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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Forgetting the Apologists: Walter Benn Michaels, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 10/15/06 at 01:42 AM

I want to conclude my own consideration of Walter Benn Michaels’s new book The Trouble With Diversity by investigating further Michaels’s curious epilogue, “About the Author.” In particular, I want to examine how Michaels’s confessional chapter, and his claim that the information it contains is irrelevant, is symptomatic of a convenient misunderstanding of what it means to be “oneself” when one is a public intellectual. I hope to shed light on Michaels’s significant neglect of recent texts by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, and to consider what the consequences of that neglect might be for the academy and for society.

My post will be in two parts. The first part will show that Michaels’s argument is identical to arguments put forward by Zizek and Badiou, and will examine how this redundancy happened. The second will consider the specific relevance of Badiou’s work on Saint Paul to Michaels’s tactical use of autobiography.

Though my post will not respond directly to Adam Roberts’s post on Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton, it will eventually touch on similar questions about religion in our time and in history. 

In January 2005, Stanley Fish, in his column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, argued that we must take religion seriously, which means “to regard it not as a phenomenon to be analyzed at arm’s length, but as a candidate for the truth.” He concludes:

[Students] will be seeking guidance and inspiration [...] Are we ready? We had better be, because [religion] is now where the action is. When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted know [sic] what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered him like a shot: religion. (from “One University Under God?”)

The implication is that Fish considers us largely unready to assume this burden. We academics are the ones who can no longer afford to regard believers as “quaintly pre-modern or as the needy recipients of our saving (an ironic word) wisdom.”

This proves that Fish either has not read, or considers it possible to ignore, an increasing number of academic apologies for religious thought. For our purposes, which relate specifically to the political and intellectual aims of The Trouble with Diversity, two works are most significant: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, by Alain Badiou, and The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is The Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, by Slavoj Zizek.

Why ignore Badiou and Zizek? Well, it is true that two theoretical texts do not by themselves reverse the tradition of irreligiousness in the academy. Presumably, some of Fish’s readers are still quite committed to the secularist positions he finds so foolish. However, the other, more problematic reason is a split within the academic community.

This split is based on mutual antagonism between late-period poststructuralism, still influenced by psychoanalysis (esp. Lacan and Freud) and dominated by the figure of Derrida, and the pragmatically and historically minded work of Americans like Fish and Michaels.

The split is a tragic miscalculation, and one that is crippling the academy’s ability to influence the mainstream of Western society. Consider the following sentence:

Typically, in today’s critical and political discourse, the term ‘worker’ has disappeared [...] in this way, the class problematic of workers’ exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of the ‘intolerance of Otherness.’ (The Fragile Absolute 10)

There is no difference between this statement, which appears at the beginning of Zizek’s book, and Michaels’s argument in The Trouble With Diversity about the function of “diversity” in maintaining the economic status quo. The argument is identical.

I wrote in my earlier post that Michaels appears to be advocating for an “absolutely undetermined subject of the democratic state” as an alternative to the person determined by identity categories. According to Alain Badiou, Saint Paul is valuable to us because he first posited a “subject without identity” capable of “subtracting truth from the communitarian grasp, be it that of a people, a city, an empire, a territory, or a social class” (5). (To be clear about Badiou’s position on class, bear in mind that he is referring specifically to communities of distinct classes, not to the economic inequalities to which the term “class” itself refers. Gated communities are one modern example.)

Badiou goes on to contrast this Paulian ideology with that of “culturalist” ideology, and the “victimist conception of man” (8) that imagines human beings to be continual victims of the loss of their culture. Badiou, surveying the success of Le Pen’s Front National, asks: “How does the noxious question ‘What is a French person?’ come to install itself at the heart of the public sphere?” (8). Badiou can help us see the connection between the publicized victimization of Patrick Nudjulu, which Michaels discusses at length, and the imaginary victimization of “Frenchness” fueling the rise of the far right in France.

It would be one thing if Badiou or Zizek were obscure thinkers. They are, on the contrary, two of the most famous theoreticians alive today. The fact that Michaels does not acknowledge or respond to either of them, despite publishing his book several years after they published theirs, means that we lose in two major ways:

1. We don’t know how Michaels would wish to revise or augment their arguments.

2. We lose the opportunity to demonstrate that academics are setting aside their differences for a concerted, international effort to reinstate universalism as a foundational political ethos.

It also means that, despite all of his candidness, Michaels’s autobiographical notes actually obscure the intellectual position he occupies and upholds by writing as though Badiou and Zizek did not exist. In his “Acknowledgements” section, Michaels thanks Fish for encouraging him “in his usual abusive way” and acknowledges that “it will be obvious to readers of my chapter on religion and politics that a lot of it can be blamed on Stanley” (233). Michaels is thus positioning himself as one of Fish’s heirs. I have no problem with this, but I find it distressing that he would not position himself as one of Zizek and Badiou’s colleagues. That is precisely what Zizek does with Badiou when he announces that he is “following Alain Badiou’s path-breaking book on St. Paul” (2).

