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Abbey of St Victor, Marseille, France. Photo courtesy of Niki Kasumi Clements.
The Brink

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.

I am delighted to be in conversation with Alex Dubilet and Rachel J. D. Smith on our three recent monographs engaging forms of subjectivity in relation to the philosophy of religion and history of Christianity, from late ancient to medieval to modern formations. On my reading, the monographs share a commitment to challenging normative constructions of subjectivity through scholarship that is historically contextualized and textually rigorous, even as theoretical concerns drive our interests and arguments. Our shared appreciation for the intersection between historical texts and contemporary theories helps produce a shared audience across our different home domains of late ancient studies, medieval studies, and political theology. We converge in three domains that I find particularly striking: (1) methodological intersections between the historical and theoretical (that challenge the epistemological limits of modern western philosophies), (2) theoretical investment in questions of subjectivity (especially beyond rationalist, masculinist, voluntarist, and objectivist models), and (3) attention to the ethical and political stakes of these inquiries (seemingly removed but in fact connected to our current moment).

Smith and Dubilet have both given me an opportunity to think about the epistemological limits of modern western philosophies through ways of knowing and transforming understanding in pre-modern contexts where Christianity is important. Such methods might be framed as “a history of our present” in Michel Foucault’s understanding of genealogy, where we read these contexts as contributing to the conditions of possibility for the emergence of what we now take to be self-evident. Taking up the historical a priori requires that we be mindful of the categories of analysis by which we understand these conditions – and to recognize our contemporary discourses as honing tools by which we can challenge contemporary understandings of historical formations and human experience.

Rachel J. D. Smith’s Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies stretches the terrain of feminist and gender studies to the Low Countries of the 13th century, where the mystical hagiographies of Thomas of Cantimpré negotiate the bodies and affects of four strikingly different exempla. Smith brings to life the example of this other Dominican friar, Thomas, to illuminate the diverse and dynamic movements of popular and pastoral piety in this charged century. Piercing the penumbra of Thomas Aquinas’s influence as “the representative of medieval theology in the popular imagination,” Smith narrates the crosscurrents and signifying practices that Cantimpré contemporaneously pursued in shared geographies. Between these two Thomases, Smith offers an antidote to the systematic doldrums of Aquinas with the excessive (yet seductive) lives of Cantimpré. Smith tells this tale of two Thomases (accounting for their very different historical and doctrinal afterlives) by illuminating Cantimpré’s lives of women and lay people as vectors for analyzing shifting social forms and struggles within ecclesial hierarchy. In the hands of confessor and preacher Cantimpré, these excessive saints reflect back to their communities—lay and ecclesial—their bloody enthusiasms and glorious depravities.

Smith analyzes Thomas’s lives with exquisite precision and imagery, illuminating this “new lexicon of bodily signs” (56). Building on Hadot and Lacoste’s attention to philosophy and theology “as much ways of life as they were modes of knowledge and discursive formations” (4), Smith pays attention to forms of embodied living and thinking as keys for how readers are to engage the hagiographies. In this hermeneutic challenge, “[t]he question of how to read and thus become devoted to these signs is a corollary to the question of the signs’ capacity to be truthful, persuasive, and transformative, for Thomas argues that saintly signa ultimately acquire their power not through their objective status but through the discerning interpretation and love of the reader” (8). Thomas’s imaginative theology is a devotional one, where devotion is “right relation to the saint” (5), engaging the reader’s imagination and effecting robust affective responses. This theology emerges not only from Thomas’s formation as a Dominican but from his immersion in a milieu in which men and women of many vocations are engaged in “significant relationships of admiration, mutual influence, and debate” (8). I marvel at how Smith effortlessly engages gender and feminist analyses in the dialectics of past and present; my great regret about Sites is to not have better foregrounded the erotics of Cassian’s relationship with Germanus in an effort to avoid over-biographying Cassian.

Chapter by chapter, Smith frames these figures as exposing and exceeding epistemological limits and unsettling cosmological orders through both scriptural hermeneutics and these vitae rendered sacred signa in their own right. She unfolds the dialectics of formation and deformation, brilliantly staged in relation to Christina the Astonishing. Analyzing these lives with attention to impossible bodily formations and affective transformations, Smith gives a magnificent account of the manifold readings that frame these lives as responding to particular crises of epistemic legibility and ecclesial authority, and she does so with an epistemic openness that exposes and resists the rationalism of the other Thomas and his high scholasticism. These 13th century contexts set the conditions for the early modern separation between the “rational” Cartesian cogito as the subject’s foundation for objective knowledge and the “irrational” sites of bodily and affective subjective experience that deviate from normative scripts of true and false, real and unreal. Smith challenges me to think through the logic of signification as a bodily and affective process – opening the semantic terrain beyond linguistic signifiers, even as we come to these accounts through the writings of Thomas.

