thus, the world of human life is essentially aesthetic semblance.

To be clear, semblance does not denote something unreal, but rather identifies the mechanical reality of how humans think about the real. Tragedy does something to the audience insofar as it engages this hitherto unknown metaphysical feature of human being. Tragedy moves the audience into the flux of the emotive and spiritual realms of their existence. This movement questions the terms of agreed upon social ontology in its exposure of ontology itself, as a discourse of power, as semblance. The deconstruction of ontology itself frees the individual, empowering her to assert her will in-the-world without regard for essentialist notions of identity or ultimate meaning beyond her immanently given self.

Plato’s Censorship of Schein

It is the role of schein in the tragic production which Plato finds damaging in The Republic. Semblance of this kind enables humans, through an imitative experience to sympathize with and to live-into the reality of the stage, in opposition to the hitherto unacknowledged semblance of everyday existence in ordered society. Such imitative possibility is the definition of subversion with regard to the necessary ordering of the polis’ life.

Plato establishes early on in book III of The Republic a sense of moral propriety with which the rulers of the polis are to judge particular stories. Interestingly, and politically telling given the above analysis of Nietzsche, Plato positions the poetic merit of a story as coterminous with a story’s potential to affect corruption upon the city’s youth.[10] More pertinent to the theoretical divide between Nietzsche’s upholding of tragedy against the figure of Socrates, however, is the way in which Plato proceeds to define three specific modes by which one is able to tell a particular story. “Now I think I can make it clear t you what I couldn’t make clear before, that one type of poetry and storytelling is purely imitative – this is tragedy and comedy, as you say. In another type, the poet tells his own story…The third type, using both imitation and narrative.”[11]

Each type of storytelling corresponds with a particular set of behaviors and habits that each story produces within people. In short, the founders should censor any aesthetic production that engenders imitation inappropriate to one’s “natural aptitude” and corresponding role within the city.[12] It is precisely this schematization and censorship of aesthetic production itself, suspending concern for particular content, that separates the Socratic posture and the liberated will of human spirit in Nietzsche’s work.

The drive of the Socratic posture is the equation of knowledge and wisdom, and the political correspondent equates to each manifests as the properly ordered, intelligible, society.[13] The power of the unconstrained tragic production to pull oneself into the purely imitative posture subverts this rational, scientific and moral order.

“For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.”[14]


What tragedy breaks apart is the inability of the person to exist in limitation with regard to one’s relationship to aesthetic production. The danger Plato’s locates in comedy and tragedy as imitative kinds of aesthetic production is exactly where Nietzsche locates the horrific freedom for life after tragedy. Tragic truth obliterates the surety of moral and epistemic order, leaving the door open for tragic agency in the world to emerge in opposition to every sense of propriety.

What I find most interesting is how each thinker’s analysis, opposite as they are with regard to prescriptive argument, details the same affect aesthetic form has upon people. The formal movement that occurs in the imitative tragedy is what is most dangerous and liberative. In this sense, both Plato and Nietzsche locate the potency of tragedy in the same fashion. The only difference is with regard to ontological commitment.

[1] Audi, R., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition: 1999, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 12. “Questions specific to the field of aesthetics are: Is there a special attitude, the aesthetic attitude, which we should take toward works of art and the natural environment, and what is it like? Is there a distinctive type of experience, an aesthetic experience, and what is it? Is there a special object of attention that we can call the aesthetic object? Finally, is there a distinctive value, aesthetic value, comparable with moral, epistemic, and religious values?”

[2] Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. 1990, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA; Blackwell. p. 3. Eagleton, admitting that his readers will most likely find his definition of aesthetic too vague or all-encompassing with regard to the political qualifications of aesthetics writes, “But is the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain interdeterminancy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony.”

[3] Nietzsche, F.W. and W.A. Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1989, New York: Vintage Books. p. 10

[4] Deleuze, G., Nietzsche and Philosophy. European Perspectives. 1983, New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 71-72. Here Deleuze offers a picture of how repetition manifests within Nietzsche’s work via the concept of the eternal return. “The eternal return is the being of becoming. But becoming is double: becoming-active and becoming-reactive, becoming-active of reactive forces and becoming reactive of active forces. But only becoming-active has being; it would be contradictory for the being of becoming to be affirmed of a becoming-reactive, of a becoming that is itself nihilistic. The eternal return would become contradictory if it were the return of reactive forces. The eternal return teaches us that becoming-reactive has no being. Indeed, it also teaches us of the existence of a becoming-active. It necessarily produces becoming-active by reproducing becoming…The old song is the cycle and the whole, universal being. But the complete formula of affirmation is: the whole, yes, universal being, yes, but universal being ought to belong to a single becoming, the whole ought to belong to a single moment.” Repetition is the continual movement into the newness of life in-the-world, a decision to be oneself, to create oneself, to be(come) one’s singular existent, to borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy’s lexicon.

