From Topology to Dromology: A Brief Sketch of Paul Virilio

virilio graffiti.jpg

Virilio portrait, via thierry ehrmann

Paul Virilio, born in 1932, spent his early life on the northern coast of France. His childhood, growing up alongside the Second World War, was marked by routine bombings, as Nantes became a Nazi occupied port. Like many other postmodern theorists, the French experience of the war and subsequent French political problems, like the Algerian war for independence (into which Virilio was conscripted), would form a lasting impression, existentially and theoretically. The biographical information, then, is not simply an introduction concerned with “the facts” but with articulating the backdrop that haunts Virilio’s work. Michel Serres, a contemporary of Virilio, puts the situation in perspective:

My contemporaries will recognize themselves in what 1 have to say first. Here is the vital environment of those who were born, like me, around 1930: at age six, the war of 1936 in Spain; at age nine, the blitzkrieg of 1939, defeat and debacle; at age twelve, the split between the Resistance and the collaborators, the tragedy of the concentration camps and deportations; at age fourteen, Liberation and the settling of scores it brought with it in France; at age fifteen. Hiroshima. In short, from age nine to seventeen, when the body and sensitivity are being formed, it was the reign of hunger and rationing, death and bombings, a thousand crimes. We continued immediately with the colonial wars, in Indochina and then in Algeria. Between birth and age twenty-five (the age of military service and of war again, since then it was North Africa, followed by the Suez expedition) around me, for me—for us, around us—there was nothing but battles War, a1ways war. Thus, I was six for my first dead bodies, twenty-six for the last ones. Have I answered you sufficiently about what has made my contemporaries “gun-shy”‘?1

Given a formative milieu of violence, war becomes the perennial problem for all of Virilio’s work, no matter the turns his theoretical interest takes. But there is another existential influence that needs to be mentioned up front, as another constitutive current in Virilio’s work. At 18, inspired by French worker-priests (priests dressing in plain clothes, subsisting by means of full time labor in working-class jobs), Virilio converted to Catholicism, the faith of his mother. Virilio’s Catholicism appears in his work by way of intervention and juxtaposition, sometimes critical of his own faith tradition and other times appearing to be the only way he musters the resolve to face the frightening insights he uncovers through his analyses. These two concerns, war and faith, remain constants in Virilio’s winding career.

Though he is known today for his examination of speed and accidents, Virilio was not always a theorist. After the war, as a young man in Paris he worked with Henri Matisse making stained-glass windows for churches. Contact with the arts allowed him to interpret his experience in WWII aesthetically, and in 1958 he undertook a project exploring the now-defunct bunkers of the North Atlantic Wall with an understanding of architecture, on the one hand, and phenomenology by way of lectures he attended by Merleau-Ponty, on the other. Virilio’s interest in architecture, and specifically military architecture, led him in the early 1960s to collaborate with Claude Parent (successful in his own right but also the teacher of renowned architect Jean Nouvel), and the two formed an ambitious collective known as Architecture Principe.

The intersections of these early interests of Virilio—war, Catholicism, and architecture—are summarized in the construction of a church designed by Virilio and Parent, the Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, France (the site of the apparition of Mary at Lourdes). Colloquially known as the “bunker church,” the building asserts itself as a massive concrete monolith inspired not only by Virilio’s early explorations of bunkers but also the proliferating air raid shelters popping up around the world in an age of nuclear terror. “At the time I said that, in the present day, a church could only refer to the eventuality of total destruction,” Virilio reports in an interview.2 Completed in 1966, the church is a political and theological statement, expressing a growing Catholic anti-nuclear sentiment. It is also notable, however, for its deployment of what Parent called the “function of the oblique,” a theory of diagonal planes developed by Architecture Principe that utopically imagined the possibility of a total revolution in spatial awareness, one eschewing the sedentary lines of horizontal and vertical space in favor of a more kinetic and energetic series of planes that would, it was hoped, destabilize ideas of hierarchy and direction and allow for more habitable circulation. The oblique would provide a motor for creativity instead of the rote repetition of up/down, left/right.

Two years after the completion of the bunker church, in 1968, Paris would be the site of revolutionary energies so fervent that the year virtually controls the discourse of French philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century (and, in cases like Alain Badiou, still today). It marked a break between Virilio and Parent, with Virilio joining those squatting the Odeon Theatre in Paris and Parent going on to design nuclear power plants. Virilio was so admired by revolutionary students that they nominated him to a professorial position at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, where he began a career as a theorist interrogating speed and military innovation.

