Symposium Introduction

Joshua B. Davis

Response

Attending to the Middle

I agree wholeheartedly with the organizing theme of Gavin Hyman’s analysis in Traversing the Middle, the claim that present ethical, political, and theological discourse is ensnared, on the one hand, by a postmodernism particularism that is politically and ethically ineffectual and, on the other, by a push to return to “unequivocal universals” that “reinscribe the same problem, albeit in an inverted form” (x). I have also drawn on Gillian Rose to make a similar assessment a major organizing theme of my book, Waiting and Being. Nevertheless, aware that we struggle most fiercely to distinguish ourselves from those with whom we are most similar, I have several points of contention to raise with Hyman’s constructive proposal. As these differences occur within a broader agreement, my comments will focus largely on the interpretation of Rose’s work, about which I believe Hyman and I differ considerably. In sum, I believe Hyman understands the ethico-political significance of the “broken middle” in exactly the opposite way from the way in which Rose understood its importance. I believe this is the case because Hyman has invoked the equivocation to “the broken middle” without any accounting for the nature of how Rose conceives of speculative thought and without any reference to its ethico-political viability. This absence is decisive, I believe, for any appropriation of her work since, as Rose underscored in her 1995 preface to the reprint of Hegel Contra Sociology, the “speculative exposition of Hegel” in that work “remains the core of the project to demonstrate a non-foundational and radical Hegel, which overcomes the opposition between nihilism and rationalism” (viii). Insofar as I understand this to be Hyman’s goal too, my remarks will focus on what the absence of speculative thought (and its consequent orientation to “absolute ethical life”) cost Hyman’s project.

My first objection concerns Hyman’s claim that “the ethical and political are constituted by an enigma or aporia that is manifested in the central Judeo-Christian commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.” Hyman insists on the Derridian proposition that this commandment is “strictly and logically unrealizable” because, as Kant maintained, that realization would mean the commandment “belong[ed] to the domain of legality and not that of the ethical at all” (xi). Hyman maintains that ethics and politics are established on the equivocal diremption between the ethical demand to love the neighbor and the political demand to universalize that commandment as justice:

. . . I want to suggest that the ethical is a site of tension between contrary principles. These contrary principles are multiple and may be seen to proliferate. They include tensions between the universal and the particular, autonomy and heteronomy, love of self and love of neighbor, interestedness and disinterestedness, and so forth. The ethical actually depends upon these tensions, and the labor of the ethical consists in the tarrying with these tensions, and judging and acting in the midst of them. Perhaps foremost among these tensions is that between the universal and the particular. (5)

The trouble is that law is precisely what this commandment is, and it is the law of a particular religious ordering of social relations. Hyman treats this commandment of Torah as if it were the same kind of formal rule that governs liberal, bourgeois society. For reasons I will point out below, it is precisely in the context of liberal, bourgeois law that the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is “strictly and logically unrealizable.” Now I simply want to note that whatever one makes of the universality of this commandment, it is not abstract. Rather, it is meaningful specifically within the context of Torah-observance, understood as fidelity to God’s covenant with Israel and/or the specifically Christian interpretation of that covenant. Even for Christianity, where Gentiles are included in the covenant, this is not a transcendental status but a concrete community and practice for which this commandment is binding. As Jesus says in John, “A new commandment I give to you, love one another.” This has the status of law for these peoples. Any assessment of the logicalness or realizability of the commandment must be made within these social contexts. And in the covenantal context, the commandment for neighbor-love is penultimate, first contextualized by the commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5 and Matt 12:30–31). Whatever sense there is to be made of loving the neighbor as oneself or of its fulfillment, it is meaningless apart from the particular “religious” context of absolute fidelity to the God of Israel.

Furthermore, I do not think it is as clear to me as it is to Hyman that this commandment is problematic. I am fairly confident that I witness it in various empirically verifiable ways every day. But I think it is clear to me because I have very different ideas of what “loving,” “neighbors,” and “selves” are than Hyman, ones that give priority to this religious context. I do not doubt that it is possible to conceive of loving, neighbors, and selves in ways that making the commandment impossible, but the “religious” context that conditions it views those conceptions as “sin.” What is most interesting about the Christian expression of “the religious” is not at all that it understands the absoluteness of love to be unrealizable, but that, as Herbert McCabe noted, they insist that in Christ, love is the law. The claim is that this is now ultimately true, though only for those who are “in Christ” (en Xristou). Consequently, legality itself is conceived differently in the actuality of this love. Paul is incomprehensible apart from his insistence that the social experience of this love is the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the Christian assemblies.

Hyman wants to maintain Rose’s emphasis on the equivocal nature of the relation between the universal, particular, and singular, while highlighting the oft-forgotten tri-unity of their relation. When the singular is elevated over the universal (Levinas) or the universal over the singular (Žižek), the anxiety that founds ethics and politics is precluded because the “brokenness” of the middle is artificially “mended.” Where this evasion occurs within the ethical by appealing to the plenitude (God) or emptiness (Void), it is also repeated by the attempt to give priority to ethics over politics (Levinas), politics over ethics (Žižek), or as a prioritizing of either passivity (Critchley, Hardt/Negri) or violence (Badiou, Žižek) within politics.

In the main I agree with Hyman’s demonstration that contemporary continental philosophy is committed to the mending of the middle. I am concerned, however, that Hyman does not grasp the significance of this mending in light of the full trajectory of Rose’s critique of social theory. I believe he interprets it in terms of the concern in continental postmodernism to resist the suppression of difference (i.e., the equivocation) to identity. However, as Rose first noted with reference to Adorno, her major concern was to resist those philosophies that are “more concerned with the Nietzschean perspective that to say that two things are identical is to make them identical, than with the Hegelian emphasis that to say that two things are identical is to assume incorrectly that they are independent of each other” (Rose, Melancholy Science, 22–23). Hyman situates the equivocation of the middle in this Nietzschean trajectory, and overlooks what Rose takes as the more interesting and promising project of showing that these evasions of the equivocation of the middle are premised on the suppression of the a fundamental investment in their separation. Rose’s project is animated by the drive to show that the dominant solutions to modern dualisms are, in fact, unwittingly committed to their separation.

Because Kant’s separation of morality from legality demands disinterestedness of the ethical agent, self-consciousness will be conceived as constitutively split between an autonomous drive to subjugate the world to its activity and an heteronomous determination of that activity by “the other.” Hyman objects to any third term (i.e., the fullness of God or the emptiness of the Void) that would resolve that split and devolve into “complacency.” The role of “the religious” as a universal mediation is to supply the universal that can sustain the equivocation constitutes ethical risk and political labor. This universal must “suspend” any judgment with regard to the ontological status (theistic/atheistic) of the absolute. This suspension is not agnosticism, Hyman maintains, because it does not refuse faith but intensifies it as the commitment to the endless reconfigure of the relation of the universal, particular, and singular. Instead of knowledge of the absolute, Hyman proposes an infinite ignorance.

Hyman wants us to see the affirmation of such ignorance as salutary, the heart of the ethico-political task. But, for Hegel (and Rose), this is the essence of slavery. It subsumes any ontological content of the universal perpetually under the contradictory illusions of finite consciousness, sacralizing our present alienated social relations. In Rose’s words:

It subjects the objects of both theoretical and practical knowledge to the “domination of the discursive concept.”We can only turn from our limited knowledge of the finite to an insatiable yearning for the unknowable and inaccessible infinite. But this irrational relation to the infinite makes a rational relation to the social and political conditions of our lives impossible. The limitation of “justified”knowledge to the finite prevents us from recognizing, criticizing, and hence from changing the social and political relations which determine us. If the infinite is unknowable, we are powerless. For our concepts of the infinite is our concept of ourselves and our possibilities. (48)

If the equivocation of the middle actually constitutes ethics and politics, then we have only what Hegel calls “relative ethical life,” which gives us no basis for challenging or changing the conditions of our current social reality. As Rose notes, “Hegel’s philosophy has no social import if the absolute is banished or suppressed, if the absolute cannot be thought” (Hegel contra Sociology, 45). But speculative thought makes the absolute thinkable again under these fragmented conditions because it reveals that our experience of contradiction between the universal and particular is an illusion produced by our social relations. Because our social life mediates only antagonism between the universal and particular, any attempt to reconcile them is doomed to abstractness.

Without any reference to speculative thought, Hyman can only offer us another version of post-Kantian practical reason. He objects rightly to the “domination of the concept,” the Fichtean Sollen (“ought”), which he uncovers in diverse projects of Milbank, Žižek, Badiou, Critchley, and Hardt/Negri. He does not, however, see that same domination in his own insistence on the equality-in-distinction (equivocation) between the universal, particular, and singular. He does not see that this is simply an arbitrary transcendentalization of finite relativity, one that dominates the ethico-political activity by imposing limits on the field. Absolute ethical life, which would yield a social mediation of the absolute adequate to the particular and singular, is excluded as invalid simply on abstract principle. For Hegel, this means we are condemned to slavery.

But a social mediation of the universal that was adequate to the particular (and vice versa) would not the mean the cessation of ethical risk and political labor. Rather, because it is absolute ethical life, it is an infinite task. Its significance lies not with the fact that knowledge of the absolute is deferred in favor of the perpetual “risk” of “faith,” but that this knowledge is concretely—rather than abstractly—absolute, produced in and through a concrete social relation. Reconciliation of the finite with the infinite does not preclude ethico-political labor, but produces it. Knowledge (theory) and action (practice) are mutually implicated such that the absolute is only adequately perceived in the practice.

Most troubling of all is that the actual existing social conditions that Hyman makes the transcendental conditions of possibility for all ethical and political life are those of liberal, bourgeois property right. The universal and particular stand in this tension because social relations founded on the bourgeois self mediate a contradiction. Rose notes: “Bourgeois private property presupposes real inequality, for the law which guarantees abstract, formal property rights presupposes concrete inequality (lack of identity)” (60). And further on:

Private property is a contradiction, because an individual’s private or particular possession (Beseitz) can only be guaranteed by the whole society, the universal. The universal (das All-gemeine) is the community (die Gemeine). This guarantee makes possession into property (Eigentum). Property means the right to exclude others, and the exclusion of other individuals (particular) is made possible by the communal will (universal). But, if everyone has an equal right to possess, to exclude others, then no one can have any guaranteed possession, or, anyone’s possession belongs equality to everyone else. (78)

Strangely, Hyman asks us to take this as the condition of possibility for all ethico-political life. By contrast, Rose wants us to know, through speculative thought, the reality of the fragmentation of our social relations, and thereby to provoke the ethical and political action that will produce the wholeness that is absent. The only possibility we have for that wholeness is through the ethico-political risk that would establish the conditions for perceiving the unity of finite and infinite. Such action is impossible in the terms that Hyman has commended to us, which would perpetually defer that possibility by affirming only its incoherence. With no possibility of a social form that can reconcile the self and neighbor, nature and freedom, intuition and concept, mind and matter, the possibility of a truly radical ethico-political vision is lost. We have no future beyond the contradictions of bourgeois capitalism.

