May 28, 2012

Michel de Certeau's Mystic Fable

Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life is a classic work of cultural theory. The best arguments in my thesis certainly wouldn't be what they are without it. Chapters like "Walking in the City" and "Spatial Stories," are regularly anthologized, but de Certeau's broader discussions of theology, psychology, semiotics and history are routinely ignored, in part because they're so difficult to pin down. The Mystic Fable is De Certeau's unfinished study of sixteenth and seventeenth century mysticism. In it, he works to distance his own project from conventional understandings of early modern spirituality that reduce mysticism to subjective (inner) experience. It's a dense volume, full of enigmatic passages and provocative statements. (Among its highlights, The Mystic Fable includes a brilliant reading of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and offers some curious glosses on Teresa of Avila and Jean-Joseph Surin.)

De Certeau conceives of sixteenth and seventeenth century mysticism not as an inner retreat (which he considers to be part of the ideological project of modernity) but as a socio-political practice: the lives of such mystics spoke of an "otherness" which removed them from the established narrative Western enlightenment; it also made their practices profoundly unstable by comparison."The gesture of 'going on retreat,' or 'withdrawing'" he writes, "is the universal indication of the tendency that countered the necessary 'docility or 'compliance' of State-connected religious institutions with the segregation of a place."

From the Introduction: 
Of course, there is an obvious continuity from religion (or mystics) to historiography, since both have taken in hand the relationship that a society maintains with its dead and the repairs that meaningful discourse, torn by the violence of conflicts and chance, constantly requires. But the historian "calms" the dead and struggles against violence by producing a reason for things (an "explanation") that overcomes their disorder and assures permanence; the mystic does it by founding existence on his very relationship with what escapes him. The former is interested in difference as an instrument to make distinctions in his material; the latter, as a split inaugurating the question of the subject. (11)

The Other that organizes the text is not an outside of the text. It is not the (imaginary) object that one might distinguish from the movement by which is sketched. To locate it apart, to isolate it from the text that exhaust themselves trying to express it, would be tantamount to exorcising it by providing it with its own place and name, to identifying it with a remnant not assimilated by constituted rationalities, or to transforming the question that appears in the guise of a limit into a particular religious representation (in turn excluded from the scientific fields and fetishized as a substitute for what is lacking). (15)

To look at processes in this way, to "interpret," in the musical sense of the term, this mystical writing as one would a different speech act, is to consider it a past from which we are cut off and not presume ourselves to be in the same place it was; it is the attempt to execute its movement for ourselves, to retrace the steps of a labor but from afar, without taking as an object of knowledge that thing which, in passing, changed the written word into a hieroglyphic. To do this is to remain within a scriptural experience and to retain that sense of modesty that respects differences. These trips taken in the textual suburbs of mystics already point out pathways to get lost (even if only to lose a kind of knowledge). Perhaps we will be led, by its confused murmurings, toward the city become sea. (17)

May 17, 2012

Anti-Anabaptist propaganda; England, 1660

Title page from Daniel Featley (1582-1645), The Dippers dipt. Or, The Anabaptists duck’d and plung’d over head and ears, at a disputation in Southwark. Printed by E.C. for N. Bourne at the south-entrance, and R. Royston, at the Angel in Ivy-lane, 1660.

May 14, 2012

Milton, Reading, and Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence"

Violence, in Benjamin’s theory, occurs at the instance that any positive law is put into place. “Law-instating violence” falls under the category of “mythic violence” because it unfolds arbitrarily, as though by fate. “Law-preserving violence” is a byproduct of mythic violence; it is tautological in the sense that it legitimates violence for the sake of its own name. It reproduces the law by re-asserting its binding function through state institutions and policing. These overlapping forms of violence work together to produce a subject accountable to the law. Benjamin’s theory of divine violence attempts to articulate a form of violence that occurs outside of this framework and, similarly, outside of the instrumental logic of means and ends that defines the activity of its agents. In her reading of Benjamin’s essay, Judith Butler highlights the distinction between the guilt necessary to legal accountability, and the divine violence of the Jewish God who, for Benjamin, is “decidedly not punitive.” Rather than a guilt-inducing law, she writes, Benjamin understands the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as
mandating only that individual struggle with the ethical edict [that is] communicated by the imperative. This is an imperative that does not dictate, but leaves open the modes of its applicability, the possibilities of its interpretation, including the conditions under which it may be refused.
The commandment is not coercive, but is rather an occasion for interpretive struggle, from which, Benjamin writes, “no judgment of the deed can be derived.” As he acknowledges in the essay’s conclusion, divine violence will not be recognizable with the certainty that can be attached to mythic violence “because the expiatory power of violence is not visible to men.”  Benjamin’s definition thus helps us to articulate the moment of transition that Samson’s destruction initiates.