After working with architecture students, Virilio gave up on the architectural revolution of the function of the oblique, but not on revolutionary politics as such. Virilio’s work shifts here from topology to “dromology,” the logic of speed, as marked in his seminal study Speed and Politics. The book interrogates the relation between the terms of its title by presenting a theory of social movements, urbanism, and military history as bound up with technical and strategic innovations that augment mobility. War remains an important influence, as Virilio considers the close affinity between military invention and the increasingly hegemonic momentum of the speed thereby produced. Deleuze and Guattari summarize this move in A Thousand Plateaus (which makes significant use of Virilio): “It is yet another contribution of Paul Virilio to have stressed this weapon-speed complementarity: the weapon invents speed, or the discovery of speed invents the weapon (the projective character of weapons is the result). The war machine releases a vector of speed so specific to it that it needs a special name; it is not only the power of destruction, but ‘dromocracy’ (=nomos).”3

By focusing on speed and military power as drivers of history, Virilio shows his commitment to a certain form of anarchism, as opposed to Marxism (even though his father was an Italian communist). Where Marxism classically considers the history of all of society as a history of class struggle, Virilio sees history as proceeding “at the speed of its weapons systems,”4 which leads also to an alternative understanding of revolutionary activity and organization. “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production,” Virilio explains in an indirect critique of Marx, “but in the street, where for a moment it stops begin a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed.”5 In Speed and Politics, we find the theoretical reflection on Virilio’s ’68 experience along with a profound apparatus for leftist understandings of the state, resistance, and geopolitics. It also further displays Virilio’s rejection of the life of war he experienced so intimately and his commitment to peace, earlier shown in the warning of the bunker church.

As Virilio’s work progresses, he interrogates other dimensions of human experience and society along the lines of his dromocratic revelations—perception (The Aesthetics of Disappearance), cinema (War and Cinema), information technologies (The Information Bomb), surveillance (Open Sky), and more. In addition to his work on dromology, however, Virilio is known for considering another logic, the logic of the accident. “According to Aristotle, ‘the accident reveals the substance,’” Virilio explains. “If so, then the invention of the ‘substance’ is equally the invention of the ‘accident’. The shipwreck is consequently the ‘futurist’ invention of the ship, and the air crash the invention of the supersonic airliner, just as the Chernobyl meltdown is the invention of the nuclear power station.”6 Developing a logic of the accident (and thereby breaking with Aristotle, who said there can be no logic of the accident but only substance), Virilio does not stop at discrete technological objects. In The University of Disaster, he explores the accident of knowledge itself.

The dromocratic revolution has taken place, says Virilio, and the logic of speed dictates, as if by its own will (velocity), the trajectory of science. Alienated from local and historical life through the speed of globalization, science, or more properly to use Virilio’s specific phrase “BIG SCIENCE,” is less and less concerned with the earthly consequences of its work and projects and more obsessed with finding a place to live somewhere else. But the problem is not so much the possibility of space travel (which, given Virilio’s comments on technology generally, is not necessarily a problem at all) as the effect the alienation of acceleration has on the ability to understand and produce knowledge, where the “life sciences” turn their back on life itself. Inside the car of big science, all that exists outside it is only a motion blur.

Exhibiting a characteristically postmodern observation, Virilio explores the potential for and already existing examples of disaster emitting from “the age of exploded theories,”7 a situation of fragmented knowledge where accidents (and the possibility of an “integral accident”) cannot be dealt with since they cannot even be recognized and met with a valued judgment. As a solution, Virilio suggests a radical reformation of the university itself, one where the university becomes the site of profound apology on the part of science heretofore, “an indispensible MEA CULPA now essential to the credibility of a knowledge in the throes of becoming completely suicidal.”8 The model for this, Virilio playfully but seriously suggests, is the apologies issued from Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century, repenting of its universalism.9 The proposal is so ambitious as to be laughable, but Virilio makes the book-length recommendation with a straight-face.

As he continues to articulate a theory of the accident, Virilio’s work takes on a tone that a shallow reading might consider fatalist and depressive. The revolutionary fervor at the heart of Speed and Politics is harder to parse out, and Virilio begins to describe himself as a “disappointed man of the left,”10 not unlike many of his fellow ’68ers (his political project at the time of that self-description was working on housing projects, mostly with Christian associations, for homeless people in Paris). He also considers his later work the work of a “revelationary” rather than a “revolutionary,”11 as he tries to reveal the logic at work in what often reads like a disturbingly pervasive and inescapable collapse of space and time in human perception.

Here the risk of comparing Virilio to his friend and colleague Jean Baudrillard sounds appealing, but Virilio wards off the possibility that we are in an ultimate or endless simulacra in a way that is helpful also in order to offset what might be seen as a totalizing worry about technology (the kind of thing one finds in Virilio’s Protestant contemporary Christian anarchist, also an interrogator of technological problems, Jacques Ellul). Whereas Baudrillard was concerned with simulation, Virilio is concerned with substitution. “I chose substitution,” he explains, “in saying that there were periods of the real like there were periods of history and that simulation, via a proverb or literature, whether it is literal or not, the perspective announced by the renaissance, etc., leaves the place for a new real.”12 In other words, the real is culturally relative, never given, and as such is not able to be “lost” or “found” but only substituted by new understandings of the real. There is a significant moment of hope, here, as Virilio, despite being incredibly critical of screens, cars, etc. is not categorically against any of these innovations. Rather, when questioned about what we ought to do with technologies, Virilio appeals to a paraphrase of St. Augustine’s maxim: “Do whatever you want, but do it with love.”13 As a self-described “Christian anarchist,” Virilio deflects both optimism and pessimism, instead holding the present open for other possibilities, and though it takes a considerable degree of patience to refuse the temptation to see Virilio’s admonitions as a sign of resignation, it is important to take Virilio at his word insofar as it avoids all-too-easy misreadings.

