What is a theological concept? Part 4: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”

In the previous post I explored Nancy’s reading of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme as a theological moment in Badiou’s thought. But what about Nancy himself? Does his own atheism—for atheist he indeed professes to be, providing that atheism is understood in a way that avoids the Christmas projection—avoid theological concepts? In this post I want to suggest one moment in Nancy’s thought that could well be considered theological. As with Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme, my aim in these early posts in the series is not to adjudicate in any definitive way whether these philosophical moves are or are not ‘theological’; my concern here is to sketch some contours of the territory we shall be surveying in more detail in future posts, and to consider what sorts of philosophical concepts, moments and moves are liable to be called ‘theological’.

Nancy himself does not see atheism as a decision that ruptures from theistic thought, but as contemporaneous with—as well as the consummation of—monotheism: monotheism is an atheism (La Déclosion[1] 27/Dis-Enclosure[2] 14). The trajectory of atheistic thought for Nancy begins as far back as Xenophanes and his tirades against the anthropomorphic gods, a rejection of immanent deity that is only accelerated by the singular theos of Plato which replaces the paradigm of gods and mortals inhabiting the same space with the ontological distance that the name ‘God’ will henceforth measure (DDC 29/DisDC 16). The invention of atheism and the invention of theism are contemporaneous and correlative, because they both rely on what Nancy calls ‘le paradigme principiel’ (DDC 29/DisDC 16), the principial paradigm, which seeks to establish, or to put into question, the principle or archē of the world, the axiological reason for what is given. Theism and atheism are bound by their complicity in this principial paradigm in a way that the assertion of atheism and the denial of theism simply reinforces. Here, theism and atheism stand or fall together; neither can survive the other.

Nancy critiques this logic of the principle, shared by theism and atheism alike, as being either inconsistent or incomplete. Its great weakness is at the moment of the positing of the principle itself, the ‘in the beginning there was (not)…’ Whether it is affirmed or denied, this originary moment can only ever collapse into its own affirmation or denial (DDC 37/DisDC 22). Either 1) a principle must make itself an exception to its own ‘principiality’ in an ever-repeated (bad infinite) gesture, or 2) it must confirm itself as an equally recurring bad infinite. It must except itself from its own ‘principiality’ in the sense that, while everything that follows it must be accounted for in its terms (in terms of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ or ‘All is matter…’ or ‘All is history…’ etc.), no such constraint is demanded (or indeed possible) in the case of the principle itself. Or it must confirm itself infinitely in the sense of an infinite regress: it must account for its own principle, and the principle of that principle, and so on to infinity… If the principle is complete, it is not consistent, and if it is consistent, it is not complete.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

 

Nancy and the self-surpassing of religion

Nancy’s own position is framed by the need to, and impossibility of, escaping this theo-logic of parasitic imitation, as Derrida warns in On Touching: ‘This is not about being free from harm, safe, and saved, seeking one’s salvation or immunity outside of Christianity. These values would still be Christian’ (On Touching 220).

Nancy is aware of this danger of seeking to bootstrap his way to post-theological thinking, and in L’Adoration he articulates his own position not in terms of a rupture with Christianity but rather as a claim to be faithful to something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’ (Adoration[3] 31-2):

Whereas the Qu’ran states that God created mankind in order to be adored, modern man is ready to condemn the nullity of this vain operation, the exorbitant presumptuousness of such a Narcissus. But what if we were called upon to understand the Qu’ran’s statement altogether differently? What if it meant that “God” is only the name adopted by a pure excess—indeed vain, indeed exorbitant—of the world and existence over themselves, in themselves? Of a purely and simply infinite relationship to infinity? (ADC 20)

It is the movement of self-surpassing, of pure excess, in itself that is crucial for Nancy’s purposes, not the fact that this self-surpassing happens to be, in this instance, Christian:

It is necessary to extract from Christianity what bore us and produced us: it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have been a form and a misrecognition. (ADC, 26)

 Indeed, Nancy is not interested in Christianity for itself, for any religious, moral, spiritual or salvific virtue (ADC 39), and the self-surpassing he discerns only in some currents of the Christian tradition (most prominently the Reformation, ADC 50-1) is deeper than religion itself.

The idea that we must search in religion for something deeper than the religion itself, of which religion is perhaps only a misrecognition, is a familiar enough move. It is the move of Derrida’s ‘messianicity without messinaism’ or indeed ‘religion without religion’. It is also a Kantian move, the Kant who in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone discerns in the determinate historical husk of Christian religion the kernel of the universal archetype which alone is worthy of imitation. As a trajectory, Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ can also be brought into productive conversation with Marcel Gauchet’s idea of ‘the religion of the egress from religion’ in The Disenchantment of the World, as Nancy himself notes in Dis-Enclosure.

However, Nancy’s idea of ‘something in Christianity deeper than Christianity’ can itself be considered a characteristically Christian move: a search for the animating spirit beyond the letter of the law.[4] It is the gesture of ad fontes, of semper reformanda, of circumcision of the heart rather than circumcision of the flesh (Colossians 2:11), of the reality rather than the shadow (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17), of the antitype rather than the type (Romans 5:14).

