Archive for June, 2012

Compiling a “Political Theology” Reading List

In order to better acquaint myself with the certain current trends in theology, I am compiling a list of books to serve as a kind of crash course in political theology. As is common when anticipating a coming break from school, I have deluded myself into thinking any of my free time will be spent on reading non-school related books. With any luck, the following list will serve to indulge my fantasy:

1. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

2. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

3. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

4. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory

5. Talal Assad, Formations of the Secular

6. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

7. William T. Cavanaugh,Torture and Eucharist

8. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

…. Any thoughts? What books am I missing?

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Continental Philosophy, Difficulty and Obscurantism

One of the more well-known and oft-repeated accusations against ‘continental’ thinkers by those in the analytic tradition is that of “deliberate obscurantism”. As far as I can tell the accusation is basically that the notoriously difficult prose of thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, et al, is intended to create an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the meaning of the text. The accusation implicitly equates this with intellectual dishonesty: First, in that it allows the author to avoid criticism (Foucault and Searle alike find Derrida guilty on this count, referring to his rhetoric as a “terrorism of obscurantism”). Second, in that it mystifies the thinker, creating the illusion that his work is more substantial than it actually is. On this latter point, I admit that Slavoj Zizek has often been an object of fascination for me, despite (and perhaps because) I don’t fully understand him (In an ironic way, Zizek himself becomes a kind of “sublime object”)

That this criticism can be extended to the entirety of “continental” (read: non-analytic) philosophy is unlikely. Nevertheless, something like a “deliberate obscurantism” seems to be a more or less explicit aim in the work of Kierkegaard. In both the preface and the epilogue to Fear and Trembling, he draws a comparison between the world of commerce and the world of ideas, referring to an incident in which some spice-merchants deliberately sunk some of their goods at sea in order to inflate the value of the goods back home. Kierkegaard maintains that, “we need something similar in the world of spirit”. Kierkegaard clearly perceives a decline in the value of faith among his contemporaries, which is related to the ease and simplicity with which the concept is commonly associated. In other words, because everyone assumes faith is easy, it is cheap; and because it is cheap it is of little value. His aim throughoutFear and Trembling is to cause the reader to question her assumptions about the ease of faith. He seeks to make faith more difficult and so to make it more valuable. Not only is this difficulty present in his exegesis of the story of Abraham, but it is also accomplished at different levels of the text in, for example, his use of pseudonyms, multiple beginnings, “attunements”, and prologues, mysterious epigraphs, and odd chapter titles. All of this is intended to create difficulty for the reader, to arouse his audience from complacency.

Perhaps, if there is any “deliberate obscurantism” in the works of other “continental” philosophers it is not so simply a matter of intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps, if the difficulty is calculated as it is in Kierkegaard, then it serves a purpose – like pointing to a kind of truth that would simply be lost on a facile, reductive explanation. (If this is the case, then it’s too bad that Derrida’s counter-accusation of superficiality on the part of Searle was not more aptly directed at, say, Dennet or the Churchlands. At least Searle doesn’t just ignore problems because they’re difficult).

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