Symposium Introduction

It is rare that an academic book comes along that is—if I may say so—fun to read, but that is certainly the case for Ada Jaarsma’s Kierkegaard after the Genome. Of course, to be clear, just because it is fun to read, does not mean that it is also not a powerful intervention into both the study of Kierkegaard and into contemporary philosophy of science. In short, a rare and important text. By bringing Kierkegaard into conversation with post-genomic science and a variety of discourses in critical theory, Ada Jaarsma alters our understanding of both what Kierkegaard means today and of what doing philosophy amounts to, ultimately thereby, also powerfully engaging with the alleged, tenuous basis of modernity: secularism.

In a chapter from What Is Philosophy? that Jaarsma references in her book, Deleuze and Guattari present a “philosophical trinity,” where assumptions and problems immanently emerge only to be creatively confronted by the creation of concepts, all mediated by “conceptual personae” that, at bottom, are conceived as a “mobile territory.”1 I take this sort of metaphor, above all, to suggest a persistent process to the task that is philosophy, one that—like a surfer catching a wave—achieves constancy only to surrender it at a moment’s notice, in light of new developments. What Jaarsma’s book does so well is to chart one way of doing this, of reconfiguring the terrain of critical theory (crip, decolonial, race, and gender) as well as science and faith, and, ultimately, if I may say so, the—our—world itself. The discussion that follows adds further nuance and mobility to this entire process, opening it up for its next phase, opening up our world and our belief in it.

  1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 67.

J. Aaron Simmons


Further than Faith, or Just Further than Kierkegaard?

In order to think with Ada Jaarsma, let’s begin by thinking a little bit with Søren Kierkegaard.

Famously in Fear and Trembling Johannes de Silentio comments that in the present age everyone keeps wanting to go “further than faith” (Kierkegaard 1983, p. 7). He then notes that it would surely be “rash” to ask where it is that everyone thinks that they are going since having faith is not intended to be an achievement to brag about, but a general cultural assumption taken as a sign of “urbanity and culture” (Kierkegaard 1983, p. 7). That is, having faith is effectively the union card for participation in social norms. Couched in this idea of faith as a means of access to the worldly power structures, Silentio does not temper his view of the destructive effects on faith when we think of it as just one more external object. Accordingly, Silentio refuses to allow faith to become a commodity that can be evaluated according to worldly standards. Silentio’s view on this front is not only important for his own age, but also in the age that continues to be “present” for us today.

Almost anticipating a time of mega-churches where Christianity is often just a religiously framed mode of capitalist desire, Silentio critiques those who would consider faith something to be had according to a market logic, rather than something toward which one strives with the entire passion of one’s existence. Imagine a situation in which on Monday I got some shoes, Tuesday bought a new book, Wednesday picked up some faith, and then on Thursday decided I had too much faith and so returned some in order to be able on Friday to have enough money to go to the trampoline park. Sadly, this is not too far from where we find ourselves in our own present age.

Admittedly, this should sound silly, and yet, for all too many people in Silentio’s time and in our own, faith has become commoditized in such a way as to allow those who possess the most of it to gain political power, social status, and even economic benefit. Whether a list of propositional beliefs to which one must affirm in order to teach at a Christian university, a series of supposed social policies that claim to represent “Christian values,” or a community covenant presented as a means of submitting to the ecclesial authority of one’s pastor, etc., faith is often not much more than a label for identifying oneself in relationship to what is taken to be normative within some specific historical community. In many ways, then, it is the commodification of faith that allows Christianity to get lost in Christendom. Perhaps in such a situation one would be forgiven for asking whether Christians are more interested in having their own life in faith, or in making sure that their faith looks like the prosperous, privileged, and unproblematic life that they want to have? As Silentio demonstrates, the former presents itself as an existential ordeal—defined by sacrifice and struggle. Yet, as politicians and prosperity gospel pastors try to claim, the latter presents itself as easy, comfortable, and obvious. Here we should take to heart Anti-Climacus’s comment that “as soon as Christ’s kingdom makes a compromise with this world and becomes a kingdom of this world, Christianity is abolished” (Kierkegaard 1991, p. 211).

Rather than following the precepts of the established church, Anti-Climacus consistently, and radically, contends that lived Christian faith is a matter of “living in conformity to the prototype” of Christ (Kierkegaard 1991, p. 202). Indeed, in a prayer Anti-Climacus makes it clear that there is no social facility to be found in Christian existence:

Just as you keep us from all other error, keep us also from this, that we delude ourselves into thinking ourselves to be members of a Church already triumphant here in this world. Your kingdom certainly was not and is not of this world. The place of your Church is not here in the world; there is room for it only if it will struggle and by struggling make room for itself to exist. But if it will struggle, it will never be displaced by the world either; that you will guarantee. But if it deludes itself into thinking it is to be triumphant here in this world, then, alas, it does indeed have itself to blame that you withdrew your support, then it has succumbed, then it has confused itself with the world. Be, then, with your militant Church so that this might never happen, so that it—and this is truly the only way in which it could happen—would be obliterated from the earth by becoming a triumphant Church. (Kierkegaard 1991, p. 201)

Here we see the most religious of all Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms making clear that the genuine risk to Christianity is from Christians who see their faith as a matter of obtaining elevated social status. We might say that there is a kenotic logic operative in Anti-Climacus’s account: that which aims to win in the world will lose why the world matters. This basic idea is found throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship such that all those who would prioritize anything before God not only lose God, but also the world. Alternatively, and this is where the kenotic logic gives way to a logic of abundance, those who prioritize God end up receiving all of finitude as a gift of grace. Remember that the knight of faith does not simply make the movement of infinity and float above the world, but instead at every moment makes the movement of finitude and receives back the world as meaningful—in all its fleshy dynamism and messy depth.

Importantly, the relationship between kenosis (humility/lack) and abundance (confidence/excess) is not one of calculative rationality. This connection is not a matter of some return on an investment that can be justified as a strategy for one’s “soul-portfolio,” as it were, while appropriately deployed in relation to a sustainably diversified approach to religious pluralism (you know, just in case . . .). To position the kenosis/abundance relationship within such a framework is, ultimately, to flirt with idolatry due to one’s onto-theo-economic model of God as at the service of one’s own interests.

Although idolatry has never been a unitary phenomenon, at its most basic it amounts to the attempt to go further than faith. What differs in different forms of idolatry is not this underlying movement, but the direction toward which one moves. Ultimately, I think that there are two basic forms of idolatry—one that moves toward oneself and one that moves away from oneself. Let’s term the first version Egoistic Idolatry and the second version Objectivist Idolatry. Egoistic Idolatry is common enough throughout religious history and it is easily distinguished from genuine faith because it is a distortion of subjectivity such that subjectivity is no longer the site of faith, but its object. Rather than finding one’s selfhood entirely in relation to God (hence the importance of “dying-to” that Kierkegaard describes at length in the Discourses), “God” just ends up naming one’s own selfhood as divine. Alternatively, Objectivist Idolatry is less common because it is not a matter of elevating one’s own status, but of relativizing everything in relation to something other than God (e.g., science, reason, social norms, etc.). Whereas Egoistic Idolatry makes a God of oneself, Objectivist Idolatry refuses to admit the relation to God as definitive of selfhood. Egoistic Idolatry is characterized by elevating one’s individuality to a level without critical awareness. Objectivist Idolatry is characterized by eliminating one’s individuality in the name of supposed critical insight. Both forms of idolatry can take on a variety of presentational manifestations: religious, non-religious, nationalistic, cosmopolitan, historically specific, temporally indeterminate, etc. Yet, all idolatry serves as a distraction from the task of selfhood because it takes it for granted that we have already become the selves that matter.

Consider the following passage from For Self-Examination where Kierkegaard explains that each single individual must be always at stake in faith—there can be no commodification of faith without an objectification of selfhood:

If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine, something impersonal and objective, then it is no mirror—an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror; it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally (objectively) to God’s Word there can be no question of looking at yourself in the mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at oneself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror. No, while reading God’s Word you must incessantly say to yourself: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking. (Kierkegaard 1990, pp. 43–44)

In a compelling inversion of Jean-Luc Marion’s (see Marion 1991) distinction between the Idol, which simply returns your gaze to yourself, and the Icon, which always pulls one’s gaze beyond oneself toward God, Kierkegaard makes the case that only when we are thrown back on ourselves in relation to God can we realize our proper status (hence the eradication of Egoistic Idolatry). Yet, it is only as oneself that we can realize that God is never ultimately a matter for “us” or “them,” but always only for “me.” Each poor existing (single) individual must say for herself: “Here (before God) I am (becoming) who I will be” (hence the eradication of Objectivist Idolatry). In every case, though, eradicating idolatry is tantamount to living into the proper relation to one’s own becoming as oriented toward God (and, for Kierkegaard, specifically in relation to Christ as the prototype).

One of the genuine risks to subjectivity in the present world is the objectivist tendencies of scientism such that the devotion to scientific objectivity ends up being the ultimate criterion against which all value and meaning is judged.1 Objectivist Idolatry, then, is ultimately perhaps best understood in the contemporary world as a temptation to understand science as sufficient for meaning, selfhood, and social existence. Perhaps better than anyone else, Michel Henry has laid out the case against such scientistic objectivism (and the Idolatry that attends to it):

Science . . . has no idea of what life is; it is in no way concerned with it; it has no relation to it and never will. There can only be access to life in and through life, if it is the case that only life is related to itself in the Affectivity of its auto-affection. In life’s “relation to itself,” there is no “relation to,” no ek-stasis, no “consciousness,” but science operates entirely and exclusively in the relation to the world. It only knows the world and its objects. It is objective, due to its ultimate ontological foundations. That is why it does not know and will never know that which experiences itself and auto-affects itself in and only in the radical immanence of its affectivity. It will never know what presents itself and essentializes itself in oneself as life. (Henry 2012, p. 17)

Henry’s critique of science (or, better, scientism) amounts to a challenge to the self-forgetting that characterizes Objectivist Idolatry such that selfhood is simply a matter of physicalist reporting, rather than of existential becoming. Selfhood is no longer itself an ethico-religious task, but rather selves are those material bodies that undertake the task of scientific data-collection. When all is explained, nothing essential remains. This is not a point about epistemic limits, but about what Henry terms the auto-affectivity of life itself. Life, like faith, is not something that can become an object, but instead what makes possible the meaningfulness of “objectivity” as a goal for particular human discursive practices.

Henry rightly turns to Kierkegaard to make his point more vivid:

Doesn’t the reader of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety know a bit more about sexuality than someone who would have covered all of the past and future scientific treatises on the subject, with their cumbersome statistics, and who would know what percent of young Americans have had a homosexual relationship before a certain age or that “seven percent of French people have made love in the stairwell.” (Henry 2012, p. 83)

Neither Kierkegaard nor Henry would eschew the importance of sociological data for answering specific sorts of questions, but they both, in different ways, resist the idea that the questions generating the need for such data are themselves rooted in objectivist frameworks of meaning—instead, they are rooted in living itself.

It is at this intersection of science and religion, being and becoming, objectivity and subjectivity, faith as commodity and faith as task, that Ada Jaarsma’s new book, Kierkegaard After the Genome, speaks so subtly and yet forcefully. There are several theses for which Jaarsma argues, but I will focus here on three that concern how we should read Kierkegaard, in particular, in the hopes of raising some critical questions that I think Jaarsma’s book might leave a bit too open-ended. I should note that I am sidestepping, perhaps problematically, her claims about Kierkegaard’s relevance to different modes of contemporary identity theory, as well as her specific claims about how Kierkegaard might speak to the literature on science studies. But, since these ideas receive far more attention in her book than do the specific matters of Kierkegaardian exegesis, I am sure that they will be discussed in the other contributions to this symposium. Moreover, I actually find both of these major claims to be quite compelling and the argument for them to have been made with sufficient rigor and lucidity. But, when it comes to the reading of Kierkegaard put forth to support those other claims, I am a bit less convinced.

The three theses that I would like to consider here are the following:

  1. In light of folks like Alfred North Whitehead and Isabel Stengers, Jaarsma explicitly suggests that Kierkegaard should be read as an early process philosopher (see Jaarsma 2017, p. 3)
  2. Following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jaarsma at least seems to contend that, for Kierkegaard, there are no outside criteria for judgments made in the world (see Jaarsma 2017, pp. 2, 189, 196).
  3. Similar to other broadly “new materialist” or “immanentist” readings of Kierkegaard, Jaarsma appears to suggest that Kierkegaard’s conception of the religious is ultimately a matter of “belief in this world,” rather than a matter of escaping this world for someplace else (see Jaarsma 2017, pp.183ff.).

Ultimately, my questions about all three of these claims are simply different versions of the same worry: In presenting Kierkegaard as so close to the process-inspired new materialists, has Jaarsma opened a door to a version of Idolatry whereby Kierkegaard himself goes further than faith insofar as he is no longer oriented toward the prototype of Christ as the kenotic God, but instead toward the notion of material “becoming” as a sort of divine aspect of human existence? I should say that I do not know the answer to this question. No one gets to claim the authoritative reading of any text, but I do think that there are important reasons to take seriously what readings become authorized, as it were, within our professional discursive community. Jaarsma offers a model of Kierkegaard that may end up making him relevant to contemporary debates by making him something other than what he was attempting to become in relation to his own conception of Christian faith as an existential task.

1. Kierkegaard as Process Philosopher?

If by “early process philosopher,” Jaarsma means that Kierkegaard prioritizes relational ontology to a substance ontology, that seems entirely right to me, and quite uncontroversial.2 Indeed, Anti-Climacus makes clear at the beginning of Sickness Unto Death that human beings are relational spirits—defined maximally in relation to the “power that established” them (Kierkegaard 1980, pp. 13–14). Rather than starting as a self-contained monad, selves are persons-in-relation and defined by becoming instead of being. Indeed, much of what Johannes Climacus says about “becoming a self” in the Postscript could be recast as a sustained defense of an underlying process metaphysics underwriting much of Kierkegaard’s authorship. So, in this broad sense, then, Kierkegaard is rightly considered a process philosopher.

However, that Kierkegaard is a defender of relational ontology doesn’t immediately equate to his being closely aligned to the specific formulation of process philosophy presented by Whitehead (or even Stengers). Although there are likely plenty of family resemblances to be found—e.g., and emphasis on dynamism, becoming, development, and embodiment, etc.—there are also important aspects that might be rightly contested in such a connection—especially as concerns the conception of God on offer. For example, Johannes Climacus repeatedly suggests in the Postscript that God is not to be confused with the specific relational framework operative for existing beings (see, e.g., Kierkegaard 1992, p. 162), and so it is difficult to see how he would understand God in the Whiteheadian sense of displaying both primordial and consequent natures (as reflective of the dynamic identity of the interplay among societies of actual occasions).

Although a case might be made, and perhaps should be made, that Kierkegaard understands God in a similarly dynamic way as does Whitehead, there are plenty of places where relational existence is exclusively presented as a matter for human subjectivity and does not extend to God. For example, as Merold Westphal (1991, p. 37) notes, Kierkegaard explicitly claims that while logical systems might be possible, existential systems are not. So, when Climacus says that “existence itself is a system—for God, but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit,” he seems to be positioning God as not relationally defined in the ways that human individuals are (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 118; see also p. 141). Indeed, Climacus explicitly states that “God needs no human being” (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 136), and later suggests that “God is a supreme conception that cannot be explained by anything else but is explainable only by immersing oneself in the conception itself” (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 220). In all of these passages, it seems that, at least for Climacus and probably for Kierkegaard, God is not immanently located within the process of existence in the ways that characterize human existence.