The ideological differences between Badiou and Michaels, or Zizek and Michaels, are not trivial. (Neither are the differences between Zizek and Badiou.) I am not suggesting that the well-rehearsed disagreements between Lacanians and historicists can be easily overcome. Nonetheless, my belief in the projects of universalism and equality leave me out of patience with the refusal to recognize common ground.

I am reminded of the chapter “The Great Petulance,” from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain: “What was it, then? What was in the air? A love of quarrels. Acute petulance. Nameless impatience. A universal penchant for nasty verbal exchanges and outbursts of rage” (673, trans. Woods). The great petulance follows the death of Mynheer Peeperkorn in Mann; for us, it has followed the death of the brilliant and charismatic figure of Derrida.

Stanley Fish is famously ready to answer any question; he has at times carried note-cards with him, to prove that he has anticipated all questions in advance. Thus it is interesting that his column on religion should contain the tremulous question, “Are we ready?” The question is not whether we are ready to take up various religious doctrines as models for truth. We’re already doing that. The question is whether, at a moment of such pressing need, we academics will continue to deny each other’s ability to utter truths.


A most interesting set of observations, Joseph. I’ll proceed casually.

Back in my teaching days at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 80s I taught composition. One semester I decided to teach from one of those collections of pieces on this or that intended to stimulate students to reflection. One of the pieces in this particular collection was from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. In the course of discussing this selection I asked if any of the students had had a mystical experience. Out of a class of, say, 20+ students, I expected maybe 2 or 3 would say so. I was wrong. Over half the class had had such an experience.

Needless to say, that set me back a bit. Why? Because the education they were getting at RPI, similar to that at most other colleges and universities, had little or nothing to say about such experiences. I had such an experience once - while performing a bit of avant-garde jazz as intro to She’s Not There - and it shook me: what WAS that? Well, that happened to me back in the psychedelic and mystical 60s and I’d read a great deal about such experiences. So I had interpretive resources to fall back on. What about these students in the revanchist 80s? How did they assimilate these experiences into their lives? Or did they just drop them?

Then, in 1999, I was offered the opportunity to write a trade book about the psychology and culture of music. I took it, in part because I wanted to create a conceptual framework that spoke to (musically induced) mystical experience in thoroughly modern terms - cognitive and neuropsychology. Of course, I didn’t have to do that from scratch, a great deal of work had been done in 1960s and 1970s, but I wasn’t satisfied with that work. So I took a run on it and published Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. The book was oddly reviewed in Nature (the reviewer raked me over the coals for treating hip-hop as music), positively reviewed in Science, and was noticed elsewhere as well. But it didn’t get the kind of action I was dreaming about, alas.

Those dreams included numerous speaking invitations. But I only got two, both from schools with strong religious affiliation, Texas Lutheran University in Texas and Goshen College in Indiana. Goshen College is a small school (c. 1000 students) affiliated with the Mennonite Church. Music is very important to the Mennonites, which is I why was been asked to deliver an address. 

The Mennonites have a long tradition of a capella four-part singing. This music is relatively austere. There are about 1,000,000 Mennonites world-wide, with c. 450,000 in North America and c. 350,000 in Africa. Mennonite doctrine is fairly conservative. In particular, they believe in the “literal” truth of the Biblical account of creation. They are pacifists and also believe in a strict separation of church and state, so, for example, they refuse jury duty. The professor who invited me observed: “While I simply accept your scientific arguments on faith, I am entirely convinced that you and I ‘hear’ music the same way.” That was a most interesting weekend.

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Stanley Fish may well be correct, that religion is the next big issue on the academic plate. And we aren’t ready. The squabble over there in Adam’s column, as you note, is a case in point.

As for Michaels not being aware of the Badiou and the Zizek, well, there’s an awful lot to be aware of and to assimilate. We’ve all got rather full agendas, so I don’t think that’s either here nor there.

Meanwhile my own agenda has taken me to Eiko Ikegami’s Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (Cambridge 2005). Ikegami is arguing that civil society in early modern Japan originated in voluntary association of people who gathered together for aesthetic pursuits, such as the tea ceremony or improvising linked poetry in group settings where each person would contribute a stanzas. The members of these groups would come from different classes of Japanese society, but class differences would be set aside for the moment. Here’s a typical passage that speaks to Badiou’s observation about Paul (p. 87):

The image of creating linked verse under the cherry blossoms in temple gardens challenges us to decode the ritual mechanisms that allowed the participants to suspend for a time the ordinary status boundaries. Closer observation of the operation of the Cherry Blossom sessions reveals the presence of multiple devices for creating spheres of mu’en, or “no relation.” The word mu’en (mu means “absence” in literal English translation; en means “relationship”), originally a Buddhist term, implied the absence of a relationship to worldly constraints.

