Telos 188 (2019) Response

Telos 2019 Cover

The new issue of Telos has just come out, and I have an article in it called “Periodization and Providence” that compares the philosophical and theological narratives of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Augustine’s Confessions. I have a few thoughts that I’d like to add to my article now that it is public and published and partly summarized by David Pan in the introduction to the volume.

Pan begins his introduction by pointing to the connection between global political order and theology, claiming that “it has become clear that religious conflicts drive political ones” (3). Being situated in the conversation on political theology, I think that statements like this one need more unpacking, because in a way, the claim rests on a clear and causal distinction between religion and politics. Now obviously Pan doesn’t think that these categories are simple or separable. His argument is that in order to understand the ‘political’ we need to understand the ‘theological,’ and he rightly points out that the postsecular turn names the persistence of certain theopolitical visions within and beyond secularization. I appreciate the way that Pan’s introductory comments point to the limits of political and military calculations as keys to understanding global order – for theological and religious powers are always also at play.

That the Fall 2019 issue is mostly composed of articles on Islam is heartening (although I still need to read them through). A few issues ago, Telos published a review of Michael Ley’s 2015 book Der Selbstmord des Abendlandes: Die Islamisierung Europas. The reviewer recounts Ley’s argument that “only an Islam without Sharia is compatible with human rights” (187), and sympathetically engages with Ley’s notion of the “Islamicization of Europe” while pointing to the author’s previous work on antisemitism. I found the review disturbing. At each turn it attempted to anticipate the reaction of the reader who would level charges of Islamophobia against the book, using Ley’s credentials and previous work to deflect anticipated attacks. The reviewer then writes that, “Ley also predicts that there will a rude awakening for gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and adherents of gender ideologies of all sorts: they will disappear from the landscape of an impending European caliphate. The political future of Europe will instead mirror the present-day realities of Lebanon, parts of the former Yugoslavia, the present states of the Middle East, and parts of Africa.” (189). The reviewer then summarizes Ley’s conclusion that “The solution can therefore only lie, according to Ley, in a return to the basics of European cultures: the national, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity and the European values of humanism and the Enlightenment.” (190).

The prediction that Islam will cause LGBTQ* people to disappear from Europe is Islamophobic – not least because it conveniently returns to a general representation of ‘Islam,’ and allows all the author’s previous distinctions between Sharia and moderate Islam to disappear. Whether this is an accurate summary of Ley’s book or not I am not sure, but the fact that a sympathetic review of a book like this appeared in Telos was concerning to me because I knew my article was also coming out in the Fall issue. This is why I was glad to see work on Islam in the most recent issue of the journal – especially work that makes and maintains the necessary fine distinctions between different kinds of Islam (just as there are different kinds of any other religion).

The idea that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Secularism are categories whose content can be evaluated wholesale is something that I hope most scholars of religion fundamentally question, not because any of those grouped under these categories should get a free pass for the use of violence, but because each term attempts to collect such a massive tradition that is so interiorly diverse that it cannot be subjected to evaluation in a singular way (much less prediction). This returns us to categories like ‘the religious’ and the ‘political’ – categories that the new issue of Telos concerns itself with – for these categories too are often blamed for problems by those who want to preserve one general category and denigrate another (as if to say, ‘religion is the problem, not politics!’ or the reverse). I think, in its own way, my article approaches some of these problems of representation.

Pan provides a summary of my article in the introduction after narrating the arc of the articles on Islam, and for the most part he presents my work accurately. I do attempt to provide an alternative model for thinking about history that takes the postsecular situation seriously, and I do think that Nietzsche and Augustine differ fundamentally in their treatment of the way that the past, present, and future are drawn together in the present moment (Zarathustra’s Augenblick and the tension of Augustine’s distentio animi). However, it’s not quite right when, concerning my reading of Nietzsche, Pan states that: “With the falling away of intentionality, there is no more basis for a trajectory and there is only repetition.” (6). Rather than focusing on intentionality or using it as a key term to delineate the difference between Zarathustra’s Augenblick and Augustine’s distentio animi, the article focuses on the theopolitical power of periodization, showing how Augustine’s pilgrimage and Zarathustra’s wandering both divide time and history into periods. Whereas Augustine’s peregrinatio is a kind of guided providential journey that is retroactively laden with meaning, Zarathustra’s lonely hike is a journey without a telos.

Both Zarathustra and the Augustine of the Confessions are messianic figures who present visions of lived time and make broader claims about history, doing so in literary, philosophical, and theological ways (while disturbing the boundaries between these categories in the process). My aim in the article is to show how both Augustine and Zarathustra divide up their time, periodizing their journeys using terms like ‘conversion’ and ‘metamorphosis’ respectively, and further periodizing history: Zarathustra’s time is like a gate between two paths in which the gate is the Augenblick that divides past and future, and Augustine’s time is a tension, intention, and distention in the soul that gathers the past and future into the present moment. Both figures mediate and periodize time in significant ways. Augustine’s time is teleological, and Zarathustra’s time is circular (He says, “All that is straight lies.”).

I hope that my article will also be read with this in mind. At the end of the article I praise Augustine and critique Zarathustra’s journey because the latter seems to fall prey to alienation (and I use this in the sense developed by Rahel Jaeggi), and not because Augustine is more intentional and teleological than Zarathustra (or Nietzsche for that matter). These distinctions are important, because the last thing I want to do is to set up a debate between Nietzsche and Augustine and have Augustine come out as the winner because he is more intentional and teleological. Instead, I think that Augustine’s providential pilgrimage is too coherent, and Zarathustra’s aimless wandering is not coherent enough – and here I am thinking specifically about the way that both periodize their autobiographical and cosmological narratives.