So in seeking to escape Badiou’s imitation of the theological entry of the eternal into the temporal, Nancy performs a theological gesture. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about whether this gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’ is irreducibly or contingently theological, and we shall return to this in a future post. Derrida, in On Touching, suspects that it may reveal Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to have been ‘Christian hyperbole’, but I do not want to be too hasty either in echoing or rejecting that claim. For now, I simply note that the gesture of finding ‘something in x deeper than x’ it is both present in Nancy’s navigation of the Christian legacy and also a repeated and prominent move within the Christian tradition itself.

 

Raising the stakes

But this is not simply the swapping of one theological imitation for a second, equivalent imitation. In repeating the Christian gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’, Nancy has escalated the philosophical stakes. Badiou’s imitation is local: his understanding of the birth of philosophy can be viewed as a theological moment. But Nancy’s imitation, precisely because it rejects any determinate figure of self-surpassing but seeks to imitate the movement itself, is not local but limitless. Nancy’s rejection of Badiou’s theological imitation turns out to be a much more radical gesture of imitation than that which it dismisses.

Rather than avoiding the question of philosophy’s imitation of theology, Nancy has succeeded only in playing out that same question on the much broader canvas of the notion of imitation itself, and all the questions that can be asked of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme can be asked of the gesture of Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’.

Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ infinitises the gesture of imitation, performing the sublation of the example in the imitation of exemplarity. Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ is not an alternative to Badiou’s Christmas projection at all, but its hyperbolisation and its paroxysm.

[1] Hereafter: DDC.

[2] Hereafter: DisDC.

[3] Hereafter: ADC.

[4] I will develop this claim more in a future post when I engage at length with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.

cc image courtesy of Morgan on Flickr

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What is a theological concept? Part 3: Alain Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme and Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Christmas Projection”

In this third post in the “what is a theological concept?” series I focus for the first time on a specific philosophical moment: Alain Badiou’s account of the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme. I am particularly interested in Jean-Luc Nancy’s reading of this Badiouian move, for Nancy sees in the interruption of the mytheme by the matheme a quintessentially theological moment in Badiou’s thought. Our analysis of Nancy’s reading of Badiou here will provide us with the first example—and perhaps also the first model—of what it can mean to call a philosophical move “theological”.

The birth of philosophy for Badiou relies on the difference between what, in Conditions, he calls the matheme and the mytheme. The mytheme trades in opinion and narrative, in cosmogony and poetic richness. For the matheme, by contrast, it is a question not of opinion but of truth. The matheme is non-narrative, non-hermeneutic, and abstract.

The philosophical miracle of Greece, Badiou insists, is to be ascribed not to the mythic and poetic richness of that culture, nor to its poetry’s grasp of the sacred, but rather to the interruption, chiefly by Plato, of sacred cosmogonies and opinion by secularised and abstract mathematical thought (Manifeste de la philosophie 14/Manifesto of philosophy 34): ‘mathematics is the only point of rupture with doxa that is given as existent or constituted. The absolute singularity of mathematics is basically its existence’ (Conditions 102).

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Although this Platonic interruption of the mytheme by the matheme took place within a given historico-cultural context, Badiou insists that it must not be viewed in a historicist perspective. In fact, in the essay ‘Le (re)tour de la philosophie elle-même’ (Conditions French[1] 57-78/Conditions English[2] 3-22), he expands on five propositions concerning the relation of philosophy to history, five propositions that will help us understand both his claim to be non-theological and Nancy’s counter-claim that he imitates the theological after all. The five propositions amount to an attack on what Badiou sees as the danger of inscribing philosophy within a finite historical horizon.

  1. Philosophy today is paralysed by its relation to its own history (proposition 1) because it no longer knows whether it has a place of its own, scattered and subordinated as it is in a host of disciplines including art, poetry, science, political action and psychoanalysis, with the desultory consequence that philosophy has become little more than its own museum (C 57/Con 3).
  2. It therefore becomes imperative for philosophy to break decisively with historicism (proposition 2), which means that philosophy’s self-presentation must in the first instance make no reference to its history; its concepts must be presented without having to appear before the tribunal of their historical moment, for it is philosophy which judges history, and not the reverse (C 58/Con 5).
  3. If philosophy is thus to be freed from the vicissitudes of historicism it must be defined in a historically invariable way (proposition 3),
  4. and in a way that distinguishes it from sophism (proposition 4)
  5. So philosophy as understood by Plato is both possible and necessary (proposition 5) in the face of the modern sophism of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Vattimo and Rorty.

 

Nancy, Badiou and the “Christmas projection”

Despite Badiou’s categorical professions of atheism, for some of his readers it is in the very idea of a rupture with, and interruption of, historical opinion by ahistorical truth that Badiou is imitating a theological gesture. Jean-Luc Nancy is one of those readers.

Nancy sees in Badiou’s thought what he calls the ‘Christmas projection’, which he characterises as ‘a pure and simple birth of Christianity, which one fine day comes along and changes everything’ (Dis-Enclosure 145). Like the incarnation of Christ, the Christmas projection interrupts the regular course of events with a bolt from the blue, an intervention from outside that cannot be accounted for in terms of the situation into which it intervenes and that performs a decisive break, creating a ‘before’ and ‘after’. For Nancy, it is in repeating this Christmas projection that our tradition remains Christian: ‘our whole tradition, as unchristian as it would like to be, still retains something of the “Christmas projection”: at a given moment “that” takes place, and we find ourselves thereafter in a Christmas condition’ (Dis-Enclosure 145).