[5] Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. p. 57. Here the relationship between the dismantling of transcendental reasoning and the affirmation of will-in-itself, through within the singular occurrences difference as ‘will’, becomes clear. “It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must ‘will’ itself or find itself through all the others.”

[6] [6] Nietzsche, F.W., R. Geuss, and R. Speirs, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 80-81. Here Nietzsche is specifically describing the function of Dionysian art. However, for the purposes of my analysis of agency, his description illustrates the sort of movement into the univocal reality of chaos from which the will emerges in assertive, tragically heroic, force.

[7] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. p. 82. While Nietzsche provides other examples of the sort of hierarchies he attempting to deconstruct, or more appropriately ‘reevaluate,’ here Nietzsche illustrates the logic behind such hierarchical individuations of human being. The logic which Nietzsche opposes is, “the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science…there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world.” Socrates represents the quintessential anti-tragic thinker insofar as he embodies this posture toward knowledge over and against tragic embodiment of life in-the-world as primary. While Nietzsche refers specifically to science in this instance, theological morality Here, as my invocation of Heidegger’s neologism suggests, the Nietzschean posture informs the Heideggerian disavowal of metaphysics, of the onto-theological constitution of metaphysics. Against “Being” as “ground,” the most elementary definition of “nature,” both Nietzsche and Heidegger render Being as somewhat perverse, as chaotic and in opposition to singular beings, participating in reality with them but not defining their various essences. See: M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference. 1st ed. 1969, New York,: Harper & Row. p. 57.

[8] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 24.

[9] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 15.

[10] Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari, and T. Griffith, The Republic. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. 2000, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 71-72. Here, Plato specifically refers to the censoring of theological stories. “We shall have to ask them to stop being so negative about the underworld, and find something positive to say about it instead…Not that they lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do. But the more merit they have, the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death.”

[11] Plato. The Republic. p. 82

[12] Plato. The Republic. p. 52. Natural aptitude, the natural place of each individual in the world, forms the basis by which the person socializes into society. “And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks.”

[13] Plato. The Republic. p. 60. “And are love of knowledge and love of wisdom the same thing?’ ‘They are.”

[14] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 75.


“To invent the sailing ship or steamer is to invent the shipwreck.  To invent the train is to invent the rail accident of derailment.  To invent the family automobile is to produce the pile-up on the highway.  To get what is heavier than air to take off in the form of an aeroplane or dirigible is to incent the crash, the air disaster.” -Paul Virilio, The Original Accident.

To invent the cross, that is the technology of political execution, is to invent the Christ event.  The accident is a curious event.  It is an unexpected emergence: it is a messy differend.  What remains after the political execution?  A spirit that one cannot kill.  Aesthetically, we might call this differend a glitch.

The glitch is the accidental appearance of unexpected artifacts.  The glitch in an image manifests as discolored pixels and a distorted image.  The glitch in audio may manifest as static.  Though, what is the glitch of oppression or of an execution?  What artifacts might emerge? What ghosts may linger?  The American folk song Joe Hill says, “What they can never kill went on to organize.” There’s a residue that remains from oppression.  Something that cannot be accounted for, a remainder, an accident or a glitch.


Following the Christian trajectory, this glitch can be located in Christ.  The cross is a peculiar method of execution, because like Christ, it is the interface of horizontal and vertical vectors. The intersection of the wooden planks is also the intersection of divinity and humanity.  Crucifixion is the event and out of this event emerges the glitch. Something goes wrong in the crucifixion of Jesus.

The power of the Roman occupying force is not quite hegemonic enough.  Christ’s death yields the peculiar artifact of everlasting life.  It’s not my intention to enforce any theology authoritatively, but simply to state that from the perspective of Rome, something went wrong in Christ’s death.  After the crucifixion Christ does not die.

Whether Christ bodily resurrects or it’s simply the Hegelian Aufhebung isn’t really the point.  Regardless of what metaphysical scheme is at play, what is important is the accident in the execution of Christ.  The glitch of Christ persists long after the execution of the man.


