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The Brink

Ascetic Idealizations

Is it possible to consider an askesis of otherwise imaginaries without falling prey to the ascetic ideal?

There is an agonistic ascetic structure at the heart of much Christian thought and practice, ancient and new. What Nietzsche termed the “ascetic ideal”[1] is predicated on a notion of God whose perfection a creature might take up only through the sacrifice of themselves in the face of a divinity whose superiority is affirmed through comparison with the creature. Both Niki Clements’ and Alex Dubilet’s books ask after how we might think about transformation into a life lived otherwise—what we might loosely call, given their sources of inspiration in desert ascetics and Meister Eckhart, a divine life—without appeal to the ascetic ideal. The “otherwise” speaks to a way of living not subsumed within “regimes of truth and forms of power” that constitute themselves through violent exclusions (Clements), nor by powers that alienate life by appropriating it to serve projects and ideals (Dubilet). Both works raise the question of whether we can have transformation without instrumentalization. Can we speak of change without idealizing change or without relying upon a notion of change that is always already an alien ideal? Is it possible to consider an askesis of these otherwise imaginaries without falling prey to the ascetic ideal?

In seeking to answer this question, Clements and Dubilet offer very different solutions. For Clements, ancient ascetic practices offer techniques for resistance and cultivation of subjects who might build communities of care and justice to defy the asceticism of the world. The desert is a counterculture. She provides an account of the formation of “ethical agency” through an appeal to late ancient ascetic masters depicted by Jean Cassian (d. 435). For Dubilet, Eckhart (d. 1328) offers a way to think and read experimentally, unleashing the possibility of new forms of thought and engagement through articulation of a God who is “neither a guarantor of identities or ground for creation or apophatic limit disclosing creaturely finitude but a site for articulation of immanence and mechanism for desubjectivation” (8).

Dubilet articulates an “ethics of self-emptying” that “[r]ather than cultivating the self or affirming the other…disclos[es] an immanence that precedes and exceeds the division of life into self and other” (15). Clements makes the case for the “maximization of human effort” in practices of cultivation orientated to a goal (skopos) and end (telos). Dubilet argues that self-emptying “subverts both the agent and the destination” (16).

Clements’ description of ethical agency takes as inspiration the vision proffered by Foucault’s late lectures at the Collège de France. Foucault elaborates a theory of the subject arising not solely as an effect of power but, in what Foucault terms the relation of the self toward the self, undertakes practices of cultivation at multiple sites – affective, bodily, psychological, and spiritual. This notion of cultivation in Clements’ view is not an iteration of the ascetic ideal, for the subject that arises is not simply the result of a sacrificial action that the self performs upon itself.  The subject arising from forces rendering them intelligible within a social field is also able to improvise and experiment within a horizon that is never fully determined, one marked by fluidity and vulnerability.

Rather than subject, Clements prefers to use the term “agency” in part to draw attention to the understanding of the self as radically contingent and thus neither “fixed nor unitary.” Living agency is a process rather than an entity, continually making and remaking, being made and remade at multiple sites, all of which intersect and refract (166). Cassian’s abbas are exemplars of this agency. Their practices incite and harness the capacities of body, will, mind, and heart. Such multiplicity means that the effort of cultivation does not arise in the “discrete faculty of the will.” Nor is the subject and its transformation ultimately located in the will as the singular place of sin and redemption. Moreover, this multiplicity means that familiar binaries between inner and outer, body and spirit, cannot hold in the “pragmatics of transformation.”

Will and intellect are, however, vital for Cassian in discernment (discretio), and exemplarity is impossible without attending to what is for Cassian a preeminent virtue. The abbas are models for a life of striving and perfection, but their exemplarity becomes operative in a disciple or reader through adaptation and interpretation, not through the imposition of their ideal upon a passive devotee. Discernment is not only present in attempts to decide if an angel of light is demonic or divine, but how and why one should undertake a particular practice, or even, as Abba Moses teaches in Conference One, when to stop talking and go to bed despite one’s excitement about a conversation. Exemplarity is thus a practice of reading, of making another’s life into one’s own but according to the terms and needs of one’s situation.

As the example of sleep suggests, there is something extremely mundane about the vision of the ascetic life suggested by the abbas despite the seemingly sublime nature of their goals, be they “purity of heart” or “fiery prayer” or “the kingdom of God.” Quotidian acts are where we live and find and invent this agency.

