|Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (1936)|
1 Corinthinans 1:18-31
The Spectre of Venice from The Power of Life by David Kishik (Stanford University Press, 2012, pp. 13–14)
From time to time [Giorgio] Agamben allows himself to add a subtle personal touch to his texts. An interesting recent example is “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” in which he contemplates his life in Venice. If, as Wittgenstein once suggested, language can be compared to a city, then Venice, according to Agamben, is like a dead language. Living in Venice, he claims, is like studying Latin. Though it is possible to read and even speak Latin with great effort and the help of a dictionary, it is still impossible, or nearly impossible, to find in this dead language the place of a subject, of the speaker who says “I.” This leads him to describe Venice as a spectral city inhabited by ghosts. Perhaps, his argument continues. Venice is an emblem for much of our modern world, where cities and languages, peoples and states, religious orders and secular institutions, could be said to be essentially dead, although everyone continues to pretend that they are not, to treat them as if they were still alive. It is much easier to come to terms with the fact that eventually I am going to die, to achieve what Heidegger calls a “being-toward-death,” than to face the fact that I am already dead, which is the reason that ghosts are often depicted as being consumed by quantities of angst that would probably crush the soul of any living human being. “For a man can never be in death,” Saint Augustine writes, “in a worse sense than where death itself is without death.” Nevertheless, there are also those special ghosts that learn to accept their ghostliness, because they realize, together with Agamben, that “spectrality is a form of life; a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which has been completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them.”
Another appealing aspect of the spectral form of life is that ghosts rarely follow a leader, whether political or spiritual, nor do they tend to lead others.
Most of us (in this church or who are reading this blog) will take a great deal of interest in our culture’s many public conversations about politics, religion, the sciences and the arts. That this is so should come as no surprise because we were all educated by our culture to seek a truth that is, as our order of service puts it, the sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it. The centrality of this search in our common life once seemed to us to be so self-evidently true but I think we need to examine this a bit more closely. Is it the case, is it true? I ask this because I’m increasingly struck by the fact that when I do come to examine closely a great deal of what is being said in the public space, I often find it empty of meaning and that, although lip-service is generally being played to truth-seeking I find that, for the most part, it is not actually going on.
Just this week I had to re-listen twice to a speech given in the House of Commons twice to ascertain that, for most of the time, the person speaking was, despite surface appearances to the contrary, saying nothing let alone engaging in a genuine search for truth. The speaker, along with too many others in our culture, had clearly slipped into using the kind of language so perfectly parodied in 2010 by the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell in a speech he put into Ed Milliband’s mouth after winning election for the Labour leadership:
We must have sauce but only insofar as conditions permit. We must accept that we have made mistakes and we must move forward going forward and be shiner! Above all we must put values at the centre of our values! So values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit . . . but there is one thing more: we must be realistic about being real! We need to step out of our comfort zone and stride really, boldly, forwardly, shinily, saucily into our discomfort zone! I stand for change, for a society that is less unequal and more balanced going forward . . . for a different style of leadership, one that actually listens to its own flatulence (published 27-30th September 2010).
Of course, what Steve Bell parodied here in the political context is found in almost every other sphere of our lives including, of course, religion (liberal and conservative alike). Only an ounce of self-reflection is required to make anyone who suddenly realises this is occurring to ask themselves whether what they themselves are saying is anything more than “values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit”? Do I really say anything more to you each week? I’ll come back to this question at the very end.
I consider myself fortunate that over the past year or so I have been struggling with this question at the same time as discovering the work of Giorgio Agamben who feels, as we heard in our reading, that so many of our modern “cities and languages, peoples and states, religious orders and secular institutions, could be said to be essentially dead, although everyone continues to pretend that they are not, to treat them as if they were still alive.”
With regard to the language we use to talk with each other one of the significant problems, as Agamben’s example of the Latin language showed, is that we lose the possibility of being, in the grammatical sense of the word, an authentic subject – the speaker who can meaningfully say “I” and communicate to another subject something meaningful, living and truthful about what it is to be a subject, this living, breathing “I”. What Agamaben is trying to get at here is that truly to speak as subjects we have to be inhabiting a living language so deeply that the language is us and we are the language. But a number of things have happened in our culture that distances us (the “I”) from the language and makes it very difficult and perhaps even impossible to remain the subject of our language. I can best illustrate what I mean by recounting something the contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann once said. He spoke of a nightmare scenario that resonates strongly both with me and some of my other ministerial colleagues, especially in the highly academic environment of Cambridge:
I imagine that I step behind the pulpit in a church and preach in order to proclaim the Gospel and, if possible, awaken faith. But those who sit in the pew don’t listen to my words. A historian is there who examines critically facts about which I’m speaking; a psychologist is there who analyses my psyche which reveals itself in my speech; a cultural anthropologist is there who observes my personal style; a sociologist is there who is identifying the class to which I belong and whose representative he believes I am functioning. Everybody is analysing me and my context, but nobody is listening to what I want to say. And the worst thing is: nobody is disagreeing with me, nobody wants to discuss with me what I have said (cited in Volf, Miroslav: Captive to the Word of God - Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 22-23).
