Hurried Thoughts on the DNC, Academics, and the Left w/ Benjamin and Adorno

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism…The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (Selections from Thesis VIII)

“The subject of historical knowledge is the struggling, oppressed class itself. Marx presents it as the last enslaved class – the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which has a brief resurgence in the Spartacus League, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats…The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of *future* generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren” – (Selections from Thesis XII)[1]

Social media has been consumed the last two weeks in the RNC and DNC. I include myself in this being-consumed. One of the more interesting phenomenon that is occurring are people whom I often assume (which I really should stop doing) are committed to a basically “leftist” view of history and politics succumbing to a rather banal form of liberal worship (see Sean’s previous post about the distinction between leftism and liberalism). Often this seems to appear in the guise of ‘strategy’ – i.e. Well, if you don’t vote for Hillary you are allowing Fascism to occur with Trump. I have seen this followed by comparisons of our current state of affairs with the Weimar Republic years preceding the rise of the Nazi party. The main thrust of these arguments is to neutralise the seemingly relentless critique that is coming from leftists whom aligned themselves with the Democratic party via Bernie Sanders (and we can all agree that Bernie is still a far cry from what we really want). Justifications are seen from all directions at this point, justifications for the status quo foreign and domestic policies that attempt to distance the Democratic party and HRC from any “outlying” issues of racist violence, conflict with certain Islamic groups, the violence done to the environment, etc.

I cannot help but think that these attempts by so many brilliant people I look up to in academia are nothing more than a desperately wilful attempt to not acknowledge the complicity of the Democrats and HRC in creating all of these problems, attempts that seek to neutralise relentless determinate critique (to blur my Benjamin references with some Adorno) in the name of utility.

The frame upon which the argument from utility rests is the frame that created Trump and HRC, in addition to so many of the aforementioned problems. Yet, so many seem to be doubling down within that frame, playing the internal dynamics of an already oppressive system – i.e. the dynamics between the ‘progressive liberal capitalist’ and the Fascist capitalist – on cue, rather than nourishing these real moments of critique that clearly expose the inherent lie at the core of a liberal politics of progress and redemption, the lie that we and the status quo just-are-good, that we happen upon moments of crisis rather than seeing that the crisis is our politics of liberal progress, that this politics is simply the other side of the same coin of what Trump is talking about. This desperate need to turn away from determinate critique is evidenced in both the resurgence of a language of American exceptionalism in the DNC speeches, and in the small expressions of nostalgia for Obama by ‘progressive’ academics on social media.

I know that politics is not voting and that organising is not equivalent with FB posting and canvasing for the main political parties in our country. But I am troubled by the acquiescence of so many scholars to the frame of liberal progressivism vs. Fascism, an acquiescence that only can serve to perpetuate oppressive violence, rather than enact violence against the frame itself.

[1] Both taken from: Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Vol. 4. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. (Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 2006). p. 392, 394.

The Uselessness of Bodies: Race and Economy Intertwined

About a year ago I wrote a post on the logic of use-value as applied to race, pointing out that in the logic of capital, use value is the only value that matters–except when it comes to white bodies. White bodies are inherently valuable, while bodies of color are not. In the wake of two more murders of black men (about 130 in 2016 so far) it seemed like a good time to revisit this, particularly because so many of the white responses that I’ve seen on social media have drawn attention to the fact that Sterling sold CDs outside the convenience store where he was murdered. Those same people have also struggled to find a “good reason” for Philando Castile’s murder since they can’t appeal to how he made a living. The shootings in Dallas have also drawn some equivocation between the death of police officers and the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The main point of the post is this: How people respond to these deaths is a matter of whether or not they see the lives taken as having inherent value, and the difference between use value and inherent value is vital for seeing the difference between these deaths.

The difference between use value and inherent value is important for understanding the effects of capital on how we see race in this country, in particular how white people who fully embrace that logic see race. It is not that the logic of capital created racism in the strict sense or vice versa. Rather, we need to see how these two ways of thinking are intertwined so that we can take steps forward. In short, use value is a red herring in thinking about why these murders happen, and the insistence that it be primary under the logic of capital prevents us from seeing the way we see inherent value in some lives but not others. The back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile make this blindingly obvious.