Virilio is clearly a product of his time, of a bruised century, an age of extremes, belonging to the collective “us” Serres invokes above. For that very reason we are fortunate, blessed, to have Virilio’s continued work as we move through the twenty-first century, which threatens at once both to return to the abuses of the previous century and continue along its dromological path. Each week it seems some entrepreneur announces a new plan to colonize space all the while ignoring the material plight of those on earth. The integral accident continues to loom as companies like Facebook make it a part of their charitable mission to expand communications technologies across the globe. The relation between speed and politics keeps presenting itself as a problem, e.g. when Black Lives Matter activists hold the streets and make their stand against a violent and racist state. Meanwhile, the xenophobia surrounding Muslims and the cultural force of figures like Pope Francis or the evangelical voting block in the US make plain that issues of faith are still on the table, though their political fate is far from clear.

As we look to understand what is really going on, we would do well to hear from this revelationary, at one time (and indeed still) a revolutionary, such that we might find better ways to strategize, to witness to love in the midst of war, and to offer the mea culpas so long overdue from Western society.

1Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, 2.

2Virilio, Virilio Live, 175.

3Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 395.

4Virilio, Speed and Politics, 90.

5Virilio, Speed and Politics, 29.

6Virilio, Grey Ecology, 5.

7Virilio, The University of Disaster, 10.

8Virilio, The University of Disaster, 119.

9Virilio, The University of Disaster, 118.

10Virilio, Virilio Live, 29.

11Virilio, Grey Ecology, 49-50.

12Virilio, Grey Ecology, 78.

13Virilio, Grey Ecology, 80.

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A Secular Church? McLuhan, Catholicism, and the War of Identity

I’ve been tracking McLuhan’s relationship to his Catholic faith for the last several weeks, specifically going through The Medium and the Light, a collection of interviews, addresses, outlines, etc. centering on religion. True to form, McLuhan’s thoughts are a mixture of what feel like off-the-cuff statements and long-percolated and crystallized observations.

Reading all these documents alongside each other, spanning from letters written in graduate school to reflections at the end of McLuhan’s life, makes for a complicated Gestalt. At times McLuhan reflects a conservative convert’s zeal, at other times he presents a challenging progressive critique of the Church. The gaps between lead to some curious connections and juxtapositions.

Take, for example, the following line of thinking McLuhan advances, in a letter, on the difference between what he identifies as Christian and secular approaches to identity:

“In Christian terms, the components of Mars, or the rest of the systems of the cosmos, can reveal nothing comparable to the dimensions of experience available to the most grovelling Christian. Christians, however, have a peculiar war to fight which concerns their identity. The Christian feels the downward mania of the earth and its treasures, and is just as inclined to conform his sensibilities to man-made environments as anyone else. When the secular man senses a new technology is offering a threat to his hard-won human image of self-identity, he struggles to escape from his new pressure. When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbours, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call ‘war.’ Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: ‘The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.’

When the identity image which we enjoy is shattered by new technological environments or by invaders of our lives who possess new weaponry, we lash back first by acquiring their weaponry and then by using it. What we ignore is that in acquiring the enemy’s weaponry, we also destroy our former identity. That is, we create new sensory environments which ‘scrub’ our old images of ourselves. Thus war is not only education but also a means of accelerated social evolution. It is these changes that only the Christian can afford to laugh at. People who take them seriously are prepared to wipe out one another in order to impose them as ideals. Today there is no past. All technologies, and all cultures, ancient and modern, are part of our immediate expanse. There is hope in this diversity since it creates vast new possibilities of detachment and amusement at human gullibility and self-deception.

There is no harm in reminding ourselves from time to time that the ‘Prince of this World’ is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electrical engineer, and a great master of the media. It is his master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored.”

(“A Peculiar War to Fight”: Letter to Robert J. Leuver, C.M. F., 92-3)

There’s a lot that is unsaid and unclarified here, but we might say something like McLuhan wants to argue that Christian identity is inherently unstable, by virtue of its negation of the “downward mania” of the world, which wards off the fear of new identities that congeal around media that will inevitably be outmoded. A Christian is tempted like anyone else by the treasures of worldly media, but at bottom the Christian’s war is a meta-war, against the world itself, not immanent to the preservation of worldly identities. The Christian occupies an outside and fluctuating position of continual transformation (elsewhere in a letter, McLuhan says Christianity is “awareness of process”), while the secular operates on a plane of immanence that is constantly bringing identities into being and erasing them without any discernible reason apart from the march of media.

At the same time, however, McLuhan’s relationship to Catholicism as an institution is anything but comfortable. Throughout the collection, he regularly indicts the Church for failing to understand media, a problem already at the heart of the institution by virtue of its emergence in a Greco-Roman, literate culture, which, McLuhan says, privileges stable permanence over change (change being the demand made by the Church). As literate media is displaced by electric media, the Church begins to feel the threat of irrelevance–and threats often lead to temptations. This is perhaps no better expressed than in McLuhan’s short essay in the collection on the liturgy and the microphone. In adopting the microphone and speakers, McLuhan suggests the liturgy is utterly transformed.