Perhaps most problematic of all for a Whiteheadian analysis of Kierkegaard is Climacus’s explicit challenge to the idea of God understood as in process (albeit in an explicitly Hegelian way that Jaarsma is right to oppose):

In the world-historical process, the dead are not called to life but only to a fantastical-objective life, and in a fantastical sense God is the moving spirit in a process. In the world-historical process, God is metaphysically laced in a half-metaphysical, half-esthetic-dramatic, conventional corset, which is immanence. What a devil of a thing to be God in that way.” (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 156)

Again, I entirely agree with Jaarsma that Kierkegaard offers an underlying relational ontology that is rightly described as a process metaphysics, but I think that there are good textual reasons to think that for Kierkegaard this metaphysics does not extend to God. Instead, it seems to be the case that God’s stability is what allows for meaning to be found for historical individuals awash in the raging seas of existence. Indeed, the frequent metaphor of being suspended over 70,000 fathoms and there finding faith seems to be underwritten by the idea that God is not similarly riding the waves, but instead is the stillness found in the depths.3 As such, Kierkegaard’s process philosophy is likely to be a version importantly distinct from that presented by Whitehead or Stengers.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of the process dimensions in Kierkegaard, but I do think that more argument is needed to read him as so easily integrated with the Whiteheadian approach not only to human existence, but theological truth. As an open theist, myself, I am quite sympathetic to a notion of God as relationally engaged with human existence, but I think we should be careful not to make Kierkegaard a defender of whatever view we happen to think is the right one. Sometimes Kierkegaard speaks most forcefully where we find ourselves at odds with him.

2. No Outside Criteria?

Jaarsma claims that “all criteria are immanent” and cites Deleuze and Guattari as correct about Kierkegaard’s rejection of any transcendent value by which we can “compare different existential modes or approaches to belief against each other” (Jaarsma 2017, p. 189). For Jaarsma, then, “there is no god’s eye view” in Kierkegaard due to the profound perspectivalism defining his account of the world. Here, again, unquestionably Jaarsma is right to suggest that Kierkegaard thoroughly rejects any objectivist standpoint for human knowing—which would be precisely the Hegelian approach so soundly challenged throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship.

However, we must be careful not to confuse this sensible epistemic point with a problematic metaphysical one. I worry that sliding too close to Deleuze and Guattari can flatten out the metaphysical (critical) realism that is so plausibly operative within Kierkegaard’s philosophy. It is one thing to say that all (human) criteria are immanent to human perspectives, but quite another thing to say that there is no god’s eye view, as such. Climacus’s rejection of existential systems is explicitly presented as not applying to God. Said slightly differently, following Merold Westphal (2001) we might say that just because we can’t “peek over God’s shoulder,” that doesn’t mean that there is not a divine shoulder. Our embodied existential and epistemic limitations are not the same thing as metaphysical restrictions on reality. As a challenge to the scientistic objectivism opposed by Henry and Kierkegaard, Jaarsma’s perspectival emphasis here is exactly right. But, as an immanentist critique of the transcendence of God as a metaphysical possibility, it is hard to see (a) how that would be consistent with Kierkegaard’s own generally Lutheran theological commitments, and (b) how this wouldn’t throw us immediately into self-referential incoherence such that one would seemingly need to occupy a god’s eye view to claim definitively that there is no god’s eye view.

The general thrust of Jaarsma’s final chapter on the idea of post-secular scientific inquiry is important and largely right, so far as I am concerned. It goes a long way toward challenging the Objectivist Idolatry toward which so much of the contemporary world is tempted. However, unless we distinguish between the limits of inquiry and the structure of reality, we are likely to fall into the non-sequitur so often found in much of postmodern philosophy: just because we can’t get outside of our perspectives, then there is nothing outside of those perspectives. I do not think that Jaarsma does give in to this non-sequitur, but I do think more clarity about how to distinguish between these epistemological and metaphysical registers would be helpful.

3. Kierkegaard and New Materialism?

The two theses that we have so far considered are both extremely important realizations about Kierkegaard’s work and its relationship to contemporary social existence, religious life, and scientific inquiry. I have only claimed that they both need qualified in order to avoid problematic overextension that would risk undermining what is right about them. Yet, and here I am being admittedly speculative (and Jaarsma might rightly correct me on this point), I think that both of the previous theses are actually underwritten by this third one regarding the connection between Kierkegaard and what we can loosely refer to as “new materialist” approaches to philosophy and theology. Although there is a lot of work yet to be done fully exploring productive points of possible resonance in this direction, I worry that what sometimes happens in much of the literature moving in this direction is that rather than arguing for the truth of new materialism and then drawing on historical figures as relevant to different claims on offer, many of the contemporary defenders of new materialism end up just assuming its truth and then offering revisionist readings of figures through that lens. Oddly, this way of approaching things would be every bit as confessional as was the sort of philosophy and theology rejected by new materialism for not adequately appreciating the embodied and dynamic entailments of materiality.

I entirely agree with Jaarsma that Kierkegaard offers profound resources for “belief in this world,” but such belief must always be read together with Kierkegaard’s eschatological orientation (see Davenport 2008). When we abandon such Christian eschatology as an outmoded remnant of a problematic transcendental metaphysical framework, then we might indeed get closer to the truth (again, I would love to see arguments on this front), but we almost certainly will be getting further from what Kierkegaard presents as the context in which belief in the world avoids merely aesthetic desire fulfillment. Alternatively, when we make the Kierkegaardian religious simply a matter of the messy dynamics of embodied existence, then we threaten to eliminate the mirror of faith that throws us back on ourselves in light of what he takes to be God’s kenotic abundance.

The danger is that we materialize the explicit task of becoming a self as guided by Christ as the prototype to such a degree that it is now merely a matter of participating in an “empiricist conversion” (Jaarsma 2017, p. 188) such that we are no longer committed to conforming our desire to God’s, but instead have renamed “God” as simply a dynamic relationship to our own existence. In this way, Egoistic Idolatry looms large. Alternatively, when we suggest that this new materialistic framework is not a matter of elevating individuals, but instead amounts to an embrace of the interplay of perspectives that then manifests as the interesting truth of the world (truth as inter esse—see Jaarsma 2017, p. 189), we risk giving too much ground to Objectivist Idolatry whereby finding one’s selfhood in God is replaced by finding one’s place in the social exchange of ideas. In either case, and in relation to both modes of Idolatry, Climacus reminds that “God is insulted by obtaining a group of hangers-on, a support staff of good minds, and humankind is vexed because there is not an equal relationship with God for all human beings” (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 227).

We should ask, then, on an immanentist model, what remains of the God-relationship? If we have interpreted Kierkegaard to make him relevant to where we find ourselves, then has this come at the cost of forgetting that, for him, “it is really the God-relationship that makes a human being a human being” (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 244)? It is worth asking: Are Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Stengers, and Jaarsma all talking about the same thing when they use the term “God,” and when they describe the process of existential “becoming?” It is not clear to me that they are and so rather than reading them all as defending a similar notion of religiously articulated material existence, it might be that we should see them as all appreciating something important about materiality but offering different accounts of why it is important.

In conclusion, then, I want to be unambiguous in my praise for Jaarsma’s important work. It has challenged me and inspired me to think differently about Kierkegaard and also my own relationship to the world. In particular, Jaarsma’s book is excellent because it invites us all to engage in the relational dynamics of relational existence. It reminds us of the inescapable fragility of human finitude and the prospects for joy that occur therein. With Jaarsma, I share the hope that the human condition is not something to be overcome, but something to be taken up as a task for selfhood. All of my previous questions are motivated by what I take to be deep agreement with Jaarsma’s intuitions about religious existence in the present age:

  • We are who we are becoming, but we are never becoming anything by ourselves. This is what is right about the process dynamics operative in Jaarsma’s reading of Kierkegaard.
  • Only by caring about evidence-based inquiry can we address the material structures of embodied flourishing. This is what is right about Jaarsma’s emphasis on our (probably) inescapable perspectives and her encouragement to display epistemic and existential humility as a lived manifestation of the kenotic example offered by Kierkegaard’s account of Christ as prototype.
  • Finding ways to overcome the deadening objectivism of scientistic approaches to matter is important for avoiding the barbarism about which Henry worries. This is what is right about Jaarsma’s embrace of new materialist accounts of empiricism as enlivened by the interesting that is life itself.

Despite these important sites of agreement, or perhaps precisely due to them, I am left with another deeply Kierkegaardian question to which I do not have a determinate answer in light of Jaarsma’s book: When have we, in the attempt to be faithful, unwittingly gone further than faith?

Maybe Kierkegaard is wrong about God. Perhaps Stengers is right about materiality. It could be that we should go further than Kierkegaard because we have found Deleuze. All of these things could be true, though I am not sure I have seen the argument for any of them (yet). But, for all of us who try to make Kierkegaard relevant to the contemporary world, we should be constantly diligent to guard against the temptation to make Kierkegaard everything to everyone such that it is no longer clear what it would mean for him to be wrong or right about anything. Ultimately, if Kierkegaard is right, then it seems that our allegiance is essentially to the God who kenotically ruptures our self-sufficiency, not to our preferred philosophical formulations that allow us to be reinforced in our own social complacency (thus allowing faith to remain commodified). It seems entirely possible that in the attempt to be honest about the “religious” dimensions of material becoming, we can end up losing that in relation to which Kierkegaard suggests our becoming is (eschatologically) oriented. Rather than having faith as a “task for a lifetime,” as Silentio says, the danger would be that faith becomes something we have reinterpreted such that we continue to go further than it in our attempt to make it speak to where we are now, instead of allowing ourselves to be ruptured by where it might take us.


Works Cited

Davenport, John J. 2008. “What Kierkegaardian Faith Adds to Alterity Ethics: How Levinas and Derrida Miss the Eschatological Dimension.” In Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion, edited by J. Aaron Simmons and David Wood, 169–96. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Henry, Michel. 2012. Barbarism. Translated by Scott Davidson. London and New York: Continuum.

Jaarsma, Ada S. 2017. Kierkegaard After the Genome: Science, Existence, and Belief in This World. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1991. For Self-Examination / Judge For Yourself! Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1990. Practice in Christianity. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1983. Fear and Trembling / Repetition. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1980. The Sickness Unto Death. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marion, Jean-Luc. 1991. God Without Being. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2017. “Living Joyfully after Losing Social Hope: Kierkegaard and Chrétien on Selfhood and Eschatological Expectation.” Religions 8, no. 33: 1–15.

———. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Brandon Inabinet. Forthcoming. “Retooling the Discourse of Objectivity: Epistemic Postmodernism as Shared Public Life.” Public Culture.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and David Scott. 2017. “How to Recover from Barbarism: Michel Henry and the Future of the Humanities.” Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 28: 1–31.

Westphal, Merold. 2001. Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 1991. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

  1. For my view on how scientism represents a danger to subjectivity and human culture, see Simmons and Inabinet forthcoming; see also Simmons and Scott 2017.

  2. I have argued something similar when I claimed that Kierkegaard presents an “ontology of constitutive responsibility” such that we are all individually situated as in relation to God and the Other (Simmons 2011).

  3. I have argued something in this direction elsewhere, see Simmons 2017.

  • Ada S. Jaarsma

    Ada S. Jaarsma


    Response to J. Aaron Simmons

    In his opening lines, J. Aaron Simmons summons us to return to Kierkegaard, a call that carries with it Kierkegaardian stakes of reading, interpreting and translating one’s interpretations for others. Two recent essays, for example, each written by fiction writers, point to the unsettling nature of reading Kierkegaard’s texts. Siri Hustvedt writes, “Confession: I once threw The Concept of Irony across the room in frustration after I understood that S.K. was being ironic about irony” (2016, 496). And Zadie Smith declares, “If you put Abraham in a novel, a lot of people would throw that novel across the room. What’s his motivation? How can he love his son and yet be prepared to kill him? Abraham is offensive to us. It is by reading and watching consistent people on the page, stage and screen that we are reassured of our own consistency” (2018, 114).

    I am struck by the affinity of these accounts, in which Kierkegaard’s books (his dissertation, in the case of Hustvedt, and a fictional novel that dramatizes Fear and Trembling, in the case of Smith) are thrown across the room by vexed readers. Trouble, they suggest, awaits the reader, although this trouble seems to take varying forms. Parsing the trouble into three sets of challenges, in what follows I respond to Simmons’ lively queries by exploring resonances between our respective interpretations, as well as at least one fault line that propels us in differing philosophical (and perhaps existential) directions.

    The first “trouble” or interpretative challenge has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard’s indirect texts are written, maieutically, to be read by readers. As Hustvedt puts it, “Every book is read one person at a time. The question ‘Who is speaking?’ in the pseudonymous texts is surely mirrored by the question ‘Who is reading?’” (2016, 487). Exactly in these terms, Kierkegaard scholars take up the sense that texts might mirror readers back to themselves, in edifying or discomfiting ways, from Kierkegaard himself (1991, 43–44, as cited by Simmons; see Garff 2004, 59). The metaphor of a mirror is a useful way to draw out the Socratic dimensions of Kierkegaard’s writings. Joseph Westfall’s description seems especially apt, in this context: these texts reflect a “pedagogical perspectivism” (2009, 632) in which the very act of reading is akin to an encounter with Socrates. The invitation to read or reread Kierkegaard, then, prompts an existential reckoning with one’s own method or perspective (see Brugnera 2017, 186; Stokes 2008, 449).

    This Socratic encounter, which might provoke a reader to throw a book across the room, is existential, and for years I’ve been preoccupied by its perspectivist tenor. I first discovered this perspectivist existentialism in a graduate seminar on Kierkegaard at Purdue University. My professor, and subsequent dissertation director, Martin Matuštík told our seminar, with a Kierkegaardian spirit of “earnest jest,”1 that we would likely learn so much about ourselves—and each other—through the course of our seminar conversations precisely because we’d encounter the mirroring of our own concerns in the array of Kierkegaardian texts that we’d be discussing. As mirrors, Socratic texts reflect back our various interests and affective inclinations, disclosing more to each other and ourselves than perhaps we wished. As a formal element, the mirror proffers an encounter to any or every reader, but as a broad existential map (Howland 2017, 107), each either/or that we meet in Kierkegaard’s indirect writings affects each reader singularly.

    As anticipated, during the semester, we’d go around the room and respond to the assigned Kierkegaard of the day. Matuštík’s eyes would light up, and, from time to time, he’d interject existentialist diagnoses into our discussions. “Aha!” he might declare. “Here we have an aesthetic response to the text.” (One classmate would have said something about seduction, flirting or the perils of dating.) In another moment, “Now we have an ethical response to the text!” (A different classmate would have acknowledged a longing for commitment and, in the face of aesthetic silliness, a desire for squared-up, straightened resoluteness. Years later, struck by such moments, I wrote about the straightening impulse of the ethical [Jaarsma 2010]. And every now and then, I make use of this same diagnostic strategy with my own students.)2 The implication of such moments was that there were many Kierkegaards with which to engage, and, along similar lines, many Kierkegaardian readers with whom to converse. To be illuminated as reader qua reader (Allessandri 2015, 283) is, in a Socratic classroom like this one, to be interpellated in turn by other kinds of readers. The perspectival challenge then was to assert ourselves into the flow of incommensurate voices, aligning with or refuting the perspectives of others.3

    Classrooms are saturated, however, with “the siren song of knowledge” (Kangas 2018, 30), and this affects how we live out and diagnose existence-modes. In the book, I explore the extent to which Socratic practices are able to subvert the lures of capitalist siren songs “so that we can begin to imagine things otherwise” (Rubenstein 2012, 69). Socratic practices depend upon indirection: as we saw above in Hustvedt’s exclamation, Kierkegaard is ironic about irony. This means that there’s no overarching or generalizable key by which to interpret the pseudonyms (or polynyms, as Mariana Alessandri suggests we call the troupe of Kierkegaard’s authors [2015, 282]) or navigate the existentialist map of differing perspectives. And once we transpose existence-modes into actual social scenarios, we learn that it is not always simple to identify a given existence-mode. After all, sometimes the knight of faith appears like a bureaucrat or a secret agent (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 197; see Giofkou 2015).

    Moreover, and this is the second “problem” or interpretative challenge, the figure of Socrates does not yield a stable perspective by which to anchor our diagnoses of existence-modes.4 In a passage in which he reflects on earnest jest, Johannes Climacus makes the point that, whereas “direct” communication can never prompt Socratic encounters, Socrates “artistically arranged his entire mode of communication so as to be misunderstood” (1992, 70). Such misunderstanding, he goes on to explain, consists of “double-reflection”: as much comic as there is pathos (1992, 87). This doubling is at play across the pseudonymous writings, as well as within them: in his own text, for example, Climacus makes a note of objecting to “Magister Kierkegaard’s” portrayal of irony in his dissertation (1992, 90). Readers are on the hook, then, for navigating the discrepancies between the pseudonyms.5 And we might find ourselves offended by this task, as Zadie Smith’s reflections on reading Kierkegaard suggest. In the book’s chapter 5, I suggest that our professor’s Socratic stylings were indirect as well, drawing out for each student an either/or that Matuštík himself would refrain from resolving. (Lessons would hail each student to decide: either Kant or Hegel; Habermas or Derrida; aesthete or ethicist. Students would glimpse the stakes of this choice but not the right or authoritative option.)