It matters a great deal that here is no mention of Hegel’s Sittlichkeit in Hyman’s text. It is this absence that tells us that the proposal is, in the end, purely formal. If Rose is right that what Hegel meant when he claimed to have reached the end of philosophy was not that he had attained the absolute but that he had reached the point beyond which anything else he would say would devolve into abstractness, then the only possibility of transgressing those limits will be within a social relation that can mediate the union of the universal and particular, one in excess of bourgeois property right.

Ultimately, I believe the decisive question is whether the very singular naming of the absolute as Jesus of Nazareth and the very particular social relation he assembles is adequate to absolute ethical life.

  • Gavin Hyman

    Gavin Hyman

    Reply

    A Response to Joshua Davis

    Introduction

    Joshua Davis, Peter Escalante, Vincent Lloyd, and Marcus Pound have proved to be careful and penetrating readers of my book, and they have raised important questions, some of which demand to be answered, others of which invite further and ongoing reflection. Indeed, the responses are so rich that it is impossible to do full justice to them within the constraints of this particular exchange. What I have tried to do in what follows is to highlight what I take to be the central concerns identified by each respondent, even if this is to leave other important questions unaddressed. What Joshua Davis says of the close proximity of his position to my own is true, I think, to varying degrees, of all the respondents. This makes the exchanges particularly productive because there is a certain amount of common ground that can be taken for granted, a common ground that assists, rather than precludes, the expression of what is obviously some fundamental dissent.

    *  *  *

    Davis’s response centers on what he takes to be our diverging interpretations of the work of Gillian Rose. This was an objection that I had anticipated, not least because subsequent readings of Rose’s work have proved to be so heterogeneous and contentious. But I should note first that I do not claim that my book is faithful to Rose’s project in every respect; I am willing to concede that there may well be points where there are genuine differences between us, in spite of my being inspired by and indebted to her work, as manifested by my invoking and quoting it at numerous points. In any case, the heart of Davis’s case does not lie here; his argument is that had I followed him in his own reading of Rose’s project, I would have avoided what he takes to be the central difficulties with my proposal. It is these difficulties that are central to Davis’s response, and which need to be addressed.

    Davis’s response is multifaceted, but the heart of his objection is expressed when he says (following on from a lucid and concise summary of my book’s proposal): “The role of ‘the religious’ as a universal mediation is to supply the universal that can sustain the equivocation [that] constitutes ethical risk and political labor. This universal must ‘suspend’ any judgment with regard to the ontological status (theistic/atheistic) of the absolute … Instead of knowledge of the absolute, Hyman proposes an infinite ignorance.” It is true that, as he puts it, I affirm “such ignorance as salutary, the heart of the ethico-political task,” but I don’t think it follows that such ignorance “is infinite,” neither does it entail that the Absolute “cannot be thought.” My “suspension” of judgement on the ontological status of the universal should not be seen as a relegation of this question to a Kantian abyss, beyond mediation and infinitely inaccessible. The Absolute is indeed “being thought,” but intrinsic to the Hegelian notion of the System, as I understand it, is a resistance to equating any particular instance of thinking the Absolute with the Absolute itself. This means avoiding both the Right Hegelian theistic reading of Hegel, as well as the Left Hegelian atheistic reading, both of which claim to “know” the nature of the Absolute as such. The specifically ethical-political reasons for avoiding both of these readings are what I try to explicate in my book. The difference between Davis and myself, it seems to me, is one of what it means to think the Absolute, rather than whether the Absolute is thinkable.

    Having made these qualifications, however, Davis remains concerned at my suggestion that the ethical and political are constituted by the equivocation of the middle. If this is so, he says, “then we only have what Hegel calls ‘relative ethical life,’ which gives us no basis for challenging or changing the conditions of our current social reality.” But the middle is constituted by an equivocation between the universal, the particular and the singular, and it is the universal that challenges the “relative ethical life” that would otherwise prevail if sheer particularity (or singularity) were to be elevated or prevail over universality. Indeed, this was the burden of the argument in my fourth chapter, where I argued for the necessity of the domain of the universal if we are to resist being imprisoned by the status quo, by the current coordinates of thought and action. Davis’s objection, it seems, is that I place this universal within a wider scheme of equivocation which is itself intractable and in some sense prior. If am reading him correctly, he thinks that this is to domesticate the universal, to rob it of its force, and thus to imprison us in the realm of the given. As he puts it, this equivocation “is simply an arbitrary transcendentalization of finite relativity, one that dominates the ethico-political activity by imposing limits on the field.”

    Perhaps this is less an “arbitrary transcendentalization” than an acknowledgment of where we are as finite subjects called forth by the infinite (or, alternatively, as fallen creatures in a created world). One might argue about whether this experience is produced by bourgeois property relations (as Davis thinks) or whether it is constitutive of life in its finite situatedness (as I suspect), although it is an argument that would have to exceed the bounds of this particular exchange. Part of the burden of my argument in Traversing the Middle was to show how a commitment to equivocation opened the way to a genuinely radical political change that is lacking in much continental philosophy and theology. At the same time, a commitment to equivocation entails the enactment of a certain hesitancy in relation to revolutionary and violent political overcoming. It is this hesitancy, perhaps, that Davis sees as imprisonment, as insufficiently radical. But what alternative is there if we are to avoid the violent interventions of a Badiou and a Žižek (which Davis likewise wishes to avoid)? He points towards the production of a wholeness “through the ethical-political risk that would establish the conditions for perceiving the unity of finite and infinite.” But to what extent is the production of such wholeness possible for us, we who live between times, in a fallen world, in anticipation of the eschaton, those for whom the Absolute has yet to be achieved?

    • Joshua B. Davis

      Joshua B. Davis

      Reply

      A Reply to Gavin Hyman

      Hello Gavin,

      Thanks sincerely for your reply. Let me say here how much I enjoyed reading the book and how much I learned from it. I very much appreciate how you make use of Rose’s work to develop your own constructive response to the network of issues related to the place of “religion” and politics in recent Continental Philosophy. It is clear from Traversing that you are not interested in getting Rose “right” so much as developing her key insight about the fragmentation of the middle. I am concerned, though, with the tendency among many to treat this “brokenness” in isolation from the wider critique of Adorno in The Melancholy Science and, then, of her critique of the very foundations of the social and critical theory in Hegel contra Sociology. I am much less concerned to defend my own reading of Rose as to highlight what I think is a particularly debilitating problem with using Rose’s notion of the “broken middle” as a kind of transcendental account of the conditions of possibility for ethico-political action and decision-making. I think its a problem because I think the idea of the “broken middle” is meant to be her own development of how she understands Hegelian speculative thinking, which is really only meaningful as a therapy for abstract bourgeois consciousness. It “performatively” reveals the contradiction between the conceptual knowledge of self-consciousness and its reality, and in revealing that contradiction opens it out to the socio-economic conditions of its determination. By inducing an experiential awareness of that contradiction, a creative and dynamic process is unleashed within conceptual thought insofar as it is recognizes its misrecognition of empirical reality and can initiate a process to transform the abstract relation of self-consciousness to itself and the social relations that produce it.

      So, in this sense, I think you isolate a decisive set of issues in contemporary Continental Philosophy, but don’t quite grab them by the root. A distinction between “thinking” the absolute and “knowing” it would really only be significant, as far as I can tell, if it is invested in preserving the separation of theoretical from practical reason, and specifically giving priority to practical reason within the division. And my problem with that isn’t the concern with practice, but the idea intrinsic to it that knowingimplies domination, that to know the absolute/infinite is to reduce it to the relative/finite, and vice versa. My point is that Rose follows Hegel in saying that this very distinction is the very ruse of self-consciousness by bourgeois social relations are perpetuated. And this is what I believe is the most interesting aspect to point to in Rose’s work, specifically because of the implications it has for virtually all “revolutionary” ontologies in contemporary political philosophy. Žižek (or Badiou) isn’t simply troubling because of his push to justify the ethical positivity of a revolutionary violence, but because if Being is “absolute reflection” (Žižek) then that means reality is irreducibly bourgeois. This is the perverse kernel, I think, that explains the implicit totalitarianism that hovers around his work. What I am interested in considering, instead, is how it is that we can know the unity of the absolute and relative, the infinite with the finite, in and through a particular ethical life that enacts that unity. To know the unity as a dynamic social relation that is coincident with our ethical acts. I think that requires a positive cultural — and not merely counter-cultural— project, but one that is by necessity (else it would be abstract) not pre-judged or pre-determined.

    • Gavin Hyman

      Gavin Hyman

      Reply

      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Dear Joshua,
      Many thanks for taking the time to develop this further clarification, which was extremely useful in helping me to locate precisely where the difference between us lies and which, in turn, has helped me to elaborate the rather compressed and perhaps somewhat gnomic comments in my initial reply to you. I think we are agreed that what is at issue is not who has got Gillian Rose ‘right’. For one thing, as I’ve said, I don’t necessarily make this claim for myself, and for another, one or two of the subsequent contributors to the symposium seem to me to take a quite different view of Rose from yours, let alone mine! So it would probably be most profitable to set that particular question aside and concentrate on the substantive overlaps and differences between our respective positions.

      As in your first response, you register your dissatisfaction with my commendation of a ‘salutary ignorance’ with respect to the Absolute, and you are not convinced by the efficacy of my distinction between ‘thinking’ the Absolute and ‘knowing’ it. You say this would only really be effective on the presupposition of a division between theoretical and practical reason, with priority being given to the latter. Your concern is less with the prioritizing of practice than with the further assumption that underlies it, namely, that knowing implies domination, the domination of the subject over the real, and this in turn rests on the further presupposition of a division between the knowing subject and objective reality. It is this division that creates the possibility for the emergence of bourgeois property relations, or perhaps it is these relations that create the division, but either way, it is precisely this division that is put into question by Hegel. (At first, I was somewhat apprehensive of this reference to ‘bourgeois property relations’, admittedly derived from Rose, which initially seemed to me too easily to invoke a bogeyman, the slaying of which would solve all our ills. But I was reassured, on reading your earlier response to Stephen Long, by what you take ‘bourgeois property relations’ to mean!) Thus far, therefore, I think I follow you all the way (in spite of my recognition that a quasi-Kantian division between theoretical and practical does seem to echo through some of what is said in the book, although I wouldn’t want to push this too far, which I hope will become clearer in what follows).