The Latin Mass is the product of a variety of media, namely visual media, that are losing their hegemonic status. As new media emerge, like the microphone, the Church feels the pressure of new identities (the microphone eliminates distance between speaker and audience, or clergy and congregation, while the ritual muttering of specialized Latin keeps that distance intact). Confronted with the shift from visual to audial media, the Church struggles to maintain its identity as Roman Catholicism. First the Church acquires the weaponry of the identity that threatens it–the microphone–but, as McLuhan explains, this only serves to scrub the old image of itself, the Latinate, literate image.

“Many people will lament the disappearance of the Latin Mass from the Catholic Church without realizing that it was a victim of the microphone on the altar,” McLuhan writes (“Liturgy and the Microphone,” 112). McLuhan doesn’t come across as one who opines for the Latin Mass himself here (in fact he suggests the Church will and already is in the process of “de-Romanizing,” as a result of the speed of electric media), but rather aims to criticize the somnambulist posture of the Church, which gets broiled in controversies about figures (doctrinal or dogmatic disputes) rather than the ground (medial changes).

From such a perspective, is the Church not engaged in exactly the kind of immanent war of identity McLuhan chastises in his letter to Leuver? One that is contingent on the maintenance of a particular media form–the war the Christian is supposed to laugh at?  Throughout his writings, McLuhan clearly doesn’t think the Church needs to remain tied so closely to its literate heritage, and even suggests that it simply can’t and won’t–the electric age is already here (“It would be a good time to be Russian Orthodox,” McLuhan quips on p60). But what to do with this juxtaposition (one McLuhan does not make himself, but that the collection suggests), at least in figuring out McLuhan’s position viz. his own Catholicism? Would we say the Church has its own “secular” wars, a victory of the “Prince of the World” who is so invisible that even those entrusted with the possibility of transcendence are ultimately bound to the determinative logic of medial backgrounds?

It may be unfair to draw the disparate remarks McLuhan makes in this collection so closely together. But such an interpretive attempt is foisted on the reader by virtue of encountering them all at once. It seems to me the best we could say is that McLuhan thinks the Church is certainly not immune from the struggles media pose for stable identity, and that perhaps the Church is itself caught in a secular war that aims to preserve an older media in the face of a new one. Untangling the Church from its medial fetishism is a task McLuhan seems to keep trying, frustratedly (because no one seems to be all that interested), throughout the volume.

Incidentally, I think McLuhan plays much too fast with terms like the “secular” and even Christian identity. Nevertheless, as McLuhan himself affirms, the devil’s in the details.

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Pope Francis, Software Pope

“To come back to our comparison, the choice between two forms of authority makes me think of the difference between hardware and software. The written or printed paper is hardware; the spoken or recorded word is software. Pontifical documents were hardware, as stable and solid as matter. The new form is software, as malleable as electric information. The hardware document remains outer and we reject it as such. I think today we have to say that it’s the Pope’s spoken word that counts, the word that he utters, not the encyclical. In the electric age, live speech comes back into its own: it no longer needs to be hardened into documents.”

–Marshall McLuhan, “Tomorrow’s Church: Fourth Conversation with Pierre Babin,” in The Medium and the Light, 206.


Pope Francis to my knowledge doesn’t quote Marshall McLuhan, but he certainly shows the continued relevance of McLuhan’s media insights. Even his encyclicals are pastiches of other documents, other bishops’ or councils’ statements, fragments of speeches, etc. Look through the footnotes of his papal documents and you’ll find a rhizomatic network of other collaborative documents. Francis writes ecumenical, electric encyclicals, no longer present at the back of a church but sped around the blogosphere and news outlets the moment they appear in vernacular translation on the internet. It’s no accident that Francis is a news darling, given his propensity to act, to comment, and to summarize punchy points through action and symbol. His synods, to the frustration of many Church members who prefer the message of print media to the electric message of ecumenism, are dialogical encounters between participants, vaguely formalized into loose and hedged statements. Whatever people make of his papacy, Francis is a software pope.

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Paul Virilio and the Bunker Church to St. Bernadette

