Review – The Enigmatic Absolute (Stanimir Panayotov)

Joshua Ramey and Matthew S. Haar Farris (Eds.), Speculation, Heresy, and Gnosis in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion: The Enigmatic Absolute. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 299 pages. ISBN: 9781786601414

The volume edited by Ramey and Haar Farris is a compendium of, for the most part, high theory experimental writings. The volume collects reworked papers from a 2012 conference called “Thinking the Absolute: Speculation, Philosophy, and the End of Religion” held at Liverpool Hope University, and as the very first volume of a new Rowman and Littlefield series titled Reframing Continental Philosophy of Religion and edited by Steven Shakespeare and Duane Williams (both of Liverpool Hope University). This collection contributes to the field of philosophy of religion generally, where multitudes of scholars raise hand, but few embrace a programmatic commitment to realism that is neither anti-religious nor autistically scientific.

Finding and situating itself in the contemporary condition of religion and science, this book will serve scholars and readers familiar with and working in comparative philosophy and religion, theology and politics, as well as experts in Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Islamic philosophy, mysticism, biblical scholarship and canonicity, and crossovers between science, poetry and religion as they are conjugated in philosophy, theology and arts department leaning to both the experimental and the experiential. The volume will be of particular interest to those belonging to the aforementioned fields and who have at the same time followed in the footsteps of both Meillassoux and Laruelle and, respectively, speculative/new realisms and materialisms and non-philosophy as they, in turn, conjugate with religious studies.

Taken as a whole, Speculation, Heresy, and Gnosis in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion: The Enigmatic Absolute can be read as attempting to address the following problem, which is never spelled out in its entirety: Is the Absolute ineffable? The volume is held together more by a shared poiesis rigor than rigorous scientia. Yet, despite this infrastructural asymmetry, few of the contributions fail to address the problem of ineffability. It is because of this focus that Ramey and Haar Farris’s work should be praised for keeping an editorial horizon that, despite few vacillating exceptions, is often an exception in the world of edited thematic volumes.

The experimental quality of the volume is not going to be the object of the present review – not because it does not deserve attention, but because it is the experiential dimension of the book’s commitment that looms large and strikes right in the heart of what would usually be described merely as “(continental) philosophy of religion.” Because of its programmatic commitment to post-Kantian realism(s), the authors gathered here all address in implicit and explicit ways what is wrong (and rarely right) with the continental notion of ineffability.

The problem of ineffability is often hailed as the axis of power for contemporary continental thought and, to varying degrees, continental philosophies of religion. In continental circles, ineffability has historically served to debilitate the analysis of the reality of any object under the scrutiny of speculation and/or scientific rigor. (“Speculation” is nothing but the Hegelian overlapping of being and thought. What the use of this term disputes since the anti-correlationist thesis was launched is the status of contingency.) Because most religious theory and scholarship is already hellbent on the implied ineffability of God’s name, doing away with the ineffable could come as a somewhat shocking move. This is even more true in continental philosophy (of religion or not, atheistic or not), as the Jewish-French post-War conjugations of Heidegger also rehash on the never-ending business of ineffability every time the object of analysis (and the result of the analysis thereof) is to the dislike of the writer.

In scholarly religious context proper, the veneer of open mysticism, added to the one already imbuing from within the phenomenological certainties of noumenalism, makes the worst of scenarios for the actual thinking – and knowing – of categories such as the Absolute. As a result, saying that the latter is “enigmatic” bears no importance whatsoever. The qualifier “enigmatic” is then either tautological or hyper-determined.

The enigmatic quality is here taken seriously, as one which is researchable. Which brings us to the “experiential.” By “experiential” I mean that the book generally stipulates that the spiritual experience of/in this world is based not on mere spiritual encounters with the disembodied and the unknowable, but on the latter’s observability within the limits of rational embodiment. So, taken at face value, Meillassoux’s “divine inexistence” is deified and pursued in much of the texts published here.

There is a “Meillassoux in action” overtone here, which is generally lost the more one moves away from Part I, where the editorial horizon is most saturated. In the editors’ Introduction (especially pp. 1-3), and following Meillassoux’s critique of philosophies of finitude/access, it is claimed that, in order to organize meaningfully “the great outdoors,” the absolute contingency of both being and thought has to be acknowledged, as the building blocs of speculation. That the “absolute can be whatever” is a consequence of taking Meillassoux to heart. This position weaponizes the editors with a raison d’être regarding an operative notion of the Absolute: only the “reality of uncertainty” is absolute.

Building on such a position, the editors’ ambition is to offer intersections of such an Absolute in the impasses of post-Kantianism, stating that what is missing in both Meillassoux and phenomenology, deconstruction, etc., is “the fact that non-ordinary, mystical, or magical states of consciousness … neither have clear names nor are unnameable, but are rather sites of the generation of new names…” (3).

