Symposium Introduction

To be is to be repeated. This is Catherine Pickstock’s central assertion in Repetition and Identity. Paradoxically, identity, individuality, distinctiveness, and so on are secured not through absolute singularity but through “non-identical repetition.” In Pickstock’s words, “A thing or res . . . is constituted through non-identical repetition through time” (29). For anything to be recognizable to us, it requires continuity with other things, with past and future instantiations of a similar sort. The whole process of identification—that is, the whole enterprise of getting by in the world on a daily basis—depends upon familiarity, but also upon variation.

In exploring this common philosophical theme, Pickstock intentionally takes up Kierkegaard’s challenge, in his novella Repetition, “to develop simultaneously an ontology and theology of repetition” (xi). She concludes that “repetition” is an “equally ontologically primordial category” as res, that it is in “the basic ontological or reological category” (11). Claiming that “reology”—or “the study of things”—“is more fundamental than ontology” (14), Pickstock’s understanding of the thingness of things is extended not only to concrete, inanimate objects but also to language, time, human subjectivity (“the human thing”), and God (“the supreme thing”) (86, 12).

Pickstock implicitly situates her account of repetition over against two primary alternatives. On the one hand, she wishes to rule out the “mass identical repetition” or “mechanical reproduction” that seems to mark the modern condition (41). As so many dystopic novelists portray it, “modern life” has become “comprehensively bureaucratic, technologized, and capitalized,” such that humans are “docketed, tracked, timedtabled” and finally “substitutable for everyone else in the manner of capitalist wage slaves or communist cadres” (88). Henri Bergson refers to this sort of “merely identical repetition” as “the enemy of things”—and, indeed, of humanity (41). It is here that Pickstock’s account is particularly compelling, in her insightful phenomenological counterexamples of the “repetition-with-variation” of houses, waves, skeletons, people, and so on (23). While these descriptions are all offered on the way to a certain Christian-Platonist metaphysics, it is clear that Pickstock has no interest in the sort of spirit-matter binary that would render us inattentive to the beauty and manifold variegations of material reality.

On the other hand, Pickstock is persistently dissatisfied with postmodern versions of non-identical repetition. In contrast to an “immanentist” alternative—which she associates with Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and certain strains of phenomenology—Pickstock insists that transcendence is essential to material integrity and distinctiveness (61-62). She maintains that the intelligibility of every res depends upon a stable “exemplar” that is “transcendent” (33). Referring of course to Plato’s doctrine of Forms as well as a Christian doctrine of divine ideas, she says, “the secure identity of a thing is curiously transcendent to itself, an identity in which the material thing itself only participates” (63). Thus regarding things as “signs” (47), Pickstock circles toward an analogical—and finally: incarnational—account of sense and reference that grounds the identity and distinctiveness of everything in the fullness of God.

This arc will not be surprising to Pickstock’s readers or to anyone familiar with the metaphysical vision of “Radical Orthodoxy,” a contemporary movement in philosophy and theology with which she is associated. Reiterating many themes prominent in her other writings, throughout the book Pickstock synthesizes Plato and Aquinas while taking aim at a host of “secular” and “modern” philosophical positions including, among others, nominalism, realism, Saussurean semiotics, and poststructuralism. But what makes Repetition and Identity interesting is that it is offered as a challenge not simply to theology and philosophy “without metaphysics,” but also to daily life without metaphysics. As Pickstock says, “To live is to construct an ontology” (2). Even the most mundane tasks depend upon the recognizability of things, and this is the basic experience for which she attempts to account in this work.

As the four scholars who engage Pickstock in this symposium each note in different ways, Repetition and Identity is a profoundly recursive text. The prose enacts the “serpentine line” of every res that Pickstock describes (32). Engaging an impressively expansive range of interlocutors, her thought winds across the canons of Western philosophy, theology, and literature—sometimes in a single paragraph. The reader may deem this dense circuitousness a “line of beauty,” to use William Hogarth’s phrase (30). Or perhaps it will be judged a “difficult stylistic performance,” as it is by one contributor, the “opacity” of which finally obscures the point. Either way, it is clear that its content has incited strong responses all around.

Aaron Simmons, writing from the field of postmodern philosophy of religion, explores the ontological and epistemological implications of Kierkegaard’s account of repetition through the ordinary example of the kiss. In so doing, he invites Pickstock to respond to a number of pressing questions related to both the style and the argument of the book. Silas Morgan’s primary research interests include critical theory and continental philosophy. His contribution inquires into the political implications of understanding subjectivity in terms of repetition. He wants to be sure any understanding of time and subjectivity (and therefore history and society) as repetition does not foreclose on “the New,” the genuine “political Act.” Margret Adam’s response is more theologically focused. She highlights the centrality of the incarnation for Pickstock’s theory of the existing thing. But detecting a tone of triumphalism, Adam expresses concern that the absolute assurance of continuity in the Christological patterning of being and time does not do justice to experiences of complete rupture, for example horrific violence and death. Jeffery Hanson’s main areas of expertise include philosophy of religion, contemporary continental philosophy, French phenomenology, and Kierkegaard. Hanson lauds a number of Pickstock’s comments on Kierkegaard as “perspicacious” and “expert.” However, at other points he offers a somewhat different reading of Kierkegaard, particularly when it comes to identity and contradiction as well as the relationship between “nature” and “spirit.” Together, these responses mirror the surprising breadth of subjects traversed in this short book.


About the Author

Catherine Pickstock is the author of After Writing: on the liturgical consummation of philosophy, and several other books and articles in philosophical theology. She is a University Reader in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.



In Search of Death

ACCORDING TO REPETITION AND IDENTITY,  to be a thing is to repeat, differently but recognizably, the same. Persons—and all other things, are persons and all other things, in continuity that incorporates and perseveres through change. Catherine Pickstock shows how the perseverance of life is sustained in God’s eternal creating and through Christ’s once and always saving. She sketches thingness, person-ness, with light strokes, to allow for ongoing changes and the limitations of human perspective. She highlights with bolder strokes the particularity of persons that marks the constancy of personal identity. And she situates all identities, individually and gathered together as one, in Christ, affirming Kierkegaard’s proposal that “human identity, and the identity of all things . . . is secured through the historical reduplicating, and so continuous representation of the atonement achieved by the God-Man” (147).

Pickstock’s emphasis on the continuation of life reflects an understanding of salvation and God’s eternal glory, which she shares with Kierkegaard and some Patristic writers, that with Christ, all things will be well: “everything returns as good in the identical repetition of time by eternity” (182). A superficial reading of the book might give the impression that Pickstock supposes the sort of universal salvation that leads with eschatological optimism and downplays both death and the resurrection victory of the dead. We sometimes see this approach when Easter is celebrated without Holy Week, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, or when (as was the case in one church I attended) confession is always omitted from worship because it dampens the positive feelings of the Eucharist. There is nothing glib or simplistic about Repetition and Identity, and it deserves more—as well as more careful—readings. And yet, multiple readings have not revealed a substantive role for death in this account of life. Does death ever threaten and challenge the repetition of things? Is it ever the case that death, in Repetition and Identity, so thoroughly breaks the non-identical repetition of a person that continuity beyond time seems impossible, and the efficacy of the seems beyond reach?

Nature, in Repetition and Identity, seems not to die at all. Pickstock describes nature’s undulation, the wave-like, serpentine character of a non-identically repeating thing which moves and regathers itself, changes and remains the same as the very nature of its being. The very character of natural life connects what might seem like the death of one organism to the life of another. “The generative self-shaping of the organism [is] still somewhat subordinate to an ongoing work of regeneration in which the ‘next’ organism repeats the internal genetic processes of the preceding one, while also repeating its external form or general habitude” (34). This rhythm of ordering and transitioning, of continuity through difference, gives the impression that what might have been death is already preempted by new generation, and therefore not really death.

If we were to extend the images of regenerating organisms to things which are persons, we might anticipate a more distinct death, at least a pause between the end of an individual’s life and whatever there might be afterwards, rather than the no-gap-at-all undulation of a flower’s fading and its re-incorporative, regenerative new life in the soil. The death of a person might be an end which clarifies the identity that was continuing in non-identical repetition. And, for those still alive, another’s death might be a sign of what it is to be alive oneself. Pickstock notes from the beginning of the book that to live is to distinguish one from another: “To inhabit our finitude and be reconciled with it, we need to identify external objects (including other subjects), and we have, in a mirroring manner, to identify ourselves. The external acts of recognition, and our internal access to a specific identity, seem to depend upon one another” (1). Accordingly, might think of death as distinguishing life from non-life, and of life as that which is framed by the edges of death.

Pickstock, however, does not make a connection between distinguishing oneself as a matter of self-identification and establishing the edges of life and death. She argues against the possibility of discovering one’s definitive moment of beginning or ending, and she points out the impossibility of finding one’s own edges. While she recognizes the desire to establish the origin of a thing and its first repetition, she explains that people, like all things, are created by God who has no beginning or end. Persons, therefore, can claim neither an identity prior to a first repetition, nor a first repetition, since the source of a person’s identity and repetition has no beginning. Similarly, she argues, we cannot identify the last, closing repetition of a thing. “The quest for the hidden place of pure original inspiration, and the elaboration of a culminating crown in the concluding future, summon a circular journey where the going out is also the return. Transcendence is invoked in the coincidence of both gestures” (156). God meets creation in that coincidence, as Jesus Christ, God Incarnate; humans meet true humanity. To fulfill true human identity, one must be a disciple of Christ, to non-identically repeat his life through the particulars of one’s own life. To regard oneself is to regard Christ, and “the only way to regard Christ is in a sense to become him, to reduplicate him as a disciple and an apostle” (146–47). It would seem then that death, in Repetition and Identity, is not at the edge of a person (even if we could discern the edge); but God is, and God has no edges.

Looking elsewhere, we might interpret Pickstock’s account of Adam and Eve in the Garden as experiencing a kind of death when they refuse to participate in God’s creation (176). Non-participation means non-repetition, on the terms of Repetition and Identity, and non-repetition means non-existence.

Because Eve and Adam have refused the procedure of continuity in time itself—namely, participation in the glory of God—they cannot themselves recoup this procedure by an individual action which would vainly seek to express it through recapture. Rather, God himself must rehearse to undo their lapse (176).

God undoes the lapse through Jesus Christ: Mary accepts, for Israel, the invitation to participate in the glory of God and receives the Incarnation, the human life that is divinity. Mary is thus the mother of the life which does not die, the life that reverses the refusal of Adam and Eve.

God here restores to us continuity through recapitulation, a restoration which itself opens us to our own innocent desire to recapitulate, or non-identically repeat. The recapitulatory action reaches its climax when a human being, Jesus Christ, “impersonated” (or “hypostasized”) by the divine Logos, is obedient to God the Father in his weakness, dangling on the tree of death, thereby undoing through backwards traverse Adam’s disobedience to God and loss of the tree of life, when he was in a position of created strength (180).

If Adam and Eve’s refusal is their death, then perhaps it is the first death, the one that Christ’s death reduplicates through his fully human and fully divine death, which reincorporates and restores human life. Christ’s Passion and death might be the non-identical, reconstituting repetition of Adam and Eve’s refusal-death; this time death would not lead to separation from God, but to eternal closeness with God. But, Pickstock would likely note that not only can humans not find their origin and originary repetition, they also cannot—need not—determine the first death and its first repetition. The origins and ends she describes are in and of the Triune God. Their repetitive motion—their existence—carries persons over and through any threat of death. Adam and Eve and the rest of us continue repeating, thanks to the undoing and redoing of Jesus Christ. Reform, rather than death, characterizes the return, restoration, and recapitulation in Repetition and Identity. Christianity itself is a “movement of endless re-forming and repairing a broken, but never completely ruined prior reality” (175). Adam and Eve’s refusal to participate in God’s creation is not a death that completely ruins reality.

Death can be understood as stopping life. When Paul Griffiths, in his 2012–13 Stanton Lectures on “The End,” explores human death, he describes it as the separation of body and soul, when the person no longer is a person, no longer is at all. This death is a complete stop. The person ceases to be a person, because neither the body alone or the soul alone is the person. Death as the cessation of a person might be, in Pickstock’s terms, when the non-identical repetition of the person comes to a complete stop, when there is no more repetition of any sort. No more undulation, no more movement and return, gathering and regathering, or continuity—whether identical or nonidentical. A dead person would be a thing that does not repeat. In this case, the resurrection of the body might reinstate the person as repeatable, as the reunion not only of body and soul but also of a consistent, continuing identity. Life after death might be life begun again, repeating again; new life in Christ eternal might be compared to jumpstarting a heart.

Pickstock does not posit death as the separation of body and soul or death as non-continuity, non-repetition; but she does address the character of repetition in eternal life, and at some points it seems that the eternal life of repeating-identity persons aligns with the eternal life of a person as reunited body and soul that Griffiths describes. His description of the end of a person at the end of time involves no more change, and we might imagine that identically-repeating person after death, beyond time, as one who no longer needs the non-identical repetition necessary for existing in time and space. Repetition and Identity death might be the transformation from this life’s non-identical repetition to eternal life’s identical repetition with God, after the death of time and change. However, Pickstock seems to lean more toward a life of non-identical repetition for persons who are embraced by God’s infinite and eternal identical repetition. Thus, there would be no stop or death of non-identical repetition, but reformed, renewed, and ongoing non-identical repetition through Jesus Christ, who allows persons to move into a fuller participation in God’s divine reality.

Surely, if there is death anywhere, it is Jesus Christ’s deadly, all-the-way dead, death on the cross, but when Pickstock refers to Christ on the cross, she does not address pain, suffering, loss, or the utter absence of life. Instead, she offers the Patristic image of Christ as the corrective to the Fall, which is a perversion of the non-identically repetitive, undulating movement that is truest to creation.

The allegorical association of Christ with the figura of the serpent, at once natural and artificial (taken up by many Church Fathers), suggests that the devil’s imitation of the serpent was a false copying of the human and cosmic Urform, the form of the res as such, which has been philosophically situated as “serpentine” in character. Christ’s crucifixion inverts this inversion through recapitulation, and allows the true created serpentine progress to be resumed, removing even the curse from the ground (or from material reality) made by God after the Fall (183).

Christ’s death is more of a pivotal serpentine turn than a definitive death; it is a divinely radical reconstitution of existence. Death is already redeemed. Life is already renewed. Any apparent break in identity is pre-mended and carried through by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s life and death seem to repeat—in a divinely intensified manner—the always-already regeneration of the natural world.

This brief search of Repetition and Identity for death in all the usual death places has not uncovered a death so devastating as to render any hope for life impossible, save for the imponderably salvific love of God. The book’s emphasis on the continuity of identity seems to soften the sharpness and lessen the loss of death. A person remains a person; continuity does not end, but continues in an ebb and flow of passage and renewal. There is little suspense about the ongoing constitution of persons and all things, before, within, and after time and space. Instead, a dead person resembles the “mostly dead” condition of Westley in “The Princess Bride.” The less savvy audience fears he will die a permanent death; the more savvy audience knows that “mostly dead” allows for the revivification that the plot requires. Repetition and Identity shows how God sustains the life of all persons and all things through Jesus Christ, through non-identical repetition ever moving toward the culmination of truest identity in the presence of God. In the main, certainty of continuity overshadows and subsumes death to the extent that death has no sting to lose, and the defeat of death is of little consequence.

There is one section of the book in which Pickstock points toward a death that exercises some dominion that only Christ could defeat. In chapter 5, in the midst of describing the repeated self, Pickstock cautions against human attempts at identical-repetition in this life, in which acquiescence to impersonal uniformity washes out the particularity of non-identical repetition.

If human life consisted in these quasi-identical repetitions, and no other, it would be comprehensively bureaucratic, technologized, and capitalized. We would be docketed, tracked, and timetabled, and would become substitutable for everyone else in the manner of capitalist wage slaves or communist cadres. We would identically repeat others, and in principle any person could repeat any other. Moreover, the inhabited life of each person would be a mechanical performance, reiterated from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, and any vaunted variations would perhaps be irrelevant and irregular or even illegal distractions. (88.)

Pickstock’s scenario is only partly speculative; it is also, chillingly, a realistic image of contemporary life. This is the backdrop for a perversion of repetition that eliminates particularity and exhibits the most deadly death I can find in the Repetition and Identity. The inhabitants of this world of substitutable identity long to escape it and the death of particularity it imposes. Those desiring to escape cannot ever reach beyond the “regulated and commodified” options for escape, the set experiences of difference that are really identical repetition in holiday wrapping. Pickstock draws on the novels of Robbe-Grillet and Bolano to illustrate the worst manifestation of escape in this context: illicitly authorized sexual violence against women (88–89). Privileged and powerful men can try to fulfill their desire for non-identically repeated individuality by destroying women, by ending what shreds of particularity the women might sustain in a world of substitutability and imposing on them the identity of abused object. She observes that “it is as if the ‘escape’ which men have sought from tedium and regret has evolved away from the creation of fictional ideals, especially of women . . . towards the negative refusal which is realized as an act of violence, and especially violence against real women, who can never coincide with ideal ones” (89). The supposed escape of sexual violence against writes over any previous identity of the women, who become exchangeable, already destroyed, objects for destruction.

The abused women do not continue or repeat as themselves; they do not continue. The end of this repetition is death.Pickstock observes that, “if an individual person could not ‘act otherwise,’ or adopt another role, she would be reduced to one role and so be substitutable, and would be no more than a human atom in an ongoing social continuum” (92). They have been erased as they were and subsumed into another, for the other’s futile attempts at escape.

The 1995 movie, “Strange Days” provides another vivid example of death-by-identity-erasure, in which the desperate desire for non-identical identity motivates a murder of sexually violent, forced identical repetition. This film follows the use and abuse of a product, Squid, that records and shares experiences. One person wears a brain-wave recording device while engaged in an appealing (marketable) activity, sunbathing on a tropical beach or riding a roller coaster. The recorder sells the recorded experience to a broker of identically-repeatable experiences, who then sells the recordings to those who want to have those experiences on demand, without traveling or otherwise setting up the circumstances. In the increasingly bleak, dangerous, anarchical near-future world of “Strange Days,” there are few possibilities for thriving, for non-identical repetition; and the market for the fulfillment of desires explodes, as does the number of Squid addicts. As one user explains: “This is not like TV only better, this is life. It’s a piece of somebody’s life. It’s pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. I mean, you’re there you’re seeing it, you’re doing it, you’re feeling it.”

Almost all the Squid users in the movie are men, and the featured experiences involve sex, violence, and murder (often all together). These users, like those in the novels above, act out their desire for escape by brutally annihilating women. The most vile character (of many) adapts the device so that he can violently rape a woman while simultaneously transmitting his experience to her. He savagely rapes her, and at the same time he forces her to see, do, and feel what he feels, as if she is raping herself. Then, he strangles her and produces a marketable Squid of his entire experience. It is a multifold murder, of her experience, her response, her body, her mind, and her identity. Pickstock wrote of the novels that, “if an individual person could not ‘act otherwise,’ or adopt another role, she would be reduced to one role and so be substitutable, and would be no more than a human atom in an ongoing social continuum” (93). In the movie, the woman’s role is reduced further. She is her own rapist and murderer. There is nothing left of her to repeat. This death defies certainty that all will be well, as there is no longer a person to repeat, no particularity to persist, nothing remaining to be regathered and recapitulated through Christ.

Outside of novels and films, myriads of people die torturous deaths that end the possibility for return, reparation, and recapitulation. There is nothing left to continue except the lament of those who remain. It is not clear that Repetition and Identity presents a Christological death and resurrection deep and broad enough to reach and restore the persons who annihilate and those they annihilate. I am grateful for this chance to receive clarification and guidance from the author herself.