Under capitalism, the value of something is determined strictly by conversion into capital, including human beings. For most people, this means their labor-power is indicative of how much they are worth as people. It’s the old “Protestant work ethic” put into more concrete monetary terms, and it’s a logic that is likely readily familiar to anyone who has been told that “laziness” is a vice while people who work hard for the money they earn are virtuous. If all that were in play in this logic were strictly mathematical conversions from labor-power to salary to size-of-house and type-of-car, understanding it would be a lot simpler, because we could say that in all situations, a person simply is what he or she is worth in terms of labor power under the logic of capital.

But it isn’t that simple because we want to believe that there is a “human” element within us that regulates this “pure” version of capitalism, preventing anyone from truly becoming just a robot. This “human” element is the identification of a value in human beings that extends beyond use value–an inherent value of human life. And it is at this precise point that race and economy become importantly intertwined. White people see themselves as having inherent value in addition to use value–and no one else–but must claim that they see all life as having inherent value because they know to not do so would just be seen as openly racist. This is why movements like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” really mean “White Lives Matter.” With the claim of inherent value of all life in place, proponents of these movements must find some other reason a person like Alton Sterling had to die. These two strands of thought go hand in hand. All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are appeals to the inherent value of white bodies, constructed precisely because any counter movement that tries to claim that other bodies also share any modicum of inherent value is a threat.

We can see this logic play out in the responses to Alton Sterling, but also Eric Garner and scores of other black men who have been murdered by the police. The defense among those (predominately white people) who side with the police is that these men were thugs, hustlers, shady, because they were engaged in what is deemed useless economic activity. This article from The Washington Post identifies the difference well. The “side hustle” (in the form of ride sharing or AirBnB) is acceptable if it has been sanctioned by whiteness. It is made inherently valuable by its connection to whiteness. Other shadow economies are unacceptable precisely because they lack this connection and thus the validity of inherent value. This lack of inherent value is easily disguised, however, through an appeal to use value by asking questions about criminal records, why these men couldn’t get a “real job,” etc.

The juxtaposition of Philando Castile’s murder throws this logic into complete disarray. Castile, by all accounts, worked hard at his job serving children. An appeal to use value can’t defend his murder. He was a law-abiding citizen through and through. The only recourse that defenders of law enforcement have is to focus on the individual officers and try and show that they themselves didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies and therefore Castile must have done something. The false narrative that all lives are inherently valuable must be upheld.

The deaths of five police officers in Dallas also brings this problem to our attention. It has provided an out for supporters of law enforcement in the immediate wake of Castile’s murder. The police are the paramount example of what it means for a person to have inherent value. The lives of police officers are always taken as inherently valuable precisely because they safeguard the proper operation of economy. They are, in fact, only inherent value. The police don’t “produce” anything in the normal sense of economic production; they ensure that production continues uninterrupted.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to be against the death of another human being. I am against killing people. But it’s also a mistake to conflate the deaths of these officers with the deaths of black people at the hands of the police. To do so continues to ignore the fact that black lives are seen as both useless and inherently valueless in this country, while the lives of police officers are the very definition of inherent value under capitalism.

Privation, Excess and Lack in Sein und Zeit


The following is a footnote from a recent paper on Sein und Zeit that refers to an ongoing discussion with my colleague Martin Becker regarding how to think about privation in Heidegger and Benjamin’s work. The coincidence of lack and excess, of void and opening, is, I think, an important part of what might be called an apophatic element of Heidegger’s thinking, following my advisor (at least I think).

“Logically it makes no ‘apparent’ sense to speak of a lack in Heidegger’s schema, since privation does not signify a relationship to a reality of fullness that one reaches in the future. There is only this contingency of Dasein upon its ‘now,’ having been thrown into the world, toward that which is unrealizable, and without a decision of Dasein’s own. Yet I am not sure that we need the contrast between ultimate fullness and lack in order for the latter term to remain logically sensible. ‘Excess’ and the impossibility of ‘outstripping’ likewise typically rely upon a contrast between what is realizable and what is beyond realization. In the sense that excess names a purely ontological feature of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world, and not a theological eschaton, excess does not refer to any-thing that lies beyond a deficient present. Such a rendering would mistake both excess and privation as present-at-hand terms. Rather, excess names the immanent fact of Being unable to overtake that toward which one is oriented, and the fact of this inability to overtake is what we can properly call the primordial lack.”

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.