When I write about a postsecular history, I am trying to find a way between and beyond theopolitical periodizations that make either providential meaning or ateological meaninglessness compulsory. At the end of the article I do claim that “Zarathustra’s journey seems too incoherent and fragmented to lend anything constructive to the present postsecular situation.” But now I am not so sure. Although I think that Nietzsche does not give good resources for overcoming alienation, I do think that his critique of the straightforwardness of teleological time is a help to those who want to address the alienating aspects of modern, postmodern, and neoliberal life. I’m interested in finding ways to talk about providence that don’t fall into the simple distinction between the meaningfulness of all experiences and the meaninglessness of all experiences. I see Zarathustra and the Confessions as influential texts that have provided scaffolding for these questions, and which may still serve as guides for thinking about periodization and providence in the relationship between autobiographical and metaphysical time and history.

This article is also part of a larger project that attempts to articulate a postsecular history by making connections between political theology and the politics of time using periodization as a key term. My dissertation, on the other hand, is about violence. And so, I am attentive to the ways that violence can get covered over by historical, political, and religious abstractions. Reading Klaus Theweleit’s Männerphantasein has me thinking about the ways in which violence is explained away, avoided, and reduced, by interpreting violent acts using overdetermining categories or by making certain violences about something else (ex. ‘the violence of murder is really about an abstract or natural desire that men have for competition’). My current dissertation work attempts to address the problem of using abstract, linguistic, or natural categories to talk about violence – meaning that when I worry about Islamophobia I am worried about how representations of Islam that generalize and homogenize translate into very real cultural sentiments that have materially violent effects. In the swing to the right – analyzed by Francois Cusset, for example – representations of Islam are always being manipulated, especially in obscured movements from specific instances of violence to the broadest possible category called ‘Islam.’ My worry about the review in Telos is connected to my worry about the production and reproduction of enmity in political theology, as a result of the persistence of Carl Schmitt’s categories. The problem of misrepresentation – and here I mean the manipulation of representation such that some events or groups are made exemplary of large categories like ‘Islam’ or ‘Religion’ and others are ignored – is a constituent part of the desire to divide the world into friends and enemies, whether by demonization or scapegoating or desiring a ‘return’ to Enlightenment or Christian values, as if these values were not produced at the expense of so many. Perhaps an example will help.

In his recent book The Demons of Liberal Democracy, Adrian Pabst begins by dignifying the resentment of western liberal democracy (2), while at the same time proclaiming “the failure of dualistic thinking” (3). A few pages later he constructs a caricature of “hyper-liberals” who reject national identity, are self-righteous, and can’t be reasoned with, unlike “most people” (6). In the book’s central critiques of oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy, and tyranny, Pabst returns to this figure of the “hyper-liberal” in order to authenticate his claims. Complaining that traditional values have declined (33) and opposing both demagogic manipulation and conspiracy theories (73), Pabst accuses liberals of either reducing the world to the facts of instrumental reason or resorting to a hands-off ‘agree-to-disagree’ world of irreducible values (74). Advocating for a return to truth (99), Pabst eventually divides up the political world into ‘illiberal liberals’ and ‘anti-liberal insurgents’ (150) and plays into the dichotomous logic he condemns at the beginning of his book by feeding back into the polarization he condemns (ironically demonizing in an effort to cast out demons). My worry is that Pabst – who is a contributing editor to Telos – has made the production of enmity and resentment central to his work by using cheap representations of ‘liberals’ or ‘hyper-liberals’ to argue that his position marks the clear middle between the extremes of “doubling down on abstract liberal cosmopolitanism or a retreat to nationalism and even atavistic ethnocentrism” (87).

I’m as concerned about social fragmentation as anyone else, but I don’t think that the answer is returning to truth and tradition, much less the values of the Enlightenment. In some ways, the very figure of a return is a theopolitical periodization that puts to use the restitution of a supposedly better time in the past for the purposes of advancing a present order. This is the sort of problem I am trying to address with the notion of theopolitical periodization. The invocation of a ‘return’ to truth, values, or tradition, is a particular expression of power that rests on theological and political structures of legitimation. Whether by manipulating the relationship between part and whole to produce exemplary events and stable identities (as in Ley’s misrepresentation of Islam), or by manipulating the relationship between past and present by calling for a return to truth (as in Pabst’s argument), the configuration of part and whole often relies upon the construction of a representative enemy: the Muslim who wants to take over Europe, or the hyper-liberal who can’t be reasoned with. In both cases the implicit (and sometimes explicit) argument is that there is an enemy out there who cannot be reasoned with – a fanatic who isn’t reasonable like ‘us’ (here I am thinking of Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence and Toscano’s Fanaticism). But this doesn’t take seriously enough the real conflict in values faced by liberal democracies, nor does it treat each party involved as having real reasons for their values and actions amidst the profound conflict of normative orders in the globalized and globalizing world.

Overall, I’m pleased to see the article in print in Telos. I think the journal can be a place for thinking past some of the problems mentioned above. At the same time, I have serious reservations about some of the problems of representation that I see – specifically representations that demonize, scapegoat, and produce enemies by moving from the specific to the general. I hope that the argument of my article and some of the reflections can help to remedy some of these problems of representation, and I hope the article is helpful for those who are interested in the problems of postsecularity and its often implicit negotiations between Christianity, religion, and secularity.




Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s