      So if I am reading you correctly, I think that we are largely at one up to this point (apart from my wanting to maintain the distinction between ‘thinking’ the Absolute and ‘knowing’ it, to which I’ll return below). It is perhaps at the next stage that we begin to part company. For if we are both agreed that the division between subject and reality (or, alternatively, ‘bourgeois property relations’) is problematic to say the least, the question then becomes one of what our response to this division should be. You want to overcome this division by enacting their unity; you want to say that we can ‘know the unity of the absolute and the relative, the infinite with the finite’ in a particular life that enacts that unity. And it is precisely at this point that I begin to hesitate. Because if modernity (or bourgeois property relations) has given rise to a separation between subject and world, between the absolute and the relative, our task is indeed to re-unite them, but (and this is the point at which, I think, the difference between us needs to be registered), without imagining that this union can be effected without reserve. For me, it is equally important to note that this is a unity that subsists within a difference. There is still a sense in which the two terms are ‘out of joint’ (if I might put it in that quasi- Žižekian way), that the subject, if not separate from the world, is nonetheless not wholly at one with it, that the Absolute, if not separate from the relative, is not wholly united to it, that the self, if not in opposition or competition with the neighbor, is at the same time not synonymous with the neighbor. This is the kind of point I was trying to make in my critical discussion of Kristeva and Aquinas (pp. 57ff).

      To imagine that we can simply unify these distinctions is, for me, a false idealization. It is as misleading and damaging as supposing that these differences must be reified and kept apart (as in bourgeois property relations). So if modernity falsely divides, I suppose my concern with what I take to be your approach is that it too easily unifies and thus too easily mends, giving rise to a certain ‘complacency’ in terms of what it is possible to achieve, and the ease with which it is possible to achieve it. And I believe it is possible to stake this claim without falling back into the bourgeois property relations that we both want to resist.

      Which brings me back to why I think it is important to maintain the distinction between ‘thinking’ the Absolute and ‘knowing’ the Absolute. While an ontology arising from bourgeois property relations would either claim that the subject can ‘master’ the Absolute or, alternatively, cut the subject off from the Absolute (the stance of ‘infinite ignorance’), both of which would be predicated on a reified division between subject and reality, the relative and the Absolute, you want to enact their unity, which means ‘knowing’ the Absolute, whereas I want to enact their unity-in-difference, a unity which is at the same time a difference, and that ‘out of jointness’ means that we can ‘think’ the Absolute without claiming to ‘know it’. This is why, in ethical terms, and returning to the point you raised in your first response, while it may be possible to greater or lesser degrees, to love my neighbor as myself, it is not completely realizable; this is why I claimed that a full and complete obedience to the commandment is impossible, at least in a fallen world, in creaturely time. But to say this is to say nothing particularly controversial. It seems to me that the same thing is said, in theological terms, by the doctrine of original sin.

J. Peter Escalante

Response

To Traverse or Suspend

There are many middles traversed in this book. One of them is methodical, between doxography—giving exemplifying names to certain possibilities and positions of thought—and exhortation. The tracing of themes in Levinas and Kant and Rose and Hegel and Badiou and Žižek and Milbank in a dialectical curriculum constitutes a sort of topography of the problem of passivity and hyperactivity, but to remain there is clearly not Gavin Hyman’s purpose, since such an endless dialectic of difference would, in the realm of ethics and politics both, spell paralytic indecision. This is what he aims to point beyond, mapping out his path of many middles. The decision he prescribes is indeed a decision, but its signature would always be personal, struck out in the ink of fallibility; thus more Here I stand, I can do no other than Thus saith the Lord. It might differ in all sorts of ways from the counsel of all those senior sages whose works this book traverses, but it would remember them, include them without leaving them behind, and finally would enact something of their mind. I think he means this to be exemplary; it is not a matter of discounting contestants for first place in the formulation of correct propositions, but rather one of making a middle wherein the dialectic is always able to resolve practically without however ceasing or becoming simply the past of a practical decision.

I think we must certainly credit Hyman with the intention of exemplifying what he exhorts; that is, he intends his discourse to be exemplary more than he intends his conclusions to be final. Of all his interlocutors, it seems clear that he regards the wise Gillian Rose as the best guide, but whether or not his conclusions are Rosey (and I might suggest he differs from her more than it seems) is not, I think, an especially pertinent question. He is skeptical of a correspondence theory of truth, and thus whether or not his mind and his conclusions correspond with those of Rose is a inquiry alien to the purpose of the work; this is Gavin Hyman’s book, not hers. Likewise with many of the figures he works with and who serve as the terms between which he will trace his median; whether or not he gets them “right” might not be so important.

But before saying, or rather perhaps asking, more about the middles, I think it’s worth asking what Hyman might mean by “traversing.” In of the most basic ambiguities of the book, he seems at once to exhort us to traverse—traversal would then be the act of moving through the middle—and to suppose that we are already traversing, and what remains for exhortation is choice of route.

Yet to traverse is not only to pass across, it can also mean to bridge; in the second sense, close perhaps to what Hyman wants to avoid, the specious mending of brokenness through equants and equal-temperaments. But there is also a kind of bridging he exhorts. In the very last passage of his book he describes the life of faith as a bridge; a suspension bridge, in fact, “the suspension of the ontological,” whereby the ethical (and political) are instituted in their integrity over an abyss. The striking image isn’t painted in any further detail, but one gets the sense that this bridge conducts the traffic of human life in all directions, from the political to the ethical and back. But what this bridge, religion defined as the life of faith, is made of is left unclear; it sounds rather like a high wire, but even more perhaps like the invisible span traversed by Road Runner, which the Wile E Coyotes of either objective certainty or subjective uncertainty cannot cross.

But back to middles. What is being bridged in Hyman’s schema is self and other in the ethical realm, bridged by Jesus (or a Golden Rule exemplified by Him) ever in the middle of any two on the road to Emmaus, as opposed to other rules which tend to either abjection in favor of the other or a kind of tyranny in favor of the self, each deviation being the result of a disorder of the relation between universal, particular, and singular, the three Hegelian stations the negotiations between which are, for Hyman, constitutive of both the ethical and the political. These negotiations are like the moves of a dance, fraught with the possibility of falling, ever in tension and ever in action. But there is no tension, for him, between the ethical and the political; they are analogous or even continuous. Hyman’s phenomenology of them both sees one practice of translation between the three. What this phenomenology is concerned to do is to rule out “ontologically privileged” mediating thirds; there is no universal grammar to which all can be reduced, there is only constant translation. Given that ethics and politics are his concern here, it is curious that he takes his cues solely from The Science of Logic; surely some mention of what Hegel has to say about the relation of universal, particular, and singular of The Philosophy of Right—where they are something like the terms of the Aristotelian practical syllogism as carried out by a persona moralis—would have been useful.

Perhaps the biggest middle Hyman wishes to traverse is between Žižek and Milbank. Much of Traversing the Middle is concerned with cautioning us against too big a return of the big narrative, and Hyman sees both of these writers as being too incautious.

But it seems to me that Žižek is careful (as much as he ever is, which means not always, or not always apparently) to insist that the gap between the universal and the particular can never be wholly bridged; to think that the particular can wholly instantiate the universal is delusional, and consciousness of the universally human only arises in fracture, in breaking of habits, in unsettling shocks. This is the principle of praxis for Žižek; the common ground of mankind is precisely the ground of unsettlement. And theoretically, he has been just as careful to critique immediacy and the pretense of an absolute objective knowledge in some crude foundationalist sense; and here Hegel himself would agree, I think. Hyman grants much of this, but still thinks that atheism, “privileging the antithesis,” upsets the balance, not because it is untrue, but rather, because is says more than it can know.

And likewise with Milbank. Here “theism” is the problem, “privileging the thesis.” As with the first case, Hyman grants that this is a very qualified position. But he thinks it goes awry because it says more than it can know.

Now certainly both run risks. But I wonder whether Hyman hasn’t made so much of the risk that he ends up making straw men between which his own middle path might be traversed. It seems to me that, given that Milbank and Žižek both make most of the needful qualifications preventative of totalization, that what Hyman finally objects to is not just the totalization, but rather idea of the truth claim itself.

The book ends by commending an idea of personal truth, truth to self, where the self is the normative man; universal, but always particular, though in a way which in no way excludes other particulars as singulars. The truly common man as the common good, as it were; but one of the reasons he commends it is because he thinks such a standard is quite separable from, and thus independent of, the test of “correspondence.” For Aristotle, such an exemplary person would of course “correspond” to God, to the divine life, and Christians claim that for the Lord Jesus, of course, and say moreover that the way in which He corresponds to God is not simply by way of eminence but is unique, so unique that a special discourse had to be contrived in order to express the mystery.

And it is in fact that Jesus whom Hyman puts forth as the exemplary person, the truth of what it is to be human; this is in fact a book which commends Christian faith as the exemplary religion, the one which perfectly, at least in principle, holds universal and particular and singular in balanced tension. More on this in a moment.

But about that independence from correspondence. To be sure the “correspondence theory” as generally understood has its problems; for one, it presumes a world of brute extension and makes that the measure of reality. Its “facts” have been deservedly deconstructed. But it is common knowledge that Russell’s is hardly the only realism on offer; to take the correspondence theory as exemplary of realism is a serious oversight. The middle of real knowledge is not confined to the consistency of subjectivity between correspondence theory on the one hand and a complete skepticism on the other. Neither Aristotle nor Hegel would subscribe such a view; for them, wisdom is comprehensive of the cosmos, not of course by pure observation for which the world is a mere object in relation to which the knower is at once both peripheral and panoptic, but by a recognition in which both self and world are seen as each in the other; a correspondence of a sort, certainly, but given the connotations of that word, the relation might better be put as coinherence. Donald Verene, as I recall, argues that for Hegel, Spirit is the copula between an-sich and fur-sich. Granting that wisdom cannot be a unilaterally indexical apprehension, still, if mind does not truly comprehend the differentiated orders of reality, it is not wisdom but rather will be simply the self-recursive subjectivity of the “beautiful soul” for whom neither ethical nor political resolution is really possible. Its itinerary is not the universal world-traversing road of Erfahrung, but is rather merely the voyage autour de ma chambre; it never leaves the Konigsberg of the “true for me.” This is not, I think, at all what Hyman intends. But in shying away (for good reason) from the totalizing truth of a Badiou in its more Maoist moments, or (less agreeably) from the possibility of falsification, he runs the risk of sounding as though he is willing to sever spirit from world, subjectivity from objectivity.

