Essay in new volume

I have an essay in a volume just out from Cascade (US, UK – available early 2015). My essay uses Lacan’s four discourses to discuss new approaches to liberation theology.

Here’s the introduction:

Lacan’s four discourses schematize the possible social functions of language. It is the closest he comes to charting the nature of ideology. His description of the imposition and cultivation of master signifiers, as well as the forms of resistance, operates by quarter turns. Moving through the master, university, hysteric, and analyst’s discourses, these turns show how the subject’s alienation from the master signifier generate forms of resistance which are nonetheless indebted to the master signifiers they oppose. This dependent resistance is the focus of this essay. Using Lacan to analyze the relationship between different discourses shows how the imposition of a symbolic regime in the master’s discourse can be simultaneously opposed and maintained by the hysteric’s. This insight is crucial in the consideration of ideology. It is recognising this dependence that leads to a genuine revolution, one which not only changes elements of a particular social or political situation, but changes the understanding of the situation itself.

And my favourite paragraph:

For example, Zizek’s cutting critiques of the master signifiers of our age – capital, liberalism, inclusion, and so on – has produced a great deal of knowledge. Yet, for all the exposing of the contingency of these master signifiers, his work never makes the turn beyond this interrogation. Pointing this out, just as with liberation theology, is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed liberation theology posits different levels of the task of liberation. While configuration may vary between different liberation theologians, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff’s model of popular, pastoral, and professional is typical. There are those engaged in direct action and community organisation, those who lead communities and offer counsel, and those who provide necessary theoretical reflection on those actions and leadership. Given this division, there is nothing to require that Zizek move beyond his interrogations. Nonetheless, until such a quarter turn occurs, we never move from the analysis of an inadequate situation to the production of something new. Moreover, we should not confuse the work of theory with the struggle of praxis. Politically oriented strands of current materialist philosophy are quick to denounce the corrupting influence of religion. While those denunciations bear elements of truth, liberation theology reminds us that if the choice is between philosophical precision and political action, the latter is usually to be preferred.

The volume has essays by a variety of people, including Zizek, Adrian Johnston and Tina Beattie. The essay was the last thing I wrote on Lacan before shifting my focus to Hegel, so it’s kind of bittersweet to see it published.

Continuation through transformation

I’ve been thinking more about this notion of the uncritiquable. Over the weekend I was reading Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ alongside Foucault’s essay of the same name. Foucault famously rejects the label ‘postmodern’ and many have been puzzled by his self-identification with Kant and the project of the Enlightenment. Amy Allen proposes that we understand Foucault’s relationship to Kant as ‘continuation-through-transformation’. Foucault is identifying with Kant’s description of critique as a transformation of the present. Foucault wants to continue this transformation, but in rejecting the global and universal, must pursue this transformation immanently. In short, he has to critique Kant in order to continue the Kantian tradition of transformation through critique.

This continuation-through-transformation seems a workable alternative to the operation Barber describes. While Zizek is guilty of pushing the ‘good’ Hegel, someone like Adrian Johnston finds in Hegel a project worth continuing, but in a way that transforms that project. These approaches don’t, however, devote much time to the questioning and naming of operations.

In contrast, Foucault’s critique (‘genealogical in its design and archeological in its method’) requires this naming of operations as part of the ‘historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond’. I for one find Foucault too dismissive of radical projects, but nonetheless agree with his conclusion:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.

Bloch on music

I’ve been emailing back and forth with a friend about Bloch, which made me remember how much I love Bloch. One thing I’ve never been able to come to grips with, though, is Bloch’s stuff on music. I’ve never really listened to classical music, in part because I don’t know where to start.

In an effort to rectify this situation, I’ve started a playlist on Spotify. I’ve only included the first few names from the essay, but I’ll keep adding as I go. It seems like everyone and their brother has an arrangement of Ave Maria, so I think I’ll try to include each composer’s version. Hopefully having a recurring theme will make it easier to catch the differences that Bloch finds so important.

Pinkard on New Honneth Book

Over at NDPR, Pinkard reviews Honneth’s Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life.

From my perspective, Pinkard’s best point comes toward the end of the review when he writes:

That struggle over recognition is also a struggle over what counts as reasons in the struggle, and lands us squarely with questions of social norms and how such norms can be redeemed as genuine reasons instead of, for example, being merely well disguised assertions of power. That in turn, so Hegel argued, pushes us to ask whether there is a deeper logic to what is involved in giving and asking for reasons such that some type of putative reasons historically turn out to not really have been good reasons, however much in sync with the times they were.

This is my complaint about the Pittsburgh Hegelians and readings of Hegel which focus on normativity – they seem woefully unable to distinguish between social norms substantiated by genuine reasons and assertions of power (though I’ve read too much Foucault to think there is any firm distinction between the two). At heart, this inability fails to recognise how well ideology ‘works’. Ideology is not only a set of normative assumptions; it is the limits of the debate around social norms. Put another way, Hegelians who focus on social normativity and the giving and asking of reasons, often fail to appreciate the extent to which social norms determine what counts as reasonable. In defining ‘reasonableness’, these assumptions determine the limits of debate.

