On Improvising the Self and Seyla Benhabib’s Self as Author/Character

In the context of analyzing a scholarly dialogue between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Bulter, David Stern makes a helpful distinction between a situated, rather than a displaced subject. Having discussed Seyla Benhabib’s articulation of weaker and stronger postmodern views of socially constructed subjectivities,[1] Stern adds, “[i]n the weaker version of the thesis, the subject is situated in a world, but remains a subject capable of intentional action and autonomy.”[2] In contrast, the strong view—held, for example, by Judith Butler—claims that the subject is socially constructed “all the way down.”[3] As Stern explains, Benhabib opts for the weaker postmodern thesis wherein a situated subject “is a subjectivity that is not merely a passive product of the ways it is affected by the world.”[4] For Benhabib, we are no doubt influenced and formed by various cultural narratives, “nevertheless we must still argue that we are not merely extensions of our histories, [but] vis-à-vis our own stories we are in the position of author and character at once.”[5] Particularly in light of Foucault’s later essays and interviews, one could make a strong case that Behabib’s situated subject is more or less equivalent to Foucault’s doubly-constructed subject.inEsharp_Romare Beardon

Following Benhabib’s author/character analogy, I propose the activity of jazz improvisation as way to think about the situated or doubly-constructed subject.  Jazz improvisers belong to a tradition, which they themselves shape and by which they are shaped. The particular melodic lines they utilize, the musicians they imitate and “quote,” the kinds of instruments they play—an electric rather than an acoustic guitar, a synthesizer rather than a piano—and even performance opportunities are all socially and historically conditioned.  Nonetheless, the various ways in which they take up, re-shape, innovate, and expand the givens of tradition/s, highlights the subject-pole of construction.  In other words, though the improviser-subject is embedded in a socio-historical milieu that forms her, she is able to contribute to and even radically alter her context.  As she willfully and intentionally works out these changes, innovations, and reconfigurations in dialogue with the tradition, her own subjectivity is likewise reconstituted.[6] Her musical voice, style, and signature come to be otherwise.  The ability to maneuver within and utilize the very structures, mechanisms, and discourses shaping us for emancipatory, re-creative purposes sits well with Foucault’s analyses of the subject.


[1]According to Banhabib’s interpretation, the stronger postmodern thesis ultimately fails to provide the kind of emancipatory resources needed for feminist as well as other social theories addressing oppression and related concerns.  See, for example, Benhabib, “Feminism and Postmodernism,” especially 23–24. “Postmodern” and “postmodernism” are, of course, polyvalent terms.  Banhabib appeals to Jane Flax’s description of the postmodern position as embracing the following three “deaths”:  the “Death of Man,” the “Death of History,” and the “Death of metaphysics” (Ibid., 18).

[2] Stern, “The Return of the Subject?,” 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid., 111.

[5] Benhabib, “Feminism and Postmodernism,” 21.

[6] For a more detailed discussion of the ways in which a musician is both shaped by and reshapes musical traditions, see Nielsen, “What Has Coltrane to Do With Mozart,” especially 67–8.

Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference 2010

St. Augustine of HippoIn case you are unfamiliar with the Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference held annually in Philadelphia, you may read about the event on their website.  Today I found out that my abstract was accepted, and I eagerly look forward to attending and to spending time with some of my very good friends in Philadelphia. If you also plan to attend, please  let me know.  I always enjoy these conferences, especially the conversations before, after, and in-between sessions.  For those interested, I’ve posted a copy of my abstract.Frederick Douglass

St. Augustine and Frederick Douglass:  Counternarratives from the Underside as a Mode of Resistance and Confessio

