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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Points of Departure11/19/2007 17:41:59
I just attended what seems to be my last conference panel in this stage of my academic career. It was an incredibly rich and rewarding one - Judith Butler, Cornel West, and Tavis Smiley on David Kim's new book Melancholic Freedom (all moderated by UCSB's own Rudy Busto) - and it left me with much to do. As the best conversations are, it felt like a rocket asking me for my share of the payload.
To that end: here are two projects that have been spinning in my head, to be explored. The first works toward the last paper I'll be writing for my degree, for a seminar on Love in St Augustine, Hannah Arendt, and Heidegger. For me, the panel's political imperative brought to life the seminar's conversation, whose means and ends I hadn't previously been able to clarify for myself. The second is for afterward, a book project (or an onslaught of essays) meant for post-academia.
Love as Exception, as Question, Covering and Uncovering
David Kim, thunderously echoed by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, casts the language of love as a political imperative. We, in public conversation about priorities, seem to have lost the ability to speak about love. Instead, prophetically, they declare that we need to speak of love as part and parcel of freedom. In the words of Raschenbusch: "a love that liberates." To speak of love is to spur the side of people to fight for justice and "make a world" built on foundations to be proud of. Love, courage, and freedom are old words that need to be reinvested with meaning.
In parallel, this seminar has set out in part with the question of where love has gone in social theory. Why is love not a sufficient, substantial theoretical concept? Why must it always be reduced to something else: pleasure, power, or even Augustine's eternal enjoyment?
Joining with Kim, West, Smiley, and Butler on the need for passionate politics, I am nevertheless suspicious of the call for love-talk. Or rather, the systematic, non-prophetic, theorized, and defined love, the love that is known.
Where to begin? Heidegger writes, "that which frees - the mystery - is concealed and always concealing itself" (The Question Concerning Technology, 25). The Question is where to begin: the moment, as for Augustine, "I have become a question onto myself," where the need for love (for him in the form of grace) arises. Love is not the answer but the question. A word whose meaning nobody quite knows, something unspeakable yet spoken every day (more on everydayness later). The same essay Heidegger concludes, "For questioning is the piety of thought" (35). Piety is what one does out of love.
We have been much puzzled by Hannah Arendt's treatment of love in The Human Condition. While Professor Friedland argues that we should read more love into the text that Arendt allows (and I think he has a point), I want to look more closely at why she eludes love as she does. For her, love is extinguished by public life (51-2). We have seen the reasons for this well enough in her reading of St. Augustine, in which the Christian command to love ends up mired in contradiction and worldlessness.
The strangest appearance of love in the text, at the climax of the crucial chapter on Action, gives to love a wonderful power. (I am sorry, at the moment I don't have the text in front of me, only incomplete notes.) Love is an anti-political force. "Only love has the power to forgive" (242). "Only love is fully receptive to who somebody is." Yet very quickly she stops and switches gears. She turns to respect, and describes a forgiveness founded on that instead, possible not through intimacy but through distance.
Why does she do this? Why must forgiveness, such a vital political concept, be given over to distant respect? I argue that this fits very much within Arendt's concern to protect unpredictability and the promise of the new. Following Heidegger: the mystery. By hinting to the power of love yet not thoroughly explicating it or relying on it, she preserves its question-ness, so to speak. It remains an unforseen possibility. The hint suggests the possibility to us, assuming we will recognize it and hear it, but it does no more. Unlike her Augustine, whose love she treats at its most theorized (she sees none of his eroticism), Arendt leaves love as a question waiting for action.
The Kim panel made it clear to me how urgent the vocabulary of love might be today: as the means and end of political action. Where do we map Arendt's covered and uncovering love of the human condition to politics in (to use West's terms) American Empire? I wonder if love can be talked about as a state of exception, in or like the terms Agamben describes it. But against the Empire's War on Terror, the exception of love can create alternative structures of sovereignty in separate and powerful ways. This would be the politics of the prophets, those whose invocation of love causes people to ascribe them a higher authority than the Empire. It is no accident that Arendt mentions Jesus in her short account of love. This love does not function in a systematized way. Better systems, better institutions, though they may be formed by in the radical heat of love (as state authority is formed in the state of exception), must not be ultimately (if we are to follow Arendt and Heidegger) described in terms of love. To do so would mean the evaporation of love's meaningfulness, which lies insofar as it is a mystery, phrased as a question. (Not having read Agamben's State of Exception book yet, I wonder if anyone can comment on whether this tack seems promising.)
Finally, there is the task of habitual love, ritual love. Love as an exception made sense to me until I remembered how many times a week I say "I love you" to someone. Over and over. This is no exception! These words are thoroughly woven into institutions of marriage and family and friendship. It is uncovered and in the open. I suspect for the moment that these love-institutions, like Arendt's framework, are designed to contain love's unpredictable element. They speak of love, perhaps, but they do not claim to know what it means. They leave it to unravel itself. "I love you" is a pure performative (i.e. J.L. Austin) with no semantic meaning. It asks the question, again and again, always eager for new, unexpected answers.
"Giving an Account of Oneself"
I borrow the title of Judith Butler's 2005 book, which I have yet to read but have only read about. Apparently, the gist: the subject is not entirely transparent to herself. It is not possible to give a final and conclusive narrative of one's existence, nor to achieve any certain self-knowledge. It is from this fact that she aims to build an ethics, one which recognizes the constitutive uncertainty of self-knowledge that places a limit both on ethical deliberation and responsibility.
I would like to try giving an account of my religious self. I am young, but my experience has been quite thorough already. It may not mean full autobiography - sometimes a narrative tells more if it does not speak on what it is actually about.
The goal would be to make a performative statement about what religiosity can and might be in the modern world. An effort at exploration of worlds, of politics, of relationships. In one sense, it is a polemic for irresponsibility: opening the door for bold moves, for changes. It is a Nietzschean argument without every saying so. We must say yes to life and we must say yes to the finitude of oneself.
This need became clear when talking with a friend the other night who, like me, converted to a conservative religion as a teenager. Like me also, his relationship to that tradition has changed significantly since. We agreed at the end of telling our stories: we couldn't begin to regret what we did, though the world would have us do so.
In religious terms, I think it is worth learning to speak of a certain normalized schizophrenia. Politics, especially religious politics, too eagerly wants people to be consistent beings. The Christian anthropology demands this: one life, one soul, one name, etc. Its only exception (which emphatically proves the rule) is conversion, which allegedly discloses who one always was rather than being a true transformation. I want to learn to speak with a straight face about transformation in itself. (For Christians this could even be read theologically, where the saved self is valued no more highly than the fallen self that made it possible.)
Like Butler, I want to give up the mythology of the simple being. Rather, we are different selves, ever mutating, whose mutations seek to form clusters: species of selves.
The argument for irresponsibility, though, must come back around. It must find itself constituted in others. The world, in this case the divinity, turns out to be the source of the subject's transformations. We are no stable selves because the world is not so. The adventure, the irresponsible dive, therefore, is a dive into sociality, not into selfish individualism.
Ultimately this book is a tribute and an act of gratitude to my teachers, especially to those who reject my transformations.
It would be written in no such language. But rather: stories, anecdotes, an implicit theory of the speciation of religion.
re: Points of Departure - 11/19/2007 18:52:25
re: addenda - 11/19/2007 21:41:29
re: echoes of Bourdieu? - 11/23/2007 12:44:16
re: love and paradox - 11/25/2007 18:59:08
re: limits of exclusion - 11/27/2007 00:20:23