    Here is where I detect a fault line between Simmons’ approach to reading Kierkegaard and my own. I get the sense, from Simmons’ thoughtful response, that his reading is staked upon a Protestant metaphysics, one in which there is a divine shoulder over which to peek (or at least a divine voice to heed and follow). This metaphysics is likely shared by many readers drawn to Kierkegaard’s texts, given Kierkegaard’s own theological commitments and socio-ethical membership. In this metaphysics, the commensuration between differing perspectives (and the resolution of either/or tensions) is both possible and desirable. In contrast, I am in search of a Kierkegaardian affirmation of the incommensurate, in which there is an “absolute absence of any exterior and superior arbiter,” as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro puts it, and in which ontological differences go all the way down (2015, 9).

    These are two different Kierkegaards, at the end of the day, although there is wonderful conversation to be had between them. (I’m in close dialogue with the Protestant Kierkegaard throughout the book, one that I try to carry out in a spirit of earnest jest, in part by acknowledging that my own perspective was once but is no longer within the fold of Christendom.) Risking overly simple terms, we could mark this fault line as one between “transcendence” and “immanence.” As Daniel Smith points out, while these terms are often over-determined in the context of philosophy, they can also be helpful insofar as they prompt questions about the relative trajectories of philosophical methods or projects: “Immanent to what? Or transcendent to what?” (2003, 46). The book’s title, Kierkegaard after the Genome, specifies that I am reading Kierkegaard as immanent to a specific context, one that is after the Human Genome Project and its resultant, some say revolutionary, challenges to determinist, racializing science. And I hear Simmons’ interpretative mode as one attuned to what transcends the realm of human life: the power that established us, as Anti-Climacus puts it (1980, 14).

    The third “problem” concerns the status of the religious. This, after all, is what Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, from varying perspectives, presume to be the most intensive or impassioned mode of existence. It seems crucial to me, given my own perspective, that this remains an open question: what is a religious critique of religion? Simmons and I both appreciate the fact that, the more we learn about existence-modes, the more we realize that there can be dissembling even when it comes to signs or symbols of religiousness. (As Simmons puts it, vocabulary like “Christian” and “faith” might reflect investments in a “soul portfolio” rather than the qualities and relational dynamics of religious existence.) But I want to heed the cues of decolonial thinkers like Sylvia Wynter and affirm a mode of existence that is neither secularizing (“de-godding,” as Wynter puts it) nor Protestant (aligned with the colonial imperatives of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its logic of finance capital). What would this mean in more positive terms?

    David Kangas’ posthumous and beautiful book Errant Affirmations turns to Kierkegaard’s “religious” discourses, those written directly (rather than indirectly), and lays out a different encounter for readers than the Socratic. Kangas explains that the religious discourses “transcendentalize” the self’s relationship to time, raising what Kangas calls a “‘transcendental’ problematic” (2017, 52–53). Faith, on this account, is a relationship to time, rather than a representation of what is or should be expected in the future: as such, faith is a modality not of representation, but of action (2017, 23). In terms of their ontological import, the religious discourses proffer us as readers an encounter with two forcefields: the radical contingency of the world, in which everything can change, and the very incapability of ourselves which we cannot even or ever truly grasp. “There is an incapability of incapability,” Kangas writes (2017, 76). And continues, “Encountering one’s own incapability is itself encountering God; it is not a prelude to such an encounter, it is the encounter” (2017, 77). I hear, here, an invitation to situate religious existence in the very interval or equivocation of the either/or: the encounter with the transcendental (not transcendent) conditions of selfhood itself. For me, as a reader, this implicates me in a long, likely unending, journey of wrestling with the colonial legacies and ongoing violent logics of Protestant Christendom, as well as with the material import of perspective itself.

    And I wonder if it also opens up an edifying either/or between Simmons’ approach to Kierkegaard and my own. We are unable to invite Kangas to participate in such a conversation, although I keep imagining how such an encounter might proceed. (I suspect that Kangas might query Simmons’ metaphysical commitments, while also querying my interest in Deleuzian ontologies.) What we can do, however, is continue to read—to read each other’s interpretations, to read Kangas’ work, and to keep reading Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous and direct writings, either heeding the voice from beyond, as Simmons argues, or hearkening to equivocation itself.

    This latter choice, from my perspective, proffers an edifying encounter with Kierkegaard’s texts that points us beyond the Socratic, albeit more in the vein of Climacus’ account of the religious than that of Anti-Climacus. And so, if prompted to be more transparent about my own readerly affiliations, I would align my preoccupations with those of Climacus. Climacus invites the reader to become attuned to the limits of the mirror: to relate to the teacher’s strategies and design-choices as immanent to particular contexts, classrooms and scenarios. The portrait of our Kierkegaard professor, described above, is an example of this mode of relating. I am more and more convinced that it is students who are able to capture the stylings of pedagogues, through portraits or other creative expressions.6 And while many may pause at my suggestion that this is itself a kind of religious practice, I am beginning to relate to the interplay between teachers and students as one that holds “religious” import. This may not yield the communion of the saints that Protestant readers of Kierkegaard will hope for. But it may well proffer an edifying provocation by students qua readers, one that renders recognizable the activities of teachers, as well as, perhaps, the incapability of any of us to resolve the existential either/or.


    Works Cited

    Alessandra, Mariana. 2015. “William Afham: The Line by Which an Ape May Become an Apostle.” In Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms, edited by Katalin Nun and Jon Stewart, 281–302. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

    Brugnera, Marieke. 2017. “De te fabula narrator: A Re-active Interplay with Kierkegaard’s Authorship.” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 1: 175–208.

    Conway, Daniel. 2017. “Disclosing Despair: The Role of the Pseudonyms in Kierkegaard’s Existential Approach.” In Kierkegaard’s Existential Approach, edited by Arne Grøn, René Rosfort and K. Brian Söderquist, 131–52. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Eyers, Tom. 2017. Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory and the Critical Present. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

    Garff, Joakim. 2004. “The Esthetic Is Above All My Element.” In The New Kierkegaard, edited by Elsebet Jegstrup, 59–70. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Giofkou, Daphne. 2015. “The Writer as an Acrobat: Deleuze and Guattari on the Relation between Philosophy and Literature (and how Kierkegaard Moves in-between).” Transnational Literature 7(2).

    Howland, Jacob. 2006. Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Hustvedt, Siri. 2016. “Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Truths of Fiction.” In A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Jaarsma, Ada S. 2010. “Queering Kierkegaard: Sin, Sex and Critical Theory.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 10(3): 64–89.

    Kangas, David J. 2018. Errant Affirmations: On the Philosophical Meaning of Kierkegaard’s Religious Discourses. New York: Bloomsbury.

    Kemp, Ryan. 2017. “‘A’ the Aesthete: Aestheticism and the Limits of Philosophy.” In Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms, edited by Katalin Nun and Jon Stewart, 1–26. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

    Kierkegaard, Søren. 1980. [Anti-Climacus] The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    ———. 1983. [Johannes de Silentio] Fear and Trembling. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    ———. 1990. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    ———. 1991. [Anti-Climacus] Practice in Christianity. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    ———. 1992. [Johannes Climacus] The Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Vol. 1. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Lappano, David. 2017. Kierkegaard’s Theology of Encounter: An Edifying and Polemical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Matuštík, Martin B. 2009. “Becoming Human, Becoming Sober.” Continental Philosophy Review 42: 249–74.

    Poole, Roger. 1993. Kierkegaard: The Indirect Communication. London: University Press of Virginia.

    Smith, Daniel W. 2003. “Deleuze and Derrida, Immanence and Transcendence: Two Directions in Recent French Thought.” In Between Deleuze and Derrida, edited by Paul Patton and John Protevi, 46–67. New York: Bloomsbury.

    Stokes, Patrick. 2008. “‘Interest’ in Kierkegaard’s Structure of Consciousness.” International Philosophical Quarterly 48(4): 437–58.

    Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. 2012. “The Twilight of the Doxai: Or, How to Philosophize with a Whac-A-Mole Mallet.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24: 64–70.

    Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2015. “Who Is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf? Some Comments on an Ongoing Anthropological Debate.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33(1): 2–17.

    Westfall, Joseph. 2009. “Ironic Midwives: Socratic Maieutics in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 35(6): 627–48.

    1. Kierkegaard advises us not to forget that “in the midst of life’s earnestness there really is and ought to be time to jest” and that “this thought, too, is an upbuilding observation” (1990, 253). See Matuštík (2009) for an account of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms as Socratic earnest jesters.

    2. Take Silentio’s proffered interpretative choice to the reader of Fear and Trembling: either Abraham is a murderer or a knight of faith (1983, 30, 55, 66). This either/or is available only to perspectives that relate to the ethical as limited (as normalizing, rather than normal). This seems to me like one of Kierkegaard’s tremendous contributions: that one can relate relatively to the relative, when “the ethical” or the socio-ethical codes and mores of one’s community, is experienced as finite, fallible and contingent.

    3. I enjoy methods that foreground such perspectival challenges. In a recent reading of Either/Or, for example, Ryan Kemp suggests an interpretation in which the aesthete gets the final word, rather than the ethicist, explaining that the aesthete “does not have a reason to be ethical unless he also has an antecedent interest in being ethical” (2017, 3). There are transcendental (not transcendent) conditions, in other words, that are particular to each existence-mode or perspective. When Simmons writes that, in Kierkegaard after the Genome, “there are no outside criteria for judgments made in the world,” this is what “no outside criteria” is referring to: the entirely immanent values and modes of valuation expressed by different pseudonyms.

    4. For this reason, there can be no ultimate “heresy of the paraphrase” when it comes to the depiction of Socrates in Kierkegaard’s texts (Poole 1993, 47; see also Howland 2006, 214).

    5. In a recent interpretation of Fear and Trembling, for example, Daniel Conway marks the incommensurability between two pseudonyms: “What Anti-Climacus would diagnose in Johannes as his defiance is understood by Johannes as quasi-heroic resignation” (2017, 147). Conway navigates this tension by enjoining Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard’s most religious pseudonym, to judge Silentio. Like Socrates, Conway explains, Silentio deploys satire in order to awaken his readers from quietism or overly conforming social habits. But Silentio also manifests despair himself, evincing the throes of the very crises he is hoping to spark in his readers (2017, 133–34, 144). And so, on this basis, Anti-Climacus would diagnose Silentio as “in despair to will be [himself]” (1980, 67; cited 2017, 142).

    6. For more examples of this kind of “portraiture,” see the audio essay, “Tomatoes in the Classroom,” that I produced, based on chapter 5 in Kierkegaard after the Genome:

    • J. Aaron Simmons

      J. Aaron Simmons


      A Rejoinder to Ada Jaarsma

      I am very appreciative that Ada Jaarsma has taken the time to respond to my engagement with her new book with such care and critical attention. I offer this rejoinder in the spirit of continuing the conversation. Indeed, this is a conversation well worth continuing since it hits on much more than a disagreement about Kierkegaard, but rather touches on what I take to be a tension that is operating within much of Continental philosophy of religion at present. I remain unsure of whether this tension will prove to be productive.

      The tension is between those who think that any discourse that would leave open the possibility that something like theism is true is ultimately a manifestation of some sort of ideological blindness (a failure to own up to the critical insights of post-structuralist conceptions of the legacies of imperialism), and those who think that even taking seriously such critical insights does not count either in favor or against the truth of any particular theological view. Without wanting to attribute too much intention to Jaarsma, I think that this tension is at least potentially illustrated when she suggests that my reading of Kierkegaard is “staked upon a Protestant metaphysics” that specifically assumes that there is “a divine shoulder over which to peek.” As a way of trying to get at the possible stakes of the tension I am trying to highlight, let me work through her suggestion here by offering four ways in which it strikes me as odd:

      First, it seems odd that such a classical theistic metaphysical conception would be specifically Protestant—surely Catholics, Orthodox, and even non-Christian monotheistic traditions would allow room for such a few. Moreover, Protestantism might itself be too multifaceted even to be able to bear such a stabilizing description – e.g., “theism” is a contested category such that some of the most stringent critics of “classical” theism are other sorts of theists.

      Second, it seems odd to suggest that what Jaarsma names as “Protestant metaphysics” is simply one way of reading Kierkegaard, rather than something of a default hermeneutic for reading his work in light of what would have been the theological framework internal to which Kierkegaard’s approach to the task of “becoming a Christian” is situated as a critical engagement with Danish Hegelianism within his own broadly pietistic Lutheran inheritance.

      Third, as I specifically note in my essay, I do not think that we can “peek over” God’s shoulder. When I draw on Merold Westphal for this phrase, it is not a metaphysical claim about the existence of such a divine shoulder, but rather an epistemic/hermeneutic claim about our location within embodied social histories in relation to whatever we take to be true of God. The point is that all theologies (or metaphysical views) are themselves affirmed from perspectival positions within existence.

      Fourth, and I think that this is where the tension regarding theism as a philosophical option starts to show up, notice that Jaarsma later presents “Protestant” as a category/identity that is fundamentally “aligned with the colonial imperatives of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its logic of finance capital.” Yet, on this reading, which certainly has deep historical merit, the view to which Jaarsma is objecting is not a matter of metaphysical implausibility, but rather of an incompatibility with a particular socio-political account of “religion” as a category of intellectual study. That said, I am deeply sympathetic to Jaarsma’s call to be critically attentive to the way in which “religion” functions historically and also in the contemporary world as a discursive tool in a complicated narrative of power (usually unfolding according to racial, gendered, and economic logics). Nonetheless, that theism might be true is a philosophical possibility independent of all such social histories. To suggest otherwise would be to allow a genetic fallacy to lie at the root of the practice of philosophy of religion.

      In this way, part of what worries me about the broad tradition of “new materialism” is that many working in that general direction tend to be all too quick in their rejection of “theism” (without distinguishing between its numerous varieties) as simply no longer a viable option in a postmodern world. Yet, as I tried to suggest in my essay, often what one finds are not actual objections to theism (like one would find in the work of atheistic philosophers such as Paul Draper, John Schellenberg, Patricia Churchland, Susan Haack, or Scott Aikin), but instead more of a political discourse whereby the subject seems to have been changed. I consider this unfortunate precisely because new materialism might itself be true and, if it is, then good arguments should be presented in its favor. Yet, defending new materialism via easy dismissals of theism as simply an outmoded embrace of the legacies of patriarchy and white supremacy, even if important at the level of sociology and moral communities, is problematic because such dismissals are not yet objections to the metaphysical claims propounded by particular versions of theism. It is worth pausing to ask whether some varieties of theism are actually compatible with some versions of new materialism. Unfortunately, such questions are rarely asked due to the operative political assumptions and hermeneutic starting points already in play in both directions (i.e., few theists are doing careful enough work thinking through what sorts of materialisms might stand as resources for their own religious traditions). This specific point can be expanded a bit more broadly: Even the more general postmodern suggestions that we must abandon metaphysics, or search for a God “after metaphysics,” are themselves rarely directly engaging with what counts as metaphysics within mainstream philosophical debates, but instead merely rejections of a very particular (and often facile) conception of philosophical practice that stands largely independent of one’s view of transcendence, immanence, or God.

      In the end, I think that I am much closer to Jaarsma than she might think when it comes to my own critical view of the social functioning of much of Protestant religious traditions. Moreover, I am convinced that “classical” theism has significant problems that must be addressed by any of its defenders—again, I am an open theist because I find the problems with classical theism to be so substantive. Similarly, I am a postmodernist due to my commitments to the inescapability of embodiment for hermeneutic decision and epistemic practice—commitments that I take Jaarsma to share. In fact, nothing about my reading of Kierkegaard, specifically, entails a rejection of Jaarsma’s search for a “Kierkegaardian affirmation of the incommensurate . . . in which ontological differences go all the way down.” Indeed, I actually think that there are lots of “Kierkegaardian” approaches to all sorts of traditional questions that impressively unseat us from our theological assumptions, our cultural complacency, and our appeals to stable authorities. But, thinking carefully about the different possibilities opened by following the thread of immanence as opposed to that of transcendence is potentially consistent with a whole host of metaphysical alternatives (theism, in all its varieties, among them).