As Michel Foucault famously said, “Where there is power, there is resistance.”  Slave narratives and religious autobiographies are examples of such resistance possibilities, as they assert the existence and humanity of those forced into socio-political non-existence.  Autobiography of some form or fashion is not absent in the Christian tradition, and perhaps the most famous autobiography or better, confessio, comes from the great North African theologian, St. Augustine.  In stark contrast with Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Immanuel Kant), Augustine understands himself heteronomously, that is, as one created in the image of God, and who, as image, is always-already in relation to an Other.  In this essay, I explore the ways the slave narrative, focusing primarily on Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, continues and expands Augustine’s trajectory. Like Douglass, part of Augustine’s project in the Confessions is to re-articulate the Christian narrative so as to show its significance in the present and to locate himself within God’s story.  In other words, instead of simply accepting the dominant discourse of what it means to be successful, happy, and so on, Augustine challenged the socio-political norms and values and offered a different narrative, the Christian narrative.  Unlike Augustine, Douglass himself was a slave who wrote under the strains of the oppressive context of chattel slavery—a system that many, if not most, white American Christians supported.  In light of this historical difference, I examine the political, literary and other challenges faced by the latter, highlighting the creative ways in which Douglass, like Augustine, wrote against the social grain to establish his identity in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  Undoubtedly, genuine differences exist between these two thinkers; nonetheless, both were eloquent orators who employed the power of rhetoric to critique the cultural and religious practices of their day.  Whether interpreting and applying Scripture in fresh, new ways or highlighting the inconsistencies of the hegemonic discourses of their respective eras, Douglass and Augustine challenged the glory narratives of the powerful—that is, powerful in the eyes of the world—and choose instead, as did their Lord-turned-slave, to identify with the weak of the world.

John M.G. Barclay on St. Paul and Multiculturalism

I recently read John M.G. Barclay’s excellent essay, “Neither Jew Nor Greek:  Multiculturalism and the New Perspective on Paul.”  In the first major section,  Barclay provides a clear concise overview of the main players of the New Perspective on Paul (henceforth, NPP). His sketch begins with Krister Stendal’s groundbreaking essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” moves to E.P. Sanders’ notion of “covenantal nomism” as presented in his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and then turns to James D.G. Dunn’s contributions via his commentaries on St. Paul, viz., “his explorations of the social aspects of Paul’s critical engagement with Judaism” (202).  Particularly important given our post-Holocaust existence is the fact that the NPP scholars are sensitive to the unfortunately marred history of Christian scholarship and its participation in anti-Semitism.One in Christ

The second section of Barclay’s essay is devoted to a discussion of the social and ideological background of the NPP.  Here the major subdivisions include the following, all of which characterize the NPP’s methodological stance: (1) a self-conscious theological respect for Judaism, (2) a turning “from an individualistic to a communal reading of Pauline theology” (i.e. Bultmann’s existentialist Heideggerian-inspired readings are out), (3) a concern for multiculturalism and difference.

The third section focuses on Daniel Boyarin’s reading of St. Paul as expressed in his book, A Radical Jew:  Paul and the Politics of Identity.  Barclay finds Boyarin’s engaging, insightful, sympathetic and attentive to St. Paul’s unique role in the Christianity; yet, he finds Boyarin’s reading at times to miss the ways in which St. Paul’s works might be applied fruitfully to our current concerns with multiculturalism and difference.

The fourth and final section of the essay involves a more sustained discussion of St. Paul and multiculturalism.  It is here in the first part of this final section that I want to linger.  Barclay opens by drawing our attention to the fact that “[a]ll Jews in the Graeco-Roman world were affected to some degree by the dominant Hellenistic culture” (209).  Given that Hellenization had a variety of inflections, Barclay offers a helpful distinction between “acculturation” and “assimilation.”  The former speaks of the “adoption of Hellenistic speech, literary forms, values and philosophies); the latter refers to “social integration into Hellenistic society” (209).  A Jew fluent in high Greek might be acculturated but not assimilated.  What bound Jews together most intimately were social and religious practices such as

aniconic monotheism (the refusal to participate in non-Jewish religion), the male mark of circumcision (which among other things, limited marriage relations), the dietary laws (which restricted social intercourse) and the observance of the Sabbath (which affected employment relations).  Such customs defined Jewish difference:  they created social boundaries between Jew and Greek, even where the two might otherwise speak the same language and employ the same though-forms.  Greeks who wished to become Jews (as some did), needed to adopt precisely these social practices to achieve full integration into the Jewish community (209).