Badiou’s account of philosophy’s ahistorical condition, crucial as it is for his reading of the death of God, is in Nancy’s eyes just such a Christmas projection, for it suggests that, at a given moment, the matheme interrupted the mytheme: ‘that’ takes place, philosophy comes into the world, full of light and truth. Philosophy itself may be ahistorical, but Badiou nevertheless requires it to effect a rupture with the mytheme at a particular historical moment.

So, for Nancy, Badiou’s literal and categorical understanding of the proposition that ‘God is dead’–‘I take the formula “God is dead” literally. […] God is finished. And religion is finished, too’ (Briefings on Existence 23)–re-inscribes itself into the same metaphysical, arche-teleological structure from which it is ostensibly seeking to extricate itself.

[1] Hereafter: C.

[2] Hereafter: Con.

cc image courtesy of Cindy Villaseñor on Flickr

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How art can create a new future: Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art

Stephen Zepke's Sublime Art forthcoming in EUP Crosscurrents series

I am delighted to report that Stephen Zepke’s Sublime Art is nearing publication, with the cover now being proofed.

How art can create a new future
Sublime art exceeds the present. It is an undetermined expression that in coming into being creates new universals, new modes of life and new coefficients of freedom.
Stephen Zepke tracks this movement from its beginnings in Kant to its flowering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He shows that in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and finally in the recent philosophy of Speculative Realism the idea of sublime art waxes and wanes, and with it a visionary politics of art that seeks to give it the most creative power possible, the power to overcome our conditions and embrace the unknown.

 

‘Stephen Zepke is already known as a considerable philosopher of the new. In these pages he expertly navigates the inconsistent legacies of Kantian aesthetics with the goal of regaining the political and philosophical potentialities of sublime art and its role in difficult eruptions of the new. Zepke’s analyses range across a continuum of discomfort attributed to the sublime through exquisitely crafted chapters that counterpoise Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Rancière. This book may have absorbed its subject so well that its readers will be left in tatters.’
Gary Genosko, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

 

‘A remarkable book that explores the reception of Kant’s theory of the sublime in Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière and Derrida, as well as in more recent philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism and Accelerationism. But Zepke is an equally astute observer of the art world, and he simultaneously examines the role that this “sublime aesthetics” has (or has not) played in contemporary artistic production and political struggles. Sublime Art is not only the definitive analysis of the reception of the Kantian sublime, but a visionary manifesto for the aesthetics of the future.’
Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University

 

Sublime Art is available for pre-order on Amazon here, and a full list of titles in the Crosscurrents series, as well as instructions on how to submit a proposal, can be found here.

What is a theological concept? Part 2: A schema for distinguishing between different atheisms

In Difficult Atheism I offered a schema for understanding varieties of contemporary French philosophical atheism. In this post I want briefly to summarise that schema (adding some diagrams not included in Difficult Atheism), before going on to develop it further in the future. If you want to explore these ideas in greater length, please refer to the longer descriptions in Difficult Atheism itself.

It is a tripartite schema of imitative (or parasitic) atheism, ascetic (or residual) atheism, and theological integration.

 

“Imitative” or “parasitic” atheism

In DA I summarised this first variety of atheism in the following way:

‘imitative atheism’, merely replaces ‘God’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which those categories are articulated. The placeholder might furnish the reason and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – of the world, provide the source of Truth or Value, or stand, god-like, outside the flux of intramundane becoming. [1]

 

Care, however, should be taken to distinguish imitative atheism from the casual use of religious or theological terms within an atheistic context. If a philosopher uses terms such as ‘miracle’, ‘faith’ or even ‘God’, it does not necessarily follow that her thought is imitative. An atheism is parasitic upon theology only when it deploys concepts that cannot be accounted for in exclusively atheistic terms but require assumptions proper to theology, whether or not those concepts happen to carry theological labels. This, of course, raises the question of what assumptions are proper to theology. This is a question that receives different, often contradictory answers; it will be one focus of this series of posts.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Camus as a bridge

The existentialism of the mid twentieth century marks a significant moment in the rejection of imitative atheism. Albert Camus struggles in the tension between the old imitation and a new refusal of parasitic thinking:

I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man and our task is to provide its justification against faith itself. [2]

Camus’s absurd holds itself in the impossible breach of imitative atheism, claiming concepts to which it knows it has no right. It is, he writes, ‘sin without God’ [3] (‘le péché sans Dieu’). His thought adumbrates the second tendency within post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that arises in part as a critique of imitative atheism.

 

“Residual” or “ascetic” atheism

Maurice Blanchot takes Camus’s absurd to task, chiding the existentialist for clinging to concepts to which he has no intellectual right and calling on him to renounce them in the name of intellectual honesty. In DA I summarise the Blanchotian position in the following terms:

This call to systematic renunciation exemplifies the second tendency in post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that we shall call ‘residual atheism’, an atheism that seeks, with a heroic or despairing asceticism, to make do with the meagre residue left over after the departure of God, Truth, Justice, Beauty and so on. Residual atheism traces its genealogy back through Heidegger’s Dasein to Nietzsche’s pronouncements of the death of God. Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace is speaking to unbelievers, the imitative atheists who do not yet realise their continued parasitism on the God they reject. [4]

In The Gay Science Nietzsche warns of the extent to which modern thought still relies on the God it has replaced:

It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if . . . God should prove to be our most enduring lie? [5]

