Archive by Author | Nick

On Peter Rollins, Pt. II – Ontology

[full disclosure: I haven't yet finished Pete's newest book, The Idolatry of God, so I'm cautiously writing this from what I have read of that book, his other writings, and a few of his lectures. Also, I haven't read Lacan at any real depth. Still, this is a reflection on Rollins, not necessarily Lacanian thought.]

This engagement with Peter Rollins concerns ontology, but begins psychoanalytically. It's not so much an argument against Rollins, but an alternative way of seeing – what I think is more compelling and in line with my own experience.

According to Rollins (Lacan), infants undergo two births. The first consists of the pre-subjective period of “equilibrium with the environment” [note: equilibrium is a relational notion, although it isn't explored as such] (Idolatry of God, 13). The second is the emergence of selfhood, wherein the experience of the I comes alongside the experience of the not-I, which he claims creates a sense of primordial lack, of absence, in the recognition that there is what I am not. The claim is that this establishes a primordial longing, a deep and impossible yearning for wholeness – impossible because we can never fill this lack though we ceaselessly continue trying (Idolatry, 14).

A self cannot possibly have knowledge of the experience of this prior equilibrium. The self does not precede the moment of “lack,” of the understanding or experience of the not-I, so there is quite literally nothing here to experience it – and thus no experience of it. It doesn't exist as subjective experience. There can be no self without an other, so there can be no subjective being of equilibrium: “Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us” (Idolatry, 14).

Rollins moves from identifying this primordial psychological experience of lack to diagnosing it ontologically as “the gap at the core of our being” (Idolatry, 49). That is, he reasonably moves from noting this gap as an early sense to claiming it is a part of our ontology. His prescription is to notice this gap, name it, and embrace it – for only in facing it can we stop trying to fill it and move on.

I propose a different way of reading this primordial “separation.” I see this separation as, instead of lack, generative differentiation (which admittedly sounds a lot like Derridian differánce) revealing our relational essence. An unknown-ness/unformed-ness, in the experiential sense (again, sounds like khora), “separates” and self and other result. This might not seem so significant at first, but it is because from here we make inferences and draw conclusions about the nature of our being.

It isn't the experience of lack, but of becoming, of creation. The experience of otherness isn't the experience of lack, it is the experience of selfhood. We are born – that is, selfhood emerges – always already amidst a network of relations (a la Jean-Luc Nancy). But I want to make the point stronger: the self comes to be as a product of relations with others who always already precede the self. We are born always already in the midst of others, and our constitution is our relations with/to them.

The conditions of possibility for relation – which are the conditions of possibility for selfhood – are the emergence of the experience and understanding of an I and a not-I (an other). Therefore the emergence of selfhood is precisely the emergence of otherness. These phenomenon don't coincide, they are dialectically co-emergent. And it seems most accurate to say this differentiation happens from the moment of subjective experience at least until we die. That is, we continue becoming a self at every interaction with others.

If the self is truly co-emergent with the other, the emergence of the self is not from the experience of “not-I” but must always be the experience of “I-and-not-I.” That “I-and-not-I” is very firstly, and necessarily, relational. The formula “not-I” must imply a sense of self, but by not mentioning it risks overlooking the intrinsic relationality. You could say it overlooks the constitution of self which is the relation between internality (the I) and externality (the other).

There is never simply an other, never merely “not-I”; the other is always experienced as other in relation to an experiencing self. It means the primordial experience of self is a self-in-relation, not self-experiencing-lack. The power of this reasoning is that the self-in-relation doesn't simply take place at the initial emergence of selfhood, rather it is the experience of selfhood at every moment. There isn't a “big bang” moment that initiates selfhood but an unfolding of becoming that begins with the very differentiation that continues to constitute it. It isn't the absence of me that generates the self, but the presence of the other and my relation to it.