Part of what made the apostle Paul so controversial was his proclamation that Gentiles need not embrace these social practices to be full members of the Abrahamic covenant.  Rather, through faith in Christ, they too could enter into intimate life with YHWH and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Gentiles, of course, must manifest this new life in their actions, and St. Paul did exhort them to live free of idols—in line with Jewish custom and a requirement so to speak of monotheism.  However, St. Paul “did not allow the other three ‘social markers’ [i.e. dietary laws, circumcision and required observance of feast days] to characterize the common life of believers] (210).  On this point, Barclay states,

[i]n this sense Paul preached to Gentiles a partially ‘dejudaized Judaism’ and attempted to create church communities which were multiethnic and multicultural:  in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28)” (210).  Contra Boyarin, Barclay claims that St. Paul was not engaging in a spiritual or allegorical interpretative move—he was “not reaching behind Jewish particulars to some abstract ‘essence’ or disembodies ‘ideal’:  he was placing alongside the Jewish community another which was equally physical and embodied in social reality.  To be sure, he can relativize circumcision by claiming that what counts is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6), but that faith and love are designed to take extremely practical shape in the life of a community (Gal. 5:13-6:10).  Similarly, he will not allow the Roman churches to define themselves by distinction in food or drink, but the ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ which he puts in their place (Rom. 14:17) are meant to have immediate impact on their common life, not least in their common meals (Rom. 14:1-15:6) (210).

Consequently, Barclay believes that Boyarin is wrong to conclude that St. Paul engages in an allegorical hermeneutic on these points in order to locate a common human essence.  Instead, according to Barclay, St. Paul seeks “to enable an alternative form of community which could bridge ethnic and cultural divisions by creating new patterns of common life” (210).  In sum, St. Paul’s aim is not to “eradicate” or “erase” cultural differences, but to “relativize” them (211).  He continues to respect Jewish customs (circumcision) and to hold the Jews in high regard, especially given their function in salvation history (recipients of the covenant and the Torah).  Christ was after all a  Jew, and we must neither forget nor attempt to downplay his Jewishness;  yet, He is “now the Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, who call on him in faith on the same terms, whatever their cultural identity” (211).  St. Paul is free to draw from both the Jewish and Greek traditions in order to translate the Gospel more effectively into various contexts to people of diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-cultural backgrounds.  “No one’s culture is despised or demonized, but by the same token none is absolutized or allowed to gain hegemony” (211).

Žižek on Women: Lack or the Logic of the “Not-All”?

Having read my first Žižek book, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, this past semester in a faculty/student reading group, I have to say that, among other things, I am not quite sure what to make of his reading of the “feminine” or “femininity.” Likewise, and this is my caveat  prefatory disclaimer, my knowledge of Freud and Lacan is limited, both of which seem fundamental to Žižek’s reading of women.  With that said, here are a few of the questions that arose as I read chapter 3 of the aforementioned book.  On the one hand, in this work generally speaking, Žižek seems to manifest (problematic) dichotomizing tendencies such as the following:  Judaism verses Christianity, masculinity verses femininity, the “male” religion of Judaism verses the “female” orientation of Christianity—for example, the Pharisees have a “male” approach to the Law and the world, whereas Jesus’ attitude toward the Law expresses a “female” sensitivity. Also, I wonder whether for Žižek, female or femininity ultimately translates into a lack?  What does it mean that Žižek situates woman on the side of the “real” and men on the side of the “symbolic”?  Does it mean that womens’ material existence must ultimately be negated, extinguished?  He seems to suggest that desire is always focused on loss and thus has an intimate relation with the death drive.  If this is the case, why should we accept that claim?Zizek on Toilet

If lack always equals loss for Žižek, then I wonder whether this “loss-logic” is part of his misread of Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross (von Balthasar writes an entire book on the positive theological meaning of the Godforsakeness of God, viz. Mysterium Paschale)?  Contra Žižek, couldn’t Jesus’ cry of “desire” for the Father arise out of a plenitude rather than a lack—a love that is willing even to go to hell in order to stand in solidarity with humans who have freely rejected God?

Also, the Catholic Christian tradition holds that materiality is ultimately redeemable because of its “connection” to the divine.  We see this is the sacrament of the Eucharist, which occurs again and again—the material revealing the divine which can never be exhausted.  Here the material (including the female body) has value then because of this connection with divine plenitude.  If I am not mistaken, I believe that John Milbank offers a critique of Žižek along these lines:  he cannot be a consistent materialist because matter ultimately has value only by virtue of participation in the divine.

On the other hand, perhaps Žižek could be read, following Lacan, as saying something along these lines. In Žižek:  A Very Critical Introduction, Marcus Pound, having commented on the un-representability of feminine sexuality, goes on to explain, “there is no objectifying trait that defines woman as a whole in the way that castration defines men as a whole” (107); this is the meaning of Lacan’s claim, “The woman does not exist” (107).  The idea is that men share a common identity as “castrated,” whereas women have no such common unitary trait. Theirs is the logic of the “Not-All.” Thus, they cannot be reduced to mothers or simply the “other set” to men.  Rather, they are the “open-set” (108-9).  If this is Žižek’s point, then I find it much more appealing and worthy of further development, as it navigates around a dichotomizing and ultimately subject-less view of women and avoids some of the problems noted above.

