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Archive for January, 2010

H/T: Blake

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Grad school premonition?

I’m not normally one to get taken in by fortune cookies, with their vague predictions of happiness, but earlier today I had a rather strange experience. I had been having one of those “I’m sure I will get rejected by all programs” day, but the cafeteria had Chinese food, and thus, fortune cookies. The cookie that I picked had a total of three fortunes in it, which I imagine is a somewhat unique occurrence that still happens sometimes because of the mechanical production of the cookies. Still, I can’t help but think that my set of fortunes are a rare combination, because two of them were connected to each other, meaning two actual pieces of paper got inserted into one cookie.

The three fortunes were:

You will soon receive an offer you cannot refuse.

You will live a long life and eat many fortune cookies.

You will move to a wonderful new home within the year.

Given this, I cannot help but conclude that my earlier pessimism was unfounded; I will get into a great program with a good housing situation in a city that features excellent Chinese cuisine.

Why is it still January?

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Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has quickly become one of my favorite novels. In addition to the incredible Satan character, we have Behemoth the cat, who is definitely the most amusing character I’ve read in Western literature.

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Summary: In the second part of the book, Kearney turns first to a group of philosophers and then to a collection of modern novelists in an attempt to sketch out a ‘sacramental imagination.’ At the start of chapter 4, Kearney writes that there are three elements of anatheism: protest, prophecy, and sacrament. In showing the challenge to an omnipotent, otherworldy God, Kearney sums up that the first three chapters have focused on protest and prophecy; here, we turn exclusively to sacrament.

If we are following anatheism as an option that opens up a way to the divine beyond the dichotomy of theism and atheism, then this chapter has little in the way of surprising claims. Even his choice of writers in these two chapters bears the sign that he will be further mystifying our neat categories. The possibility for this is contained in a paradox. First, we have the return to a God that is after God (ana-theos). Bound up with this is the idea of a return to the sacred after setting it aside (ana-thema). What the sacramental move shows us is a God set apart from the God of metaphysical sufficiency.

Kearney argues that only Merleau-Ponty (and not, for example, Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, Sartre, or Stein) that we see a ‘full fledged’ phenomenology of the flesh (pg. 88). What this amounts to, for Kearney, is the putting to rest of the ghost of transcendental idealism; Platonism is reversed and the flesh is the most intimate “element.” Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh surpasses traditional dualisms of mind/body, real/ideal, and subject/object. It is interesting, that, in order to develop this, Merleau-Ponty traces all the way back to the senses and there he finds the act of communion. But what is this sacrament? “Each sensory encounter with the strangeness of the world is an invitation to a “natal pact” where, through sympathy, the human self and the strange world give birth to one another. Sacramental sensation is a reversible rapport between myself and things, wherein the sensible gives birth to itself through me” (pg. 89).

That Merleau-Ponty turns to a kind of secularized communion in order to establish his phenomenological project does not mean that he is a theologian or Christian apologist. Kearney is drawn to Merleau-Ponty because of his phenomenological interpretation of the eucharist, and the fact that he remains agnostic about the truth claims of the method is an advantageous thing. What the method offers is “a kenotic emptying out of transcendence into the heart of the world’s body, becoming a God beneath us rather than a God beyond us” (pg. 91).

Following Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, what Merleau-Ponty warns against is a particular Judeo-Christian ontology which locates the divine as an otherworldy and timeless Being. Positing this God rejects the sanctity of the flesh and necessarily negates the world (ie nihilism). Here Kearney implies that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the flesh can be read in part as an answer to Nietzsche, and further as something much closer to the message of the Incarnation. Philosophically, it seems to me that Merleau-Ponty clears space for the possibility of an anatheist project. I will return to this a bit more in the comments section.

Kearney then turns to Kristeva, who, as a linguist and psychoanalyst, adds other perspectives to the phenomenology of the flesh. Kearney only spends a small amount of time with Kristeva, but her comment in Strangers to Ourselves that we must surmount dualisms such as saved and damned and native and stranger because they lead to war are labeled by Kearney as ‘anatheist questions’ (pg. 96). In the book, Kristeva actually helps transition into the next chapter because of her interest in Proust. What we are offered is a aesthetic of transubstantiation, and it amounts to an “immanent transcendence.” This leans heavily towards a kind of mystical panentheism, where God is in all beings, and Kearney makes this clear in the chapter’s closing.

I will not spend time with the modern novelists (Proust, Joyce, and Woolf), in part because I am even less familiar with their work than I am with Merleau-Ponty’s or Kristeva’s. However, the basic point is that these authors take a free poetic license to suspend doctrine and thereby offer variations of the theme of word-made-flesh and flesh-made-word. [There are obviously many other important points, especially, in my view, from Proust (and thereby Kristeva), but for the sake of conciseness, I’m moving quickly].

One of the best sections of the book is the final part of chapter 5, “Textual Traversals.” For Kearney, the point of anatheist aesthetics is the possibility of the sacred and secular conjugating and crossing. This is why he does not take up confessional writers in the chapter (all three writers are agnostics or atheists), although confessional writers are definitely not excluded from this kind of an aesthetic.

Also in this section, Kearney finally gives a more specific claim about anatheism, stating that he wants to affirm the positive aspect of the prefix ana- as retrieving what was lost in a new way. Thus, “I have no wish to endorse an empty secularism that merely aestheticizes religion by removing its faith content” (pg. 130). Suspending belief as readers of fiction, we may afterwards return to faith in God if we so choose. As such, anatheism is more about retrieving the sacred in the secular than taking the sacred out of the secular.

Comments/critique: In returning to this chapter, especially after not looking at it for several weeks, I was reminded of some frustrating passages as well as some very lucid ones. I am coming to realize that part of the reason that certain aspects of the book frustrate me is that Kearney is already doing a lot of summary, so attempting to summarize his summaries for the blog seems like a fruitless task. I hope this isn’t read as a diss on the book, because what I am learning that it really gets at is that the book is exceptionally well-written, even for those with little background in writers such as Merleau-Ponty or Kristeva. As such, don’t be put off if my summaries are becoming more choppy and stale – you should read the book for yourself.

However, there are times where I find myself thinking that certain parts could be explored more. While writing this up, it struck me that, philosophically, Merleau-Ponty is who seems to do most of the heavy lifting for Kearney. Although it might buck against the more interdisciplinary style of works like this, I’m thinking that it would be beneficial to see a book-length work on Merleau-Ponty. In particular, I’m not sure about the claim that the phenomenology of the flesh can go beyond the dualisms of mind/body and so on. Perhaps it is reverse Platonism, but then aren’t we left with materialism? The more I read, the more I am left unconvinced with appeals to post-metaphysical thought, or, more pointedly, the possibility of such a thing. I’m already thinking that this will lead me to a more sustained reading of more recent continental thinkers.

Having said that, I think that Kearney is pretty clear in these chapters about his aims. He alludes to this a couple of times, but I’m becoming convinced that this book can be read as a roadmap for Ricoeur’s notion of the second naivete that comes after the abandonment of the first naivete. Thus we see the necessity to traverse atheism (for Ricoeur this was through Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) as well as a positive return to a different kind of faith. But what I want to press here is whether we are not at least caught in some kind of particularity. Although we end up a lot different from what might be called classical orthodoxy, aren’t we basically reliant on the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially in the Christian concept of kenosis? I know that there a similarities in Buddhism, for instance, but I’m thinking that the ideas of “transcendent immanence,” “aesthetics of transubstantiation,” and “sacramental imagination” are bound up with a distinctly Christian logic. Perhaps this is something that Kearney will return to in the forthcoming companion books on non-Western religions, but I’m not sure what would change. To be sure, we are definitely left with much different conceptions of sacred and secular and so on, but at root we have to traverse through the Christian tradition to get there.

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Reading/grad school update

In the interests of accountability, I’m going to try to recall my reading habits and accomplishes from the break, now that I’m at the end of the first week of classes. I will compare this to the plans I made back in December.

First, a quick update on grad school, since I’ve just returned from the post office where I sent off the final remaining materials. In total, I have applied to 9 schools, 6 of which are for the PhD versus 3 for a terminal MA. A few of the PhD places have options to be considered for both degrees (ie, if you aren’t good enough to be offered a PhD position, you can be admitted to the MA program with little to no funding). I consider these options as the ultimate fall-back, although the lack of funding will force me to pause and consider some other options. What I’m really not looking forward to is the possibility of total rejection, largely because I’d either have to do this entire, nerve-wracking process over again in 9 months, or else give up on academia altogether. I’m optimistic that I will have at least some kind of offer, and I’ll cross these what-if bridges when I come to them.

The 6 “PhD” schools are, in no specific order, Duquesne, Fordham, Boston College, Purdue, Vanderbilt, and Villanova. To be honest, I’d be really excited to study under the faculty of any of these schools, although the interests represented at each of them are not homogenous. If I’m lucky enough to be admitted into multiple schools, this will become a more intense consideration, although I have some idea of places that are a closer fit. The MA-only places are Southern Illinois Carbondale, Loyola Marymount, and Miami University. Each of these schools has the (somewhat rare) opportunity to give some aid for Master’s students, and all three places have multiple faculty who work in and are friendly to Continental philosophy.