As far as I can tell, Ikegami cites neither Badiou nor Zizek nor Fish nor Michaels, but she does cite a lot of folks, and not only Japanese. She’s a sociologist and so cites a lot of those folks.

Maybe something new is in the air?

FWIW, while Beethoven’s Anvil has not been translated into any European language, it has been translated into Chinese and Japanese. I’ve been told that the Japanese translation is very elegant.

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Nonetheless, my belief in the projects of universalism and equality leave me out of patience with the refusal to recognize common ground.

FWIW, “universalism” strikes me as rather old hat. Nor does it seem likely to be of much value in formulating practical politics. These days folks are muttering about cosmopolitanism (see also this review). I don’t know whether there’s anything there or not.

But, yes, a most interesting post you’ve made.

By Bill Benzon on 10/15/06 at 09:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think I have anything to say about this post, but I just ran over to website and skimmed through some of your stuff. It all looks really interesting and I’m looking forward to reading it in closer detail. When I’m not playing an asshole at The Valve I enjoy reading scientific ecology and its non-scientific variants.

By on 10/15/06 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hopefully this trend will mean there’s a job waiting for me, round the bend.  Zizek’s stuff on Paul (or at least supposedly on Paul) is getting more and more interesting—in The Parallax View, it’s becoming more and more clearly central to the whole Zizekian apparatus.  What’s really interesting is the degree to which he’s independently discovering the “Death of God” theology of Thomas Altizer, who was also a raging Hegelian.  (This might be an interesting connection for someone to write about, were Altizer not apparently the kiss of academic death.)

As is implicit in the above paragraph, it’s probably not enough to work with Zizek and Badiou if you want to deal with the religion problem—Badiou’s work on Paul is actually pretty lackluster.  Opening up the dialogue to actual theologians, philosophers of religion, historians of Christianity, biblical scholars, etc., would be freaking awesome.  After all, they’re all already dialoguing with the mainstream humanities folk—so it’s just a matter of making it a two-way thing.

In short: Encore un effort...

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fish (quoted in above): “We had better be, because [religion] is now where the action is. [...] the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered him like a shot: religion.”

Does this indicate anything other than that Fish is eager to declare himself to be the person who can decide where the center of intellectual energy in the academy is? 

More broadly, your post talks about religion, class (distinguishing this from a Marxist conception of class), and universalism, but somehow never talks about Marxism directly.  In this context, I don’t think that you can avoid doing so.

It used to be an insult to tell a Marxist that Marxism was basically a religious discourse.  On the contrary, the (stereotypical) Marxist would reply, Marxists knew more than others did about how society worked, and Marxism was in some sense scientific.  That’s no longer the case.  The remaining Marxism-influenced thinkers, like Zizek and Badiou, embrace Marxism as a religious discourse, because they’ve been forced to give up on any pretense of economic understanding.  What was once a economic and social program has become a religious-apocalyptic discourse.  It’s as if people had taken the old slogan “keep hope alive” literally—as long as hope itself is alive, hope doesn’t actually have to be about anything.  Needless to say, that has nothing to do with classic ideas of universalism.

So the split between Fish/Michaels and Badiou/Zizek could be seen along any number of axes (disciplinary, cultural, whatever) but I think that a major one is that two come out of the Marxist tradition and two don’t.  They are both interested in the same thing, yes.  But note how how Zizek, say, is all narrative without having any program, while Michaels is all program without having any narrative.  Zizek insists that hope must be kept alive on the strength of the absurd; Michaels insists that a particular conversation must be changed, without ever really saying what it should be changed to.  (Yes, I know that he says that it should be changed to greater income equality—but without committing to an idea of what the more-equal society is supposed to look like, there is a continual perception that he’s being mostly destructive.)

Meanwhile, universalism is being defended outside the academy in traditional terms; those of the “reality-based community”, to use a classic term of denigration adopted as self-description, that is arising in reaction to right-wing postmodernism.  The reality-based community is still interested in actual knowledge as a base for universalism.  Literary theorists and philosophers, no matter how well meaning, just don’t really know about anything other than certain types of texts.

But having this group of academics combine to push a religious discourse on everyone on the “left”, insofar as they have the ability to, would be a tragedy.  Religion is the province of the right and always has been.  As the right’s use of postmodernism has shown, they are fully capable of adopting left ideas to their own uses.  If we choose to fight on those grounds, we will lose.

By on 10/15/06 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Where does Badiou suggest that he embraces Marxism as a religious discourse and not as scientific? I could be guessing, but I don’t think you’ve actually read the guy if that’s what you think. His book on St. Paul was a text of philosophy, centred around his own theory of subjectivity and what he calls ‘the event’, and while this is related intimately to politics, he did not suggest a return to Christianity or religion as such. He is a staunch atheist, more so than Zizek, and I wouldn’t be suprised if he was uncomfortable with his intial reception in America.

