Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ethics of the Event

Trying to put the finishing touches of my seminar paper with regards to Barth's ethical works specifically found in the Church Dogmatics. Here is how it is lining up:

First, following Graham Ward, I think we need a little Hegel to reinvigorate the turn to culture in a way that is open and hopeful. Here Hegel helps Barth along. This is in defense against Hoff's critique of the modern concept of God as the Self-Revealer found in Hegel, Barth which then leads into Zizek. Hoff sees this as un-biblical, but I see it as a plus (at least that is what I am going to try to argue). In short, economic Trinity over immanent.

Following a trend among contemporary interpreters of Barth's ethics (Nimmo, Clough, Haddorff), I am going to argue for a dialectical Barthian ethics based on traumatic events that interrupt the flows of life. This is not an ethic that comes from within but is external and provokes an "act" by the agent. Barth is at his best when he is dialectical, but following Zizek's Hegel, I am going to say this needs to be a dialectic without a synthesis (so at least from our standpoint there needs to be a certain sense of openness).

The basis of this ethics is found in the event of reconciliation; it is formed by the grace of the election in Christ. So grace comes first and forms the command of God that compels the freedom to be obedient (not to a static law). I am still working out this concluding point, but here I will use Zizek to warn and critique Barth's conception in the sense of preventing the commanding God of becoming a big Other (is this possible?).

I am also interested in contrasting Barth's idea of the event with Derrida's notion (maybe for a future paper). For Derrida, the event is undecidable and thus deferred indefinitely. Yet, Barth's and Zizek's use of dialectic compel them to make a decision to act in the here and now. In some sense, Barth and Zizek are indifferent to the pluralism that is out there because they are so particular. It is again a dialectic of the Yes/No that speaks from an identified position. So one must do theology as one does ethics, but like theology one must always begin from the beginning.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Equality of intelligence: Jacotot's teaching revolution

Working through another semester teaching World Civilization II courses has pushed me more and more to see pedagogy the way Jacotot and Ranciere see it. That since the struggles for emancipation that came out of the 18th-19th century, there is a key idea that equality is not something to be taught but that instead just exists. I would venture to say this is one of the best ideas behind the Reformation, even though it was practiced somewhat imperfectly by Luther and Calvin; that the openness to literature (in the case of the Reformation the Bible) meant the liberation of the reader ( I would say Augustine's On Christian Doctrine and Barth's "happy" theology lays out a similar proposal).

This then leads to the reciprocal idea of learning that moves back and forth between teacher and student, and I think opens up the instructor to the students leaning that some knowledge is better left alone because it is past use. It gets away from the idea that students are passive agents just waiting to be filled with knowledge by the teacher.

This is one of the main principles why I enjoy Zizek because he manages to use everyday examples from culture (Hitchcock films/Kung Fu Panda/Radiohead/Starbucks ads) and make them apply to theory (at least that is how I answer the question of why I pay attention to Zizek). For example, when discussing a topic from history, I find that if I can incorporate art/music/film in the lecture the students tend to be more engaged. Some might decry that this ruins the "purity" of learning, but I think that it opens up the actual messiness of trying to make sense of the world; this places the responsibility in our hands and not some all-knowing institution.

See Jacotot's Wikipedia profile below and read Ranciere's The Ignorant Schoolmaster for more details.

Joseph Jacotot

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Joseph (or Jean-Joseph) Jacotot (4 March 1770 - 30 July 1840) was a French teacher and educational philosopher, creator of the method of "intellectual emancipation." He was born at Dijon on the 4th of March 1770. He was educated at the university of Dijon, where in his nineteenth year he was made a professor of Latin, after which he studied law, became a lawyer, and at the same time devoted a large amount of his attention to mathematics. In 1788 he organized a federation of the youth of Dijon for the defence of the principles of the Revolution; and in 1792, with the rank of captain, he set out to take part in the campaign of Belgium, where he conducted himself with bravery and distinction. After filling the office of secretary of the commission d’organisation du mouvement des armées, in 1794 he became deputy of the director of the École Polytechnique. Upon the founding of the central schools at Dijon he was appointed to the chair of the "method" or instruction of science. There he made his first experiments in his "emancipatory" method of teaching. When the central schools were replaced by other educational institutions, Jacotot occupied the chairs of mathematics and of Roman law until the overthrow of the empire. In 1815 he was elected a representative to the chamber of deputies; but after the Second Restoration he found it necessary to quit his native land.

