Friends, Enemies, and Others

bercowPresented at “Theologies of the Political: From Augustine to Agamben, and Beyond”
UBC Medieval Workshop
Green College, UBC, 29-30 March, 2019

“Friends, Enemies, and Others: Political Theology and the Art of the Encounter”

To adopt a phrase from the liturgy of monarchical succession: Political theology is dead, long live political theology. In what follows, the argument I hope to sketch out concerns the link between sovereignty and politics. For Carl Schmitt, who first coined the phrase “political theology,” this link is fundamental. Schmitt defines sovereignty as the ascription of a singular point that has the power to decide over the exception, and politics in terms of the dyadic distinction between friend and enemy that such an ascription frames and enables. I argue, by contrast, that this link is broken (if it ever functioned), that there is no such singular point (if there ever was), and that the friend/enemy distinction is, and always has been, a misleading distortion.

Along the way, I will not even pretend to be a medievalist, for which I hope you will forgive me. The case study that I will be analyzing, through which I will be reading Schmitt’s concepts, is about as contemporary as one could imagine: it is the ongoing legislative uncertainty around Britain’s projected withdrawal from the European Union, an event that should have happened yesterday but which may now take place on April 12 or May 22, or sometime, or never. Brexit is an unusually odd and complex affair; it is, in every sense, exceptional. But it is an exception that does not ground traditional conceptions of sovereignty (as Schmitt would have it); it radically undermines them. And I argue that Brexit is symptomatic, that it tells us something about the limits of political theology today (and perhaps always), and not only in the UK.

One response to this dilemma might be to jettison political theology. In the end, however, I suggest (all too briefly and cryptically) that political theology can still be redeemed, perhaps via a return if not to the Middle Ages (though Geoff Koziol’s discussion of ninth- to eleventh-century insurrections suggests that the Carolingian era might provide fertile ground) then at least to the Early Modern, and to a counter-tradition that has run parallel to the contractualist orthodoxy that is now utterly exhausted.

Read more… (PDF)

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies: Opening the Dialogue

Presented at an Open Forum for the Interim Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. March 11, 2019. Also available as a PDF and as slides. See the recording and Q&A (starts around 14:50).

wall-instituteI start by acknowledging that we are on land taken from its original indigenous Musqueam inhabitants. Also that this is a public university supported by the peoples of British Columbia. We therefore have responsibilities as an institution of higher education and research, and we should better justify what we do on this land with that money.

Though today’s dialogue is part of the search for an interim director for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, what I hope we can embark on, and continue tomorrow and Friday, is an open reflection on the role of the Institute, on its relationship to the university, and also on the responsibilities of the university to the world beyond.

These relationships are homologous. The dynamic between Institute and University can provide a model for the dynamic between the university and society as a whole. Neither relationship is easy. Indeed, they should be marked by a productive tension, with the Institute reminding the university of its better nature, just as the university offers society ways of thinking that are not reducible to calculation or profit.

I therefore thank Santa Ono and the Institute Board for today’s event. As an outsider candidate, I may not become Interim Director, though I have much to offer. But I will be happy if I help to generate debate about the Institute and the university.

The Institute means a lot to me. My own research and understanding of scholarship have been shaped by interdisciplinary projects and centers across three continents. This impact has been direct, with for instance Milwaukee’s Center for Twentieth-Century Studies or Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center where I did my graduate work, or Manchester’s Centre for Latin American Cultural Studies that I helped to found. It has also been indirect, as my work engages with for example Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This background explains why at UBC I have been drawn to projects such as Arts One and above all the Peter Wall Institute, an intellectual oasis that has felt like my home on campus.

So I was shocked to hear, in November, of Philippe Tortell’s resignation as Director, and alarmed to read his warning of “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” But we should not have been surprised. The Institute’s most recent external review tells us that this is a crisis long foretold. Even back in 2011, the review concluded that there was an opportunity to be grasped but also dangers to be avoided:

PWIAS may well be unique in the world among institutes for advanced study in having appreciably more resources than it needs for its present programs. Such a situation naturally attracts predators eager to deploy the resources for their own schemes, producing mission creep of the sort that is perhaps already discernible. [. . .] If the moment is not seized, the resources may be dissipated rather than focused, and a glorious opportunity will have been lost.