Like it or not, religious discourse is a part of Western civilization and anyone interested in its development should look at it. The problem I think you have is that you assume it’s influence is all really, really bad.

“Religion is the province of the right and always has been.” Yeah, take that Ghandi and MLK. And you two South America. And you, African-American community. Bitches don’t know nothing about science! No wonder they haven’t had a victory!

By on 10/15/06 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Damn… “you too South America.”

Why have you forsaken me John Holbo?!?!

By on 10/15/06 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Liberation theology:

In essence, liberation theology explores the relationship between Christian, specifically Roman Catholic, theology and political activism, particularly in areas of social justice, poverty and human rights. The main methodological innovation of liberation theology is to do theology (i.e. speak of God) from the viewpoint of the economically poor and oppressed of the human community. According to Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is “an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor”.

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Commentary on current events from a Christian POV. That the writer happens to be named “Diane Christian” is incidental. 

By Bill Benzon on 10/15/06 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I predict that the numerous counter-examples to the “religion == right-wing” equation are going to be summarily dismissed as irrelevant, with no argument as to why.)

By Adam Kotsko on 10/15/06 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even the Zapatista struggle is tied into local religious beliefs that mingle not just Catholicism with Mayan ‘pagan’ beliefs, but also a mingling of the Mayan beliefs with that of Mexico’s revolutionary past. When the people of Chiapas celebrate the resurrection of the Mayan earth god, Volton (I believe this is tied to the beginning of the planting season), they celebrate it as “Volton-Zapata”.

By on 10/15/06 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, don’t you know that “religion” is not a useful category?  It doesn’t matter if any particular Marxist calls themself an atheist; contemporary Marxism, as a matter of belief, ideology, and practise, is religious.

As for the examples, well, liberation theology has been condemned by the Catholic hierarchy.  Gandhi and MLK succeeded at national liberation and at civil rights for an oppressed racial subculture, respectively—and failed at their greater agendas.  In other words, their particularist claims succeeded, their universalist ones failed.  I don’t doubt that it is possible, perhaps even necessary, for religious ideology to be used to help to unify and motivate a population in the service of political change when that is what is available.  But in service of universalism?  I’m sceptical.

By on 10/15/06 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And you ignore the wider question - where does Badiou claim to be a religious marxist? Where does he suggest that his commitment to Communism lies anywhere else than in a more complete vision of a better world (of which science would surely play a part)? Could it be that you’re talking about something you don’t have knowledge of? Whither art thou Badiou?

Did Ghandi and MLK fail at their greater agenda because of religion? I don’t see what their failure has to do with your statement that religion has always been the province of the right. Do you not see the classist and racist tone of such a statement? Liberation theology was not condemned by the hierarchy for its emphasis on the poor or social change, but because the hierarchy believed it to be too Marxist in approach. You should like that! Imagine if the liberationist had their way and we had a red South America now, wouldn’t you shake in fear?

But please, don’t get distracted by that question, I really want to hear this Badiou stuff.

By on 10/15/06 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Once again, an “only APS” moment.  Only APS could write, *all on the same day*, “[Badiou] is a staunch atheist”, “where does Badiou claim to be a religious marxist?” and a post titled “Argument for the Existence of Atheism as Religious Phenomenon”.

Why don’t you get Adam Kotsko to explain it to you?  Or, you know, think for one second about what you’re writing.

By on 10/15/06 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the “split” you’re referring to.  I don’t think I’m being polemical here, and I’m not sure if I’m just being obtuse, but you assert the existence of something rather ill-defined and characterize it as a “tragic mistake,” and from what I read in the post, I haven’t figured out why you think this split (whatever it is (I have a guess as to what you’re talking about), and assuming it exists, which I suspect is worth thinking about) seems to trump all the other divisions and infrastructural barriers that define those doing theoretical or quasi-theoretical work.

Would you mind clarifying that a bit?

And Rich, religion is not always a Right phenomenon.  Unless by religion you mean evangelical Christiandom.  Not a lot of neocon Wiccans out there, nor a lot of libertarian Buddhists.

By Kenneth Rufo on 10/15/06 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kenneth, I’m a “liberal religion"ist myself.  I think that what I mean could be understood from careful reading of my original, but since everyone has jumped on it, I guess I should explain.

What I wrote was: “But having this group of academics combine to push a religious discourse on everyone on the “left”, insofar as they have the ability to, would be a tragedy.  Religion is the province of the right and always has been.” Yes, it is quite possible for there to be individual religions or religious strands that are associated with the left.  But a basic *discourse* centered on religion is, I think, an essential element of the right, and a failure for the left.  It goes beyond the religious left being a more or less marginal phenomenon at the moment.  (There may not be a lot of neocon Wiccans out there, but there aren’t a lot of plain Wiccans either.) It goes to the basics of what the goal of the left is and how we plan to get there.  The examples of Gandhi and MLK are instructive, actually, in terms of how far they got.