Having taken up his residence at Brussels, in 1818 Jacotot was nominated teacher of the French language at the University of Louvain, where he systematized the educational principles which he had already practised with success in France.

His emancipatory or panecastic (French: panécastique "everything in each" from Greek πᾶν and ἕκαστον) method was not only adopted in several institutions in Belgium, but also met with some approval in France, England, Germany, and Russia. It was based on three principles:

  1. all men have equal intelligence;
  2. every man has received from God the faculty of being able to instruct himself;
  3. everything is in everything.

Regarding the first principle, he maintained that it is only in the will to use their intelligence that men differ. His own process, depending on the third principle, was to give a student learning a language for the first time a short passage of a few lines, and to encourage the pupil to study first the words, then the letters, then the grammar, then the meaning, until a single paragraph became the occasion for learning an entire literature. After the revolution of 1830 Jacotot returned to France, and he died in Paris on 30 July 1840.

Jacotot described his system in Enseignement universel (universal education), langue maternelle (Louvain and Dijon, 1823)—which passed through several editions—and in various other works; and he also advocated his views in the Journal de l’êmancipation intellectuelle and elsewhere. For a complete list of his works and fuller details regarding his career, see Biographie de J. Jacotot, by Achille Guillard (Paris, 1860).

Jacotot's career and principles are also described by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford University Press, 1991).

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jeffrey Robbins: Taking Zizek's theology seriously

Thank God that Jeffrey Robbins takes Zizek seriously. Robbins finds one of the problems with Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy is in their rather fanciful account of history by wishing modernity never happened because it opened the door to the disenchantment of the universe and thus nihilism. Unlike John Caputo, Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, who see the death of the death of God theology as something to be celebrated, Milbank sees this as capitulating to the enemy. Zizek argues against both groups but appreciates ideas in both; in Caputo/Vattimo, their use of the weakness of God and in Milbank, his imaginative spiritual commitments. Still, he thinks their problems theologically are that they try to cover up the void and meaninglessness that one sees in human history and best described in the book of Job.

I think that one of the things that makes Zizek as a sort of theologian is his taking of evil seriously especially because the biblical narrative seems to take it serious; Robbins writes: "Perhaps it is the case that Žižek can come to his conclusions just as easily by Lacan or Hitchcock as by Christ, but there is no denying that when it comes to his analysis of the meaning of Christ‘s death on the cross he has the power to evoke the original scandal of the gospel as well, if not better, than any other contemporary thinker. And further, this reminder of the scandal of the gospel is an important and timely corrective to the triumphalistic tendencies of Christianity, as well as to the facile, self-help, or fundamentalist tendencies of contemporary religion. As Žižek writes, 'Christ‘s death on the Cross thus means that we should immediately ditch the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts, the guarantee of historical teleology—Christ‘s death on the Cross is the death of this God, it repeats Job‘s stance, it refuses any deeper meaning‘ that obfuscates the brutal reality of historical catastrophes'".

Robbins ends his review by writing the following: "Our history may very well be a misbegotten path, but there is a great distance between the notion that the modern world is the historical triumph of the necessary outworking of a material logic and the notion that we may reverse or repudiate our history at our whim. It is true that our history is full of latent possibilities and of roads not taken, but the way to build a different and better future does not come by way of denial. Beware of the return of the repressed."

This is exactly my problem with Radical Orthodoxy. Better to read history via Benjamin's more radical history of the missed opportunities and thus in the present try to jump start those events than fall into the trap of blaming Protestantism wholly for the so-called misdirection of history.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hunsinger: Barth like Walter Benjamin

George Hunsinger has this interesting quote: "Barth believed that the Bible confronts us with viewpoints that cannot be derived from elsewhere. . . . Another such writer was Walter Benjamin, whose distinction between 'Messianic time' and 'homogenous, empty time' also had affinities with what we find in Barth."

See Hunsinger, "Gerrit Neven on Karl Barth: A Brief Reflection".

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Hegel Renaissance is Upon Us?

I think Barth was on to something when he wrote this about Hegel:

"Doubtless, theology could and can learn something from Hegel as well. It looks as if theology had neglected something here, and certainly it has no occasion to assume an attitude of alarm and hostility to any renaissance of Hegel that might come about."

It seems that Graham Ward had moved on from his book on Derrida/Barth and language to now articulate a post-Hegelian theology that takes Hegel seriously. More on Ward, Hegel and Barth in the next week...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ranciere (and Barth) on Equality and Disciplines

Below is part of a seminar paper I completed last semester on Barth and his view of modernity. I closed the essay with this section on Jacques Ranciére (who I was all about around Christmas time 2010).

The French philosopher Alain Badiou describes Jacques Ranciére in the following way: “Ranciére takes delight in occupying unrecognized spaces between history and philosophy, between philosophy and politics, and between documentary and fiction.”[1] This is a good description in that it helps us understand what Ranciére tries to do when he attempts to illustrate the connection between aesthetics and politics and how he blurs the lines between academic disciplines. He does this by articulating three regimes of art: the ethical, the representative and the aesthetic. What is important for me is the distinction between the representative and the aesthetic. He believes these regimes have historical presence, yet not in a historically progressive manner; in some ways these regimes still co-exist today. In short, these regimes serve the purpose of viewing and articulating the artistic changes that have occurred throughout history. The representative regime tries to establish what is considered proper in society especially in the way it produces form over matter by organizing what one can say, do, make and judge.[2] Thus, it is an all encompassing regime that delineates what is sensible and gives itself the responsibility of faithfully imitating the things in the world.

Ranciére asserts that the aesthetic regime of art which took shape in the late eighteenth century challenges the representative regime. He declares: “The aesthetic regime of the arts is the regime that strictly identifies art in the singular and frees it from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres.”[3] The openness to artistic practices especially to the things considered common has, for Ranciére, political implications. The aesthetic and the political link up to the extent that they are used to reexamine the distribution of the sensible. He writes: “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”[4] In short, politics happens when the defined lines of what is considered normal is disputed; art can help open up the possibilities of this change. Badiou observes that what Ranciere “discovers is a discourse plotted and held in the aftermath of an event, a sort of social flash of lightning, a brief and local invention, both prior to and coextensive with domination and its burdens.”[5]

The way Ranciére articulates the disagreement of what is considered sensible as a disruptive event in the order of things through aesthetics fits well with Barth’s theory of the subject produced by the event. As we have seen Barth was also suspicious on how the modern idea of form was used to create divisions. In this sense, then Barth’s idea of absolutism as all-encompassing over different genres and forms of society matches what Ranciére says about the representative regime in its canonization of what is regarded as proper. However, Ranciére’s thought is aimed at a political reformation especially geared toward the outcast in a place that Barth’s thought really does not go. Ranciére’s theory highlights the mood of the discontent or those outside of the norm because equality is the presupposition that guides his thought. If equality is the presupposition then that means the hierarchies in things like art and politics are in constant need of reform. Therefore, Ranciére promotes an equality that “destroys all of the hierarchies of representation” because the aesthetic establishes the ambivalence of things.[6] Badiou is then correct in stating that Ranciére’s guiding theme is “that anyone, regardless of experience, can exert mastery without being in a position of mastery provided that anyone in question is willing to be unbound.”[7]

An example of what Ranciére is trying to accomplish can be seen in the way that he contests the delineation or proper form of disciplines and the hierarchies that form there. Here he relates how philosophy oftentimes relates to other disciplines:

