Scholar, Philosopher & Friend of the podcast Professor Clayton Crockett is guest posting as part of the Insistence of God book tour. You may remember his previous visits to the podcast where he discussed Radical Political Theology or the New Materialism. If not check them out! Now get ready for Clayton…
Thanks to Tripp for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. I want to confess here in this post that I am unable to be objective, that I love Caputo and his work, and I have to say “oui, oui” to his vision of theology and his understanding of what it means to think about God today in a credible and relevant way. Caputo, along with Catherine Keller, are the two crucial contemporary theologians for me today, and I cannot affirm their work and their importance strongly enough. In the case of Caputo, it is a shared love for two people, a famous French philosopher named Jacques Derrida and a less famous American theologian named Charles Winquist, as well as a connection to Syracuse University, that has drawn Jack and me together on multiple levels of work and thinking and friendship. At the risk of this friendship, I have to make another confession: I think that Catherine Malabou is the most brilliant, incisive and powerful philosopher of my “generation,” and I am awed, amazed and persuaded by her thought. I have been convinced that plasticity is not only the most relevant concept, but even provides what she calls the “motor-schema” for our time. The theoretical question here is, in what way is plasticity related to what Caputo calls, following Derrida and others, the event? And what do both of these concepts have to do with how we think about God?
In Chapter Six of The Insistence of God, a short but incredibly profound engagement with the philosophy of Catherine Malabou and her reading of Hegel, Caputo drops a bomb—I will come back to this. The chapter title, “Is There an Event in Hegel?,” attests to the significance of Caputo’s reevaluation of Hegel in the middle of this book, which is a partial affirmation and appropriation of Hegel for a radical theology of “perhaps.” This affirmation, however, can only go so far, and thus Caputo is forced to clarify and delimit his interpretation of Hegel in relation to those of Malabou (in Chapter Six) and Slavoj Zizek (in Chapter Seven).
So the answer to the question of whether there is an event in Hegel is a kind of “perhaps,” which here does not mean undecidable; it means yes, up to a point, but ultimately no, not a radical enough event of the sort thought by Derrida and affirmed by Caputo. And this chapter gets at the heart of what’s at stake between radical theology and contemporary Continental philosophy in relation to the readings of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. Caputo argues for a heretical Hegelianism, and he claims that Malabou’s Hegel is also heretical but she is perhaps not explicit enough about this heresy, insofar as she reads Hegel through Heidegger. Caputo says that Malabou’s speculative hermeneutics concerns the plasticity of “the auto-transforming life of the Absolute in time” (123). The Absolute is another name for Spirit, which is the subject of Hegel’s philosophical narrative. And the stakes are to what extent Malabou can read a radical contingency or accident into the necessity of essential Spirit.
On the one hand, Caputo argues that there is contingency in Hegel’s dialectic of Spirit; it does not know how it will unfold in time. We cannot see what is to come. On the other hand, Caputo claims that at the end of the day, at dusk, we can see what has come, what has happened, and can declare a retroactive necessity. Caputo’s central “claim is this: nothing is going to happen that does not fulfill the destination of Spirit. If ‘eventually’ the Spirit can see these unforeseeables coming, this undoes the ‘event’” (125). Because Malabou’s argument depends on Hegel’s, Caputo can only go so far with Malabou. Malabou’s plasticity is tied to Hegel’s, and this limits the chance of the unforeseen event. An event can surprise us within a certain range or framework, but it cannot explode the framework itself. Caputo concludes that “there is no absolute errancy in Hegel, no absolute waste, no errancy that reaches as far as the absolute itself” (125).
Again, I have to confess: I do not know whether or not this is a correct reading of Hegel, to the extent that it would supersede or render incorrect these important contemporary readings of Hegel by Malabou and Zizek, as well as Katrin Pahl in her superb book Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion. I am not an expert or confident enough reader of Hegel to declare or decide that Caputo is right and Malabou is wrong, or vice versa. It’s possible that Malabou’s reading of Hegel is impossible (and it is certainly only possible via Heidegger), but I don’t think it simply conforms to the strictures of Caputo’s understanding and presentation of Hegel.