Rather than producing a site of free interpretation for his audience, I want to suggest that Samson’s violence reproduces a textual space: a space of reading and struggle, premised on the destruction of theatrical spectacle. Indeed, a similar kind of operation is at work in Milton’s 1671 publication. In a recent essay for the PMLA, Daniel Shore notes how Milton’s rhetorical strategy in the combat of idolatry is not to destroy idols, but to preserve such monuments by putting them on display for his readers. “Like errors more generally,” he writes, “idols must be singled out, materially preserved, and made available for ‘survay’ and ‘scanning.’” Milton’s late poetry, in particular, finds him countering his opponents by reinscribing them in the material text, thus reintroducing them to an active ground of biblical hermeneutics. The point is to deliver an interpretive situation to his audience that reveals the contradiction of their present political moment. No surprise, then, that Milton’s preface to Samson Agonistes is preoccupied with the development of a reading audience against the popular appetite for theatrical spectacle. Rather than a revolution in form, however, Milton’s description sees the poem as a reformation of classical elements. Scolding his contemporaries for having embraced the “intermixing” of comic and tragic elements on the Elizabethan stage, Milton presents Samson Agonistes in opposition to common taste and public opinion, working against the grain, not simply “to gratify the people,” but by raising “pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those such-like passions . . . stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well-imitated.” At once gesturing back to the Greek tradition and forward to the cathartic potential of his dramatic poem, Milton’s preface reconfigures the genre specifically for an audience of readers.

Although Samson Agonistes takes a dramatic form, the author’s preface makes it clear that his work is not to be publicly performed. Rather, the poem is a text awaiting collective interpretation within a culture defined by theatrical representation and architectural restoration. This formal opposition is reproduced within the poem, where, as I’ve mentioned already, the public visibility of Samson’s labor conditions its reception as idolatry for the Israelites and divine proof for the Philistines. At the poem’s ideological centre, is the Philistine temple. “The building,” relays the Messenger,
was a spacious theaterHalf round on two main pillars vaulted high, With seats where all the lords and each degree
Of sort, might sit in order to behold. (1605-8)
The sight of Samson in this highly charged political space is enough to excite the Philistine audience into shouts of praise to Dagon. After he has fulfilled their requirements for performance, Samson is allowed to rest between “two massy pillars / That to the arched roof gave main support.” In what follows, Samson strikes his enemies precisely where they are most powerful: at the very site of cultural production. We, along with Manoa and the Chorus, are again reminded of our textual condition when the Messenger appears and begins to describe the actual violence of the event with a list of natural similes. Along with Manoa and the Chorus, the reader is left to imagine the disaster, prevented from accessing Samson’s inward state at the time of his performance. All that’s clear in the Messenger’s description is the class status of Samson’s victims:
Lords, ladies, captains, counselors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this but of each Philistian city round
Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.
Samson with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scaped who stood without. (1653-59)
Here, Milton alters the biblical account, in which three thousand commoners, watching from the roof, die along with the Philistine nobility. Rather than a moment of transcendent irruption, Samson’s final act repositions his people, along with the vulgar Philistines, as readers within an immanent horizon. Samson embodies what Benjamin has called “the destructive character,” whose only activity is that of “clearing away.” This character is by nature iconoclastic. As Benjamin writes,
No vision inspires the destructive character. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space, the place where the thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without its being filled.
On the Philistine stage, the identity of labor and idolatry achieves its apotheosis in Samson’s feats of strength: shows of power that would reaffirm the ruling elite but instead lead to its destruction. While it is common for traditionalists, writes Benjamin, to “pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them,” the destructive character passes on “situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them.” Samson’s demolition of the Philistine temple delivers a pivotal situation to his people; but, by the end of Samson Agonistes, they have again exchanged this textual space for the theatrical space of visible signs and proofs.

