Per Caritatem

The following is a guest post by Peter Kline. Peter is an Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Philosophy. Peter is also a practicing artist, and his work can be found at: – See more at: Drawing by Peter Kline

A reflection on Jacques Derrida, whom I love.

Derrida’s point across all of his writing is actually pretty simple, even if its articulation and implications must—to understand this “must” is to understand Derrida—be irreducibly complex and difficult.

The point: temporality is deconstruction; language is deconstruction. To be in time and within language is always already to be undergoing deconstruction. Deconstruction is not anything anybody does. It is what happens, something that happens, the trembling of existence.

The irreducibly complex implication of this, traced and tracked down in so many corners and alleys and byways by Derrida, is that self-identity, or “ipseity,” is impossible. One cannot simple be what one is. Every “one,” insofar as it exists in time and within language, is always already doubled into (at least) two. In his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” Derrida uses the image of a pomegranate: to cut open any supposed self-identical “one”—which is simply what time and language do, they are nothing but this cutting—is to release an unstable spilling out or dissemination of non-identical doubles, of seeds, that spill out everywhere, making a mess, as anyone who has tried to open and enjoy a pomegranate knows well.

If you were to gather together all the interpretations of any single text, say, the Bible, or any concept, say, justice, it would look like the carnage of an opened pomegranate. If you were to gather together all the speech a patient pours out to his or her therapist in attempt after attempt at self-presence and self-knowing—again, the carnage of an opened pomegranate. (Which is why Derrida resists any comprehensive psychoanalytic theory. At best, a therapist is a fellow traveler and companion who helps us feel our way through the very dark night of existence).

The self-identity of the self, of sovereignty, of responsibility, of religion, of philosophy, of literature, of anything and everything, is impossible. Everything, every “one,” is full of the seeds of is own deconstruction. Even the self-identity of a text that would announce deconstruction as a theme or topic is impossible. This is why Derrida is always annoyingly saying something like: deconstruction is not a theme or a topic, neither this nor that, not anything at all. It is nothing, nothing but a silent operation that one could only haltingly trace.

Like leaves falling at midnight, dancing and playing and trembling in midair, unseen, unheard, traced in the light of day only by bare branches. Derrida’s texts are the tracings of bare branches, spindly and winding and awkwardly complex across an open sky, across the blank page.

If one were to speak (and the question must always announce itself and remain unanswered: can one?) of Derrida’s passion, one would speak of a passion for the impossible. This is not a passion that the impossible would become possible. It is a passion that the impossible, that self-identity, would remain impossible. Derrida’s texts pray that the gap between me and myself, or between myself and the other, or between every one and every other, would never be closed, that the pomegranate would never stop spilling out seeds, that the leaves would never stop falling at midnight and dancing as they do, that time and language and the longing they open, in which mourning and hope hold hands and walk together into a dark night, would never cease opening.

This is why Derrida’s texts do not announce an ethics. They always already are an ethics. I would call it an ethics of hesitation. Derrida does nothing but hesitate. He stutters and stammers before the impossibility of self-identity, and in so doing he attempts to make room for the other, for what cannot be given a name, an identity, or a present without an impossible future, the future of the impossible, which is arriving every instant beyond any anticipation or appropriation. It is a kind of prayer, a speaking in tongues.


Lately I have been spending my spare moments with C. S. Lewis. We’ve been friends for over twenty years; however, it has been quite a while since I have slowed down in order to engage him in conversation and really listen to what he has to say. Lewis and I do not always agree. In fact, on topics such as monarchies and certain alleged hierarchies we vehemently disagree; but on other topics such as desire, love, longing, loss, and the Christian journey, Lewis’s wisdom has been a steady source of inspiration, instruction, encouragement, and healing.

After a recent hour or two well spent with Lewis, I found myself ruminating over a chapter called, “The Inner Ring,” in his book, The Weight of Glory. Lewis begins the chapter with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. The passage highlights two different “systems” of social relationships. One is a written rulebook of sorts delineating relations of superiors to inferiors. A prime example of this system is found in the military where generals are always higher in rank and importance than colonels and the same with colonels and captains. Here relational rankings are clear and rather fixed. In contrast, an unwritten system of social relationship exists as well. Here the rules are nebulous and often morph, but they too create standings and statuses, namely, insiders and outsiders. Describing this second, informal system of rankings, Lewis writes: “You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are inside it” (144). Those on the “inside” take pride in their having made it (all the while anxiously hoping not to lose their status). They immediately begin name-dropping, making sure that everyone knows that they are now part of the “we” that doesn’t include “you.” Those on the “outside” longing to cross that invisible insider-status line speak derisively of so-and-so and their gang—otherwise known as, the Inner Ring.

This Inner Ring phenomenon that Lewis so lucidly describes is something with which all are familiar, having participated variously as outsiders, insiders, or hopeful borderline candidates. Given my own experiences with Inner Rings and my observations of others, I find convincing Lewis’s claim that over the course of our lives “one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside” (146).

Of course, Inner Rings are both multiple and diverse—some are rather shallow and meaningless, others more substantive. Lewis, in fact, does not judge the mere existence of Inner Rings as morally wrong or bad per se. Social relations of this sort are unavoidable and in many cases appropriate and warranted. For example, one ought to choose carefully those with whom one shares his or her deepest desires, struggles, fears, and the like. Yet, Lewis—like Augustine and Plato before him—moves immediately to the heart of the matter, desire, which of course has everything to do with the heart and our tangled, twisted, and often disordered and misplaced loves. Although Inner Rings are likely necessary yet not necessarily evil, “the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous” (149).

Desire, longing, passion—here we plunge into the murkiest of waters, a realm rife with potential and wonder yet so frequently misdirected and sorrow-ridden. That is, so often our longing to be on the “right” side of the invisible line demarcating whatever our Inner Ring happens to be, as Lewis observes, can result in the worst sort of self-compromise. Equally bad, our desire for insider status can drive us to abandon those who were or could have been genuine and loyal friends. Why? Simply because at the time we saw them as obstacles hindering our ability to cross the coveted the invisible line. Thus, we have the first main point of Lewis’s chapter, “[o]f all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilled in making a man who is not yet very bad do very bad things” (154)

This brings us to the second main point in Lewis’s musings:

It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had. The desire to be inside the invisible line illustrates this rule. As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain (154).

As noted earlier, Lewis is not denouncing all social rings nor is he here speaking to unjust social systems that exclude according to race, gender, and sexuality. His point is rather that if what drives us is a desire merely to gain access to so-and-so’s group, then whatever pleasure we derive from our being in and your being out will be short-lived and deeply unsatisfying. Lewis likens it to “the torture allotted to the Danaids in the classical world, that of attempting to fill sieves with water” (154). Rings of this sort are built upon exclusion and futility.

Thankfully, Lewis doesn’t leave us despairing but points us to a hopeful although paradoxical path—one might even call it a death and resurrection path. That is, if we can manage to walk away from those hollow, heart-wrenching rings and devote ourselves as best we can to those activities that we have known to be true and life-giving, we will find that we “have come unawares to a real inside” (157). Here we will find likeminded others—others seeking not the lure of numbers, secret knowledge, or rings of power and prestige; rather, others with whom we can form lasting and genuine friendships—friendships based on virtue, fidelity, and a common pursuit of what is good and what promotes mutual flourishing. Such friendships are exceedingly rare in our day and even more difficult to cultivate and maintain given our ever-increasing mobility and highly technologically mediated lifestyles. Such difficulties notwithstanding, those few and uncommon genuine friendships that I have been fortunate to experience have indeed been the source of intense joy over the course of my life. Thus, Lewis, yet again you remind me of what’s really important: “[friendship] causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it” (157).


The following is a guest post by Michael Brennen, who recently translated Italian philosopher, Luigino Bruni’s new book, The Wound and the Blessing. Michael has had a long career in software and technology, eventually deciding to pursue a long-smoldering interest in philosophy.  In 2010 he graduated from the the University of Illinois, Springfield with a BA in philosophy, summa cum laude, and is presently working on an MA in philosophy of economics at UIS, focusing on the ethical dimensions of economics.  He has a particular interest in contemporary Italian economic thought developing reflections on a largely unknown mid-18th century school of political economy centered around Naples.


In his book The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness, recently published in English by New City Press, Luigino Bruni, an Italian philosopher of economics at the Milano-Bicocca University in Milano, considers happiness in economics and how people relate in markets; I had the privilege of translating the book.  Drawing from Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas est, in which Benedict explores the necessary and complementary nature of eros, philia, and agape in human relationships, Bruni presents a startling analysis of markets in terms of tripartite love and an unusual proposal for consideration.

Regarding the current globalizing economy, one can frequently find two positions.  On the one hand, there is the demand to involve the entire world in market relationships; on the other, there is the demand to do away with markets, as the market itself is seen as the source of societal and structural evils.  Bruni argues for balancing these competing demands.  He considers the market as a positive triumph of modernity; markets, as places in which people can meet and exchange as peers, can be a cornerstone of civilization.  In short, we need markets; without them we cannot live well, yet neither can we live well by reducing all social relationships to market relationships.  Bruni works within the eudaimonist tradition, and he balances these two positions against that backdrop.

For Aristotle, for whom civil, political and economic society was a whole, one cannot be happy without friends whom one values intrinsically.  One cannot live a fully human and happy life without friends, but the risk is that those same friends can be the source of one’s most painful relational wounds.  Aristotle’s response to limit this risk was that one’s friends should be few, and like oneself.

For Adam Smith and other 18th century philosophers working in political economy, markets were places where people could meet and exchange as peers rather than being dependent on the benevolence of one’s superiors in a hierarchical feudal society.  Smith, deeply influenced by Stoic thought, saw the common good emerging as an unintended consequence of self-interested action.  Markets mediate independent relationships in which buyers and sellers exchange in self-interested and impersonal, though cordial, encounters; one’s personal relationships should be pursued outside the market.

In contrast with Aristotelian thought, modern market relationships are thus instrumental: the other is useful as a means to one’s own ends.  Through this relational mediation, most market encounters happen such that the risk of relational injury is minimized.  With risk minimized in the larger market, it might seem that privately consuming and enjoying one’s increasing objective wealth should increase one’s happiness.

Paradoxically though, recent studies in the economics of happiness by Richard Easterlin and others show that, above a certain threshold, increases in income can result in unchanged or even diminished levels of subjective happiness.  In the market one must constantly compete against others for scarce work; with increased income comes additional responsibility and stress.  Due to hedonic adaptation, increasing consumption is required to maintain one’s sense of satisfaction with one’s standard of living.

For Bruni this “paradox of happiness” is one consequence of the loss of intrinsically valuable relationships in the market; as Bruni noted in an interview, markets designed to separate people do separate people.  To formulate his response to this paradox, Bruni considers the market analogues of eros, or erotic, romantic love, philia, or friendship love, and agape, or self-giving love.

Bruni proposes that we understand the contract as an analogue of eros, as the quintessential market instrument of self-interest.  Parties to a contract seek to maximize their gains and advantages and minimize their costs and risks; the contract establishes the relationship among the parties, and each party is concerned only with its interests.

For philia, Bruni proposes that associations and cooperatives—perhaps more diversely and fully developed in Europe than in North America—are market expressions of a relationality that considers self and other.  In such productive organizations, people live more fully in an awareness of interdependence and mutuality.

Bruni finds no market analogue of agape, or selflessness, in markets.  He notes that love, in economic terms, is even sometimes seen as a scarce resource that one should reserve for private relationships rather than dissipating it in the market.

His proposal to fill this dearth of agape in markets is gratuitousness, arguably the key term in the book; by that he means a willingness to exchange in free and open reciprocity—not altruism—that, though one may have an interest in the transaction, does not demand a return of equal value.  In economic terms, relationships themselves become goods with intrinsic value, apart from the goods exchanged.  Living in gratuitousness requires living in the awareness that another will eventually betray one’s trust, resulting in a relational or even material wound; finding the strength to transform those wounds into blessings can be at once a great challenge and a source of deep fulfillment.