Therefore you could go on to say the experience of existential “lack” is not the lack of a thing/other, but of a “healthy” relation to things/others. Here the issue becomes not that we can't fill that lack, but that it doesn't need filling – it isn't a thing-sized hole. In fact, you could, from here, criticize the searching for thingness when the lack is relational. In that case it could be diagnosed as a hermeneutical problem, not an unfortunate psychological byproduct: it's an issue with how we read our own situation. I also have to wonder if the notion of a “gap at the core of our being” is a narrowly contextual conclusion – do people outside of the Western, late-capitalist world experience this? Or is the objectification and commodification of our relational nature a product our our context and a problem with our thinking?

In part this is a psychoanalytical point, but it's also an ontological one. I am arguing for a relational ontology – that each self emerges as, and is ceaselessly becoming, a network of relations – over against what seems like a more individualizing one. I'm claiming selfhood is, and is primordially experiened as, relational. Perhaps this difference is just in how we approach the question of selfhood and there isn't a true distinction, but it does seem there is space between these two ways of thinking, even as Pete talks about the crucial role of community.

Perhaps, though, I've misrepresented his argument – which would be unintentional.


On Peter Rollins, Pt. I – Insurrection

[a brief, critiquish-review of Insurrection out of mad respect for Pete and his project]

Peter Rollins' book Insurrection is a radical, post-structuralist, Zizek-ian reading of Christianity. The central claim of this book is that the psychoanalytical realities (anxieties) of everyday life give rise to religious structures that provide a “solution” to the uncertainties of human existence: God. Rollins highlights the radical position of Jesus on the cross, experiencing the traumatic loss of God-as-certainty. He claims that only this profound experience of loss can bring us to the place of acceptance of reality as it is in the hope we might become better people. That is, only the traumatic experience of the loss of certainty (“crucifixion”) can help us get over our pathological reliance on false security (God) in order to become more authentic people and create a better world (“resurrection”).

In the strength of this work, Rollins takes us through treatment for the condition of classical theism.* As such, this work is intriguing and important, considering most prominent postmodern thinkers attack classical theism by way of critiquing (Greek) metaphysics. Throughout the text Rollins creatively weaves insights from, among others, Lacan, Zizek, and Caputo into a provocative and timely argument.

For all the post-structural-arity (?) Rollins embodies, he shares with classical theism a central concern: personal salvation (of courses he wouldn't use that term). After all, he does in fact also offer a personal path to wholeness and life with God, albeit first through this total loss of the certainty of the omni-God. That is, Rollins offers “new meaning, joy, and fulfillment” (118). He situates himself firmly within the religious question and gives, ultimately, a very religious answer. In the end, as we see in part two of the book, he still wants to make room for love, meaning, hope, and the divine.

This simply means Rollins' project is indeed religious. However, for me, it sits in awkward tension with the severity of his early argument. There is an abrupt turn, halfway through the book, because his eventual landing on God language, love, and Christ feels at odds with the extremity of his first-half analysis. After all, his argument isn't as baldly existential as someone like Sartre – he stops short of saying we completely construct our own meaning from “nowhere.”

I think it's unfortunate that Rollins finds no way to appropriate or include the life of Jesus. In no small way, as the anti-classical theist/evangelical, he remains dialectically positioned, narrowly fixated on the same thing evangelicals are: the cross. In so doing he implies Jesus' life isn't all that important and that all we really need from him is his death (or, to include Jesus' life we would have to read it as that of a typical classical theist until his faith was shattered on the cross – which just doesn't work for me). It is accurate to say, then, that Rollins is centrally concerned with atonement. Sure it's a different, radical view of atonement, but it's still atonement. What's unfortunate about this, to me, isn't that he wants to talk atonement, but that he misses so much of what the best of progressive Christianity roots itself in: radically re-reading the life and teachings of Jesus. Such fecund material – the vast majority of the gospel accounts – goes untapped. Rollins and the historical creeds share something in common: a neglect of Matthew 1-25. Interestingly, Rollins also doesn't discuss the socio-political powers that executed Jesus, missing a chance to offer more than just a psychoanalytical exploration of the cross.