My immediate thought after finalizing the list is that I wish I had given myself another option or two for the MA-level, although I do think I have a pretty good chance to be admitted into one or two of those places. The major problem is that there don’t seem to be a ton of quality MA-level programs that are friendly to Continental philosophy. There are a few that are highly-rated and have good aid, etc., but they do not seem to be open to Continental philosophy, and battling it out for two years seems to be a move of intellectual suicide. There are a couple more programs that I could have applied to, but wasn’t quite sure what the situation was based on course-lists and so on. Another immediate thought I had was regret over not applying to Duke, but it became too late to do much about it, and especially too late to apply to the Religion dept. outside of the Divinity School. As it stands, all of the programs are in philosophy, and I’m figuring that if I go to an MA-program first, it will be easier to transition back towards interdisciplinary theology/philosophy rather than the opposite way.

As far as break reading goes, even though I watched an entire season of Mad Men among other things, I think it went pretty well. Looking back on my list, however, that’s not exactly the case: I only read 4/10 of the books I planned to. But I read more than 4 books. What happened was that I became interested in some other books, and ended up reading those instead of the books I planned to. What this teaches me is to try to plan for this and make smaller lists knowing that this will happen anyways. From the list, I read Theology of Money, Anatheism, The Time That Remains, and The Manual of Detection. I became pretty interested in Agamben, so I decided to just go ahead and read Homo Sacer before attempting the Durantaye book. In addition, I read George Pattison’s good introduction to Kierkegaard (the best one I’ve read for those already-introduced), most of Nicholas Royle’s book on Derrida, and Michel Henry’s book I Am The Truth.

This last book has been fascinating, and I’m eager to read more Henry. I’m still finishing I Am The Truth, but plan to move on to Material Phenomenology, which I think might be a better introduction. Still, Henry has been one of those thinkers who is an experience to read, and giving the small-but-growing interest in Henry, I’m eager to become competent in the current conversation and start contributing to it. Part of this challenge dovetails nicely with my goal of gaining reading competence in French this spring, since some of Henry’s work is still untranslated.

The first week of class has been way busier than I expected, but once the routine sets in, I trust things will calm down a bit. For now, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what book I will use for a major paper in literary theory. I’m leaning towards Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, but open to suggestions of any sort. I’m excited that in addition to the typical theory you’d expect – Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc – we’ll also be reading Lacan and Zizek, which is a big surprise consider that I didn’t think anyone at my school even knew who Zizek was. In addition to the literary theory stuff, I will be trying to focus on French, and reading Kierkegaard and Henry, hopefully with the goal of putting together something to research over the summer.

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The Haiti situation

I don’t have words. I can’t stomach talking about the reaction from various Antichrist places, such as the TBN. This is simply a link post to pass along a good historical perspective from Peter Hallward, as well as a link to a charity that Hallward commends as having very little overhead.

Peter Hallward, “Our Role in Haiti’s Plight.”

Partners in Health

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I had intended to put together the summary/response to part two of Anatheism tonight, but didn’t make the time. Instead, I happened upon this Eugene McCarraher interview that touches on several of the themes that the Davis and Haley essay gets at, especially regarding the intellectual and moral poverty of the evangelical Right as well as the impotent complicity of the Democratic party. There is a very small part of me that has pragmatist tendencies, and so I recognize that it’s better to go with the somewhat more appealing party, but McCarraher’s analysis, especially of president Obama, strikes me as dead on. The news is depressing, perhaps, but I think it goes to the basic point that we need an option that can break with the current structure, which always moves to subsume any nominal challenges into its mainstream.

Here’s is one of many probing quotes by McCarraher:

That hope is fading, and that’s the third development that characterized the past decade for me: the erosion or atrophy of the conviction that something beyond capitalism is possible. I see it in my brightest students, so many of whom supported Obama and are now wondering how they could have been taken for a ride. I try to tell them, as gently as I can, that they fooled themselves—you saw in Obama what you wanted to see, not what was (often plainly) there. One big reason they fell for Obama is that they have little or nothing in the way of an alternative political imagination; they have only the blurriest of visions in terms of which Obama can be assessed and found very, very wanting. I think credulity about Obama is traceable, in part, to this impoverishment of political vision. The passionate conviction that the world can be otherwise is a kind of love, and love enables you to see things as they are—in other words, it enables you to see the truth, and not fall for lies. It used to be said of youth that they demand too much, that they want the world to change too quickly. I think we’re in a very different moment now, when one of the saddest problems of this generation is that they don’t demand enough; they’re unwilling or unable to imagine and demand a different kind of world. At Villanova, where I teach, the business school attracts the largest number of majors—a not unusual situation in American higher education, which has pretty much become the vo-tech school for post-Fordist capitalism.

It’s better to get the quote in context, because it’s really hard to pick just one quotable section. The best news is that it’s only part 1 of 3. Also, it should please readers to know that McCarraher also touches on the (in)famous third-way talk.

H/T Halden.

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