This is unnecessary, because wisdom is of its nature persuasive, not coercive. Spirit in possessing itself possesses nature too, but wisdom does not appeal to a set of objects as its extrinsic authority; nevertheless, its persuasiveness is partly constituted by its peaceful and unpossessive possession of reality, a reality bigger than the subjective self. To make truth ethical in isolation is simply an optimistic sort of postmodernism, not a path out of its maze.

Leaving aside the question of coherence—that is, whether or not the “personal” is conceivable when the question of ontology is suspended—I have trouble seeing how Hyman’s idea of truth prescinding from being is really all that different from Žižek’s idea of transcendence as the disproportion of human spirit to human capacity of observation; or to pick a homelier example, the “higher power” of AA whose ontological status is quite expressly suspended. Think what one will of Milbank’s “trinitarian” solution to the problem Hyman is concerned with, it at least has the virtue of involving a believable God. Hyman rules it out as too theist, that is, having too much objective certainty; but whether or not Milbank might be able to defend his theology from standard Kierkegaardian charges (and I think he can), a God about whom we quite possibly know nothing at all is hardly a God from Whom any norms at all can intelligibly come, even in the form of a person.

The discourse of faith which traverses the true middle cannot prescind from ontology, though it will not be identical with it, nor will it take its authority exclusively from its generalities.

Richard Rorty is not to be found among Hyman’s interlocutors here, but the aversion to realism and the idea of outer measure, coupled with an optimistic social hope, sounds very much like what Hyman is commending, with the difference that the ethical ideal he sets forth is not only personal—the idea that ethical truth is measured by the figure of the eminently admirable man—but also Personal, since he offers Jesus as He for Whom the article must be definite. But if ontology is suspended (and if ontology is suspended, so is history), then the definiteness of the article is indicative only of the speaker’s regard; and why in such a state of affairs one ought to prefer Jesus is not at all clear, since de gustibus non est disputandum etc.

This kind of faith sounds very much like what Hegel describes as Jacobi’s doctrine:

The term Faith brings with it the special advantage of suggesting the faith of the Christian religion; it seems to include Christian faith, or even to coincide with it; and thus the Philosophy of Faith has a thoroughly orthodox and Christian look, on the strength of which it takes the liberty of uttering its arbitrary dicta with greater pretension and authority. But we must not let ourselves be deceived by the semblance superficially secured by a merely verbal similarity. The two things are radically distinct . . . the Christian faith comprises in it an authority of the church, but the faith of Jacobi’s philosophy has no other authority than that of a personal revelation . . . Faith itself, taken in this professedly philosophical sense, is nothing but the sapless abstract of immediate knowledge—a purely formal category applicable to very different facts; and it ought never be confused with the spiritual fullness of Christian faith, whether we look at that faith in the heart of the believer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, or in the system of theological doctrine. (Encyclopedia 1.V.63)

If Jesus is only arbitrarily the man, then faith in Him has only the authority, as Hegel says, of personal revelation; in a strong form, we run up here against the problem of the Prophet Adler, which Hyman will want nothing to do with; and in the weak form—the one he seems to be proposing—I think a follower of Rorty might very understandably ask why exactly Jesus is being tacked on to what otherwise looks like a rather self-sufficiently Rortyan view of things.

If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ, is a falsity if taken as proposition rather than hyperbole. It is indeed Christian doctrine that Jesus is the exemplary man; but the confession that Jesus is the Savior is not only concerned with His status as exemplary man. It is just as concerned with Him as effective man as it is with Him as exemplary man, though the former is a necessary condition of the latter. This acclaim of Jesus as effective is the faith of the multitude, the catholic faith, and for that catholic faith the manner in which the salvation of the world was effected was the suspension of a man from a tree, not the suspension of the ontological question (nor the suspension of the ethical either, in case that needs to be mentioned). And Jesus is effective man because He is the Truth, the Word of a God who speaks.

 *  *  *

With regard to the (academic) religious return, Hyman would steer us between “theism” (no matter how critically purified) and atheism (the new theological Communism where the transcendent is man’s essence which transcends his particular determinations and standpoints, and is thus experienced as a “higher power”), and toward faith where the question of the ontological is never decided but always in play—which takes the narrative mode, perhaps, of What if? Hyman works to distinguish his position from Žižek’s irreligious religion, but the assertion that faith would be justified even if the world turned out, from the viewpoint of the Absolute (certainly a curious choice of words!) to be other than how faith sees it, begins to look like a distinction between grey cats. It is difficult for me to see why this wouldn’t be autopoiesis (or we could use the blunter English of “making things up”), however heroically carried out, in a void. Victoria Kahn has lately written:

Placing values on things . . . might be described as the activity of fiction-making but, we should not construe such values as “mere fictions,” since this would involve passing judgment on them from the position of absolute transcendence, which is not a position we can occupy.1

This seems me to express the substance of Hyman’s own position almost exactly. If so, then Jesus is being singled out solely by way of our placing a value on Him; this cannot be discounted as “mere fiction,” of course, because that would be to say more than we can know, but neither can Jesus be asserted as truth—a different thing from a purely external prop or guarantee, I think—because that too would be to say too much. But contesting Milbank and Žižek precisely where they converge, where they both make truth claims about the synthesis, seems to me to leave what Hegel calls abstract faith in the place of ontology or theology, and the subject in the place occupied by God/no God, with Jesus as the supposedly exemplar subject but with no frame of reference whatever by which exemplarity might be recognized. I think it might more dialectically profitable to agree with them where they contest each other.


  1. http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.politicaltheology.com/blog/book-preview-the-future-of-illusion-by-victoria-kahn/

  • Gavin Hyman

    Gavin Hyman

    Reply

    A Response to Peter Escalante

    Peter Escalante gives, for the most part, an accurate and very perceptive account of my project and its underlying rationale.  His central criticism is directed against the theme of “ontological suspension,” which I develop (admittedly briefly) in the final chapter by way of pointing to a way forward beyond the problems exposed in the preceding chapters.  He acknowledges that the book “commends Christian faith as the exemplary religion,” the one which is able to hold the universal, particular and singular in tension in a way that the other thinkers criticised in the book are unable to do.  But this commendation is made against the backdrop of an “ontological suspension” which refuses the premature resolutions of Milbank’s ontological theism and Žižek’s ontological atheism.  They are rejected as premature resolutions because of the problematic ethical and political outcomes that they entail, and which my book seeks to expose (they might be rejected on philosophical and theological grounds as well, but that is a task I have undertaken elsewhere, at least in relation to Milbank).  It is this part of my proposal to which Escalante objects; he thinks it creates more problems than it solves.  In particular, he thinks that I run the risk of “sounding as though [I am] willing to sever spirit from world, subjectivity from objectivity.”

    Part of the problem here might be the persistent allure of all kinds of metaphysical dualisms, of correspondence versus coherence, of realism versus anti-realism, of foundationalism versus pragmatism.  From what Escalante says, it seems that he and I both want to find a way beyond these dualisms, although we differ as to what that way might be.  Also, from what Escalante says, he thinks that my way is in danger of falling back into one side of these dualisms, rather than transcending them—the sides of a coherence theory of truth, of anti-realism, of pragmatism.  This line of criticism reaches its culmination when Escalante suggests that there is a close proximity between my position and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism.  I confess that this surprised me, not least because some of the points that Escalante himself makes about my position (including, but not restricted to, his quotation of Victoria Kahn) seem indirectly to explain why I would find Rorty’s outlook problematic.  Furthermore, in political terms, I think that Rorty would fall prey to many of the criticisms I develop in chapter 4 against Critichley, Hardt and Negri (and, by implication, Vattimo). But Escalante’s charge here is, of course, similar to ones that were frequently made against Wittgenstein (and against his followers such as D. Z. Phillips) by those who saw him as a purveyor of some form of anti-realism, while he himself laboured (often in vain) to show why the very debate between realism and anti-realism was deeply misguided.  But is there a way of living faith that genuinely transcends these dualisms by refusing them?  Is there a way of living faith that refuses the philosophical imperative to resolve its ontological status, a resolution that would not only be beyond what we could know (as Escalante paraphrases me) but would also, arguably, be damaging to faith (as Kierkegaard might claim) and would give rise to damaging ethical and political outcomes (as my book attempts to argue)?

    Escalante’s worry about such a way is that it would involve us in autopoiesis, of “making things up in a void,” of reducing truth to ethics, of Jesus being “only arbitrarily the man.”  These are, indeed, serious concerns.  I certainly would wish to avoid the suggestion that the commitment to faith is an arbitrary leap, or an instance of subjective assertion, the projection of my personal will or taste.  Faith entails an acknowledgment that in the life of Jesus, we see truth, and in the lives of the faithful multitude, we see that truth being put into effect.  This acknowledgement of truth is something to which we are susceptible, something we receive in the manner of a revelation, rather than something we wilfully assert.  Would this be sufficient to reassure Escalante?  I suspect not, because on the basis of what he says, he would want further clarity as to what I mean here by “truth,” a kind of clarity that could only be given by answering the sort of ontological questions that I refuse.  But can we conceive of possibilities for faith and truth that understand them as being something other than autopoiesis, but at the same time might also see them as being suspended over an ontological abyss?

Vincent Lloyd

Response

The Rhetoric of the Middle

Who embraces the middle? Obviously, it is those who reject extremes. It is those who are sensible, respectable, whose judgment is sound. It is those who think carefully and critically. In short, the middle is a very comfortable place for scholars; it matches the scholarly disposition.

This is the rhetoric of the middle: what “the middle” evokes and how it persuades. In recent years the middle has been used as a technical term in social theory and theology, drawing on the seminal work of Gillian Rose. Those theologians who embrace “the middle,” or who embrace the spirit of the middle, are broadly Hegelian in outlook. They do not see isolated subjects but rather subjects constituted in relation to other subjects, to communities, to histories, and to themselves—and to the absolute. They imagine themselves standing between two camps of Hegelian extremists: the Radically Orthodox, on the right, whose Hegelianism affirms tradition and authority, and, on the left, secular, critical Hegelians such as Gillian Rose, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Zizek. The latter-day Left Hegelians read a Hegel who refuses teleology in favor of continual disruption, continual re-formation, and continual opportunity for transformation. The latter-day Right Hegelians laud teleology, of human and of world, laud hierarchy, and laud a beauty that binds. In between, happily situated in “the middle,” are Gavin Hyman, Andrew Shanks, and most famously Rowan Williams (perhaps William Desmond and Cyril O’Regan qualify for this camp as well, though the position seems essentially Anglican). Gavin Hyman’s Traversing the Middle offers the most recent defense of this position.