May 10, 2012

Milton and the (post)secular (II)

In my last post, I pointed to some recent treatments of Milton (and other English poets from the seventeenth century) that argue for his relevance to current debates over religion and secularism. This post picks up on what I take to be the more convincing half of Feisal G. Mohamed's Milton and the Post-Secular Present. Mohamed opens his second last chapter with an epigraph from John Milbank (a theologian who has, more or less, sought to colonize whatever is meant by the term "post-secular"). Milbank's quote rehearses a familiar move in Christian apologetics: the biblical narrative is shown to break with sacrificial violence in favor of an originary peace. In what follows, Mohamed uses Milton's Samson Agonistes to demonstrate the limits of Milbank’s understanding of biblical narrative, a narrative of order and harmony that Western theologians characteristically impose on what they perceive as an arbitrary violence that is always traced back to the Other. 

Since John Carey’s much scrutinized article in the Times Literary Supplement in September 2002, “A work in praise of terrorism? September 11 and Samson Agonistes,” Milton’s late work in particular has generated sporadic, often reactionary, debates over the nature of religious violence, past and present. Following the religious violence of 9/11, Carey argued, interpretations of Milton’s poem must avoid condoning Samson's final massacre of the Philistines: Israel’s liberator must either be condemned for his religious violence or be avoided altogether. As Mohamed recognizes, Carey’s polemic is a covert attempt to protect Milton and his liberal legacy from its possible endorsement of terrorism, its association with religious violence. One might expect Mohamed to emphasize the ethical ambiguity of Samson’s final act; instead, he argues that Samson is a hero of faith who shows that, with the imposition of uniformity by the state church, Milton has come closer to the “far left wing of Reformed religion.” There is little doubt, in other words, that Milton comes out on the side of Samson. Mohamed’s evidence for this is based on two authorial decisions that characterize the poem. First, the representation of violence in Samson Agonistes is passed over quickly or, at best, described ambiguously, with a host of natural metaphors. Second, there is little or no remorse for the Philistines on the part of the Hebrew chorus, which immediately celebrates Samson’s “miraculous slaughter.” Because of the limited account the Milton chooses to include in his poem, “We are never allowed to forget . . . the victims’ status as Philistine political elite and the attendant association of this class with the oppression of Israel” (103). For Mohamed, the value of Samson Agonistes lies in the way that it retains and represses this ethnic violence. Equally important for contemporary readers is the characterization of Samson as a hero of faith, whose experience of the divine impulse is inaccessible. Unlike Milbank’s claims to Christianity’s original purity, Milton frustrates our attempts to narrate Christianity in such a harmonious manner; with Milton, he writes, echoing Walter Benjamin, we become aware of the barbarism that underlies all civilization.

Mohamed’s last chapter continues his discussion of terrorism by focusing on the silencing of Samson at the conclusion of Milton’s poem. Rather than following the account of Judges, where the captive Samson cries out for God’s assistance in his revenge on the Philistines, Milton obliquely describes Samson’s as bowing his head “as one who pray’d, / Or some great matter in his mind revolv’d” (1637-8). Some critics have suggested that this instance evacuates Samson of his divine status, thus leaving readers with an ambiguous hero, but Mohamed suggests the opposite. With this silencing of Samson, he writes, Samson is removed from the sphere of human motivation. In the same way, the Israelites insist that their hero’s death is not a suicide but an “accident,” which allows him the identity of a martyr. For Mohamed, however, these distinctions, which tend to distance the religious violence of Milton’s time from that of our own, “are the distinctions typical of religious violence, which distances its martyrs from motives of personal vengeance and emphasizes their divine calling.” We thus witness “a consonance with the culture by which those attacks are immortalized” (121). If Milton can remain commendable for the way his poetry effects interpretive ambiguity, it is because of the parallels it draws with modern terrorism. The performative violence of Samson Agonistes, which strains against Restoration triumphalism, unsettles the illusory peace of the nation even while it affirms the progress of human liberty.

May 9, 2012

Milton and the (post)secular

Over the course of my thesis research, I've come across two rather sexy books that treat Milton alongside contemporary critical theory. Both are part of Stanford UP's excellent series Cultural Memory in the Present, and offer different responses to contemporary debates over the legitimacy of a so-called secular age by focusing on seventeenth century English poetry.

In Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, Regina M. Schwartz understands Reformation iconoclasm as a necessary critique of Church officials who sought to control the domain of mystery and instrumentalize the sacred. But by upending the sacramental tradition, she argues, radical reformers enabled “a new instrumentality—not of the Eucharist by the Church, but of the sacred by the state” (29). Like the Reformers of early modern Europe, she writes, “we are [today] witnessing a shift in emphasis again, away from the figure of the modern Self and toward the figure of the Other, a shift that . . . is inflected both philosophically, as given-ness, and theologically, as gift” (139-140). Rather than falling into the temptations of identity politics and empty, but no less violent universalisms, Schwartz urges her readers to imagine another possibility for identity: “a particular that honors other particulars, one that opens out toward a potential universal without coercion” (Ibid.). Like other postmodern theologians, she models her vision of harmonious difference on the Eucharist, the performance of which preserves the irreducible mystery of the divine through the real presence of Christ’s body and blood. 

In the post-Reformation poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton, Schwartz locates a hunger for the divine, “a poetry that signifies more than it says . . . through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements,” thus compensating for the loss of sacred liturgy (7). Milton’s contribution is found in the way Paradise Lost approaches debates surrounding the doctrine of Real Presence. In prelapsarian Eden, Schwartz locates a “transubstantiation” that infuses all matter (“All ingests All”), thus blurring the distinction between material and spiritual substance. The Garden’s continuous rehearsal of the Eucharist serves as a critique of theological and ecclesiastical representations of the sacraments. If Schwartz resurrects Milton out of a nostalgia for pre-modern transcendence and “its realm of justice,” Feisal G. Mohamed’s Milton and the Post-Secular Present considers Milton’s writing and biography as a corrective to contemporary debates over politics, ethics and terrorism.

Against those literary critics who would downplay or secularize Milton’s religious fervor, and those radical theorists who are attempting to think beyond the current order of liberal democratic capitalism, Mohamed’s Milton teaches us that “messianism is the language of particularization, not a hearkening after internationalism” (36). As he writes in his conclusion, Milton’s work can alert us to how “The lack of sociality in the believers adherence to truth will pay no heed to worldly institutions, or to fellow citizens, perceived to oppose truth, finding its most extreme political expression in the endorsement of religious violence” (131). Though it first appears more nuanced, Mohamed’s opposition to a secularized Milton has mostly to do with his desire to retain those moments of explicitly religious violence within the English poet’s career. Milton thus becomes an example of how the liberal subject’s attachment to individual truth claims can open a path of violence toward the Other. The first chapter, which suggests a parallel between Milton’s plain style in Paradise Lost and Alain Badiou’s theory of “evental” truth procedures, criticizes Badiou  for precisely this reason. “Who more than Milton,” gleefully asks Mohamed, “resembles [Badiou’s] view of Paul, with its iconoclastic sweeping away of laws and institutions conflicting with a truth secured by the declaration of an enlightened subject?” (39-41). Against this rendering of a universal via the particular, Mohamed suggests that Milton’s implicit critique of the human subject—the uncertainty of inner promptings, the reader’s inability to access the conscience of Milton’s protagonists—draws into question what Badiou sees as the founding of the universal subject.

Relying on Zizek's Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Mohamed suggests a parallel between the US government’s public strategy for justifying the invasion of Iraq—overwhelming its audience with an excess of reasons—and the rhetorical excesses of Milton’s Areopagitica. The “kettle logic” of Areopagitica, he writes, is “a cover for its ideology of the hegemony of an emerging reforming class” (54). Milton’s tract reflects what Marxist historians identify as a possessive individualist quality, where, as C. B. Macpherson writes, “Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of . . . property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange.” In what follows, Badiou, along with Zizek and Derrida, is again faulted for his preoccupation with an “evental site” that exists apart from pre-existing knowledge. Such a focus, argues Mohamed, only reproduces "the ideological grounds of determining the good apparent in the ethics of Areopagitica” (61). Following Gayatri Spivak, who grounds the possibility of an ethics in the as yet unrecognized Other, Mohamed ends up endorsing a familiar form of humanist education where “Reading is not only an ethical activity, it is the ground of ethical activity in its initiation of the call by which positive political change can occur, because it is only through the kind of reading sometimes fostered in the humanities that we are invited to imagine alien subjectivities” (62). 

Although I find the first part of his book unconvincing (especially when it comes to his critiques of Badiou and Derrida), Mohamed's emphasis on hegemony (whether based in class or race) is a good reason for maintaining Milton's religiosity within critical discussions of his poetry, one that I find somewhat more useful than Schwartz's theologizing. I should say, however, that Milton and the Post-Secular Present is more focused in its final chapters, which deal explicitly with religious violence, contemporary terrorism, and the poem that, currently, seems to generate the most debate among Miltonists: Samson Agonistes. I'll be dealing with these chapters in my next post.