On the dispensation machine. On Monica Ferrando’s L’elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (2022). by Gerardo Muñoz

Monica Ferrando’s short but dense book L’elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (Neri Pozza, 2022) refines our understanding of the secularization debate in the wake of the epochal crisis of modernity and planetary domination. For Ferrando this current domination is rooted in a specific retheologization that must be grasped at face value, no abstractions allowed. The force of theological domination, which has become a proper religious imperialism, expresses itself as a true corruptio optimi pessima, which Ferrando locates in a very precise intersection: the passage from the suppression of dilectio to an instrumental manifestation of electio that will culminate in the unleashed power to dominate not only the relation with the world, but the very existence of the species. If the Ancient covenant of early Judaism was a prophetic covenant with God, the force of predestination will suppress the mysterious relationship of blessed life to render a “selective process” of theological election [1]. It is only with the rise Protestantism, and Luther’s specific hermeneutical efforts to neutralize the messianic message of Paul’s Letters to Romans that election becomes the paradigm of a new government of the soul in this world, which will ultimately find its material legitimacy with the advent of the reproductive logic of capital. Implicitly building on the thesis of economic theology, for Ferrando the advent of the machine of election materializes in the theological reform that translates the universal salvation of the prophecy into a never before seen economy of the dispensing grace through wealth retribution for human labor [2].

The reformation based on dispensation (oikonomia) differed fundamentally from the Church’s idea of change rooted in the ius reformandi. As Gerhart Ladner shows, if the “idea of reform” up until modernity presupposed periods of spiritual reform through monastic experience in relation to wordly profane time, the apparatus of dispensation of election was oriented at securing an integral government rationality combining law, economy and subjective production without reminder [3]. In this light, the operation of the dispensation paradigm is twofold: on the one hand, it promotes an anti-Judaic operation of reducing Jews to a people of this world that will ultimately will be identified with political Zionism; and, on the other, it dismisses the coming of Christ as worthless, and in the best case as merely postponed [4]. For a reformed theologian like Karl Barth – at odds with the economic evangelism that ultimately triumphed in the United States and that now it extends across the global – there was only a ‘great dispensation’ putting end to the abstraction of value and the homogeneity of the time of production [5]. But more importantly for Ferrando, the triumph of the dispensatory paradigm entails a new fundamentalism of judgement based on “election” (in the broadest sense of value equity and competition) will appear as the only immanent force capable of considering every other religion and confession exterior to itself as “merely pagan and idolatrous” [6]. It would amount to the triumph of the self-made ‘gentleman’ over the outward message of Paul.

The dominance of dispensation meant a full convergence between salvation and profane economic life that will bring exteriority into a crisis in the deepest sense. This is why for the reformist mentality, its own modern image initiates the epoch of irreversibility; that is, the pure historical progress guided by the will of election and the work of grace as an exception to universal salvation. If the modern reform has been at times understood as the new regime of social pluralism and system of indirect separations (between Church and State, civil society and religion, the public and the private, etc) for Ferrando it is on the side of the theological presupposition where its most terrifying arcanum must be found: a dispensational theology whose main unity is the recurrent intrusion, training, modification, and discipline of the forum internum, that is, the administration of the consciousness of man. Whereas the felix culpa allowed for the mystery of repentance and universal salvation; the political meditation of election through accumulation and economic benefits will legitimize the new discourse on toleration, “liberty”, and even democracy as the distribution of material excess. In this sense, Liberalism (with Locke and other thinkers of the English and Scottish Enlightenments) was born, as later understood by Carl Schmitt, with the structural weakness of “individual freedom” and maximized autonomy that will require the expanding checks of police and governmental penalties to cope with the production of effects. Of course, every deviation or movement that could put a halt to the fiction of election will find itself on the side of illegality, or turned into a remnant of a surreptitious past that must be overcome at all costs. This implied, as Ferrando reminds us, nothing less than a novel modification of the anthropogenesis of the human species.