It is imitative atheism’s ‘faith in Plato’ that must be challenged, the faith in the ‘heavenly place’ (topos ouranios) of Truth, Justice, and Meaning. In resisting imitative atheism, Nietzsche’s own position is deprived of the certainties and horizons of the Platonic or Judaeo-Christian suprasensory by the death of God. In addition to morality, the Christian eschatological and redemptive view of history must be jettisoned, along with the Platonic idea of truth and hypostatised Reason and Meaning, which cannot survive the washing away of the horizon that comes with the death of God: ‘“Reason” in language – oh, what an old deceptive female she is! I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ [6]

Even so, this asceticism does not succeed in disengaging residual atheism from the parasitism it denounces. In limiting itself to the sensory world as opposed to the suprasensory, the immanent as opposed to the transcendent, residual atheism finds itself – just like imitative atheism – defined in terms of that which it seeks to escape. This is the thrust of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche in ‘Nietzsche’s word: God is dead’. [7] For Heidegger, the very way in which Nietzsche understands the death of God inscribes it ineluctably in terms of reference dictated by the theology of the God whose death is declared.

Glossing Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, Heidegger warns us not to forget ‘what is said at the beginning of the passage that has been elucidated: that the madman “cried incessantly: I seek God! I seek God!”’ [8] The madman’s exclamation ‘God is dead’ is not a simple cry of triumph but a lament, issuing in his requiem aeternam deo. The problem for Nietzsche, as far as Heidegger is concerned, is that ‘the terms “God” and “Christian god” in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general’, [9] and Nietzsche himself parasitises that Platonic-Christian dichotomy of, on one hand, the ‘suprasensory’ or ‘true and genuinely real’ world of Ideas and Ideals, and on the other hand the sensory world which is by contrast ‘changeable, and therefore the merely apparent, unreal world’.

In seeking to wipe away the theological suprasensory, residual atheism struggles to articulate itself in terms other than as the negative residue of theology’s plenitude or a renunciation, along with theology, of truth and goodness.

 

Post-Theological Integration

If thinking without God is to move beyond the impasse of parasitism and asceticism it cannot simply produce – to adopt a Lyotardian idiom – a new move in atheism’s old game of the sensory and the suprasensory. It cannot simply take religion’s categories for its own, but neither can it afford to leave religion alone, merely expelling it beyond atheism’s own sensory or rational bounds. It must learn from the post-secular colonisation of atheism itself in order not to resist but to occupy theism’s territory, re-deploying theism’s notions for its own purposes, just as the post-secular co-opts atheism to do its own work of denouncing idols. Only this will allow atheism to shake its status as theology’s parasitic or ascetic poor relation. It is this project of escaping theism’s shadow, I will argue, that makes sense of French philosophy’s attempt, in the opening decades of the third millennium, to follow the death of God more rigorously than before.

As I describe it in Difficult Atheism:

The common impulse of the three post-theological philosophies we shall consider [Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux] is that they seek 1 ) to move beyond imitative and residual atheism in order fundamentally to re-think philosophy without God or the gods and without parasitising any assumptions dependent on them (hence post-theological, not merely post-theistic), while nevertheless 2 ) refusing ascetically to renounce the notions associated with such gods – namely, truth and justice – relinquished by residual atheism. A thinking radically without God is integrated with a retention of the notions otherwise associated with God. These two ideas taken together account for our characterisation of thinking after atheism as a ‘post-theological integration’. It is this integration that makes the new post-theological thought truly new: it is a turn to religion in order to turn the page on religion. [10]

Imitative atheism, residual atheism, and theological integration. These are the options for philosophies that would position themselves as a-theological. What is at stake in such a positioning is how to avoid theological parasitism without falling into atheistic asceticism. With these ideas in place we are now in a position, in future posts, to begin considering specific concepts and moves in the thought of Alain Badiou, jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux.

 

[1] Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) 2-3.

[2] Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, ed. and trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 22.

[3] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955) 38.

[4] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 4-5.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 344.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[7] Martin Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. and trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977) 53-114.

[8] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 111.

[9] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 61.

[10] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 13.

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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Michel Serres: From Restricted to General Ecology

New publication: A chapter in French Ecocriticism From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Daniel Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

My project to write a critical introduction to the thought of Michel Serres continues to advance, and one small piece of the extensive Serresian jig-saw puzzle is of course the distinctive way in which he approaches ecological questions. A couple of years ago I was delighted to be approached by Daniel Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus to write a chapter on Serres for their edited volume French Ecocriticism From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century. The volume has just been published by Peter Lang. For anyone interested to read an early draft of my chapter, I have uploaded a version to academia.edu and researchgate.net. If you prefer to download it directly from this site, you can do so here (don’t be fooled by the “cart”, it’s completely free).