Not Enough Time is Time Enough – iPhone Notes

I think it is strange that, upon reflecting on my life, I think my time so short. I have no other reference for my life-time that what I-am. What I am is finitude, I am only ever someone born and someone who will die. I am always dying. So why is it that I feel my time is too short, that life doesn’t last long *enough?* I think this is part of the tension of what Heidegger calls Dasein’s being-toward-death, which is being-toward-possibility itself insofar as I never experience my own death as an event. The entirety of who I am is only intelligible as finite, ‘finite’ names the unitary phenomenon of my being born, my dying and the anticipation of my death. That I never am outside of anticipation discloses the entirety of my Being as temporality.

So what do I make of my feeling that there is never *enough* if I have no reference to anything other than who I am? What do I make of this pressure I feel? It seems that this pressure is simply the phenomenological texture of time, of my life, for-me. I am this pressure, my relationships to others are this pressure, the world for-me is this pressure.

Love and Futurity- A Thought

Love and Futurity: there is always an incompleteness, an inadequacy that constitutes our orientation toward-possibility and with/toward-others. In both cases an irresolvable tension constitutes our relations – namely, between the act of and identity in love, and the quality of the other, of the not-yet, that forever eludes culmination, or fulfillment, in any total sense on the side of one’s Self. Loving an-other is the act of engaging, perhaps even building this tension. My love of an-other is only so insofar as my love never overtakes the excessive quality of the other in relation to both myself and my act(s) of love. Such a view discloses the temporal dimension as a constitutive element of what we see in the phenomenon of love, in acts of love. I hug those that are closest to me in-love, attempting to hold onto what inevitably goes away. So too does each moment of my falling in the world attempt to make graspable and arrest what invariably goes away. Indeed, the presence of what I hold is only intelligible by the fact of its potential-to-go-away. It is this characteristic of tension that I believe accounts for the coincidence of pleasure and pain when love manifests. Too, that words seem to fail in our attempts to express “exactly” how we feel toward those whom we love discloses this tension as constitutive for our Being-in-love with others, a dimension of solicitude left latent in Heidegger’s treatment in Being and Time.

What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 1)

I found out last Friday that I passed my first qualifying exam. It was very exciting news since I was certain that I would have to revise it or even that I had possibly failed it–typical anxieties for a first exam, I think. The exam was in theory and method in religious studies and covered about 350 years of history (though only about 120 of that can truly be called “religious studies.”) Mine explored three major areas: the history of the relationship between “religion,” “secularity,” and “theology” (from Spinoza to today), the continued and perhaps renewed importance of Max Weber in the field, and a consideration of the concept “religious experience” as it has been both employed and contested in the field. These three areas, however, are centered around one central theme which my dissertation will hopefully address: what is the proper orientation toward the relationship between ideas and material conditions in the study of religions and what are the political implications for a range of orientations?

I want to offer a brief reflection on what I found as I prepared for the exam. Part of the aim of this reflection, however, is to also introduce the more theologically/philosophically oriented to what I see as the basic problems in religious studies–which are typically not problems in theology/philosophical theology especially those modes which are more continentally and critical-theoretically oriented. My perspective is that of a theologian, which automatically disqualifies me in some RS circles, though I would add the caveat that I’m originally trained in literary/critical theory and not theology–though that perhaps only further disqualifies me for some! All that is to say that my interests are not strictly nor even mostly confessional. They are, more broadly, philosophical and political. Still, it would be disingenuous to not point out that up until the last couple years, I’ve mostly been interested in ideas.

Notice that my question above, however, is not strictly one about the relationship of ideas to the material conditions in which they circulate, but one’s orientation toward that relationship. In other words, I’m interested in scholars and how scholars engage the field, what their theories and methodologies, their underlying epistemic assumptions and frameworks look like. When we talk about theories and methods in religious studies, with a few important exceptions, we’re often talking about scholars themselves in addition to the concepts and categories we employ.

The common story told is something along these lines: The academic study of religion began with the attempt to offer non-confessionally committed explanations of religion as a human phenomenon. This included the explanation of origins, the evolution of religions, etc. These explanations were almost always reductive (e.g. Religious behavior/belief is not about ontologically real spiritual objects (like gods or spirits) but something else: an intellectual explanation of individual experience (Tylor), a function of economy (Marx), maintenance of the societal bond (Durkheim), neurosis (Freud), etc.)

These modes became unseated beginning in the 1930s (though perhaps truly beginning with James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and/or Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, 1917) when scholars began to take the claims of religious adherents at face value, study their texts “seriously,” and create taxonomies of religious phenomena–beliefs, practices, and concepts. The phenomenology of religion, as it has been called, was only interested in religious belief/behavior/experience as such, taking the existence of religion as a sui generis given (Van der Leeuw, 1933, Eliade, 1957). The argument, from Eliade for example, was that the reduction of religion to something else didn’t really get at the heart of what religion actually was ontologically. Reductive explanations didn’t care about the meaning of religious ideas for religious adherents–only their function or dis-function in the societies in which they were produced.

This is where the story will maybe become unrecognizable, even comical, to theologians because once the reaction against the phenomenology of religion begins in the 1970s, theology becomes equated with what I’ve described above. It’s not that critics of the phenomenology of religion think phenomenology of religion is exactly what theologians do; rather, it is taken to be a kind of “theologizing” about religion, a discourse that is, like theology, committed to religion as sui generis, irreducible, and special. Thus, the call to completely dig out the deep roots of “theology” from the discipline began.

This is not entirely unfair. We can see that even in the early attempts to critique the phenomenology of religion (in the 1960s), there is still an essentializing, “theological” tendency. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, in The Meaning and End of Religion, criticizes the use of the noun “religion” as a universal category, explicating its linguistic development from the middle ages, but then turns around and argues for the employment of the adjective “religious” instead, claiming that it gets at a more pure, basic understanding of what we mean when we say “religion.” And, of course, theology has operated and continues to operate with some kind of sui generis, essential understanding of religion, even if it is not always articulated. But not all theology does. Not all theology is beholden to institutional authority, or any formal authority for that matter (more on this in the next post.)

Thus, we get in the 80s, 90s, and 00s cries for religious studies to return to its rigorously empirical roots, minus the attempts at evolutionary, originary, universalizing, and systematizing explanations of “religious” beliefs and practices. There are far too many threads within this trend to detail here, but it suffices to say that the broad claim is the study of religion done from “the inside” (whether that be phenomenology of religion or theology) is not rigorously self-critical enough (the way science is in theory) to be able to participate in the academic conversation. The concern, from Russell McCutcheon for example, is that while the rest of the academy has long ago separated itself from its Protestant roots in the US, a nefarious Protestant element remains in religious studies, preventing the field from being taken seriously (also the argument of Timothy Fitzgerald, Donald Wiebe, Robert Segal, and more), or worse yet, making the field accomplice to the hegemonic imperialism of Western Christianity (Tomoko Masuzawa.)

Segal provides a helpful distinction for getting inside of what is going on here. In his short essay, “Diagnosing Religion” (1998), Segal makes two major points: (1) There are two major types of approaches to religion: hermeneutics and epistemology and (2) Epistemology is the superior type. In hermeneutics, the scholar and the practitioner are in different places in that the religion of the practitioner is sacrosanct. The orientation of the scholar is one of misunderstanding seeking understanding. The scholar presumes that the practitioner has the best theories regarding his or her own practice. With epistemology, Segal claims, the scholar and practitioner are on a level playing field. Religion is simply an instance of anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. open to the same analysis and criticisms as any other object which falls under these scholarly pursuits. Segal represents the epistemological approach as a doctor/patient relationship. It is the doctor who has the requisite theories to understand what is happening with the patient. What the patient thinks is of absolutely no consequence because the patient can only be a source of data and never of theory.

I think this metaphor most accurately describes the strictly empiricist, “scientistic” mode of religious studies in the field today–though it is a truly horrific way of depicting the relationship between scholar and interlocutor.

Setting his ghastly, imperialist metaphor aside for a moment, I want to note the structure of his pairing in this argument. Segal claims that the scholar and the adherent are in two different places in the hermeneutical approach specifically because the former must treat the claims of the latter (including theology) as sacrosanct. The scholar is an eager listener who does not dare criticize what he does not understand. Segal then attempts to shift the relation of the scholar/adherent by normativizing the relation under the epistemic approach. However, he still subversively maintains an epistemological and theoretical distance between the pair. In other words, Segal is assuming knowledge is a particular kind of production, science (really a scientism), which is itself the normative, level ground on which all understandings of being-in-the-world are judged. It is in that sense that Segal is claiming to close the gap between adherent and scholar; nothing is sacrosanct in the light of the scientific method. It is here that the gap slips in through the back door. Once both adherent and scholar are placed on the “normative/natural” ground of empiricist epistemology it becomes immediately clear, according to Segal, that the religious adherent does not have the proper theoretical-empiricist apparatus with which to rigorously understand her own being-in-the-world. Thus the gap is maintained but what is sacrosanct is reversed. It is the scholar whose claims the adherent must be subject to without question. The adherent doesn’t have to understand–unless she wants her claims to knowledge to be taken seriously.

In the next post, I will address one more turn in religious studies, namely the critique of “the secular” leveled by Talal Asad, and then raise the question of the bizarre relationship between cultural theory and religious studies in the 15 years or so, which will shed some more light on the estranged relationship between RS and theology.

Mitsein Freunden, Mitsein Liebe: A Reflection on Being-With

Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to Heidegger’s neologism mitsein, being-with. The reasons for this are varied, in part due to a doctoral seminar in which I was assigned a fair bit of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work. In another sense, my thoughts are due to a more personal realisation – an increasing conviction that the world in which I am a part, of which I am constitutive, is only so through the reality of others and that, to put it crassly, this is all there is. So this being where I am at, I wanted to pause during this time of term paper writing, conference paper abstracting and syllabi preparing to offer some honest (and cheesy) reflections on Heidegger’s mitsein. Specifically, I want to talk about being-with-friends and being-with-love and why the contingent nature of being-in-the-world increasingly causes me to grab ahold of those who constitute as particular mode of my being-with in-the-world.

So bear with me though my basic expositions of Sein Und Zeit. I realise we all think we know Heidegger and how the language works. However, if my classroom discussions indicate the reality of the real-world most of us religion folk still don’t know shit and just like to wax Heideggerian, usually hiding our ignorance of the text about 10 “dasein” references into a conversation with some comment about Heidegger being a Nazi piece of shit. Which to be fair…

Dasein is not Present-to or Ready-at (At least not in the Same way other things are)

Mitsein, Mitdasein, and Dasein itself, function within a particular understanding of the way in which the sheerness of actuality frames human life, the way in which existence works in an existential fashion to define being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is impossible to think the “I” without also thinking “world,” which in turn is impossible to conceptualize without also thinking oneself-with-others and with-entities. Oh, fyi other entities exist with dasein in one of two ways, either present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. This distinction is important for understanding what exactly Heidegger is on about when he begins describing the who being-with thing…and also for his discussion about what the hell “being-in” really means, which I think is pretty important and probably should have been placed earlier in the text…but whatever. We don’t have time for that here. Just know the two ways of being-alongside other entities exist and that to a degree dasein shares with them the characteristic of being present-at-hand…but that dasein is still totally different that those entities even with its being present-at-hand.

“Present-at-hand” denotes a particular way in which dasein is in-the-world with regard to entitles which are not itself. This is contrasted with that other way of being-in-the-world in which entities that are not dasein manifest as “ready-to-hand.” So before getting to that, you sort of have to know what the fuck Heidegger means with the whole being-in-the-world thing. In brief, “being-in,” the “being-in-the-world” of dasein, denotes not “being-in-something,” not “in-one-another-ness.” Rather, “Being-in” is the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has Being-in-the-world as its essential state.” That Being-in-the-world is dasein’s essential state means that for whatever dasein is, it is pure and simple; “the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

The affirmation of dasein as such is its essence without transcendent qualification. Dasein is, meaning that it its being is univocal and co-constitutive of the world. This use is in contrast to the improper use of “being-in,” which typically renders as the world as something external to dasein. The improper rendering of ‘world’ makes it that in which dasein is said to be within, while still being sufficient in-itselfhood alongside other entities that exist in the same way. “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein.” Dasein is simply in- insofar as dasein is, and the way in which dasein is-in distinguishes itself in the fact that dasein is that for which Being “is an issue for this entity in its very Being.”

Entities which are not dasein have two modes of being-in-the-world that are relative to dasein’s relationship to these entities: present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. To be fair to the OOO folks this is a pretty anthropomorphic way of characterizing such entities….and that is a point that clearly needed so many blogs, books and whatever devoted to it (hopefully the sarcasm is coming through). Anyways… Dasein is not characterized in a way that is completely equivocal with these two modes of being-in that characterise other entities. Rather, the aforementioned fact of “Being being an issue” conditions the way in which Dasein is said to share a present-at-hand relation to/in/as-the-world, rendering Dasein’s present-at-hand relation distinct.

Without diving into more boring-ass explorations of Heideggerian terminology, you can go look up the exact definitions for present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Suffice to say that mitsein, or more precisely the “other(s)” to which dasein’s “being-in-the-world-with” (Mitdasein), refers exhibits the same sort of distinctive being-in-the-world that characterizes dasein.

Mitsein vs. Zusammensein

I now want to begin to lay the cheese on thick. The neologism Mitsein is distinct form othe German formulations of being-together insofar as mitsein embodies the sort of sheer affirmative content of dasein’s being-in-the-world, insofar as this denotes a contingent way of being a co-constituent of the world (again, dasein is not like really in something external to its essence…which is existence).

Mitsein is contingent being-with, there is no prescriptive necessity behind it, only the content of the world its encounters and creates. An existential recognition of contingency, then, forms the basis by which one may distinguish between zusammensein, which can entail ‘togetherness,’ and mitsein. Since mitsein embodies the content of dasein, mitsein entails a way of being with other in which one is bound inextricably to the other, this being-with forming a kind of immanent transcendental condition by which dasein’s being-in-the-world is made intelligible to itself. What we share is that we are and this fact is inescapably the constant that frames our reality.

I am. We are. That is Enough.

Ernst Bloch’s refrain from The Spirit of Utopia resonates through me when I think about what it means to be-with. I am with my friends, they constitute the way in which my being-in is my own, the mineness of my present-at-hand being-in-the-world. Similarly, though with a different register of force and intensity at a certain point, my partner and I find ourselves being-with-love, the more accurate description of being-in-love insofar as the being-with identifies love as having to be within the context of a relation with-the-other. In both cases mitsein is enough. In both cases mitsein is all that there is.

Law Is Not Justice

It’s been difficult to find the words to describe the absolute heartbreak I feel at the announcement of the “No Indictment” decision in the Darren Wilson case. Some friends are doing a fantastic job in encapsulating the rage that the decision rightly evokes, posting immensely helpful resources, blogs and articles already articulating the reasons why this rage is absolutely justified.

I’m thankful that whatever friends on social media I have who might speak up in support of Wilson are wisely remaining silent today. Yet there are still other, more subtle posts that I’ve seen–perhaps a comment on something someone else posted, a shared article espousing a view with no commentary on the part of the sharer, etc.–which seem to suggest that there is some middle way through this situation, and it is that position that I want to address.

Some of these suggestions include statements like the following:

We just don’t have all the evidence, so we can’t judge what happened.

Regardless of the outcome, and even though I feel bad for his family, rioting is not the answer.

We may think that what Wilson did was wrong, but legally speaking, the grand jury made the right decision.

The common thread through these sentiments is the underlying idea that whatever the law decides is what is ultimately just. Here’s an analogy I’ve found helpful for understanding why that is not always the case and certainly not the case here. In J.Z. Smith’s Map Is Not Territory, he makes the case that even though maps of geographical regions provide useful information for making sense of the region, including locations of and distances between features, cities, etc., they are not the same as an understanding of the territory of that region. The map can never give you a sense of what it’s like to be on the ground. Smith uses this analogy to talk about the study of religion and why the “mapmaking” scholarly exercises of the past are ultimately inadequate for understanding the “territories” of religions.

A similar relationship holds between the concepts of law and justice. The former, like a map, is meant to stake out the borders, in a concrete way, of the territory in question; in this case, what justice would look like for Michael Brown and his family. White folks very naturally hold to this view of the law because the “map” of the law very much resembles the “territory” of what they consider to be just. However, in this case, the terrain of justice is something that the map of the law simply cannot address with any accuracy.

In other words, even if we had conclusive evidence that Darren Wilson acted within the bounds of the law and his duties as a police officer, or to take it further, clear evidence that Michael Brown did something to elicit Wilson’s response (and, to be clear, I believe none of those to be the case), justice would still not be served by the conclusion the grand jury reached. Debates about evidence and whether, according to the law, Wilson ought or ought not to have been indicted are missing the point of the larger issue here; namely that the law does not serve the cries for justice of African American communities in this country. The terrain of the justice they seek and deserve is marred by a history of slavery, lynching, segregation, and now blind white power that refuses to acknowledge that the law in this country is their law, the justice theirs as well.

If a white person wants to understand why justice has not been served despite whatever evidence he thinks there is to the contrary, why the African American community and its supporters in Ferguson and elsewhere believe that protesting outside of the bounds of the law is the appropriate response, then he needs to understand that law and justice in this country belong to him, are for him, under the insidious guise of freedom and justice for all.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.

In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.

itroelt001p1This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?

The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.

A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.

Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.

The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.

Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.