      My general point in my original essay is simply that I haven’t seen arguments (yet) that persuade me that such a search would be Kierkegaard’s. My broader point here in this rejoinder is that regardless of how we read Kierkegaard, we should be philosophically attentive to the ways in which some views are often assumed to function in ways that they simply do not, and that lots of views might be true regardless of the social history in which those views have developed. Being historically aware, hermeneutically responsible, and argumentatively attentive does not mean that we don’t reject a variety of views, but simply that we do so for reasons that speak to the falsity of the view, not the sources of the view’s origin. Accordingly, I don’t see the tension between Jaarsma and me ultimately to be a matter of the either/or of transcendence/immanence, but instead to be a matter of how we understand philosophical debate to work as concerns the task of truth-seeking in philosophy of religion.

      As an analogy, if all philosophy is political, then we dangerously restrict the reasons for thinking that political philosophy is worthwhile. In other words, political discourse matters because meaning, value, dignity, and identity matter regardless of our political situation. Even if these ideas are never entirely able to be disconnected from the histories in which they have developed as social conceptions, only if they are not simply products of our social discourse can we see that there are moral stakes between the competing social descriptions. Our descriptions are not merely of descriptive import, but also always carry normative weight.

      When we take stock of such methodological issues, I think we enliven the specific questions of transcendence/immanence in ways that refuse to allow an absolute either/or, but instead invite a dynamic and complicated range of overlapping and yet critically distinct alternatives for religious (and political) belief, action, and identity.

      I want to close simply by echoing Jaarsma’s point about the importance of teachers and the dynamic interaction that they have with their students as something of a performative instantiation of Kierkegaard’s own hermeneutically opaque approach to philosophy.

      I learned Kierkegaard from David Kangas, who Jaarsma cites as one of her own mentors in the field. Even if Kangas had not written such powerfully evocative, argumentatively clear, and textually rigorous books, the fact that Jaarsma and I can both claim him as an inspiration for our own thinking on each side of the transcendent/immanent, or theism as outmoded/theism as philosophical option, tension is itself a revealing testament to his impressive legacy. As with Kierkegaard, Kangas does not allow for complacency in his readers—and he certainly didn’t allow for it among his students! Ada and I have privately discussed with each other how David’s life and work has impacted us (both personally and professionally), and as I see it, this continued robust conversation remains something of an engagement with him. In this way, perhaps the best “either/or” dichotomies occur within those already in the same family. It is an honor to think with Ada and I consider her excellent work to be an honor to David.

Ann Burlein


Opening the Equivocal “How”

Responding to Ada Jaarsma’s Kierkegaard after the Genome

How can we resist empirical facts?

Spoken from one perspective, this utterance re-intones the hegemony of modern science as unquestionable. Its skepticism (or even its despair) renders the question-form rhetorical: the little word “how” simulates a question to shut further questioning down. From this perspective, believing in this world manifests as the serenity prayer: Facts are given; they are neither hate nor judge; facts do not mean anything, they just are—our task is to accept what we cannot change. In this view, consolation is the best that believing in the world can do: helping people to turn away from torment by refusing questions of meaning so as to become serene in their suffering. At worst, this way of relating belief and science functions as Marx’s opiate, helping people bear whatever suffering inexplicably comes their way.

But this little word “how” can be spoken differently, inhabited by a different voice. Said with passion by disability scholar Melanie Yergeau, this utterance can voice and embody a true question, one which opens us to action. How can we resist empirical facts? Let me count the ways! And more than count: invent! From a different perspective, the little word “how” can help us resist what Jaarsma beautifully analyzes as our tendency to over-inscribe the necessary onto the shifting dynamics of the given (4). “I invoke Kierkegaard as an ally,” Jaarsma writes, “. . . taking up his claim that existence is always an interplay between ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’” (4).

How to raise questions of perspective; how to insert voice and passion; how to mean words and facts differently—this little how is the beating heart of Jaarsma’s book. In the contemporary world, medicine is one of the primary ways that people in democratic countries are governed. Post-genomic medical science poses questions for our lives that, if we are not simply to be docilely governed by empirical facts and the medical-industrial complex that produces them, are properly existential questions. “Already in the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard explains that concepts like freedom and subjectivity are jeopardized by the scientific representations and timelines of the modern ‘present age,’” Jaarsma writes (26). For us today, “evolution is an existential matter, replete with existential anxiety about how to place ourselves in time and how to navigate our own ‘becomings’ as temporal, embodied creatures” (28). On one level, this is obvious—but the shock of Jaarsma’s title makes all too clear the boundary work that has so effectively kept these discursive worlds apart. (And I take this boundary work to be about more than rejecting vulgar forms of existentialism that run roughshod over the complexity of the Kierkegaardian or Sartrean subject.) After reading Jaarsma’s book, it seems incredible that scholars in science studies have not drawn more openly and extensively upon the resources of existentialism and particularly upon Kierkegaard’s profound reflections on the multiform manifestations of despair. I take that as the sign of success: upon closing Jaarsma’s book, one cannot think about the anthropology of postgenomic medicine in quite the same way as when opening it.

How we belong to facts, to this world, to concrete situations—can differ and does matter. A great reader of Kierkegaard, Foucault called this “the mode of subjectivation”; he argued that spirituality arises in the ethical spaces opened by the “how”: in the various ways that people relate to a norm, a given, an empirical fact, a situation. Raising the question of “How?” can disrupt our usual ways of being governed by inserting spaces of equivocation: not necessarily rejecting science out of hand and tout court, but relating to its evidence differently. After all, seen through this Kierkegaardian lens, we are always already relating to facts, either choosing our mode of subjectivation . . . or choosing not to choose.

I like this call to attend to the spaces of equivocation that open in a quantitative world when we insert the qualitative questions broached in the activity of asking “How?” But this call is also what I struggled with most in Jaarsma’s book. What follows are two issues, one being a question of clarification that I suspect comes from my lack of expertise in Kierkegaard studies, and one being a question of method.

The question of clarification arises from the Kierkegaardian frame of either/or, which Jaarsma tends to read through the postmodern “magic of the verge.”1 This either/or is how Jaarsma warrants Kierkegaard’s belief in the world and his hope in stories (198, 88): a gap can always be opened between knowledge and existence. We can always turn and notice how we belong to empirical facts and to knowledge; how we inhabit the particular practices that engender them; and thus we can always turn and notice what we, and the world, are becoming as a result of how we relate to our knowledge. This means that the magic of the verge is always accessible. “In Kierkegaard’s terms, leveling is pervasive but it is not all-encompassing (there is a gap between existence and knowledge). Kierkegaard insists that there is always a possibility that religious existence emerges from within the depopulated and enervated contexts of levelling” (204). I like this—but I struggled with the apparent absoluteness of its seeming voluntarism: the magic of the verge is always accessible—if we want it. Either science cultivates indifference—or it is enlivened by interest and thus enlivening. Either we commensurate differences—or we reject the task of finding a common ground in favor of equivocating and leaping (181). Either we converge or we diverge, opening up “the interval between incommensurates . . . [as] the site of religious becoming” (183). “Either the interesting aligns with the lures of levelling, or it leaps into the religious. Ether it reflects the already set, or it sparks new expressions of becoming. Either it is tautological or it is creative. . . . Either the world is one of matter, or the world is one of materiality. In the case of the first option, matter is what can be rendered into impartial observations by observers. This reflects a belated act of deanimation. . . . [Or,] in the case of the second [option], materiality is a risky, problematic and beautiful inter-capture . . .” (191).

This dichotomous either/or stumped me again and again. While the thrust of Kierkegaard’s either/or is to generate sparks of possibility and becoming amid despair, spiritlessness, indifference and levelling . . . as a non-expert in Kierkegaard I did not know how to navigate the absolute and judgmental distinction of “you are either choosing or choosing not to choose.” How does Kierkegaard put together the call to attend to interstices with the torrent of absolute sounding either/or’s which condition this attention? Kierkegaard knew well that most of the time we are both choosing and not-choosing; we are both alive and dead, reflecting the already set and flexing our haunches to leap. Jaarsma notes that her version of existentialism is dedicated to developing “an entangled, emergent understanding of freedom (27, n, 8)—one that is resonant with poststructuralist critiques of existentialism which insist that humans are never thoroughly and absolutely free in every act but rather (as Elizabeth Grosz puts it) that ‘all living beings exhibit degrees of freedom’” (cited 27n8). So far so good. But then I read this: “We might think, for example, of Hannah Arendt’s insistence that there is a difference between those who coast through life, incapable of judging themselves in relation to their situations, and those who participate in a habit of “living together explicitly with oneself,” engaged in a silent dialogue of self with self” (8). I find it impossible to believe in that difference for even a moment. Or perhaps more honestly, I find it imperative not to believe in it. This knife edge of hope is often the moment when I stop reading existentialism, because I do not know what to do with the seductions of these kinds of distinctions between those who truly choose and the sub-man (as Beauvoir puts it in her Ethics of Ambiguity). I have learned the hard way to be suspicious of my own self-congratulatory tendencies to assume that, of course, I am (or will be) in the camp of those who are not coasting through life. How does Jaarsma recommend we negotiate the absolute and dichotomous rhetoric of the magic of the verge with attention to degrees of freedom?

This brings me to questions of method and design. I take Jaarsma’s point that one of her “aspirations in this book is to ‘do’ something with Kierkegaard: to take him at his existentialist word and mobilize his project for real-life sites, activities and problems. . . . I have sought to provide an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Is there a point to reading Kierkegaard if you are not a Christian?’” (214–15). Whenever I teach Kierkegaard in our senior seminar on “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion” the latter question always comes up and infallibly brings students’ engagement to a standstill because most of them are not going to convert to Christianity. So, I am delighted that I now have another answer.

Answering this question leads Jaarsma to find and invent “a range of beautiful resonances” (214): in science studies, disability studies, as well as queer and critical trace theory. Often the method seems to be one of Kierkegaard spotting. Bruno Latour uses “strikingly Kierkegaardian terms” (6) and makes “essentially Kierkegaardian insights” (97). Connolly makes claims that sound very Kierkegaardian (37). Things get cast “in Kierkegaardian terms” (130, 191). The result, at times, can feel like an academic version of the children’s book Where’s Waldo?—trying to find the figure of Kierkegaard amid a welter of details and interdisciplinary arguments that can only be foreign to him. While I acknowledge that Jaarsma’s intent is not to commensurate or level (214–15), I nevertheless found the design frustrating at times because of the questions it blocked: it felt as if the author was weaving a very complicated tapestry with many threads—or, to change metaphors, building a machine with a lot of moving parts—the point of which was not the complexity but spotting Kierkegaard. This was frustrating, not because I disagree with the attempt, but because I wanted MORE Kierkegaard.

Thus I look forward to reading more such striking juxtapositions that build on Jaarsma’s effort to show how Kierkegaard resonates with contemporary issues in various fields in order to investigate how Kierkegaard can help transform those issues. For example, a primary issue that Jaarsma’s book raised for me is a desire for a more sustained Kierkegaardian analysis of the modes of existence involved in hope. Stephen Jay Gould’s account of refusing to fall prey to the misplaced concreteness by which we mistake the statistical median life expectancy of individuals with his kind of cancer for the reality of what would happen to him—and thus living significantly longer—is moving. But I found myself quite unconvinced and unmoved by Jaarsma’s suggestion that we locate existentialist hope in the activity of placebos. As I have indicated, I take my lack of persuasion to be a sign of Jaarsma’s success, because I wanted more Kierkegaard, not less! As indicated by Jaarsma’s discussion of the curative imaginary critiqued by disability studies in a later chapter, hope in medical situations is deeply paradoxical. Like love, hope is by no means an unqualified good. Sometimes hope is what we are sold, as a way to keep us engaged with the medical-industrial complex. Sometimes hope is what we need to resist. How can we differentiate between hope that enlivens and hope that masks despair? This question is complicated by the fact that hope is raced. I as a white person fear being sold false hope as a way to entangle me and my loved ones further into the medical system—but if you come from a community whose lives have been systematically declared not worth saving, you might well have a different relation to hope. Nothing of what I have just written is foreign to Jaarsma’s analysis. To the contrary, her book has suggested to me that there are resources in Kierkegaard’s meditations on the necessity of despair that can help formulate ways of navigating the raced thicket of hope. That is why I raise this as a question of method: the case study on placebo was the least convincing of the case studies to me largely because intensifying relations of hope (92) seems merely to reiterate the conundrum. We need forms of hope that are on intimate terms with despair, and Jaarsma has convinced me that reading Kierkegaard can help with that. But the either/or frame, coupled with the evaluative space of “enlivening or deadening” cuts off the more sustained engagement with how to use Kierkegaard’s meditations on the necessity of despair and the imperative of belief in this world.

Another way to put this is that one of the issues that Jaarsma’s book has made pointed for me is the necessity to believe in the world and at other times not to believe in it. And I do not think this ambiguity is parsed well by Jaarsma’s frame of “either deadening or enlivening.” As I just suggested, the issues go beyond the absoluteness of either/or. Much of the science studies scholarship on which Jaarsma draws is influenced by Deleuze. Deleuze was a vitalist (admittedly of a complex kind). I am a scholar of Foucault, who spent his life thinking about death. I have learned from Foucault to be suspicious of forms of affect that incite me to enlivening projects of self-relation. Much like Yergeau’s and Jaarsma’s project of resisting empirical facts, Foucault, too, thought it was imperative to resist science—not to resist bad science or pseudo-science or even the ways that culture limits what science can think to examine—Foucault thought it was imperative to resist science insofar as it is true. But Foucault’s primary “conversion” (at least according to his friend and colleague Paul Veyne) was to Blanchot’s elucidation of “the impossible” as it lurks within life and language. Hence his investment in “writing to have no face,” in forms of neutrality and impersonality that Foucault (drawing on Blanchot) sought to pose against the impersonality and neutrality of science. I do not see Jaarsma’s Kierkegaardian appeal to the magic of the verge and Foucault’s insistence on confronting the impossible as contradictory: to the contrary! But because her methodological project comes to focus so much on finding belief and warranting hope, I am left musing about the appeal of these very different ways to a similar endpoint of resistance and recalcitrance, both of which are in Kierkegaard. And wondering what their different emphases might mean given that the way is not the same when journeyed from a different direction.


  1. Jaarsma, 210. The phrase “magic of the verge” comes from Manning 2015, 208.

  • Ada S. Jaarsma

    Ada S. Jaarsma


    Response to Ann Burlein

    “This little how is the beating heart of Jaarsma’s book.” Exactly as Ann Burlein writes, it is “the how” that preoccupies this book (and appeared for a time in its working title, The How of Existence). This phrase runs throughout Kierkegaard’s texts, and it is a way to get at the materialist dimensions of what existentialists call “becoming,” something that is hard to make sense of and even harder to capture in writing since it runs up against prevailing assumptions about both existentialist philosophy and the nature of development. I turn to feminist materialist and science studies scholars, in the book, for grammar by which to specify the “how” of existence.

    Consider, for example, this phrasing by Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein: “We happen in our mattering” (2017, 1). As this phrase suggests, there is a verbing to existence, a mattering to the dynamics of becoming. Kierkegaard after the Genome is a book-length study of the existentialist import of such claims. We, as bundled sets of relations to our situations, to others and to the very mattering by which we become selves, are better understood as events than as discrete or bounded entities. In Sylvia Wynter’s words, being human “is no longer a noun. Being human is a praxis” (2015, 23, italics in original).

    This means that existence, as my favourite Kierkegaardian pseudonym Johannes Climacus puts it, is communication. Kierkegaard crafted a whole taxonomy of pseudonymous authors, each with their own existence-modes, as a way to do justice to the huge array of styles by which the praxis of becoming takes place. But it is no small task to heed the communication of existence. Especially because there is no extracting ourselves from the praxis or flows of becoming.

    One way to make sense of the dissonance between Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms is to take “the how” as a guiding motif of Kierkegaard’s indirect writings: to attend to the stories or perspectives, expressed variously by the aesthetes, ethicists, Socratic pedagogues and religious believers, and work with the twofold claim that there is no what without the how, and, more significantly, the what is inextricable from the how. There is no surveying any “absolute good,” apart from embodied modes or storied movements of existence (Kierkegaard 1992, 427), which means that, while the different existence modes map out the movements of becoming, there is no map of maps available.