 

Abstract:

Michel Serres’s relation to ecocriticism is complex. On the one hand he is a pioneer in the area, anticipating the current fashion for ecological thought by over a decade. On the other hand, however, ‘ecology’ and, a fortiori, ‘eco-criticism’, are singularly infelicitous terms to describe Serres’s thinking if they are taken to indicate that attention should be paid to particular ‘environmental’ concerns. Such local, circumscribed ideas as ‘ecology’ or ‘eco-philosophy’ are, for Serres, in fact one of the causes of our ecological crisis, and as far as he is concerned no progress can be made while such narrow concerns govern our thinking. This chapter intervenes in the ongoing discussion about the relation of Serres to ecology by drawing on some of Serres’s more recent texts on pollution and dwelling, and this fresh material leads us both to affirm and challenge the existing treatments of Serres and ecology. We affirm the insistence on the inextricability in Serres’s approach of two senses of ecology: a broader meaning which refers to the interconnectedness and inextricability of all entities (both natural and cultural, material and ideal) and a narrower sense which evokes classically ‘environmental’ concerns. However, Serres’s recent work leads us to challenge some of the vectors and assumptions of the debate by radicalising the continuity between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ phenomena, questioning some of the commonplaces that structure almost all ecological thinking, and arguing that the entire paradigm of ecology as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ is bankrupt and self-undermining. After outlining the shape of Serres’s ‘general ecology’ and its opposition to ecology as conservation, this chapter asks what sorts of practises and values a Serresian general ecology can engender when it considers birdsong, advertising, industrial pollution and money to be manifestations of the same drive for appropriation through pollution. A response is given to this question in terms of three key Serresian motifs: the world as fetish, parasitic symbiosis, and global cosmocracy.

 

 

 

What is a theological concept? Part 1: Introduction

In this new series of posts I want to ask a question that is simple enough to pose: “what is a theological concept?” The question comes out of lines of inquiry I opened up in Difficult Atheism but wasn’t able to bring to a conclusion, as well as from reflections I have been pursuing since its publication.

As I set out on this series, I understand the question “what is a theological concept” to comprise four main areas of inquiry:

  • When a given philosopher employs a term from the lexical field of theology (say “miracle” in Badiou’s work), how are we to decide whether his use of the term is theological or not? The etymology would suggest that it is; the context of Badiou’s philosophy would suggest that it isn’t. What other factors should be taken into account, in addition to etymology and context? What systematic methodology that we can bring to such instances, one that would take into account all (or nearly all) possible cases rather than approaching each case of suspected theology in a haphazard way or with bespoke criteria intended to ensure a predetermined response?
  • What is it that makes a particular term, or a particular gesture or intuition, a ‘theological’ one?
  • What is ‘theology’ anyway, for the purposes of this question? How is it to be defined and understood, such that a given concept can be qualified as ‘theological’?
  • If a given concept arose within a religious or theological context, on what basis do we assume it to be a ‘theological’ concept? Take ‘miracle’ again, for example, or creation ex nihilo. What makes those notions theological? Is it always about an appeal to an instance of transcendence? What are the exceptions to that rather sweeping rule (i.e. transcendence that is not theological, and theology that is not transcendent)? Do religion and theology hold the copyright on everything they invent?

This series of posts will introduce a set of distinctions that can help us to respond to questions like these in what I hope will be a sophisticated way: distinctions between the ‘provenance’, ‘structure’, ‘content’ and ‘gesture’ of a philosophical concept, and between ‘aping’, ‘imitating’ and ‘following’ religion. We will have to consider to what extent (Protestant Christian) theology is itself secular or secularising, and to what extent the ‘secular’ is a product of, and indebted to, this particular theological heritage.

As this series grows, you can read all the posts on one page here.

There will be further important questions to consider along the way, such as the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘theological’ concepts, and whether by ‘religious’ we really just mean Christian, and whether by Christian we really just mean Protestant. To what extent does Western modernity have theological origins? To what extent do any such origins make modernity itself theological? What implications does this have for modern Western philosophy? I also want to address head-on a question so often conspicuously absent from considerations of the relationship between philosophy and theology: so what? If a religious concept does appear in an ostensibly a-theological or atheistic system, what should we conclude, beyond the predictable trumpet-blowing and cries of ‘gotcha’ on both sides? What is at stake if a secular philosopher draws on theological capital?

My aim, as I embark on this investigation, is to take as little as I can for granted. Perhaps no concepts at all are inherently ‘theological’. Perhaps philosophy per se, regardless of its content, is ‘theological’. Perhaps theology itself is not ‘theological’.

This series is not about beating the theological and philosophical bounds, about saying what ‘belongs to’ religion and what ‘belongs to’ philosophy. Indeed, that territorialising approach is one of the paradigms that I intend to question in future posts.

The conversation I aim to initiate will primarily take place among modern and contemporary French thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Quentin Meillassoux and others. I will draw on theologians and historians of ideas where necessary, and the conclusions I draw and frameworks I establish will, I hope, be of use beyond the contexts in which they are forged.

I have already broached questions like these in a piecemeal way in the past, and in a somewhat more systematic manner in Difficult Atheism. In the second post in this series I will begin summarising my reflections to date, before filling in the gaps and taking the investigation in new directions.

CC Image courtesy of Lloyd Morgan on Flickr.

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Research hacks #20: Why it pays to plan your ideal week, and an Excel workbook to help you

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In my last post I pointed out how time logging can help you build an accurate picture of how much time you are really spending on different tasks. That is only half the battle of taming your timetable however. The other half is working out how you want and ought to be spending your time, and that is where an ideal week planner comes in.

Before you laugh out loud at the very idea of an “ideal week”, remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wise words: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Sticking rigidly to pre-conceived weekly plans no matter what is the royal road to anti-social selfishness and perpetual frustration, to be sure. But there is also an equal and opposite danger: If you don’t have an idea of how you want to be spending your time, someone else (or more likely multiple other people, each with their own agenda) will spend it for you.

Another reason to have an ideal week plan is that, as I argued in a previous post, if things don’t get planned they tend not to get done.