I don’t feel like explaining the whole thing right now; it’s late where I am.  But I think that this line does lead towards something like Zizekianism—triumph on the strength of the absurd, Lenin as symbol of hope—which I think is absurd.  When I criticize leftism as nostalgia, that’s a related concept.  If you want to accept the notion of atheism as a religious phenomenon a la APS, that also fits; atheism is not really universal in the sense that I understand the left to aspire towards universality.

By on 10/16/06 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Paul Veyne’s book Bread and Circuses talks about the pleasure that upper class Greeks and Romans took in public feasts and other celebrations where considerations of status were put aside temporarily. I think part of the appeal of pastoral for aristocrats is similar: it’s a relief to belong to a natural community if only in one’s imagination. Of course aristocratic egalitarianism is a pretty dubious attitude--in the long run, you can always tell the Dukes from the shepherds--but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t extremely appealing. I wonder if the universalism promoted in the early Christians church had as much to do with Paul as with the fantasies of educated elites who read Paul in their own way for their own purposes.

By Jim Harrison on 10/16/06 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, that was fascinating to read. I think it is commendable of you to approach the phenomenon of mystical experience from the standpoint of science, while preserving its aesthetic dimension and claim to meaning.

It’s my thesis that Michaels is writing specifically about a renewed commitment to universalism—that, if you had to give a name to his alternative to cultural identity, ‘universalism’ would be absolutely the best name you could find. Writing about universalism would have led him to Badiou. The fact that he didn’t give his ethic a name reveals a worrisome paucity of vision. 

Appiah and Badiou may be using “universalism” and “cosmopolitanism” differently, while making similar arguments. Badiou spends a great deal of time on Paul’s willingness to embrace local customs, and makes the following trenchant observation about particularity in the contemporary world:

Contemporary cosmopolitanism is a beneficent reality. We simply ask that its partisans not get themselves worked up at the sight of a young veiled woman, lest we begin to fear that what they really desire, far from a real web of shifting differences, is the uniform dictatorship of what they take to be ‘modernity.’ (11)

All of this seems consonant with Appiah’s desire to find a mean between the political advantages of universalism, and the sustaining traditions of specific cultural communities.

Kenneth, the split I’m talking about is something that happens every time a contemporary intellectual is dismissed with a non sequitur. For example, it happens every time someone claims that Zizek is too obsessed with Hitchcock, or is always repeating himself; every time a joke is made about Lacan’s impenetrable diagrams; every time historicists are glibly called incapable of solving the paradox of their own historicity; every time a politically radical professor is accused of delusions of grandeur.

I am deliberately using the language of anti-racist propaganda because I believe a number of caricatures and cliches have made it less common for graduate students (and even professors) to even pick up and read works by writers they believe to be in opposing schools.

The predictable irony is that all of these clichés have a degree of truth to them. Many professors do have an exaggerated notion of their own political efficacy; Zizek does make more references to Vertigo than could possibly be illuminating. But the result is unproductive walls of separation within departments and within the humanities in general.

One could look at Michaels’s published works, including “Against Theory” in 1982 and “The Shape of the Signifier” in 2001. Michaels takes aim at a predictable list of theoreticians: de Man, Derrida, Butler, etc. I understand, and agree with, a number of his arguments against the writers in question. Here he is in direct dialogue with them. However, he is in dialogue with them only in order to annihilate them. That dialogue abruptly ceases when he turns his sights on “diversity.” That is the point of my post: Michaels confesses everything except the institutional lines of demarcation that have obscured points of agreement between himself and those writers who “do theory.”

Rich, I agree that Fish wants to be a prophet very badly.

I hope to write something soon to respond to the general style of your argument about Marxism, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Slavoj Zizek. Your argument is that the historical failures of Marxism/Leninism, and the precise moment of failure for Gandhi and King, demonstrate the flaws inherent in certain philosophical and political ideas. Similarly, the current association of American Christianity with right-wing politics proves that religion is (as a large-scale social phenomenon) inherently reactionary, so it is inadvisable to try to claim it for the left (because we’ll “lose").

If I’ve done a good job outlining your position, that’s good enough for now. I think it’s a powerful one that deserves a fuller response than is possible in a comment.

That said, I don’t think you can identify Marxism with religiosity simply because you consider holding to Marxist principles an absurdity which can only be justified through faith. Badiou writes that, “basically, I have never connected Paul with religion” (1) and later that “it is a question of restoring the universe to its pure secularity” (5). It is entirely possible to assign Paul (and other religious authors) full responsibility for a series of ethical claims and metaphysical models that bear on philosophical debates, whether or not one believes in the Christian God.

Adam, it is my hope that the scope of academic investigation will widen to include the thinkers to whom you refer. I have to admit that I’m ignorant of most of the specifics of that reading list. For me, Martin Buber is next.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/16/06 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Just admit it, you didn’t know what you were talking about. My post at The Weblog concerned the phenomenological element to atheism and nothing else. I was making no claims about ‘everyone being religious’ or anything equally as banal. And even if I was being inconsistent, that doesn’t mean you knew what you were talking about regarding Badiou’s Marxism. Is that hard to admit for you?