It is one of Ferrando’s most daring and surprising tasks to show how the machine of election does not merely occupy the economic-political sphere, but that it will eventually also imply an aesthetic imperative in Northern European culture; specifically with the rise of German romantic response to the crisis of the Enlightenment and the question of “classicism” of the classical Greece. If according to Gianni Carchia the aesthetic dimension of modernity should be read as a compensatory answer to the futility of the romantic revolution in subjectivity; Ferrando’s complementation to the thesis brilliantly shows how this attempt was meant to fail at its original ground due to the mimetic appropriation and metaphorization of the Greek historical past in the aesthetics program of Winckleman and German Idealism (with the exception of Hölderlin’s fugitive position) [7]. The mimetic “hellenization” of German romanticism and its posterior afterlives (one thinks of the Stefan George Circle, and Max Kommerell’s Der Dichter als Führer) gave birth to a notion of “culture” that hinged upon the separation of the aesthetic and the religious spheres that had to sacrifice the appearance of beauty in order to attest for the dialectics of objective and subjective forms of the “Spirit”, and thus leading to the triumph of the grotesque and the aesthetic imperative of uniformity and museification. For Ferrando the German spirit of genialismus had as a mission the overcoming Latin, Mediterranean and Mesopotamian forms of life where the distinction between beauty and life never understood itself as a “culture” or objective project of enlightened intellectuals and artists on the mission to transform the contingency of poesis into the realization of the Idea [8].

Displacing this aesthetic dimension to the present, for Ferrando the intrinsic disconnect between appearance and substance of art’s truth emerges today in the predominant social morality of today’s global bourgeoisie: hypocrisy. It is in hypocrisy where today one can see the inflationary hegemony of discourse over the true organization of life that is proper to the dominant metropolitan class of the West, and its maddening obsession with identity politics or “race” oriented discourse as a moral inquisitorial abstraction (it is in this process that the notion of election appears in the least expected of places: sky color, language use, demands for inclusivity, and hyperconscious towards an invented past). The work of hypocrisy, in fact, appears as a secularized form of the dispensation paradigm that aims to normalize and domesticate every form of life that challenges its specular regime. This is why according to Ferrando – and I do not think she is incorrect in saying so – the possibility of art (especially that of “painting”), as the undisclosed of truth will disappear from human experience, as it has no place in the moral functionalism of ‘contemporary art’ nor in the discursive struggle over global communication and opinion battles (the so-called ‘cultural wars’) [9]. The aesthetic museification of the world liquidates the possibility of art’s truth. Paradoxically, in this new scenario everyone must declare himself “an artist” of their own emptiness: the nowhere men that stroll in the works of Robert Walser or Franz Kafka – who never declared themselves to be anything – in our present are flipped on their heads becoming informers of the regime of a universal politics of recognition and moral judgement [10]. These ‘bloomesque figures’ confirms in the last epochal dispensation of the Reformist revolution that the premises of subjective freedom, economic gain, and autonomy of value have culminated in a new aesthetic imperialism that is anthropological and rooted in the triumphant religion of immanence and the sacralization of ultimate values. The endgame has been dispensed in the creation of a “new man” through the sacrifice of every exteriority in man, that is, of the invisibility outside the fiction of his personality.

The paradigm that Ferrando is describing vis-a-vis the operative force of “election” is also one of profound irony, since the mechanism of predestination and election, by betraying prophetic dilectio (love), the “free election” of the moderns entails that everything can be elected at the expense of losing dilectio: the only path towards the mystery of life. This is what the epoch of irreversibility and the arrogance of historical progress has foreclosed and it is incapable of considering. But for Ferrando life remains an ethics, which she links to Eros, whose appeal to the law of the heart is neither religious nor political, but rather an instance to the disclosure of truth. As she beautifully writes towards the end of L’ elezione e la sua ombra (2022): “Occorre osservare che qui si tocca una sorta di grado zero teologico, che scivola nel mero «biologico» solo a patto di esautorare la sapienza della madre o, detto altrimenti, la sapienza come madre, custode di una legge non scritta, di un nomos del cuore, che non necessita di alcun mandato esterno per esercitare la conoscenza che gli è propria. Si apre insomma quello spazio, costantemente e variamente negato, ma imperturbabile, di cui solo la madre, in virtú di una sapienza propria della natura umana, può custodire la legge.” [11].