This mundanity is where Clements largely sees the applicative potential of the desert for contemporary life. Clements finds hope in the ethos of fourth-century monks, particularly for those who cannot successfully heed the interpellative call of the social orders in which they find themselves, who are left out or cast aside; Cassian’s attention to daily practices and his vision of ethical agency offer, she argues, the opportunity for non-normative subjects (and I think, in the end, this is all of us) to find ways to persist and perhaps flourish a world that can seem unlivable, providing a scaffold for “navigating challenging contexts in precarious times” (179). In Clements’ vision, skopos and telos function not as cudgels to render the present a wasteland; they provide not a standard of perfection that judges all that is other than it as deserving of shame or flight, but rather operate as a lifeline thrown into the present that allows it to manifest a dynamic fullness.

Ascetic practices occur in zones of vulnerability. Their capacity to be wounded gives them their transformative potential. Rather than read Cassian’s ascetic tradition as bent on shoring up the boundaries of the subject against such vulnerability, Clements sees in ascetic cultivation the exploration of vulnerability’s potential to instigate change. Insofar as this is the vision of asceticism, virtue is figured as arete rather than techne, a figuration that sees the good not in the terms of an ascetic ideal in which one seeks skills that might allow one to attain a perfection that lies outside of time, but rather understands there is no rendering this life of virtue according to terms that are not already inherent to it. The subject is stretched between the constraints and contingencies of the present and the otherwise imaginary of the goal. Life arises in their negotiation.

Both Clements and Dubilet proffer a vision of my life that is never my own. For Clements, such dispossession is present in the citational structure of exemplarity, in the taking up of practices that are handed down rather than solely generated through idiosyncratic vocation. For Dubilet, the textured field of a life not proper solely to myself is a “common life that precedes the division between myself and another” (2).

Dubilet absolutizes immanence, seeking to articulate it apart from its definition in and through the operations of a transcendence understood as necessarily tyrannical. “Radical immanence” in this account is not a predicate of anything; it is unable to be instrumentalized in the service of a project or a subject or theology of creation that would render the creature subject to a creator deemed separable, alien, or better. Immanence, grammatically speaking, is neither a subjective nor objective genitive:

whenever immanence is taken to be a characteristic or a property of the subject or the world, it is compromised with transcendence. Immanence, then, indexes what precedes and exceeds rather than simply choosing a side in what Maurice Merleau-Ponty once called ‘a controversy between theism and anthropomorphism.’ At stake is…the critical diagnosis that theos and anthropos have always been correlated…immanence [should] name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceeds the structured separation of subject-world-gods….

Alex Dubilet, The Self-Emptying Subject, 3.

As soon as it is the immanence “of” anything, immanence is situated within the boundaries of a container that exceeds it, defines and subjects it.

For Dubilet, such a notion of immanence is not a turn to the solipsism of an enclosed subjectivity that relies on an external, traumatizing transcendence in order to puncture the narcissism of the subject and render it ethical. Nor is this a vision of a mundanity that arises via its contrast with an exaltation that one might attain through ascetic gestures wherein the subject seeks to annihilate itself in order to be split open towards an alien transcendence. Rather, immanence is accessed through “self-emptying,” a kenosis that opens onto what Meister Eckhart (and Marguerite Porete before him) term a “life without a why.” This life is one of “dispossession and impersonality,” no longer “defined by its appropriation by the subject” (9).

If for Clements the hope in the adoption of daily practices is the persistence and flourishing of the subject in a world of difficulty and oppression, Dubilet’s aim is to facilitate “illumination” of “the ways that various forms of transcendence collude in subjectivating life, putting it to work for their own ends” (17). For Eckhart, this entails a vision of the religious life in which one does not traffic in acts used as currency in an exchange for spiritual goods, whether salvation, virtue, or status. Immanence itself cannot become a currency, “misrecognized as an ideal,” for that would render it once again according to a comparative logic, and self-emptying an act playing out the sacrificial pattern of the ascetic ideal.

The vision here is in many ways presented negatively: the “call” to kenosis as articulated by Eckhart is “not a call” insofar as it is understood to be a summons from elsewhere; it is not an opening to transcendence; it is not a sacrifice. In Eckhartian language, it is not a work, for a work would imply a structure of exchange: I do x in order to attain y. The life of the spirit is not transactional. This raises the question of how kenosis is performed if is not an “achievement”:

Immanence…is not something that can be achieved, but something that is always already there, prior to and in excess of the formation of the subject or its positing in opposition to something other than it, a transcendence that can take the form of a norm, an ethical imperative, or a figuration of the divine.