In the US context, a similar attempt to forge a path between the most recent iterations of Left and Right Hegelians is found in the work of Clayton Crockett, Jeffrey Robbins, and Creston Davis. The advantage had by advocates of the middle over these scholars becomes clear when the middle is viewed neither rhetorically nor ontologically (it is not midway between heaven and earth) but rather as a method. This is where Hyman’s book is at its best: where Crockett, Robbins, and Davis often take what they like from the Right and what they like from the Left, Hyman demonstrates how one might distinctively engage with the world, and with other scholars, given a commitment to the middle. This is a method of immanent critique: listening carefully to the thoughts of others, to their assumptions and their reasoning and their conclusions, situating those thoughts in their context, separating their rhetorical excess from their genuine insights, and using them to think critically about the world. This spirit of charitable engagement is often missing from both today’s Right Hegelians and Left Hegelians; the former are too zealous in guarding against heresy and too eagerly embrace what is perceived to be orthodoxy while the latter’s excessively critical stance can ignore the genuine accumulation of insight expressed in the voices of others. It is something like faith, hope, and love—favored terms of advocates of the middle—that allow for criticism to be calibrated rightly. When criticism is calibrated rightly, it advances justice, giving each her due both in the critical engagement itself and in implementing the insights garnered by that criticism. This is a point Hyman makes implicitly, but makes well.

In other words, the method of “the middle” is ethical, and it is well suited for reflecting on ethics. It is suspicious of systems but also suspicious of the fetishized other; it is interested in virtue and community but not to the exclusion of norms and rules. Ordinary people may well think about ethics—the “real” kind, in the “real” world—in this way already (a point persuasively made by Bernard Williams). However, it is clear that the will to truth continues to produce plenty of ethical prescriptions—at scholarly conferences, from pulpits, in newspaper columns—that reflect little more than the will to power. At every register of discourse, the more antidotes the better, and for offering one, Hyman deserves praise. It is a therapy that certainly will work well for some (British Anglicans, say) and not others (American evangelicals, say), but such therapy needs to be crafted to particular communities—otherwise, it reproduces the will to truth it disclaims.

Hyman’s claim that “the middle” is a perspective that can help reflect on, or conduct, politics is less convincing. Raymond Geuss seems entirely correct in his contention that reflection on politics has too often reduced itself to applied ethics—do ethics and scale up, as it were. In reality, politics is much more about practical wisdom: assessing a messy context, determining who has power, deciding how certain interests can best be advanced from a particular location. Abstract ideals such as justice and concepts such as the state must give way to specific institutional configurations: these agencies that produce those regulations who are influenced in this kind of way or that kind of way. Politics requires persuasion—framing issues in a way that advances certain interests and not others. It is not the domain for careful, rigorous contemplation. In short, ethics and politics are not the same, and when we act as if they are the same, we become unethical or poor politicians. It is hard not to point to the “political” life of Rowan Williams here.

The politics of the middle that Hyman develops is meant to remind us that we must balance our impulses towards reform and revolution, towards the particular and the universal. But politics requires bracketing this tension once interests have been discerned. The vision of the middle is helpful in discerning interests—in seeing past the distortions of ideology, in hearing the voices of others, in reflecting on one’s own interests and the interests of one’s community—but those are, we might say, questions of ethics. Politics seems more like a craft, learned through experience, unique to a context. To say that politics is a craft, like ship-building, is to say rather too much, for the domain of politics uniquely invites distortions. Here, like nowhere else, do we find the will to power creating opacity. Moreover, unlike the craft model, social justice is more often advanced by social movements than by social justice artisans. The craftsman analogy, which has no place in the discourse of the middle, does convey something of the restraint we scholars must impose on ourselves in a domain where normativity is so tempting. Teaching a craft in a book, or even teaching the right stance towards a craft, is futile pedagogy.

On questions of difference, the middle seems most like rhetoric in the most pejorative sense, concealing interests as it persuades. The middle at first sounds just right for such questions: extremes don’t have patience for differences; the middle, with its infinite patience, infinite willingness to “work” difficulties, must. Yet as scholars of difference are eager to point out, turning gender, disability, race, sexuality, religion, and more into “differences,” managed by “diversity coordinators,” turns difference into sameness—more precisely, “difference” is the contemporary rhetoric of sameness. Advocates of the middle scoff at John Milbank’s supposed Christian triumphalism, but does that suggest they would also scoff at James Cone’s Black theology? In other words, privileging one form of difference as definitive of one’s worldview seems antithetical to the method of the middle, yet for those whose lives are defined by one form of difference—often not of their choosing, and without an option of opting out—what hope does the middle offer? The language of chosen difference is imprecise and misleading here, particularly as our understandings of sexuality, gender, disability, and race (and religion!) develop. The middle, and its Right Hegelian correlate, “complex space,” sometimes sound uncomfortably close to the logic of late capitalism that embraces differences to manage them, and to manage subjects, acknowledging multiple, shifting affiliations but ultimately reading these as desires to be satisfying in the marketplace of goods, both cultural and economic. The Right Hegelian solution is to resist this market logic by imagining the underlying subject as desiring not goods but God. Affiliations with intermediary associations can be judged according to how they satisfy this desire—a desire which effectively names one “difference,” religion, privileged above all else. But the advocate of the middle lacks the resources to respond in this way and is left with a subject whose desires are not ordered by any telos. One worries that, by default, those desires are then ordered by market forces.

Even if the proliferation of differences embraced by the (secularist) New Left is now set aside as hopelessly compromised by capital, and so not generating a worry for Hyman’s perspective, class poses a deeper problem. It seems desirable for the perspective of a theologian concerned with social justice to resonate with the least fortunate, and particularly with those systematically disenfranchised. Yet the conceptual therapy performed by the perspective of the middle, like most therapy, seems like a bourgeois luxury. The complexity and messiness of the world is obvious to those whose lives do not count. From their perspective, however, what is relevant is not only complexity and messiness but the economic and social systems that create and perpetuate gross inequities—and that so cleverly mask their own workings. The careful movement between universal, singular, and particular commended by the perspective of the middle may actually naturalize the status quo, for it is there, in the broken middle, that advocates of this perspective tell us our investigation must start. This method of the middle presumes that our view of things is distorted a bit here and a bit there; with work, it can be clarified (even if some opacity will always remain). Yet from the perspective of the least fortunate, of the African American prisoner or the Haitian earthquake victim or the Palestinian refugee, an entire epistemological regime may need to come to an end, and it is unclear what resources the middle has for that. It is hard to see how the sort of “dialectical interplay” extolled by Hyman would address such systematic injustices secured by systematic distortions in what and how we see (prisoners as guilty, Haitians as in need of aid, Palestinians as involved in an intractable, two-sided conflict—all three undergirded by histories of colonialism and racism).

The most striking feature of the middle today, very much connected with the systematic distortion of how we see the world, is its connection with media. Advocates of the middle advance a scholarly disposition, encouraging us to work (in thought and action) through the various levels of our entanglement with our histories, our futures, our communities, our commitments, and ourselves. But we do not live in ancient Greece. Our relationships to the world and ourselves, our pasts and our future are always already mediated not just by concepts but by media technologies. It may be an overstatement to say that time flows now at the pace of a Facebook newsfeed, but the proliferation of mobile phones and social media are only the most recent in a centuries-old history of mediating technologies (Bernard Stiegler is particularly helpful on this point). An essential part of any explication of the middle, overlooked by Hyman, is to tell a story of these technologies at our moment, particularly the limitations and possibilities that they create for envisioning the dialectic between universal, particular, and singular that characterizes the work of the middle. From this perspective, it is not only politics but also ethics that requires more rhetorical skill than advocates of the middle allow. When ethics is viewed as always already mediated, when the triad of the middle is always already immersed in a fourth, a medium, the work of the middle always must be read as performance, as strategically advancing interests in a way that suits the specific context. This fourth, the site of media, is unholy, outside of the sanctified process of negotiating (even if not mending) a broken middle commended by Hyman. This unholy, unavoidable remainder serves as a reminder of the systematic distortions that come with living in a fallen world, a world where our very perceptions are shaped in a way that favors the interests of the wealthy and the powerful.

Given this messiness, or rather this mediated messiness, one worries about the Christian language that advocates of the middle associate with the work of the middle. Latter day Left Hegelians insist on a secular middle, and resist associating any religious language with the work of the middle. Latter day Right Hegelians seek to mend the middle, and find redemption in the work of the middle. Hyman, like Shanks, Williams, and others, tries to say something in between: the process of working the middle is religious but not teleological. In a fallen world, the middle will always remain broken. It would be easy to charge that the only explanation for labeling the work of the middle in Christian language is crypto-triumphalism, but if such projects are viewed as therapeutic, targeting a specific audience, then this is simply the idiom that must be employed to communicate with that audience. A more powerful line of critique, immanent critique, would point to the commitment entailed by the method of the middle to engaging seriously with salient features of the social world. Among these is religion, particularly Christianity. But Christianity is often thinned to a few familiar words in discussions of the middle, the richness of the tradition not part of critical engagement, which is more often focused on secular, philosophical figures (Hyman includes extended engagements with Badiou, Zizek, Levinas, and others). More generally, one worries about what precisely is being said about non-teleological work in the middle. It cannot be animated or inspired by God because that would suggest the teleology of the Right Hegelians, but it also cannot be undirected or solely animated by a spirit of critique because that would align it with the Left Hegelians. That there is indeed space for religion at all that is more than rhetoric between these two options seems doubtful.

The other challenge for advocates of the middle like Hyman, closely related to the previous, is explaining what role desire has in the middle. For Right Hegelians, desire for the highest good, God, animates the redemptive work of the middle. For Left Hegelians, desire to fix the gaps, the sites of incompleteness, in our own subjectivity and in the world fuels the secular work of the middle. In contrast, those seeking a middle path struggle to explain how desire fits into the picture of the middle they paint. Hyman’s chapter titles alone suggest the frigidity of an Anglican sermon: “Anxiety,” “Complacency,” “Between,” “Passivity.” Gillian Rose suggests that intellectual melancholia can be a cause of intellectual frigidity, the resolute fixation on a lost object taking away the capacity for desire in the present. One worries that, today, in an era of perceived extremes, the middle stands in for a lost, irretrievable object: an ideal world that is reasonable, thoughtful, well-mannered, inquisitive—and very white, and very bourgeois. The rhetoric of the middle shields its proponents from confronting the impossibility of the object it conceals, and so shields them from engaging with the systematic injustices of the world in which we live.