To help my own planning I’ve developed an “ideal week” Excel workbook. I use it to sketch out how I want to be spending my time, bearing in mind that no real-life week will resemble the plan in anything like a photo-realist way.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Here’s how to use the workbook:

When you open it you are presented with an empty grid showing every hour of the week, and an empty table with eight categories and corresponding colours (sleep, work, family, exercise, travel, grooming, eating, and workflow). The week is broken down into half hour chunks.

You then take each of the categories, renaming them if you wish, and block out all the hours in your ideal week in the corresponding colours. You should end up with a grid looking something like this dummy version:

As you add colour to the grid the pie chart to the right populates itself with the percentage of total time spent on each activity, and the number of hours sleep appears at the foot of each day’s column.

You also get the totals for each of your categories in the table.

In my experience, planning an ideal week in this way has a number of benefits:

  • It forces you to be holistic. Rather than just saying something like “I want to work on my PhD thesis 5 hours a day”, it sets your choices in the context of your whole week and all your various commitments, and it shows you the knock-one effects of expanding one category for the other areas of your life. This is why it is important to include sleeping hours in the calculation.
  • It forces you to be realistic, and to assess how much time the real you can spend doing this or that, as opposed to the imaginary you without other commitments.
  • It gives you something to aim for, and a way of evaluating whether a given commitment or aspect of your life is getting out of hand.

You can download my ideal weekly planner for free here. You will need to add it to your “cart” and then “checkout”, but despite that nomenclature it’s completely free. The whole cart thing is a quirk of the plugin I’m using to make the file downloadable from my site. It will ask you for your address but you don’t need to enter it. All it needs is a name and an email address so that it can send you the download link.

 

Do you know how you want to spend your time? Who decides how you spend your time?

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Research hacks #19: Three benefits of time logging for academics, and one easy-to-use time logging app

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Time logging is for executives, not academics, right? It’s for lawyers with billable hours, not for researchers with theses and books that take years to complete. Wrong. I have found that tracking the time I spend on different tasks has brought me three distinct benefits, and in this post I want to share some reflections on how time logging can help academics, along with a recommendation for a free and easy-to-use app that does the hard work for you.

First benefit: a one-off audit of where your time REALLY goes

If you’re anything like me then you know that sinking feeling that can descend on you at the end of the working day: “Where on earth did all my time go today? What have I actually achieved in all the running around and typing I’ve done?”

A good first step to getting more control over the sands of time running through your fingers is to know just where your precious hours are going. So once a year or so I log everything I do for a couple of weeks. Sleep. Travel. Eating. Research. Emails. Exercise. Family time. Everything. The benefit of this exercise is that I get to see precisely how each of the 168 hours in the week are being spent. I can see where my intuitive sense of how much time I’m putting into certain tasks is correct, and where my instinct is mistaken. I can also compare it to my “ideal week” (about which I’ll write in a future post), and see where the largest discrepancies are.

“Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.” Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

It’s a good audit exercise, and liable to yield unexpected results. Seeing the hours you spend on all your weekly activities as cumulative totals gives you a sharpened sense of time (and of time wasting!). Try it and see.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Second benefit: focusing your mind on research or thesis time

Finding out how you really spend your time is not the only benefit of time logging. You can log specific tasks more regularly to get an accurate sense of how much time you are really spending on them, as opposed to how much time you’d like to be spending. For academics, one obvious task to log is research work. We all know that research is one of the first things to get squeezed when the jackboot of admin and bureaucracy descends on our tender neck, and having an accurate log of how much research we are actually doing is the first step towards bringing our actual time expenditure in line with our theoretical time allocation.

A pleasant side-benefit I have experienced from logging research time is that I am less likely needlessly to check email or distract myself in other ways if I know that the research clock is ticking.

Third benefit: proving to yourself, and to your employer, how much time things really take

We’ve all been there. We are told that the new admin job we’ve just been given will only take an hour a week. Three weeks in, we find that it is taking half a day. In order to address this mission creep it can be useful to log all the time we spend on certain tasks over a period of time (say a semester). That way we can report back to the boss with more than a vague “this took longer than you said”, and give her dates, times and total hours. I haven’t used time logging for this purpose myself yet, but a colleague employed it to achieve a fair acknowledgement of, and recompense for, the time she was giving to a particularly onerous admin responsibility.

Toggl: a great free time-logging app

So those are the main benefits I have gained, or seen others gain, from time logging. But how should you do it? There’s the good old pen and paper way, but that leaves you having to add up hours manually. You could use an Excel spreadsheet, but then for the logging to be accurate you need to have access to that spreadsheet wherever you go, and you need to work out all the formulas and calculations for yourself.

The easiest solution I have found, and the one I currently use, is Toggl. It’s a free web-based time logger also available as an app for iPhone and Android, so you can quickly log your time wherever you are, regardless of whether you are in front of a computer screen or not.

Rather than explaining the app myself, here are a couple of Toggl’s introductory videos:

 

 

Do you log your hours spent on different tasks constantly, sporadically, or never? What benefits have you found in doing so?

CC Image courtesy of cea+ on Flickr.

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Research hacks #18: 20 further tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the second of two posts on how to field questions after your paper at an academic conference. The first one, which covers preparing for question time and knowing your main point, can be found here.