To explore these sites, the book is divided in four parts. The focus on the reality of, and achieving the Absolute, is most pronounced in Part I: Speculations (I): Futures of the Absolute, in the chapters of Daniel Whistler and Mark Mason and Michael O’Rourke. The first pedantically unearths performative contradictions within Meillassoux’s work to suggest that he too is inebriated by the finitude of language and in effect abandons the Real, while the latter offers a more or less emphatic engagement with Meillassoux in trying to make him work with Caputo on the notion of the messiah.

Matt Lee and Jesse Hock both inspect aspects of extraneous and mystical knowledge against the background of strong correlationsim, the first by theorizing “sorcery” as alien knowledge, and the latter by going back to the Lucretius via Deleuze and the notion of the “broken line.” Part I generally orbits around the key problem of “pragmatics” and how it can enact fundamentally the nameability of contingent realities in light of Meillassoux’s work.

Part II: Speculations (II): Visionary Conditions continues some lines of work from Part I, such as Juan Salzano’s chapter on the “nebular,” Erin Yerby’s work on witchcraft and embodied imagery, and Erik Davis’ chapter on the “inner flesh” in Henry. But those texts go further than metapositional interpretations of critiquing finitude and thus further away from Meillassouxian presuppositions of enacting the absolute and the mystical, confined as they are by, precisely, finding “new names.”

Matthew S. Haar Farris and Steven Shakespeare’s chapters, respectively on theurgy as a contemporary methodology of surveying the spiritual, and on chaos magick as a primer of Kirkegaard’s understanding of chaos, gradually introduce the reader, with their examples of varied scholarly sources, to Part III: Heresy: Experiments, where influences such as Henry’s phenomenology of salvation and Derrida’s deconstruction of the traces grow dim. Part II offers “visions” into the enigmatic absolute in as much as it enacts certain exactitudes in the spirit of Meillassoux’s hyper-chaos but does not follow any specific programmatist steps.

Thus Part III, with its emphasis on Heresy, continues the topic of chaos from the preceding two chapters, in the work of Sam Webster on the Hermetic Order and theurgy, which is a very useful blending of topics that have already been rehearsed in previous chapters and puts a strong emphasis on ritual and its role for spirituality in the context of philosophy of religion today. This chapter in particular is a good example of defying the axiomatic of ineffability by the specific instance of theurgic ritual practice (although, as could be rightly objected, theurgia is, to use Laruelle’s term, not sufficiently philosophically impoverished). The same is true to some extent about Clark Roth’s chapter on sex magic, but Part III zooms out of this emphasis on ritual with the work of Rocco Gangle and ná Khar Elliff-ce.

These last three chapters are specimens of experiments with philosophy of religion and spirituality, although not necessarily immersed in the experiential. Especially Gangle’s essay on the generic, which amounts to a crossover between treatise, citational map, and poetry guide, embodies the Laruellian aversion to “examples” despite the ones already in use. This is not the case in Elliff-ce’s text, where poetry is put to decisional use. Despite the bold English and the acute parallels drawn between authors (Artaud, Perlonger, Lezama Lima), this is perhaps the least accessible text in this volume and not for reasons of experimentality: sometimes the best of editors can be failed by the author’s language capacity.

Jason Smick’s chapter should be singled out for its scholarly perseverance to unveil the importance of its object, Pierre Hadot’s work, and his importance for 20th century continental philosophies of embodiment, and implicitly Foucaultianism. It is a refreshing reminder that experiment and scholarly work make a good couple when the right alchemical balance of prose and form is found. The present writer failed to see this blending in Elliff-ca’s chapter despite the promising potential of revealing how poetics/poetry can introduce the modern self to “engagement” pre- or post-discursively.

Part IV: Gnosis: Creatures of Saying and Unsaying, which, as its title reveals, offers experiments in the problem of ineffability via divergent notions of personal/salvific knowledge, both radicalizes the connection to embodiment that preoccupies Parts II and III and is the closest to Laruellian non-philosophy. Beatrice Marovich’s work in many ways speaks to the one of Lee and Salzano in that it intimates a connection between neoanimism and spirituality. Her chapter, despite repeating some long-established truisms of Timaean cosmology, is a good rejoinder that entangles in itself many of the preoccupations present in this volume, specifically with respect to the importance of non-human knowledge/epistemology and the end of philosophies of access/finitude – with the usual Plato culprit.

The next three texts in Part IV (by Daniel Colucciello Barber, Anthony Paul Smith and Alex Dubilet) are in effect a dossier of non-philosophical experiments in the domain of (continental) religious theory. Barber’s philosophical prose is inimitably lucid and deserves special mention: it is scholarly rigid with a rich and masterful phrase. By offering a negative conception of the Absolute, by diagnosing this world as separate from its gnosis, he suggests that only an undetermined and “unpossessed” type of knowledge can separate gnosis from the ways of Christianity and its quasi-religious heir of secularism. There are docetic overtones here, subtly masquerading in a scholarly fashion, giving way to a decreationist Gnosticism. By claiming that gnosis affirms unpossessed knowledge, Barber reintroduces both the problem of the eternity of the world in a continental key and contributes to the thesis that philosophy entails subordination and, by extension, capitalism as a form of organized sociality.