Alex Dubilet, The Self-Emptying Subject, 16.

For Dubilet the language of transformation is better rendered as living out of what already is, out of the “impersonal immanence …always coursing through all forms of finitude” (16). The polemic of the book against a life lived according to the strictures of an alien transcendence speaks not to the development of an immanent life, but rather a realization of what is always already there. It is an allowing rather than a generating.

The risk of combining a critique of labor as transaction and alienation along with an argument that calls readers to divest themselves of living in a translated world is that self-emptying can seem located in the will or intellect, disconnected not only with the scene of history but also the time of the body.[2]

Dubilet’s analysis of Eckhart’s theological experimentation and hermeneutic play is one place where we see adumbrated a site for dispossession. Theological notions are not simply contained on the page or in the mind; a Lesemeister (master of reading) is necessarily a Lebemeister (master of living). As Dubilet has it, “articulating the nature of divine immanence is not simply a dogmatic task, but a conceptual and existential one.” Eckhart’s notion of an “immanence that is not restricted…by transcendence” is a “thought that deactivates all transcendence and undermines all hierarchy [and] is not purely a theoretical endeavor, but serves as the condition for the reconfiguration of the contours of life” (67). Speculation here, Dubilet argues, is performative, “rearticulat[ing] life itself” (68).

One way that I hear the very different proposals of these books responding to the question of living life otherwise without appeal to the ascetic ideal is as a recapitulation of the ancient debates between Augustine and Pelagius. We can see Eckhart as articulating a hyper-augustinianism in which there is nothing I have to do, in which all the “whys” that generate so many projects function only to inscribe alienation, forgetting communion. Cassian, typically figured as a “semi-pelagian,” is the articulator of the pragmatics of discipline and its deiform possibilities. Rather than pit the two as impossibly against one another, I wonder if we can see them not only as part of the big experiment that is the history of Christianity, but together composing a rhythm.

I am reminded here of Henry Suso (d. 1366), a Dominican who followed the Augustinian Rule, was a devoted follower of Augustine and Meister Eckhart, and yet describes the “servant” of Eternal wisdom painting the room where he slept with images of the desert ascetics, using their Sayings as a pillow. “The Life of the Servant” tells the story of a life of assiduous asceticism motivated by a teleology of becoming christomorphic, a seeking that often becomes desperate and melancholic. In the midst of his intensive liturgical and ascetic program, however, the servant has a vision of his heart as a crystalline arc in which Eternal Wisdom “sits quietly in the middle.”[3] He sees that consummation has never not been occurring. There is nothing more for him to do. To the side of the divine, he sees himself “sitting and longing for heaven.” There are two postures—the ascetic attempt to align oneself with an exemplar and thereby become one for others (a posture of longing)—and the realization that such seeking is moot, that God is there, not as a possession of the self or a reward for virtuous deeds done, but simply as an immanent reality neither compromised by nor referred to as transcendence. Both what we can call in shorthand form the Augustinian and Pelagian approaches are present in this text and this description of a life. Rather than see them simply as contradictory, they seem to me together to suggest the Janus-faced rhythm of living perpetually at a threshold.

[1] Discussed most influentially by him in part three of Genealogy of Morality.

[2] Others have written about the question of work in Dubilet’s book, noting that Eckhart was influenced by beguinal authors like Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) who also speak of “life without a why,” and critique works as means of appropriation of virtue that becomes a possession, goodness thereby a means of making deals with the divine. However, beguines like Marguerite articulated the ways in which action and contemplation entail each other; the argument is not an idealization of human life that would end works, but speaks to the way in which they are undertaken. See Kris Trujillo, “A Feminist Ethics of Self-Emptying?” An und für Sich, https://itself.blog/2019/01/30/a-feminist-ethics-of-self-emptying/.

[3] Henry Suso, “The Life of the Servant,” in Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, trans. with an introduction by Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 1.73.

Between Excess and Emptying

Whereas Smith’s work on excess refuses metaphysical or conceptual capture, Alex Dubilet expands the philosophical logic of excess as undergirding a critical praxis.

Ethics, Life, and Medieval Texts

All three texts concern lives: the formed life, the deformed life, and a life without a why – a useless life freed from subjection to transcendence.

Ascetic Idealizations

Is it possible to consider an askesis of otherwise imaginaries without falling prey to the ascetic ideal?

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