Lately I’ve been reading up on Paul Virilio, French philosopher of technology, who started as a stained-glass artist and now practices as an architect designing public housing for the poor in Paris. A truly model Catholic philosopher. In particular, I’ve been mulling over a church he designed with Claude Parent, dedicated to St. Bernadette in Nevers, modeled after Virilio’s work on the the architecture of bunkers and Parent’s work on the function of the oblique. It’s an incredible building, poignant and beautiful, ugly and alienating, in its own way.
Attached here are some photos of the church, including a floor plan, the exterior, and the interior:
In Virilio’s earlier work “Bunker Archaeology,” resulting from his personal explorations of bunkers rendered useless after WWII, he writes “In this survival apparatus, life is not neutral. It takes an effort to become more subtle, more essential.” The Church of St. Bernadette is like that; the church is an Ark, a bunker for a world where “mutually assured destruction” was a live possibility, at least in the popular imagination. St. Bernadette herself is most famous for seeing Marian apparitions at Lourdes, France (there’s a beautiful Jesuit church called “Our Lady of Lourdes” here in Toronto, coincidentally). In other words, St. Bernadette is a symbol of healing and miracle in the odd world that is the 19th century, leading up to the horrors of the early 20th century. Virilio and Parent’s bunker church is not escapist or paranoid, but a monument to the persistence of life in a particular time, intended for active masses, for receiving the body of God in a sacred space that calls to mind both annihilation and redemption. I’m reminded, rightly or wrongly, of a phrase from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that has always stuck with me: “If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground!”
Here are some reflections by Virilio on the design of that church, from his book CREPUSCULAR DAWN:
As it happened, in Dusseldorf some neighborhoods still were in ruins, and a Luftchutstraum had been turned into a church. I went to mass in a bunker that is called the Church of the Holy sacrament. Seeing a place like that Christianized, a place of terror, haunted by fear, that’s what interested me. And so when I came back, I realized that in reality, nuclear terror had only just begun. Those were the days of the Atomic Cafe. Everyone was building bomb shelters. And I decided that the grotto at Lourdes was today’s bomb shelter. It is the place of horrors, the place of great fear, the end of the world. So I drew inspiration from the bunker to do the job. I chose the shape of a heart, the double ventricles, split in two, cut down the middle, broken. One of them is the choir for communion, and the other the choir for confession, where one says: “I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.” What I admit, what you admit. You don’t say: “I’m wonderful, I’m pure.” Then, on the other hand, as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity. Anyway, this was my interpretation. And, of course, the chapel is an absolute monstrosity. It scares everyone. There were two projects that signed for the competition, and they asked Monseignor Vial to decide: “The other project being considered,” he told me, “is a small chapel with little angels, but there is so much hatred for your project, this pile of concrete, that I am going to choose it.” And since we were the winners, we were going to have to build this thing. Of course, there were immediate protests, articles in the local paper: “They have no right to build the chapel of God as a bunker…” Now just for you to know: Sainte-Bernadette’s chapel of Nevers is now classified as a historical monument.
Links to more on the churches (and where I got the images):
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I’ve been meaning to dust off this old corner of the internet for quite a while. Since my writing here thinned and eventually stopped altogether, I completed my MA at the Institute for Christian Studies (writing a thesis on Peter Sloterdijk’s analysis of cynicism and his later work on religion), entered the PhD program at ICS (where my research focuses on the intersections of media studies, Critical Theory, and philosophy of religion), and reverted/converted to Roman Catholicism (the tradition in which I was raised, though not without an endless string of qualifiers, footnotes, parentheses, etc.). Back when I was blogging regularly, it was a pleasure to work out some thoughts in-process here and, especially, to get feedback and make connections with other folks. Naturally I have a lot more to process now, so I figure I’ll jump back in.

Over the last year or so I’ve been conflicted about what to do with my past posts, the moments in-process, on this blog. Somehow the blog still gets hits despite being wholly inert. At one point I went through many of my old posts and made them private, a process that was somewhat arbitrary but mostly an attempt to get rid of especially embarrassing lines of thought–some of those remain, but instead of making them private (and rendering public some of the posts that on second thought I don’t think are so bad) I’ve decided to simply move on. Thus I humbly ask readers not to go digging too far; or, rather, if you do go digging I hope you can sift what gems remain and forgive me for the dirt.

At the beginning of Foucault’s “Discourse on Language,” he confesses “I wish I could have slipped imperceptibly” into his lecture, and that he “would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings.” “A good many people, I imagine,” says Foucault, “harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devillish features.” If I’m honest, despite my interest in “beginnings,” a good Kierkegaardian theme, I fall into this good many people Foucault imagines who want to simply get going, or rather want to find themselves already moving without having to do the hard work of beginning well.

It would be nice to have some profound insight to open up with, but I quote Foucault here as a means of basically licensing myself to not worry to much about this “first post,” one that doesn’t really have any parameters or promises apart from saying “hey, I intend to use this space now and again.” That’s not a very compelling way of (re)gaining a readership, but if I don’t start now I’ll be stuck deferring the beginning for so long that I’ll never get back into this thing at all. Looking forward to meeting you all again!

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Lee Braver on Kierkegaard and Transgressive Realism

Here are some blog-adapted scraps I’ve decided not to use for a paper, but seem to me to be nonetheless worth saving. They also touch on some of the issues I’ve been gesturing toward in Hart and Zuidervaart in previous posts.