It is this approximation that is often dear to those readers of Laruelle prone to his mystical writings, but so is true of the Laruellian crypto-gnosis which pervades Smith’s and Dubilet’s chapters. Smith too addresses the problem of separation between world and gnosis (of creation and un/de/creation, or, of sayable and unsayable) without devolving to a pronounced political argument. He inspects the Ismaili notion of taqqyia (dissimulation), which itself has had a political instrumentalization, but takes its history away from that political context to generalize it and makes an argument about the undetermined relation between subjectivity and grammar, extending to the practice of translation, or, to translation as a failed salvation and response to separation, rendering the whole experience as “humiliation.” His example plays with a motif similar to that of Barber: translation is not unlike gnosis in that it dissimulates the world/the real in order to respond to the already false world of becoming.

Smith’s chapter, however, is probably as close as it gets to a rendition of ineffability that borders with the acceptable for anti-correlationist agendas. Dubilet looks at Eckhart to make an argument that his preaching lies in the interstitial spaces between philosophy and theology. His account is closer to a Deleuzian argument about the immanence of God but without the vitalist overtones traditionally associated with late Deleuizian readings. Dubilet’s argument serves the purpose of de-scripturalizing immanence by making a Deleuzo-Laruellian case for the immanence of interpretation and experimentation within the word of God. This argument nicely circles back to the initial promise of “new names,” without having to necessarily name them.

The last two essays by Eugene Thacker and Nicola Masciandaro close the book as sort of prolonged post scripts. Thacker’s essay on cosmic pessimism, here republished in a refined version, is a Pascal-esque experiment in saying the unsayable about the weight of gnostic impasses with creation. Thacker’s witty approach achieves the odd victory of ridiculing its own object of speculation. The major conclusion drawn is that the absolute quality of pessimism is its own failure to become what it wants to be, a certain system of reflecting/speculating on the created world. In this regard, pessimism is indeed a failed philosophy and thus capitalism (although Thacker is not concerned with this problem, his conclusion works nicely with the Laruellian doublet). Masciandaro’s essay is less comic and more cosmic, pressing as it does on the common work of philosophy, speculation and the Absolute.

Brimming with imperatives, exhortations, and deixis, this essay closes the present volume by taking as its cornerstone the dynamis of stupidity in philosophy itself. Thus, the last two texts of this volume dissimulate philosophy as a grandiose and self-styled failure of itself – without the pretension of political lessons learned but inviting to relaunch the Absolute as stupidly bypassed.

Although, taken together, the Introduction and the four parts of this volume work together in a somewhat successful balance of religion, science, poetry and their tensions and intensions, it is at times difficult to see the volume as a univocal contribution to the same commitment. In the publishing business of conference papers, it is generally difficult (although not impossible) to make all participants contribute to the same single background problem that has conceptualized the event to begin with.

In the present case, despite the often untamed and, I would surmise, unwanted quality of plurivocity, the book suffers more from the differing research quality of the texts collected than the differential commitment to the same goal. Transforming a conference into a coherent printed body is always a Herculean labour and where Hercules has suffered the most here is in the research dimension: with the exception of Part I, Parts II to IV offer primers of excellent rigorous research, on the one hand, and research notes-meets-essay, on the other. For example, it is difficult to read, in Part III, Gangle and Elliff-ce, or, in Part IV, Smith and Thacker, as bearing the same scholarly effort and brunt, despite the weight of originality, and sometimes because of it.

As an inaugural volume of a new book series, the book can justifiably suffer from a scholarly disbalance among its contributions and, over more, the business model of conference papers perhaps should not mean that all texts must meet the same standards. There is enough ambivalence in the Introduction that already allows space for such disbalance; furthermore, the latter is often what cracks open creativity in severely conservative fields. Finding an excuse for the disbalance is, in short, possible. Whether the disbalance is justified is, in the opinion of the present writer, to the judgement of the experiential reader. And she does not need to be experimental in order to judge.

In short, it seems the conference has been more experimental than the resulting volume, but the volume is less scholarly than the conference organizers and editors might have wanted it to be. In light of the specific and new vistas here, this result could be justified. However, it casts some doubt on the overall result and its capacity to speak by naming the new names of the Absolute, however enigmatic, undetermined, or real it is.

Because this volume’s orientation is a refreshing and bold move against the ontological depredations of ineffability, imposed as they are onto every schema of perceiving the lugubrious world of creation, and specifically the spiritual world, one would righty assume it is something of a deliberately enigmatic compendium. This would be wrong not because the “enigmatic” does not work well with the “experimental,” but because failing to meet the standard of glorifying ineffability rights a wrong in continental philosophy proper.

On this account, any writing that does not comply with the phenomenological edifice and the bricks of its ineffable phenomena is neither “continental” nor “religious,” let alone “spiritual.” Thus, Ramey and Haar Farris offer not an enigmatic collection of psychic oddities trying to circumvent its own object of investigation (the Absolute), but a collection that would appear enigmatic only to those whose God (scientific, religious, poetic) is ineffability itself.

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