    But if there is no external vantage point from which to observe and judge, Burlein asks, “How can we differentiate between hope that enlivens and hope that masks despair?” Recasting this question somewhat, we might ask: what are the conditions of possibility for the kind of existential event in which despair shows itself, as such? Given that this book is written, in part, in search for a warrant for Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that Kierkegaard’s texts (in particular, Fear and Trembling) might prompt new modes of existence (1994, 74), this recasting lets us consider what might be a Deleuze-inflected way to think through Burlein’s query.

    In what follows, I lay out four responses to this question. The first three are simple clarifications about my own interpretative commitments in relation to Kierkegaard’s indirect writings. The fourth is more open-ended, proffering a way to bring Deleuze more explicitly into the conversation, in part by heeding Burlein’s own work on Deleuze and the material dynamics of development.

    First, it’s important, on my account, to clarify that the either/or that marks an existential event is essentially perspectival. The either/or opens up a disjunction between two incommensurate options, either this or that, an interval that is available solely by way of the attunement of perspective. For example, Kierkegaardian pseudonyms dramatize their own existence-mode and, in so doing, relate to the either/or each from their own variously-attuned perspectives. (I explore the significance of this point in my response to J. Aaron Simmons; if each pseudonym stages particular relations to the either/or, then it matters, essentially, which pseudonym we are reading when we wrestle with the locus of hope or despair.)

    I want to maintain, in other words, that while the either/or is formal, logically speaking, its formal disjunction is accessible only from situated vantage points. I am using the term “formal” here along the lines proposed by Tom Eyers (2017): form can be repeated across different contexts, because it is indifferent to content (the either/or is an iterable form), and it gives rise to a creative impasse for readers, since there is no totalizing formalization available, no map of maps by which to subsume the existentialist project in its entirety (there is no beyond the either/or).1 Creative impasse, the phrase that Eyers proposes for the kind of wrestling that emerges out of formalization, is a lovely way to refer to the “leap” that awaits the reader of Kierkegaard’s texts.2

    The second clarification follows from the first. The either/or which occasions the leap or creative impasse is equivocal, such that the or is not accessible to the either. As Deleuze puts it, referring to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, “the alternative is not between terms but between the modes of existence of the one who chooses” (1986, 114–16). While the either/or marks transcendental conditions for the leap, the way is not the same in both directions. The ethicist speaks to the aesthete, for example, but the aesthete cannot understand, let alone truly respond to, the question. Come to the place where the choice between good and evil acquires meaning for you, entreats the ethicist. Do not ask me for reasons—I cannot be bored, responds the aesthete. The way is not the same in both directions. This phrase is one that appears frequently in the ethnographic work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2014), and it draws attention to the interplay between the grooved tendencies of one’s situation (marked by the “either”) and the leap into creative, new trajectories (marked by the “or”). Returning to Burlein’s query, the hope that enlivens is not available to the hope that masks despair. More precisely, the problem by which this either/or emerges is only available to the despair that yields to, or opens up to the yielding of, recognizing despair. Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms demonstrate that this is no neutral event but rather marks qualitatively dramatic movements in existence. (The more despair, the more faith, as Anti-Climacus puts it.) In the book, I suggest that this account provides resources for addressing phenomena like white fragility, an all-too-common expression of despair that does not recognize itself as such.

    To use a key verb from Burlein’s response, the event emerges when the self is moved by the either/or. But what does it mean to be moved, existentially speaking? The third clarification takes on this question, which hinges upon the difference between a voluntarist account of “movement” or “choice” and a non-voluntarist, perspectival account. It seems useful to note an aversion towards existentialist philosophy, acknowledged by Burlein and shared by thinkers like Bruno Latour and Elizabeth Grosz who lay out individualist and voluntarist renditions of existentialism and, of course, reject the version of freedom that they identify there (Latour 2005, 233; Grosz 2013, 226). I note in the book that these accounts tend to refer to Sartre, not Kierkegaard, and they miss the entangled nature of becoming that resonates directly with materialist methods (2017, 27). The pervasiveness of this unlikable existentialism may help explain why Kierkegaard is so underutilized in contemporary social theory. (This palpable absence of Kierkegaard may also explain some of my own tendencies. When I first read Burlein’s deft diagnosis of my method, in which I seemed to be enacting a kind of Kierkegaard-spotting, I laughed with recognition and have mused about it ever since. Perhaps this is a symptom of the absence of Kierkegaardian concepts in current conversations, a way to declare: Look, there he is!)

    There is a way to understand “freedom” in non-voluntarist terms. Susan Merrill Squier reflects this understanding with this declaration: “development is the beauty of freedom, not fixity” (2016, 75). There is a flux to embodied perspectives, such that the either/or emerges in the context of “the stubborn and unexpected world,” as Conrad Waddington puts it (cited in Squier 2016, 54).3 On this account, freedom and necessity are not a binary; rather, freedom is intimately organized with necessity (see Pearson 2005, 1113). One cannot voluntarily inhabit another existence-mode, as if one could select from and then partake of an existentialist menu of options. This scenario flattens all of the modes of becoming into one shared plane of reference and presumes one map of maps from which to navigate this shared plane. (There is only one either/or in such a world, a dichotomous binary out of which to select between pairs of existence-modes that preexist any pressing and subjective existential encounters or leaps). So how then to make sense of the leap from one existence-mode to another?

    My fourth clarification examines the “how” of such movement by bringing Deleuze more explicitly into the conversation. “The actual,” explain Deleuze and Guattari, “is what we become” (1994, 112). And we do not need to appeal to some kind of transcendent magic to make sense of becoming (a temptation that Burlein rightfully warns against) because, in Clare Colebrook’s words, “the actual bears the potential to disclose the virtual” (2006, 129). Put differently, the “actual” points us to the virtual or to what we might call a “quasi-cause” (see Boundas 2006, 6).

    If we interpret the either/or through the reading of Kierkegaard that we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy, we can put it this way: the either/or reflects the virtual, rather than the possible. The virtual is a different order from that of the possible. To limit our grammar to the possible is to only ever deduce the possible, retroactively, from the real, such that the leap into a different mode of existence reflects a menu of possibilities that is open to anyone, anywhere (Mader 2011, 22). In contrast, to expand our grammar to include the virtual means that the event is immanent, emerging out of embedded conditions of possibility that cannot be reconstructed in linear terms. Nor predicted. There is an alliance here between immanent existentialism and eco-evo-devo approaches to biological systems, as I explore throughout the book. The gene can be understood as part of a virtual field that actualizes into specific concrete beings (May 2005, 244), rather than pre-given information that leads to determinant ends.

    Deleuze comes close to putting it in these terms himself, when he points to “this almost Kierkegaardian idea of a ‘leap’” (1991, 57) that is at play in Bergson’s account of the virtual becoming actual. (Interestingly, Deleuze goes on to clarify that this “Kierkegaardian idea” resembles Platonic recollection, a leap of which Kierkegaard is especially fond but which is only one among many leaps in Kierkegaard’s taxonomy of existential becoming. In the book, I’m interested more in the leap out of anamnesis, explored in particular in chapter 5.) To encounter the either/or is to be caught by a creative impasse, or a problem to be solved. As Burlein puts it, reading a passage in Difference and Repetition, “the problem (as transcendental rather than transcendent) is not supplemental to its various cases of solutions but immanent” (2005, 28). There may be no map of maps available, but there is the virtual which problematizes, expressing “a problematic” (Smith 2009, 34). And Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge that, precisely in relation to their own encounter with Fear and Trembling, indeed, “the problem has changed” (1994, 75; see Kleinherenbrink 2014).

    To be moved, on this account, is to be caught by a problem that elicits the either/or, reflecting the conditions of possibility for unknown and as yet unknowable leaps into the new. And the leap solicits a response, albeit one that can never be reduced to a formula, recipe, solution or template for others to follow. In my response to Joel Michael Reynolds, I take up the resultant philosophical predicament, namely: how to make sense of the dynamics between form (designs or templates) and the living-out or inhabiting of forms.


    Works Cited

    Boundas, Constantin. 2006. “What Difference Does Deleuze’s Difference Make?” In Deleuze and Philosophy, edited by Constantin V. Boundas, 3–28. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    Burlein, Ann. 2005. “The Productive Power of Ambiguity: Rethinking Homosexuality through the Virtual and Developmental Systems Theory.” Hypatia 20(1): 21–53.

    Deleuze, Gilles. 1986. Cinema 1—The Movement Image. Translated by H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam. London: Athlone.

    ———. 1991. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomslinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone.

    Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1994. What Is Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Eyers, Tom. 2017. Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory and the Critical Present. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

    Grosz, Elizabeth. 2013. “Habit Today: Ravaisson, Bergson, Deleuze and Us.” Body and Society 19 (2 & 3): 217–39.

    Keller, Catherine, and Mary-Jane Rubenstein. “Introduction: Tangled Matters.” In Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science and new Materialisms, edited by Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein, 89–110. New York: Fordham University Press.

    Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. [Johannes Climacus] The Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Vol 1. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Latour, Bruno. 2005. “What Is Given in Experience?” Boundary 2 32(1): 223–37.

    Kleinherenbrink, Arjen. 2014. “Art as Authentic Life—Deleuze after Kierkegaard.” Kritike 8(2): 98–118.

    Mader, Mary Beth. 2011. Sleights of Reason: Norm, Bisexuality, Development. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    May, Todd. 2005. “Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Science.” In Continental Philosophy of Science, edited by Garry Gutting, 239–57. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Newmark, Kevin. 2000. “Translators, Inc: Kierkegaard, Benjamin, Mallarmé & Co.” Parallax 6(1): 39–55.

    Pearson, Keith Ansell. 2005. “The Reality of the Virtual: Bergson and Deleuze.” MLN 120: 1112–27.

    Smith, Daniel W. 2009. “Deleuze’s Concept of the Virtual and the Critique of the Possible.” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry 4(9): 34–43.

    Squier, Susan Merrill. 2017. Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawing as Metaphor. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics. Edited and translated by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal.

    Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. 2015. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick, 9–89. Durham: Duke University Press.

    1. As a way to think through Eyers’ analysis in the context of Kierkegaard scholarship, see Kevin Newmark (2000, 40) for an example of how form prompts a creative impasse in the context of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings.

    2. Eyers explains that “any attempt to push beyond the formal imperatives of varying kinds of language in order to exhaustively account for their possible instantiations must reach a limit, a point at which the structure is undercut by the gaps or lacunae that it otherwise relies on for its self-definition” (2017, 2). To categorize with an eagerness of over-running the capacities of a system or the bounds of a limit, Eyers suggests, is to formalize. And he encourages us to commend such practices, even as we recognize their constraints. On Eyers’ account, literature is especially good at staging “the creative capacity of impasses” (2017, 8), and this prompts me to acknowledge that I am reading Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms texts as, first and foremost, literary.

    3. Conrad Waddington coined the term “epigenetics” and is a thinker whose complex thinking about development is newly relevant in our post-genomic era.

Joel Michael Reynolds


The Healtholocene

Response to Ada Jaarsma’s Kierkegaard After the Genome: Science, Existence, and Belief in This World

 Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

—Imre Laktos1


To observe ethically cannot be done, because there is only one ethical observing—it is self-observation. The ethical immediately embraces the single individual with its requirement that he shall exist ethically; it does not bluster about millions and generations; it does not take humankind at random, any more than the police arrest humankind in general.2

—Søren Kierkegaard


Modern scientific methods have allowed humans to significantly extend their average lifespan, maintain life after both environmental and genetic events that in centuries past would have meant immediate or inevitable death, and create life under circumstances previously thought impossible. Whether one looks to the NIH, UN, or the Gates Foundation, this wealth of scientific knowledge about the human body has historically transformed how we think about individual humans and the fundamental framework and goals of their socio-political existence. Governments govern, communities coalesce, and individuals choose by and in parameters set by the value of health and the many private and public entities that produce its power, knowledge, and guidance. In sum, Foucault was right.3 Yet, scientific methods and their manifold effects have also put within reach the total annihilation of our species and set into motion global processes that will curtail, if not end it. It is in this context, the curious intertwining of the Anthropocene and what I here call the Healtholocene, that I situate the many unique, provocative, and timely insights of Ada Jaarsma’s Kierkegaard After the Genome: Science, Existence, and Belief in This World.4 The work offers readers a dynamic bricolage of themes spanning critical and feminist science studies, queer theory, critical disability studies, critical philosophy of race, and contemporary continental philosophy, the whole of which are grounded in a thoroughgoing Kierkegaardian attunement to lived experience and impassioned existence.

In the spirit of collaborative dialogue Jaarsma so well exemplifies, I wish to approach her work’s animating concern—how “science yields meaning in our own present age” (4)—by deploying Feyerabend’s distinction between a context of discovery and a context of justification, between the conditions of observation and those of theory.5 I argue that Jaarsma’s text offers insights into how the intertwining of healthism, as an ideology of risk easing, and of biomedical science, as an enterprise of knowledge-building pertaining largely to human risks, leads to a collapse of the distinction between observation and theory at the level of the lived experience of our own bodies.6 I call the age of this collapse and its many ramifications the Healtholocene: the period in which the activity and aims of biomedicine—which include and inform the life sciences, information sciences, and disparate assemblages of global capital and political governance—have fundamentally shaped the existential horizons of human life.

The Healtholocene

In the Healtholocene central experiences of one’s own body and social reality are rendered indeterminate, if not unintelligible, until they fit within the theoretical apparatus of biomedical knowledge.7 In numerous contexts, the immediacy of what I see, hear, taste, smell, or feel is slowed or suspended. A cough is not a cough but a potential sign of some health trajectory, the specificity of which must be determined upon further observation and analysis. Whether with respect to my lungs, emotions, energy levels, sleep patterns, life plan, or overall productivity, my experience of myself is held in abeyance until another body, one with more authority, that of medical knowledge, determines the meaning of its findings. There is no modality of human life the Healtholocene does not touch.

In the Healtholocene the value of one’s biological materials—whether with respect to blood, genomic information, mental activity, or physical parts—is rendered ethically, legally, and politically indeterminate, if not unintelligible, because its status as an object of science is at odds with its status as integral to a single individual’s body. Let us not forget that much of biomedicine has historically operated with a research takes all understanding of bodily integrity and ownership, especially with respect to bodies considered socially or politically disposable. The Tuskegee and Guatemala Syphilis Experiments. Forced institutionalization. Henrietta Lacks. Jim Crow medical care. Or, more recently, the Havasupai people. Bioethics as a discipline began in response to the default assumption of biomedicine that its goods were greater than those of the bodies it needed, used, and desired. On the other side of this Mobius strip of the value of health is the pervasive individual desire for health and the demands we place—as citizens and consumers, patients and practitioners, and workers and employers—to assure and insure it. From handwashing to vaccines to flu shots, is not health always a matter of each of us and All of Us, as the NIH’s most recent branding of their Precision Medicine Initiative is called?8

In the Healtholocene the value of a given biosocial community, cultural tradition, or nation-state ultimately revolves around its potential as a market, whether for purposes of research, therapeutic intervention, consumer use, or political control.9 It is in light of these very large stakes that I read Jaarsma’s discussion of placebos and nocebos. Amidst the many topics discussed in the book—ranging from epigenetics to critical pedagogy to her personal journey with respect to religious belief—I take the placebo as its central trope. The placebo discloses the truth of the Greek pharmakon, the meanings of which include the contradictory pairs remedy and poison and also scapegoat.10 Jaarmsa lays the placebo bare as that which simultaneously assures the efficacy, impotence, and sacrificial structure of biologicals (87–138). That is to say, the placebo demonstrates the genuine power of certain therapeutic interventions to heal, their potential powerlessness or even harm and thus poisoning, and the way they function as a sacrifice to prove its practitioners are devout. One participates in such trials and undertakes such research in the search for the true drug, the true therapy. Some will die during, if not due to, the trial, and the stolid acceptance of that truth demonstrates one’s dedication to the cause. Sacrifice is necessary, for when we have found all such drugs and therapies, illness and disease will no longer exist. This is perhaps the last acceptable utopianism today.