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    Catherine Pickstock


    A Response to Margaret Adam

    I am very grateful to Margaret Adam for her response to my book. She appreciates well my attempt to take a “light” approach to the “heavy” matter of ontology; my denial that there can be any “thing” before repetition and so any “first repetition,” alongside my linking of non-identical repetition to a metaphysics of self-renewing life. Here I have tried to learn from immanentistic vitalists such as Deleuze, yet have suggested that vitalism is better guaranteed by the affirmation of a transcendent source of life; this ensures that one does not need to absolutise either the past, the present, or the future, nor a seamless process of “undulation” itself, in abstraction from all its particular moments. Rather, things only have identity as both continuous and changing, yet all the “moments” of this process remain, in finite terms, ultimate. In the end, the “holding together” of things derives from their participation in the eternal forms or ideas in the mind of God—where, for Aquinas, things exist more absolutely and perfectly than they do in themselves.

    For this reason, Adam is rightly discerning to say that, for me, “death is not the edge of a person, but God is, and God has no edge.” This is indeed exactly how I see things, though I would add that the unbounded character of God does not imply a kind of vague and tasteless soup, but rather the most distinct and yet infinite and pluriform flavour imaginable—though of course unimaginable for us. This must surely contrast with a pagan or modern atheist perspective for which indeed death must define life, and life is given shape only by its whole course in time. Rather, a religious perspective (of almost any kind) can more readily face up to the fact that lives often or perhaps always end prematurely, leaving behind much unfinished business, many loose ends, irresolutions of character and unmended relationships. The heart of a person can therefore often seem to lie more in the threnody of their best aspirations, their stuttering commencements, than in their life-story seen as a rounded whole.

    In this sense, therefore, to deny that death is the true “edge” of life is to allow its interruptive gravity, on which Adam so rightly insists, and about which I may well not have said enough in this particular book. If life, as a gift from the God of infinite, super-abundant life, is inherently undying, then its horror consists partially in a rebellion against God, and so an attempted denial of reality. Yet it still more consists in the fact that, in some fashion, this rebellion succeeds; reality is indeed thwarted or apparently re-arranged.

    Here, for me, is the hub of the issue which Adam raises. She rightly insists both on the undeniable reality and the undeniable terror of death. But my main response to her would consist in the counter-question: does not insisting on the one tend to downplay the other? In other words, the more one says that death is so unavoidably real that it is final and unalterable, the more one can reduce its character as terrible: it may sink to the level of simply a natural, biological fact to which we can be resigned by saying that one will never live to suffer one’s own death, and one can find ritual and substitutionary ways to deal with the loss of others. But the more one says that death is terrible, then the more one actually starts to think of it as unnatural and in a way uncannily unreal; it scarcely squares with the infinite value of a beloved and ontologically irreplaceable person that they should just, on one particular day, vanish, never to reappear on earth again. Thus, when one sees a body in a morgue, one’s spontaneous phenomenological reaction, like that of any “primitive” person, is to see a body from whom the life, the spirit, has fled to an unknown elsewhere, rather than to see a mere body that has simply come to a full stop.

    It is religious belief, rather than atheism, which tends to sustain this experience of death as horror, as something that should not be, something that cannot be squared with the dignity of a conscious, feeling, reasoning mode of existence. Hence, within Christian theology, death as we know it is regarded as a violation of the originally intended created order and so in some sense as unnatural and even as unreal. To think otherwise would be to over-positivise death, in a way that also runs against its phenomenological manifestation as uncanny absence and ellipsis.

    It is here notable that where theology has seen death as fully natural and real, it has not seen it as terrible. This would be the death that never occurred of an unfallen Adam which would simply (according to Patristic and Mediaeval theology) denote his passage from the earthly paradise to eternal beatitude. But the post-fall death which he does suffer, is, for the tradition, bound up with his wilful fault and the consequences of that fault: by trying to be autonomous in terms of a secure identical repetition, humanity has cut itself off from the divine and vital source of self-renewal. So, static identity turns out to be termination—whether the sterile acts of possessive evil or the sterility of bodily death. Adam has here very well understood my claim that, in our own time, this sterility tends especially to be enacted by men as violence against women: a negative attempt to assert individuality in the face of identically repeated flattening, which ironically takes the form of trying to control and obliterate female difference and personal specificity.

    So for the ancient tradition, as for my perspective, the key tension is that death both is and yet cannot be—without the latter qualification it would be real and yet not terrible. However, Adam rightly insists that it is both. My only qualification of her insistence is that it cannot be fully terrible if it is an unambiguous natural terminus, or something which just as fully exists as does life. And the latter is not the case even in biological terms (since biology as yet still knows of no “reason” for death), nor philosophically, since death is not a “something,” not even an event (as Wittgenstein rightly realised), but merely the absence of something.

    Theology has read this negativity of death in terms of an aberrance: spiritual creatures and even (as for Origen) all creatures whatsoever are destined to “crown” their wavering repeated continuity in an eternal repetition which will lie unchangeably beyond our normal contract of the dynamic with the static (since this can only apply to the finite). Death is an interruption of this crowning. Yet, since the divine reality and the divine will (which is at one with this reality) cannot truly be frustrated, there has to be a sense in which this interruption is an illusion. As soon as Adam and Eve have departed from the garden, the process of restoring them to garden in the midst of the descended heavenly city has begun. Otherwise, there could be no life or continuing creation at all. Just because life is inherently auto-sustaining, the mark of the limit of death as catastrophe is the very continuance of life. In a similar way, the fall cannot issue (as some Reformers supposed) in total depravity, for otherwise there would be no continued specifically human existence whatsoever. To think otherwise would falsely be to suppose a possible human existence without ethics, without some attempt to define the good, just as to imagine that the reign of death over life is total would be to reduce life to a mechanism which eventually winds down, and indeed both Protestantism and Jansenism encouraged just such philosophies at certain points.

    To the extent that death is not just an illusion, but all too real a rupture, often heralded and echoed by great pain, as Adam rightly says, then this, for theology, is paradoxically because it is not just negative. Death is indeed the result of sin, but it is also a partial remedy for sin. In every sphere, the inadequate and flawed come to an end just by that token of partiality, through a grim kind of homeopathy. Identical repetition is sinister, but has also a limited capacity for self-renewing. It will eventually halt itself or be halted. Similarly, mortals will die a death they cannot see beyond and in this way their fallen and damaging lack of vision has a terminus.

    Suffering this terminus in part gives us a chance to repent of the death we have dealt to others, and even more to ourselves by this very dealing. The development of Kierkegaardian repetition into Pauline recapitulation in my book is supposed to indicate that one cannot blithely carry on as if nothing bad or terminal had ever happened, nor sustain the originally innocent serpentine impulse of life without now being back upon or “working through” past rupture. Hence, with Irenaeus and Origen, I was trying to insist on the need to pass through rupture, to relive Adam’s desecration of the tree of life by participating in the cross of Christ. Loss, death, tragic sundering (and Adam does not mention my discussion of the tragic in Kierkegaard) and mourning must all be passed through, if life is non-identically to renew itself. On the other hand, it is just because this possibility of self-renewal has not really been killed—just as God has not been killed, even though he has undergone death as Man—that one can indeed pass through and beyond death. Otherwise, its victory would be total and we would know nothing of it, including its horror, because, along with everything else, we simply would not be at all.

    So in formal terms, I think that my book sufficiently recognises the instance of death, though in terms of substantive tonality, more might have been intimated concerning the experience of anguish and discontinuity. There is also more to be developed on the matter of the relation between the continued life of a species and the death of an individual, as Adam suggests. However, the point made by Paul Griffiths, as quoted, would not seem to be quite right. Christian tradition has not asserted that personal existence unambiguously comes to an end with the sundering of soul from body at death, implying thereby that immortality and resurrection would be a fresh and miraculous creation ex nihilo of the “same” person by a mere divine fiat. This would surely imply an invidious and arbitrary “identical repetition” of the highest metaphysical register, where, on the contrary, theology has insisted on both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, just because the divine eternal intention of our eventual beatitude cannot be either changed or thwarted.

    It is true that there have been different opinions about whether personhood resides in the soul or in the soul-body compound, but even Aquinas, who argues the latter position, allows that the soul can exist and know, albeit imperfectly, without the body after death, even though the strange circumstance that the very immortality of the rational soul that is also the “form” of a body, requires ineluctably the eventual resurrection of the body. (See the highly sophisticated discussions of these points in Marie de L’Assomption, L’Homme, Personne Corporelle: La spécificité de la personne humanine chez Thomas d’Aquin). Of course, one can find this account of eschatological timing a little odd and awkward, and in Repetition and Identity I leant more towards Origen’s affirmation of the immortality of the body also.

    In summary, it is just because life and rational creatures cannot die that death is such an abyssal horror and contradiction. And Adam is right: its moment cannot be evaded and there is for us no renewal of growth without suffering its thwarting. But life and death, growth and decay do not lie on a single flattened and positively univocal ontological level, any more than victory and defeat, good and evil or God and the lure of nullity.

Jeffrey Hanson


Shattered and Continually Reborn Anew

My response to Catherine Pickstock’s stimulating Repetition and Identity will trace the following trajectory: I wish to ask whether, and if so in what sense, the Kierkegaardian repeated self of which she speaks so powerfully in her fifth chapter is a question of identity at all; whether the emergence of the self or spirit from nature in Kierkegaard’s way of thinking is a matter of smooth transition or transcendent leap that establishes a complex discontinuity with non-human things; whether more ought to be said about the possibility of a negative, spectral, and spectatorial shadowing of the self that represents the worst of the aesthetic person and his (and I use the male pronoun advisedly) persistence even within ethical selfhood; and finally whether more ought to be said about the unique power of the religious to redemptively repeat the aesthetic within the ethical and thus banish the spectral and spectatorial shadow-side of the aesthetic while reconciling the ideal and real, fiction and history, in a consummate realization of Pickstock’s aims. Much of what I have to say I believe furthers rather than hinders those aims.

I begin with a remarkable quote from Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript: “That the law of identity is in a certain sense superior in that the law of contradiction presupposes it is not difficult to see. But the law of identity is only the boundary; it is like the blue mountains, or the line which the artist calls the base line, the drawing being the important thing. Identity is therefore a lower view than contradiction, which is more concrete. Identity is the terminus a quo for existence but not ad quem. An existing person can maxime arrive at identity, and keep on arriving at it by abstracting from existence. . . . Instead of saying the law of identity annuls the law of contradiction, it is contradiction that annuls identity.”1

Climacus thus concedes that the law of identity is in an obvious sense presupposed by the law of contradiction; there can be no contradiction without identity, that is, there can be no consciousness without the selfsameness of the self that is conscious.2 But Climacus argues further that while identity is presupposed by contradiction, it is nevertheless not the main issue for an actually existing person; it is only the base line for the drawing. So in a more important sense, identity is a “lower view,” an abstraction compared to the concretion of contradiction. This is why Climacus says identity is a terminus a quo for existence but not a terminus a quem, that is, identity is a departure point, not a destination. For the actually existing person then, as consciousness develops it departs from at least a trivial self-coincident sense of identity, not toward it.

Now this conception may be very close to what Pickstock means by identity, a sort of identity in differentiation or identity composed on the back of repetition. But Climacus seems to argue that identity is at best presupposed by selfhood, which moves away from its trivial sense, toward contradiction, which the text Johannes Climacus3 argues is definitive of consciousness as such.4 Lurking behind these observations is Claude Romano’s argument that “selfhood is not a form of identity.”5 As Romano has further argued, there persists in the French tradition from Descartes through Levinas to Ricoeur an unwarranted assumption that identity is tantamount to immutability6; in my view this unwarranted assumption has in turn provoked a number of unnecessary “workarounds” the Cartesian problem of the self. Pickstock does not fall victim to this mischaracterization fortunately, but the question remains why in view of Kierkegaard’s discussions of the self in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, The Sickness unto Death, Johannes Climacus, The Concept of Anxiety, and yes, Repetition, none of which seem to depend heavily on the category of identity (nor require a forced “workaround” the Cartesian pitfall) but instead on contradiction, relation, and repetition, she remains loyal to the language of identity at all.

Part of the explanation is presumably her vision of the kinship between the self “thing” and all other things, but the question is still more urgent in view of the issue of how the human spirit emerges from its likeness to other things. Pickstock implies at various points that this happens in a continuum with the whole world of things. She approvingly cites for instance Hans Jonas (19, 82), and she claims forthrightly in chapter 2 that “The mark of the strength of a thing as an engrained habitude would be its spontaneity and adaptability, since a strong disposition is not merely fixed and stubborn but capable of originality and improvisation. This observed truth concerning human beings can be extended to ontology or reology because it has been concluded that the perdurance of a thing consists in its non-identical repeatability, and so in a certain style that can persist through different and unpredictable variations.”

I note in passing that the first sentence bespeaks a fascinating observation about human disposition that is thoroughly Kierkegaardian. This capacity for originality within stability is what Kierkegaard calls earnestness. From The Concept of Anxiety: “When the originality in earnestness is acquired and preserved, then there is succession and repetition . . . The earnest person is earnest precisely through the originality with which he returns in repetition.”7 Earnestness in Kierkegaard’s account is neither routine habit nor stale pedantry nor waxing and waning enthusiasm; it is the disposition that allows the self to take up again and again its tasks day after day with freshness and originality each time.

This point, I think, strengthens much of what Pickstock wants to say about the anchoring of the fictive upon the historical (with which The Concept of Anxiety is also deeply concerned, though readers rarely notice this). It is also worth observing that Kierkegaard’s example of earnestness is drawn from the liturgy: “To make everything as concrete as possible, I shall use an example. Every Sunday, a clergyman must recite the prescribed common prayer, and every Sunday he baptizes several children. Now let him be enthusiastic etc. The fire burns out, he will stir and move people etc., but at one time more and at another time less. Earnestness alone is capable of returning regularly every Sunday with the same originality to the same thing.”8 Pickstock of course has had much to say about liturgy, but here it would be useful to return to the subject, especially if as I suspect the liturgical is for Kierkegaard the necessary synchronic complement to the diachrony of history, whether we are speaking of the individual or of the race (which, after all, are both contained in every individual according to The Concept of Anxiety).9

The second sentence I quoted from Pickstock however seems more problematic, as it poses an isomorphism between the self and non-human things. Part of my concern here stems directly from Kierkegaard’s own words in response to the ill-conceived review of Repetition penned by J. L. Heiberg. Kierkegaard’s unpublished reply to Heiberg attacks him precisely on the grounds that he assigns repetition to the course of the natural world.10 As Pickstock concedes, Kierkegaard himself rarely speaks of the relation of the world of spirit to nature (though there is a brief discussion of “objective anxiety” in The Concept of Anxiety)11, but I think we can reconstruct a view of how spirit emerges from nature along the lines that Ronald Hall has suggested.12 He argues that the hallmark of Kierkegaardian transcendence is the spiritual exclusion of the sensual, an exclusion that nevertheless simultaneously dignifies the excluded as excluded.13 This dynamic I would argue is everywhere in evidence in Kierkegaard’s writings, but it implies a stronger and more complex discontinuity between nature and spirit than Pickstock acknowledges.

Such a discontinuity by leap in turn implies the possibility of a negative, spectral shadowing that would haunt the self, not just the neutral possibility of alternate selves. Pickstock cites Constantin’s observation that “this shadow-existence also demands satisfaction” as support for her contention that “for Kierkegaard, one cannot become a real person unless one plays through all the people whom one might be and might become” (81). However, given Constantin’s relentless irony and aestheticism, we might question the sincerity of this remark.14 He himself is easily entranced by the spectral, as when he spies on a beautiful young girl at the Konigstadter Theater, where he attends the show “not as a tourist, not as an esthete and critic, but if possible, as a nobody.”15 Constantin’s aspiration to nobody-existence that derives vampiric satisfaction from spectatorship, that in the darkened theater indulges the male gaze on the unaware feminine beauty, is surely not a trustworthy guide on how to become a real person.

Later in the text Pickstock is much more clear that there is a real danger to this shadow-play, that the variable possibilities for the self can undermine rather than contribute to the self’s full development (88–89).16 That I think is an important clarification, but even here the role of the religious might be more fully accounted for in recuperating aesthetic experimentation with the self. Pickstock’s analysis of the ethical in Kierkegaard makes a number of expert comments, and in her chapter 7 she revisits the potential concern that for Kierkegaard nevertheless the ethical needs to be completed by the religious. Her identification of the limits of the ethical, even in its paradigmatic consummation as marriage, is just as perspicacious as her discussion of the ethical’s importance in chapter 5, as is her analysis of Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses on the epistle of St. James. Her conclusion, that “The religious, one might say, integrates the aesthetic sublime with the aesthetic-ethical beautiful,” is spot on (134).

I think it’s worth developing the thought though that the aesthetic has to be fully recuperated by the religious on the far side of the ethical. This is true of the argumentation of Fear and Trembling, for instance, but the point is missed entirely by commentators who do not take Problema III into their consideration, a far too frequent oversight. By underscoring the recovery of the aesthetic within the religious (which, seeing as how it was already surpassed and contained within the ethical must perforce be surpassed and contained yet again within the religious), I take it that I only strengthen Pickstock’s analysis of the way in which the fictive and historical, the ideal and real, consolidate themselves in the fully realized self.

The religious life cannot be just a question of actuality but must be made possible by the collision of actuality and ideality that is determinative of consciousness itself. As we read near the unfinished end of the Johannes Climacus, “If that fallacy discussed above could remain, that ideality and reality in all naiveté communicated with one another, consciousness would never emerge, for consciousness emerges precisely through the collision, just as it presupposes the collision.”17 This collision is tantamount to the arising of repetition. Like consciousness, repetition does not occur merely in reality or in ideality alone. “When ideality and reality touch each other, then repetition occurs.”18 Repetition does not occur in reality alone because even the variety of difference is insufficient to produce it. In reality everything is different, but this does not make anything repeated. As Pickstock makes clear, repetition is always contrasted by Kierkegaard with merely mechanical reiteration. One of my passages to this effect occurs in Johannes Climacus: “If the world, instead of being beauty, were nothing but equally large unvariegated boulders, there would still be no repetition. Throughout all eternity, in every moment, I would see a boulder, but there would be no question as to whether it was the same one I had seen before.”19

It is telling that the contrast is drawn here between endlessly-distinct-but-nevertheless-the-same sensible phenomena and “beauty.” Can we surmise that beauty is precisely the non-identically repeated in its actuality rather than ideal distance?20 For the merely aesthetic, there is no actual beauty because there is only the static, timeless ideal. It is this paralyzing ideal that freezes the vamipiric gaze of Constantin, that defines the resignation of de Silentio, that represents the darkest hinter-side the shadow play that haunts the self. “In ideality alone there is no repetition, for the idea is and remains the same, and as such it cannot be repeated.”21 Pickstock and I agree I think that for the religious life alone there is goodness and beauty, where the ideal construals of these are continually shattered against the rocks of actuality and continually reborn anew.

  1. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs,” ed. and trans. Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 353–54. Translation modified.

  2. According to Johannes Climacus, consciousness just is contradiction between the ideal and the real.

  3. The point holds even if the author of Concluding Unscientific Postscript is not the same as the author of Johannes Climacus or De Omnibus Dubitandum.

  4. An excellent discussion of this issue and its vital link to “interest” (which Pickstock mentions in her Preface) can be found in Patrick Stokes, Kierkegaard’s Mirrors: Interest, Self, and Moral Vision (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 29–60.

  5. “Identity and Selfhood: Paul Ricoeur’s Contribution and Its Continuations” (unpublished paper).

  6. Romano, “Identity and Selfhood.”

  7. The Concept of Anxiety, ed. and trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 149.

  8. Ibid. Pickstock notices a parallel passage from the Journals and Papers (128).

  9. Ibid., 28–30.

  10. Fear and Trembling and Repetition, ed. and tran. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 283–319.

  11. The Concept of Anxiety, 56–60.

  12. Ronald L. Hall, “The Origin of Alienation: Some Kierkegaardian Reflections on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of the Body,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 12 (1981) 111–22.

  13. Ibid., 114–15.

  14. Pickstock also seems to give an optimistic view of the fate of the young man (139).

  15. Fear and Trembling and Repetition, 165.

  16. I especially appreciate her caution against the prospect of “violence against real women, who can never coincide with ideal ones.” The friction of the ideal and real is a theme close to my heart and I believe crucial to Kierkegaard.