By on 10/16/06 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I think that you’ve outlined a good chunk of my position, but not all.  In particular, I don’t think that “holding to Marxist principles [is] an absurdity which can only be justified through faith.” Bringing in the word “absurd” was a specific reference to Zizek.  With regard to Marxism, it’s a sociological commonplace that if you describe religion by certain modes of belief and practise, then Marxism is religious, with a belief in the end of history and an earthly paradise, faith in the inevitable approach of that end to history (or modified, as with Zizek, into faith in the ever-present possibility), a holy book, Marx the prophet, Lenin the saint or messiah, the necessity to struggle against evil, a Protestant-analogue responsibility to study the holy book, and so on.  It doesn’t matter that Marxists say that they’re atheists; what matters is how they act and the elements that their ideology has in common with a religious one.  In particular, once you say that ““religion” is not a useful category”, you are pretty much forced to describe a lot of Marxism as having the same characteristics as most other religious ideologies within its host cultures.

Now, it’s also possible to hold to Marxism as a sort of branch of political-economic science, if you believe that Marx described the basics of how society really works and are willing to modify that belief as new information comes in.  Fewer and fewer Marxists do this, because the actual failure of Marxism has discredited it.  In any case, the kind of literary/philosophical Marxists that we’re talking about generally don’t know enough economics to make a serious effort at rehabilitating Marxism in this direction.

There is also a rather old objection to “staunch” atheism, as opposed to scepticism or agnosticism, on the basis that it is religious.  For instance, I would class “it is a question of restoring the universe to its pure secularity” as a religious statement.  When AK / APS go on about how most atheists don’t really know anything about the religious—they don’t how religious people actually behave, they don’t have expert knowledge about it—they’re going down a branch of the same path, although APS at least is as clueless as usual.

But all of this is a digression to the main question, which is, universalism on the basis of what, what should it look like?  In short, I think that universalism makes sense on the basis of the universality of “brute fact”, and that a universalist leftism has to be pluralistic enough to allow a full range of human social facts, including religion.  Dropping into a religious discourse in pursuit of that goal may or may not be useful for short-term political success, but it is inherently self-limiting.

By on 10/16/06 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Calling me names doesn’t prove you have any authority, through actually reading him, to speak on Badiou. Though it is cute, if not a little obvious.

By on 10/16/06 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michaels takes aim at a predictable list of theoreticians: de Man, Derrida, Butler, etc. I understand, and agree with, a number of his arguments against the writers in question. Here he is in direct dialogue with them. However, he is in dialogue with them only in order to annihilate them.

Joe, that’s not quite right:

If you read his earlier, pre-"Against Theory” works, they’re heavily indebted to Derrida and de Man.  The arguments in The Gold Standard are brilliant in a familiarly deconstructive way.  In other words, he spent ten years working in a deconstructive mode before turning against it.  Only, he didn’t turn against it in the same way that, say, Frederick Crews turned against psychoanalysis.  Even if he no longer buys into its theory of meaning, he’s still guided by “the deconstructive counter-intuitive.”

That isn’t to say this is untrue:

I am deliberately using the language of anti-racist propaganda because I believe a number of caricatures and cliches have made it less common for graduate students (and even professors) to even pick up and read works by writers they believe to be in opposing schools.

It obviously is.  But it’s not true the way you think it is: I’m not likely to pick up Zizek again not of some caricatured idea of what he does, but because I’ve no incentive to read him.  He’s not important to my work, nor is there any common academic culture which demands familiarity with a particular book.  How many people in English departments can speak intelligently (or even intelligibly) about multiple critical movements?  Not many, I think (which is one reason I value these fora, fireworks aside). 

This “uncommon culture” means we can’t blame someone for not acknowledging a particular argumentative strain.  Repetition is the price we pay for eclecticism.*

*I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively, here.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/16/06 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

AK: “Opening up the dialogue to actual theologians, philosophers of religion, historians of Christianity, biblical scholars, etc., would be freaking awesome.  After all, they’re all already dialoguing with the mainstream humanities folk—so it’s just a matter of making it a two-way thing.”

Opening up the two way street, who is (or which book) is the go-to guy/girl for miracles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Not interested in particular miracles, but the idea of miracles insofar as Schmitt says that the miracle is to theology as the exception is to jurisprudence.

