Book Plug: Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics by Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill’s recent book, Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics, was written over the course of nearly a decade and consists of three major divisions—History, Politics, and Aesthetics—each of which contain three chapters addressing particular concerns and written in specific contexts. (Click here to view the table of contents.) As a result, the chapters, which discuss figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Castoriadis and topics such as aesthetic revolution and modern democracy, the tradition of radical critique, architecture as the forgotten political art, and whether difference is a value in itself, can be read independently with great benefit.

Central to the book is what Rockhill describes as a “heuristic distinction between two types of theoretical practice” (1). On the one hand, we have interpretation, which adheres to the norms of an established discourse and operates within “the praxeological and epistemological framework of an institutionalized set of activities” (1). On the other, we have the activity of intervention, which is agonistic and “seeks to contest these operative norms and guiding parameters in order to introduce alternative forms of intellectual practice” (1). Although there are varying degrees of interpretation and intervention, what distinguishes the two is that the former stays within the boundaries of particular theoretical practices and related socialized norms, whereas the later challenges such boundaries and seeks to reconfigure the present strictures of intellectual activity (2). In short, an intervention is not simply a more radical or highly innovative way of engaging a text, performing or interpreting an artwork, or revamping political practices. Intervention operates, so to speak, at a deeper level: it seeks to change the historical conditions of possibility and in doing so to change the activity of thought itself and, presumably, what can show up as a viable option or way of acting and being in a particular context. “In other words, interventions are never purely intellectual endeavors or thought experiments. They are practical incursions into the social rites and rituals of theoretical work” (3).

Although one might at first get the impression that Rockhill views interpretation as passé and something to move beyond, he himself counters such a conclusion. For example, he says that interpretation is “an important practice for developing theoretical possibilities within particular parameters” (3). Yet it is clear that Rockhill wants to foreground and draw our attention to the need for alternative engagements, or as he puts it “anchored struggles” that might reconfigure current norms of intellectual, social, and political practices (3). In addition, Rockhill issues a timely critique of continental philosophy. Although the continental tradition is typically considered historically minded or attuned, nevertheless it often employs “impoverished models of historical analysis and explanation, which is at times directly linked to a haughty refusal to engage with the human and social sciences” (11). As a result, what we frequently get are overly simplistic narratives, disembodied models or ideals of doing “true” philosophy, and Eurocentric accounts that privilege the works of great males of a certain socio-economic class, which is set over against the unthinking, lowly masses—all of which is often supported by a rigidly fixed canon interpreted in a way that further entrenches the established discourses and practices of particular institutions. Exegetical reason, the main focus of Rockhill’s critique, it seems, incarnates itself in the commentary tradition and thus functions as the life-giving soul of established canonical traditions, whose practices end up reducing philosophical activity to the production of secondary literature analyzing and commenting upon the canonical texts.

Rockhill’s critique of Eurocentrism is refreshingly nuanced and resists falling into an overly facile binary of oppositions—geographic or otherwise—which then demonizes Europe and seems to assume that “Europe” has a stable, unchanging center. Rather, as he explains in an important footnote (n. 45): “The decolonization of theoretical practice requires the development of a complex cultural topography based on a multidimensional conceptualization of space” (31). The radical geography that Rockhill proposes seeks to “denaturalize space and to chart a multiplicity of different and overlapping spaces while being attentive to the stratification and distributions operating within each of these heuristically delimited fields” (31). While such radical geography continues within the domain of critique discourses of Eurocentrism, it is attuned to the unfixed, center-less character of “Europe,” which it unearths as the “site of striated, overlapping and contested spaces” (31).

Given that most of Rockhill’s chapters are by and large devoted to well known male philosophers in the European intellectual tradition, one might tempted to turn aspects of Rockhill’s critique against him. However, this would miss the point of his thematization and advocacy for intervention. In other words, while foregrounding female or non-European figures would have been beneficial on multiple counts, what is important from the standpoint of intervention is what is done with, to, through, and beyond the particular figures engaged. Stated otherwise, an interventionist approach seeks neither to glorify prominent thinkers via hagiography nor damn them through a form of intellectual parricide; rather, as Rockhill explains (and here it’s worth quoting him at length):

this book proposes a critique of exegetical reason by rigorously engaging with prominent philosophic positions precisely in order to develop a deep methodological intervention into contemporary theoretical practice, as well as propose an expansive and potentially innovative thematic analysis. The metaphilosophical critique of continental scholasticism needs to mine this tradition and cull from it its major strengths, one of which is historico-hermeneutic rigour and precision. We need to move, however, from imprisonment to empowerment, from incarceration within the interstices of a socially constituted canon to an empowering historical elevation of thought that carefully works through—in order to think with and potentially beyond—some of the most prominent intellectual projects of a certain philosophic tradition (15–16).