The foreclosure of the acoustic relation to prophecy documents the recurrent political interest in the subordination of music to the moral captivity of the reproduction of humanity [12]. On its reverse, the law of eros, prior to the moral domain of natural law and the authoritative domain of positive law, is the protection of the indestructible region of the human soul where no political, moral, or economic dispensation can exert its force. This is confirmed today by the monstrous techno-scientific interventions and dysphoric alterations in the life of children as the last utopia in the long dispensation of the anthropomorphism of capital legitimized by rhetorical force of an unending sermo homilis [13]. In this sense, what Ferrando accomplishes in this wonderful essay is to remind us that the event of theology remains outside the dominion of priests and bureaucrats and situated in the prophetic dimension of Eros (love) that guards the inclination towards beauty and the disposition to attune oneself to the prophecy of the world’s fulfillment [14]. Hence, it is not in the community or in an integralist Christian traditional family order where the sacred dimension of humanity can be retrieved; rather, for Ferrando it is in the non-knowledge reserved by the eros of the mother who never decides nor choses before law, whose nonverbal “tacit authenticity” (“tacita autenticità del legame materno”) unconceals a true experiential depth away from the the delirious cacophony of our world.

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Notes 

1. Monica Ferrando’s L’ elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (Neri Pozza, 2022), 8-9.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Gerhart B. Ladner. The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (Harvard University Press, 1959).

4. Monica Ferrando. L’ elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (2022), 24.

5. Karl Barth. “The Great Dispensation”, Interpretation, V.14, July 1960, 311.

6. Monica Ferrando L’ elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (2022), 30.

7. Gianni Carchia. “Modernità anti-romantica”, in Il mito trasfigurato (Ernani Stamptore, 1984).

8.  Monica Ferrando. L’ elezione e la sua ombra: Il cantico tradico (2022), 60.

9. Ibid., 91-92.

10. Ibid., 94.

11. Ibid., 106.

12. On the controversy of music as a tool to tame human’s passions, see John Finnis’ “Truth and Complexity: Notes on Music and Liberalism”, American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 62, 2017, 119-124.

13. Gianni Carchia. “Eros y Logos: Peitho arcaica y retórica antigua”, in Retórica de lo sublime (Tecnos, 1990), 29.

14. Gianni Carchia. “Dialettica dell’immagine: note sull’estetica biblica e cristiana”, in Legittimazione dell’arte (Guida Editores, 1982), 21.

Three ideas for a discussion on «Éléments de décivilisation» by Gerardo Muñoz.

[These are some preliminary notes for an ongoing discussion on Lundi Matin’sÉléments de décivilisation’’, a text that condenses a series of problems dealing with, although by no means, limited to infrapolitical reflection, the event, world, and the question of civilization in the wake of the ruin of hegemonic principles. This particular essay, more than content, raises the question of the status of the style of thought; and, in broad terms, I tend to link the notion of style to the constitution of an ethos. But let me offer three theses to open the discussion in very broad terms. What follows is the reconstruction of three brief points in a recent group meeting about this text.] 

i. The priority of the event. For me at least it is very important to consider that Éléments de décivilisation’’ moves away from at least two important precedents of a common intellectual orbit: messianism and the political theory of modern sovereignty. Of course, this is important for many reasons, but most it speaks to what I would call a strong opposition between thought and philosophy (favoring the first over the second). These two registers open important distinctions, such as, for instance, a displacement between historical temporality (messianism) to a notion of the taking place (the event or encounter) as exteriority. Whereas we were told that the “event is the enemy within Empire” (Gloss in Thesis 60 of Introduction à la guerre civile) , now we have a more through sketch about the way in which the form-of-life is not a category reducible to vitalism or the problem of the subject, but rather about the play between form and event. Here I think that Carlo Diano’s Forma ed evento (1952) is crucial as a backdrop that is not just philosophically (Aristotelian formalization against Stoic predication), but rather a sound position of thinking in relation to what has been passed down as “civilization”. 

