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 surplus value. 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.