  17. Johannes Climacus, 171.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Pickstock I take it would agree, and perhaps she here follows her teacher John Milbank in “The Sublime in Kierkegaard,” Heythrop Journal XXXVII (1996) 298–321, p. 319 n. 25: Milbank’s suggestion that “while ‘the religious’ for Kierkegaard exceeds the scope of the three philosophic transcendentals [the true, the good, and the beautiful], it is also the true condition for their integration: the religious alone completes the ethical, and does so by ‘bringing back’ the poetic/aesthetic in a higher guise” is one that this book aspires to develop.

  21. Johannes Climacus, 171.

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    Catherine Pickstock


    A Response to Jeffrey Hanson

    If I have read Hanson’s very generous response to my book aright, he and I are in overwhelming agreement about the way in which Kierkegaard is to be understood. And this is for me thoroughly welcome, as such a reading is, I think, by no means universally shared.

    For Hanson, as for me, the “three stages” are not finally in contradiction with one another; rather, the religious recoups the aesthetic, while integrating it with the ethical, while the ethical is a kind of higher, more poetic and performed aesthetic. He rightly draws attention to a passage in Johannes Climacus which seems to confirm that, even in the case of nature, true beauty is to be found beyond “aesthetic” stasis and embalming in the reality of non-identical repetition. Similarly, I tried to show how the apparent tension between the ethical and the aesthetic in Kierkegaard has to be (perhaps primarily) read in terms of a tension between one aesthetic and another as already appears in the debate as to the priority of painting or poetry in Lessing, Herder and Schelling, and is extended much later by Paul Celan. In effect, Kierkegaard sees “the true performed poetry” in the ethical life of marriage, though he then of course proceeds subtly to de-absolutise even that pedestrian bliss. Like me also, Hanson identifies the danger of the aesthetic as mere depiction with an ideal embalming which can support an angry violence (and especially of men against women) when reality fails to accord with this ideal.

    However, Hanson further agrees with me (despite his worry that I may exaggerate a little here) that the ideal shadow side has also a positive role to play for Kierkegaard. As he brings out very clearly, elaborating on my all-too-brief citations, for Kierkegaard, ethical subjectivity is a matter of “earnestness,” most of all represented by a liturgical tireless doing of the same thing over and over, with small but significant variations. Yet he also insists, again in keeping with my analysis, but with some further supporting citations, again from Johannes Climacus, that there can be no repetition of the real without the detour through the ideal. For it is because an apparently replete identity has an ideal dimension of the problematically unrealised—something “universal,” in opposition to nominalism—that it can indeed be repeated. Inversely, were a universal essence entirely “existent” apart from actual existence (something Aquinas notably refuses—for all his “real distinction” of existence and essence, he will not allow any total sundering, even for creatures), then it would not require any repeated “instancing,” any “exemplification,” whereas in reality it always does.

    There is yet further consensus between Hanson and myself as to the nature of subjectivity. It is indeed caught “contradictorily” between the real and the ideal, and the intensity of this capture is possibly the very mark of subjective being. The escapist ideality of the aesthetic theatre must be refused, yet all real roles are shadowed by their fictional surplus, just as I insist that each thing exists only as repeated because each thing is also already a sign of itself, of other instances of itself and of its difference from other realities. In the religious phase, the inassimilable surplus of dream and disappointment must even be integrated beyond the ethical in terms of our religious trust in, and hope for, the eternal, and the acknowledgment that we can never be finished in time.

    In consequence of this basic agreement between us, Hanson’s intelligent hesitations about my reading come across to me as also hesitations about his own approach.

    He wonders whether, for Kierkegaard, subjectivity is truly to do with “identity” and so with a sublimated “thinghood” at all. Yet since he effectively refuses a Deleuzian dissolution of non-identical repetition into a pure differential flux, and strongly supports the view that it rather denoted aesthetic-ethical “earnestness,” he surely cannot logically want to wrench subjectivity away from issues of identity altogether. He suggests that obsession with subjective identity is post-Cartesian, but I would tentatively venture just the opposite: Descartes can posit the subject as pure, contentless thinking just because he has separated subjectivity from any specific corporeal, natural or cultural investment. Is this not why Claudio Romano, a phenomenologist in a Cartesian lineage, like Michel Henry and his teacher Jean-Luc Marion, sees subjectivity as not to do with identity at all? In other words, it is just because he is still thinking in terms of a duality of subject and object, inner and outer, non-appearing and appearing, etc.

    By contrast, my trajectory on this point is more in keeping with the turn, beyond phenomenology, to a primacy of the ontological or the reological, as “with speculative realism,” except that I am neither a materialist nor an immanentist. If I am at all phenomenological, then it is in a wholly realist mode. In keeping with such a trajectory, I try to see a continuum rather than a rupture between the mode of existence of things in general, of inertly ensouled things (plants), moving things (animals), and human and angelic realities. I realise and accept that this goes beyond Kierkegaard, and this is why I enlist other voices in my construal of repetition: Gabriel Tarde and Charles Péguy in particular. At times, certainly, Kierkegaard sounds from my perspective too dualist, and I deliberately contrast his rather inconsistent disparaging of the sensual in repetition with the position of Friedrich Schlegel. Nevertheless, I try to build on his fleeting and yet striking and often metaphoric and dramatic (rather than thematic) invocations of nature in relation to repetition. And it is surely clear that his refutation of Heiberg’s misreading is a rejection of repetition as the identical repetition of Newtonian law. Clearly subjectivity is not reduced to this: yet there are hints in Kierkegaard (as John Milbank already suggests in the article alluded to by Hanson) that, on the contrary, physical nature should be read “upwards” in its approximation to the subjective realm.

    The significant citation of Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Hanson at the outset of his response is used by him to support a case for a stronger break of the subjective with natural identity than I have allowed. It is not an easy passage to interpret, but it would seem to mean, as Hanson indicates, that, while in one sense the law of non-contradiction presupposes the existence of self-identical entities (real or logical), in another, if identity is a problematic search for consistency, as it is for the human subject, then identity presupposes being non-contradictory, not opposite things at the same time and in the same way. For Kierkegaard, most certainly, as Hanson says, human life often seems to be blatant logical nonsense, trying to remain, for example with the ideal and the real both at once. Yet if, for Kierkegaard, subjective existence is finally not one of a=a, pure logical self-identity, nor of Hegelian resolution of outright contradictions, then surely, in the end, these contradictions are more for him tensional paradoxes which can remain permanently in play. The defence of Christianity as the supreme subjective paradox of the God-Man, is the subject matter (of Philosophical Fragments) to which the Postscript is a postscript, and it is just as the paradoxical confidence of the real and the ideal, of the closed and the open, the finished and yet the unfinished, that non-identical repetition most intensely defines the identity of the subject, as it does to lesser degree every single thing in reality.

J. Aaron Simmons


Kisses Sweeter than . . . Something

Kierkegaard and Pickstock on Repetition and Revision

FIRST KISSES ARE PHENOMENOLOGICALLY ODD. What makes them so strange is that, while occurring, they are indeterminate both in signification and in experience. This indeterminacy arises from the fact that the first kiss only is what it is in light of what follows from it: a relationship that includes more kisses.

A first kiss phenomenologically contains more than a simple encounter of new lips. Rather, it necessarily includes the expectation of future kisses, of the relationship that will follow from the kiss, of the eventual last kiss that will occur at some point yet to come, etc. None of these dimensions of the first kiss need to be explicitly intended by the people kissing, but, nonetheless, these aspects are still “there,” so to speak “in” the kiss itself. To engage in a first kiss is, thus, to find oneself confronted with expectation and yet also with aporia. The first kiss signals an unexpected future into which one is (usually) excited to move in order to discover what lies only embryonically contained in the kiss itself. David Wood nicely encapsulates the phenomenology of the first kiss as “the experience of the opening of a possibility, as a trembling on the brink of something inchoate but momentous, the experience of the realignment of boundaries. Space and time, self and other, activity and passivity, certainty and uncertainty are all thrown into the air, and caught again, differently.”1 Accordingly, he continues, “the first kiss solicits the tenderness of a response, a visceral recognition of the desire of the other. But it also asks a mute question a question every bit as important as “What is the meaning of Being?”2

Expectation, anticipation, trepidation, and even perplexity are all part of the experience of a first kiss. It would seem that a lot happens when pressing one’s lips against the lips of another. Perhaps this is why so many people close their eyes while kissing—they need to focus; there is a bunch going on!

Compare this phenomenology of the first kiss with a phenomenology of the last kiss. Rather than expectation and anticipation, one finds culmination and closure. Instead of trepidation about the emerging relationship, one might find trepidation about the isolation and loneliness that lies ahead, or excitement about finally being free of a toxic relationship, say. While the first kiss “inaugurates a relationship,”3 the last kiss usually ends it. The first kiss seems necessarily to bring eagerness while the last kiss is more hermeneutically complex in that it might be full of regret, longing, disappointment, or freedom and release. Indeed, the last kiss might be a “kiss goodbye,” or simply a “kiss off.” To complicate things even more, some last kisses might arise due to subsequent and unexpected injuries or even the death of one’s lover, which would yield a whole different reality in which there is a termination of the relationship and yet not of the love, etc. Yet, in that case, surely the experience of the “last kiss” would be quite different from the “last kiss” that occurs before breaking up or getting a divorce, for example.

Although such distinctions between these different things, these different events, can be articulated in much more detail, what is important about these initial descriptions is that they are not strictly true at the moment when the first kiss or last kiss occur. Instead, they are made true in light of other events and other things. The first kiss only is a first kiss if followed by a second kiss, and a third kiss, and so on. In other words, it only is what it is when it occurs again, but not for the first time. Moreover, first kisses are importantly located in the context of expectation/trepidation, but many times one can kiss someone for the first time without such a context. In this sense, the first kiss might be best explained as “just kissing” as part of a “make-out session.” We might say, thus, following Kierkegaard, that the first kiss never is, but only ever becomes. If a first kiss inaugurates a relationship, only the relationship itself constitutes the kiss (after the fact) as a “first kiss.” Without the relationship occurring, what we thought was a first kiss, was merely a matter of “making out,” say. Similarly, what we may have understood to be a last kiss might turn out to be the kiss that reignites the relationship and so could actually be properly understood as a first kiss (even if not the initial time that those two individuals touched their lips together). Or, it may have just been one more kiss that, then, turns out to be the last kiss, again potentially due to a variety of eventualities: distance, divorce, death, and so on.

The phenomenological oddity of the first kiss (and the last kiss) confronts us when we realize that there is no way to experience the kiss as what it is without having a variety of subsequent other experiences, according to which the first kiss becomes what it is, or will turn out to have been. We might say that only by being repeated (but now transformed into the “second kiss”) can the “first kiss” occur in the first place. How then are we to make sense of the first kiss, while kissing? Is there ever really an experience of the first kiss or only of there having been a first kiss? What makes these questions difficult is the fact of our existing, our “living forward,” as Kierkegaard would say.

Continuing to live forward makes the task of understanding backward (that is, making sense of things that occur because of the repetition that gives rise to their status) difficult for us at determinate instants. When we think we understand, we continue to live and so our understanding continues to progress as both we and also the thing we are attempting to understand continue to become what they will have been. What we face here is an existential interruption of epistemic certainty. As I read Kierkegaard, the upshot of this basic idea is that epistemic certainty is probably not, then, the goal for lived existence, but instead confident trust and expectancy are.4

Kierkegaard expresses the existential challenge for understanding as follows:

It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying, that it must be lived—forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in time is never properly intelligible, for the very reason that at no point can I find complete repose in which to take up the position—backwards.5

Notice here that Kierkegaard does not disagree with the retrospective requirement for understanding, but he does take issue with the idea that one could ever be existentially stable enough to obtain complete understanding in this way. Additionally, it is important that the topic that Kierkegaard finds so difficult to know is life itself.6 The knowing that occurs when I say that there are two cups on my desk, or that if I add two more that there will be four, is not his primary focus. This is important because when Johannes Climacus discusses subjective truth in the Postscript, he is not rejecting objective truth altogether, but simply pointing out its limits when inappropriately applied to matters of existence—and specifically Christian existence.7

There are epistemic and ontological consequences of this Kierkegaardian insight. Ontologically, we might say that things are what they are only as a result of what they will become. So, as we saw above, the first kiss is a first kiss if the relationship the kiss inaugurates happens. In other words, there must be a second kiss in order that the first kiss is constituted as “first.” Similarly, the last kiss is only a last kiss if the relationship the kiss ended does actually end for some reason. In other words, there cannot be a reconciliation that leads to more kissing. Yet, none of these eventualities are known while kissing. It is here that the epistemic consequences emerge. Epistemically, we might say that knowledge is only possible insofar as one continues to realize the impossibility of the “complete repose” required for retrospective understanding. As we continue to live forward, the best we can do is try to understand backward given where it is that we find ourselves. Akin to Aristotle’s claim that one could only be said to be happy after death (because the course of one’s life could now be assessed as a whole), Kierkegaard’s existential epistemology is one that depends on the dynamics of temporal location, perspectival orientation, and eschatological expectation.8 This is not to say that Kierkegaard rejects knowledge, whether objective or subjective. Instead, he simply reminds us that human knowing is something that we do while still in the situation of existing, while still in process, and, thus, while always inhabiting a perspective that is not final. You can’t get outside existence to think about existing. Life is the situation in which knowledge is possible, but it is a situation that makes knowing always a bit more complicated than the logical expression of “S knows that p.” “S” is always an existing individual and that makes a difference in how we make sense of “knows that p.” Similarly, “p” is never simply a static property, but also becomes itself by being known by “S” as what it is in relation to its own repetition in a context.

Importantly, the epistemic and ontological are interwoven such that one attempts to know that which only occurs/exists/happens in light of other known/experienced events. The tension between living forward and understanding backward, and never being able fully to achieve the latter because of the continued requirement of the former, is what animates Constantin Constantius’s account of “repetition.”9 For Constantius, repetition is distinguished from the extreme alternatives of what he terms “hope” and “recollection.” “Hope,” Constantius explains,

Is a new garment, stiff and starched and lustrous, but it has never been tried on, and therefore one does not know how becoming it will be or how it will fit. Recollection is a discarded garment that does not fit, however beautiful it is, for one has outgrown it. Repetition is an indestructible garment that fits closely and tenderly, neither binds nor sags.10

For Constantius, and Kierkegaard too, hope (when taken in isolation as a way of life) is simply a need for the new and a rejection of the continuity of existence. Alternatively, recollection is the bland monotony of the same over and over. Repetition, in contrast, is the willed engagement with the stability of meaning in light of the newness of every moment. “The person,” Constantius writes, “who has not circumnavigated life before beginning to live will never live; the person who circumnavigated it but became satiated had a poor constitution; the person who chose repetition—he lives.”11 It takes courage, then, to will repetition—to affirm the sameness amidst new encounters. Repetition, like the first kiss, entails both expectation and also aporia.

The first kiss is something that should not be sought merely because it is “first,” but instead because of the joy of the relationship that it inaugurates which opens the space for kissing, again, and again. Only in the context of that repetition can the first kiss continue to occur (with every subsequent kiss, the first kiss is kept active in the lived relationship). Similarly, but a bit more strangely, the last kiss is something that continues to happen insofar as one does not fall back into the relationship whereby it turns out that the “last kiss” was not so final. Again, it is the repetition of willing to continue to exist (to live forward) in the space opened by the repetition of the last kiss as final that one’s existence and the event of the kiss itself are co-constituted. In this way, repetition requires of each “single individual” that one demonstrate the courage to go beyond mere aesthetic hope, beyond mere ethical remembrance, and ultimately embrace the possibilities that recur in the repetition of religious trust, with the risk that always attends such trust. Constantius anticipates this Kierkegaardian trilogy of life stages when he offers God as the maximal example of repetition:

If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would not have come into existence. Either he would have followed the superficial plans of hope or he would have retracted everything and preserved it in recollection. This he did not do. Therefore, the world continues, and it continues because it is a repetition.12

Accordingly, repetition is central to all of life’s stages: “Repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also the interest upon which metaphysics comes to grief; repetition is the watchword in every ethical view; repetition is conditio sine qua non for every issue of dogmatics.”13

We can see, then, that Kierkegaard (through the works of Climacus and Constantius, as well as a variety of other texts by other pseudonyms) provides a possible vision of existence itself as maximally fulfilled by willful repetition. In this way, Kierkegaard nicely invites a future book considering his thought that takes up the intersection of repetition and identity. In such a book the epistemic and the ontological dimensions of lived existence would come together such that only by occurring again does something exist as what it is, and only by willing this repetition would one become who one is. Repetition, thus, inaugurates identity. And yet, identity is what emerges by willing repetition. Importantly, though, repetition is never merely a process of identical occurrences. Repetition needs to be non-identical insofar as the first kiss and the second kiss are not the same kiss, and yet only in the kissing-again does the first kiss happen.

In her book, Repetition and Identity, Catherine Pickstock attempts to write the book that Constantius’s text invites. As Pickstock notes in the Preface, when Constantius claims that repetition is “the indispensable condition for every issue of (Christian) dogmatics,” he “implied that the task for future thought was to develop simultaneously an ontology and a theology of repetition” (xi). In response to this invitation, Pickstock claims that she will “assum[e] Kierkegaard’s challenge” and offer an essay that “hazards an articulation of the real as repetition, and will metamorphose into a sideways articulation of Creation, redemption, apocalypse, and God as repetition” (xi). These are noble goals and the book that Pickstock has attempted is an important one. However, I am not sure that the book she has written successfully achieves what Constantius calls for and what Pickstock herself announces.

If I am on target regarding what Kierkegaard is up to with repetition and the possible ways in which such repetition might be understood regarding an everyday phenomena such as kissing, then it would seem that Pickstock’s text, which explicitly claims to be occurring in light of Kierkegaard’s authorship, would offer something similar regarding repetition and the subjective identity that is implicated in it. In other words, part of what I take to be key to Kierkegaard’s/Constantius’s account of repetition and identity is the mundane level at which repetition occurs. For Constantius, his engagement focuses on the simple question of whether one can return to Berlin. While the stakes of such a return trip, and of repetition more broadly, are significant indeed, the phenomenological level at which those stakes present themselves are matters of what Heidegger would call “average everydayness.” In this way, Constantius successfully expresses “the sublime in the pedestrian,” to borrow a phrase from Johannes de Silentio.14

My point here is that there is something about repetition that must be pedestrian, that must be ordinary, that must be everyday—hence the non-identical repetition of what David Foster Wallace would describe as the “day-to-day trenches of adult existence” in which “banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.”15 Indeed, for Silentio, faith is never something that can be recognized from the outside because it is not a matter of external expression. In this way, it is invisible. When it comes to repetition, a similar sort of invisibility confronts us because of the constancy of repetition itself—it keeps happening, we might say.16

This quality of expressing the sublime in the pedestrian, however, is not something that characterizes Pickstock’s text. Instead, Pickstock’s book might better be understood as a manifestation of sublimity itself insofar as the sublime challenges the cognitive faculties of the viewer (or in this case, the reader). Like the mountain range in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Midst, which overwhelms the Wanderer’s faculties and thereby challenges comprehension, Pickstock’s writing style and mode of expression similarly overwhelm the reader and thereby make comprehension difficult. There are a variety of reasons that one would find significant value in writing a performative text that assumes a deep facility with not only contemporary French philosophy, but also with speculative realism, apophatic theology, and a variety of genres of literature. Indeed, if the point is to offer something of a hypothetical vision of what a particular metaphysics of repetition might involve, then perhaps Pickstock’s book is successful. However, if the task is what she seems to claim it is, namely, to think through the Kierkegaardian invitation regarding repetition as the key to existence and especially Christian life, then I find the very style of the book to interfere with the achievement of such a task.

I realize that Pickstock’s influential authorship impressively plays at the border between philosophy and theology on the one hand, and between philosophy/theology and literature on the other hand. This book surely inhabits such border-lands. This is either what makes it remarkable and importantly challenging, or what makes it confusing and simply a challenge that may or may not be worth the effort. I genuinely don’t know which it is. I think that this may be its strength, and I am entirely willing to be persuaded in the direction of the former interpretation. Indeed, I hope that Professor Pickstock’s reply to this review will facilitate such persuasion.

In order to motivate such a response, then, I will offer three concerns that lead me to conclude that this book ends up undercutting itself. Let me be clear about my own frustration at not being able to follow much of the book. I am still not sure I track with all of Pickstock’s account, but I consider the general topic Pickstock engages (as I have suggested with my own account of the phenomenology of the first kiss) to be important and timely. As such, I offer the following criticisms as invitations to further relationship and not as a declaration of divorce.

First, literature is not known for being thesis-driven and supported with argument as the primary means of justification. Perhaps, then, the literary aspects of this book are successful in that Pickstock’s thesis and, subsequently, argument in support of that thesis, are never entirely clear. Maybe such opacity is Pickstock’s intention. In the Preface, Pickstock does admit, perhaps rightly, that “the construal of reality as repetition can be seen as inseparable . . . from the shadowy haunting of reality by sign and allegory” (xiii). “In consequence,” she continues, “the bringing together of metaphysics and theology in what follows itself offers a theory of literature, in the sense that the bringing together can only be fashioned as work of literary artefaction” (xiii). That the book begins with a poem entitled “The snowdrop sequence” seems to support the idea that the book itself is a “work of literary artefaction.” However, how ought we to make sense of such a “work” when it is explicitly presented as offering a “theory of the existing thing” (according to the back cover) and a full-fledged “theory of literature” as claimed in the Preface? Additionally, what are we to make of the claim that it will offer “a sideways articulation of Creation, redemption, apocalypse, and God as repetition”? It seems that the book explicitly aims to stand as a contribution to ontology, contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of literature, and philosophy of religion. If such contributions are to occur, a bit more straightforward articulations would be helpful, instead of such “sideways” movements.

In the first full chapter, Pickstock suggests that we should move away from ontology and, instead, embrace a “reology” where by things are not necessarily “entirely coincident with ‘a being’ or ‘an existence’” (3). Indeed, she goes on to claim that “there is a valid sense in which a reology is more fundamental than an ontology” and that such a “reology is the fundamental scope of that science of identification which we must informally engage with if we are to exist as human beings on this middle earth” (14–15). If this book does offer the “theories” that it claims to offer, this is where those theories would seem to be articulated (such that the rest of the book could stand as the argument for their truth). However, Pickstock does not do enough to clarify exactly what “reology” even means or would entail such that one could weigh and consider the rest of the book as an argument for it. Although I am quite sympathetic to what I take to be the general relational metaphysics that underlies her suggested transition from ontology to reology, there is no real discussion of the difference provided by such a metaphysical option as opposed to relevant alternatives. Instead, what one finds is a weaving together of Kierkegaard, Aquinas, and Augustine without situating their thought in terms of the recent philosophical debates regarding identity and temporal endurance, say. As such, Pickstock seems to assume that her readers are already generally disposed toward reology, yet this assumption is a difficult one to make since it is not clear what reology involves, whether it requires a very specific account of relational (or, more specifically, process) metaphysics, and, if so, why such a metaphysics would be required if one takes repetition seriously in relation to self-identity.

Ostensibly a contribution to ontology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion, this book rarely includes direct engagement with the debates occurring in those areas. As just one example of where the engagement with the philosophical issues accompanying her account is lacking, consider that although Gottlob Frege and Saul Kripke are mentioned in footnotes later in the book (83n20, 83n22), neither are discussed in any detail even though their views would be very helpful in situating reology as a distinctive option among the other relevant alternatives. Moreover, instead of engaging contemporary debates in mainstream process metaphysics (as offered by Nicholas Rescher, Roland Faber, Catherine Keller, or Donald Sherburne, say), Pickstock’s discussion is presented primarily as either an interpretation of historical figures or as a contemporary (literary?) performance of some threads occurring in continental philosophy that revolves around such thinkers as Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, and Quentin Meillassoux. As a continental philosopher myself, I am not at all opposed to engaging such thinkers, but without an equally rich engagement with analytic philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and contemporary metaphysics, it is difficult to see how the account of reology that Pickstock offers could be supported with the requisite warrant to make it stand as a proposal worth serious consideration. Indeed, without such engagement, it is difficult even to understand what the account involves or expects of one who would affirm it. Instead, it seems only to be intelligible if one already grants a variety of very contestable premises assumed by these French thinkers. Perhaps such premises should be affirmed, but argument is needed to justify such affirmation and this is where the literary dimensions of Pickstock’s book seem to occlude what is philosophically necessary rather than fill the necessary gap in the philosophical literature.


Second, and in line with my comment above regarding the metaphysical analyses without considering contemporary work in analytic metaphysics, although Pickstock’s source material demonstrates the important possibilities of understanding philosophy as trans-disciplinary, this often comes at the cost of missing careful analysis of the relevant literature on the specific thinkers upon whom she draws. As perhaps the most striking example of this, the discussion of Kierkegaard that occurs sporadically throughout the book is rarely presented in relation to the enormous amount of Kierkegaard scholarship that currently exists. In chapter 7, as just one instance, Pickstock addresses Kierkegaard’s account of the religious as it might bear on the crucial limits of ethical repetition. Yet, in this chapter, the only cited secondary source on Kierkegaard is John Milbank’s (1998) “The Sublime in Kierkegaard,” which is notoriously difficult and itself oddly disconnected from the main trajectories in the contemporary philosophical literature on Kierkegaard. Now, my concern here is not that Pickstock doesn’t cite more people, but that her engagement with Kierkegaard is nearly unrecognizable as a contribution to the debates regarding those key aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought upon which she draws so heavily.

What results is more of a performative retelling of a possible reading of Kierkegaard than an argument regarding how one ought to read his authorship in relation to process metaphysics and reological accounts of personal identity. As a “work of literary artefaction,” perhaps this is acceptable, and maybe even commendable, but as such it is difficult, then, to see it also as a work of philosophy. Hence, the status of the truth claims that Pickstock offers are, thus, thrown into something of an ambiguous state. Is her account meant to be a possible vision of reality—an expression of a literary imagination, say? Or is it meant to be an account of reality that should warrant our assent—an expression of a philosophical argument? If it is the former, then exploring the phenomenologically “pedestrian” dimensions of repetition and the ways that these dimensions play out in existence (rather than in the pages of Deleuze) is required. If it is the latter, then involving the philosophically “pedestrian” aspects of clear argumentation and scholarly engagement is required. As it is, it is difficult to understand this book as either a contribution to constructive metaphysics or to Kierkegaardian scholarship. Perhaps neither of these alternatives is the aim of Pickstock’s text, but if not then it would be very helpful to get some clarification as to what the aim actually is.

Finally, Pickstock faces the extremely difficult theological task of attempting to speak positively of what might only be reasonably expressed negatively. In other words, such theologians as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and Origin, upon whom she draws variously throughout the book, are not exactly easy to appropriate into a mode of expression that favors clarity and lucidity. Instead, such work (in a variety of ways) stands resistant to such appropriation because of their attempt to attend to the unsayable, the inexpressible, and the radically transcendent. Such topics are notoriously difficult to engage with the frequently all too blunt tools of philosophical analysis. That said, I commend Professor Pickstock for her facility with such thinkers and her noble attempt to bring them into conversation with thinkers working in alternative traditions that offer their own rhetorical and conceptual challenges: Irenaeus, Kierkegaard, and Deleuze, in particular. Accordingly, a significant amount of charity should be shown as a reader of this book given the sheer degree of difficulty of the endeavor it attempts. However, there is an emerging discussion in contemporary phenomenology that directly considers what Heidegger terms a “phenomenology of the inapparent” (Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren).17 Even well discussed moments in recent French philosophy as Jacques Derrida’s (1982) consideration of negative theology in “Différance,” Emmanuel Levinas’s (2000) account of a God “transcendent to the point of absence,” and Jean-Luc Marion’s (1991) difficult attempt to discuss a “God without being,” are all faced with similar challenges as those that now face Pickstock. Yet, there are ways of thinking about that which resists expression without, necessarily, effacing expression in the process. Indeed, one might even argue that the best engagement with apophatic theology would be one that attends to the tension of the engagement itself as threatening self-refutation.18

Regardless, apophatic theology and the phenomenology of the inapparent both invite an appreciation of the fine line that exists between, on the one hand, performative rhetorical devices that serve to remind us of the epistemic arrogance that can so easily emerge when we assume the confident repose that Kierkegaard finds ultimately incompatible with existence itself, and on the other hand, giving in to a rhetorical performance that sidesteps the risk of attempting clearly to articulate that which resists clear articulation. In the first option, there is a risk of misunderstanding, but one attends to that risk itself in the attempt to avoid misunderstanding. In the second option, alternatively, there is no risk of misunderstanding because understanding was never really the goal. There are different sort of expectations when one sits down to read philosophy and when one goes to the theater. Neither is more important than the other, but it is crucial that one not go to the theater expecting to hear a refutation of Kant. Just as with the first kiss, context is crucial. Because I am so deeply interested in the possibilities for relational metaphysics and the promising idea that there might be reasons to prefer a reology in the effort of attending to the difficulties that existence presents to understanding, I wish I had a better sense of what Pickstock’s book is attempting to do and how, then, to make sense of it. Unfortunately, though, I so rarely have a sense of the argument being presented in the book that it is extremely difficult to tell if the difficult stylistic performance is necessary to what is being claimed or not.

I initially approached this book with the excitement and trepidation of something like a first kiss. I wasn’t sure of what the relationship with the ideas was going to be and whether it would be a relationship that motivated further kisses/readings or not. Even though I ended up reading the book several times, at this point the repetition has not yielded intimacy, but instead mere longing for an explanation. I sincerely hope that the last time I read the book will not turn out to have been a metaphorical last kiss. I hope that Professor Pickstock can express the sublime in the pedestrian and make a bit clearer for philosophers like me who love literature, but are suspicious of the idea that continental philosophy has to been written in a poetic mode in order for it to be true to the original inspirations that motivated it as a distinct philosophical tradition (or, better, traditions). Even as a continental philosopher, I think that we must be very careful to distinguish between the importance of considering the intricate detail of the Emperor’s new clothes, which resist being understood according to the existing fashions of the day, and the importance of admitting that there may not much there to consider in the first place.

Let me conclude by suggesting that repetition and revision go together. When we will repetition we don’t simply embrace sameness, but instead we cultivate an attitude of expectation that occurs only in beginning again for the first time. We keep trying to get better at the task of existence, which means that striving and risk are perpetual (as entailed by the aporia of repetition itself), but so is the renewal that such becoming offers (hence the trust that defines religious existence). Such revision needs not be understood merely as a metaphor, however. Perhaps attending to Kierkegaardian repetition will call all continental philosophers to realize how important it is to write and re-write texts that invite readers into relationships rather than convince them that they are either not smart enough to understand, or that there is nothing there worth reading in the first place.


“Kisses sweeter than wine” are largely compelling because we are able to make sense of exactly what is being compared and, thus, it can be concluded that, as good as wine is, kisses are even better. “Kisses sweeter than, well . . . something,” are not compelling because the comparison is not clear. Are they sweeter than lemons? Or rice? Or chocolate? The point here is that clarity is required in order to be able to make reasonable choices about how to act and what to believe. Metaphors that gain traction in our life-world depend on such clarity and the philosophical texts we write should display such clarity as well. Only then could cognitive assent and existential action be rightly motivated.


Although I hoped, and continue to hope, that Repetition and Identity would be a text that offers a relationship to readers that will motivate willed repetition of the reading itself, ultimately I find it to be one that may, unfortunately, reinforce the belief that continental philosophy is simply not worth a second date. For my own part, I think I will just keep dating Kierkegaard.

  1. David Wood, “The First Kiss: Tales of Innocence and Experience.” In The New Kierkegaard, edited by Elsebet Jegstrup (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 131.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., 130.

  4. See Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); See also John J. Davenport, “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 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008), 169–96.

  5. Michael Strawser, Both/And: Reading Kierkegaard from Irony to Edification (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1997), 17.

  6. Here I take him to anticipate the new phenomenology of Michel Henry—see Michel Henry, The Essence of Manifestation. Translated by Girard Etzkorn (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973); I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity. Translated by Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Words of Christ. Translated by Christina M. Gschwandtner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012). For considerations of Kierkegaard as a phenomenologist, see Jeffrey Hanson, ed. Kierkegaard as Phenomenologist: An Experiment (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010); J. Aaron Simmons, and David Wood, eds. Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008).

  7. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.

  8. For more on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, see M. G. Piety, Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010).

  9. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

  10. Ibid., 132.

  11. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 132.

  12. Ibid., 133.

  13. Ibid., 149.

  14. Ibid., 41.

  15. David Foster Wallace, This is Water (New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 9.

  16. For a sustained consideration of Kierkegaard’s notion of faith, see Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

  17. See Martin Heidegger, Four Seminars. Translated by Andrew Mitchell and François Raffoul (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003), 80; for more on this notion as it relates to new phenomenology, see J. Aaron Simmons, and Bruce Ellis Benson, The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 27–41.

  18. Scott F. Aikin, and J. Aaron Simmons, “Levinasian Otherism, Skepticism, and the Problem of Self-Refutation.” Philosophical Forum 40, no.1 (Spring 2009): 29–54.

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    Catherine Pickstock


    A Response to J. Aaron Simmons

    In the case of the review by J. A. Hanson, I said that I felt that his hesitations about my reading of Kierkegaard were also in fact hesitations about his own reading of Kierkegaard, which seems to bear a strong relation to my own. In the case of Simmons’ reaction, something similar applies, but a fortiori. I feel that his hesitations about the content and method of my book could only make sense if they were also hesitations about the content and method of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre, even though he claims to admire this unhesitatingly.

    My perplexity here is all the stronger because, once more, I do not find myself in substantial disagreement with his proclaimed way of understanding repetition in Kierkegaard. Indeed, just to the contrary, we are in agreement that the first kiss (as he puts it), or the first act of revolutionary violence (as Charles Péguy put it), is only the first if it later turns out to be the first in a series. Though one might wish to add here that, for Péguy, the upshot is not so entirely aleatory: the storming of the Bastille is the first Bastille day because it had already the quality of a festival; it was internally a repeated ritual, with both an ideal and a real aspect. Similarly, a very perfunctory first kiss, scarcely repeating itself at all in its first performance, would be unlikely to linger in memory any more than actuality and so might very well prove to be the last.

    The issue about non-identical repetition as constituting an event and so a res as such, in contrast to the non-identical repetition of a series of things within the same genre (the first kiss as opposed to a series of kisses)—involving a complex question of boundaries—is one that I tried to negotiate in some phenomenological and ontological detail in the first three chapters of the book. Indeed, I feel that I did so quite prosaically and straightforwardly, despite Professor Simmons’ apprehension of my procedure.

    However, we are once more in agreement as to the significance of the difficulty of knowing (as I discussed in relation to Péguy, from a slightly different angle), just when an “objective” historical process is sufficiently “over” for one to be able merely to regard it, rather than continually to try to define it by living it out in further reality. But, be it noted, it is for Kierkegaard just this circumstance which renders reportage difficult if not impossible to distinguish from existential commitment. Thus, for the Danish philosopher, the only available objective truth is (very Platonically) an eternal truth which we can but remotely echo through continued forward performance. There can be, then, for compelling analytical reasons, no real possibility of distinguishing “fictional” projection of a “likely story” about the real from careful attention to the details of our finitude, even if the latter is by no means to be eschewed. I am accused by Professor Simmons of failing to see that this must be an either/or. Yet this either/or is certainly not one which pertains for Kierkegaard.

    This is all the more surprising in that Simmons again seems to share my (not always shared) view that, for Kierkegaard, religion, which enshrines the absolute truth, does so by surpassing and including not just faithful ethical ritual remembrance but also aesthetic idealising “hope,” which is not genuine religious hope, since it is linked merely with wishful thinking. Yet, nevertheless, religion adds poetic vision to ethical mundanity in order to achieve a broader outlook, which, by relating time to the eternal, better reconciles us both with its pedestrian and its surprising character.

    Beyond this, Simmons and I are once more in harmony in stressing that, for Kierkegaard, repetition holds the key at once to ethical living, to ontological categorisation and to Christian dogmatic exposition. I am grateful to him for realising that I was trying in this book to see what it would mean, beyond Kierkegaard, to take up his challenge and expound these three things together. However, I have to add that, in doing so, I was by no means intending to engage mainly in an interpretation of the Dane, nor to write a short metaphysics in a drier, more analytic mode (though there are I think far more dry spells in my volume than he allows). To the contrary, I was trying, in a partially Kierkegaardian spirit, which becomes equally a Greek Patristic spirit (expounding Pauline recapitulation and reconstitution), to blend ethical commitment with repetition of the Good, and with a metaphysical vision of the same. The mediating factor here—providing the link of theory with lived existential performance—naturally tends to be, as for Kierkegaard himself, a literary or a poetic performance.

    To the extent that this performance is a mode of “doing” ontology, it must perforce include a reflection on its own mode, the mode of the literary, while, to the extent that it is an ethical performance in the idiom of writing, it cannot be mere fantasy, but must rather attempt to reflect and envisage eternal truth in the very arrival of shaping theories and images as they arise “to” the mind of the writer. Such openness to “inspiration” can appropriately pass over into a reflection upon what theology takes to be the supremely inspired instances of human history: the moments of divine revelation.

    I am again grateful that Professor Simmons regards Repetition and Identity as an important book. However, I feel for myself that I would have failed if the reader were left wondering, with Simmons, whether this were alternatively a work of brilliance or of hot air. For I would suggest that it is neither—rather a modest and provisional, and sober if literary, attempt to think through what a philosophy and theology of repetition would involve. It perhaps ought appropriately to incite friendship rather than either passionate romance, on the one hand, or utter neglect, on the other. If the book is found difficult by some (though clearly not others), then I would further suggest that (as with much of the “Radical Orthodoxy” corpus) this is not so much because it is obscure, but rather because it tends to say the unexpected, things difficult to fit into the existing intellectual camps, which it often intends creatively to disturb.

