Thursday, 28 May 2009

Writing in order to change

At the recent Barth conference, there was a lot of talk about the way Barth changed as he was writing his dogmatics. Some scholars feel uneasy about this – they’d prefer to think of Barth’s dogmatics as the smooth unfolding of a single coherent vision. I was chatting to someone at the conference about this, and I referred to Foucault’s famous remarks in the introduction to his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969):

“What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again? I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”


Paul said...

I feel uneasy about this comment, Ben. The "order" of theology is not created by "bureaucrats and police" but by the truth of God. Its disorder and labyrinthine quality is first of all a function of divine mystery before it is a creation of human mystery or authorial mystifications, a grappling with revelation.

I prefer the Thomistic dictum: that even when we say something true about God, it is more false than true, because God transcends all our formulations.

Martin said...

And he'll have that labyrinth for eternity, as CS Lewis described in the Great Divorce. I suppose one Nietzsche would like to inhabit too, far away from God. (If CS Lewis can put Napoleon in Hell I can put these two in Hell).

God being generous gives his creatures the worlds they make. Foucault's gay bath house in hell I'm sure will be populated.

If only he deigned to accept 'bourgeois' morality as the humanising substantive thing it is he might have used his talents for good rather than to destroy.

Surely you do Barth a disservice quoting this man? Comparing Barth's search for the One God with Foucalt's powerfully willed search for self enclosure.

Anonymous said...

wow - such loving and graceful comments about a very serious theorists personal life. Guess 'bourgeois' morality must endorse such damnation?

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks Martin. Hopefully God will at least read a little Foucault before gleefully casting him out to that eternal bath house.

tortoise said...

Advocates of journalling would say that its value lies precisely in its propensity to open up the territory for the writer's own thinking, exporation, and - yes - change.

Perhaps we imagine (or want there to be) a difference between such writing-as-self-provocation on the one hand, and an author's published output on the other. Perhaps we've grown accustomed to being consumers of other people's visions, with their ideas as a product fixed in time.

Perhaps too this is where the humble lending library might help us: encouraging and reminding us to regard all our reading not as an exercise in consumption, but as an act of hospitality - with the text, and its author, not our chattel but our guest.

Anonymous said...

No love for Foucault, huh?

Well, the comments so far have left me to ponder Hauerwas's article (someone who also quotes Foucault at times) Why "Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).

myleswerntz said...

Ah, but even Thomas didn't finish! His Summa is an incomplete work (some would argue intentionally, though this seems suspect for his time). Thomas leaves open the possibility that our knowledge, though analogous to God's, is incomplete, and given. Barth, and Aquinas, it would seem, follow in the long line after Augustine who said, "I think as I write, and I write as I think."

Ain't nothing wrong with changing our minds. It's theologically the only honest way to go.

kim fabricius said...

I hate writing. I hate it because it is arduous and I am lazy. I hate it because it is terrifying - it threatens my identity - and I am a coward. I hate it because it makes me think - and because I don't know what I think until I write it. I hate it because whatever I write I will have to unwrite, even to rewrite. I hate it because what I write will inevitably contain, minimally, a fair amount of bullshit. I hate it because some people don't have a nose for bullshit and might mistake faeces for roses. I hate it because what I write may be taken down in evidence and used against me in court - and I don't mean by the thought and morality police. I hate it because impelling it, willy-nilly, are the sins of vanity and pride. I hate it because it is often a self-deluded attempt at originality, or a self-serving excuse for inaction, or a self-righteous exercise in works-righteousness, as if writing could be redemptive - "Can poets," asked Auden, "(can men in television) / Be saved?" The only reason why I write is because I cannot not write, because I am a recovering writer - and because it's my job, if not my vocation. Because of the responsibility and the danger of it, I try to be careful. I'd try to be humble too, but if you try to be humble one thing you will never be is - humble. Any thrill, let alone joy, in writing are a mercy. Thankfully, God is very merciful. So I pray he may let me have a bath with Foucault.