With respect to these topoi, I would like to hear more from Jaarsma about the linkage between the power and impotence of placebos and the power and impotence of diagnosis and prognosis.11 Is not diagnosis-prognosis a discourse of truth that, in terms of its enormous sway in the Healtholocene, troubles Kierkegaard’s, i.e., Johannes Climacus’s, formula of truth of subjectivity? S. Kay Toombs, whose research arises out of her experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), writes that “every [MS] patient can remember the moment of diagnosis.”12 It is a universal feature of narrative and phenomenological accounts of life-altering conditions that upon receiving a diagnosis, a total existential disorientation results. How does diagnostic-prognostic power relate to the power of the placebo and of biomedical explanation more generally? If one extends Jaarsma’s analysis, how far are we from the rhetorical space and existential force of divination, alchemy, astrology, and other such forms of explaining the past, present, and future?

Joshua Ramey notes, albeit in a different context, “a querent only approaches the diviner because he or she already believes that divination, as such, is true, in the sense that she or he already has confidence that something like divination is what is needed, wanted, and must be relied on in this case.”13 In the Healtholocene, in what ways are the powers of truth, knowledge, hierarchy, and one’s general orientation in the world predicated upon belief in “the system” of health, which promises to solve and salve human mortality? Kierkegaard writes, “Perhaps the systematician thinks this way: if on the title page or in the newspaper I call my production a continued striving for the truth, alas, who will buy it or admire me; but if I call it the system, the absolute system, everyone will buy the system—if only the difficulty did not remain that what the systematician is selling is not the system.”14 To what extent should we see the Healtholocene as the result of a successfully sold system? Alternatively, in what way is it just one result of a much more complex quantifying siren song emerging out of modernity, one that far exceeds the concerns of the biomedical industrial complex narrowly understood?

This is one of many places, I think, where biomedical knowledges and technologies expose, at their core, a tension of ends. The systems that prove efficacy are at once the systems that prove somatic capitalization, i.e., that prove the ability to make profit off of bodily and mental patterns and responses.15 While the “white coat effect” is not, as far as I know, capitalizable with respect to its material conditions (except perhaps with respect to the manufacturers and sellers of lab coats), the belief in what the wearer prescribes most certainly is (93, 194). Make the drug that doctors will prescribe and billions will follow. Just ask the Big Pharma companies responsible for the United States’ opioid crisis.16 Which brings one back to the specter of divination, of a sensuous power far beyond science simpliciter. Belief is always part of medicine’s story.

On Risk & Other Theories

I would also like to think further about the relation between a Kierkegaardian ethos and the concept of risk, belief in it, and action upon it (the allegory of the jewel on thin ice from The Present Age comes particularly to mind).17 Jaarsma writes, “When we acquiesce to aggregates like risk assessment, we follow the cues of neo-liberal subjectivity: to invest in our futures by partaking of the regimes proffered to us by biomedicine. Subjectivity comes to relate to itself in the terms of human capital” (104). How, more precisely, does the quantifying siren song relate to risk easing and risk aversion in our present age (87ff.)? Could it be the case that risk easing—the lessening and smoothing of that which might and, in the case of death, must cause harm to one’s bodymind—is the ultimate logic of biomedical power?18 Or does this question simply shift the philosophical problematic onto the notion of “harm”? Neither risk, nor harm, as Jaarsma is acutely aware, attach evenly to lives. As Melinda Hall has argued, abstract discourses of risk attach to concrete disabled bodies.19 Relative to cultural ideals of health, to be at-risk is a dog whistle that rings: at-risk for disability. This whistle works so well because of the ableist conflation of disability with pain, illness, disease, and suffering.20 After being submitted to analyses from critical disability studies, among other fields, is the concept of risk redeemable? Or does even asking about its redemption—to want to save it—reveal an onto-theo-healthological hangover, one tied to narratives of overcoming and authenticity?

Let us not forget that the rich and hazy etymology of “risk” includes the Arabic rizq, which includes “provision, lot, portion allotted by God to each man, livelihood, sustenance . . . boon, blessing (given by God), property, wealth, income, wages, and finally fortune, luck, destiny, and chance.”21 With risk comes great goods too. It is here where Feyerabend’s distinction between the conditions of observation vs. those of theory comes to a head. Experienced risk and risks handed down to us from biomedicine, as if on tablets of stone, are often profoundly divergent. That is to say, the risks I experience and observe are of another order and from a different domain than those to which statistical, abstract analyses deign me subject. The Healtholocene, I’ve argued, is defined by the inability to distinguish between, or perhaps a genuine collapse of, these two domains. It is further defined by a lack of reflexive clarity and honesty about how this collapse imparts and attaches risks to real bodies, and about how it can paradoxically entrench inequality through the very responses it solicits to them. Just look at the effects of increased prenatal genetic screening on the population of people on earth with Down Syndrome.22 Or the proportions of money going towards the health of people in developing vs. non-developing countries (124–25).


“Whether it is the curative logic of health, the normative logic of community or the modern logic of genomic science, the lures of the present age challenge us,” Jaarsma writes, “but they also, on Kierkegaard’s terms, compel us into more impassioned, critical, ecologically attuned relations. [. . .] Kierkegaard proffers us resources by which to identify and undermine ideologies of development. . . . Evolution itself is an existential matter, on my account, replete with existential anxiety about how to place ourselves in time and how to navigate our own ‘becomings’ as temporal, embodied creatures” (40, 28). Kierkegaard understood the sickness unto death to be despair. Perhaps the sickness unto death of our present age is due in part to the side effects of the Healtholocene. Or perhaps they aren’t side effects at all. If “to be sick unto death is to be unable to die,” then to be sick unto (biomedical) science is to be unable to truly live, to always already be a patient-in-waiting, at-risk, and in the shadow of a health so ideal its earnest realization can in fact lead to the destruction of those most at risk in a racist, ableist, sexist, cisheterosexist, classist, and colonialist society.23 Perhaps today, as Jaarsma intimates, we are subject to the same indictment Kierkegaard served with respect to nineteenth-century Denmark: the need for more observation and less theory, more passion and less reflection, more life and less health—less, that is, of the kinds at odds with an existence oriented towards justice, especially and most importantly for the least of these.


Works Cited

Crawford, Robert. “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life.” International Journal of Health Services 10.3 (1980) 365–88.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dumit, Joseph. Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. 4th ed. London: Verso, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France: 1978–79. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Gabriel, Joseph M., and Daniel S. Goldberg. “Big Pharma and the Problem of Disease Inflation.” International Journal of Health Services 44.2 (2014) 307–22.

Goldberg, Daniel S., and Ben Rich. “Pharmacovigilence and the Plight of Chronic Pain Patients: In Pursuit of a Realistic and Responsible Ethic of Care.” Indiana Health Law Review 83 (2014).

Hall, Melinda. The Bioethics of Enhancement: Transhumanism, Disability, and Biopolitics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Jaarsma, Ada S. Kierkegaard after the Genome: Science, Existence, and Belief in This World. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Essays. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Kierkegaard’s Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

———. The Present Age, and of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle. Translated by Alexander Dru. Harper Torchbooks. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

———. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Kierkegaard’s Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lakatos, Imre. “History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1970 (1970) 91–136.

Moore, Jason W., ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM / Kairos, 2016.

National Institutes of Health. “All of Us Research Program.”

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015).

Ramey, Joshua Alan. Politics of Divination: Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016.

Reynolds, Joel Michael. “Being Better Bodies.” Hastings Center Report 47.6 (2017) 46–47.

———. “Feeding upon Death: Pain, Possibility, and Transformation in S. Kay Toombs and Kafka’s the Vulture.” Jahrbuch Literatur und Medizin 6 (2014) 135–54.

———. “‘I’d Rather Be Dead than Disabled’—the Ableist Conflation and the Meanings of Disability.” Review of Communication 17.3 (2017) 149–63.

———. “Merleau-Ponty’s Aveugle and the Phenomenology of Non-Normate Embodiment.” Chiasmi International 19 (2017).

Rose, Nikolas S. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Scuro, Jennifer. Addressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

TallBear, Kimberly. Native American DNA Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Timmermans, Stefan, and Mara Buchbinder. “Patients-in-Waiting: Living between Sickness and Health in the Genomics Era.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51.4 (2010) 408–23.

Toombs, S. Kay. “The Lived Experience of Disability.” Human Studies 18 (1995) 9–23.

  1. Imre Lakatos, “History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions.” In place of “blind,” I would prefer “uncomprehending” since the implicit, ableist assumption about blindness leveraged by this quote is misguided. See Joel Michael Reynolds, “Merleau-Ponty’s Aveugle.”

  2. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 320 (referred to as CUP hereafter).

  3. Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics.

  4. Ada S. Jaarsma, Kierkegaard after the Genome (citations appear in the body of the essay hereafter). See Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

  5. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 7. He further claims that “attempts to enforce them would have disastrous consequences.”

  6. Robert Crawford, “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life.”

  7. Morgellon’s disease is an apt example of this. Among other resources, see the chapter “Devil’s Bait,” in Leslie Jamison, Empathy Exams.

  8. National Institutes of Health, “All of Us Research Program.”

  9. Joseph Dumit, Drugs for Life; Kimberly TallBear, Native American DNA.

  10. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination.

  11. I am thinking especially of the discussion of diagnosis in Jennifer Scuro, Addressing Ableism.

  12. S. Kay Toombs, “Lived Experience of Disability.” See Joel Michael Reynolds, “Feeding upon Death.”

  13. Joshua Alan Ramey, Politics of Divination, 66. The context of this quote is the development of an argument that neoliberal belief in the free market is best understood in terms of a political theology of chance. I highly recommend Ramey’s study.

  14. Kierkegaard, 108.

  15. See Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital; Nikolas S. Rose, Politics of Life Itself.

  16. See Joseph M. Gabriel and Daniel S. Goldberg, “Big Pharma and the Problem of Disease Inflation”; Daniel S. Goldberg and Ben Rich, “Pharmacovigilence and the Plight of Chronic Pain Patients.”

  17. Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age.

  18. I borrow the term “bodymind” from Margaret Price’s wonderful essay: “Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.”

  19. Melinda Hall, Bioethics of Enhancement, esp. ch. 5. See also my review: Joel Michael Reynolds, “Being Better Bodies.”

  20. Joel Michael Reynolds, “I’d Rather Be Dead.”

  21. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Risk, n.”

  22. Hall, 22; see also 88, 125–27.

  23. Søren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 7; Stefan Timmermans and Mara Buchbinder, “Patients-in-Waiting.”

  • Ada S. Jaarsma

    Ada S. Jaarsma


    Response to Joel Michael Reynolds

    Joel Michael Reynolds’ proposal for a new designation for our present age is hugely helpful. “The Healthlocene,” Reynolds suggests, is a term that foregrounds the entwining of biomedical science with the curative imaginary, connected to the practices and relations of the Anthropocene but deserving of its own chronotrope. I’m fascinated both by the formalist act of delineating a historical era, as such, and by the ramifications of this specific naming of our era.

    To mark out an era by periodizing it, like in the case of “the Healthlocene,” is to participate in a long-standing formal practice that is especially at work in historical and genealogical methods. “Ironically,” Caroline Levine writes, somewhat archly, “[the form of] periodization has lasted across periods” (2015, 60). There’s comedy, captured here by Levine’s use of the word “irony,” that is also beautifully at play in Reynolds’ response. It’s the kind of comedy that Kierkegaard might describe in terms of “earnest jest” (a phrase that I take up in my response to J. Aaron Simmons). To notice the play of a form like periodization, even as one partakes in the formal work of creating a new chronotrope, as Reynolds does, is to invite critical engagement with the very enterprise of abstraction. In the terms of Deleuze and Foucault, we could say that this invitation problematizes: it attunes us to a problem in ways that compel creative rather than pre-determined responses; it prompts us to engage with our own present and with the very conditions by which the problem emerged (Koopman 2013, 133; Mader 2017, 94).

    A chronotrope, Elizabeth A. Povinelli explains, is no neutral nomination of an age but is a kind of performative, better understood as an action “like a sighting or a citing” (2011, 16). The naming of an era can reinforce tendencies already underway in that age, but it can also intervene, in ways that keep the problem itself open (responding to, instead of attempting to resolve, a problem).1 Rather than solidifying boundaries between “constative” and “performative,” or content and form, or template and output, or even problem and response, there is a troubling of these relations. “Breaking free of false problems,” as Colin Koopman writes, “requires not that we contradict or oppose them, but that we produce in their place a new problematization” (2013, 135). The proposition of a new chronotrope, the Healthlocene, hails us to respond to a problem in ways that implicate our own methods, likely even the concepts we hold most dear.2

    Reynolds asks, for example, “Is the concept of risk redeemable” in the context of the Healthlocene? Since concepts are only created as a function of problems, as Deleuze and Guattari write (1994, 16), this is a question that marks a “problem” opened up by this new chronotrope. In the Healthlocene, there is no symptom untouched by the modalities of cure, health and biomedicine. As Reynolds explains, “A cough is not a cough but a potential sign of sickness or health trajectory.” Symptoms like coughs are no longer available to individuals as tangible expressions, diagnosable by physicians by way of touch or talk, but are increasingly mediated solely through the data that emerge out of large-scale clinical research trials. Doctors present patients with their “risk factors” or diagnoses or prognoses, numbers based on populations in the aggregate and not on individuals in their specificity.

    This clash between the dynamic qualities of lived experience and the static qualities of numbers is not readily available to us, as a problem, in the Healthlocene. And this is the existential, as well as the pressing political and ethical, import of Reynolds’ question. After all, risk does not present as a problem when systems are able to render any value or difference commensurate (and insured, in the case of actuarial science, or cured, in the case of biomedicine’s promissory ambitions). Moreover, the very ideals of “justice” and “health” and even “care” are fully saturated with the imperatives of finance capital. In this “quasi-coherent, periodizable moment” in which we live, Ian Baucom points out, injustice is invariably understood as a series of generalizable, even substitutable situations (“doing justice to this ‘sort’ of past,” where “this sort” subsumes differences under one grand category of injustice), rather than discrete events that are singular in their horrors (2001, 72, italics mine). Biomedicine relies similarly upon the aggregation of generalities. In the Healthlocene, treatment acts as risk insurance (Jain 2010, 113) and the design of clinical research trials presumes a kind of baseline of health (a “pov of mythic health,” as Mel Chen puts it [2011, 273]).

    These two points are at the heart of important new work in disability studies. “Cure promises us so much,” Eli Clare points out, “but it will never give us justice” (2017, 184). Since there is no such thing as a disembodied or “dis-embedded” body, one that would stand in as the universal template for every human body, the use of such standards or baselines works to re-instantiate the unmarked status of bodies that are able, white, and otherwise compliant with “mythic” ideals. And the “problem” that’s available for recognition is one that is solely within the realm of solving problems through biomedicine and actuarial metrics, rather than becoming responsive to a problem. (Alison Kafer’s scrutiny of a set of billboards that promote the ideals of the Healthlocene draws out this dynamic: viewers of these Public Service Announcements receive the message, “Their problems are huge—paralysis, blindness, amputation—and mine are small because I’m not disabled” [2013, 93, italics mine]).

    This work in disability studies stages the complex problem of design. Rather than presuming that ableism and its exclusions can be identified and isolated, apart from the forms or grammar of design, this problem extends to the relations between form and content. Jay Dolmage explains, for example, “Abelism is not a series of bad or sad anomalies, a series of discrete actions. It is a rhetoric in the fullest sense of the word: gestural, social, architectural, duplicitous and plan, malleable, and immovable. And it requires agents. It requires actions and intentional action” (2017, 46). There is no outside of design; after all, the constraints of systems are like the grammar of a language (Kockelman 2017, 129). But the “problem” opened up by the Healthlocene will not be rectified by way of expanding the system to include more and varied individuals, since inclusion is closely synced with objectification and surveillance (Hamraie 2017, 10). Nor will it be overcome by focusing solely on the expressions or deployments of rhetoric, since this very capacity is one that the Healthlocene both praises and deems necessary. Indeed, those who do not express rhetoric in neurotypical ways become problems; as Melanie Yergeau points out, “My rhetorical moves are not rhetorical moves, but are rather symptoms of a problemed and involuntary body” (2018, 31).

    I turn to Kierkegaard in Kierkegaard after the Genome for resources for thinking through this interplay between the general constraints of structure and individual or singular expressions. Already in his own context, René Rosfort points out, Kierkegaard was objecting to “the disappearance of the individual in a scientific worldview and, in particular, the problems of sacrificing the existential reality of particular life-views for the greater good of a universal philosophical explanation of the world” (2017, 207). There are many different Kierkegaards, of course, since his nineteenth-century project is taken up by twentieth- and twenty-first-century thinkers in a variety of ways. (I explore this, as well, in my response to Simmons). In this book, it’s Deleuze’s Kierkegaard that I am particularly interested in taking up.

