January 9, 2017 / Theology
Lauren D. Sawyer addresses the appropriation of black Jesus through the work of James Cone and civil rights era fiction.
April 11, 2013
Liberation Exists Only in Its Enactment
There is a tendency, when approaching the relation between Christianity and Marxism, to try to identify some element that would be common to both. This element becomes a third thing that allows us to give sense to the relation between the two initially given things of Christianity and Marxism. Such an approach, naming an element common to both Christianity and Marxism—liberation, for instance—allows us to adjudicate their relation. In fact, this third thing provides a site of adjudication to which each side is already implicitly committed. After all, if both Christianity and Marxism avow liberation, how could either object to being evaluated in terms of its capacity to bring about such liberation?
The adjudication that results could assume various forms. It might, on one hand, claim that Christianity and Marxism both contribute to a liberatory project, meaning that their relation is complementary, symbiotic, or synthetic. In practice, such a relation would mean that advocates of Marxism and advocates of Christianity would have to find some kind of mutually affirmative symbiosis, given that it is only by way of such mutuality that the common element of liberation could be achieved. But it might, on the other hand, be decided that one of these two discourses better realizes the common element, that one better incarnates the third thing than the other does, and consequently, that advocates of the other discourse ought to convert to it. It might be said, for instance, that Marxism realizes the aim of liberation better than Christianity does, and therefore, that advocates of Christianity must—due to their shared commitment to this aim—become Marxist.1
It is evident that, whatever the outcome of the adjudication, this approach has the advantage of providing analytic clarity. Yet despite this clarity, I refuse this approach. I have taken the time to outline it not because I want to advance or make use of it but because I want to move against and away from it. I have described this approach because it is so widespread, so seemingly natural, that it ought to be observed, especially when one wants to take a different approach. And the reason I want to take a different approach is that I wish to avoid circulating the motifs upon which it relies: achievement, incarnation, analogy, and especially conversion.
Liberation exists only in its enactment. It does not transcend the world; it is not something that already exists and needs only to be incarnated. To say that liberation is not preexisting is to say that it is not waiting for us up above or in the future—and if liberation is not something that exists outside its enactment, if it is not out there waiting for us, then it is not something to be converted to or to be achieved. The fact that liberation is not preexisting means, furthermore, that we should not set it up as an ideal against which we can create analogies between different discourses of liberation. If there is no preexisting term of measurement, then discourses cannot be brought together by way of such measurement. There is, to say it once again, only the enactment.
A Problematic Approach: The Simultaneity of Passing and Arriving
Turning now to my own approach, I should make clear that I do not object to the desire to think of Christianity and Marxism together. My point is not that Christianity and Marxism have nothing to do with each other, for I do think it is possible to articulate—in terms of liberation—a horizon from which they may both be addressed. It is just that I situate this horizon prior to the establishment of these discourses rather than as something that takes place after their establishment. In other words, my concern is that the attempt to conceive an element common to Christianity and Marxism, when it proceeds according to the standard approach I have already outlined, begins too late; it starts once they are already established and thus gives them too much credit. What is important, on the contrary, is to understand the condition according to which they are generated or made to emerge. My approach thus gives attention not so much to the task of adjudicating the relation between two givens as to the task of understanding the problem to which they respond. In fact, I contend that both discourses owe their existence to a certain problematic reality, that they have generated themselves by attending to the world in terms of its problematic character, where the world has reality precisely as a problem. So there is, then, a shared horizon, even a common element, between Christianity and Marxism—it is just that the common element has the nature of a problem.
This problem, to put it somewhat loosely, is bound up in a commitment to the idea and feeling that the world can or ought to be different than it is at present. To call for the world to be different is to call, simultaneously, both for the commencement of a novel world and for the passing away of the given world. Such a call cannot be reduced to either of these worlds—the new or the old—but neither does it exist apart from the imagination of both as they depend on and turn against one another. There is no call without the simultaneously imagined promise of a world and threat of a world. Here the imagination emanates from and loops back within the body, a body affectively intensified through its irrevocable investment in and anxiety over the liberation of the world, the liberation that is nothing but the simultaneity of a world imagined from the future and a world imagined into the past.