Whereas Smith’s work on excess refuses metaphysical or conceptual capture, Alex Dubilet expands the philosophical logic of excess as undergirding a critical praxis. In The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern, Dubilet describes immanence as “a generative movement that precedes and exceeds all subjects and all forms of transcendence” (139). Dubilet is dedicated to breaking down the division between subject and transcendence through his fascinating staging of a metaphysics of immanence – a metaphysics he builds from Meister Eckhart, G.W.F. Hegel, and Georges Bataille. Dubilet tackles the two domains of inquiry that he argues historically curtailed such appreciation for immanence—that of theos and anthropos—both through the language of kenosis. Dubilet begins from Deleuze’s framing of philosophy (as a domain charged with the task of setting up immanence) and theology (as a domain charged with securing transcendence) in order to deconstruct any firm division between these domains. Instead, Dubilet argues through his case studies for “the immanence of the real” across theological and philosophical discourses: “immanence would name what is without enclosure, what precedes and exceeds the structured separation of subject-world-god, a plane out of which may arise not only a multiplicity of gods, but also a diversity of subjects and worlds” (3). Immanence is not a property to possess or a mere predicate.

Dubilet constructs a compelling account of metaphysics as emptying instead of saturating-and-exceeding, building from philosophies of kenosis in the history of Christianities. Christian historical, doctrinal, and scriptural concerns act as occasion for Dubilet to foreground kenosis in Eckhart and Hegel (notably by asserting the importance of Entäußerung in the latter). Through this lens of kenosis, he reads (to my mind) Eckhart as Hegelian and Hegel as Eckhartian. Dubilet challenges our understanding of the subject by also challenging the status of transcendence, arguing for a metaphysical view of immanence as the way to understand self-emptying. Reminiscent to me of sunyata in Buddhist notions of “empty of own being” (a reading that D.T. Suzuki even locates in Eckhart back in 1957), Dubilet wants us to rethink subjectivity as not predicated on binary oppositions but through the immanent unfolding of distinctions (conceptually, materially).

Dubilet challenges philosophical predicates with bold metaphysical conclusions. He advances his primary thesis concerning the metaphysics of immanence by articulating “a dispossessed, anonymous life of absolute equality” (83). He works to foreground the relevance of Eckart for contemporary political and ethical projects of desubjectivation, dispossession, and equality in a logic of immanence that refuses to instrumentalize life in its tether to transcendence. To do so, Dubilet rejects an opposition between Levainasian ethics of responsibility to the other and Foucaultian ethics of care of self, the former which is too responsabilizing, the latter that is too focused on practices. Instead of starting with practices as constitutive of subjects, Dubilet urges a movement towards “univocal life” where subjects are empty of own-being as a precondition for their constitution (and perhaps the non-telic orientation of spiritual practice).

Yet the progression of Dubilet’s argument suggests a genealogy of influence that comes through sets of traditions and practices. Deleuze, Ps-Dionysius, Hegel, Levinas – all are invoked in this book as responding to a shared set of concerns (the language of prolepsis operates in this respect). While Dubilet clearly wants to show that Eckhart is not operating in a traditional understanding of mystical theology, it is unclear how much he imposes onto his figures the metaphysics of immanence he wants to constructively articulate, versus how much these views are foregrounded in the texts. So I would like to hear more on how to navigate this tension between the genealogical continuities of influence (from medieval to modern) and the universalizing impulse to give a comprehensive metaphysics of immanence.

Reading Smith’s and Dubilet’s monographs together has been particularly generative because of their respective strengths and provocations. Both challenge how we consider forms of subjectivity in philosophical and theoretical domains today, with Smith foregrounding saintly vitae and Dubilet foregrounding theoretical treatises. Through “an affirmation of egalitarian dissemination” (90), Dubilet articulates the potential relevance for political and ethical questions today that foreground equality and dispossession. Smith, in turn, rigorously analyses the power dynamics of gendered hagiography in ways that describe the embodied and affective practices of female lives. If Dubilet affirms both that “[s]elf-emptying is not an operation of abstraction or ascesis” (99) and that Eckhart preaches “in order to effect the radical reconfiguration of thought and life” (90), I am left wondering what the practices and affects of kenotic self-emptying look like for Dubilet. And if Smith’s reading of gender and hagiography in a time of great social and political change illuminate these practices constructed in situ, what might she like to push us to consider in political and ethical questions today?

Perhaps imitatio offers a concrete example of the distance (and propinquity) between Smith and Dubilet. Dubilet frames imitatio as “fundamentally tied to self-negation, which becomes increasingly intensive by being related to its amalgamated truth of the incarnated unchangeable”(109). Smith frames imitatio as devotio where “one sees the material perfectly assimilated to the spiritual” (189) and this “lack manifests through encounter with a reality so much greater than the self that it escapes language” (177). How might Dubilet respond to Smith’s framing of “the gap between its nature and divinity, a gap that is the condition of its desiring” (177), notably when he describes the affective dimensions of the “life of joy” (83)?

The theoretical seductiveness of Smith’s historical account and the philosophical boldness of Dubilet’s constructive account both leave me in awe. With Dubilet challenging our very understandings of kenotic emptying-of-own-being in immanence and Smith framing the transformative capacities of engaging these formidable women and lay people, both give powerful accounts of plenary presence that disrupt hierarchies of knowing and becoming. Theoretically gripping in their opennesss to presencing alterity, these texts unsettle and transform.

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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