By Craig on 10/16/06 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe, very interesting post. I haven’t responded, mostly because my copy of the Michaels book evidently got lost in the mail. So I haven’t read the relevant autobiographical bits. Anyway, about a month ago I translated a bunch of Nietzsche bits and posted them at Crooked Timber. I picked them for my Recent Continental Philosophy module. I wanted to teach Kant and the reception of Kant, in part by showing them a lot of Nietzsche-on-Kant. Here is the one passage I chose that didn’t mention Kant by name. From “Daybreak”:

“§544. How Philosophy is done today.—I mark it well: our philosophizing youths, women and artists of today demand of philosophy precisely the opposite of what the Greeks derived from it! Whoever does not hear the sustained cheer that resounds through every speech and counter-speech of a Platonic dialogue, the cheer over the new invention of rational thinking, what does he understand of Plato, of the philosophy of antiquity? In those days, souls were filled with drunkenness, when the stringent and sober game of concept, generalisation, refutation would carry them off by force—with that drunkenness which the great ancient stringent and sober contrapuntal composers perhaps also knew. In those days there still lingered on the Greek tongue that other antique and anciently all-powerful taste: over and against which the new taste presented so enchanting a contrast that one sang and stammered of dialectics, the ‘divine art’, as though in a delirium of love. That ancient way, however, was thinking under the spell of custom, for which there was nothing but established judgments, established reasons, and no other grounds than those given by authority: so that thinking was a ritual echo and all pleasure in speech and language had to lie in the form. (Wherever the content is regarded as eternal and universally valid, there is only one great magic: that of changing form, that is, of changing fashion. In their poets, too, from the time of Homer on, and later in their sculptors, what the Greeks enjoyed was not originality, but its opposite.) It was Socrates who discovered the antithetical magic of cause and effect, of ground and consequence: and we modern men are so accustomed to and educated in the necessity of logic that it lies on our tongue as the normal taste, and as such, cannot help being repugnant to the lustful and aloof. These take delight in whatever contrasts with it: their more refined ambition would all too gladly have them believe that their souls are exceptions, not dialectical or rational beings but—just for example, ‘intuitive beings’, gifted with an ‘inner sense’ or with ‘intellectual intuition.’ But above all they want to be ‘artistic natures’, with a genius in their head and a demon in their belly and consequently enjoying special rights in both this and that world, and especially the divine privilege of being incomprehensible.—That is what now drives philosophy! I fear they will one day see that they have exhausted this stock—that what they want is religion!”

Nietzsche pretty much wrote out the history of Theory in advance.

By John Holbo on 10/17/06 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, thanks for the great quote. I’ve got to read Daybreak.

Scott, it’s true that Zizek isn’t relevant to your work, especially in something like The Fragile Absolute. In many ways, though, I think he is relevant to Michaels’s work. I also think you feel strongly that academics should search extensively for whatever is relevant.

That said, you’re right that academia does not have a unified critical tradition right now, and that not many critics work in several traditions at once. If only for pragmatic reasons, I hope that starts to change—I hope the “multi-disciplinary” approach that informs almost everyone’s writing nowadays will be supplemented with what could perhaps be called “multi-critical” work, as part of a transition towards a conversational unity of academic discourse, which is not the same as an ideological one.

Doing deconstruction isn’t like riding a bicycle; your credentials can expire. Michaels does come out of that tradition, and continues to draw upon it for some of his most compelling arguments. That’s exactly why it makes sense to work towards areas of agreement.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/17/06 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Participants in this conversation might want to look at Paul Griffith’s “Christ and Critical Theory”, published in First Things, I think in 2004.--Stanley Fish

By on 10/22/06 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Christ and Critical Theory

By Bill Benzon on 10/22/06 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The essay makes a lot of sense, and I enjoy many of Griffith’s elbow-jabs ("his enterprise of separating Paul from, among other things, the God of Abraham is as quixotic as that of separating Marx from economics") without sharing his Christian sympathies.  But, in particular, I think the following is important: “It shows the depth of the yearning nostalgia to which post-Marxist cultural theorists are now almost inevitably subject. The golden calf Badiou has made of Paul is worthy of Christian attention, both as an instance of idol-building and as evidence of the extent to which Christian materials resist being made into idols.” I mentioned nostalgia above; this is only one instance of it.  I claimed that religion was the province of the right and qualified that assertion; I am willing to say in a more unqualified sense that it is impossible to build a left on nostalgia.  The worst idolatry for the left is to study Marx rather than try to replace him.

Which is why I take the contemporary grounds for leftism to be the universe.  “Brute fact” is the same for everyone; it may be the only element of our lives that is, or should be, the same for everyone.  The left properly concerns the just and equable distribution of physical resources, and the greatest freedom of social and individual life enabled by them.  That means that the left must take actual knowledge about reality into account, and not fall back on ancient narratives about inevitable progess or apocalyptic event.

And I think that people sense this.  For a provincial example, which would no doubt be dismissed by most leftists as far too liberal in any case, look at the popular U.S. political Website, Daily Kos.  On the day that I write this, the U.S. is close to an important election, and naturally the front page of the site is devoted to political commentary and exhortation: essays on tactics, media narrative, political goals, the Iraq war.  Yet, at the same time, part of this important space is taken up by an Open Science Thread.  Two of these science links concern in part, science with direct political implications—a Scientists and Engineers for America mission statement and an essay on how global warming disrupts biological communities.  The other two do not; they are links about a transitional fossil and an astronomy picture of the day.  Nor are these science articles rare; they have been a Daily Kos staple for some time.