This simultaneity is important. We should insist upon it, for the order of things is not at all clear. We do not know how to narrate what is happening: perhaps the invocation of something different comes first, providing a vantage from which the given must pass away; or perhaps everything begins from an inchoately directed disaffection with what is given, which subsequently produces the imagination of something that would not be framed by the present. To decide on the antecedence of one to the other, to believe that there can be certainty regarding the order of priority between the refusal of the present and the invocation of the new, is to become entangled with a discourse that narrates the present within a trajectory running from old to new or from new to old. Such certainty is a diversion from the real problem, from the problem’s reality. What ought to capture our attention, or what is worthy of our attention, is an essential simultaneity—the inseparability of passing away and calling forth, the unthinkability of one without the other.
Such simultaneity is the condition of both Christianity and Marxism. Christianity expresses this by speaking of an “impending crisis,” one in relation to which “the present form of this world is passing away”—and this present can be imagined as passing away because it is related to the time to come, the “fullness of time,” when “God may be all in all.”2 And Marxism expresses this in terms of a “specter” haunting the present,3 such that the revolutionary disjuncture is at once already imposing itself and calling for a future realization. Thus, capitalism is marked by the promise of communism at the same time that it poses an incommensurable antagonism toward communism. In each case, what are we told? The present is already passing, but it has not yet passed; the future has already arrived but not yet in its entirety. We find ourselves in the chiasmatic nonidentity of a standstill—already but not yet, not yet but already—a standstill that is nothing in itself, nothing at all, other than the breakdown that emerges in the simultaneity of passing away and calling forth.
In my approach, then, the commonality of Christianity and Marxism is at issue not in terms of any analogy between the specific characteristics of their respective expressions but rather in terms of the problem that identically conditions them, where the problem’s identity can be traced in terms of what I have been describing as simultaneity. And why, exactly, is this simultaneity problematic? It is because according to this simultaneity the world emerges as something unresolved, as something differentially situated between what must pass away and what must be brought forth. This means that the world is not a thing so much as a difference between two things—a refused world and an invoked world—that have not been achieved. The world, then, is not a thing; it is nothing. But that does not make us indifferent to it. Rather, it intensifies our investment in it as something unresolved, as something not quite lost and not quite found, and above all (or beneath everything), as something not quite there—in short, as a problem.
Both Christianity and Marxism tell us that the world is a problem, they exist in this telling, but in telling themselves, and in telling of the world’s problematic character, they tempt us to hear and to repeat this telling as a narrative, a narrative of a specific kind: a conversion narrative. They both—not always,4 but certainly in their standard or majoritarian filiations—tell us that the world is a problem and that they can achieve a resolution to this problem. They see the present as a problem, but in doing so they present a solution to the problematic present. In other words, they function as discourses of conversion; they convert the problem by subordinating it to a solution that is to be achieved. My interest is to instead insist on a problematic condition without conversion.
Let me pause to make clear what I am doing and what I am not doing when I insist on this problematicity. I am not trying to discard the actuality of specific expressions of liberation in favor of a general (and regulative or impossible) ideal of liberation. There is a line to be drawn, but this line does not run between the ideal of liberation and the actuality of liberation. Instead, the line I draw runs between problem and conversion. And the point of my drawing this line is not to abandon the actuality of liberation in favor of the problem of liberation; it is rather to claim that actuality and problem are on the same side (with conversion on the other side). In other words, if there is anything that turns liberation into an ideal, if there is anything that takes liberation away from actuality, it is not the problem but the narrative discourse of conversion. The problem is what is actual.
To better illustrate what I mean by the problem’s actuality, I will consider the example of prophecy. According to the commonsensical understanding, prophecy amounts to a signification of the past and the future: it interprets what has taken place in relation to what will or should take place in the future. What does not get enough attention, in this understanding, is that “what has taken place” and “what will or should take place,” the past world and the future world, are produced by the prophecy. They are effects of prophecy, and so whatever reality the past and future worlds have ought to be seen as conditioned by the reality of prophecy. In short, prophecy is more real than the past and future that are prophesied. It is for this reason that it is incorrect to imagine that prophecy is merely the representation of, or the interpretive reference to, a reality that already exists outside of or prior to the prophecy’s representation. On the contrary, what is here imagined as reality, the world in its past and future forms, is unimaginable outside the prophecy. The prophecy is not a signification so much as an enactment of reality.
What reality does it enact? We could say it enacts a world that is passing and a world that is arriving, yet even here we have not reached the essence of prophecy’s enactment. After all, if prophecy enacts these worlds, it is only because it first enacts itself, as the difference between these worlds, as the problem of the world. In other words, the essence of prophecy’s enactment resides in itself, not in what it prophesies about. Prophecy is an act, it has an actuality already, on its own, and what it prophesies about has actuality only as an effect of prophecy’s own actuality.
Of course, some might object that prophecy, considered on its own, has only a problem, that it has no substantial world, that it has a world that is nothing, nothing but a problematic difference. How then could it be actual? To such an objection I can only respond: Why do you presume that actuality requires substantiality, that it requires the resolution of the problem, the cancellation of difference? Or, to put my point more bluntly: if we fail to ascribe actuality to the prophecy, if we think that prophecy on its own lacks actuality and thus still needs to be actualized, then this is merely the result of our own presumptions about actuality.
The problem is already actual. The prophecy is an autonomous act, one that is not in need of a further enactment that would seek to realize the prophecy. In fact, I suspect that this concern to “go out and do,” to give to the prophecy an actuality that is presumed to be lacking, to convert prophecy to actuality, is a means of denying the actuality of the problem. Going and doing, calling for conversion to a discourse that would actualize the prophecy or resolve the problem expressed—and already enacted—by the prophecy, is a denial of the prophecy. More precisely, it is a denial that proceeds by turning the prophecy into a narrative: first the past, then the prophecy, then the future that “fulfills” the prophecy, that is, the future that is achieved by the going and doing, or by the establishment of a discourse—Christianity and Marxism in their standard forms—that would give sense to going and doing.
Such discourses of going and doing put the prophecy to work; they try to solve the prophecy’s problem, and in going and doing so they force liberation into labor. This is also to say that they convert prophecy: prophecy is an actuality that makes necessary the breakdown of the world, such that a narrative of the world becomes impossible. But going and doing denies prophecy by putting it in service of the world’s conversion, the narrative of the world’s supersession of the past in the name of the future. The conversion effected by going and doing is the denial of prophecy. Against such going and doing, against the desire for achievement, prophecy says liberation has “no future.”5 That’s the problem. Especially when it comes to the survival of conversion.
1. It is, of course, logically possible that this adjudication happens the other way around, such that it is claimed that Christianity better realizes the aim of liberation, in which case Marxists would be compelled to convert to Christianity.
2. 1 Corinthians 7:26, 1 Corinthians 7:31, Ephesians 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 15:28, respectively (NRSV).
3. I have in mind the well-noted proclamation of Marx and Engels that “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” See The Communist Manifesto (London, UK: Verso, 2012), 33.
4. In adding this qualification—“not always”—I have no intention of preserving an “ideal” Christianity distinct from its dominant forms. After all, such a distinction between an ideal Christianity and an “actually existing Christianity” is part and parcel of “actually existing Christianity.” (I have developed this argument in On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011], 32–34 and 51–53.) In other words, the very division between “Christianity as it has been performed” and “Christianity as it ought to be performed” is part and parcel of the actual performance of Christianity. This is to say that Christianity, in its history of domination, has made use of this division as a means of domination, as a means of capturing, controlling, and surviving beyond the antagonism it has encountered. It is therefore important for me to make clear that the problem I am here advancing is prior or exterior to Christianity, rather than something that would correspond to an ideal Christianity. Furthermore, it should be noted that the approach I outlined and opposed at the beginning of this essay is one that depends on motifs—achievement, incarnation, analogy, and conversion—that are central to and produced by actually existing Christianity.
5. Here I am thinking of Lee Edelman’s argument against reproductive futurism as it is developed in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
Daniel Colucciello Barber
Daniel Colucciello Barber is a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. He is the author of On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Cascade, 2011), and Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh UP, forthcoming).