    I should now like briefly to respond to some more specific charges:

    1. The books is said to betray the Kierkegaardian “sublime in the pedestrian” because of its sublime or else perhaps baroque over-elaboration and purported obscurity. Yet Kierkegaard is scarcely a light read, and scarcely shy of rhetorical recourse or literary ruse. Repetition and Identity is really far more straightforward and consecutive than any of the great Dane’s texts. Nor, of course, did he propose “the pedestrian in the pedestrian,” but rather a paradox—a steady beat that is also an astonishing dance. Something like that is what I would hope guides my vision.
    2. I have already commented on the un-Kierkegaardian character of the notion of a choice between objective analysis, on the one hand, and “fictional” speculation, on the other. But more widely, one surely has to say that any significant metaphysical or religious claim is neither a matter of “knock-down argument,” nor merely of pure imagination and persuasion. It is rather pitched somewhere between the two in terms of trying to craft an account of the real which allows for the way things are “so far” and for subjective aspirations, both for possible and coherent construals of reality as a whole, and for visions that are “liveable” in terms of being compatible with the everyday reality of what we take to be real and with existential stances which we can perceive as valuable. It is a matter both of Aristotelian “saving the appearances” and of Kierkegaardian “truth as subjectivity.” In combining these two things, I am trying to revisit the pre-modern in a perhaps postmodern way.
    3. So for me, this is a work of “literary imagination” which also reflects on the nature of literature, just to the degree that it is also a work of metaphysics and theology. The possibility of such a combination is, if you like, the wager of the book. Simmons insightfully realises this, and I admit with him that these stakes are high indeed, and I may well have failed. Yet he inconsistently seems to waver between thinking that I have botched the job (unlike Kierkegaard), or else that I inevitably failed in an impossible job (but then why not Kierkegaard also?).
    4. And here I cannot agree that the mark of a “real” work of philosophy, or of careful attention to a text, would be endless citation of the current scholarship or engagement with the debates as they are currently construed in journals, periodicals and up-to-date bulletins. For many, if not most, of the decisive classics of philosophy do not do that at all (Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein), or of many lesser and yet still valuable texts. The test of whether I have or have not contributed to the exegesis of Kierkegaard’s texts is evidently not whether I have duly referred to the fashionable cruxes of the secondary scholarly literature (which I confess to finding often peculiarly and unusually wide of the interpretative mark), but whether they stand the test of a reading of the original texts themselves and what we know about their historical contexts (to some of which I do indeed allude, where relevant). It is also strange that Simmons is left at sea by my discussion of “the thing,” a section of my book which fails to cite a great deal of supposedly relevant contemporary literature, but rather looks at things themselves—and with many and detailed examples, if we are invoking “analysis.”
    5. As to the question of the res and of reology, relationality does not, as Simmons supposes, lie at its heart, though this is certainly congruent with it. Rather, as was said in my first chapter, the focus on the res implies that essence and existence are always conjoined, even if distinguishable (except in God), in such a way that neither the one nor the other enjoys priority. Anything that exists has some sort of “shape.” Likewise, anything that can be identified by “shape” exists in some way or other. The background to my considerations here lies less in recent thought than in mediaeval scholasticism, and in relation to that context I am refusing both the problematic notion of “an essence existing only as essence,” or, inversely, of “an existence with an essence only as existence” (as implied by some excessively ‘existentialist’ readings of Aquinas). I clearly state that a priority for the res over ens in this sense (which is compatible with a certain reading of Aquinas) of some participation in the divine unity of essence and existence, despite their “real distinction” in creatures, is to be distinguished from an alternative and altogether un-Thomistic, Baroque scholastic priority of ens as putting the possible on an equally primordial “tinological” footing with the actual. For that theory is indeed complicit with a sundering of essence and existence so extreme that it “existentialises essence,” or, with seeming absurdity, suggests that “possibility is actual, but not as actuality.” I passingly indicate that the same consideration would render me unsympathetic to Meinong, Frege, Kripke et al., just to the degree that their reflections sunder sense too extremely from reference, possibility too extremely from actuality, and the essentially verifiable from the existentially circumstantial etc. Later in the book, this tensional association within the thing of existence and essence becomes one also between content and bounding number or geometric division, this being mediated by sign; this is then in a further tension with the now numerically, but problematically identified, thing. Within this tension, between the real and the ideal (as for Kierkegaard, as Hanson so well spells out), lurks always the exigency of non-identical repetition. For now, in the narrow compass of this response, these shifts are merely sketched, but in the book they are argued in detail, allowing that, to my mind, it looks suspicious as to the felicity of an argument (beyond the banal or the tautologous) if it cannot be vividly stated.
    6. I fail to see any special reason why I should engage with process philosophy or theology (especially since it denies an orthodox view of a simple and timeless God, which I, like Kierkegaard, embrace), even though A. N. Whitehead is much to be admired in several ways, and his “prehension” is at least invoked. I engage with Gilles Deleuze in particular, simply because he makes repetition central to his thought, and with some recent “speculative materialists” not randomly, nor out of fashionable obeisance, but rather because they, too, prioritise “the thing” instead of starting with subjectivity. It is, moreover, scarcely the case that I neglect all the major modern thinkers about temporality. In a book of this kind, I could not discuss them all, but Henri Bergson and Charles Péguy are today every bit as current as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

    To sum up this response: while I by no means want to claim that I have succeeded in my task, I am very pleased that Professor Simmons thinks it to be a “noble endeavour.” Yet I cannot help thinking that his grounds for supposing it to be foredoomed to failure by its mixed methodology would have to condemn the procedures of Kierkegaard also. Many of his and my conclusions Simmons would seem to accept—but then the nature of these conclusions and the nature of the procedures are surely inseparable, as he half concedes.

    • J. Aaron Simmons

      J. Aaron Simmons


      Lots of “Whats” and even more “Hows”: A “friendly” Kierkegaardian rejoinder to Pickstock

      In this rejoinder, let me begin by thanking Professor Pickstock for her thoughtful and generous reply. It is an honor to think with her about such important topics and I deeply appreciate her recognition that my interpretation of her book was not a dismissal of its content, but merely a worry that the mode of presentation might end up making the content unavailable for the sort of critical analysis and engagement that “living forward,” as Kierkegaard and Pickstock would both say, requires.

      Perhaps in a Levinasian spirit, though probably not in a Levinasian style, I think that one of the ways in which one is “for the Other,” is to try as far as possible to write in ways that are maximally invitational (hospitable) to readers who may not begin by being sympathetic to one’s views. Now, this does not mean that all scholarship has to be written in this way, and it certainly does not all have to be written for the “public.” Indeed, for very Kierkegaardian reasons, we should be worried that if the “public” is our only audience, then we end up writing for no one, rather than for everyone. Even though I am a defender of the importance of public intellectual work as an aspect of one’s professional life (and I am very glad that high level scholarly engagement is now more available than ever to a wider audience due to such online venues like Syndicate Theology), I think that it is important to realize that the community to which the scholar is primarily responsible is comprised of other scholars. It is for this reason that I take so seriously the need to be responsive to the existing literature on a given topic, on the one hand, and to attempt to write in ways that avoid insularity within one’s own particular philosophical group or tradition, on the other hand. Technical scholarship within a particular sub-discipline/approach/or methodology (e.g., phenomenology, meta-ethics, 19th century German philosophy, post-Rawlsian political theory, etc.) is sometimes necessary given specific aims, but finding ways to present such scholarship so that it makes a case for that particular tradition/approach/methodology, etc., to those who are not already well disposed toward it seems important if one wants to encourage the virtues of dialogical charity and epistemic humility within philosophical discourse more broadly.

      Let me be clear, here: I am not accusing Professor Pickstock of lacking such virtues. In fact, I admit that some of my criticism of the style of Repetition and Identity might be less directed specifically at that text as it is directed toward the all too common tendencies toward opacity, obscurity, and insularity on display in much of contemporary continental philosophy, more broadly. Such tendencies are by no means restricted to continental discourse, of course, but since I work primarily in this tradition, I am most concerned to speak into the discourse where I find myself, rather than casting stones at other disciplines or alternative sub-disciplinary communities. Accordingly, for the past few years, I have been advocating what I term “mash-up” philosophy such that by drawing upon, and critically engaging, multiple philosophical traditions, one is best able to contribute to constructive discourse responding to pressing problems. That said, I applaud Professor Pickstock’s mash-up of various threads in postmodern philosophy with threads in pre-modern theology. As I said in my initial essay, she is engaged in important work. Any hesitations about the specifics of her account, or criticisms of the style in which she works, should not ignore the value of the attempt and the promise that such cross-traditional and cross-disciplinary conversation holds for the future of philosophical scholarship beyond the divisions that have far too often marked philosophical work over the last half century.

      Elsewhere, I have suggested in detail that if continental philosophy is worth defending, and the claims on offer within continental philosophy are worth affirming, then good arguments must be provided to support such a defense and motivate such affirmation. In particular, what Charles Taylor terms the project of “overcoming epistemology” that defines so much of continental philosophy may turn out to be dangerous to the very continuance of continental philosophy itself.

      With that larger context in place concerning my approach to Repetition and Identity, Professor Pickstock is right to say that I “half concede” that the content of one’s claim is “inseparable” from the procedure by which one presents that content. I only “half concede” this relationship between the “what” and the “how,” as Kierkegaard would put it, because I think that often there are a variety of “hows” for any given “what.” In other words (don’t miss the performative impact of that often used phrase), there are a lot of ways to say the same thing. Sometimes, straightforward logical analysis misses the point of the existential claim on offer because propositional or linguistic reduction can elide the dynamics of lived reality. For that reason, sometimes poetry can say things that philosophy simply cannot, or at least say better what philosophy says poorly. But, alternatively, sometimes philosophy can say things that poetry cannot, or at least make clear what poetry leave ambiguous. Kierkegaard’s complicated authorship is so compelling because it frequently plays at the borders of expression, genre, discipline, and tradition. Accordingly, the hermeneutic challenges that face his readers are significant. For many, the difficulty is simply not worth it. The same could be said of Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas, Deleuze, Irigaray, and Butler, on the one hand, and of Sellars, Quine, Frege, and Strawson, on the other hand. Though the specific realities of the difficulties will be different in each case, it is entirely legitimate for someone to conclude that there are other texts and other thinkers more deserving of one’s focus and attention.

      My concerns about Pickstock’s style are not due to the fact that literature cannot be philosophical, or that all philosophy should be presented according to a rigorous propositional logic. Rather, my concern is more modest: I simply think that much of continental philosophy, which might be true and significant, fails to be compelling because the “what” gets lost in assumptions about the legitimacy of only some particular (often literary, or poetic, or historical) “how.” So, yes, I “half concede” that form and content are intrinsically connected, but I reject the idea that this connection is singularly constituted. Indeed, what seems right to me about Derrida’s theses about the “play” of language is that there are often lots of options available for how to say things—even if the way we say those things might open different aspects of the things that are said. The point is that decisions are necessary here. This is surely an underwhelming point, but it is important in a context when so many seem to believe that thinking about political revolution in light of Žižek requires that one write in the particular mode in which Žižek’s own texts unfold. Or, that thinking about God and faith in light of Derrida requires that one not write in the mode of analytic epistemology, say. Such things might be true, though I doubt it, but if so, then an argument is required to make such a case.

      Professor Pickstock claims that “if the book is found difficult by some (though clearly not others), then I would further suggest that (as with much of the “Radical Orthodoxy” corpus) this is not so much because it is obscure, but rather because it tends to say the unexpected, things difficult to fit into the existing intellectual camps, which it often intends creatively to disturb.” I am in no position to challenge her claim about the task of Radical Orthodoxy, but I am not convinced that creative disturbance caused by unexpected claims requires writing in only one particular mode. It all depends on what one is trying to do. Martin Luther King Jr. and Judith Butler are both examples of thinkers who attempted to disturb the complacencies of the “existing intellectual camps” of their day, and they both frequently say things that are “unexpected,” but they are speaking into different communities for different purposes and so write and speak in different ways. I am willing to grant that the interruptive aspects of Radical Orthodoxy are likely to resist some of the commonplace “whats” and “hows” in academic theology, but I remain unconvinced that the ways in which Radical Orthodoxy tends to operate are required by the content of the claims on offer therein.

      My own work has occasionally received the criticism that, because I try to write about continental philosophy in ways that invite philosophers not well versed in continental philosophy to take continental philosophy seriously, I simply misunderstand the thinkers about whom I write. It is entirely possible that I do misunderstand things and it is entirely possible that there are better ways to write about such topics, but I think that it is important to be able to defend the truth of Derrida’s account of justice or Levinas’s account of the face of the Other, etc., without simply assuming that one’s audience is already on board with the general trajectory of new phenomenology or deconstructionism. Indeed, this is a commitment that I hold because of my belief that Levinas is right about the ethical relation, and Derrida is right about justice as a never-ending task. So, in this way, again, Professor Pickstock and I are agreed that the “what” and the “how” are interconnected. Yet, it might be that the very Derridean or Levinasian “what” that I aim to defend is best articulated when I write in ways that resist/reject/rethink Derrida’s and Levinas’s own chosen “hows.” I do not want philosophy to be drier or more analytic. I simply don’t want continental philosophy necessarily to eschew analytic modes of writing as obviously drier or less existentially relevant.

      Kierkegaard is not for everyone. Professor Pickstock and I both find his authorship to be incredibly valuable for contemporary moral, social, and theological existence. Yet, we can agree on this “what” while disagreeing on the best “how” for presenting it. Hence, I do not think I affirm an absolute either/or between philosophy and literature in the way that Professor Pickstock indicates. I reject the view that there would be some sort of “natural kind” of thing that is “philosophy,” or is “literature.” Accordingly, I am not some sort of disciplinary or stylistic essentialist. Again, in a “mash-up” fashion, I am a fan of thinking creatively about how to disrupt the complacency of the all too stagnant discourse in academic philosophy that tends to reinforce the stylistic “orthodoxies” already in place. However, such disruption should occur in ways that remain responsible to the discursive community in which one finds oneself. The philosophical community, as it exists today as a result of a contingent history, is defined by a commitment to argument in ways that the literary community simply is not, nor should it be. I do not want some sort of philosophical triumphalism to occur such that philosophical “hows” are the only options for all scholarship. Indeed, part of my own hesitation regarding “Analytic Theology,” for example, has to do with the potential ways in which philosophical “hows” seem to show up as the best way of working through theological “whats.” Nothing is gained by affirming hard lines of disciplinary or discursive demarcation that serve to reinforce the very insularity that we might rightly hope to “creatively disturb.” And yet, it seems to me that not much is gained, either, by disturbing a discourse in ways that threaten to lose the very audience to which one was hoping to speak.

      With Professor Pickstock, I hope to “incite friendship” rather than “passionate romance, on the one hand, or utter neglect, on the other.” Far too often passionate romance is what characterizes the insular in-group discourse that is unconcerned with being exposed to others beyond those who are already similarly romantically involved—I think this is reflected in much of the logic-chopping occurring in some debates and much of the poetic acrobatics occurring in others. Yet, alternatively, far too often this passionate romance serves to underlie the utter neglect of one romantic community in relation to other such communities. Part of why I think that Kierkegaard is worth the difficulty is because he does open such space for making diverse friends.

      At the end of the day, Professor Pickstock and I probably have important disagreements about the specifics of our models of God, the value we find in Deleuzeian approaches to philosophical discourse, and the most important aspects of the philosophical community in which we find ourselves, but hopefully our engagement here demonstrates that friendship need not mean agreement (as passionate romance might), but it definitely does not mean dismissal or disregard (as utter neglect definitely does).

      In friendship, then, I hope this important conversation continues. Philosophical engagement might, itself, prove to be a demonstration of the value (and maybe inescapability) of non-identical repetition. Text, critique, response, rejoinder, and so on . . .

    • Avatar

      Catherine Pickstock


      Final Thoughts

      Many thanks, Aaron. I’m in agreement that continental philosophy needs to bring to the fore the arguments that it is making and not to appear more obfuscatory than it really is; also that philosophy and poetry achieve rather different things, even if this does not preclude their creative blending and a further exploration of this blending in the future. Thank you for your attention to my arguments.



The Politics of Repetition and Identity

It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things)-and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition.
—Michael Walzer, “Excusing Terror”

The difference is that philosophy is no longer knowledge, or knowledge of knowledge. It is an action. One could say that what identifies philosophy is not the rules of a discourse, but the singularity of an act.
—Alain Badiou, “Philosophy as Creative Repetition”

REPETITION IS HAVING ITS OWN little moment these days. It is the ultimate cross-over act: from Plato to Hegel, Kierkegaard to Deleuze, and Derrida to Adorno, the philosophical attention to the subject has generated considerable theological and ethical treatments as well. In her latest book, Repetition and Identity,1 Catherine Pickstock affords us an opportunity to rethink repetition as a properly theological category, that is, a notion that coalesces ontology with physics in a genuinely Thomistic spirit. My specific interest in this essay is to surface the political aspects of her proposal, to raise some questions about what her account of “non-identical” repetition might mean for contemporary politics. By my reading, politics is the absent specter in this book, haunting its every move, and so I hope that my comments here can perhaps spark a conversation that brings it out of the shadows a bit more.

Any attempt to respond comprehensively or account adequately for all of the various arguments and their permutations in this book is far beyond the scale of this article, not to mention my own intellectual bandwidth. So, in lieu of that, in what follows my objective will be to surface what I think are the more politically salient aspects of her reological position on repetition. This short essay is not so much a critique as it is a query, namely out of a humbling recognition that I am still learning from Pickstock’s work, and that there much in this book, most of it actually, that I still do not fully understand. I fully expect that I will get it wrong along the way, and so I hope that Pickstock will rectify any errors or mistakes. I trust that Pickstock’s corrections will be valuable, not only for myself, but for other readers as well, as we collectively engage her work over the next few weeks at Syndicate. I also hope that, in her response, Pickstock will comment more specifically on the political import of her proposed reading of repetition, beyond the trace comments that appear in the argument’s marginalia. The impact that repetition can have on selfhood, or to be more specific, on the formation of a political subjectivity, capable of executing the collective, large scale interventions required for social emancipation, is of great interest to me, and yet I found little by way of explicit help in Repetition and Identity, and so I am hopeful that Pickstock might humor me here.

Second, it is unavoidable that I approach Professor Pickstock’s work from my own rather uncharitable reading of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, a theological and political sensibility for which she is a primary contributor and spokesperson. The exact political leanings of this program is highly debated, and there is no doubt that there are indeed differences between those who work in and through the Radical Orthodoxy framework. But when reading this book, while not scratching my head and re-reading any number of paragraphs for the eighth (or thirteenth) time, I found myself interested in what Pickstock might say about the relation of repetition to the inaugurate effect of political creativity—namely the creativity of Action that generates the genuinely politically New—that impolite and disruptive Event that inaugurates “Really Existing Difference.” The political valiance of the New is deeply linked to a materialist theology of creativity, which de-centers optimistic views on “productivity” and genealogic patterns of “generativity,” opting instead for a politics of negativity and failure. It is, nevertheless, revolutionary in its willingness to redouble itself in repetition, which incessantly calls for that which is not yet here: the irruptive event of New that shifts the coordinates of possibility for the authentic political Act. To what extent does Pickstock’s theory of the Thing as existing in/as “non-identical repetition” contribute or resist these ideas about how to convert politics from being about nothing, to being about repetition of failure. I want to ask whether the key to repetition is not its ability to generate res, but rather in its stubborn failure to produce at all. This urges us to return to the starting point, where it all began, to repeat the beginning. This negative dialectical pattern is the legacy of Hegel’s theory of repetition, and is the vanishing mediator in Adorno that shows up again and again in Žizek and Badiou. There is little doubt that Pickstock will object to the intellectual trajectory just sketched out, but it nevertheless affords us a political perspective on repetition not directly engaged in Repetition and Identity.

Repetition and Reology

After a long “postmodern” hiatus, it certainly appears that metaphysics is back. Much like the “return” of the theological in contemporary philosophy, it has not so much returned as it has recurred, and so has acquired both a new visibility as it once again tries to claim purchase on the state of the contemporary present. The importance of this development, not only for the relation of philosophy and theology, but also for that of theology and politics, is as difficult to overstate, as it is to fully understand. For this reason, we are all indebted to Pickstock for her Repetition and Identity in which she lays out a characteristically erudite theological account of repetition that is dripping with aesthetic sensitivity and literary acuity. Her commitments are as straightforward as the details are obscure: Pickstock puts her Platonism to work to synthesize epistemology with an ontology (a move that she identifies as also being Kierkegaardian) that is, at the same time, also a theology of repetition, through which we are able to maintain and live in an integrity of thought and experience. It is through reology that human persons are able to grasp the world, to live and act in it “as it is” with legibility and coherence, properly identifying the complex, but accessible interplay of Things with its selfsame non-identical repetition. To identify res is to position ourselves and others in a consistent, organized, and reliable fashion, one that accounts for paradoxically moving and closed character of signification. The goal of her reology, then, appears to be a thoroughly political one: to aid the subject in being and acting with consistency and intelligibility—which is made possible only in light of God’s own repeating. Repetition and Identity’s political moment is not incidentally its theological one as well: all identities—which are inaugurated by their repeating—are situated in Christ, whose repeating discloses divine aseity to be that perfect One of the many that binds its internal multiplicity and difference, its variety and iteration in an eternal relation of being “wholly ‘alone’”(195).

And so, I take the main objective of Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity to be nothing less than a radical intervention into key philosophical debates about difference and identity by proposing a metaphysical reology that integrates thought and being, but does by way of the theological. The stakes are significant: it is nothing less than the ability to be able to identify Things as they are: the conditions of survival (15). For this task, she argues that a reological turn is required, because prehending res as repetition helps us realize the requisite conditions of meaningful and substantive existence. We need a reology because in order to live as human beings and do so well (that is orderly, meaningfully, and cogently), we must being able to consider, identify, and organize a thing as it is and situate it in a weighed relation to other things. To know the real is know the essence of res. The requisite category for this inquiry is repetition. Not just any understanding of repetition will do, however. What we call repetition must be able to account for the life and emergence of a thing “in such a way that the mark of thingness appears to be consistency and continuity despite variation” (11). Certainly, repetition introduces difference, and so however repetition operates, it cannot be auto-generative; there must be change at the same moment that a thing becomes a thing by being other than selfsame. All of this hangs, of course, on Pickstock’s description of repetition as “non-identical” and her defense of it against alternative forms/understandings of repetition. It turns out that the stakes here are steep and sweeping, in that her account of repetition cashes out in a theological way, and is not restricted to metaphysics or selfhood.