In an essay entitled “A Brief History of Continental Realism,”[1] Braver offers a historical genealogy of the development of “Transgressive Realism,” an ontological and epistemological position he develops with the help of Kierkegaard. His genealogy contains three “steps,” which I will briefly rehearse: (1) Kant and active mind, (2) Hegel and objective idealism, and (3) Kierkegaard and transgressive realism.[2] As Braver narrates, Kant’s Copernican Revolution yields an “Active Mind,” a vision of the human person’s relation to the world as a mind which is not a blank slate on which nature writes, per Locke, but rather an active and intentional mind which grants stability to the contingencies of experience. In order to avoid total idealism, however, Kant posits the noumena in order to retain a mind-independent reality to which the mind relates. Thus Kant is able to have his cake and eat it, too; the best of empiricism is preserved, retaining reality as independent of ideas, yet the human mind is intentionally engaged in organizing experience of that reality. Positing the noumenal realm is a necessary and highly creative move on Kant’s part—yet it is exactly what will be Kant’s undoing. In another essay entitled “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism,” Braver suggests “Noumena represent the vestigial remains of traditional metaphysics in Kant’s system, like an ontological appendix, and it threatens to burst.”[3]

It is Hegel, says Braver, who will perform an appendectomy. According to Hegel, Kant’s position is a “subjective idealism,” as it is ultimately only ideas, not reality itself, which humans are able to know and discuss. A conclusion such as this is a hard price to pay for refuting empirical skepticism, and it seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. As Braver writes, “The knowledge Kant purchased turns out to be counterfeit: We can circulate this phenomenal currency amongst ourselves, but there is no way to cash it in for anything of true value.”[4] Reality lies forever beyond our reach. Hegel replies to this problem by denying the noumenal altogether. Speaking about the noumenal at all, even if it is to simply suggest the noumenal exists or that we are barred from discussing it, is self-defeating, for it betrays the very nature of the noumenal to refuse to have anything said whatsoever about it. Thus Hegel removes the noumenal and replaces Kant’s “subjective idealism” with an “objective idealism.” For Hegel, there is no domain of reality which cannot be taken up into a higher conceptual plane, which is the domain of truth. “The historical journey of consciousness,” writes Braver, “is the progressive ‘en-souling’…of reality, whereby Geist assimilates everything that initially appears to be outside of us, cancelling its apparent independence while raising it to a higher, spiritual level.”[5] History, then, is the story of infusing the world with meaning, an infusion which attempts to overcome sensory data and experience through idealist transfiguration. Braver notes that this view admits no transcendental outside, and that the transfiguring process is teleologically latent from the beginning.[6]

Such consequences are the grounds for Kierkegaard’s protest. Though Hegel’s criticisms of Kant yield a new ontological framework, a fundamental problem haunts both, namely, a lack, or denial, of surprise, which is the evidence of an outside. On Kant’s view, reality can and must always conform to our conceptual a priori, and on Hegel’s, though there is a historical development of Geist and therefore a certain plurality of concepts,“[w]hen surveyed as a whole,” writes Braver, “…this apparent variety snaps together into a circle which hermetically seals in the set of all possible ways of thinking as tightly as Kant’s single set.”[7] Hegel assures us, like Kant, that the world will always come to us intelligibly; all that is emergent emerges for us. This ontology works itself out ethically in Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit, the current instantiation of Geist which yields the best laws, norms, etc. to date. Thus, Braver notes, “Applying this view to ethics yields Hegel’s belief that there is no great difficulty in knowing the right thing to do… simply examine the laws of your government and the mores of your community, as they represent the highest form of Geist at any available time.”[8] Ontologically speaking, this ethical privileging of communal instantiation reflects Hegel’s general commitment to digest that which appears to be outside—everything is fodder for the gullet of Geist. Thus the exception must always be mediated back into the whole.

Hegel’s ontology comes under radical scrutiny from Kierkegaard from a variety of domains. Epistemologically, Kierkegaard criticizes both a recollective model of knowing and Hegelian mediation for failing to account for that which is genuinely new.[9] Further, and this is the point Braver wishes to drive home, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christian revelation requires that there is something other than human categories and knowledge which is capable of delivering truth to human beings. As Braver writes,

The Christian teacher…brings us something we not only lack, but which we lack the ability to attain, perhaps even to understand or become aware of. Rather than Hegel’s canceled and incorporated otherness, these lessons represent ‘the different, the absolutely different,’ which so exceeds our capacities that we cannot grasp it without a profound change, undergoing something like a conversion rather than merely acquiring a new fact.[10]

Yet greater than the epistemological objection is an ethical one. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio thematizes the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, as an event wherein our conceptually secure ethical constructions are relativized, “teleologically suspended,” via a radical, Divine interruption. Abraham is asked to commit literally the unthinkable, to murder the son who is supposed to be the vehicle for God’s promise to Abraham, the dissemination of descendents and blessing. Of course, even more than the logical contradictions (this defies the accepted ethics of our time! how will the promise be fulfilled! what validates such a radical command!) is the bond of love between parent and child. In the Akedah, no amount of philosophical ethics will save Abraham from the anxiety and, more importantly, the task to which he has been called. The presence of this story in the Bible throws a massive wrench in the ethical gears of both Kant and Hegel. God is supposed to be the highest expression of ethical truth—yet here, we are forced to either wrestle through the radical demand God has made of Abraham or condemn God and/or Abraham in light of our rational ethical systems.[11]

Of course, Kierkegaard is banking on the fact that his readers do not want to condemn God or Abraham, something we can hardly take for granted today.[12] Yet the philosophical kernel of what is going on here, which is what interests Braver primarily, is of the utmost importance. “Whereas Kant and Hegel place morality entirely within our reach,” writes Braver, “Kierkegaard insists that we dare not claim to know all that morality is and can be. In short, ethics and reason acquire an outside.”[13] What Kierkegaard thus develops philosophically via religion is a third way other than Kant and Hegel, a third way which is not a mediated way but a new way. “Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own.”[14] Summarizing Transgressive Realism, Braver writes:

Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumenal), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…[15]

Braver’s position is a creative reading of Kierkegaard’s project. At the very least, it contextualizes some of the problems to which Kierkegaard responds historically. Reading Kierkegaard as a realist is also not wholly alien to Kierkegaard studies (see the work of C. Stephen Evans, M. G. Piety, and others). In the remainder of the essay, Braver also puts Levinas and Heidegger in dialogue with a Kierkegaardian Transgressive Realism, arguing for a line of continuity which is worth pursuing (and this, too, is noted in secondary literature on Kierkegaard, especially by Merold Westphal). Problems remain, however; Kierkegaard’s Hegel is certainly only one version of Hegel, and challenging this reading of Hegel is something of a lucrative business these days in contemporary philosophy. While this wouldn’t necessarily challenge the exegetical/historical points Braver is making, it does pose some potential issues for Transgressive Realism. Further, commentators like Jon Stewart and David Kangas have suggested reading Kierkegaard as a figure who subverts Idealism from the inside, pushing it to a radical conclusion–these readings may be able to corroborate Braver’s analysis, but they do seem to complicate matters a little further. In the end, however, I find Braver’s analysis to be a very useful tool in articulating a dynamic at work in Kierkegaard’s thought as a whole, which might give Kierkegaard more purchase in contemporary debates. After all, if there’s a “Speculative Turn,” it’s only a matter of time before Kierkegaard returns, perhaps with a Socratic vengeance, or perhaps with an edifying word. Braver’s analysis allows both paths.

[1] Lee Braver. “A brief history of continental realism.” Continental Philosophy Review. 2012. 45:261-289.

[2] Braver. “A brief history.” 262-263, 263-266, and 266-271, respectively.

[3] Lee Braver. “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism.” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism. IV. 2013. 10.

[4] Braver. “A brief history.” 263.

[5] Braver. “A brief history.” 264.

[6] Braver. “A brief history.” 265.

[7] Braver. “Á brief history.” 267.

[8] Braver. “A brief history.” 267,

[9] Braver notes Philosophical Fragments as a place where Kierkegaard’s criticism of recollection functions also as a criticism of Hegel. It is important, however, to note that Kierkegaard differentiates recollection and mediation elsewhere, as in his book Repetition—thus the theories are not necessarily conflated, but Kierkegaard will note that they come to the same problem, namely, being unable to account for genuine difference. See Braver. “A brief history.” 268. For an excellent exposition of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and its relation to mediation and recollection, see Edward F. Mooney. “Repetition: Giftsin World-Renewal” in On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time. Ashgate Publishing Company. Burlington, VT. 2007.

[10] Braver. “A brief history.” 269.

[11] Braver seems to suggest Fear and Trembling has its sights primarily on Kant, where Kierkegaard attempts to show a problem for universalizing ethics of a Kantian stripe, but it is important to note that Kierkegaard is explicitly targeting both Kant and Hegel on this score. See Braver. “A brief history.” 269-270. While Kierkegaard commentators are divided, at times, on whether or not to see Fear and Trembling as primarily a criticism of either Kant or Hegel, it seems unnecessary to pick only one target—neither system is capable of dealing with Abraham, and this appears to be Kierkegaard’s ultimate point.

[12] And something Levinas was quick to point out in his criticisms of Kierkegaard, which have, curiously, been themselves criticized by Derrida, not to mention several Kierkegaard scholars. Still, however, in today’s philosophical climate, and especially with regard to Braver’s audience which is largely comprised of self-proclaimed materialists, this point requires some revision. This is the strength of Braver’s analysis.

[13] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[14] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[15] Braver. “A brief history.” 261.

Posted in Epistemology, Existentialism, Fear and Trembling, G. W. F. Hegel, German Idealism, Immanuel Kant, Johannes de Silentio, Lee Braver, Realism and Anti-Realism, Søren Kierkegaard | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Practice of Philosophy and Modes of Knowing: Hart’s Rejoinder to Zuidervaart?

Yesterday, I presented a post wherein I briefly examined Lambert Zuidervaart’s criticism of Hendrik Hart’s conclusions about God in his 1984 book Understanding Our World. Zuidervaart suggests Hart is beholden a Kantian phenomenal/noumenal problem, which restricts God from our conceptualizing, a problem which begs for a qualified Hegelian response. I ended the post discussing, however, my remaining anxieties about speculating about God. Revisiting some material from a course on Reformational philosophy I happened to take with Zuidervaart, I ran across some thoughts in Vollenhoven and Hart that might provide at least a germinal response from Hart. Because Hart’s thinking is borne out of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, it seemed natural to revisit what they had to say about epistemology in particular. I then dug up an essay on epistemology by Hart from 1994, ten years after his conclusions in Understanding Our World. What I found eased some of my anxieties. I’ll thus present some initial backdrop from Vollenhoven (a root both Hart and Zuidervaart share), then offer Hart’s development.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, philosophy limped forward after the roller coaster that was the nineteenth-century. Producing the heyday of Idealism, positivism, and hermeneutics in its early half, it found itself rocked by the insights of its best pupils. In continental philosophy, the impact of Idealism was already being supplanted with the trickery of Kierkegaard and the barbs of Nietzsche and transformed through the materialism of Marx. Though analytic thought took longer as it championed positivism, Wittgenstein, the movement’s golden child, proclaimed to have solved all of philosophy’s problems only to spend the rest of his life overturning the source of the problems entirely. It is no wonder, then, that movements like phenomenology, existentialism, and common sense philosophy were born, attempting to find out what philosophy was supposed to be up to. It is interesting to note that it is in this context that Reformational philosophy was born, and in this context of questions and ambiguity surrounding the nature of philosophy that Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd would champion a completely new ontology and philosophical posture with great confidence.