For the Children of Aleppo

by Kristina Zolatova

Crushed under the weight of a worn-torn city,
You wait, but no one comes.

Your eyes pierce the world’s cold heart and you ask,
Where are you?

But no one answers.

Your innocence stained by men playing war
and you, precious ones, are the pawns.

Trapped, besieged, despondent.
There’s no where to go, and apparently
We don’t want you.

Humanity has failed you, or better,
Human beings
Failed you.

Have you demanded too much of us?
You want peace and to live like the rest of the world.

Evidently, that’s just too much to ask.
After all, we’re busy praying and shopping,

Christmas is just around the corner.

You know, Christmas, that time when God
Divested himself of his glory and took on
Human flesh—pretty costly indeed.

We simply haven’t budgeted for this
Extra expense.

I’m sure you weren’t expecting it either.

We’ll keep praying and thinking about you,
Until the videos of your dying pleas
are superseded by the next movie-trailer.

Then you will fade from our memories, or
Perhaps in our post-truth world

We’ll reinvent you, or tell ourselves Cartesian-like
that we couldn’t be certain who was telling the

So we took the prudent route and

Of course, we prayed and thought about you.
Even so
you died.

2017 NTPA Call for Papers

For those interested, the call for papers for the 2017 North Texas Philosophical Association’s annual conference has now been posted on the NTPA website. The conference is scheduled for March 31-April 1, 2017 at the University of Dallas. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 21, 2017.

Keynote speakers are: Gabriel Rockhill, Villanova University & Christian Emden, Rice University.

Charles Bambach (University of Texas at Dallas) will deliver the presidential address.

Other invited speakers include: David Kaplan, University of North Texas; Shellie Gordon-McCullough, University of Texas at Dallas; Cynthia Nielsen, University of Dallas; Kristi Sweet, Texas A&M University; Dale Wilkerson, University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley; Robert Wood, University of Dallas.


An Earnest Buffoon in Christendom: Kierkegaard’s Irony by Peter Kline

[The following is an excerpt from Peter Kline’s forthcoming book, Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology]Kierkegaard by Peter Kline

Writing with apophatic desire within Christendom is what leads Kierkegaard to adopt what is perhaps his most basic and pervasive literary form, namely, irony.[1] Writing with passion requires the indirection of irony because Christendom has confined theological speech within what Kierkegaard calls a “dreadful illusion.”[2] Coming late in a theological and religious tradition that had formed itself into a body of social institutions and patterns of speech in which one was a Christian automatically, simply by being born into a Christian society, Kierkegaard was disturbed with what he regarded as Christendom’s ability to deceive people into the belief they were living a Christian life when in truth what surrounded them was a self-deluded caricature of Christian speech and action.

The reason such “reduced circumstances,”[3] as Kierkegaard names them, call for irony, as apposed to a direct form of speech, has to do with what makes Christendom’s illusion dreadful. It is crucial not to underestimate or caricature Christendom, even if one’s judgment is that Christendom is itself a caricature of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, what made Christendom’s illusion about itself dreadful was not that it was false in relation to an objectively measurable and presentable understanding of Christianity’s truth. Christendom is not a doctrinal error. Nor is it simply an ethical error, a failure to live up to an objective Christian ideal. What is dreadful about Christendom is not any easily identifiable lapse or hypocrisy but rather its profound intellectual and emotional sophistication. Such sophistication has the capacity to embed one in an illusion from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself, at least by any straightforward means. Christendom includes earnest debates about doctrine and ethics, intentional divisions into denominations each of which defends the truth of its perspective, thoughtful reflections on the history and mission of the church, etc. For Kierkegaard, therefore, the way to approach truth and break through illusion is not to step back and “reflect” objectively on one’s situation and the ideals, values, and doctrines one is striving to embody. Such a move simply places one squarely within Christendom, no matter how “radical” such reflections are.