    The form/content relationship itself must be troubled, according to disability studies, and Deleuze’s account of “the virtual” is useful in this context. Deleuze’s warning about virtuality is particularly relevant: “The only danger in all this is that the virtual could be confused with the possible” (1994, 211). This dangerous confusion of the virtual with the possible, Deleuze continues, is no mere verbal dispute but rather is “a question of existence itself” (1994, 211). Deleuze is flagging a confusion about the logics of causation that bears great significance for how we relate to the forms, designs and grammars of our worlds and expressions. If we deduce the possible from the real, which is the operation that occurs when the virtual is confused with the possible, then the possible “is understood as an image of the real, . . . retroactively fabricated in the image of what resembles it” (1994, 212).

    Such fabrication is precisely how the status quo becomes reinforced as normate, according to disability studies. “Normate,” an enormously useful abstraction, is a word that brings together “template” with the normalizing impulses at play within a given scenario, system or even historical era (Hamraie 2017, 19). Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes that while bodies and expressions rarely meet the dictates of the normate standards (2009, 45), these imagined or idealized terms are what we expect to see—prompting the “question of existence” that Deleuze points to. Because how might things become otherwise, if the very grammar or architecture that we need to express content evades recognition as exclusionary?3 There is a relationship between content and form here that, in existentialist terms, we might draw out in terms of the “leap” or the either/or. (In my response to Ann Burlein, I describe this relationship as a “creative impasse.”)

    This account of the “leap” suggests an affirmative response to Reynolds’ question. An encounter with the either/or opens up the conditions of possibility for actualizing virtuality, not potentiality. “Risk,” as the site of the either/or, is a placeholder term for such non-linear, open-ended, indeterminate and immanent movements. Paul Kockelman suggest that we can intuit the virtual because of poetic functions that draw out tendencies that might otherwise remain nonexistent (2017, 129).4 This is what is happening in cases, like those beautifully assessed by Aimi Hamraie, when nonconforming users inhabit spaces in ways that actualize feedback loops that are at odds with curative design (2016, 290). There is a fundamental openness here to the material and relational significance of movements or expressions that refute curative ideals.

    It’s not as if “transcendent forms” are invoked in such movements, ones that yield emancipation from beyond the embodied realm of social and material interactions. Rather, expressions (rhetorical and somatic) that demand and create non-curative spaces, from within immanent contexts, trouble the very relations between structures and grammars and their content. I make this case in more detail in the book’s final chapter (2017, 200–210). At stake in this suggestion are at least three propositions: first, that “risk”-taking and -mitigating in the Healthlocene are best understood as expressions of despair; second, that there is “spiritual” import to the critical work of disability studies and activism; third, that the import of such work is poetic, as well as problematizing, drawing out new and unanticipated logics, grammars and designs by which to inhabit the “riskiness” of existential life.


    Works Cited

    Baucom, Ian. 2001. “Spectres of the Atlantic.” South Atlantic Quarterly 100(1): 61–82.

    Chen, Mel Y. 2011. “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections.” GLQ 17: 2–3, 265–86.

    Clare, Eli. 2017. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Dolmage, Jay Timothy. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2009. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Gilson, Erinn Cunniff. “Ethics and the Ontology of Freedom: Problematization and Responsiveness in Foucault and Deleuze.” Foucault Studies 18: 76–98.

    Hamraie, Aimi. 2016. “Universal Design and the Problem of ‘Post-Disability’ Ideology.” Design and Culture 8(3): 285–309.

    ———. 2017. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Jain, Lochlann S. 2010. “The Mortality Effect: Counting the Dead in the Cancer Trial.” Public Culture 22(1): 89–117.

    Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist Queer Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Kockelman, Paul. 2017. The Art of Interpretation in the Age of Computation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Koopman, Colin. 2013. Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Levine, Caroline. 2015. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Mader, Mary Beth. 2017. “The Genealogy of Abstractive Practices.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 55: 86–97.

    Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Rosfort, René. 2017. “Concrete Infinity: Imagination and the Question of Reality.” In Kierkegaard’s Existential Approach, edited by Arne Grøn, René Rosfort and K. Brian Söderquist, 193–214. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Silvers, Anita. 2016. “Philosophy and Disability: What Should Philosophy Do?” Res Philosophica 93(4): 843–63.

    Yergeau, Melanie. 2018. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Durham: Duke University Press.


    1. See Erinn Cunniff Gilson (2014, especially 88) for a compelling account of this key difference.

    2. Deleuze writes, “The virtual possesses the reality of a task to be performed or a problem to be solved: it is the problem which orientates, conditions and engenders solutions, but these do not resemble the condition of the problem” (1994, 212).

    3. Anita Silvers lays out the significance of such evasions of recognition: “Mobilizing without being able to walk, reading without being able to see the text, communicating without being able to hear or speak is virtually unthinkable to many disabled people. Yet individuals with minority bodies that cannot walk or see or hear nevertheless mobilize, read, and communicate functionally every day” (2016, 849).

    4. These “poetic functions,” as Kockelman puts it, emerge through distributed agency, and not through idealized reflections of discrete individuals. And they is best understood as process, rather than as product, “indeed, as open, never-ending, transformative, context-rich, interactions between various kinds of distributed agencies” (2017, 131). “Such sense-making strategies,” Kockelman writes, “are inherently collective and historical, distributed and contingent, performative and poetic. The best way to ‘intuit’ the virtual is to inhabit it” (2017, 131).

Rachel Jones


Thinking Perspectivism with Ada Jaarsma

Existing, Knowing, and the In-Between of Inter Esse

Ada Jaarsma’s Kierkegaard After the Genome is an exhilarating read. In a rare willingness to think across entrenched divides, the book critiques secularist and scientistic narratives while showing how post-genomic science studies reconceptualizes development along anti-teleological, material-relational lines that offer resources for attending to structural injustice. The turn to science studies signaled in the book’s title might seem to belong with other recent feminist (re-)turns to science, as found in the important work of thinkers such as Elizabeth Grosz (2004) and Karen Barad (2007), which Jaarsma herself references. But by making her own “turn” within the context of a critique of the Western secularizing project, Jaarsma is able to maintain a more sharply critical (feminist-queer-decolonial) lens on the alignments of power-knowledge that produce subjects as objects (and then again as neoliberal, financialized subjects); freeze variation into normalization; and produce the empirical data or “facts” on which apparently unquestionable truths rest. Indeed, Melanie Yergeau’s question, “Who can fight with ‘empirical fact’?” becomes a rallying cry that runs through the book (Jaarsma 3, citing Yergeau 2013).

Thus, while drawing on Grosz’s affirmation of lively becomings and unpredictable contingencies, Jaarsma turns not so much to a new ontology rooted in “life itself,”1 as to an ontogenetic approach drawn primarily from post-genomic “eco-evo-devo” science studies (ecological evolutionary development theory; Jaarsma 30, citing Abouheif et al 2014). For Jaarsma, eco-evo-devo’s rejection of the concept of a fixed ground or origin for the “proper” development of bodies means that rather than operating as the pinnacle of Western scientific rationalism, it is more readily allied with critiques of secularism understood (with Elizabeth Povinelli) as a practice of commensuration based on the identification of “common grounds for varying beliefs” (Jaarsma 177; see Povinelli 2001). Eco-evo-devo’s affirmation of the feedback loops that transform genetic scripts—thereby revealing that “nature” is inherently “de-naturing”—place it in a perhaps unexpected alliance with feminist-queer-crip-decolonial-antiracist perspectives that work to de-naturalize the normalized identities produced via commensuration and reveal the violence involved in the image of the “properly” human and its “Others.”2 Just as the critical humanities have drawn attention to the multiple ways in which the universalizing project of Western secularizing modernity is dependent on both the colonization of bodily differences and the differential distribution of precarity (see Wynter 2000; Butler 2015), so too the eco-evo-devo emphasis on the entanglement of biology “with social and cultural forces” has led to critical recognition of the ways in which “scientific practices are embedded within capitalist and neo-liberal systems . . . that privilege some bodies while deeply disadvantaging others” (Jaarsma 2).

Running through this critical conjunction is an insistence on the existential stakes of development as it unfolds across bodies that are simultaneously political and ecological, biological and semiotic. In this regard, the book’s key figure is Soren Kierkegaard, who Jaarsma mobilizes as an ally in the search for spiritually lively approaches to existence that resist the leveling, deadening violence of colonialism, whiteness, and neoliberal capitalism (which Jaarsma understands as embodying what Kierkegaard calls “despair”). By turns playful and provocative, Kierkegaard After the Genome remaps the terrain of contemporary philosophical thought to shake off the forces of indifference and amplify the possibilities for divergent becoming and the stories as and through which those becomings take shape. Bodies and selves have no “proper” script, but are “ontogenetic chronicles” (Jaarsma 34, citing Oyama 2010), “stories, all the way down” (Jaarsma 34).

This radical perspectivism is a central theme of the book, coming to the fore in the final chapter. Here Jaarsma notes Viveiros de Castro’s point (paraphrasing Deleuze) that “there are not points of view on things, since things and beings are themselves points of view” (Jaarsma 189, citing Viveiros de Castro 90). Animating existence through the amplification of divergent becomings means letting go of the aperspectival illusion of a unifying, universal “Truth”—whether found in an image of Man or of “life itself,” both figures that “fill in the gaps of a discontinuous matter with a transhistorical substance” (Huffer, 140)—and affirming instead the incommensurability of differing ways of being-knowing that emerge through differing relational genealogies (“the rift-restoring matter of time’s traces”; Huffer, 136). Such incommensurabilities do not collapse into relativist indistinction. This would be to slide back into the despair of indifference, the (always illusory) non-perspective of zero selection, rather than to affirm the more unsettling possibility that each relationally-constituted mode of existing-knowing embodies a way of valuing and selecting, with no external perspective from which to compare them as if from neutral ground (Jaarsma 182). Any criteria deployed by such “external” perspectives are themselves the immanent result of alternative evaluating-selecting processes (189).

Jaarsma thus contrasts perspectivism with the secularizing ideal of “aperspectival objectivity” (Jaarsma 185, citing Daston 1992). As Susan Bordo shows, this ideal arises as one of the most far-reaching repercussions of Cartesian mind/body dualism. The latter leads to the belief that, with “the right method,” one can not only see through the deceptiveness of the senses, but entirely “transcend the body” that is “the most ubiquitous reminder of how located and perspectival our experience and thought are, how bounded in time and space.” By contrast, “the Cartesian knower [. . .] being without a body, not only has ‘no need of any place’ [Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part 4] but actually is ‘no place’” (Bordo 1987, 94–95). As Haraway describes, and Jaarsma discusses, such a knower is seeking to pull off the “god trick,” claiming the pure transparency of a view from nowhere that has “the power to see and not be seen, the power to represent while escaping representation” (Haraway 1988, 581; see Jaarsma 159). This dream of objectivity purified of any bodily locatedness makes invisible the bodily interests, historical relations, and lived values that inform any perspective on the world, including and especially those that underpin an investment in the very ideal of non-perspectival knowledge and the concomitant belief that there is only one (real, true) world (this is why, from another perspective, the investment in the universalism of an “unmarked” point of view is itself the telltale mark of Western secularizing modernity, as a colonizing perspective that seeks to export its own world—its own values and point of view—to all).

As Jaarsma notes, drawing on Wynter, the ironic effect of the “god trick” is the “de-godding” of the world (Jaarsma 176, citing Wynter 2000). The dream of aperspectival objectivity can only result in indifference. By being unable to affirm its own conditions of becoming—the situated relations that produce its own investments—secular universalism can allow neither for other ways of being, formed via divergent relational patterns, that are genuinely incommensurable with its own; nor for the possibility of its own becoming-otherwise (differences are always incorporated into one, unifying perspective, never allowed to be that which might undo one, and transform it into something other than itself; see Povinelli 2001, 329). The possibilities for amplifying becoming close down (Jaarsma 181), and the passion that animates “belief in this world” (a world that is not one, but always becoming otherwise) collapses into the despair of an existential and ontological “leveling” (10–11).

Jaarsma contrasts this “spiritless indifference” with the kind of perspectivism affirmed in Viveiros de Castro’s insistence that “there are not points of view on things, since things and beings are themselves points of view.” Whereas the former maintains the fiction that there is an objective world on which different points of view are possible (thus leaving the ideal “view from nowhere” in the background as a regulative ideal), the latter claim affirms beings and things as points of view that are co-constituted with the world(s) that occupy them. Following Latour, Jaarsma thus emphasizes that a point of view is “what keeps you busy”—what animates your relations and modes of existing—rather than “what you own” (Jaarsma 9, citing Latour 2005, 229). By refusing its own status as a point of view, the colonizing, aperspectival objectivism of Western modernity thus succeeds in being maximally absorbing, fully occupying one’s energies and one’s perspective, at the cost of foreclosing the possibilities for being and becoming otherwise.

Jaarsma leans on Viveiros de Castro to contrast the leveling effects of secularizing modernity with an Amerindian perspectivism that conceives of the world as “composed of a multiplicity of points of view” and a universe “inhabited by diverse types of actants or subjective agents, human or otherwise” (Viveiros de Castro, 55–56). These types of being-knowing can affirm their own perspective as such, and therefore leave room for other points of view (other ways of being-knowing) without collapsing into relativism. As Jaarsma puts it, there is one perspectivist capacity (182), which both perspectival and universalizing world views share, but only the former can acknowledge this capacity as its own condition of existence and thus allow that there are also many other (recalcitrantly incommensurable) points of view (which is to say, many other beings and things as points of view, and thus many natures, and many worlds). The perspectivist point of view thus incorporates a second capacity, embodied in Amerindian shamanism (Viveiros de Castro, 60–63): the ability to move between points of view without commensuration via a single homogenizing or supposedly transcendent viewpoint; the capacity to see that there are different ways of seeing, existing, and evaluating, whose worlds and criteria for evaluation are immanent to differing perspectives.

Thus, if the secular perspective is committed to the view that all differences of perspective can in the end be commensurated from a univocal rational viewpoint, the perspectivist perspective insists that (in the words of the refrain that runs through chapter 5 of Jaarsma’s book) “the way is not the same in both directions” (Jaarsma, 182, citing Viveiros de Castro, 115). This is not just because of the incommensurable difference(s) that homonyms can reveal, when the same word is used with incompatible referents because of the divergent points of view that differing beings are (to borrow from Nietzsche, the affirmative “good” of the pre-moralizing “good or bad,” which can allow for a plurality of goods appropriate to different kinds of life, is entirely different to the moralizing “good” of “good versus evil,” which sets up a single normative horizon via the negation all other possible “goods”). If secular liberal humanism will always try to commensurate in such cases (if not by eliminating one usage as erroneous, then via distinctions between myth and science, or literal and metaphorical), perspectivalists need to be careful not to re-play the “god trick” at this critical juncture by implying that there could be an external position from which to “properly” appreciate the disjunct. As Viveiros de Castro puts it, there is no “fixed point of view between beings” (2014, 157) from which to make any such judgment. This is why it is crucial that Jaarsma emphasizes that the interval between homonyms is available only to a perspectivist perspective (Jaarsma 180; only one who affirms that there can be multiple “goods” for different types of life can see the moral “good” of the ascetic as a conception of value that is required by a very specific type).

Thus, it is not just that “the indigenous perspective understands that what the Whites call ‘gift’ is actually merchandise” (Jaarsma, 182, referencing Viveiros de Castro, 91), but that such a perspective is able to maintain the gap between the gift-merchandise relation immanent to white colonialism and its own conception of things. This contrasts with the secular-colonizing assumption that such moments of “understanding” constitute “progress”: a stage along the way to civilization, bringing the Amerindian closer to a properly rational worldview (this is what I take Viveiros de Castro to mean when he writes that “even when misunderstandings are transformed into understandings . . . the equivocations [understood as both the interval between incommensurable language games and the concepts used to equivocate between them] do not remain the same” 2014, 91). The way is not the same in both directions.