  • Gavin Hyman

    Gavin Hyman

    Reply

    A Response to Vincent Lloyd

    In Vincent Lloyd’s response, he seeks to differentiate more sharply the ethical and the political. He is sympathetic to my methodology of the middle and, indeed, in his third paragraph he gives a superb explication of that which—I agree—is implicit in the unfolding of my text and its argument and engagements with others. Lloyd agrees that this methodology of the middle is appropriate to the domain of the ethical, but he thinks that in attempting to apply this same methodology to the “craft” of the political, things begin to go awry. Intrinsic to his assessment here is a specific conception of the political as “practical wisdom,” an art of practical intervention, which is “not the domain for careful, rigorous contemplation.” It “invites distortions” and is more likely to be advanced by social movements than by “social justice artisans.” On this specific point, there is a sense in which I agree with Lloyd, and also a perhaps more substantial sense in which I disagree. Scholarly discussions of the political (like mine in this book) should not be confused with, and are no substitute for, the messy business of actually engaging in politics. My reflections, for example, do not provide a political philosophy (as opposed to a philosophy of the political, which it perhaps moves in the direction of doing); neither do they constitute some kind of handbook for political engagement. Furthermore, it is important that this distinction is maintained, in the interests of both scholarship and politics. In these respects, I agree with Lloyd; but he wants to go further.

    He says that “Teaching a craft in a book, or even teaching the right stance towards a craft, is futile pedagogy.” Is this really the case? However practically orientated a craft may be, is there not always a sense in which it may be enhanced (and perhaps furthered) by reflection, discussion, contemplation? Lloyd points to the “political” life of Rowan Williams as an example of what can happen when ethics and politics are confused; we are likely to become “poor politicians.” But were the failings of Williams’ political interventions less an indictment of Williams as a “poor politician” and more an indictment of a political system that has systematically expunged all philosophical or intellectual reflection from its discourse? The philosopher and politician Richard Crossman (on whom Lloyd has written elsewhere) once said that if politics were to become detached from philosophy and critical reflection, it would reduce itself to a process of bureaucratic managerial administration, which is in effect what has historically occurred in the west, giving rise to what Badiou describes as “capitalo-parliamentarianism.” Faced with this draining of ideology from institutional politics, social movements are reduced to frustratingly impotent demonstrations of protest, many of which are unthinkingly reactive, and all the while nothing really changes. There are, of course, no easy answers to any of this, but a first step in the right direction would surely be for both institutional politics and social movements to engage with and be sustained by meaningful thought.

    In chapter 4, I argued that what the social movements—lauded by Critichley and by Hardt and Negri—stand in need of is not so much the method of the middle as the intervention of a universal (even if this intervention takes place in the context of equivocation). This universal is constituted by the guiding telos of Christianity. Lloyd worries that Christianity “is often thinned to a few familiar words in discussions of the middle, the richness of the tradition not part of critical engagement,” and says “That there is indeed space for religion at all that is more than rhetoric … seems doubtful.” Insofar as this is a justified concern, it is so in relation to my particular explication of the proposal being defended rather than to that proposal itself. It is true, as Lloyd observes, that much of my engagement in this book is with secular philosophical figures, but this is not to deny that an enactment of the disposition of the middle would require a full and thorough explication of the Christian universal, even if that task is not undertaken in this particular book. Lloyd is quite right in this respect to say that the method of the middle should “engage seriously with salient features of the social world,” Christianity foremost among them. Without this, the universal would be robbed of its force, and the productive work of the middle could not be put into effect.

    But does placing the universal in the context of the middle’s equivocation anaesthetize it in turn? Does this foreclose rather enable politics? Here Lloyd’s concerns seem to hover close to those expressed by Davis, particularly when he says, “The careful movement between universal, singular, and particular commended by the perspective of the middle may actually naturalize the status quo, for it is there, in the broken middle, that advocates of this perspective tell us our investigation must start.” Indeed it must, but that does not mean to say that it must remain there; quite the contrary. The work of the middle is not undertaken with a view to staying put, but in order to undertake the revolutionary work of instantiating the universal in the particular. Lloyd fears that attention to the middle will entail getting stuck in a position prior to politics, in a process of endless deliberation that never moves beyond itself. He says that the politics of the middle reminds us “that we must balance our impulses towards reform and revolution, towards the particular and the universal. But politics requires bracketing this tension once interests have been discerned.” I should say that it involves not so much balancing reform and revolution, as keeping them in tension, and recognising that one will need sometimes to enact one, and sometimes the other. Consequently, the “bracketing” that Lloyd requires seems to me to be not so much precluded by the work of the middle as required by it. However much we must necessarily equivocate, this is only meaningful as a preface to an unequivocal decision or act. As I put it in the final chapter, “equivocation is the necessary purgative preface to the decision” (196). Far from precluding the political decision and action, the work of the middle requires them, but what the middle does also insist is that they should be undertaken in a spirit of fear and trembling, being open to judgement—this is what it means for these decisions and actions to be made and taken in the context of equivocation.

    • Vincent Lloyd

      Vincent Lloyd

      Reply

      A Reply to Gavin Hyman

      Dear Gavin and Syndicate Community,

      I have very much enjoyed this exchange. If I might just add a couple points, responsive to Gavin’s “Response.”

      (1) I’m very pleased to see that Gavin agrees that an engagement with the richness of tradition, in this case Christian tradition, is a necessary component of traversing the middle. I think we disagree in that I would see the project of traversing the middle arising out of, and authorized by, tradition, whereas I think Gavin sees the project of traversing the middle playing out in several, equally important domains (e.g., secular and Christian theological).

      (2) As part of my effort to separate the political from the ethical, I suggested that politics can be thought of as a craft. I agree with Gavin that critical reflection on craftsmanship is useful, but my point was that it is not essential and that it is often distracting. A knitter or a tennis player or a chef may read about the history of his or her craft or may step back and consider how he or she could approach the craft differently in order to be more successful, but in such cases the reflection is supplementary. Judgment is an essential part of craftsmanship, not introduced through supplementary critical reflection. Gavin worries about politics becoming “bureaucratic” and “managerial,” but this isn’t craftsmanship—it is what remains once the craftsman has been replaced by a machine.

      (3) One of the reason I wanted to distinguish the political and the ethical was to allow for deeper, more systematic analyses of political problems – racism, colonialism, poverty, and so on. My worry was not so much about how the middle inhibits decision but rather about how ethical and political decisions differ. After some equivocation one may decide to buy fair trade coffee as an ethical decision, but this does not strike me as an adequate model for a politics that could take on racism, colonialism, etc. To do take on these big problems, we must refuse the way issues are framed, must loosen the hold a certain way of seeing the world has on us, must allow ourselves the space to imagine. This comes naturally to the best craftsmen, and to the best political actors. What scholars can provide is fuel for the imagination and tools to denaturalize the present order of things.

    • Gavin Hyman

      Gavin Hyman

      Reply

      A Reply to Vincent Lloyd

      Dear Vincent,

      Thank you very much for your further comments, and for continuing the conversation.

      With regard to your first point, it seems that while we both agree on the importance of an engagement with tradition (in this case, theological tradition, what I designate the ‘universal’), there is perhaps a disagreement on the nature of the relationship between it and the methodology of the middle. Admittedly, this was not a question that I raised in my book, nor is it necessarily one to which I have a settled answer. I think you are right that I do see the middle being played out in several distinct domains (including secular and theological ones). You, in contrast it seems, see the middle as ‘arising out of, and authorized by tradition’, which suggests that the difference is one of priority: does the middle emerge out of, as a consequence of, the (prior) theological or does the theological emerge out of, as a consequence of, the (prior) middle? If I am reading you correctly, you want to argue for the former. Although it might initially appear that I would want to defend the latter, I would nonetheless hesitate before doing so. In the book, I argue that in the west at least, Christian theology is best able to secure the equivocation of the middle that I believe to be necessary to both ethics and politics. The shape of the argument would seem to suggest that the middle is prior, is the given, and this is what leads to theology, which is seen as the best way of perpetuating it. But on the other hand, does the very ‘fact’ that theology is best able to do this indirectly suggest that theology is in fact prior, and that the middle, as a ‘given’, is in fact a secondary manifestation of it? The closest I come to discussing this question is in the Introduction, where I ask whether my project should be understood as beginning with a ‘neutral’ account of the ethical and political, which then leads to the conclusion that the theological is necessary. I am unhappy with this way of putting things, because I am aware of the extent to which my account of the ethical and political is itself informed by certain theological presuppositions. As I put it, there is a ‘necessary and unavoidable circularity here’ (p. xiii). I think I am happy to rest content with this circularity, this equivocation, although I detect from what you say that, for you, much depends on preserving the priority of tradition which authorizes and gives rise to the middle.

      As for the relationship between the ethical and political, I suppose we are destined to disagree on this point, given that you are concerned to separate and differentiate between the two, while one of the purposes of my book was to argue for their essential unity! I must confess, though, that your elaboration of the craftsmanship analogy only exacerbates my concerns. I agree with you that critical reflection is supplementary rather than necessary to the crafts of knitting, playing tennis or cooking. Such practitioners may sometimes stand back, critically reflect, and so forth, but in practicing their crafts, especially when completely immersed in them, there is a sense in which they do so ‘instinctually’, ‘unthinkingly’. But is these really the most appropriate analogy for the political task? Undoubtedly, there may be an ‘instinctual’ and ‘unthinking’ element in the enactment of the political, but ultimately there is a deep ethical dimension to politics, which is lacking from knitting, playing tennis or cooking, and this is why, in turn, I worry about the analogy. There is also a great deal more at stake in politics, both in its success and in its failure, which is why positive thought and critical reflection are so central to it. So I see these as not being ‘supplementary’ to the political, but as providing a necessary nourishment. Without this nourishment, I fear that the outcome will only be a bureaucratic managerialism which, I think we both agree, constitutes the death of politics.