Insofar as Pickstock’s register is thoroughly synthetic, she is interested in putting forth a thick theory of the Thing as “non-identical repetition” whereby things are things as both and/or either sense-objects or thoughts that must double themselves via as self-same iteration in order to be manifested by the human subject as Real. There must be, she insists, variation in the Thing itself that short of reproducing that selfsame thing (either as a copy or clone), introducing of the novelty of difference through and as sign. Things relate to themselves in multiplicity and alterity in, through, and as sign, which is indeed faithfully and reliably expresses reality as such, rather than merely inaugurating the inchoate and aporetic aspects of difference itself.

Interpreting human experience of self, other, and world through the rubric of repetition, or non-identical repetition (“sameness only obtainable through difference” and “difference only postulated through similarity”) to be specific, is required if we hope to rescue ourselves from the confusion and incoherence of a life where we are unable to make sense of things, ourselves, and our constitutive relations to things. Her reology comes down to a theory of a thing as that which is non-identically repeated; all things acquire their original thingness (their constitutive identity) when they have been repeated—holding itself together with integrity and continuity while also transgressing its own boundaries an indiscrete number of times. So a thing as a thing must have integrity, doubling, difference, continuity, variety, and multiplicity to be its selfsame. How does she accomplish this? In a properly Thomistic spirit, she sketches an inner and outer analogy between the thing and its repetition that is thoroughly non-identical, calling upon the affect of motion to outline how it is that a thing can be internally iterated by variety, difference, and indeed, continuity despite change, without splintering, fragmenting, combusting due to seemingly endless multiplicity or contradiction. The res-as-repetition model expressed here is that of “integrated difference” that sustains the thingness of res through the presumption of closure and limitation, with respect to both its inner and external relations (24ff), which are irreducibly and necessarily double (35). This leads Pickstock to conclude “that each thing, as a non-identical repetition, is an unanalyzable compound of the same and the different, in such a way that the same has always become different, and the different forever remains the same”(51).2 The coherence of a thing depends, then, on a “kind of internal analogy between its parts, of a kind that is closer than the analogies which pertain between disparate things”(51). “Every res is a non-identical repetition held together in beauty by inner and outer analogy” (100), Pickstock maintains, and this establishes an “obscure likeness of ‘attribution’ which pertains between two unlike things, without being expressible outside the specific conjoining of their unlikeness”. The kinship between these two unlike things (presumptively, res and its indefinitely repeated selfsame other) is only accessible and apparent through this conjunctional analogy that resists hierarchy (between the same and the different as compositional elements of res) and buttresses a mutually participative interplay between the two, that nevertheless generates an irresolvable contradiction that resists explanation.3

So then if repetition, namely the non-identical sort, is that operative event wherein the Thing comes into itself, it is also that through which the Self encounters an internal difference that is analogically always a sameness, and so repetition produces an internal analogy that empowers it to be meaningful, and so to act in significant ways. But, again, why repetition? It has an ontological dynamism, a fundamentally constitutive power, that is able to traverse, or rather transcend, in a synthetic move, the supposed binaries of modern life. Pickstock addresses a few of interest to her (i.e., fiction and history, double and the moment, and that of sense and reference), but the most important is that between identification and differentiation. Repetition binds them so that difference and identity are resolved not through a dialectical “coincidence of opposites,” but as an analogically simple Whole: “every single thing is strangely doubled and then multiplied in space; also, every thing is an event in time which must occur twice and then an indefinitely number of other times”(43). Nature, self, history, and indeed God, are included in this account. Indeed, in reading Repetition and Identity, it was clear to me the initial reological chapters are little more than preludes to the later theological chapters, keen on preserving possibility of being able to know and speak of about God, human salvation, and eschatological futurity with consistency, order, and integrity. What is theologically at stake or gained in her theory of repetition, and what are the political implications of said theological formulation?

Repetition as a Theory of Political Subjectivity

It is a modern philosophical-theological axiom is that politics begins with the subject. But Pickstock uses Plato to argue against Descartes and (in an odd way) with Deleuze that the subject itself is incapable of becoming the foundation of thought itself. To secure an identity for herself, the subject positions herself in relation to “non-identically repeated events in time, which appear and present themselves in a swirl of self, history, and, important for Pickstock, a fiction that is seemingly more real than the truth.4 In a thoroughly Kierkegaardian moment, it is this last aspect of repetitive identity in which the subject encounters herself “caught” in and as a shadowy presence that speaks to and discloses the transcendent “the higher power” (81) as the constitutive term that binds them to the subject in the first place.

This feeds directly into a corresponding theory of the repeating subject, whereby again, it is through repetition that human beings are able to establish ourselves as enworlded subjects whose affective existence and relations are in fact coherent (85), harmonious (51) and reliable, despite the tossing and turning of shadowy figures (that are, at the same time, selfsame and not), the apparent slippage and bricolage that presents themselves in culture and history as obstacles to human well-being:

If the human self is to cohere as a res, and to be disclosive of all other res, it cannot only be reinscribed in circles of representation which describe the world geographically or record the past archivally. The self must be a living, dynamic symbol, fusing sense and reference, fiction and history, able to traverse, prehend, and grieve, decipher and fulfill the allegories of nature (101).

This is conditioned by “decisions” we apparently make, but are meaningful insofar as they necessarily share in God’s own powerful judgement, given coherence as they “are disclosive of that which lies absolutely beyond.”5 She is broadly anti-philosophical in that she faults the discipline for its apparent anemic inability to make sense of the most prosaic of experience, and so turns to both theological sources to give an account of why it is that things must come and come again (via the sign) if they are to be counted as real.

The integrity of the self is under clear assault from the “circle of sense and reference” which imbues subjectivity with a sense of arbitrariness and discontinuity, leading it to think of itself as something radically contingent and discontinuous with the Real, lacking any purposive coherence or legible consistency. Repetition affords us a way out of this, that is, a way into an identity whereby it is possible, says Pickstock, “to become themselves, develop a reliable character, in repeated harmony with other characters, and achieve virtue, a participation in the eternally Good?” Non-identical repetition is necessary, if we are to avoid resigning the self to an instrumentalized life whose operations are pointless, regulated, and distracted. Without repetition, human social life is sentenced to incessantly routinized bureaucratic forms, mechanized to meet particular functions, but lost to the life-giving world of affect and sense. Repetition is called upon to help us escape the new, emergent forms of alienation that masquerade as shadowy and shallow forms of fiction, whether they pass under names like Freedom, Democracy, love, or morality.

Following (in a properly “indirect” way) Kierkegaard, the non-identical repetition of the self is achieved, not by or through the ethical, but the religious grasp of the eternal, that rejects the nostalgic tyranny of the past or the on-going deferral to futurity, redemptive in itself (mostly because it is unknown, and apparently, still emergent). The goal of the repeated self is to secure identity by embracing and illuminating the eternal, which means refusing a bias towards the past or future, but rather “living in the present which constantly accepts its passage and receives and constitutes the ‘momentary’ or ecstatic unity of past, present and future”(95). The significance of the eternal for repetition (and thus, for Pickstock’s thesis here) is that it is eternal (and the participation of Things therein) that holds together the hidden level of unification and harmony made available to the thing (and so to nature, history, and also, the self) via repetition.

This idealist appeal to the Platonic eternal as the properly basic condition of repetition has potential costs, though. One of them is the radical appeal of repetition as a political Act, namely as the basis upon which any and all politics can be indeed to be recognized as Acts that are about something at all, rather than reoccurring iterations of the incessant cynical dismissal “that anything can ever change, really.” What is spectrally absent—rather than missing—from Pickstock’s account is a way to think repetition as a political moment or project, as something that happens within the historically material aspects of social relations or productive forces, and that may or may not generate or engender something akin to the New—that emancipatory Event that so radical that it completely changes the coordinates of possibility for affective relations and social attachments.

Constructively, speaking: Repetition, Difference, and the New

Purveyors of repetition are given careful and nuanced attention in this book: Kierkegaard to Peguy, Bergson to Deleuze, Agamben to Irenaeus are given careful attention here, but it is worth noting that Hegel is again only spectrally present, as is his heterodoxic postsecular reader, Slavoj Žizek.6 Let us bring him and his politics of repetition into the light a bit—and see what happens. The ‘trace’ engagement with these perspectives is understandable, given her preoccupation with reinterpreting Kierkegaard, resisting Deleuzian materialism, and her constructive use of early Greek patrology. But humor me for a moment as I wonder aloud about how an non-identical repetition might be rendered useful for thinking theologically about political materialism—using a bit of Hegel and Žizek along the way. I will try this by relating repetition to the category of the New through Pickstock’s position on the repetition of the revealed event. I am sure that Pickstock might object here—but there are times when we learn far more by disagreeing as we do otherwise. I am hoping that she can teach me a bit more about Hegel here—and also clarify her own positions a bit more.

The central question I want to raise here, to myself, to other reviewers, and to Professor Pickstock is whether or not her theory of repetition can help us prehend and enact the revolutionary process. What does it offer to a political theology eager to function in a critical and interventionary way in material aspects of human life, the nitty-gritty details of affective relations, sensual movements, and bodily attachments that characterize and shape how we as human beings live, fuck, and work? In repetition, what is the fate of the politically New, or are we left with a dialectical repetition of the Same? In what ways can repetition be counted on to generate the New? If repetition is and remains, as Pickstock claims, a transcendence, a catalyst which discloses the bankruptcy of the immanent fervor, what does this mean for a ruptrual and inaugural politics that welcomes the impossible Event that disrupts the Now of present conditions?

Hegel interprets repetition as the symbolic act: the act whereby the Symbolic order emerges as the structure of meaning for the subject upon which it shows itself to be substance. It is in this way that, like Pickstock, Hegel argues that repetition is not simply that which acts upon or to Things, but it is rather constitutive of those Things: “By repetition that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency becomes a real and ratified existence.”7 It is repetition that moves the Thing through the passage from contingency to necessity, as it is clear that “the event that occurs only once seems by definition incapable of occurring at all.” The initial iteration of the Thing presents itself and is received by its constitutive signifying network as an intervention, a contingent and ruptured failure within the legibility of the symbolic. This “recognition by passing through repetition” announces the traumatic emergence of the Thing into the symbolic order: “the Thing that repeats itself retroactively receives, through its repetition, its law.”

Repetition has long been a critical battleground in the struggle against Hegel, most notably against his theory of Absolute Knowing. In the skirmish between Hegel and Kierkegaard, Pickstock sides with the latter, and in doing so, considers herself also opposing Deleuze, despite the fact that he too resists Hegel at a fundamental level. It was Kierkegaard, after all, who led the charge against Hegel, in part, on account of his supposed affinities for Platonic “recollection,” which can be faulted for many reasons, the most pressing of which was that it demanded a movement “backwards into knowledge” so that truth is located in an abstract past into which one can only access by entering backwards. This significantly troubles the passionate decisiveness required for action. If one is obsessed with encountering and redoubling the past, how can one ever be authentically present to and so acting in the reoccurring present—the ever-recursive Now which is always dialectically then, there, and here? In repetition, Kierkegaard counts, the human subject is able to “enter eternity forward” in a “reappropriation of the past through which the past becomes transformed and recast, opening a future of possibility for choice and action.” Repetition then is always a transcendence and thus avoids the unbearable numbness of pure reoccurrence—the same-one-after-another (except that it is not so much another as it is itself under the guise of negativity) that marks the patterns of the aesthetic life. Stephen Crites describes the difference in Kierkegaard’s mind between recollection and repetition (which is essentially, again, in Kierkegaard mind, the difference between him and Hegel) well: “Not in the re-collected necessity of thought, but in the contingency of historically situated action directed towards an uncollected future, a man (sic) appropriates truth.”

If you want a politics of the New funded by repetition, Hegel at first glance appears like an odd resource for such a thing. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s legacy lives on a generation of readers of Hegel who find his conception of history, his theory of absolute knowing, his theology of the State, hazardous, vulgar, and undesirable. To these readers, Kierkegaard is convincing on the point that Hegel’s “recollection” invites, nay demands, a radical closure of history and so abandons the concrete individual for the sake of abstract thought, absolutized by synthesis and reconciliation. It is common, in talk about Hegel, to hear the accusation that he is stridently opposed to the emergence of the New, and so effectively abandoned dialectics in route to absolute knowledge, demanding along the way that history is concluded, that nothing new is possible. If history has indeed come to an end, this means that action ceases, for if there is this radically decisive completion of knowledge, that there has been a final resolution of history, any and all acts are quite unintelligible. What and when would you act—and what for? For why act if, due to the radical closure of history and thought, there will never be more anything new on earth? The cost of this totality is that we all cease to become human—that we are no longer are subjects. (To me, if there is a political impetus for Pickstock’s theology of repetition, it is indeed to help the human person think herself as subject in a social world that has lost sight of the ground of its intelligibility and coherence: “god.”)

Surely, the idea that Hegel thinks that “there will never be more anything new on earth” (an accusation blamed in large part on his alleged predilection for recollection over “pure” repetition) is incorrect. As is the aforementioned assumption (the classics locus of which is certainly Kierkegaard) that Hegelian “recollection” is in fact incongruent with Kierkegaardian repetition. Following a wave of new research on Hegel’s ontology and political philosophy, it is increasingly clear that Hegelian position on repetition is far more than mere recollection in that he interprets the former by reading the latter as a reappropriation of the past which always already transcends it—giving birth to a new world (or at least a dialectical materialism that hopes to bring it to fruition). This is the political promise of recollection, is that it repeats itself in ways that gets beyond itself (a “negation of negation”), effectively pointing thought, history, and action towards the New—all the while avoiding the forced choices established by present coordinates. Is this that much different than Kierkegaard’s repetition, which considers the past to be the creative point of departure for its (own) future—which is always the eternal Now?8

Hegel’s position on repetition is often misunderstood, I think, because the self-reflexive core of his negativity is not readily recognized. Again, a new wave of research is changing this. Following Žizek and Malabou here, the essence of Hegelian negativity is the incessant albeit unbearable and traumatic drive to repeat without “any movement of sublation or idealization.” What Žizek calls “pure repetition” is a negative and negating drive, a dark compulsion of life and thought that is sustained by an internal “impurity,” “the persistence of a pathological element to which repetition gets stuck.” The problem with Hegel is that he cannot theorize a pure repetition that is not yet caught up trying to either fragment itself or perfect itself in some pure, representative form.9 For Žizek, the task of interpreting Hegel on repetition, then, is to think beyond Hegel—to transcend Hegel by repeating him—for in order for this this radical openness to be realized with or even as pure repetition, it must not be about sublation or idealization. “The point is not so much that we should not ignore Hegel, but that we can only afford to ignore him after a long and arduous working-through-Hegel. The time has thus come to repeat Hegel.”10 Žizek, again like Pickstock, sides with Kierkegaard over Hegel, only because he sees Kierkegaard as much closer to Hegel than either Hegel or Kierkegaard would have liked to think. Again, Žizek: “Is not the excess of negativity over the reconciled social order, also the excess of repetition over sublation?”11

For Žizek, the properly Kierkegaardian “pure” repetition occurs when the negative dialectics of sublimation encounters its own core, as outside itself, as it fights against its own abyssal ground, in order to resist any phantasmic identification, a move which blatantly ignores the cut, or wound, at the core of the “Nothing, that is the subject.” Alas, the central notion of Hegelian negativity is not the utter destruction of whatever there is/may be, but rather a sudden, unannounced, and unforeseen halt or paralysis of the normal flow or smooth running of things. Negativity recognizes the immense creativity that is made possible when things get stuck, due to the unwelcome and impolite singularity that persists beyond allowed time. Deleuze and Žizek both concur that this is how the New can arise: when repetition manifests its proper negativity: this happens when “things flow, they follow their course, of constant change, and then something gets stuck, it interrupts that flow, imposing itself as New by way of this very persistence.” But again, how might this extreme negativity be seen as in any way productive, rather than strictly annihilistic in its unapologetic disregard for order or law, in its ebullient fete of failure, loss, and chaos? This kind of negativity sounds like a perverse game of dancing with the devil—and enjoying it a bit too much. But when self-reflexively applied, in the fourth moment of negation, it appears as “the blind compulsion to repeat”, it shows itself to be the productive force inherent to absolute knowledge itself. Many will accuse this of suffering from an oft-noted radical historical closure that refuses any meta-language or any way to prehend oneself from an “outside” position, but few will recognize how it is that the repetition of this self-relating negativity also admits/generates a radical openness to the future, indeed, even a pathway to the New.

This political valency of repetition is clarified when read through the Marxist axiom that historical appears twice: “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”12 Žizek interprets this politically: “Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. . . . The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations, etc. Now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering, it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon.”13 Repetition is far from an innocent or progressive notion; it may indeed be constitutive of human existence in history but this may not be the best of news. What is being repeated is violence, war, injustice, and indeed death—in all its sundry forms. But this is required, says Žizek. It is only by going through farce, through error and failure, that we are able to traverse fantasy of the really existing Act that changes every thing and finally get to something productive: namely, to get something right, we are compelled, forced even, to get it terribly wrong first—and to repeat this again and again.14

How, then, can repetition be counted on help us think how to “deal” with these structural pathologies in revolutionary ways—that is, in ways that generate avenues for the political New, and establishes conditions for authentic political Acts? Žizek reminds us of Rosa Luxemburg’s description of the dialectic of the revolutionary process whereby the oppressed proletariat takes power and does so prematurely, without proper planning and lacking adequate operational details, but this is not of concern. “The only way of arriving at mmaturity,’ of waiting for the ‘opportune’ moment to seize power, is to form themselves, prepare themselves for this seizure; and the only way of forming themselves is, of course, these ‘premature’ attempts . . . the ‘maturity’ of the revolutionary subject—can only occur through a series of ‘premature’ attempts. There is no right or appropriate time for revolution. It is not a polite, ordered, and organized affair. The revolutionary subject cannot be revolutionary from a measured distance; she cannot prepare herself to be revolutionary and then wait to engage the situation when her mature status is intact and tested: the ‘subjective failure’ of the agents is essential to the ‘objective’ process of the Act itself.”15 The revolutionary subject is indeed constituted through this process of insufficient action and failed planning; it is only through repetition of failure, of loss, of prematurity that the revolutionary subject comes into herself. The revolutionary act realizes itself only in its repeated failures—on getting it wrong, on making the same mistakes. We must strive to act, if only to get it wrong over and over again, if we have any hope of arriving at the properly authentic act, as it is through this very error that we are able to succeed. The failed revolution must be repeated—over and over again—despite its well-documented destiny to fail.16 The revolutionary “meaning” of those premature attempts is found in their repeated failure. Žizek will often cite Hegel here in saying that, “a political revolution is, in general, only sanctioned by popular opinion after it has been repeated.” When it comes to revolution, something New comes about only through repetition, but it is the repetition of discontinuity, rupture, failure, loss, and dissensus that ultimately creates and generates the inaugural and unanticipated moment that introduces real change.