All of which is a windbag of a way to say thanks for the quote, Ben - it resonates.

By the way, that "smooth unfolding of a unified vision" - your interlocutors must have been drunk!

André said...

I hate writing too, Kim.

Ben Myers said...

"Thankfully, God is very merciful. So I pray he may let me have a bath with Foucault." —Thank you, Kim: a veritable Aufhebung! You've redeemed that earlier unpleasant comment at a single stroke.

bruce hamill said...

Definitely with you on this Kim ... at least as far as the writing goes. That was a beautiful piece... There must be 10 propositions on writing there.

roger flyer said...

Me too, Kim. But just a bath with a cigar and a scotch.

dan said...

I haven't set my sights as high as Kim, but I do hope that God will be gracious enough to allow me to take a bath with Jim West.

kim fabricius said...

Roger, I'll bring a bottle of Laphroaig - and a joint for Michel and me.

Ben Myers said...

Man, that bath is just getting better and better...

Halden said...

Mention Foucault once and F&T is suddenly a Turkish bath house.

Unknown said...

Reminds me of what Alice said in Wonderland: "…it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then."

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm told that Barth at the end was a bit fed up with his line of writing towards the end, and contemplated a dogmatics from the stance of the Holy Spirit. The result would have been very different.

roger flyer said...

Ten propositions on the proposed bath with Monsiuer Foucault-

1/We are talking BIG American whirlpool hot tub, right? (or some Euro-version)
2/With our big baggy trunks on!?
(i.e No speedos, no nakedness)
3/No illegal drugs or illicit deals (other than clandestine conversations about post-modernism)
4/Theological input is kosher.
5/Kim brings the Scotch.
6/No Independent Baptist fundamentalists or self-styled 'Ditchkins'atheists allowed. (I'm checking ID's)
7/Limited to three Americans. Aussies and ex-patriates welcome.
8/Yikes! Are women allowed?!

Mmm..that's all I could muster.

I'm there to listen...and smoke and drink a little. To try to understand.

d. w. horstkoetter said...

I write poorly to get back at writing making me work so hard.

And Kim I knew I liked you, but perhaps you have gone too far? Bringing Laphroaig may upend the very structure of hell. One would think that, that delicious drink of the gods would alter the constitution of hell into heaven in a process analogous to a Balthasarian kenosis of sorts?

kim fabricius said...

Re. #3: Will Michel come if there are no illegal drugs?

Re #7: Definitely no English: Michel thought that England was "half-dead"; he was half-right. And how 'bout we invite Frère Jacques D., just to piss him off? And can Edward Said come? He can be in charge of the music.

Re. #8: How 'bout Ben brings his theo-groupies along, just for eye candy? (Some - mainly men - have called Michel a misogynist, but many of his women friends have denied the charge.)

#9: Anybody up for some wrestling (not with the women)?

#10: Put June 25th in your diary - Michel died on that date 25 yaers ago.

Rob said...


Any chance you could write propositions on marijuana? Or at least give your opinion; I'm genuinely curious as to what you think

j. k. said...

8 propositions on marijuana for Rob:

1. It's very green
2. It's very stinky
3. It's very funny
4. God created it
5. If you smoke it, you can get the most amazing theological ideas
6. If you could concentrate long enough, you should really write down the ideas
7. When the smoke clears, you realize the ideas were all shite
8. And you realize you've eaten WAY too many packets of crisps

Fat said...

It is interesting that ordinary Christians are expected to grow but "Theologians" are expected to arrive fully formed.

tortoise said...

By the way, and almost completely off the point - Michel in this photo seems to be doing a remarkable impersonation of Jeremy Begbie. Separated at birth?

Adam Kotsko said...

#2 seems like the kind of thing that comment deletion was made for.

Saint Egregious said...