However, I must say that generally speaking Žižek’s work has a—how shall I put it—rather phallocentric aura about it.  At the end of the day, I’m with Foucault and find these psychoanalytic Freudian hand-me-down-ism-inspired theories to be misguided and part of the social construction of a particularly modern subject seeking in a supposed “hidden, repressed” sexuality the ultimate meaning of life.  Nonsense.  There’s no doubt about it, though– Žižek is quite entertaining.  Let me end my musings in the “spirit” of Žižek-ese:  could it be that “women” in fact do share a “unitary trait,” namely, menstruation?  If so, then is Pound’s more positive reading of Žižek’s view on women negated?  There you have it, the “orthodox fox” deconstructs the Slovenian “rock star” philosopher.

Part VII: Selections from Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love

The final theme of chapter four is Schuld’s analysis of a Foucauldian interpretation of modern “healing” as a “transfiguring cure requiring critical intervention by specialists” (154). On Foucault’s account, “the potential danger of these dynamics of normalization—those that feed off our fears of pathology as well as those that entice us with visions of self-affirming health—is that the seeming naturalness of this ‘matrix of individualization’ is warranted by a host of expensively trained and licensed experts” (154).  Because we now turn for our every need to specialists of various kinds—specialists with particular knowledge of which we have little or no access apart from submitting ourselves to their care—our relation to these experts is unbalanced.  As Schuld explains, “many of the normalizing power relations operating within our … culture are asymmetrical and nonreciprocal.  These ‘canonical bits of knowledge’ are the privileged possession of an elite few … as such, they are beyond the grasp of those for and on whom they are applied.  Although self-knowledge supposedly resides within persons who are confessing, it nevertheless lies beyond their grasp. Thus, those who are pursuing the truth do not control this relationship” (154). The psychiatrist-patient relationship is a perfect example of an asymmetrical power relation.Schuld on Augustine and Foucault

Next, Schuld turns to biotechnologies and the science of genetics, which she believes function as a hermeneutical key of sorts in our culture.  To unpack her claim, she contrasts the new biogenetics paradigm with an Augustinian paradigm.  In the latter view, one is engaged generation after generation in an on-going struggle with sin and evil, whereas in the biogenetic (or biopower) framework, a utopian theme of final victory over our maladies surfaces.  That is, we begin to believe that “by manipulating our malleable bodies down to their tiniest micro-dynamics of power,” we can at last “be liberated from imperfection and fallibility, and along with this, the myth of the good shepherd that has governed our relations in various ways for so long” (155-156).  Though Schuld sees the confidence of the new paradigm as illusory, she points out that “such hopes create social realities” and argues that “hand in hand with this desire to be free of imperfections and guidance is the desire to be free of the obligations, burdens, and risks of caring for others and allow ourselves to be cared for.  Trying to insulate ourselves from the exposure of being influenced by others does not, … necessarily increase our safety; it inevitably opens us to new and potentially more pernicious (because less examined) vulnerabilities” (156).

As we have become accustomed to and completely comfortable with the new paradigm, we have transferred our faith to a new god, placed our hope in a telos-less progress, and we continue to search feverishly for something, anything that might resemble love.  We have replaced the old narratives with new ones and a new magisterium guards with dogmatic zeal its sacred scientific discourses, shielding them from critique with shouts of “objectivity.”

By placing so much hope…in an illusionary promise that we can liberate ourselves from relational fragility, ambiguity, and finitude, we have culturally invested, through the fervency of our faith, scientific discourses with hallowed power and given them sanctuary from historical and political critiques.  Ironically, we have made ourselves more rather than less susceptible to the uncertainties we sought to escape…By giving ourselves over uncritically to an invasive power of our own making, we have intimately exposed ourselves not only to socially exploitable technologies of personal formation and control but also to devastating disappointments when we realize it is not liberating and redemptive (157).

Schuld ends by saying that on her reading, “Augustine would agree with Foucault that such efforts are fueled by arrogance, a deluded sense of self-importance, and a refusal to acknowledge the limitations of finitude” (157).