And so, if the self-negating pattern of repetition admits and generates a radical openness to the future that creates a pathway to the politically New, this admittedly is most sensible within “the immanent frame,, which an disenchanted socio-political imaginary expresses a belief in the self-sufficiency of the natural order, wherein we experience ourselves as political subjects as standing alone without the eternal, transcendent, or supernatural. Although it is thoroughly materialist, this immanence is not a deflationary worldview, but one that readily admits to the possibility of the miracle, “a kind of punctual hole blown in the regular order of things from outside, that is, from the transcendent.”17 Indeed, something is missing if we adopt a fully closed immanence, narrowed to the point of subjecting ourselves to the peculiarly modern malaises: frailty of meaning, the inability to solemnize collective moments of passage, and the emptiness of the ordinary. Pickstock gestures to the political impact of this in her defense of the transcendent aspect of repetition, that is, the repetition of the eternal:

Ironically, the need for ontological hierarchy arises within the apparent democracy of pantheistic immanence, rather than for theistic transcendence. For if there is only one finite reality, one must seek out the dominant factor within this reality, But the admission of transcendence like the monarchy relative leveling of class and prevention of oligarchy, puts into perspective all lesser hierarchal distinctions but perhaps leaves in place an unresolved oscillation between different ontological elements, none of which may assume the upper hand” (59–60).

But, is there not some sort of remainder, some traumatic leftover, not absorbed or traversed by the inner analogical gesture of repetition that affects the unity of difference to identity, constitutive of non-identical repetition? Pickstock seems to agree with the implied Hegel’s resistance to Deleuze: any reference to pure difference is actually identity of the selfsame sort. Difference constitutes identity as such, or as Žizek says, “an entity is perceived as ‘(self-)identical’ when (and only when) its virtual support is reduced to a pure difference,”18 thereby any the politics of repetition is one “without reserve”—and whose radical reflexivity is brought in its repetitive structure. When it comes to identity, the problem of repetition is not the relation of sameness to difference, but rather the retroactive character of repetition’s effect on identity. For Žizek, it comes down to understandings of temporality, not in terms of linear casualty but as Hegelian retroactivity, which reconstitutes identity by repeating it within a parallax frame. This links the effects of repetition on identity directly to the paradox surrounding the political Act:

in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper is the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual “transcendental” coordinates of its agent’s being—or, in Freudian terms, which does not only change the actuality of our world, but also “moves its underground.”19

And so, repetition is that experience of instrinsic alterity where difference retroactively and appears to be the same only within parallactic perspective: “although nothing changes, the thing all of a sudden seemed totally different.” It is only that under the auspice or appearance of a self-negating repetition of difference “in which a thing remains the same in its actuality” that the New is created. But how is it to recognized as being genuinely New?

The self-reflexive negativity of difference, in this way, is quite formally antagonistic, and it is this characteristic that suggests that it may indeed by promising for those of who really seek change, who create, live, speak, and act in order to rupture the Same and inaugurate the rise of that something that is really, really New. But how does the repetition of difference generate “really existing” change? How does it contribute to the emergence something really New when we can easily see that “things really change not when A transforms itself into B, but when, while A remains exactly the same with regard to its actual properties, it imperceptibly “totally changes”? Repetition is indeed real insofar as it establishes the minimal difference iterated between the thing and itself. Repetition does not change actuality because it brings up again the repressed “content” of truth hidden from recollection, but because it is only through repetition that the traumatic gaps constitutive of the real are able to show themselves—or rather be shown by critical processes of negative dialectical thought. Repression of trauma then is apocalyptic, rather than messianic, in its disclosure by repetition. The truth of repetitive difference, as such, is that the inherent antagonism that demands identity, asserts non-identity and does through returning again and again to the beginning, if only to repeat the unbearable failure. And so one way of reading what Žizek calls, “the Nothing that is the subject”; is that it is the gap of repetition that divides the Thing from itself, creating the space for the New to emerge, making authentic Acts possible by shifting the currently available choices.


I do not disagree with Pickstock’s reological thesis on repetition, in large part because I am willing to admit to not fully understanding it, even after multiple readings. I do however wonder how it relates to specific instances—or if you will, iterations—of repetition in more strictly political terms. I have tried to draw some of those themes out in the preceding pages, and humbly look forward to Pickstock’s response, and of course, her corrections. My own sense of repetition is that it is far more political than reological, more material than ideal, and so less (but also more) theological than she suggests. Perhaps these are false choices. My lingering concern, if I may hazard this, is that there is an inherently conservative and/or nostalgic impulse to Pickstock’s distinctly reological take on repetition, to be contrasted with an immanent and/or materialist one, intimated in a broadly Hegelian-Žizek manner, which is more prone to interpret repetition as a historical phenomena wherein the self-reflexive negativity of the Real upends itself, widening the traumatic gap from which the New emerges, and the Act is made possible once again.

  1. Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  2. Pickstock’s use of analogy to mediate the relation of same and difference in the repeating of the thing is meant to ensure that repeating does not favors one more than the other (52). I am uncertain if Pickstock actually responds to Deleuze’s rejoinder, that such a reading of difference (as a variation on the same) is but an “appeal to same at the expense of difference,,” other than to say that she disagrees—with good reason.

  3. Pickstock’s model for resolving this, which she readily admits as an aporia, is Platonic model of methexis whereby “Eternal truth…is the weaving of the one with the two, the same with the different” which, incidentally admits to the mysterious and problematic character of the real (52–53).

  4. For on this idea of “fiction” with specific reference to its impact on political-theological work today, see Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (London, UK: Verso, 2012), 81–92.

  5. Elsewhere, Pickstock queries, “Is it possible to live a human life as an integral “non-identical repetition,,q to realize a consistent but creative habit, to realize cosmic purpose, and to disclose the divine?” One can easily see here how her theory of ‘the Repeated Self’ is really a theology. This is not remarkable, except that the repetition of God becomes constitutive of all other repetitive forms. It is the participation of the self in the repetitions of God that allows for it to repeat itself, and so gain the integrity, reliability, and cogency requisite for meaningful (and as she will argue eventually, virtuous) human existence?

  6. This is not surprising given the well-documented disagreements between Pickstock, John Milbank (her partner in the Radical Orthodox project) and Slavoj Žizek. See Žizek and Milbank, ed. Monstrosity of Christ and Pickstock’s essay, “Liturgy and the Senses” in Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 125–45.

  7. Cited in Slavoj Žizek, “The Most Sublime of Hysterics” in Interrogating the Real (London: Continuum, 2005), 42; See G.W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 313.

  8. More should be said here, certainly. Suffice it to say that I have in mind the line of revolutionary thought that links Johann Baptist Metz to Slavoj Žizek through Walter Benjamin’s understanding that the hopeful future of political justice—the eschatological redemption of the past—lies with the remembering of the suffering of the dead.

  9. See Slavoj Žizek, Absolute Recoil (London: Verso, 2014), and Slavoj Žizek, Less than Nothing, (London: Verso, 2012).

  10. Žizek, Less than Nothing, 504.

  11. Žizek,, 502.

  12. Marx mistakenly cites Hegel here: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

  13. Slavoj Žizek, “Shoplifters of the World, Unite!” London Review of Books, August 18, 2011: http:/C:/dev/home/Žizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite

  14. “Only the wrong choice creates the conditions for the right choice.” Žizek, Less than Nothing, 290. Also, see 68–70, and 205–07.

  15. Žižek, “The Most Sublime of Hysterics” in Interrogating the Real, 41.

  16. Žizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 86–87.

  17. Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007), 547.

  18. Slavoj Žizek, “Deleuze’s Platonism: Ideas as Real.” http:/C:/dev/home/

  19. Žizek, Less than Nothing, 214.

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    Catherine Pickstock


    A Response to Silas Morgan

    At the heart of Silas Morgan’s response to Repetition and Identity lies a reassertion of an Hegelian understanding of repetition, not implausibly linked to a “leftist” predilection for negativity, matter, violence and revolution. My response to all this is, in brief, that first, the Hegelian reading suppresses repetition in favour of dialectics, and, secondly, that “leftist” predilections are in fact hyper-liberal ones, rooted in an Hobbesian-Lockean favouring of positivist “identity.” Such predilections have always been contested by the most authentic socialism, which has tended to have natural affinities with repetition, liturgy that is both material and ideal, and a framework of transcendence allows the arrival of the radically new, which, I argue, immanentist closure forbids.

    The issue of nostalgia is not relevant, because the conventional left/right division between “conservatism,” longing for the “restoration” of the bastard feudalism of the ancien regime (which was in fact itself already “liberal,” founding seigneurial power upon the primacy of property and not personal relation as for an older mediaeval order, however imperfect that may have been), and “liberalism,” longing for an ever further ‘emancipation’ of negative liberty of choice and utilitarian material comfort, is not, as Jean-Claude Michéa has shown (to the half-fascination, half disconcertion of Žižek—see Michéa’s latest summary, Les Mystèteres de la gauche) the crucial alternative from a socialist perspective.

    As Michéa has argued, prior to the Dreyfusard dispute in the early 1900s, and the new threat of conservative “restoration,” there existed little socialist alliance in France with liberalism, revolutionism and republicanism, with even the alliance with materialism muted. A fortiori this is true of the British Labour legacy with Methodist, High Anglican, Catholic and radical Tory (never originally whig until the Fabians) influences. For this mainline of socialism, a quite different sense of “left” (which in the nineteenth century rarely even bore that name) sees the division as lying between the modern liberal (whether “right” or “left”) abolition of the freely associationist “middle” of corporations, cities, guilds, trades unions, monasteries and churches (all legally disabled by the French revolution) and their continued upholding or reinvention. Thus liberalism typically upholds only the freely choosing power of the private-property and capital owning individual, which can ironically only be secured by an all-powerful and incipiently totalitarian secular state.

    Nineteenth century socialism (along with, to a certain degree more qualified liberals such as Tocqueville who conceded the need for intermediary association at least to uphold negative liberty) was concerned with trying to qualify this upshot of revolution and its formalism through the primarily “social” and only secondarily “political” formation of free associations based on mutuality and reciprocity as the main vehicles for organising both the economy and self-government. There were clearly also more “conservative” versions of the same enterprise, but socialism tried to perform it in a more egalitarian and democratic way. Nevertheless, there is no easy line to be drawn between socialists and radical conservatives such as William Cobbett who bitterly opposed both the Reformation legacy and the enclosure of common and freehold land—in a manner which witnesses a strong proto-ecological consciousness. Thinkers such as Carlyle and Ruskin (important influences upon the British Labour and radical traditions) tried to synthesise both tendencies, notably adding an insistence upon the importance of having wise leadership and guardianship of the search for the good by educators—given that without this, democracy would be subject to monetary and spectacular manipulation. Yet Marx also emphasises (against the French revolutionary legacy) in his Critique of the Gotha Programme the need for educative hierarchy. And although Michéa wants to argue that the underlying liberalism of Hegel and then Marx to a degree derailed socialism, he also contends that the very late Marx sounds somewhat mutualist. His feelings about the essentially bourgeois legacy of “revolution” were more ambivalent than those of Lenin later on.

    I hope that these remarks help to situate the “mystery” of Radical Orthodoxy’s (RO) political allegiance a little better. There is here no uniformity of political view, but in general, RO thinkers are part of a much wider debate which seeks to reposition the lines of basic political contrast. Yet in this respect, RO is true to a wider British and Anglican (though not exclusively so, and there are American equivalents) political tradition which would also include Rowan Williams. This tradition, stemming from Stewart Headlam and John Neville Figgis, tends to favour—in a slightly “anarchic” mode—the “pluralism” of sovereign power within states, and the primacy of social and economic self-organisation over against either a formally “free” market or an over-domineering and bureaucratic state with which the market is often in collusion (as in contemporary China) rather than in opposition.

    Thus the political map gets drawn by RO somewhat differently. Moreover, the wider return to a more authentic “associationist” socialism can be strongly linked (as also can Green politics) with many different concrete and practical suggestions—many real proposals for new things in fact. By contrast, the politics of Hegelian-Marxists, and especially those of Žižek, cannot so easily be associated with any ideas for concrete, either utopian or feasible, change at all. Thus Morgan’s Žižekian litany of the repetition of destruction and of the failure of this destruction to produce anything positive whatsoever—indeed, rather (as overwhelming statistics from the American Revolution to the present show) ever worse concentration of power, state terror and decimation of populations. Morgan, like his admired recent thinkers, admits that revolution usually makes things even worse, yet he cleaves to the mystique of negativity: somehow, one day, this will all “apocalyptically” flip over into positive glory. Now, either this is simply unbelievable and unmediated theology, a perverse account of hope as discontinuous with the past and a complete break of the event with repetition, or else it is disingenuous and contradicted by moments when Morgan tends to admit that repetition of failure dominates, and all that can be done differently is maturely to admit the endless reign of arbitrary power and hopeless resistance. Indeed, this is Žižek’s perspective, reinforced by Freud and Lacan: “emancipation” is really to realise that your desire to be liberated or fulfilled can never be realised. (One can note here that my argument against Freud in the book is ignored by all four commentators).

    This fact vividly confirms the seemingly astonishing truth that today it is atheism that is the opium of the intellectuals. For immanentist materialism has largely given up on proposing a better future in some sort of concrete terms, or even in thinking such improvement is formally possible. Materialism today (whether for Derrida, Deleuze or Žižek) is rather a “religion” which consoles us for infinite disappointment with a Gnostic, learned resignation to fate or aporia, available only to an educated elite. By contrast, members of faith communities, in lieu of very active parties or trades unions, are everywhere in the world engaged in radical, freely associationist constructive projects linked with just modes of mutual sharing and distribution of roles. These people act because they still have hope for a better future, and they still have hope for a better future (beyond capitalism and state bureaucracy) because they believe in the giving of reality from the eternal. Given this belief, there exists no immanent ontological frame which can predetermine the bounds of the possibly arising event (it is here that Badiou’s interesting but problematic dualism seems to break with the immanent), either in terms of a supposed historical becoming of reason, or in terms of an a priori ontological frame. Hegel is caught between the two: if he claims that history is closed, then he is trapped within the former stasis; if he claims that it is not closed and yet its essential future can be formally anticipated, then he remains within the latter and after all Kantian or Fichtean and ahistorical stasis. But in either case, the end that is already and yet still to come is doubly fated in terms of a dialectical resolution which nihilistically releases the aleatory as the truth of the same. Žižek’s sublime, differential and nihilistic reading of Hegel is exegetically right, as John Milbank has argued; but to espouse this might, as he also suggests, seem perverse.

    From this perspective it should not be difficult to see why I favour Kierkegaard over both Hegel and Deleuze—as I shall now rehearse. Hegel allows for originary repetition, yet sees it as ineluctably original alienation, because the dynamic of differential repetition is for Hegel a “logical” negation. But both Kierkegaard and Deleuze try to break with this “rationalism” in the specific wake of Schelling’s more vitalist outlook which also admits a more irreducible liberty into the work of reason. Movement is not originally negative, but rather a positive “artistic” expression (the Romantic element in Schelling)—plants grow by repeating and expressing themselves non-identically, in such a way that the stem is the shoot and seed “otherwise,” and not the result of an agonistic battle within the seed and the shoot. Just where is the evidence for that? It is rather a projection of a sophistic or liberal, Thucydidean or Hobbesian view of human society thrust upon all of nature.

    In the case of both nature and culture, they are utterly riddled with power, struggle, and violence (though we need to beware, with the book of Job, of projecting our violence upon a reading of the sub-human natural order), but in either case again, the negative is but secondary and parasitic. The positive can arise from violence; it can be redeemed, but it is not of itself automatically cleansing or creative in its decreation. Nothing first exists because of violence, because one can only define violence as damage, as removal. Violence is, as Augustine and Hannah Arendt thought, privative, accidental and always ontologically superfluous. To say this, however, is not to deny that our world is negatively saturated with damage to the core and that often there is an unavoidable exigency to counter-violence. But it is to deny a cult of salvific violence, which is, after all, the heart of the “pagan” which the Biblical legacy refuses. Violence and violent occasions can be redeemed, but redemption springs from the resumption of positive non-identical repetition.

    Morgan, despite his worries about not understanding my text, in fact understands it extremely well, and calls attention to crucial things not so much mentioned in the other responses. Indeed, as he says, non-identical repetition is a refusal of merely univocal, merely equivocal or again dialectical ontologies. It rather involves an analogical ontology, rethought, with and beyond Aquinas in terms of time and motion. The paradoxical “middle” between identity and difference involved in constitutive repetition can only be sustained as irreducible paradox if this middle is seen as a participation in the divine Trinitarian middle, where the opposites, as for Nicholas of Cusa, absolutely coincide. So certainly Morgan is right to see this metaphysics as inextricably linked to a doctrinal theology—to the participation of all things in “Trinitarian repetition” and the sustaining of this participation—beyond the “impossibility” of violent fallen rupture—only through the repair carried out by God himself in the Incarnation and the triduum.


    Since he understands all this so well and even sympathetically (for which charity—after all!—I am grateful), it is mysterious to me that he does not take the point that the perspective of repetition as participation in transcendence affirms a true hope for a better finite future than does the perspective of negative dialectics. Gilles Deleuze is as suspicious of this as I am, yet his immanentism causes him to give too much play to negation (though he does not admit this), since for him difference is always smuggled back into identical repetition and is only difference as virtual aspiration, even though repetition can never exist without this supplement, in such a way that the never existentially arriving virtual also undercuts the replete reality of the existential, in a process that Conor Cunningham has referred to as “double abolition” in The Genealogy of Nihilism. Immanence tends to demand this kind of vicious and futile ontological circle, whereas transcendence has no need of, and indeed forbids, any sort of immanent closure. So just because this world does not close in upon itself, just because there is an ideal but also real excess to “materialism,” human beings are not in thrall either to a fated logic of history, nor yet any a priori bounds of ontological possibility which trap us within an agonistic shuttle or else reduce the open future to illusion in its subservience to the mastery of an eternal past, or a spatialized present, or a merely virtual “to come.”

    I would argue that Deleuze cannot envisage a real repetition beyond dialectics, nor concomitantly an analogy not favouring the same, because he does not envisage Aquinas and Cusa’s paradoxical mode of “analogy of attribution,” whereby the very difference of a thing is referred to its identity on another higher plane beyond itself with its own source, but only the “analogy of proper proportion” which reduces analogy to a displaceable but identical ratio.

    Yet beyond even the Proclean terms of “analogy of attribution,” the Trinity identifies the ultimate source as within itself, and so “horizontally” a play between source and expression, since the source has been always-already repeated even within God as expression, according to Trinitarian doctrine. In consequence, the vertical analogical tension with their source which constitutes finite things, is also played through as a horizontal (spatial and temporal) tension between and amongst created things themselves. Moreover, they cannot leave behind this positive and erotic tension in returning vertically to the source, since they can only return to this source by participation, and that means to share in and echo the horizontal analogy or repetition which is internal to this source itself. In other words, he who says he loves God and hates his neighbour is a liar. Or in other terms, the Christian religion is the opposite of an opiate. Rather, there is only an open and possibly better future if there is also a never-exhausted and ever further donating “beyond” which is both pre-original and post-final.

    In keeping with this vision, my vision is not “idealist” (and Platonism is, of course, not idealism). Rather it is “ritualist.” All of ontological reality, and especially the human, is an inextricable blend of matter with form, the real with the ideal, the thing with the sign; the signifying being, however, for me, itself a real and not a merely virtual insistence. Morgan again sees this well—the way in which my metaphysics tries to keep both being and knowing in equal play, and permits space for the full reality of both non-conscious things and conscious spiritual beings. What I would like to persuade him of is the natural alliance of this perspective with socialist—and feminist and ecological—radicalism, as opposed to the dismal reign of the material, the negative and the agonistic, which on the self-admission of the most consistent analysis of these things can never be fruitful. And yet, for all the horror, there is still fruit; else there would be nothing whatsoever.

    This dismal reign remains wedded to the fundamental paradigm of liberalism. For Hobbes, and perhaps more covertly Locke, there exist only material and sensual forces. Therefore, liberty is but negative freedom from arbitrary power and is itself the exercise of this untrammelled power. Revolution must free every individual from the power of the other, but can only do so through a contracting which hands all arbitrating power over to the state, which then tends to become a power in its own right. New, more extreme forms of domination and terror then variously ensue. There can be no right of appeal against this authority guaranteeing the “material” power of individual freedom, and yet also, anarchically, an always slumbering right to revolutionary resistance against it, insofar as to some degree the state can be seen as always violating absolute private property rights.