Here's where I realize my fundamental theo-blogical point of divergence with Professor Kotsko. While he would ban Martin's deliciously diabolical comment, I did a jig in delight when I read it, and would have cried my eyes out had Ben deleted it. NOt only did it lead to the ridiculous dialogue with a bunch of straight men acting all parrhesiastical pretending they'd be caught dead in a hot tub with Foucault, (dead, by the way, is actually what they would likely be if they ever had slipped into that festering stew pot with Michel and his cronies), but it leads to the delightful little opportunity to expose the hidden fantasies of the theological right wingers who lovingly lurk around Ben's blog. Why is that, I wonder? By contrast, they don't seem to show up at Professor Kotsko's blog. (Oh yeah, I forgot, they very well might be there, but they get the evil middle delete finger thrown their way).
What the comment and its humorous aftermath reveal to me is that there is a bit of a schizoid personality at work in the Karl Barth-William Stringfellow-Rowan Williams lineage. To be gay or not to be gay in the church? I like Rowan as well as the next guy, and the body's grace is a real treat, as Eugene Rogers has well taught. But Rowan's recent writings and ecclesial politics leaves a bit (!) to be desired if you're a gay Anglican or sister-traveler, and I should think that he's earned himself a grand Foucauldian critique of power/knowledge thrown his way! The decision to ban Bishop Robinson from Lambeth has to go down as one of the worst theological blunders in recent history, and yet we hear almost nothing about this from his fervent admirers, who seem to want to defend him at all costs. (Yeah, yeah, he's making the gospel difficult for everybody--tell that to gay anglicans in Nigeria.)
Anyway, I thank God for Michel Foucault's witness to the bold gospel truth (his work on parrhesia ought to change how theology is done today) and, as A.D. White once said about his dear beloved grandmother who his Episcopal priest had just lovingly consigned to the everlasting flames, 'if Foucault's going to hell, I'm going there too!' Only I'm going to reside in the barbecue wing of the place, where the only hot tub in sight will be filled with me and old nick's sensuous slathering sauce, enough for the whole hog.

kim fabricius said...

Hey, Saint, are you sure Adam is referring to Martin #2? I thought he might be referring to Roger's #2, because he wants to wear his speedos - or come buck naked.

Saint Egregious said...

Oh sure, Kim, now you've given him a convenient out pitch. Ranks a rot!

roger flyer said...

I thought he was objecting to j.k's #2 that pot 'was stinky'...

Enough to make me believe that we shall never 'understand' one another.

If St E is pissed at my right wing hetero deal, for the record I'm just saying I'm joining the bath because I love the water and I want to listen to the ideas and smoke and drink Kim's Scotch in peace.

Saint Egregious said...

Roger my friend, I never get pissed. (I'm a tee-totaler, actually, so if we ever do find ourselves partying naked in the hottub, I'll be sipping blueberry juice with a shot of Gerolsteiner and the only thing I'll be smoking will be the ribs and brisket!)
And I would never, could never confuse you with a right winger. Let me put it this way, if you're a right winger, I'm a cross-dressing tranny on my way to hormone treatment!
No, Roger, the way I see it, guys like you and me gotta stick together--other-wise, who'll keep the church-goers honest?
You're one of the good guys, I've not a doubt in my mind. Go in peace, brother.

roger flyer said...

Thanks for the love St E.

roger flyer said...

Foucault was found to say: "The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning".

May I object!--The main interest in life and work is to become the person you were made to be.

kim fabricius said...

#11: Cross-dressing trannies, as well as right-wingers, as well as (come to think of it) cross-dressing tranny right-wingers, can come too.

roger flyer said...

As long as they keep their baggy suits on and don't complain about ambrosia Scotch.

Lilian Calles Barger said...

To be on the Christian journey is to commit to change writer or not. It has not even entered our minds what we will become. The possibility of change presents exciting possibilities in our work for new vistas and fresh encounters with God. I both resist writing and run to it. Its promises are sublime, its practice can be a torture.

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