This is not the result of some middle-class desire for self-improvement, nor it is merely a partisan strike at right-wing corruption of science.  It’s a statement that the physical universe itself is one of the motivations for a current left politics.  Not in the sense that it needs us, of course, but in that we will lose any ability to see it clearly if the right wins, and that the left can not survive without it.  A left discourse based on religion is one of mystification, and that exactly what we don’t need.

By on 10/22/06 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks to Stanley Fish for his recommendation of the Griffiths, and to Bill for giving us the link. It is generous of both Fish and Michaels to read and respond to posts on their work. It is enlightening to learn what Christians in academia are saying about the renewed interest in Paul.

Despite Griffiths’s gift for elegant summary, the ideological bedrock of his essay is no different from that of any evangelist going door to door. His position is that non-believers are prodigal sons, doomed to experience “lack” and “yearning” until they find their peace in God.

This conversion narrative depends on a completely unsupportable assumption of superiority. Particularly in the United States, the fact that a person is a Christian does not mean he is necessarily concerned with social justice or trans-subjective universalism. Badiou and Zizek are doing political and social work by writing polemics that draw on the Christian tradition; Griffiths misreads their desire for equality and solidarity as a yearning for God. Obviously, if Christianity in its present form was a sufficient response to existing social ills, there would be no need for Badiou, or Zizek, or Michaels to write as they do.

Griffiths writes, “what the pagans have to say is of interest as an occasion for restating the gospels to the world.” This preference for conservative restatement, rather than progressive argument, leads to the following ridiculous statement:

What Zizek does not see is that the Church here below is constituted precisely by the endless repetition of the self-abnegatory gestures he praises: the Pope is servus servorum Dei (the servant of the servants of God), the most powerful man in the world precisely because of his renunciation of power.

When Zizek writes that “either one drops the religious form, or maintains the form but loses the essence,” he is certainly not unaware of the tissue of gestures upholding the Church. On the contrary, he is referring expressly to them, in order to prove that they are empty gestures.

Griffiths likewise stumbles in his criticisms of Badiou. Griffiths claims that Badiou is doing a “purely formal reading” of Paul’s claims about the Resurrection of Christ, an argument Kyler Kuehn also makes in a recent comment here. In fact, Badiou is treating the fable of the resurrection as a dramatization of a psychical victory of life over death, instead of as a literal statement about a supernatural event. The content of Paul’s claim is not emptied out; it is merely moved to the level of the symbolic.

Griffiths’s argument that Badiou cannot account for the difference between Paul’s claims and Hitler’s is faulty. All people can be faithful to the event described by Paul. Many people—notably Jews—cannot be faithful to the pseudo-event of the Third Reich.

There is a memorable passage in The Fragile Absolute about the superiority of love’s incompletion to the corpselike serenity idealized by the Greeks. One could draw a comparison along these same lines between the fiercely dissatisfied writings of Zizek and Badiou, and the condescending complacency of a Griffiths.

* * *

Rich, it is hard to imagine how one would replace Marx without studying him. While I agree that scientific facts have political ramifications, it is impossible to deduce an ethics of equality and freedom from the world as it is disclosed to us by science. If unjust societies were actually counterfactual, then brute fact would not need our help in overthrowing them. We have to recognize unequal relationships, and servitude, as permanent human possibilities to which Nature is indifferent. They appall us regardless.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/23/06 at 04:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I wasn’t trying to suggest some kind of simplistic scientism that “deduces” the left from the world.  I was saying that if there is a universal quality that universalism can be based on, the only candidate for such that I see is the physical universe and its unvarying requirements for the biological creatures within it.  People, whatever their society, need food, water, shelter, energy, and so on in order to survive, as well as a functioning ecosystem as the source of these things.  The provision of these to everyone regardless of their social position or social setup should be a basic concern of the left.  Unjust societies are not counterfactual, but I’d say that they don’t actually work as well in this basic respect.  Certainly I’d want to develop this form of leftism beyond basic necessities towards various forms of freedom, and a universal right to education, but that’s enough for a comment box.

As for Marx, surely he’s been well studied enough; he’s not the starting point for new work.  He started from the most current economics and political science of his day, not by poring over works from a century ago.

I think that you’re slightly misreading Griffiths’ general claim, or, at least, I’m willing to rewrite it; the yearning is not for God per se, but for something that works.  And in searh of that something, these theorists are looking into the past rather than to the present and the future.  It’s not simply the use of a religious discourse; it’s also seen in the desire to rehabilitate failures within leftist history rather than to learn from them and go on.

By on 10/23/06 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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