Apocalyptic Dialectics

In this short essay I outline the position of rhetorical hermeneutics – Steven Mailoux’s theoretical stance – and juxtapose it with the position of apocalyptic dialectics. It is a brief sketch of a position that I think holds some promise. Apocalyptic Dialectics organizes itself through Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Badiou and the Apocalyptic tradition within Christian theology.

In the following short essay I want to briefly outline the contours of rhetorical hermeneutics, and then move on to argue why, while being incredibly useful, insofar as it is unreservedly committed to a pragmatic position it is in danger of missing a larger truth; namely, the possibility of a dialectical unfolding of truth within history.

Rhetorical hermeneutics can be defined as the use of rhetoric to practice theory by doing history.[1] In this definition we already see that rhetorical hermeneutics has a productive side. While it is an interpretive position within which texts can be encountered, it also practices theory by doing history, which is a productive act. It will help to look into the two “games” of cultural rhetorical study and rhetorical pragmatism.

Cultural rhetorical study tracks rhetorical paths of thought in order to ascertain the political effectively of trope, argument, and narrative in culture.[2] It considers specific moments in history, paying close attention to the power/knowledge relations operating within them, while asking how these relations have formed intellectual, cultural and political life. It is both, a rhetoric of thinking, insofar as it rhetorically examines historical modes of thought, and a thinking about rhetoric, insofar as it looks to the ways in which rhetoric has changed and functioned at certain historical moments and the ways in which it may do so in the present and future. In playing this game rhetorical hermeneutics offers important tools for interpreting texts and, in addition, tools for producing rhetorically effective texts.[3]

However, it is important to recognize that this is not the only game rhetorical hermeneutics plays. It also plays the game of theory. In the theory game rhetorical hermeneutics provides the position of rhetorical pragmatism. It is from within this position that Mailloux encounters and interprets the other theoretical positions we looked at in the course, while allowing us the freedom to pick another position. Mailloux states that this position takes seriously the Heideggerian understanding of one’s throwness in the world, along with its theoretical heir, Gadamer’s horizon. Within these positions there is no outside, no Archimedean point, from which one can secure their interpretation as valid. Further, interpretations, and indeed all practices, occur within multifaceted, and largely opaque contexts.[4] Thus, truth becomes a matter of practicality, insofar as it is not based on universals, and pragmatism, insofar as it must consider the effects that it has. Considering what he labels “contingent universals”, Mailloux writes,

They are actual or perceived commonalities, empirically not metaphysically established as rhetorical resources for supporting specific beliefs and practices at specific times and places. They are sociohistorical singularities rhetorically and hermeneutically determined as common across different groups.[5]

Here we see that contigent universals, such as human rights, are not metaphysically established from on high, but can be, nevertheless, actual and grounded in empirical reality. Further, they are rhetorically and hermeneutically established, which suggests their dependence on certain interpretive communities for their recognition. It is here where the theoretical position that I want to argue for, apocalyptic dialectics, aligns closest with Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics.

I take apocalyptic to refer to something analogous to the idea of truth event in Badiou. For Badiou the event “shears and undoes the cosmic totality”, “is pure beginning”, and “is measurable only in accordance with the universal multiplicity whose possibility it prescribes.”[6] Thus, the event is entirely novel. It is dialectically related to the rise of the subject, in that the event is constituted by its recognition as an event by a subject, whom in turn is constituted as a subject by that recognition of the event and fidelity to it. It is contingent and not recognizable within the current schema. Rather, it generates its own schema through the truth procedures that its subjects declare and bring about.

Nathan Kerr’s recent work, Christ, History and Apocalyptic, furthers the theological leitmotif of apocalyptic in helpful ways. Kerr makes use of Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. Put too succinctly in light of space, Benjamin argues that there is a Messianic moment in which the homogenous flow of history is exploded by this singular and contingent Messianic event.[7] This event must be counter-ideological and thus a revolutionary critique and subversion of the powers that be. This is precisely because the powers that be ideologically construct the homogeneity of history (the state of the situation) that infinitely post-pones history’s telos. This telos must be infinitely postponed if the state of things, which those who are in power are dependent on for their power, are to remain. In response the Messianic event reveals that history is a gift of contingent, particular, heterogeneous and ever-new time that is to be received and transformed by active engagement in the present.[8]