      But none of this should preclude—in fact it should assist—the ‘more systematic analyses of political problems’ that you seek. I agree with you that, confronted with problems of this magnitude, what is needed is a space to imagine, but imagination that, far from being ‘instinctual’ or ‘unthinking’, is nourished and sustained by positive thought and critical reflection. Without the latter, my fear is that imagination will be unable to sustain itself, and that it will wither and die.

Marcus Pound

Response

Žižek contra Hyman

As the title, Traversing the Middle, suggests, there are two principal philosophers guiding Hyman’s enquiry: Slavoj Žižek (“traversing the phantasy”) and Gillian Rose (“the broken middle”).1 Notwithstanding his criticisms of Žižek, their juxtaposition suggests something of the way in which Hyman perceives a link between the two. Yet a wider consideration of the relationship between their thought is missing from his book. Instead, the work restricts itself to applying a broadly Rosean framework to critically situate Žižek’s political contribution. By way of response, I wish to interrogate further Žižek’s relation to Rose with a view to a wider critical appreciation of, and contribution to, Hyman’s project. In particular, I wish to argue that Žižek’s work, contra Hyman’s, is the best example thus far of the attempt to enact Rose’s critical enterprise.

Žižek

Žižek’s term, traversing, owes something to Lacan. Fantasy (i.e. fantasy of the sexual relationship) functions in the manner of a transcendental schematism: it frames, and thus mediates, our reception of the world. The twist, however, is that rather than masking a more substantial sense of self or noumenal reality, such a basic scenario masks the very lack thereof: the impossibility of the self and of the sexual relation. As such, fantasy is not a scene to be interpreted in the classical psychoanalytical sense but traversed; i.e., to “experience how there is nothing ‘behind’ it [fantasy], and how fantasy masks precisely this ‘nothing.’”2

Žižek’s political theology reads Lacan’s “traversal”back into Hegel’s kenotic theology: “what dies on the cross is indeed God himself,” not just his “finite container” but the God of the beyond, i.e. the God of metaphysics. After this, “Spirit” names the community of believers, the purely corporal body of the church. In other words, the incarnation and death of Christ traverses the basic ideological fantasy of a big Other (God) with the realization of the release it brings from transcendence.3

This in turn becomes the basis for a revolutionary and materialist politics of the act: as Žižek says, “‘there is no ethical act proper without taking the risk of such a momentary ‘“suspension of the big Other,’ of the socio-symbolic network that guarantees the subject’s identity.”4 The politics of the act represents a dynamic of universalism for Žižek—universal not in the sense of encompassing all, but a difference which cuts across all particularities, in manner, for example, of St Paul’s claim that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.”

Rose

Despite being one of the few women working in a British university on continental philosophy during the mid-seventies, much of Rose’s ire was targeted toward post-structuralism (including Lacan).

It is strange to live in a time when philosophy has found so many ways to damage if not to destroy itself. One by one all of the classical preoccupations of philosophy have been discredited and discarded: eternity, reason, truth, representation, justice, freedom, beauty and the Good. The dismissal of ‘metaphysics’ is accompanied by the unabated search for a new ethics. Yet no one seems to have considered what philosophical resources remain for an ethics when so much of the live tradition is disqualified and deadened.5

Rose’s concept of the broken middle with which she rebuked much of postmodern thought was fashioned by her early study, Hegel contra Sociology. The work proved to be key text for Žižek’s early studies in Hegel and more generally in terms of shaping the post-foundational reading of Hegel. In this text, she develops the significance of Hegel’s “speculative proposition” for social theory. To read a proposition “speculatively” means that “the identity which is affirmed between subject and predicate is seen equally to affirm a lack of identity between subject and predicate.” In other words, in reading a given proposition one should not assume the identity of the given subject as already contained in the predicate, but rather see it as a work, something to be “achieved.” In particular, Rose argues that the basic object of Hegel’s exposition is the speculative experience of the lack of identity between religion and state.6

The thrust of her reading of Hegel was a critique of the neo-Kantian method adopted by classical sociology—a transcendental approach, which presupposes the actuality of its object and seeks to discover the conditions of its possibility. For example, classical sociology of religion attempts to explain religion with reference to the transcendental category of society. Yet this is not only reductive of religion, it is reductive of society also, which is taken as the given. By contrast, what is needed is an account of religion that explains society as well.

Herein lays the significance of her repeated claim that “Hegel’s thought has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought.”7 Rose calls for replacement of epistemological approaches to social thought with a historical phenomenology, a speculative reading which traces the historical trajectories of the forms of freedom, art, and religions, from Greek ethical life to Christian morality and out of which our life forms have emerged.8 With Hegel, she implores us to engage the “absolute ethical life”—the implied unity of law, ethics, and politics.

In The Broken Middle, Rose draws on Kierkegaard and Freud, amongst others, to excavate what she calls the “middle”—shorthand for the speculative standpoint. The broken middle offers a way of thinking about politics and ethics, the universal and the singular. The “middle” is a third space, not a unitary space (e.g. the neutral space of secular liberalism) but a place of anxiety to the extent it is the sheer “givenness” of the political and ethical situation which resists the retreat into sanctified beginnings or utopian ends. It is not a matter of employing political or ethical solutions to unify society’s diremptions [divorce] such as law/ethics, the very fields arise already out of the process of diremption.9 Her aim, then, is to recover anxiety within our political and ethical discourse, “re-assigning it to the middle.”10

Rose’s criticisms of the a/theology of Mark C. Taylor in The Broken Middle fashion in advance Hyman’s critique of Žižek. To put the matter in more directly Rosean terms, Žižek offers a “holy-middle” (i.e. a healed middle) in his “politics of the act”11 a “self-destructive act [which] could clear the terrain for a new beginning.”12 And so, recalling Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, Žižek says, “in the last resort there is no theory, just a fundamental practico-ethical decision about what kind of life one wants to commit oneself to.”13 In the wake of the demise of metaphysics, Žižek’s work stages the founding of the law, rather than speaking from the middle of a law already begun.

So while Hyman welcomes the return to Christian Universalism in Žižek’s work and as a feature of political and ethical discourse more generally, he argues nonetheless that this radical decisionist politics is undertaken at the expense of the singular (i.e., the dimension of ethics). In Žižek’s politics, there is no sense of working through issues with one’s particular neighbour.

Hyman views Žižek’s one-sidedness as a causal outcome of his resolution of the ontological question, manifest in his Christian atheism: there is no Big Other. Thus, Hyman’s employment of “religion” as the “third” mediating/tension serves to critically address the return of religion within continental philosophy. Yet, arguably, Hyman passes over other key ways in which Rose’s work furnishes Žižek’s thought. His resultant reading of Žižek is therefore impoverished. My argument, in effect, is that we need to be faithful to the “middle” in reading Žižek rather than readily resolve the complexity of his work into the one side of the dialectic (universal/singular). Put more boldly, what if Žižek’s work is contra Hyman’s, the best example thus far of the attempt to enact a Rosean critique?

Žižek contra Hyman

Žižek’s influence and commitment to the trajectory of Rose’s thought is evident from his early admonishment to “grasp the fundamental paradox of the speculative identity as it was recently restated by Gillian Rose.”14 Her post-foundational reading of Hegel helped to furnish his own. Moreover, in Hegel contra Sociology, Rose awards a key place to Marx’s critique of the economy. She was able to show how the critique of the bourgeois property relations—which give form to modern subjectivity—was already explicit within Hegel’s early work, thereby making the case that one does not need to dispose with the idealist element and supplant it with materialism in the fashion of Marxism: the idealist element is central to recovering the force of Marx. Her final paragraph, with its invitation to “expound capitalism as a culture” and insistence that “a presentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and culture is the only way to link the analysis of the economy to the comprehension of the conditions for revolutionary practice”15 could be read as a programmatic statement of Žižek’s entire project: to read Lacan back into German idealism as a radicalisation of Marx’s critique of ideology?

According to Žižek, capitalism is sustained and “stained” by a self-generating excess which renders the system incomplete.16 Only rather than mask or hide away this excess, it elevates it to the principle of social life: money begets more money. By developing Lacan’s claim that what Marx called surplus value (i.e. the excess value produced by commodity exchange) finds its psychoanalytical counterpart in surplus enjoyment [jouissance], Žižek is able to further claim that the emergent social forms under capitalism arise historically at the point when this surplus enjoyment/lack becomes the social principle as a whole—the superego imperative of capitalism to enjoy, mastering the drive to consume in the endless circulation of desire. He thereby shows the necessary supplement of psychoanalysis in the challenge to expound the link between capitalism and culture in a way which Rose was unable.

The metaphysical position of capitalism qua social thought should also help to explain why Žižek adopts a “Bartleby” politics according to which the most revolutionary gesture should be conceived not in terms of direct action within liberal democracy, but direct inaction: the suspension of the big Other (i.e., disengaging from the relevant social practices). And herein lies Hyman’s contestation: in suspending or “subtracting” from the social (a kind of passive aggression) one refuses precisely the problematic engagement with face of one’s neighbour; the universalism of subtraction which cuts cross social difference refuses in the final instance the singularity of the other.

Yet in her criticism of Derrida and Marx, Rose claimed that “the search a new ethics [. . .] in the wake of the perceived demise of Marxism [. . .] what Hegel says about comedy [i.e., the movement of the Absolute as comedy]” is once again being ignored or maligned by neo-nihilism.17 Why comedy? In the incongruity theory of comedy, comedy relies on contradiction and thus shares an obvious relationship to dialectics. Moreover, comedy has traditionally occupied the ground of materialism, mocking the lofty aspirations of the universal in favour of the particular (consider, for example, philosophy’s first joke: “The jest which the clever witty Thracian is said to have made about Thales, when he fell into a well as he was looking up at the stars. She said that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven that he could not see what was before him.”)18

The Hegelian twist to comedy is, instead of comedy usurping the universal in favour of the particular, to highlight the coincidence of the universal with the particular. This approach divests itself of all metaphysical conceit, whilst refusing the reductionism of life to a purely materialist outlook. As Mark Roche suggests, “‘comedy’ in Hegel functions as an aesthetic analogue to Hegel’s practice of immanent critique, by which the philosopher seeks to unveil self-contradictory and thus self-cancelling positions.”19

Rose accused Derrida of neglecting Marx’s materialism in favour of the Spirit of Marxism, a messianic spirit which speaks of a justice to come. As Hyman notes in the manner of Rose, this approach, so characteristic of the religious turn in postmodern thought, can foster an avoidance of political actuality, a political passivity: justice is only ever coming. Yet as Rose insists, if the absolute cannot be thought it has no social import.