Rather than produce a dogmatics or a system of doctrine, Kierkegaard sought to write theological truth by cultivating in himself and in his reader what Jonathan Lear calls “anxious, disruptive experiences of irony.”[4] Irony as Kierkegaard sought to cultivate it, however, has nothing to do with apathetic detachment or a refusal of commitment. For Johannes Climacus, “the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that the earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that.”[5] Kierkegaard, like Socrates, deploys irony for ethical-religious purposes, as a way to deepen commitment and intensify earnestness. He assumes on the part of his reader a basic commitment to and familiarity with Christian identity, that is, he assumes Christendom. Yet he also assumes that a truly earnest pursuit of Christian truth under the “reduced circumstances” of Christendom will involve an “awakening” to how modern familiarity with Christian identity has reduced Christian speech to a species of “chatter,” even (or perhaps especially) when it is most sophisticated. Kierkegaard writes, “every Christian term, which remaining in its own sphere is a qualitative category, now, in reduced circumstances, can do service as a clever expression which may signify pretty much everything.”[6] A “qualitative category” is one that withdraws from conscription into quantitative projects of identity and power, projects to which Christendom’s bishops are wholly committed in Kierkegaard’s view. Categories such as “revelation,” “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” etc. are for Kierkegaard categories of self-dispossessing action that have “no relation to survival as evidence of [their] truth.”[7] Christendom, however, has turned such categories into terms for leveraging its own power, that is, ensuring its own survival on the condition of reducing Christian categories to place holders for whatever powers and identities are in vogue. As Mark Jordan puts it, such categories become “terms used by everyone for everything—say, in churches, used by the weak for dictated testimony and by the powerful for repeated judgment in the name of ‘tradition.’”[8] Christian speech has in modernity lost touch with its “own sphere.” It has surrendered its own capacity for disturbing speech, for passion, in order to ensure its own survival.

To cultivate passion for truth in such reduced circumstance requires exposing the familiarity with which one assumes Christian identity and speech to disturbance and disruption. Such disruption generates experiences of irony insofar as I am led to experience my once familiar pursuit of Christian identity and speech as suddenly strange and difficult. I experience irony when I experience my own earnest attachment and performance of Christian speech as a form of chatter, uncannily hallow and bereft of truth, caught up in the interests of power, domination, and clever evasions of truth-telling. This is not because I am able to glimpse objectively the distance between chatter and “authentic” Christian speech—the fantasy of Christendom’s bishops, theologians, and self-assured converts—but because I longer know or have an objective sense of how to speak or live Christianly. My Christian identity has become a problem, a difficulty, an open question.

For Kierkegaard, the passion of Christian living is sustained by keeping the problem and difficulty of Christian speech and action open rather than closed. The truthfulness of a Christian life is conditioned upon it never ceasing to be an ironic existence, ever disruptive of a settled Christian identity, ever responsive to a voice from another sphere that withdraws from the objectifying patterns of speech that ensure Christendom’s survival. As Jordan puts it, “we restore weight to the old Christian terms by realizing that we have never been able to carry them or use them skillfully.”[9] There is that within the Christian categories to which I am committed, what is “qualitative” in them, that breaks my own understanding and use of them apart, that never allows me to handle them with authority, as grounds for cultivating an easily adopted identity. Such dis-possession, again, does not entail a deflation of earnestness. It is the condition of an ever-deepening engagement with and commitment to an infinitely difficult truth. It is the possibility of a passion for truth-telling that does not “fall down before the golden calf of whichever System or Anti-System happens to be in vogue.”[10] This is a passion that must “adopt despised speech,”[11] speech that refuses the interests of easily assumed and cultivated identity.

Kierkegaard’s authorship multiplies and performs various forms of despised speech, speech without authority, ironic speech that withdraws from any certainty about itself. Perhaps its most ironic gesture, or the one that gathers together all its preceding ironic gestures, is Kierkegaard’s final word as a Christian author in which he unsays even his own name as he declares, “I am not a Christian.”[12] This declaration occurs in the middle of his “attack on Christendom,” an attack on the familiarity of Christian identity and speech that is animated, as Jordan puts it, by “his hope that the ‘specific weight’ of Christian words might be felt on the other side of a satire that would devour Christendom, of an indirectness that displaces his own authorship, making even his own name the ironic token of missing voices from the other sphere.”[13] Søren Kierkegaard, that author who gave up every attachment in order to devote himself to the task of writing out what is entailed in “becoming a Christian,” declares at the end of his life that he has not, finally, become a Christian. “Christian” is not an identity that he can adopt, in part because becoming a Christian is not about assuming an identity but about undertaking a living response to a voice that calls him out of even his own name. Kierkegaard does not yet know how to respond to the voice that calls him, that calls him to give up everything, to become nothing. Yet, ironically, this not-knowing is what keeps him in proximity to this voice, straining to let it be heard, not least by himself.