It should be noted that the messianic event reflexively generates its own history and thus its own telos, which is the further liberation of humanity from its nihilistic narcissism. This highlights the notion of apocalyptic in-breaking. Much more should be said concerning this, but I will leave it for now, due to space. At this point one may ask in what way dialectics comes in. This brings us back to Badiou, but, obviously, entails that we go beyond him. For Badiou, the truth event is dependent upon a subject’s declaration of it and fidelity to it. It is the contention of apocalyptic dialectics that this declaration and fidelity are only carried out through a dialectical openness to the other and specifically the marginalized. The reason for this is that the historical Jesus reveals to those committed to the Christ event that it is through the margins – what Badiou, following Paul, calls the refuse – that truth is revealed, both to power and to those under it or trapped within its dynamics. It is through the encounter with the marginalized other that one enters into fidelity to the Messianic event and thus risks another encounter with the subject matter of history.[9]

[1] Steven Mailloux, Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition (),42.

[2] Ibid., 40.

[3] It should be noted here that Mailloux’s definition of texts includes, “speech, writing, nonlinguistic practices, or human artifacts of any kind.” (Mailloux, 40) In addition, it should also be noted that it is rather awkward to refer to you (Dr. Mailloux, in case you didn’t know who you were) in the third person since you will be the only one reading this. Nevertheless, I will continue to do so because I am too tired to come up with a better way of writing at this point.

[4] Mailloux, 50-51.

[5] Mailloux, 119. Mailloux goes on to further develop his notion of contingent universal rights on pages 120-121. While I find the idea intriguing, I cannot fully understand what he (following Balibar) means by “fictive universality”, and thus cannot comment on it further. If you (to momentarily switch to the second person) have written further on this I would like to know.

[6] Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (), 56, 49, 45.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Vol. 4, 1938-1940 (Belknap/Harvard: ), .

[8] Nathan Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic ()., 61.

[9] Here is another place in which apocalyptic dialectics aligns nicely with Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics. In its dispositional directionality towards the marginalized other apocalyptic dialectics needs to pay attention to the critiques of Foucault, post-colonial theory, queer studies, critical race theory, etc.


4 thoughts on “Apocalyptic Dialectics

  1. Dan what do you think Kerr means in relation to his concept of “doxological action”? In an indirect relationship to your post, Kerr seems to be promulgating in “Christ, History and Apocalyptic” a way of discipleship hinging on the Word Incarnate, irrespective of the “description” formula, which assumes people must learn to “describe” because “description” creates social-imagination. Some post-liberals (Hauerwas, Lindbeck, etc.) take this route of “description” as the ladder toward actualization and ontological-becoming. Is this linguistic hierarchy accurate or is Kerr on to something when he says that “immediate action” does not necessitate “description” before such “immediate action” takes place in the now-moment of history (which he calls “doxological action”)? Hopefully my question is clear. If it is not, which is likely, let me know and I will try to re-work it.

  2. Merrick,

    Thanks for the engagement. I think I understand your question and I think that Kerr is onto something.

    It seems to me that with the notion of apocalyptic there is space for a genuine in-breaking of Christ and his Kingdom in a way that is not dependent on our description of it, especially before it happens. I think that the “description formula” (I am taking this as the formula laid out through the narrative that Christian’s tell ourselves, I maybe reading this wrongly. It has been quite some time since I read Lindbeck or Hauerwas.) may help us recognize an apocalyptic in-breaking, but due to our situatedness it may cause us to miss it. That is to say, we may have constructed our social-imagination around a certain reading of Scripture and tradition, which has taught us to describe things in certain ways, and thus we may miss the movement of God’s Spirit because it does not match up with the way that we describe. This is what the West still, often, does with Liberation theology. Whether it is too dependent on “secular Marxist” theory, or too capitulated to feminism, etc., many dismiss Liberation theology with the assumption that it has polluted itself. The way that they recognize this pollution is through their own way of describing. Of course, in order to recognize the pollution of the other they must presuppose that their description is pure, lacking any syncretistic adulteration. For me the Gospel has always been polluted. This is not a bad thing. It is in the process of a becoming as the Spirit of Christ moves through history unfolding herself through the Church’s (and I use that term quite broadly) liberative becoming.

    However, I don’t want to loose description. I just think that description must remain open to the fact that it is incomplete and short sighted, and thus always be open to the genuinely novel, at least from its limited perspective, so that it can further and, at times, repent of its descriptive practices. Thus the dialectic.

    I hope that helps.

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