    In the USA as earlier in England and later in France, the first revolutions—the first celebrations of normative materialism and agon, of releasing violence, of an arbitrary “representation” by an elite few, of an asymptotic process of endless “emancipation” from any positive claim of value and authority which thereby tends to terror (as Hegel saw)—were specifically liberal revolutions. And socialism deviated into revolution, deserting the far more radical path of gradual but total transformation of human habits (which is much more than governmental “reformism”) tends thereby to be diluted by just these “liberal” characteristics, supposedly releasing and “emancipating” the negative “self-ownership” of every person beyond the dominance of others, but always through the coagulation of power at a centre rendered ever more terrifying.

    This “leftist” extension of liberalism patronises the mass of human beings, by associating their coming moment merely with “the lowest” and most base “common”—with matter, with negation, with force, and so forth. It is a collusive inversion of a mode of spiritualist hierarchy which deplored the material, the corporeal and the sensory.

    But from the perspective of non-identical repetition as analogical participation in the divine Trinity, what we most share in common is the integrally personal and the liturgical unity of the sensory with the intellectual. On that basis, the radical goal is not “emancipation” of a mythical and minimal “pure human nature” which must stand before culture, but rather the productive construction (beyond the capitalist pseudo-production of abstracted and appropriated “wealth”) through free association of a common substantive and justly shared vision and practice of the Good.

    As Morgan intimates, for any Platonism, politics must lurk in the civic shadows. But this political shadow, like the repeated sign essential to the res, has its own glorious place in the transcendent sun.


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      Silas Morgan


      Ten Theses on the Politics of Repetition and Identity: A Response to Catherine Pickstock

      I want to thank Professor Pickstock for a very interesting and careful response that provocatively lays her theopoliticial vision (as it is informed by her theory of repetition) in terms that are in sharp contrast to that which I laid out via Žižek’s take on Hegelian repetition and political change. I am heartened that Pickstock felt as if I understood her well. The primary goal of my essay was to invite her to be more political about repetition, to say more about what kind of human existence ‘non-identical repetition’ promises, what kind of social attachments and political arrangements flow from an account of reology as ‘analogical participation in the divine Trinity.’ My original hope was that we would learn something about what Pickstock thinks the concept of repetition does to and in a political theology, and what kind of politics it promotes. What follows is sure to be an unjust simplification, but we learned, I think, a few things about the politics of Repetition and Identity:

      1. It is a distinctly Christian political theology, rooted in ecclesial practices and doctrinal thinking.
      2. It is “the most authentic socialist” vision that is very humanist, while also being anti-revolutionary.
      3. If you want to see where the politics of repetition is most at work, go to church. There you may see examples of what happens when people act of their belief in the eternal towards “just modes of mutual sharing and distribution of roles.”
      4. It mobilizes and deploys repetition as the ontological delivery system for a politics of transcendence.
      5. Its British sensibilities, and its distance, both historically and geographically, from the continental European and American context makes it deeply skeptical—and a bit dismissive—of revolutions. (Not all revolutions fail. Only the best ones.)
      6. The reology of repetition links vulgarity, materialism, and immanence together, opposing them with beauty, vitality, and transcendence. The primary sin of the latter grouping is its violence, or its assumption of violence in both nature and culture. This is the primary evidence of the identification of the first grouping with the twin devils of liberalism: Hobbes and Locke.
      7. The strength of repetition, actually, as a concept is that it sidesteps this logical division and goes straight up and straight down by way of analogy to that ‘transcendent sun’ (“the divine Trinitarian middle”): it is both and at the same time, macro (God, as God is in God’s divine Trinitarian self, is repeated), and micro (“to be is to be repeated”).
      8. The politics of repetition, then, “seeks to reposition the lines of basic political contrast” so as to generate “many real proposals for new things” (in contradistinction to the ‘dismal reign’ of Hegelian-Žižekian anti-politics which apparently favors the violence of inactivity and the brutality of resignation over any sort of hopeful action or resistance).
      9. Repetition generates the New which is truly emancipatory, that is it gets us all out from underneath of the vicious cycle of failure and empty apocalyptic appeals. What is not particularly clear, either in Repetition and Identity itself or in Pickstock’s response is how it does this other than pave the way for thought and study to imbue theopolitics with the warmth of the transcendent sun, the movement that comes from “a positive ‘artistic’ expression”, much more closely aligned with the vitality of actually existing socialism rather than its leftist pretenders.
      10. If authentic socialist radicalism is what we should all be striving for, then the politics of Repetition and Identity are far more closely aligned with that vision than that which I laid out in my original essay, “the dismal reign of the material, the negative and the agonistic”. The latter makes the fatal error of mistaking the gnostic resignation that “a true hope for a better finite future” can never be fruitful for something akin to a heroic, albeit tragic, form of political bravery: the willingness to be unpopular and say that which no one else is willing to admit.

      Now if I am close to being correct about half of the theses, then we have a lot to talk about, so I will not try to respond to each one. In fact, rendering “Pickstock’s Ten Theses” in this way is a kind of response, namely that the manner of my reconstruction might speak for itself. So I will just attempt to respond briefly in a broader way, in the hopes that it will further more discussion here and elsewhere and also show a bit of how I am moving and thinking in all this, because I do think I have learned some and her critical comments about how unlikely it is that my positive appraisal of dialectical negativity will produce any hope for a better future. Summary statements are dangerous (this is why they are so important), but let me try: according to Pickstock, Christian political theology cannot operate with a dialectical ontology if it is to function within a theory of repetition. My own position is that political theology cannot operate with a theory of repetition because of its dialectical ontology. So does it all come down to another boring “dialectics vs. analogy” debate?

      I sure hope not.

      Of all that Pickstock said, I am perhaps most concerned about locating the site of theopolitical repetition with the social and political activity of churches and faith communities. As a Christian myself, and as a political theologian, I have deep appreciation for Christianity and our global and collective tradition of life, practice, and thought. I myself have experienced the formative power of the ritual, the way it can and does shape our understanding of ourselves and those with whom we share life—whether we like it (or them) or not. But this is far too particular for me, far too closed, too immanent, sectarian even. Those to whom we owe solidarity, recognition, and even reparations, are often not Christian (or are Christian, but are not the British-Anglican variety). Pickstock’s theology of ‘the Repeated God’ is a thoroughly Christian one, but one that is then writ large (or small—in the case of res) into the fabric of the real as Eternality itself. To be sure, there are churches, there are faith communities, and there certainly are Christians, who are hard at work in critical places in the world, actively struggling against violence, injustice, the ravaging contradictions of capital, and misrecognition, but when it comes down to it, I do not share Pickstock’s confidence that we Christians and our faith communities, are reliable or trustworthy—or that our theologies, of repetition or otherwise, are so unqualifiedly good for the world. More often than not, what does recur within churches is not so much the repetition of justice, forgiveness, and solidarity into forms that are non-identical and so match the challenges of the day, but rather the mindless rehearsal of well-worn scripts, a pattern, perhaps unconsciously, protected so as to avoid any kind of rupture and negativity. I am all for putting the church’s theology to work in the world as a counter-hegemonic force in the service of human affairs, but only with the healthy dose of immanent, self-reflexive critique. This is a task that negative dialectics seems well suited for—but repetition? Not so much. One way of framing my concern interrogatively is this: is hoping for a better finite future the same as hoping for a Christian one?

      I am rather in favor of, to use a phrase I first learned from Hille Haker, a critical political theology, which embraces the idea of failing at praxis; it takes an aggressively passive stance of protest and refusal toward the disciplinary policing of theological scripts. Yet insofar as human emancipation is the common interest between us all, the real problem is that faith communities (and all too often their politicized theologies as well) frequently presume to know exactly what human emancipation is and how to accomplish it. Learning from the repetition of failure does not have to be as insidiously atheist as Pickstock suggests; it may help us discover something we cannot yet know and bring forth a future we have not yet pretended to have already mastered. I think the problem is that many political theologies concede the positivity of emancipation without recognizing their complicity in the toxic logic of ‘constructive’ success, which is dependent and reliant on the demands and configurations of the present. They succeed by acting as if they know what ought to come and are unable, for example, to embrace justice, peace, and reconciliation for what they are: failed projects. In other words, I am committed to the radical potential of the repetition of failure, even if that failure is theological in nature. I continue to learn from Jack Halberstam and Judith Butler on these matters.

      Perhaps I am too taken with the anti-revolutionary negativity of Žižek. Maybe I make too much of his promise to open up to something we have not yet seen, the coordinates of which we cannot yet plot, the parameters of which we cannot yet draw, the potentials of which we cannot surmise. But, and I can almost hear Pickstock say it, “what help does this offer the migrant worker, the thousands of displaced Yahidzi Christians, the west African patients suffering from Ebola, the grieving parents of murdered Muslim students in NC, or the enraged families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice (all of whom were victims of police killings in the US this summer), or the countless, everyday victims of banal sexism?” Pickstock insists that the politics of Hegelian-Marxists, and especially those of Žižek, offer little, if any, by way of “ideas for concrete, either utopian or feasible, change at all.” This paralysis, brought to theology by the kind of immanent closure that “transcendence has no need of, and indeed forbids”, is precisely what repetition promises to side-step in its non-identical reproduction of itself for-itself. Honestly: I would like to agree with her, but I still struggle to see how repetition actually does this.

      I am intrigued by Pickstock’s aside that she was disappointed that no one spent any time taking up her argument against Freud, the implication being that Freud (and Lacan) is the figure behind Žižek’s insistence that “‘emancipation’ is really to realise that your desire to be liberated or fulfilled can never be realised.” It is likely that a longer engagement with those arguments may add a great deal to why she finds Žižek’s perspective on ‘emancipation from the myth of emancipation’ to be so political unsatisfying and theologically perverse. She seems to posit Kierkegaard as the opposition to Žižek’s position, a move that I found very interesting, precisely because Žižek repeatedly says how indebted he is to Kierkegaard for helping him understand how rooted ‘the theologico-political suspension of the ethical’ is in Hegel. Arguably, no one is more instrumental in the development of Žižek’s theology than Kierkegaard—not Paul, not Pseudo-Dionysius, not Chesterton. In fact, Žižek thinks his atheism is in fact Christian because Kierkegaard gives him the permission to do so. Politics as ‘the emancipation from the myth of emancipation’ is Žižek’s take on the negation of negation that is so crucial in Kierkegaard’s theology. If Žižek is an atheist, he is because Kierkegaard also is. Pickstock undoubtedly would object to this because as “an opium of the intellectuals”, this atheism leads to a pseudo-materialism that amounts to “the giving up of proposing a better future in some sort of concrete terms, or even in thinking such improvement is formally possible.” Isn’t this just yet another kind of resignation (albeit transmuted into boisterous, over-scheduled, managed, supervised, ‘activity’), couched in the persuasive actionist rhetoric by people ‘who actually care about things happening in the real world like suffering’ as opposed to those like Žižek, on account of his ‘Bartleby’ politics (which sides with Hegel, Lacan, and so on), who obviously does not?

      And one more thought on the role of Kierkegaard in all this. Resisting my idea that there is a conservative, nostalgic politics at work here, operating in the shadows of her theology, Pickstock argues that she too is hard at work for the sake of the radically new, but refuses my suggestion that only negativity can usher forward such a thing. She makes a compelling case that than only a certain kind of repetition—which she thinks she develops from Kierkegaard, pace Hegel/Žižek—is capable of bringing forth the ‘transcendence’ necessary for such a thing. How are we to understand this ‘transcendence’? It comes offer as rather prosaic, basis, and non-threatening, so why do I find it so discomforting? . . . I do not pretend to be a Kierkegaard scholar and so I lean heavily on others who have spent much more time working on him. I invite those who know him better to take me on regarding this next point, but it seems to me that when we turn to Kierkegaard’s idea of repetition, he does not think of it as affording human persons access to the “analogical participation in the divine Trinity.” It seems as if J. Aaron Simmons’ essay circled around this point too, and it has come up frequently in some of the conversations we have had about this symposium. There are many ways one can argue that analogical participation is a central part of ‘the Christian declaration’ (to use one of my favorite of Dan Barber’s phrases), and there are many places to find it, but I am unsure that Kierkegaard is one of them. As such, the alignment that Pickstock envisions in regards to her favoring of Kierkegaard because of his ostensible support for ‘non-identical repetition’ and the politics it promises to engender is more puzzling than before, now that the politics is more in view.

      And now, at the end, I realize that I have strayed far from the pages of Repetition and Identity. But, as I understand it, this is the point of these symposia discussions. Repetition and Identity is an important book, if for no other reason that it pressures us, even if it is unfriendly and difficult for some. It has raised a number of important questions with its myriad arguments: questions about ontology, transcendence, hope, struggle, language, possibility, and action. I have enjoyed the opportunity to think with and to learn from Professor Pickstock—and I have indeed learned a great deal.

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      Catherine Pickstock


      Across the Channel

      I am very grateful to Silas Morgan for his measured and thoughtful reply. There is just too much in his reply to respond to in this brief compass. But the main issue would seem to be whether repetition can be seen to be as critical as immanent dialectic. My suggestion, very briefly. is that repetition—as with Badiou’s fidelity to the event, which derives from Péguy—is more critical, because it begins with a positive horizon which is at once actual and an idea, and is not an inert ‘given’. The constitutive requirement for ‘non-identity’ ensures that the authenticity to this origin can never be one of static and reactionary iteration. Rather, the same must always be rediscovered as the new in order to remain the same. But no exclusively worldly enterprise is here validated—whether of a particular institutional church or anything else; rather, a mode of initial ritual intimation of the transcendent. As with Kierkegaard, repetition requires the constant irruption of the ‘moment’ and the in-breaking of transcendence. Because the ultimate standard is the transcendent—the eternal, the divine, the Forms, the divine ideas—critique is perpetual and especially critique of critique itself; whereas mere immanence, as Rowan Williams has argued, inevitably tends to hypostasise its own critical gesture. So it is not repetition but rather immanent negation which is confined to its own circle, because in the latter terms, one can only criticise the given for failing to be true to itself, as if it were indeed its own adequate reference point. And the position is complicated by the fact that the same Hegelian outlook tends to see erring diremption or betrayal as in any case fated, so subordinating free praxis to historical determination. Such an outlook sees release into the good as dependent upon critique. By contrast, the Platonic-Kierkegaardian perspective recognises (within a framework which construes evil as privation) that critique is always secondary to positive vision. The latter inspires us to change things, and is the precondition of there being anything at all. So, while for negative dialectics, evil tends to be seen as a necessary phase of being—and so its critique is but half-meant, for repetition (which is also Augustinian), evil is an unnecessary predator and intruder. Therefore, its critique is far more thoroughgoing and extirpative.

      More briefly still, if the sacramental Church is our pattern, this requires us to see and work with this pattern wherever it may be seen. This is as much outside the Church as inside. But we must beware the tendency to exaggerate the significance of ‘the failure of the best’. Of course, we’re fallen human beings and so failure is inevitable. What is far worse, though, is to give up on ‘the best’ altogether in the name of a rejection of hypocrisy, as if hope might lie in a kind of sincerity without goal or vision, which was all the purer for that!

      The modern revolutionary traditions (liberal and republican) since 1649 were initially English. This is one reason why the British critique of liberalism and revolution, and sense of the difference of republicanism, with its Classical notions of freedom as political participation, have sometimes also been acute. But Jean-Claude Michea has shown (rather to Zizek’s consternation) that the original line of socialism, which was French, was also a critique of revolution and liberal republicanism as unable to achieve justice. Anglican Christian socialism initially derived from J. H. Ludlow’s reading of Pierre Buchez, a key French socialist (on which, see Milbank, The Future of Love). The Channel is only twenty miles across.


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      Silas Morgan


      The Penultimate Reply (because there will always be more to say)

      So, after all, perhaps Pickstock is right. Perhaps positivity is more immanently critical than negativity. Even more, perhaps dialectics need not be negative in order to be critical. If, as I have claimed here, the primary goal of theological thought and activity is critique, Pickstock claims that “critique is always secondary to positive vision. The latter inspires us to change things, and is the precondition of there being anything at all.” But isn’t what is most tragic and heroic about the knight of faith is his absurd willingness to act without the security of knowing, or even believing, that there is “anything at all”, to suspend the idea of actuality for sake of what might be still possible, even if it is shown at the end to simply be the grotesque brutality of his beloved Isaac’s death: the end of the promise, the cessation of any hope at all? Perhaps this is the introduction of evil into God’s good order, and perhaps negative dialectics cannot be theological after all. But still—we simply cannot dismiss the absolute necessity of evil if we hope to make sense of what causes things to go wrong in our world. For me, to refuse to absorb or sublate evil, to accept it as a brute fact, is the most theological ‘moment’, for there is no moment when humanity understands God and God’s act in history more than when Jesus Christ calls upon the Father—and the Father is nowhere but the cross. There is the critical ‘moment’ in the immanent history of God where the incarnation takes effect and radically displaces Godself into immanence. I agree with Pickstock that “with Kierkegaard, repetition requires the constant irruption of the ‘moment’”, but the cry of dereliction (a favorite of Luther’s, as it was of Kierkegaard’s, and of course, Zizek’s) reveals to us that this irruption is not a breaking-in of transcendence, but the end of it—especially when the politics of its Psalmic origins come into view. This revelatory moment is the Event that makes both theology and politics possible. I cannot imagine a more biblical (or traditional) theological example of the negativity of repetition.

      And so, it comes down to my ontological stubbornness. I disagree that “the ultimate standard is the transcendent—the eternal, the divine, the Forms, the divine ideas.” First, such a notion strikes me as a bit saccharine—sentimental even. I am an academic after all—so I am supposed to be all about sobriety, up to the kind of serious thinking that gets you published, employed, and tenured. But then—my little son looks at me with a face that reminds me of his mother; he smiles and pulls my glasses from my face. Now that is a moment that I wish, I hope, can be repeated, non-identically, into eternity—if such a thing exists. And so, I get the point of beauty, and I do experience something that approximately feels like it has a relation of proportional analogy to goodness and truth. My disagreement has nothing to do with some lazy resistance to anything Platonic, but perhaps has everything to do with the sense that one person’s transcendence amounts to another person’s oppression. I am too confused, too unsure about things that I ought to have more of a sense of as a Christian political theologian—ideas that are never actual and always unreal, ideas like justice, responsibility, even freedom, solidarity, or hope. The theorists of the German Frankfurt school found themselves working in a time when so many were so sure of what these things looked like and that time produced ‘damaged human life’ at a scale theretofore unseen. What they did in response was pull away from all this, in order to ask what caused such barbarism. This diagnostic question was enough to leave them preoccupied for decades. At the end, Adorno composed music and Horkheimer found himself “longing for wholly other.” They sought emancipation from enlightenment through negativity, so as to prevent culture and thought from once again becoming complicitous in dehumanization. I for one must follow their lead.

      What Pickstock says about not giving up on the sacramental church just because it is ‘the failure of the best’, I could also say about revolutions, materialism, or even negativity, all of which suffer greatly from their own hypocrisy, fallenness, and ambitious histories. Perhaps it comes down to what we want to read, who we talk to, or what we encounter as we walk our streets; that is, how we choose to live. Sacramental life of the church feels like a life in which my neighbor and or my unbaptized child might not be feel welcome. And so, I need to read more Kierkegaard. I need to read this Michea character, too. I will also keep reading Pickstock. I am grateful for her patience—and her good spirit. I have enjoyed this immensely.

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      Catherine Pickstock


      Final Thoughts

      Silas, thank you for your attention and patience. It perhaps does come down to vision and perspective in the end. I suppose I would worry that ‘political theology’ reduces theology to the political, in contrast to having ‘a theology of the politics’ amongst many other things. For myself, I can’t see Christianity as immanentist and atheistic, more as paradoxical: the baby in the manger ruling the stars; the eternally victorious God utterly abandoned on the cross. I read the leap of faith as trusting passage through time which needs the deviation via the vertical at each step: the balletic leap which is a continuous glide as SK says. I do not see this as fideistic, but rather as a new intensity of sharing in transcendence without now giving up the earth. Sentimental? Not if true; and why would one forego the leap and rather face, with Stoic resolution, the supposed worse?

      But thank you very much for your generous donation of time to this exchange.