ii. Civilization as a principle. Now, the question of civilization raises to a problem of thought insofar as is neither an ontological problem nor an operative idea in the history of intellectual concepts. Civilization becomes the apparatus by which the total regimen of production in any given epoch is structured to establish an order. And here order is both authority and police. To put it in juridical terms: the first secures legitimacy while the second posits the flexible energy of legality and execution. This is the same problem in the relation to the world. In other words, civilization means enclosing, domesticating, and producing. By the same token, civilization is the operative domain by which nomōs, history and the subject come together in virtue of their separation. Is not this the very issue in the Greek polis in the wake of the discovery of measurement, isonomy, and the distribution of the goods in which hegemony replaces the basileus (Vernant)? It is one of the merits of the text not having understood this problem at the level of an “archeology of Western political thought” (Agamben), but rather as an evolving transhistorical process that binds the axis of domination and power to the axis of anthropology and domestication. Civilization, then, would name the total apparatus of hegemony under which politics falls as a problem of metaphysical structure (I have tried this problem in recent positions here). Whether there is an assumed anthropological anarchy at the level of substance, capable of “inversion” (Camatte), is something that must be explored in further detail. 

iii. Happiness cuts absolute immanence. My last point. I would like to insist on something that Rodrigo Karmy mentioned recently: “Happiness is the unthought of the Weestern tradition”. I agree with Karmy not on the basis that there has not been any reflection of “happiness” in the tradition, but rather that this reflection has either been a) subordinated to politics or economics (Jeffersonian “happiness” conditioned by commerce); or, as a moral virtue of self-regulation and privation. But it seems to me that “Elements” wants to offer something else in a very novel way. It is here where the question of violence must be inscribed. A curious displacement since violence has been thought in relation to beauty, but not happiness. The violence at the level of forms puts us in proximity with the event at the end of life itself. In this sense, the Pacôme Thiellement footnote is important:

“l y a deux lumières: il y a la lumière d’avant la nuit et il y a la lumière d’après. Il y a celle qui était là au début, l’aube radieuse du jour d’avant, et puis il y a celle qui a lutté contre les ténèbres, la lumière qui naît de cette lutte : l’aube scintillante du jour d’après. Il n’y a pas seulement deux lumières, il y a aussi deux joies : il y a la joie d’avant la peine et il y a celle d’après. La joie originelle, la joie innocente, primitive, cette joie est sublime, mais c’est juste un cadeau de la vie, du ciel, du soleil… La joie qui vient après la peine, c’est le cadeau que tu te fais à toi-même : c’est la façon dont tu transformes ta peine en joie, l’innocence que tu réussis à faire renaître des jours d’amertume et des nuits de bile noire. C’est le moment où tu commences à vivre, mais vivre vraiment, parce que tu commences à renaître de toutes tes morts successives. C’est le moment où tu t’approches de la divinité ou du monde”. This position  – which I think it is prevalent throughout the text – allows the opening of a series of articulations:

a) it is no longer happiness an effect on the subject, which has only grown in the Spectacle or consumption; that is happiness as an exception to life.

b) it is not that happiness is a theological state of ‘blessed life’, which would presuppose the transmutation of sin and thus overcoming of the non-subject. This position depends on conditions of mythic-history and theology.

c) It is rather that happiness is the way in which the singular gathers his possibilities in use without enclosing the other possibles. To live a life among the fragmentation of the use of our disposed potentialities is a way to violently cut the seduction of absolute immanence in which style is diluted. Play could name the variations of use. But there is a second order risk in what constitutes “play”: a transfiguration of politic as civil war. The problem becomes how to think of ‘play’ (i. messianic abandonment, ii. political intensification – insurrection, or the separation between rhythm and voice, a poesis). I am interested in pushing for the third figure of play; a third figure in which the event and happiness impose a new division of souls, moving away from the separation from life. 

Photogenesis and the invisible: on John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Notes for a seminar presentation. by Gerardo Muñoz

i. What is your name? Every time that I have watched John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) I end up facing the same question: what is taking place in this film? Perhaps it is the incorrect question insofar as Shadows (1959) is, first and foremost, a film about the event; about “what takes place”. Unlike Hollywood’s telic form over conflict, the whole premise of Cassavetes’ method of improvisation is a way to liberate the event in the moving image. This is what I would like to call here a photogenic event. The whole structure of Shadows is, to this effect, the bringing-fourth of appearing without narration or naming. Hence, what takes place is the way in which characters or figures emerge from light, retracting from the plunge unto theatricality. The photogenetic effect in Cassavetes is a way out of the logic of naming: remember “what is your name?”, as Bennie asks very early in the film (the café sequence). Indeed, the naming is always what emerges after the event, once boredom has kicked him and the separation from light and shadow, human and animal, theater and theatrically have taken place. The taking place in Shadows is a return to an abysmal site predating naming, faces, or intentions: it is absolute proximity. 