This critique was the basic question of my PhD thesis – given that Hegel is able to describe the relationship between religion, the state, civil society and the family in ways that continue to illuminate contemporary society, are there ways of forcing critical (or negative) disruptions within these relationships?

Against the uncritiquable

Dan Barber has a great blog post (with reference to a couple of excellent essays that he’s written) over at AUFS. I’ve probably been guilty of the revalorisation of Hegel at points (too much Zizek).

The key point, for me, is this:

What universalism, normativity, and Hegel have in common is the capacity — a capacity, by the way, that is grounded in nothing other than a sort of sovereign self-assertion — to present themselves in terms of neutral abstraction, or of intrinsic symmetry, and in doing so to set it up so that the field of disagreement about the term’s value is already enfolded within the field of the term. “Do you not see that your critique of universalism / normativity / Hegel, in order to realize itself, must (in some renewed sense) affirm universalism / normativity / Hegel?”

I’ve noticed this operation at work in a couple of theological papers I’ve attended recently. It’s the logic of conversion, as Barber calls it. Or, put another way, it is the Anonymous Christianity of Everything Good. If you have a critique of capitalism, heteronormativity, racism, etc., Christianity already includes this critique. This logic was at the heart of Radical Orthodoxy’s engagement with continental philosophy and, even amongst those who now disavow Milbank and crew, this logic persists. You are critiquing the bad version of Christianity. We’ve incorporated your critiques and now it’s time to endorse the good Christianity. Or, your critiquing a misguided form of Christianity which was never the true Christianity anyway.

This operation or logic is not just prevalent in Christianity, though. It is the logic of Christianity. And this is why Marx was ultimately right – the critique of religion is the beginning of all critique.

Taking stock

We’re about half-way through the term and, with reading week next week, I have a bit of room to breathe and take stock of how things are going.

Before this term, I had about three years of teaching experience: one year as a TA at Durham and two years teaching at Roehampton. As a TA, I think I achieved an ok balance between promoting discussion and providing information, but I was probably a little prone to assuming the position of the ‘subject supposed to know’. The insecurities of PhD research left me all too ready to jump in and provide the answer. At Roehampton, for the first year and a half I did PowerPoint based lectures, spiced up with fairly frequent questions to the class. At the end of that period, though, I was frustrated. While there was some class discussion, it tended to be too brief and usually took the form of students trying to figure out the answer to a question I had asked. It was much rarer for the students to question the text themselves (at least out loud).

This approach to teaching is problematic. Following Freire, I’m opposed to the ‘banking’ model of education. As he explains, this model installs the teacher as a person with authority dispensing knowledge to be stored and returned. This method presents two issues. First, we grade students against rubrics that privilege critical analysis. If class is spent explaining a text, with some time devoted to historical critiques (or even my own critical analysis), I’m effectively expecting students to pick up the tools of critical thinking without over providing a space for them to offer their own analysis of the text. Even when I gave reading questions and started sessions off with small group discussions, when we came back as a group it tended to be my own ideas that directed the conversation. Then, come the end of term, I’d mark essays and wonder why the work was so descriptive.

Second, most of my students don’t need to know much about Descartes’ Meditations. They’ll go on to a variety of careers, very few of which will involve critiquing the trademark argument. I certainly think that their lives can be enriched by reading the Meditations and thinking about how Descartes influenced subsequent philosophy, but this requires actively engaging with his ideas. The point is not to learn about Descartes, but to think with Descartes. Put another way, as has become my little motto, we’re not here just to study philosophers, but to think philosophically.

My last semester at Roehampton I switched to using a SMART Board and putting key quotations on PowerPoint slides. This improved things a bit. I still found that the PowerPoint dictated our discussion, though. So when I started at Chichester I decided to work with the following rules: there will be no lectures and no PowerPoint; students will dictate the questions we discuss; and essay questions should make it virtually impossible to write a descriptive piece of work.

In each of our classes, we begin by discussing our reactions to the text. What were the major themes? What are the major components of the argument? What questions does it raise? Are their obvious weaknesses? I make a list of the questions and critiques and we work our way through the text trying to answer them as best we can.

At this point in the term, I feel like it’s working pretty well. I find this approach both more stressful and more rewarding. Students talk a lot more, but it can be tricky if we’ve read a particularly difficult text. In sessions on Aquinas and Spinoza I had to slip into lecturing mode, but was able (I think) to bring it back to a decent conversation. I find that I spend about the same amount of time on teaching prep, but this time is almost entirely reading. That’s great – I like reading. I used to spend hours preparing lectures and PowerPoint presents. It also means that the conversation is more likely to veer into areas beyond my ‘expertise’. No matter how much Ranciere I’ve read, it’s hard to tell students that I just don’t know the answer. Finally, I have to trust the students will show up having done the reading and ready to discuss the text. I could probably wing it for half a class, but it wouldn’t be a very productive session. So far I’ve been impressed with the degree to which students are doing the primary reading, the supplemental reading I provide and even seeking out their own resources.

All in all, this different approach has allowed me to enjoy teaching even more and have lots of interesting discussions around the issues that the students raise. They have an opportunity to think critically in class and push one another to question their assumptions and beliefs. Hopefully I don’t find out that I’ve been deluding myself when they fill out module evaluations…