Bruni closes with a reflection on the role of charisms in transforming market institutions toward more human, humanizing, and fulfilling relationships.  It is here perhaps that his deeply felt passion is most evident; economists do not normally talk about spiritual charisms in markets.  This discussion is far more than theory for Bruni; he has long been closely involved with the Economy of Communion (EoC,) in which for-profit businesses devote part of their earnings directly to aiding the poorest of the poor.  His experiences seeing people’s lives changed through mutual market relationships infuses his writings with a vigor not typical of economic texts.

Finally, it may also be of interest that Bruni and his co-author Stefano Zamagni were a significant influence behind Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate; further insight can be found on The Tablet, an EoC publication.

Michael Brennen


Sculpture, "Freedom" by Zeno FrudakisI was recently introduced to the artwork of Zenos Frudakis. Zenos is both creative, as is evident in his work, and extremely generous. He has agreed to allow me to use (without charge) a picture of his beautiful sculpture aptly entitled, “Freedom.” (My husband did the cover art design, which is pictured in this post.) Here are few excerpts from Zenos’s statement as to his vision for this particular work.

“I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process. Although for me, this feeling sprang from a particular personal situation, I was conscious that it was a universal desire with almost everyone; that need to escape from some situation – be it an internal struggle or an adversarial circumstance, and to be free from it.” […] Although there are four figures represented, the work is really one figure moving from left to right. The composition develops from left to right beginning with a kind of mummy/death like captive figure locked into its background. In the second frame, the figure, reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s Rebellious Slave, begins to stir and struggle to escape. The figure in the third frame has torn himself from the wall that held him captive and is stepping out, reaching for freedom. In the fourth frame, the figure is entirely free, victorious, arms outstretched, completely away from the wall and from the grave space he left behind. He evokes an escape from his own mortality.”

To read Zenos’s statement in its entirety, click the following link.

In this age of hyper-capitalism, I am extremely grateful for artists such as Zenos who still love art for art’s sake.


To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.



If everything goes according to the plan, I am scheduled to defend my dissertation the last week of August (at this time the exact date has not been given).  Below is a copy of my dissertation abstract for those interested.

Constructed Subjectivities and a “Thick” Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition


Cynthia R. Nielsen, Ph.D.
University of Dallas, 2011
Director: Philipp W. Rosemann


Michel Foucault offers penetrating analyses of how subjectivities are constructed. His statements regarding the ubiquity of power relations have been misinterpreted as both a denial of human agency and a death blow to the subject. Against this entrenched view, I argue that his understanding of power relations presuppose free subjects and, in fact, creates a space for resistance possibilities.

Foucault articulates a “metaphysically thin” account of agency. That is, a free subject is one whose relations with others produces a field of possibilities for acting on one’s own as well as others’ actions. That field may, of course, become severely restricted. Nonetheless, even in extremely oppressive situations, an agent retains her freedom as long as she is able in some way to resist.

Here our dialogue with Douglass and Fanon proves fruitful. Douglass, for example, was forced to live in an inhumane slave society; yet, he engaged in subversive acts, allowing him to re-narrate his subjectivity. Although Douglass’s freedom was constrained, he was not rendered completely passive. Through examining Douglass’s and Fanon’s concrete experiences of oppression, I demonstrate the empirical validity of Foucault’s theoretical analyses concerning power relations and subject-(re)formation.

Unlike Foucault, Douglass and Fanon were forthright concerning their moral evaluations. That is, they condemned as intrinsically evil the practice of slavery and colonization. Foucault’s reticence to make transcultural moral judgments signals a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm universal structures of human being. Consequently, Foucault’s anthropology and “ontologically minimalist” view of agency creates an obstacle for our modern and premodern dialogue partners.

I then turn to Augustine whose critique of Roman narratives, awareness of social conditioning, and processive view of the self exhibit striking similarities to Foucault’s reflections. However, Augustine’s ambiguous position regarding agency coupled with his (strong) doctrine of sin is, for Foucault, unpalatable. Enter Scotus. Scotus’s notion of agency affirms the power for opposite acts, and his “thick” account of the will and freedom establishes a basis for transcultural, moral critique. Scotus thus serves as a via media, facilitating constructive dialogue with (post)modern thinkers evincing emancipatory concerns and attunement to social construction.