Get to know the main types of question

If you want to know how to answer any given question, it is useful to have a sense of the different types of question that are customarily asked at conferences. Here are the main types of question I have heard asked over the years:

  • “Can you explain…” Someone is genuinely interested but simply didn’t understand something you said. You answer by going back to the point in your paper to which they are referring and fleshing out your point at more length. Simple. If you have an example or illustration, use it. When you’ve finished explaining, ask if the explanation made more sense second time round. If the questioner is asking about something very technical that most people in the room will not understand, keep your response brief and offer to chat further with them later in the day.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • “Have you thought about X?” This can be three sorts of question masquerading under the same words.
    • The first sort is benign, and its tone is “hey, I think there’s a book or article you might be interested in”. You don’t need to defend yourself or elaborate on what they have said, just  thank the questioner and note down their suggestion.
    • The second sort of question masquerading under the formula “Have you thought about X?” has more the tone of “I’m struggling to understand your paper, but something you said reminded me of X, whose work I do know. Could you talk about them please?” If you have something to say about X then great, go for it. If not, then perhaps ask the questioner to let you in on their thinking a little more: “what was it about my paper that put you in mind of X?” or “what, specifically, are you thinking of in X’s work that resonates with my paper?” The more concrete and specific the questioner gets, the easier it will be for you latch on to something to talk about.
    • The final sort of “Have you thought about X?” question is the most aggressive of the three. Reading between the lines, the questioner is saying “I’m surprised you haven’t read X, because he/she/it completely undermines everything you have said!” The first thing to realise here is that X almost certainly does not undermine everything you have said, unless you begin with X’s assumptions and use X’s concepts. So don’t panic. Again, invite the questioner to be as concrete and specific as possible and try to find the point at which the axioms or commitments of your own position differ from those of X. You might end up with a response something like “I can see that, if you start where X starts, then my position would indeed seem to be as you describe. But that’s not where it starts. Let me explain…”
  • The next sort of question boils down to saying “Here is my pet gripe about your thinker…” Someone goes off on a rant about your main author in a way that seems like a laundry list of complaints that has been compiled over many years and that has been lying dormant, ready to be unleashed at just such a time as this. You don’t need to be drawn into defending your author at all points. If some of the gripes impinge directly on the main point of your paper, deal with them. If they don’t, then resist being dragged away from your main argument into myriad winding dark alleys in which the question time threatens to become hopelessly lost.
  • Then there is the “Look at my superior knowledge” question. This sort of intervention is more about the questioner than the paper. Someone tries to show you that they know more about your topic than you do. Don’t be intimidated. Once more, know what you are defending. If you have researched and written your paper well, you will know what your main point and supporting arguments are. If the questioner’s intervention does not touch on those, then gently point it out. If it does, deal with the question on your home territory, i.e. talk about your paper’s main point and supporting arguments. Get the questioner to explain how what they are saying relates to the specific points you made, not to your thinker/author in general.
  • Next type of question: “I have a nit to pick”. The questioner asks you about some detail of what you said, perhaps something you said in passing, and their question relates only remotely to your main point. Answer the question briefly in its own terms, and then try to bring the discussion back to your main argument by reiterating where the nit-picker’s point sits in the overall structure of your paper.
  • No-one in the audience likes the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” type of question. This is the sort of intervention that wants to be a mini-paper in its own right, an extended monologue dressed up as a question. The questioner takes advantage of having the floor to tell you all their great ideas, rather than asking you about the paper. A polite “So what are you asking about my paper?” may be required at the end of such a diatribe.
General principles
  • Assume the best in a question and a questioner unless you have clear evidence proving otherwise.
  • Questions are an opportunity for you to reinforce and expand what you have said, and to explore new implications. They are not a threat. Welcome them.
  • Questions are a reward for clarity. If no-one could understand your paper you are unlikely to get many questions. A probing question shows that you explained your point clearly enough for someone to understand it.
  • All the same body language tips apply for Q&A as for your paper. Smile, make eye contact, treat the questioner with respect.
  • Answer the content, not the tone. Some people seem very aggressive when asking questions because they are in fact being aggressive, and others just come over that way, even though they may not be aware of it themselves. If you get a question that seems aggressive, sarcastic or rude, my advice would be not to rise to the bait of the tone at all. Maintain your own composure and authority and answer the content of what is asked (if the question has any discernible content), leaving the tone aside. Don’t let the tone of the question dictate the tone of the answer. If you need to put someone in their place (and I think this is very rare), do it politely and without losing your poise.
  • Nobody likes to look ignorant or naive. If you have been asked an ignorant or naive question, deal with the questioner gently and let them down lightly, in the same way you would want to be treated if you realised you had asked a silly question.
  • If all else fails and your mind goes completely blank, you can always go back to your main point. Try to bring questions back to your main point as you are able, and if necessary you can ask the questioner to help you see how their question relates to your main point.
  • If a questioner insists on a whole string of follow-ups and you feel yourself being dragged further and further from what you are trying to say, don’t feel you need to indulge them until, like a dog with a gnawed bone, they finally put you down in exhaustion. Invite them to continue the conversation with you over coffee or lunch, or stress that other members of the audience should get the chance to ask a quesiton.
  • Whatever you do, don’t ever pretend to know something you don’t, and don’t make anything up. Being found out to be making things up is far worse than being ignorant. I’ve seen this happen at conferences, and it is not pretty. If you don’t know the direct answer to the question then say so, and try to say something at least tangentially relevant to the question that you do know.
  • You don’t have to answer the question directly. It may contain a flawed assumption or rest on a misunderstanding, or it may be the “have you stopped beating your wife?” type of question that you can’t answer directly without inculpating yourself or your thinker. If that’s the case, make that your answer: correct the assumption or the misunderstanding, or show how the question is loaded.
  • Don’t let people attack your images or analogies. They are not intended to be perfect models in every respect. They are meant to provide a helpful analogy in (usually) one important respect. Don’t let people criticise aspects of your images and analogies that are irrelevant to the point you are making, as if that were the same thing as critiquing your main argument itself.