From a perspectivist perspective, then, there is an asymmetry between universalist and perspectivist points of view, for only the latter “is open to the divergence . . . that characterizes becoming itself” (Jaarsma, 180).3 Moreover, as Jaarsma emphasizes, by being open to the incommensurable interval—the inter esse—between perspectives, perspectivism fosters an interest in existing by holding open spaces for divergent becoming (more actively, the perspectivist may seek not just to hold open but to amplify the inter esse by sparking resistance and recalcitrance between perspectives; 196–97). As we have seen, secular objectivity, in contrast, is dependent on concealing its own character as point of view and thus inevitably does violence, as it can sustain this illusion only by commensurating difference(s). As Sarah Kofman puts it in her reading of Nietzsche on the difference between the artistic and anti-artistic types: “We are thus all artists, whether we would be or not” (Kofman 1988, 189). The critical difference lies in whether one is capable of affirming the creative process of selecting, filtering, and interpreting that is immanent to any mode of being-knowing and its accompanying world, or whether one claims to see reality “as it is,” thereby disavowing “the perspective that is part of the vital condition of all that lives” (Kofman, 189).

It is here (and partly with Nietzsche in mind) that I would like to suggest a modest divergence from a particular moment in Jaarsma’s book—albeit in the interests of thinking with her suggestion that we conceive of the singular existences we call “bodies” as “stories, all the way down” (Jaarsma 34). In the course of the final chapter, Jaarsma focuses on incommensurable difference as the interval between homonyms as well as between beings, each of which allows for the amplification of divergent becomings and the decolonization of secularizing-universalizing thinking and practices (182–83). At times, she also situates this gap between existence (understood as the actuality of becoming) and knowledge, understood as the attempt to grasp or represent that actuality by an objective observer (186). The irony is that such a would-be objective knower necessarily disappears “precisely at the point where her observations render her narrative in the most objective terms.” Entirely closing the gap between existence and knowledge would render (objective) observation impossible, dissolving both the position of the knower and the objective actuality of the (no longer) observed (187).

In contrast, Jaarsma suggests that the existentialist perspective “embraces the gap between existence and knowledge” (188) as another interval that holds open the possibility of amplifying becoming. It is here that I want to suggest we might take a different direction, allowing the dream of objectivity to play itself out to its fullest extent so as to produce an immanent self-overcoming. By allowing the observer-observed distinction to collapse, we can more fully appreciate the implications of insisting that there are no points of view “on” things, as both things and beings are points of view. If in the moment when the gap between knowing and existing collapses, the observer and her story “disappear altogether” (187), this allows us to see the falsity of the distinction between them and to appreciate that “her” story never did belong (only) to her and certainly was not simply her “own,” but was generated by the same relations and differings, the same expression of values, as constituted her reality, her world. Beings and things as points of view; existing-knowing as inseparable. The self and its “own” story disappear into the plural relations that co-constitute singular beings and things (and the worlds they inhabit) as stories “all the way down.”

In this way, allowing the gap between knowledge and existence to collapse preserves (and perhaps intensifies) the inter esse between differing existing-knowings and divergent beings-worlds. Thus, rather than closing down the possibilities for becoming, I want to suggest that such a collapse more fully affirms an immanent perspectivism in ways that amplify such possibilities in two directions at once.4 First, genealogically: that is, by exposing the relation between anything that can be identified (always and only from a specific perspective) as a “being,” “body,” or “thing” and the multitude of relations that make it who or what it is (that constitute it as a point of view). As apparently inviolable identity is undone into the “dissension” and “disparity” that stands “at the historical beginning of things” (Foucault 2010, 79), so possibilities for becoming-otherwise open up: relations that are woven into the becoming of an existing being/body/thing, yet disavowed and constitutively forgotten so to allow that being/body/thing to coalesce as a point of view, can come back into view, carrying with them the potential to change that being/body/thing in its relation to itself and to others.

Second, such a persectivist-genealogical approach allows both for the incommensurability between beings/things/worlds generated by differing patterns of relations (where relations are understood as the conjoined generation of differing-likening, diverging-kinning); and for the possibility that “improper” relations may form between the relations that constitute one mode of being (one body or world) and those that engender another. Incommensurable as they are, relations between them (which is to say, relations between their constituting relations) may still change, and they may become otherwise. What matters—from a perspectivist perspective—is whether these shifts in relation disavow the perspective that is the condition of all that exists by working towards assimilation and leveling, or cultivate the existence of/as the inter esse by amplifying possibilities for divergent becoming.

Part of what is at stake here is a worry that the language of “point of view,” even when carefully reworked via thinkers like Viveiros de Castro and Latour, still has an overly epistemological character, retaining an implicit gap between that which is viewed or which “busies” us and the me/us/body (social or individual) that operates as the “point” that is so occupied. This concern is noted by Viveiros de Castro when he comments on the need to turn from “the quasi-epistemological notion of perspectivism to a veritable ontological one—multinaturalism” (2014, 70). Yet I remain cautious about the return to a language of multiple natures (even when seen through an anti-essentialist lens as ontogenetically produced through divergent becomings, rather than as fixed or given), because of the ontogenesis of nature itself as a moral concept (even the reconceptualization of nature as variation that Viveiros de Castro and Grosz offer seems to sit too comfortably with the globalizing morality of expansionist capitalism, whose imperative to productivity is dependent on constant adaptability and change).5 Instead of an ontological return to nature, I would prefer to stay with Jaarsma’s ontogenetic approach, and couple it with an account of being and things as perspectives all the way down, in ways that allow us to marry a concern to amplify becoming with genealogical critique; to couple attentiveness to the relations that make us who we are and those that could make us otherwise with vigilance towards the ways in which the “differences that make a difference” (Jaarsma 9) are so often the site of differential distributions that produce violence or harm. No ground to stand on, but innumerable rifts to navigate as sites of equivocation and divergent becoming; impassioned existence as the ecological-political existence of the in-between,6 instead of a degodded world.


Work Cited

Abouheif, Ehab et al. 2014. “Eco-Evo-Devo: The Time Has Come.” In Ecological Genomics, edited by C. Landry and N. Aubin-Horth. New York: Springer.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the University Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bordo, Susan. 1987. The Flight to Objectivity. Albany, NY: SUNY.

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Colebrook, Claire. 2008. “On Not Becoming Man: The Materialist Politics of Unactualized Potential.” In Material Feminisms, edited by S. Alaimo and S. Heckman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Daston, Lorraine. 1992. “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective.” Social Studies of Science 22: 597–681.

Foucault, Michel. 2010. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In The Foucault Reader, edited by P. Rabinow. New York: Vintage.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time. Durham: Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575–99.

Huffer, Lynne. 2015. “Foucault’s Fossils: Life Itself and the Return to Nature in Feminist Philosophy.” Foucault Studies 20: 122–41.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by G. C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kofman, Sarah. 1988. “Baubo: Theological Perversion and Fetishism.” In Nietzsche’s New Seas, edited by M. A. Gillespie and T. B Strong. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. “What Is Given in Experience?” Boundary 2 32 (1): 223–37.

Oyama, Susan. 2000. The Ontogeny of Information. Durham: Duke University Press.

Parker, Emily. 2017. “Precarity and Elemental Difference: On Butler’s Re-writing of Irigarayan Difference.” Political Theory 45.3: 319–41.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 319–34.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics. Translated by P. Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal.

Wynter, Sylvia, and David Scott. 2000. “The Re-enchantment of Humanisim: An Interview.” Small Axe 8: 119–207.

Yergeau, Melanie. 2013. “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33 (4).

  1. For an important critique of Grosz’s mobilization of a concept of “life itself,” see Huffer 2015.

  2. We might gloss this practice of commensuration with Irigaray (1985) as a “logic of the Same” or with Wynter (2000) as the projections/reflections of Man1 and Man2.

  3. This is to say that perspectivism escapes the objectivism/relativism binary, avoiding the latter while not falling into the trap of putting itself forward as an objective theory; rather, perspectivism contains the immanent criteria through which it evaluates both perspectivist and universalizing perspectives.

  4. One way of understanding this would be that it connects two key moments in Kierkegaard that Jaarsma highlights: the relations through which “we relate to ourselves as becoming-selves” (8) and those through which we relate to “the power that established us” (10).

  5. Thus the importance of Claire Colebrook’s suggestion (2008) that the truly resistant materialist figure may be the inert matter that refuses an “always-productive becoming” (64).

  6. On the importance of undoing the political/ecological binary to think both together, see Parker 2017.

  • Ada S. Jaarsma

    Ada S. Jaarsma


    Response to Rachel Jones

    This response by Rachel Jones is startlingly generative. In addition to reconstructing its critical project, Jones gets to the heart of a problem that the book stages, without fully acknowledging or thinking it through. As I suggest below, there is something at play in the very mode by which Jones reads the book that exemplifies the significance of her intervention.

    The problem, drawn out in Jones’ response, has to do with the relations between three different claims that Kierkegaard after the Genome elaborates: first, that we are bundled sets of relations, rather than discrete or bounded individuals, and that these bundled sets are embedded in concrete scenarios that emerge in the flux of development; second, that our developmental relations are perspectival, expressing “stories” about existence that are replete with existential significance; third, that while these “stories” are available only to particular perspectives, because there is no “god’s eye view” or master story, there is an inter esse or in between to which we relate with varying degrees of openness or recalcitrance.

    Jones makes the case for a small but significant change to one passage, in the book’s final chapter. Rather than affirming a gap between existence and knowledge (Jaarsma 2017, 188), Jones suggests, I might accept a certain logical conclusion to the book’s perspectivist commitments and acknowledge that existence and knowledge are so entwined that there is no gap to identify or attempt to maintain. I am struck, and convinced, by this suggestion. This revision resonates in interesting ways with Ann Burlein’s response to the book. Burlein also points to the need for the genealogical dimensions of the project to receive more attention. And this is precisely what Jones’ suggestion offers.

    Here is what is at stake in this response to the book. Each chapter explores existence in terms of stories, all the way down: ontogenetic chronicles, as Susan Oyama puts it (2010, 417). In these explorations, the book takes cues from a shift at work across continental philosophy and critical science studies, a shift that Jones and I are both fascinated and persuaded by: a shift from “ontology” to “ontogeny” (see Manning 2009, 10). There are many reasons to work, methodologically, with this shift. First and foremost, from my own vantage point, existentialist philosophy becomes newly relevant to critical inquiry into the biosocial and developmental dynamics of life itself when ontogeny receives sustained attention. (The chapters on epigenetics and on placebos make this case in particular.) Second, significant ramifications of emerging research on ontogeny in evolutionary and molecular biology are more open for reflection when they are read in light of existentialist insights into “becoming,” especially in terms of their import for disability studies and decolonial thought. (The first and final chapters, in particular, think this through.) But there is a third reason for working with ontogeny, rather than ontology, and this is where Jones’ correction of the book’s last chapter is particularly helpful.

    I spend a lot of time, throughout the book, on a point that is pressing but also difficult to cache out in any simple way. It has to do with the fact that some ontogenetic chronicles are entirely indifferent to ontogeny itself. (As Jones points out, I make use of Kierkegaard’s account of despair to describe these dynamics of indifference.) And so, along these lines, one of the book’s ambitions is to examine a range of concrete scenarios as expressions or relations of despair. I am invested in using existentialist insights into despair to confront “white fragility,” for example, recently described by Kate Manne as a kind of ethical brittleness (2018, 239). This mode of ethicality yields horrific kinds and degrees of violence, upholding exclusionary and pseudoscientific conceptions of “race” and “whiteness.” And yet, it is difficult to unsettle and undo expressions of white fragility, precisely because they manifest what Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine describe as the “whiteness of whiteness” (2015, 15). These expressions relate to themselves (and to the worlds that they help create and maintain) as universalizing and therefore unsusceptible to moral or political condemnation. But by upholding this “fantasy of the universal,” the whiteness of whiteness re-instantiates the racial imaginary (2015, 22).

    In the book, I describe the perspectivism of white fragility in the existentialist terms of despair, or bad faith. But what Jones’ suggestion underscores, in the context of the book’s reflections on despair (despair that does not recognize itself as such), is the genealogical aspects of such scenarios, something that is less available for scrutiny without her amendment. It’s important to note, Jones points out, that our “stories” do not belong to ourselves as individuals but rather are generated “by the same relations and differings, the same expression of values,” as constitute our realities and worlds. “Beings and things as points of view,” Jones writes; “existing-knowing as inseparable.” Loffreda and Rankine make this point as well, pointing to the entanglement of inheritance (what shapes existence or being) with imagination (points of view or knowing). “Our imaginations are creatures as limited as we are,” they write (2015, 16), a limitation that we can scrutinize through genealogical methods. But, they continue, “our imaginings might test our inheritances, to make way for a time when such inheritances no longer ensnare us” (2015, 22). This entanglement, in other words, is a resource for critique, but only if neither inheritance nor imagination receive sole attention; by advocating for a revision that affirms this entanglement, Jones urges the book into more resonance with this approach to critique.

    Without this amendment to the book’s final chapter, its argument risks retaining an overly epistemological, even voluntarist, tenor to “perspective,” as Jones points out. (In the book, I call out voluntarist accounts of knowledge as secularizing and aligned with colonial imperatives [2017, 20–24; 171–83]. It’s important, in other words, that the book not contain passages that inadvertently endorse such accounts.) It also risks denying, ultimately, that there are kinds of despair that do not recognize themselves as such. By taking up Jones’ formulation to understand knowledge and existence as entwined, we can more adequately acknowledge the inherited and ongoing material and relational devastation wrought by the racial imaginary.

    While this suggestion by Jones brings genealogy into the book’s central argument more directly, it also affirms the importance of ontogeny. These terms, genealogy and ontogeny, reflect differing disciplinary contexts and methods: “genealogy” is a philosophical term, referring to the conditions of possibility, historical and epistemic, by which perspectives and practices emerge; “ontogeny” is a scientific term, referring to the developmental trajectory of organisms. These terms refer to differing orders of phenomena, but they both point us towards the contingent, nonlinear complexities of existence/knowledge.

    One of the key commitments of the book is to bring “ontogeny” into conversation with critical social theory. This is not a self-evident task, since the complexities of ontogeny are often ignored or mischaracterized. Consider for example this recent declaration by Susan Oyama, one of the leading theorists of the developmental or epigenetic turn in molecular and evolutionary biology: “If ontogeny is just the read-out of pre-existing genetic information, it would seem that it can have scant import in the phylogenetic drama” (2016, 94). Oyama is, of course, flagging this characterization of ontogeny as not only outdated (preceding the Human Genome project and subsequent post-genomic scientific findings) but also incorrect. Whereas the central dogma of twentieth-century biology understood ontogeny in these terms, as the read-out of preexisting genetic information, we can look to epigenetics and research on developmental systems more broadly and affirm that ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny. There is the push and pull of inheritance, the developmental constraints of what scientists call “canalization,” but there are also the emergent, responsive relations that each organism enacts—relations that constitute developmental feedback loops. We “make” worlds for ourselves and others, as we develop, Oyama writes (2016, 95).

    This declaration affirms the role of ontogeny in the dramas of existence. Jones’ proposition proffers a way to extend this affirmation to the very activities of philosophical and critical inquiry. Oyama’s use of the word “read” in this passage is not innocuous. Indeed, taking cues from Oyama’s phrasing, it seems to me like the pushback to the book that Jones’ response proffers is one that might be described as a kind of feedback loop. Reading a text, written by another, is not a matter of adhering solely to the terms or logics laid out in the text—as if reading were a “read-out” or replication of already-established claims expressed by another. Nor is it a matter of asserting one’s claims as a reader, entirely apart from one’s encounter with the text—as if reading had no “phylogenetic” or genealogical dimensions that help shape the reader’s capacities and insights. As an engaging reading, rather than a “read-out,” Jones’ response opens the book up in ways that I hadn’t imagined: a kind of feedback loop whose effects on the ongoing development of this project I look forward to.


    Works Cited

    Loffreda, Beth, and Claudia Rankine. 2015. Introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap, 13–22. Albany: Fence.

    Manne, Kate. 2018. “Melancholy Whiteness (or, Shame-Faced in Shadows).” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 96(1): 233–42.

    Manning, Erin. 2009. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Boston: MIT Press.

    Oyama, Susan. 2010. “Biologists Behaving Badly: Vitalism and the Language of Language.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 32: 401–24.

    ———. 2016. “The Lure of Immateriality in Accounts of Development and Evolution.” In Mattering: Feminism, Science and Materialism, edited by Victoria Pitts-Taylor, 91–103. New York: New York University Press.