If we have indeed seen predators eyeing up the Institute’s resources, the blame must be placed not only on central administration, but also on an Institute that has not made good on its “glorious opportunity.” In a competitive environment where money, space, and time are scarce, the onus is on the Institute to show leadership, principle, and vision.

Yet the moment has not yet passed. The Institute can still become all it can be, pressing the university to live up to its better self.

Right now, the Wall Institute is seen as a problem. The directorship particularly is a poisoned chalice. No wonder, in that so many have come and gone in so little time: the tenure of an Institute Director is about as long and untroubled as that of an Attorney General under Justin Trudeau. And now we will have an Interim Director, with a new external review amid an atmosphere of uncertainty and foreboding.

But the controversy around the Institute is a symptom of larger issues affecting the university as a whole, and the Institute offers a vantage point from which to address them. The Institute is less problem than solution. Or rather, part of its mission must be to keep causing problems, to trouble a university sometimes tempted to short-cuts or complacency, just as the university itself should be an unsettling force in society at large.

If there is a problem with the Institute, it is that it is not causing enough problems, not raising enough fuss. It is that, again in the words of its external reviewers, it has too often been “exceptionally inward looking and its programs [. . .] lack sufficient coherence, synergy and external impact.”

The Interim Director will have to prepare for and manage the Institute’s upcoming external review. We cannot second-guess that review’s conclusions. But we can build on the previous review’s conclusions, to articulate basic principles, which apply as much to the university as to the Institute, and we can start a discussion to feed into the process.
The last review stressed impact, synergy, coherence, and internationalism; I will add openness.

1. Impact. The Institute should make an impact by proposing directions for academic research. It should take a lead and give substance to its programming. At present, in providing grants on any topic, across the university, it tends to follow rather than to lead, hoping for serendipity rather than planning with a purpose. Much good work is funded by the Institute, but no wonder administrators think its funds could be aligned with clusters and the university’s strategic plan. With the help of a reconstituted Advisory Board, the Institute should take the initiative, stepping up to make a difference by advancing concepts and suggesting priorities for interdisciplinary study, freed of the constraints faced by clusters and other units.

2. Synergy. The Institute should achieve synergy by ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Its programs should be more clearly articulated with each other. At present, the connections between (say) the Wall Scholars and the Research Roundtables or the Associates’ dinner talks tend to be accidental rather than considered. But in a given year, or as part of a multi-year track, they could contribute to a common program. There would still be room for contingency, but in the context of a focussed agenda designed for impact and coherence. The Institute should also have postdoctoral positions and a role for graduate students, to enhance its networks and to offer training in advanced study.

3. Coherence. The Institute should ensure coherence by promoting projects that directly address disciplinary boundaries. It should acknowledge the difficulty of interdisciplinary collaboration. At present, with the laudable intention of inclusivity, it tends to assume that interdisciplinarity is merely a matter of getting the right people in a room together. But this leads to superficial exchanges at worst, and discussions of administrative or institutional issues at best, rather than real conceptual production. Reflection on and critique of academic and institutional life is important, but it is only one part of the Institute’s remit. The Institute should be a place where advanced study actually happens.

4. Internationalism. The Institute is rooted in its local context, and should make the most of its location, but it also needs to be international in scope. Like the university, at present it is often global in aspiration but parochial in practice. Its international visiting research scholars and roundtables, as well as colloquia abroad, enable the mobilization of scholarship, but for brief periods and without much integration with other programs. Wall scholarships need to be opened up to international competition. A program of postdoctoral fellowships, plus the incorporation of graduate students, will ensure the Institute’s impact by helping to form generations of scholars who will draw on their experience at the Institute as they take up positions around the world.

