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Justice, Politics of Scripture

From Transcendence to Transgression

Mention transcendence and one immediately faces a vast immense wall of opinion in which transcendence becomes either the oppressive bogey to be resisted at all costs or a category that provides us with the answer to our problems. The framework within which transcendence must operate is known well enough: absolute versus contingent; a vertical relation versus a horizontal one (immanence); other-worldly versus this-worldly; anti-secular versus secular. In this light, we find that transcendence becomes an embattled term. Orthodox theologians (whether ‘radical’ or not) seek to recover a traditional theological doctrine of transcendence as an answer to our ills, or at least the shortcomings of materialism. Phenomenologists of the ‘theological turn’ argue for an opening to transcendence within Heideggerian thought, neglecting to mention until late that they do so from a theological perspective. On the other side, materialist philosophers, from Spinoza through to Deleuze, Badiou and Negri, see transcendence as an oppressive category best opposed in the name of a liberating immanence.

The beginning of resistance to this perception of transcendence may take two paths. One is to follow Horkheimer’s ‘totally other’ of an authentic religion, one that resists any betrayal, compromise and identification with the state. This version of transcendence may give a religion like Christianity a revolutionary edge, which always lurks within Calvinism, for example. But one may follow another path, which begins by picking up an observation by Adorno: for some strange reason transcendence came to be associated with theology, while immanence became the stamping ground of history, society, economics and so forth. As should be obvious by now, I find this association wayward, but how did it come to be so?

Transcendence has had a rather unfortunate history in the dual homes of philosophy and theology, which themselves have often been separated only to reconcile for a time. As a result of its chequered career – Plato’s uncaused ‘prime mover’ (which must be outside the world), theology’s appropriation of this same mover whom Plato and Aristotle called ho theos, the fully transcendent God of speculative monotheism in which the object of divine thought can only be divine thought itself, the medieval transcendental concepts (such as ens, the existent, and the characteristics of unity, truth and goodness), Kant’s transcendental as a new term to describe his attempt to determine the conditions of knowledge, and ‘the absolute’ as a perennial topic in both philosophy and theology – transcendence has become a rather autocratic character. Along the way, it has attracted a host of less than desirable epithets such as domination, tyranny, the one, intolerance, sexism, homophobia, racism, speciesism, so much so that it is anti-human and anti-nature. By contrast, immanence has become the zone of equality and liberation, highly desirable over against the tyranny of transcendence.

As a result, transcendence has had to make its home out on the street, a philosophical and political pariah, befriended by few. I too would like to befriend transcendence, but not in the way it has been understood. Let me deploy some etymology. The word ‘transcendence’ comes from the present participle transcendens, of the Latin verb transcendo (trans + scando), which means to climb or rise over. It is, if you like, a dead metaphor, a word whose original metaphoric function has been lost or deadened as it took on a life of its own. Not quite, since the spatial element of transcendence persists in another sense: climbing or rising over entails a spatial movement upwards and transcendence still invokes a vertical spatial movement. If something is transcendent, if it transcends something else, then it rises above that something: it is ‘beyond’, ‘on high’ or ‘from above’.

Over against this austere sense of transcendo is another that is far more heart-warming: transcend also means to pass over and then to violate or transgress. That is, within the semantic cluster of transcend may be found the sense of transgress. Still we find a spatial residue, for one passes over an obstacle – say, a river – by means of a device such as bridge or a boat. One also passes over by neglecting or ignoring, such as an idea or a useful tool for a particular job. But I am most intrigued by the transgressive element of transcendence. As far as transgression is concerned, its contemporary usage is weighed down by a long history of theological abuse. At the fag end of this tradition, transgression has a largely negative sense, where it designates the breaching of a norm, a custom or a law. Under theological pressure, transgression came to refer to human beings; it is what we do when rebelling and sinning against the one who occupies the transcendent realm, namely God. If God is transcendent, human beings transgress. Or rather, transgression is an affront to transcendence.

Thus far I have been concerned with the various meanings within the semantic cluster of transcend, one of which is transgression. What of the Latin transgresso itself, from which the English transgression is derived? Here we find that the core idea of this term, transgresso, is to climb over, pass over or step across. It lends itself easily to notions of disobedience, rebellion and sin. But it is also rather close to transcendo, is it not? In sum, both terms, transcend and transgress, have closely overlapping semantic fields.

What is the outcome of this dip into etymology? Transcendence and transgression draw close to one another, bearing with them a distinct sense of the illegal, contraband and even criminal. Transcendence becomes less the authoritarian and oppressive word from above, the law one dare not disobey, the stern order that maintains the status quo. Instead, transcendence begins in this world and seeks to break out of, to step or pass over, in short, to transgress.

3 thoughts on “From Transcendence to Transgression

  1. Did you want to clarify or expand on how this furthers the conversation? It seems that you are working with a certain conception of what some would call ‘immanence’ but then trying to utilize or retrieve something of ‘transcendence’ that would better engage our situation.
    I guess from this account I am just not quite sure how this would differ from some of the politics of immanence that you allude to. What are the added resources that ‘transcendence’ brings to the table?

    1. You may take that line, or indeed the rather conventional point that transcendence and immanence are dialectically inseparable (as Negri notes in his interviews). But my argument is part of a larger interest in the translatability of some theological categories and politics – such a grace/miracle and revolution.

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