Building a philosophical system from the ground up requires a lot of work, but at the bottom it requires determining the particularity of philosophy itself. Vollenhoven does this by distinguishing between “theoretic” and “nontheoretic” thinking and knowing, a distinction which appears in his Introduction to Philosophy. Nontheoretic knowing “has to do with things in their totality, as for instance, when I perceive things around me” (75). Theoretic knowing, on the other hand, “proceeds methodically,” dealing with “one aspect of the whole” (75). Neither way of knowing, suggests Vollenhoven, can do without the other, and though they are different they are not in opposition to one another—there is, in fact, a positive relation between them. “For knowing begins with nontheoretic knowing and then, sometimes, proceeds to the differentiated knowing found in the special sciences; and subsequently turns back, on this detour, deepened and enriched, in philosophy to the knowledge of the whole” (75-76). Philosophy is therefore contextualized, proceeding from everyday experience and returning to it, never lording itself over it.

But what is the special science of philosophy? Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd strike a radically ontological stance, allowing philosophy to examine the components of reality and existence and their inter-relations. Hart, their student, has more to say on this issue. Having entered the philosophical climate in the midst of its tectonic shifts, Hart carries the tradition of these two thinkers forward, running alongside, into, and against several contemporaries. In an essay on epistemology entitled “Conceptual Understanding and Knowing Other-Wise,” Hart considers the problem of reason and its role in western philosophy. Surveying a multitude of contemporary approaches to the problem of reason (including analytic, continental, pragmatic, and feminist theories), he shows how reason is unable to ultimately ground itself, resting instead on a foundation of trust (if anything unites Reformational thinking and thinkers in “Reformed epistemology,” it’s this commitment). This foundation does not negate the possibility of scientific knowing, but simply affirms its place. The affirmation of place is where philosophy proper comes in—it falls to philosophy, Hart tells us, to take on the role of a kind of meta-discourse, or meta-methodology, analyzing our rational capacities at their most general, even to the point of realizing there are things, modes, etc. which lie beyond reason itself. Hart writes, “If philosophy is practiced as providing the theoretical integration of the largest frameworks of rational-conceptual knowing of which we are capable, then philosophy provides the space par excellence for openness in our rational understanding to what lies beyond reason” (47).

These comments are intriguing given that they subvert a kind of Idealism. Where Hegel wishes to have thought take what is other into itself, Hart affirms (explicitly with recourse to Levinas and other French thinkers) there must be an outside to thought–and God, of course, is perhaps the most outside one can get. But this does not eliminate our ability to make propositions about things; rather, Hart wants to stress that these propositions come with a foundation of trust, which should be understood as a significant foundation. Despite its significance, such a foundation can indeed be shaken, changed, or negotiated. Thus Hart preserves our ability to know something about God, but also reserves the right to negate that knowledge because God is other than our concepts about God (presumably the same goes for the rest of knowable reality). In an instructive passage, he writes:

“If within faith we speak of matters such as God’s right hand, we are not articulating beliefs in the originally rational-conceptual sense of the word, but using metaphors to express our trust. All faith-talk is in that way metaphorical. It breaks through the limits of given language to remain open to saying what lies beyond being said. It does not lend itself to closed logical-conceptual relationships. God-as-father is an image of a certain time. No conclusion as to essential divine maleness is possible here. Attuned hearing of that language allows translation into God-as-mother in our time” (45).

It’s important to note, here, that Hart’s essay is not primarily theological but weaves through several philosophical approaches to knowledge with a few theological consequences throughout. I’ve read it theologically, in a sense, in order to fit it into my conversation yesterday, but the above passage comes on the heels of a much more expansive discussion. Thus there seems to be a philosophical difference here, either between an earlier Hart and later Hart or between Hart and Zuidervaart. Whatever the case, the salient point seems to be taking two positions for granted: that reality is conceptually mediated all the way down for human beings, and that reality also exceeds conceptual mediation (an epistemological point which Lee Braver has argued is identified by Kierkegaard). This position is perhaps the most compelling to me, as it preserves the “ethical limit” to thought I mentioned yesterday.

Posted in Dirk Vollenhoven, Epistemology, Hendrik Hart, Institute for Christian Studies, Lambert Zuidervaart, Reformational Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment