Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should we do with our brain? Trans
by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.
Original: Malabou, Catherine. 2004. Que faire de notre cerveau? Paris: Bayard.
The Rise of the New Ontologists
Recently, political theory has moved away from epistemology and toward ontology; in effect, swapping the obsessions of post-structuralism (the limits of knowledge and language) with a renewed emphasis on the ground of being as such. If the post-structuralists reduced everything to discourse, the “new ontologists” (as they are coming to be called) reduce everything to an issue of existence. In so doing, they privilege things over concepts, or, we might say, supplant idealism with materialism. Yet the new ontologists also double down on postmodernist anti-humanism by displacing the human as the center of political theory. In effect, they describe being in new ways in order to suggest the possibilities of reading agency into the non-human world.
I haven’t updated the blog for over a month. Apologies. Don’t worry. “Absolute disruption” is not dead.
My free time of late has been spent obsessing over the American Presidential election and doing some minor politicking. But now that this is done, I expect to return to blogging in a day or two. Please stay tuned.
Under the encouragement of a friend, I’ve spent the last six months reading a lot of Žižek. This has been simultaneously pleasurable and infuriating because while I love Žižek’s style (and even agree with him on many issues), I find the politics implied by his more recent turn to Lenin and praise of “divine violence” to be profoundly troubling. (I also radically disagree with Žižek’s analysis of religion, but I’ll save that for a later blog post). My interest was piqued when Žižek condemned the British born, New School-based, political philosopher Simon Critchley, stating that Critchley’s work was “an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed.” When I then heard that Critchley had made a recent foray into Religious Studies that was getting a lot of attention, I knew that I had to add Faith of the Faithless to my reading list. Having done so, and having cajoled friends and colleagues to read and discuss it with me, I am now in a position to report back some observations.
At the most basic level, Faith of the Faithless is premised on Carl Schmitt’s claim that all significant modern political concepts are really secularized theological concepts (103). In Schmitt’s day an older theory of secularization held sway and many scholars likely imagined that even these theological remainders would be purged over the course of modernity. But in today’s so-called “post-secular age” it appears that instead of increased differentiation, politics and religion are becoming even more deeply intertwined. As Critchley puts it:
“Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was post-metaphysical, to a new situation in which political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict.” (8)
In effect, Critchley considers all politics to be religious. He suggests that theological concepts are so heavily intertwined with political concepts that in order to have a functioning politics, politics must escape itself by articulating a relation to the transcendent. As a committed atheist, this puts Critchley in a bit of a bind, which he tries to solve by constructing a kind of atheistic political theology. Basically, Faith of the Faithless is an attempt to think about how to organize a new Left politics in the face of the Death of God (or the confrontation with relativistic nihilism). Interestingly Critchley tries to conjure this new political community not by drawing attention to society’s injustices (classic liberal guilt), but through appropriating an explicitly theological language.
The title of this blog (which is also the title of my book in progress) is meant to evoke a quote from Hegel “[Spirit] obtains its truth only when, in its absolute disruption (absolutenZerrissenheit), it finds itself.” This may inspire the questions:
Why Hegel? Why now? Žižek has proclaimed this “Hegel’s century,” but then Žižek is also known for milking provocative claims for all they are worth. So that alone doesn’t get us very far.
Evoking Hegel at this moment might seem particularly anachronistic; indeed many would describe him as the ultimate dead white male. If that weren’t enough, Hegel has the potential to represent everything that Postmodernists criticize about modernity—Western triumphalism, a totalizing system, the rationalizations of colonialism and Orientalism. On top of which, the Phänomenologie des Geistes is a baffling text about which there is much disagreement. This would all seem to make a Hegelian revival even less plausible. So why is such a revival currently ongoing?
ALL ROADS LEAD TO HEGEL:
Part of the renewed interest in Hegel has to do with the end of Marx. When Soviet Communism collapsed, Marx became less threatening. In the 1990s, he was spoken of as dead and it was in this same period that class seemingly vanished as a popular category in the U.S. and elsewhere. The 2000s have led to a limited resurgence of Marx in a kind of declawed, less political, less empirical, and less economic guise. Once class and economic specifics are stripped from Marx he starts to look more and more like Hegel. What is more, with capital run rampant today beyond the worst fears of Das Kapital, Marx runs the risk of seeming dated. While I am not alone in thinking that some version of Marx is still relevant to the current economy, the case now has to be made; and for many, the Marx that seems most appealing is the philosophical Marx of Die Deutsche Ideologie and the Theses on Feuerbach, etc. This is a Marx vigorously engaged with Hegel. For these reasons, a whole crowd of scholars who otherwise define themselves as various kinds of Marxists (Žižek, Jameson, etc) have spent the last decade reaching back behind Marx to recover the Left-Hegel.
Although I think the status of Marx is the biggest reason for the Hegel resurgence, it isn’t the only one.
The basic intuition that inspired this blog is that we are in the process of moving past postmodernism. I mean this in two senses: first, economic and cultural forms have shifted from the highpoint of postmodernism as they were understood in 1960s-1980s, and second, and even more importantly, the weird American academic field called “French Theory” or “Post-structuralism” that is so often identified with Postmodernity is on the way out.
None of this is to say that the “new thing” has begun yet. Nor would I claim any prophetic knowledge of the future.
This blog is intended to play host to my struggle with what is appearing on our intellectual horizon now that we are begin to move beyond postmodernism.
I intend to post short semi-review pieces about the things I am reading. Basically everything from classical/contemporary religious studies to new trends in radical philosophy and critical theory.
Also, I’m going to stop myself from over-editing everything. So I apologize in advance if posts here are rough.