It should be obvious that if we make this the normal way we proceed in our public speech (and for me this is religious speech) what it is that any subject wants to say all too easily gets lost behind the din of historical, psychological, anthropological, sociological, or political concerns or, at worst, what the subject actually wants to say is without anyone noticing finally driven out completely (not even the “I” who speaks always notices this has occurred). The public speaker may, as they speak to you, have the semblance of being a living being, a subject, who is saying something true to you, but increasingly (in my opinion) this is not the case, at the heart of things is something else, something spectral. (Am "I" here, the author that is trying to speak to you?)
My concern is that in many (most?) of our public discourses we, in Western Europe and North America (I cannot speak for other cultures), have travelled a long way down this spectral route (may not our popular culture’s current interest in Zombies speak to this feeling of spectrality?)
Though this announcement of our death and consequent spectrality or ghostliness (even zombie-like existence) might sound bleak, for those of us who become alert to the situation, it is far from being the end of all hope because we can appropriate our spectrality in at least two ways. The appropriation I favour is one deeply related to a foundational Christian insight.
On the one hand we can go the way of ghosts who allow themselves to be “consumed by quantities of angst that would probably crush the soul of any living human being.” In connection with this Agamben, you will remember, cites Saint Augustine’s words that “For a man can never be in death in a worse sense than where death itself is without death.” This is a desperate state to find oneself in and I think it is not unreasonable to say, to pick up on the theme of my address two weeks ago, that we live in a culture which is often characterised by this kind of angst and spectral existence.
But Agamben remind us that there are also those special ghosts that learn to accept their ghostliness, because they realize that, contrary to popular opinion, “spectrality is a form of life; a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which has been completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them.” To this point Kishik adds that “another appealing aspect of the spectral form of life is that ghosts rarely follow a leader, whether political or spiritual, nor do they tend to lead others.” I hope it goes without saying that I would encourage us to be the latter kind of graceful and astute spectre.
Now, all of the foregoing allows me to get, in my final few words, to the thing I (as a spectral subject of the latter kind ) most certainly do want to say to you today.
One of the most striking things about the New Testament as a whole is that what is being offered to us as a way of salvation, a way by which we might all have a genuinely rich and satisfying life is, as St Paul so eloquently says, something that the self-proclaimed wise and powerful people of our "real" world have always thought was foolish and weak, so weak and foolish in fact that it is to them as nothing – a mere spectre. It is precisely out of this spectral weakness (epitomised by the presence among and within us of what in our older language we called the Holy Ghost) that the powerfully transformative kingdom of heaven comes in – a kingdom in which, remember, are finally blessed the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5:1-12).
The texts suggest that we will not affect this revolution if we decide merely to go head to head with the present powers that be. Those powers - especially in their present neo-liberal forms - have been very effective at turning human beings (and cultures) into spectres, mere shadows of the independent, truth and justice seeking beings and cultures we once were. To my mind in our age these powers have won some very significant battles. But, and it’s a but of incalculable importance, but what those same powers haven’t seen – and which as members of the Christian tradition we too often forget we have seen – is that we need not become the despairing angst ridden spectres the worldly powers would like us to become – the desperate, never satisfied, angst ridden consumer for ever in thrall to empty words and products. No! Consciously mirroring the weakness of the God whom we know as spirit (ghost) of love, we can, in our own weakness and spectrality, choose to continue lovingly to act in the world with incomparable grace, astuteness, courtesy and precision of creatures who have glimpsed the promised kingdom and even tasted its first fruits. The revolution of divine love we’d like to see come to pass in the “real” world starts wherever, and wherever, the Holy Ghost – the living Spirit - is nurtured among and within us. As St Paul said: “This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength (I Cor. 1:25).
Now, whether I have said here anything more than a fancy theological version of “Values at the centre, shiny going forward, sauce insofar as conditions permit” I must now have leave you to decide . . .