Caputo lays out and endorses Derrida’s reservations about Malabou’s Hegel, that Derrida articulates in his Preface to Malabou’s book The Future of Hegel. Derrida’s Preface is called “A Time for Farewells.” Caputo focuses on Derrida’s question about the death of God, and how radical it is in Hegel’s philosophy. As Caputo says, “could God, unawares, step on an explosive? Could God be blown to bits without so much as knowing what hit him?” (131). The answer for Derrida and for Caputo, is that in Hegel’s dialectic, there is no chance that Spirit could be blown apart, and this is a delimitation of the event as well as a limit of plasticity in Hegel.
This is powerful stuff, and I want to make two points. First, my reading of Malabou and Malabou’s philosophy as she develops it after The Future of Hegel, partly in response to Derrida’s critique, suggests that plasticity is an event insofar as explosive plasticity is articulated along with the other two characteristics of plasticity, the ability to give form and the capacity to receive form. There is an event of plasticity in Malabou, and this becomes clear in her work on brain plasticity as well as her powerful readings of Freud (The New Wounded) and Heidegger (The Heidegger Change). Just as Caputo suggests that there cannot be a thinking of accident without the notion of essence, so there cannot be the idea of force without form, and furthermore, we do not know what it means to have or think an event except in contrast to some sort of being or structure.
I think that Malabou suggests that in Hegel, Spirit is this errancy and waste, that it is not a circular process of Spirit becoming itself but an originary metamorphic change that we call Spirit afterward, in hindsight. It’s not that Spirit cannot die or that there is any limit to what can happen to Spirit on accident, it’s that whatever happens can only be affirmed or imagined to be Spirit essentially so long as there is subjectivity to think it. So the question is, can Spirit die? Of course it can, it does all the time, and this explosivity of and to Spirit ‘makes’ Spirit, makes Spirit in us, it makes us inspire and expire. Spirit is change, exchange, metamorphosis. Death is not something that occurs in the future, just as for Derrida the future is not simply the indefinite extension of the present. According to Caputo, in Hegel “the essential form does not mutate” (126), but in Malabou mutation is the ‘essence’ of form. For Malabou, Derrida’s messianicity of the event threatens to swallow up form and induce a passivity into philosophy that she turns to Hegel and to brain plasticity to undo. Plasticity would be this forming of a future that we cannot fully form, but we can take responsibility for participating in and shaping it. I don’t think there is a teleology inherent in plasticity, although I struggle with the apparent teleology in Hegel.
My second point is to emphasize just how explosive Caputo’s theology is here in this chapter. According to Caputo, “for there to be a future for God, God would have to be exposed to the final and uttermost risk of death, where death would be something more than a moment in a metaphysical transition, more than the plasticity of transformability, but the possibility of extinction, of entropic dissipation, of a thermal equilibrium overtaking the divine fire, where there would be neither form nor transformation, where the logic of the dialectic would be exploded by the logic of death and utter irreversible extinction” (133). If there is an absolute and irreversible extinction as speculated by Ray Brassier in his provocative book Nihil Unbound, there is not only no more God, but no more form, and therefore no extinction of form. This “logic of death and irreversible extinction” operates dialectically in Caputo’s theology, to give rise to further forms of thought and practices of life for Mary, for Martha and for us.
Caputo says that Hegel and the theologians are on the same side in opposing this logic of death and irreversible extinction, and I want to underscore the radicality of this thought, this radical theological thought of the death of God at the heart of The Insistence of God. This thought is explosive, and it breaks with most recognizable forms of theology. If you think Caputo is a warm and fuzzy theologian you don’t know Jack. The question is whether this explosive theological thinking is plastic, in Malabou’s sense, and whether in some sense Malabou and Caputo are on the same ‘side.’ Malabou is not a theologian. She does not want to hold onto the life of God, or save God from risk of death. Perhaps plasticity is incompatible with a weak theology of the event, at least from the viewpoint of conventional philosophy and confessional theology. But for “a new species of theologians,” it might not be possible or necessary—or even in the last instance accidental—to choose between plasticity and the event, between Caputo and Malabou, or between two futures of Derrida.