Žižek is able to exploit the metaphysical impetus of Marxist analysis. As he points out, for Marx “a commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”20 This gives his work a metaphysical breadth evidenced in the range of his critique. Yet like Rose, Žižek also rejects the messianic turn in post-structuralism. Rather than spiritualise Marx, (and thus spiritualise Christianity in the process) he claims that the Good News of Christianity (i.e., the central meaning of the cross and resurrection) is that the event of salvation has already happened, and now we must live with the difficult consequences of that event, the fact that even though it has happened we must still work that out in actuality: the speculative moment of the cross.

Rose left Marx behind in The Broken Middle. Her writing becomes more Kierkegaardian, adopting an ironic form, which exploits the comedy of the dialectic in the very presentation of the work (for example, she situates her preface to The Broken Middle in place of a conclusion). Like Žižek, though, she interpolates Kierkegaard back into Hegel in such a way that both become philosophers of the middle, of our ontological incompleteness that remains always begun.

Yet Žižek is able to maintain the force and relevance of Marxist critique. His work can be said to embody, in part, a kind of conflation of Rose’s early and later works. Hence, her offer in Mourning Becomes the Law for a “comedy of absolute spirit as inaugurated mourning”21 (as opposed to the melancholia of Derrida’s justice always to come) serves equally well as a programmatic description of Žižek’s work. Indeed, nowhere is this more evident than in his recently edited edition: Žižek’s Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation) where he attempts to make good on Wittgenstein’s claims that a philosophical work could be written entirely out of jokes.

While Rose would arguably take contention with his lack of genealogy (and history, more generally) and his nihilist approach to reason and Truth (i.e., the extent he acknowledges no basis for the claims of Truth other than the act of enunciation) he nonetheless attempts to articulate the real of experience (i.e., to assume the speculative standpoint), and he does this in continual dialogue with the central issue of the critical tradition, from Kant and Hegel through to the Frankfurt school, whilst addressing the key cultural events of our time. To traverse the middle may therefore be better understood as recognising along with Žižek and Rose, that reality is incomplete, not supported by a fundamental guarantor of meaning or big Other, and in traversing our social and economic fantasies, one arrives at the middle where the difficulty and comedy of theo-political actuality begins.

Conclusion

In pursuit of a robust political engagement, Žižek was always more interested in how a universal truth came to be in the first place rather than the deconstruction thereof. As Marc de Kesel points out, Žižek’s approach to truth ends up approximating something like “revelation, a radical event from outside which demands the subject, in the name of the truth, to disappear into it.”22 But if that sounds absolutist, then it also sounds characteristically Kierkegaardian, to whom Hyman gives the last words: “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is truth, the highest truth attainable for the existing individual.”23 Yet Hyman can only do so committing the violence of turning Kierkegaard into a kind of religious agnostic.

While Žižek maintains his resolute atheism, are they not both examples of what Kierkegaard called “the comic” to the extent they maintained the contradiction between intellectual appreciations of Christianity without actual commitment to the absolute paradox? Perhaps, Rose, amongst them in her final movement, made the transition beyond comedy to faith?

Returning, then, to Hyman’s central critique: Žižek invites a form of Christian Universalism, which “inaugurates a violent absoluteness that in turn destroys the ethical and political?” Perhaps one does well here to recall Rose’s criticisms of Levinas (strangely absent from Hyman’s enquiry?): “In Levinas there is neither the similarity of suspending the ethical nor the radicality of transforming the political [. . .] For according to its own metaphysics, this authorship can have no aesthetic—no mask or pseudonym—nor any humour of the religious.”24

 


  1. Gavin Hyman, Traversing the Middle: Ethics, Politics, Religion (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2013); Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, Verso: 1989) 65; Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle: Out of our Ancient Society(Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

  2. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 126.

  3. Slavoj Žižek, John Milbank, and C. Davis, eds.,The Monstrosity of Christ (London: MIT Press, 2009) 61.

  4. Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London and New York: Verso, 1999) 263–64.

  5. Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 64.

  6. l quotes from Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981) 49.

  7. Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 208.

  8. I am grateful to Andrew Brower-Latz (Durham University) for clarifying this aspect of Roses work, and his perspicuous reading more generally.

  9. Rose, The Broken Middle, 286.

  10. Vincent Lloyd, “On the Uses of Gillian Rose,” Heythrop Journal, 48 (2007) 697–706, 699.

  11. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 264.

  12. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London and New York: Verso, 2000) 151.

  13. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (London: MIT Press, 2006) 75.

  14. Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, Second Edition (London and New York: Verso, 2002) 103.

  15. Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, 220.

  16. I am grateful to Michael Calderbank’s review of Fabio Vighi, “On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation” in Marx and Philosophy, hhtp://marxandphilosophy.org.uk (last accessed 01/07/2014) for this succinct summary of Žižek and Marx.

  17. Gillian Rose, “The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of modern philosophy” in Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law, 64.

  18. Peter Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997) 15.

  19. M. Roche, “Hegel’s Theory of Comedy in the Context of Hegelian and Modern Reflections on Comedy” in Revue Internationale de Philosophie 3/221: 411–30, 414–15.

  20. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990) 163.

  21. Rose, “The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of modern philosophy,” 76.

  22. Marc de Kesel, “Truth,” in The Žižek Dictionary, edited by Rex Butler (London: Acumen, 2014) 252.

  23. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, translated by David Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) 182; quoted in Hyman, Traversing the Middle, 196.

  24. Rose, The Broken Middle, 261.

  • Gavin Hyman

    Gavin Hyman

    Reply

    A Response to Marcus Pound

    Marcus Pound’s contribution is more than just a response to my book; it makes its own distinctive contribution to developing our understanding of the relationship between the thought of Gillian Rose and Slavoj Žižek, an interesting endeavour in its own right. He does this, as he puts it, “with a view to a wider critical appreciation of, and contribution to, Hyman’s project.” However, it is, at the same time—and as he also makes clear—critical of my project, as he thinks that my presentation of Žižek is partial, and that, if we were to adopt a more rounded and complete view of Žižek, we would see that it is not only more faithful to Rose’s work, but actually provides a better way forward than my own. In what ways, then, are these differences and overlaps manifested? First, Pound concedes that there is a way of drawing the boundaries that would ally my work with Rose’s, over against Žižek’s. For he says that Rose’s critique of Mark C. Taylor in The Broken Middle anticipates my critique of Žižek. Indeed, he paraphrases my critique using more “Rosean” terminology: “Žižek offers a ‘holy middle’ (i.e., a healed middle) in his ‘politics of the act,’ a ‘self-destructive act [which] could clear the terrain for a new beginning’ . . . Žižek’s work stages the founding of the law, rather than speaking from the middle of a law already begun.” It is this “politics of the act” that ultimately obliterates the domain of the ethical, an obliteration that I attribute to Žižek’s Christian atheism. Ontological resolutions, I argue, result in a skewing of the universal-particular-singular tension, to the detriment of both ethics and politics. But Pound thinks that I reduce the complexity of his work to one side of the universal/singular dialectic. Of course, in the book, I do repeatedly recognise that Žižek is a thinker of equivocation, but I also argue that this equivocation is not sufficiently thoroughgoing; it ultimately gets resolved through a prioritising of the domain of the universal. Rose has made a similar kind of point in relation to Levinas (which I discuss on page 44-48), although, of course, in his case, equivocation is ultimately subordinated to the domain of the singular.

    Pound wants to draw attention to other ways in which Žižek’s thought might be indebted to Rose’s, which would resist reducing the complexity of his thought in the way that he thinks I do. In particular, Pound points to the centrality of the “fundamental paradox of the speculative identity” as formulated by Rose and developed by Žižek, which highlights “the coincidence of the universal with the particular. This approach divests itself of all metaphysical conceit, while refusing the reductionism of life to a purely materialist outlook.” Pound has some interesting things to say on all this, and I concede that this aspect of Žižek’s thought is not particularly discussed in my book. But if Pound’s account of all this complements and “fills” out what is admittedly a partial account of Žižek’s thought in my own book, I am less clear as to how this “fuller” account helps to overcome what I argue to be some of the problematic ethical and political outcomes of his thought. Pound summarises my critique when he says that Žižek’s “radical decisionist politics is undertaken at the expense of the singular (i.e., the dimension of ethics). In Žižek’s politics there is no sense of working through issues with one’s particular neighbour.” But in what way does Pound dissent from this critique? Does he think that giving more attention to the “speculative identity” would somehow overcome this problem by showing that this is not the practical outcome of Žižek’s position at all? Or does he agree that this is indeed the practical outcome, but that giving more attention to the “speculative identity” would show that this need not matter or, indeed, is positively to be embraced?

    Pound, like Escalante, implores me to abandon my stance of “ontological suspension.” But whereas Escalante advocates an unequivocally theistic ontology, Pound wants me to accept that “reality is incomplete, not supported by a fundamental guarantor of meaning or big Other.” In other words, he thinks that Žižek’s unequivocally atheistic ontology is a more justified and consistent way of “traversing the middle.” But, from what Pound says, I am not convinced that his fuller (and perhaps, as he claims, more Rosean) account of Žižek’s thought would necessarily avoid or overcome the ethical and political difficulties I identify as being entailed by his project. I do, on the other hand, accept that “reality is incomplete.” But are there not divergent ways of reading this incompleteness? In theistic terms, this could be understood in terms of divine plenitude expressing itself in the finite, which will always, by definition, be incomplete. As Rowan Williams has observed in his recent Gifford Lectures, “There is anything because infinite intelligence is able to confine itself into limited intelligible clusters. But since each limited structure is inseparable from the limitless life that brings it into being, that structure is always going to resist final capture in terms of some basic explanation. There will always be more to be said about it because the life it crystallizes is a life that is not in itself bounded.” On the other hand, it could be understood, as indeed it is by Žižek, as a manifestation of the inherent brokenness of reality, of its ultimate nothingness. But could the very difference between these readings not be viewed as another manifestation of the “parallax gap,” a gap that must itself be left open in the interests of, among other things, the dynamic interplay at the heart of ethical and political?

     

    Conclusion

    The conventions of academic exchange demand that I reply to my critics in the manner of a defence, as indeed I have attempted to do in the above. But I am also aware that many of the penetrating criticisms and observations deserve more thought and engagement than I have been able to give them here, and that this, in turn, will entail an ongoing modification and development of my own proposal. In this respect, I should give the last word to Peter Escalante, with whom I concur when he says that Hyman “intends his discourse to be exemplary more than he intends his conclusions to be final.”

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