This is a much expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Macmillan Cancer Support on Flickr.

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Research hacks #17: 15 tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In this fourth post on presenting a conference paper (following on from planning and writing a conference paperdelivering a paper and timekeeping and technology), I want to think through the often panic-inducing issue of how to approach the question and answer time at the end of your paper. This is the first of two posts on fielding questions.

Fielding questions

Prepare for question time like you prepare for your presentation

  • The first thing to say is that preparing for Q&A should be considered a task of equal importance to preparing for your presentation. Q&A is an important time: people often remember the exchanges after a paper more than the paper itself. If you prepare well for your paper but aren’t sufficiently ready for the question time then your overall presentation may fall flat and leave an underwhelming impression. You wouldn’t dream of giving a paper without thinking about it beforehand and having at least some notes in front of you. Don’t take the question time any less seriously.
  • Prepare for questions by reading your paper through with a critical eye. If it helps, imagine that you are a particular critical reader you have encountered in the past. Ask yourself “what would he or she ask about this paper?”
  • You know the weakest moments in your argument. Think what you might be asked about those.
  • If you can, find people willing to read your paper and ask them to note down two or three questions that they would want to ask you.
  • Once you have a reasonably comprehensive list of questions, put them in a document and take your time working out possible responses to each of them. Write the responses under the questions (preferably in key-word form) and take that document with you to your paper. Bring it out at the end of your presentation, and use it to jog your memory during the question time.

During question time itself

  • Have a pen and paper in front of you during the Q&A. Note down key words from questions as they are asked so that you don’t forget what you are being invited to respond to, especially if the question has multiple parts. Also note down key words of your response as they occur to you, with the purpose of jogging your memory when you come to reply. That way, you don’t have to hold your whole answer in your head at once but can concentrate on listening carefully to the question. When the questioner stops you can glance down at your notes and be confident that you have something to say, rather than looking like a rabbit in the headlights.
  • Don’t make your answers into new mini-papers. People want to hear something interesting in response to their question; they don’t want an extended monologue. 30 seconds to a minute at the most should be sufficient for most answers.
  • If you don’t understand part of the question, feel free to ask the questioner for clarification rather than launching in and hoping for the best. You can say “Just let me make sure I’ve understood. Your question is about ____, right?”
  • At the beginning of your answer it can be useful to restate or rephrase the question (especially if it was a long one). You can say, for example, “You are asking, I think, about…” This is also a moment when you can choose which part of a six-point question you want to focus on. Sometimes people’s questions wander off in multiple directions and you can’t do justice to them all, so don’t try. Pick something central to the questioner’s point that is also an issue you want to talk about and say something like “I’d like to pick up on your point that…”
  • Assume that questions are in good faith and not hostile until you have incontrovertible evidence otherwise. If it is possible to interpret a question either as hostile or as friendly, assume the friendly interpretation unless or until you are proved wrong. More on handdling different types of question in the next post.
Know your main point, and stick to it
  • One of the greatest helps in answering questions is to be very clear in your own head what your main point is, and therefore what it is you are (negatively) defending and (positively) commending. I suggested in a previous post that your conference paper should have one main point, and one of the many reasons why this is a good idea is that it helps you immensely in knowing how to deal with questions. Imagine that your paper has one main point, supported by multiple strands of supporting evidence and argument. Write them down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you during the question time. It will help you to discern quickly to which part of your paper a particular question is making reference, or indeed if the question is irrelevant to your paper.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Use your main and supporting points to work out what is at stake in the question
  • If someone poses you a critical question, ask yourself  1) “is this attacking a) my main thesis, b) one of the supporting strands of evidence, or c) nothing I have said at all?” and 2) “if it is attacking one of the supporting strands, does the overall argument still hold whether or not this strand is present?” This will help you see what is at stake in the question, whether it is a) torpedoing your hull, b) knocking out one your rudders, or c) missing you altogether by a good ten feet.
  • If you can’t see how the criticism is engaging with either your main point or supporting arguments, find a way of pointing this out politely to the questioner.
  • If the question is only attacking one of the supporting strands, and if that strand is not necessary to your argument, then after defending the strand in your answer you should add that, even if you grant the questioner their point, the main thesis of your paper still holds.
  • The art of answering questions was once helpfully explained to me with the image of a person holding a cricket bat, rooted to the spot, with people throwing tennis balls at them from all angles. They bat away the balls in front of them, on both sides, and behind, but they do not move. They have one fixed position that they are defending, and they stick to it. Balls that are not on course to hit them just sail past. In other words, know what you are trying to defend, and don’t move away from it. Don’t be drawn into flailing wildly with your bat at arm’s length. Keep it tight, know what you are trying to say, and then say it, defend and commend it.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of opensource.com on Flickr.

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