All that said, Rollins occupies an important role in the future of progressive postmodern Christianity. While I would prefer more subtlety and nuance than Rollins offers, along with more reflection on the life of Jesus, that isn't a critique of the heart of his work – which I think is brilliant and important. His insights are penetrating, his style intriguing, and his method – skillfully diagnosing ontotheology as a pathology – is compelling. He must be commended for his ability to write so accessibly, for non-specialist audiences, which is unfortunately all too rare in progressive postmodern Christianity.

There's something about Rollins' writing that's engaging, magnetic. More thoughts on Pete to come…



* I'm using “classical theism” here to refer to the God-as-certainty idea because it most often presents as the omni-God of classical (Greek) metaphysical thinking (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.). This, of course, takes shape most prominently in the many forms of evangelicalism, especially of the Calvinist flavor.


Guns and America’s Original Ontology

The enlightenment thinkers who provided the philosophical backdrop for the ‘founding’ of America understood the world to be made of disparate and distinct things, and therefore saw humans as essentially separate, individual beings. It seems to me that this understanding of the nature of things, this ontology, is engraved in the American spirit and is at the heart of much of our political and social strife.

[ontology: the study of or theorizing about the nature of being(s)]

The issue here is that contemporary thought – science, philosophy (esp. metaphysics), and theology, among other disciplines – and human experience point to a different understanding of reality: one of considerable interrelation. We’re discovering, around every turn, that who we are and how the universe works is much more complicated and interrelated that we could imagine. I wager we're currently most acutely experiencing this politically, as it’s chafing against the deep anarchic soul of America – that of radical independence and individual self-determination.

It seems to me that our adamant demand for guns is actually symptomatic of the communally disruptive nature of our individual and individualizing ontology. On one hand it speaks to a strong vigilante spirit, and on another it speaks to a prevention of the full potential of community. Though the first reason deserves reflection, and isn’t unrelated to the second, it’s the second reason I’m interested in here.

While perhaps true for the origins of the Second Amendment, it doesn’t seem to me that bearing arms is now actually for the purpose of self-defense against a tyrannical U.S. regime, as if the unmatched tactical prowess, technological savvy, and sheer size and strength of the American military would balk at a cabinet of Bushmaster rifles. It seems gun ownership is now less (if it ever was) about protecting yourself from the American government and more about the individual having the disproportionate power to threaten existing social or political structures with considerably more than his or her involvement.

Although this disproportionate individual power is part of the logic for gun ownership, it creates an untenable parity of power between the individual and the government. If the desire is for the individual to be as powerful as the government, in what sense would the government have any power at all? Isn’t a democracy to be precisely the empowerment of its individuals, together? Then what sort of separation need exist (not that I’m implying none does) between unified individuals and the government? There would, however, be a necessary one between the power of collective individuals and the power of an individual.

I’m sympathetic to the threat of being totalized, exploited, and oppressed, but we need to think harder about resistance – which nowadays probably ought to be more about finance than firepower – and about the consequences of how we address such fears. Along those lines, I'm not here trying to argue against violent revolt. Rather, quite simply, guns, and the notion that we need them, keep us far more separate than we might be; they are, and symbolize, the means by which we might each disproportionately violently assert our radically individual will. Alas, all of this is, of course, perched upon the belief that the individual and his or her will is better and more essential than the community. It positions the individual over and above the communal.

I’m not trying to change the subject from the immediate call for action in light of the recent tragedies. This, to me, is both about actual gun laws and the felt need for guns, the latter of which seems to be under addressed. For some, gun ownership is about sport, for others it’s about protection, but most of the public conversation right now is very interestingly about neither. I’m not sure how interdependent we can get, how deeply democratic we can get, with an anxiety that’s calmed by a filled holster.

Whatever else might be wrong with America, I'm suggesting there’s something terribly wrong with its ‘original’ ontology, and that this gun control debate reveals more about that than the private right to own a gun. We need a renewed approach to government, economics, and society that takes into account our deep, essential interrelatedness. We need an approach that begins with our connectedness and recognizes our individuality, not the other way around; we need one that is the empowerment of it’s individuals together, not each individual separately.

This is clearly about more than just guns, yet the point isn’t simply that we’re better together. It’s that, without each other, we’re actually not much at all – and there’s something about ubiquitous gun ownership that runs counter to that.


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