Classically, philosophy has been considered a sort of super-discipline which reflects on the methods of the human and social sciences, or which provides them with their foundation. Thus a hierarchical order is established in the universe of discourse. Of course these sciences can object to this status, treat it as an illusion and pose itself as the true knowledge of philosophical illusion. This is another hierarchy, another way of putting discourses in their place. But there is a third way of proceeding, which seizes the moment in which the philosophical pretension to found the order of discourse is reversed, becoming the declaration, in the egalitarian language of the narrative, of the arbitrary nature of this order.[8]

His point is to show how that the allotted roles of the disciplines are really a fiction and that one must simply think through a problem and use whatever tools are necessary to come to some type of conclusion; in other words, the walls that separate disciplines need to be invaded for the sake of free thought. Ranciére challenges the hierarchy of the disciplines because it betrays the principle of equality for the fact that this structure ultimately produces those that are in the know and those that are not. Again, his principle of equality judges harshly any thought form that posits an enlightened one to guide the rest of the masses.

Ranciére’s attempt to blur the boundaries between disciplines also raises the issue of the relation of theology to other disciplines. On the one hand, one can see how his method could match Barth’s in criticizing the strict and proper roles forced upon theology in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, his principle of equality would challenge any so-called Barthian interpretation that judged the theology of modernity too harshly. In one sense, this was what Barth’s goal in addressing his historical lectures toward his over-zealous students.[9] One must also consider that much of the criticism of thinkers throughout the eighteenth century was aimed at the traditional hierarchies of the church and the state; the problem is that they would soon replace these traditional forms with a hierarchy and a normality of their own.

Theology is an open discipline; it cannot be used to control other seats of knowledge as the so-called queen of the sciences. Those days are long gone. Also gone is the idea that makes theology subservient to other disciplines like science, history or philosophy or irrelevant to the issues of the contemporary world; this flawed understanding of theology has its nascent in the eighteenth century. Barth’s reading of theology and history as event in that he declares a critical openness toward texts challenges these readings. In fact, Barth spent a lifetime trying to make the point that theology is a happy discipline for all that gives freedom to the other disciplines.[10] In one sense, he was trying to escape from the defined lines of the period of absolutism by positing the free happy exercise of theology.

[1] Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (New York: Verso, 2005), 108.

[2] Jacques Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), 22. For a good introduction to Ranciére see a very recent article by Joseph J. Tanke, “Why Ranciére Now?” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 44 (2010): 1-17.

[3] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 23.

[4] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 13.

[5] Badiou, Metapolitics, 108.

[6] Ranciére, The Politics of Aesthetics, 14.

[7] Badiou, Metapolitics, 110.

[8] Ranciére, “Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge,” trans. Jon Roffe, Parrhesia 1 (2006):10. Also see Sudeep Dasgupta, “Art is Going Elsewhere and Politics has to Catch it. An Interview with Jacques Ranciére,” Krisis 1 (2008): 70-75.

[9] Barth would later caution this same harsh reading of modern theology in his essay titled “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,” found in Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. Thomas Weiser (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).

[10] See Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12 and 15 for an example of Barth’s comments on the theological discipline and its place as a happy science.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dates are not Events

I first heard of Osama's death by a media source that has redefined the way we act. While enjoying a bite of Rite Aid (Thrifty) ice cream with the family, I glanced at my blackberry to see the news that Osama had been killed. Of course this was via Facebook.

So the history books will record that 2001 was the fatal year of the terrorist attacks, 2008 was the year Obama was elected and 2011 was the year Osama was killed. History has a funny way of looking at the big, grand picture while ignoring all the messiness of the various situations within the world. It will probably be a while to take in all the sweeping changes of the historical happenings of the last decade. But I think that while history has happened at these dates, events have not.

What do I mean by the difference of events to history? History merely tells, for all intents and purposes, the official story. For example, the dates above are obviously crucial in the American historical narrative. An event, on the other hand, is like the resurrection for St. Paul; it totally transformed him and the entire global landscape for both believers and unbelievers. I would claim this event has taken on universal status and compels people to become faithful to it.

There is a crucial difference from before and after an event whereas in history much of the players and situations remain the same. So when discussing 2001 or 2011 can anyone honestly say we are truly different after these dates? I think this is a good way to see the reactions from all the various sectors of life to Osama's death.