5. Openness. The Institute needs to be open and outward-looking in every way. It has been described as a “taste of first class” within the university, just as the university itself is often seen as a privileged “ivory tower,” but it must shed that aura of exclusivity. Its relationship with the communities in which it is embedded should be marked by collaboration, rather than either defensiveness or one-way, top-down knowledge transmission, even as it defends its autonomy and insists that the logic of enquiry is distinct from the logics of policy or capital accumulation. It should draw on and contribute to the many external resources for conceptualizing common problems, rather than purporting to offer finished solutions. It should have critique as well as self-critique at its heart.

One might add other principles. I could say more about critique, or add that the Institute and the university should also, for instance, be democratic, autonomous, diverse, and conservative. But these five are surely a good start.

In conclusion, the challenges facing the Peter Wall Institute, like those facing UBC, are steep. The two cannot be at loggerheads. The Institute is the product of a pioneering if sometimes delicate partnership between the university and the private sector, in the name of principles of advanced study that go beyond either. Stressing impact, synergy, and coherence, internationalism and openness, we need to rethink the interconnections of Institute, University, and society as a whole. We need to work on concepts with which to raise problems that unsettle our understandings of the world in which we live.

Now I look forward to hearing from you, and from the other two nominees.

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El mundo es ancho y ajeno II


The second half of Ciro Alegría’s El mundo es ancho y ajeno is much more fragmented and dislocated than the first. This is evident even on a formal level: each chapter is shorter; we jump between storylines, often never to return; there are also temporal leaps and breathless attempts to catch up with the plot. At times, especially towards the end, it even feels as though the novel is simply running out of steam. After so much effort spent lyrically evoking the rhythms of communal life in the Andes, once the community breaks up and many of its inhabitants disperse to the four corners of Peru, Alegría only has time and energy for quick vignettes, snapshots of the indigenous people’s precarious destinies once they have been forced off their ancestral lands. Some of the former comuneros find themselves elsewhere in the Andes, either on other haciendas or in the mines; others become involved in the hard and exploitative work of harvesting coca in the foothills or rubber in the rainforest. And when the book turns to update us on the whereabouts of prodigal son Benito Castro, we get a sense of life in the coastal capital and its port, Callao, and then of Castro’s subsequent military career. But this last narrative is especially truncated: we gallop through half a dozen years of military service in two pages (489-90). It is as though a clock were ticking, faster and faster, counting down breathlessly to an apocalyptic final dénouement. The old order is ending, and we barely have time to witness its final destruction, as on the novel’s final page the state brutally represses a short-lived insurrection from Rumi’s former inhabitants.

In other words, it is as though the form of the novel itself were no longer able to contain or adequately portray its ostensible subject. In fact, perhaps it never was able to do so. If El mundo es ancho y ajeno is really, as a young Mario Vargas Llosa argued eloquently shortly after Alegría’s death in 1967, Peru’s belated foundational novel, this is a foundation that is also in some sense the end of the line. It is impossible, this book’s hurried and fragmentary second half suggests, to write the national allegory of a nation whose abiding principles are the refusal to admit that half its citizens are subjects, and the brutal curtailment of any narratives they might try to construct. Or rather, the only possible story to be told, then, is the tale of indigenous destruction from the point of view of those responsible for it. The indigenista project, exemplified by Alegría himself, of telling that tale (or any other) from the other side, is doomed from the outset.

So for all the apparent realism of Alegría’s style (Vargas Llosa describes the novel as “an epic history, told with impressionistic language and strictly realist setting: an American synthesis of Victor Hugo and Zola”), it is worth attending also to the book’s metafictional moments, which are relatively few and far between but striking when they come up. Very early on, for instance, a self-reflexive narrative voice intervenes into a description of Rumi’s mayor Rosendo Maqui and his relationship with his adoptive son, curtailing and forestalling further explanation: “We, who have broader responsibilities than Maqui does, although they are undoubtedly less important, will explain what has to be explained in due time. For the moment we do not think it opportune to clarify anything…” (34). It is many hundreds of pages later before the narrative returns to the issue, and it does so through a rather strange denial of narratorial agency, with the argument that the reader should now be able to put two and two together: “We, for our part, should recall that we postponed any explanation of the mayor’s attitude towards Benito regarding his exile from the community. Now, having seen their lives over many years, we believe the matter to be clarified by the facts themselves in all their ramifications and origins” (450). So the narrator interjects, but only so as to claim that his role is somehow superfluous. It is as though the novel were marking his voice, pointing to the narrator’s existence as a standpoint outside and beyond the indigenous community, but at the same time trying to cancel it out, to suggest that here the narrative speaks for itself.