Then, what can be gleaned from the glitch-Christ?  Aesthetically and practically, the glitch is a transgressive: a celebration of the artifacts that emerge from the accident.  Can we repeat the glitch-Christ? Is there a practice that yields the manifestation of these artifacts?  The nature of the accident makes drawing correlations difficult.  One cannot force an accident and cannot force the glitch.

The glitch is an accident, one can attempt to undertake a set of practices, but the appearance of the glitch is uncertain and precarious.  However, this doesn’t mean there are no normative methods.  One can easily glitch the image or audio file.  The accident is in what artifacts emerge out of the event.  If it is agreeable that Christ is this sort of glitch event then the Christian practice must be tracing Christ’s methods, though it’s not clear what will emerge.

Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.

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.

Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 4, Art

This post is part of our ongoing review of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins’ book Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. The book is available for purchase here.

As with the rest of the book, this chapter is more a manifesto than anything else; the analysis of the history and contemporary situation of art offered here are offered towards the possibility of a revolutionary praxis of art. As my predecessors have done, I’ll briefly trace the argument before offering a reaction.

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson, in this chapter, are concerned, of course, with materiality. Under what material conditions is art done, and what material function does art perform? The authors argue that there is a certain natural conceptual linkage between art and religion; both are concerned with “materially unjustified but existentially vital representation.⁠1” Premodern is characterized according to this narrative as a reproduction of the divine nature. It is thus characterized by tendencies toward representation and order. The important break occurs, as with so many things, with Kant.

According to the Kantian paradigm, beauty is still linked with the apprehension of “design,” but this apprehension is characterized by a sort of free play in which purpose becomes directly linked to the act of striving toward it, rather than to a fixed representation of the divine. The history of art assimilates this orientation, and art becomes the privileged site of this striving, displacing roles that had traditionally been the domain of religion. Traditional understandings of representation are also displaced, as this emphasis on the striving act privileges aspects of apprehension over the thing-in-itself, and lead to the characteristic “decomposition” that characterizes the passage of 20th century art towards abstraction.

Since the concept of beauty privileges representation by necessity, the notion of the sublime gains primacy in modern art. The sublime, rather than privileging harmony of representation, is the site of a disjunction in this harmony, opening up a field in which reason is forced to step in and make a moral decision. The sublime is both attractive and repulsive, resisting re-inscription in meaning and sense, such that any re-inscription passes a certain responsibility onto the viewer.

Attempts at an art of the sublime (Dada, Surrealism, etc) are all plagued by a similar problem. Capital is an adaptive beast, and easily absorbs any new opening of the sublime as a form of spectacle, which can always be commodified. The challenge for a revolutionary practice of art thus emerges: what kind of revolutionary sublime can “free subjectivity from the force of capital?”⁠2 Given that the capitalist sublime dissolves all forms into raw material for the relations of capital, what kind of form resists this interpellation?

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson marshall Felix Guattari and Terry Eagleton to create a synthesis that might point the way. From Guattari, they want to take the notion of sensible ruptures that produce a more life-affirming collectivity. Part of this is a form of shamanic vanguardist practice of art, one in which the position of the artist lends a certain subject-supposed-to-know aura to the artist’s critiques. From Eagleton they want to take the identity of form and content in the socialist sublime; a form of practice so determined by its content that it would be irreducible to formal description; thus an alternative kind of sublime, but one by definition (as that form which resists) is always shifting to oppose capital’s attempts at re-inscription. Revolutionary art, then, constantly rematerializes against capitalism; “in the streets, the networks, the institutions, and the bodies of the artists themselves.”⁠3

The question that arises for me in this chapter, then, is why art? What kind of work is maintaining the identity of art as such doing for the revolutionary? It may seem in some sense like a naive question, and the fact that I have a paper draft that I’m actually getting graded on to do mean that I unfortunately don’t have time to fully unpack this thought, but it seems to me that the kind of identity described between the content and form of revolutionary art are such that it becomes necessarily hard to separate revolutionary art from any other part of revolutionary practice. After all, what is the real distance between the subversive aesthetic practice and the tactical practice of, say, guerilla gardens? I don’t bring this out to criticize the indistinction per se (my girlfriend is a mixed media “artist” who doesn’t think art is a word that is doing any non-ideological work for us anymore) but it seems like in reality all we’re left with is the artist as cultic personality, as subject-supposed-to-know; but if we can’t disjoin the practice of art from any other part of revolutionary practice how can we even identify that role?

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