ii. The vocation of the quotidian. The photogenetic image works through the texture of life: this is why in Shadows nothing truly happens in virtue that everything takes place. The difference between happening and taking place is an irreducible distinction; mainly, what happens is not provoked a mediation between subjects and objects, but rather at a moment when both subject and object coincide only to immediately suspend each other. What takes place is life’s destiny, which ultimately entails that we are figures of exposure before we are subjects of narrative and causality. As in a diary or a midnight party, what takes place is the clandestine life once it enters in relation with other bodies, languages, and gestures. In this sense, Shadows remains faithful to one and only one principle: how to transfigure the boredom of factical life into a vocation of a clandestine life. It is not too clear that Cassavetes arrives at a successful answer to this problem; almost as if, indeed, to remain clandestine is to insist on the “invisible” image that is always missing from every life. The promiscuity between shadows and light transpires the possibility of the living all the other invisible and nonexistent lives that are scarified within that which we call “life”. 

iii. Under the glorious sky. If the task of vocation opens to the invisible in life, then this means that there is always a dimension that is exterior the anthropological determination. In the solitude of the nocturnal splendor of the late modern metropolis – as in the instance in which Lelia is outside of a Manhattan theater lost in thought or contemplating the shimmering lights above – the existence of the human shines along with the embers of the sky. This most definitely an inherence of paganism in the sense of the medium in life as a mode of appearance without judgement. As one can still contemplate it from the frescos at Villa Fernesina, the pagan gazing towards the sky is not a flight towards abstraction or transcendence, but rather a releasement of life’s destiny as affirmed in the terrestrial presence [1]. Paradoxically, at the moment of the total subsumption of life into the Spectacle, the medium frees the possibility of the deconstitution of life into the modes and resources of appearing. From the photogenic perspective, this entails full saturation on the horizon; from the pagan perspective, the onwards unfolding of existence becomes a fragment in the exploration of the common sky. 

iv. Inharmonious tonality. Now, fragmentation opens a heterochronic disassociation between images and events. Indeed, all of Shadows unfolding bears witness to the way in which the tonality of life is always at odds with the attunement of the rhythms of the world. It is in this threshold where interiority of the self and exteriority of music point to the peak of prophecy. For one thing, because music is the medium through the residual mystery of the “inexpressive” becomes the process of traversing the ecstatic formlessness of the event. This disharmony dislocates the homogenization vis-à-vis the sky of cinematography.  Bresson says something very beautiful about this disharmony: the image of cinematography must be such that it puts in relation the voice and the steps of a person in a way that the protagonist themselves have not foreseen. This nocturnal knowledge between image and sound, rhythm and tonality of life, becomes the triumph of the photogenic medium in which life dissolves in a kinetic outburst without recourse. 

v. The invisible and intoxication. At a very superficial dimension, Shadows is about alcohol consumption; hence about what happens to a life under the stage of intoxication. The only knowledge is that of the oblique pedagogy in which the way of the flesh becomes a pathway for language, friendship, and violence among other bodies. There is no transgression as an intoxicated subject, since intoxication is already the violence against the substance of the subject. In other words – and this was suggested to me by the contemporary artist and designer Claudia Patricia – the logistics of errancy is being able to do otherwise from a site in which no other possibility could have emerged. This absolute necessity moves against reality and the future planning of the metropolis. And here I must return to the beginning: what takes place is what allows a relation with the invisible. Already in 1959, Cassavetes understood that intoxication redeems an ethical life against an epochal phase in which total anthropological exposure would become the concrete utopia of the socialization of capital. 

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Notes 

1. Fritz Saxl. La fede astrologica di Agostino Chigi. Interpretazione dei dipinti di Baldassarre Peruzzi nella Sala di Galatea della Farnesina (Bardi Edizioni, 2017).

2. Gianni Carchia. “Dialettica dell’immagine: note sull’estetica biblica e cristiana”, in La legittimazione dell’arte: studi sull’intelligibile estetico (1982). 

3. Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983 (NYRB, 2016).