There is a similar anxiety and ambivalence at another point that is also surely self-reflexive, a passage that features three benevolent outsiders, collectively described as “odd dandies.” In fact, despite the strangeness of their manners and dress, they are serranos (highlanders) who have spent a long time on the coast and have now returned in search of local colour (to “cazar paisajes” [480]). For all three are in the business of representation, if in different ways: they are a folklorist, a writer, and a painter. We meet them amid festivities celebrated in the provincial capital. Two former Rumi inhabitants are also at the festival, and they, too, are identified in terms of their roles as cultural producers: Amadeo Illas is a storyteller, and Demetrio Sumallacta, a flautist. All this almost sounds like the set-up for a joke–”A folklorist, a writer, and a painter meet a storyteller and a flautist in a bar”–but what it leads to instead is some awkward philosophizing about the role of art and its relationship to social justice. It is hard to tell the extent to which this awkwardness is part of Alegría’s satire of these dandy do-gooders, and how much it is inherent in the novelist’s own uncertainties and faltering self-expression. It is as though he were trying to suggest a framework within which to read his novel, but at the same time distancing himself from it.

The discussion is prompted by a long tale, told by Illas, about a fox who is (literally) outfoxed by a rabbit. The fox wants to eat the rabbit, but time and again he is forced to endure one humiliation after another thanks to his prey’s quick-witted trickery. At the end, the fox is convinced that the rabbit is dead, and therefore that somehow he has triumphed, but in fact the rabbit has simply managed to escape the predator’s notice. The fox cannot even recognize him when he sees him. The three dandies listen intently to this telling and offer their interpretations: “I’d dare claim that it’s symbolic,” says one, “and that in it the fox represents the overseer, and the rabbit, the Indian. And so the Indian gains his revenge, in literary form at least.” Listening to all this, the flautist, Demetrio, is bemused. “He didn’t know if that’s what the story represented, but, really, he liked the fact that for once the poor rabbit defeated the cunning and arrogant fox.” (480). And yet, in El mundo es ancho y ajeno it is the Indian who is at every turn outwitted where he is not outgunned. So perhaps this is a book that accords more with the view of the painter, who quotes the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian essayist Juan Montalvo: “If I were to write a book about the Indian, it would make America weep” (481). If an indigenist novel cannot affirm the triumph of indigenous culture (in literary form at least), it should perhaps dedicate itself to denunciation via a claim on the reader’s affects and emotions. In any case, the writer chips in, “I say that culture cannot be detached from an operative conception of justice” (483). Listening to all this, half-drunk, the flautist Demetrio is still not sure what to say. But asked to play a tune, he gives them a song about a piece of chaff waiting for the rain, much to the delight of his listeners: “That straw is hard and long-suffering like the campesino, with whom the comparison is apt,” says the writer (484).

The dandies are well-intentioned. Whatever else he thinks, Demetrio is impressed that they speak well of the indigenous, and listening to them talk of “justice” and “mankind” alongside “Indian” makes his “heart warm” (485). But they are also condescending and high-faluting, and ultimately a little useless and pathetic. Daring us to identify him with these figures, Alegría seems to recognize that their discussion does not exactly provide the basis for a literature that would denounce and take revenge on the ongoing sufferings of Peru’s indigenous communities, just as the novel was already perhaps a form unfit for the purpose of representing Peru to itself. But for the time being, it was the best he had.