Kierkegaard’s straining to hear and respond to the divine voice within the reduced circumstances of Christendom shows itself in his experimentations with form, his experiments with writing otherwise than as doctrinal exposition or self-assured moralizing. What is characteristic of Kierkegaard’s ironic writing experiments, for Jordan, is that they are “nearer burlesque than austere irony.”[14] The forms of the authorship perform their own distance from reassuring objectivity by way of passionate caricature that re-stages theological and philosophical characters and themes at slant, with a wink, with “histrionic gestures and fantastic scenes.”[15] Jordan: “read him as re-staging fans’ passions for Hegel, for Father Abraham, for Greek lyric and versions of Don Juan, for fairy tales and drunken speeches, even for the endless scribbling of the despised Adler.”[16] Even at its most Christianly religious, Kierkegaard’s writing does not settle down into measured and calculated forms “since any theology of God incarnate as a poor man executed for blasphemy must speak in the mode of ridiculous passion for an object otherwise despised.”[17] And within Christendom such ridiculous passion “requires choices both of institutional affiliation and devices of writing that are more exaggerated, like the choices of a bad actor or a buffoon. Kierkegaard makes such choices when he writes polemic in his own name against the memory of Bishop Mynster and his Christendom.”[18] Such earnest buffoonery offers itself as “a parodic invocation, a bit of camping, an artifice of fantastic desire.”[19]

Kierkegaard’s irony is apophasis under the conditions of modernity, apophasis when negation no longer prepares the heart for praise but drives the logic of “the system.” It is apophasis as an act of mourning the loss of forms appropriate for praising a God who will not be made the guarantor of the church’s survival at the hands of the state. Irony negates performatively by letting an un-masterable difference into its speech, the infinite qualitative difference between an identity and the self becoming nothing before God.

[1] For my reading of Kierkegaard’s irony, I am helped by Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[2] Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 41-4.
[3] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 146. Hereafter BA.
[4] Jonathan Lear, Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. 4.
[5] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 277n.
[6] BA, 146.
[7] BA, 36.
[8] Mark Jordan, “The Modernity of Christian Theology or Writing Kierkegaard Again for the First Time,” Modern Theology 27:3 July 2011, 445.
[9] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449-50.
[10] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 444.
[11] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 450.
[12] Kierkegaard, ‘The Moment’ and Late Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 340.
[13] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 445.
[14] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[15] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[16] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[17] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[18] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 448.
[19] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 443.

Book Plug: Non-Metaphysical Theology After Heidegger by Peter S. Dillard

For those interested in Heidegger and the philosophy of religion, Peter Dillard’s new book, Non-Metaphysical Theology After Heideggerhas much to offer. Below is a brief description of the book.  

Using Martin Heidegger’s later philosophy as his springboard, Dillard provides a radical reorientation of contemporary Christian theology. From Heidegger’s initially obscure texts concerning the holy, the gods, and the last god, Peter S. Dillard extracts two possible non-metaphysical theologies: a theology of Streit and a theology of Gelassenheit. Both theologies promise to avoid metaphysical antinomies that traditionally hinder theology. After describing the strengths and weaknesses of each non-metaphysical theology, Dillard develops a Gelassenheit theology that ascribes a definite phenomenology to the human encounter with divinity. This Gelassenheit theology also explains how this divinity can guide human action in concrete situations, remain deeply consonant with Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and the Trinity, and shed light on the Eucharist and Religious Vocations. Seminal ideas from Rudolf Otto and Ludwig Wittgenstein are applied at key points. Dillard concludes by encouraging others to develop an opposing Streit theology within the non-metaphysical, Heidegerrian framework he presents.

North Texas Philosophical Association (NTPA) has a new website

For those interested, the North Texas Philosophical Association (NTPA) now has a new website.  We will post calls for papers, conference programs, and other relevant news on our site. In addition, you can now pay your conference fees online via Pay Pal. We look forward to an excellent conference next year!