<![CDATA[BABOUVIST - Commentary]]>Wed, 08 May 2019 21:23:22 -0400Weebly<![CDATA[Hadewijch of Brabant on Noble Disloyalty]]>Fri, 04 Jan 2019 05:00:00 GMThttp://babouvist.com/commentary/hadewijch-of-brabant-on-noble-disloyalty
The other fear: a person fears that Love does not love her enough, for Love torments her so severely she thinks that It continually burdens her and helps her too little, and that she alone loves. This disloyalty is higher than a base loyalty; indeed, I mean by “base loyalty” a loyalty that lets itself be satisfied now without realizing (anything else), or also a loyalty that lets itself be satisfied in its own estimation. [In contrast,] this noble disloyalty acquires a consciousness so expansive only if a person loves so much that she supposes that she has lost her senses, and her heart sighs, and her veins continually stretch and rupture, and her soul melts. However, even if a person loves Love like this, yet this noble disloyalty is able neither to feel nor to express loyalty towards Love, so expansive does disloyalty make desire. And disloyalty also never lets desire continue to express [loyalty] to an object of desire but continually expresses mistrust towards desire itself [by supposing] that perhaps one is not loved enough. So noble is disloyalty that it continually fears either that it does not love enough, or that it is not loved enough.

— Hadewijch of Brabant, Letter 8

In the eighth letter included in her literary corpus, the thirteenth-century beguine Hadewijch of Brabant charts a map of fear (vrese) within the country of Love (Minne). In other places in her corpus, Hadewijch enumerates as many as five regions of Love (for example, Letter 22 or Vision 8), but in this letter, she only touches upon Love obliquely, for her primary concern is the impossible space for Love located between two districts of fear.

How could Hadewijch associate Love and fear so intimately? Indeed, in the words of the Latin Bible known to her, “perfect love casts out (foras mittit) fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). Nevertheless, we could just as well read the Vulgate as implying instead that perfect Love sends forth (foras mittit) fear as its emissary, so as to bring those burdened by multiplicity back to the unity of Love’s self-identity. Fear, therefore, would ultimately help to foster Love. This would be a clever handling of scripture, if such a reading in fact stood behind Hadewijchs seemingly audacious claims forwarded in the passage above. In this letter, however, Hadewijch isn’t really leading her readers down any familiar Platonic path of emanation and return. Fear in the standard sense serves no higher purpose on the way back to Love. Besides, as a woman in thirteenth-century Europe, Hadewijch would not have been allowed to touch so directly upon the scriptural text that would have made such a reading possible. Like Mary Magdalen after the resurrection, she could observe the Word only from afar (cf. Jn. 20.14–18). In the meantime, she had to keep to her seemingly peripheral place — Love’s place — spaced between two uncertain poles of fear.

Yet in keeping to her place Hadewijch manages simultaneously to trace out a profoundly utopian space for her readers. By means of her writing, we somehow find ourselves already included within this non-region of Love, without knowing if we are at one of the two poles of fear or even what one or the other of these poles might be. Peculiarly, however, as Love’s borders increase, so also — at the same time and to the same extent (altemet) — do the borders of the fiefdom of fear, even though love and fear are separated so absolutely by the scriptural text discussed above.

Nevertheless, it’s really no wonder that the fiefdom of fear is so radically implicated in this impossible region of Love. Unsurprisingly, the first fear that creeps into this utopian space of Love is the fear that one is not really worthy (werdech) of such Love to begin with. How can a person find herself loved and in Love when she has taken no steps to get here? Isnt Love earned? Not so, at least in Hadewijch’s estimation. In point of fact, there would be little point in even asking how we enter into this non-place of Love, for if such a region exists at all, it exists only to the extent that we are already included within it through the familiar intimacy of Hadewijch’s writing.

Nevertheless, this non-place of Love, already by its very indication, borders on becoming yet another place among places. Indeed, in the first part of this letter, Hadewijch takes for granted a feudal politics of space that threatens to subsume even the space of Love. The first fear is the “noblest” (edelst) in the land, promising all kinds of riches — freedom, clarity of thought, purity of conscience, wisdom, a unified memory, and so on— if only we allow this lord to assign us a place (steet) within what only seemed like the region of Love.

Thanks to Hadewijch’s duplication of fear at the beginning of this letter, however, we now learn of a completely other (ander) fear that immediately calls into question the prior, altogether subservient taking-place of Love — or what was presumed to be Love. Now fear itself aims to place itself firmly outside any feudal politics of space. A person with this second kind of fear “fears that Love does not love her enough.” Paradoxically, Love is now given a second lease, for what of Love began to become confined within a familiar feudal politics of space now becomes once more situated within a non-place. She who submitted herself so obediently under the yoke of her feudal lord now “fears” — in a way related to the first fear in name only — that the prior place of Love was not in fact the utopia for which she was longing. A person fearing in this strange way continually expands the borders of Love’s non-country, for nowhere is ever enough or sufficient (ghenoech). Nothing satisfies or pleases (ghenoeghen) her: here only is something that is not Love or is an oppressive kind of Love. It torments (bendet) her how confined and confining such sham Love is, always burdening (altoes verladet) her without lifting a finger to help. A person with this second, alternate kind of fear thus cannot help but entertain a dangerously subversive notion — that she alone loves and she loves alone. Indeed, such a person defiantly creates her own non-place of Love, something Hadewijch herself effects (werken) in the form of this intimate letter.

This impossible utopia that Hadewijch traces out for Love first breaks loyalty (trouwe) and annuls the oath required by feudal fear. The subversive fear of ever placing Love is disloyal and untrustworthy (ontrouwe) at its root, for it has the audacity to think itself higher (hoghere) than the loyalty that always stays obediently in place at the base (gront) of the mountain. Indeed, we now learn that the non-place of Love has elevation, a topographical feature previously unnoticed by eyes always seeking to place Love. The loyalty that works the land and stays below (trouwe gront) lets itself be subdued under the feudal yoke and, in so doing, lets itself be satisfied (ghenoeghen) even now without the slightest inkling (sonder bekinnen) of something or somewhere else. This “ground loyalty” also lets itself be satisfied with its own estimation (ieghen- werdecheit), with being esteemed in general, because feudal fear only comes into its own (ieghen) through fear of too little estimation or worth (werdech).

By means of this subversive gesture, disloyalty itself becomes noble (edele), and abolishes its own borders, acquiring an expansive (soe wijd) consciousness. And this continual refusal to settle down in any one place makes a person have such intense Love — unlike the sham Love confined within borders — that she assumes that she has lost her senses and gone out of her mind. “Her heart sighs, her veins continually stretch and rupture, and her soul melts.” Nothing is ever enough for this continually expanding disloyalty, for even if a person loves Love this intensely, noble disloyalty still cannot feel (ghevoelen) or establish trust (trouwen) with Love. Love is no where to be found. Desire (begherte) convinces disloyalty that there is yet more, that this is not the time nor place, that the boundary of its lands must never be closed off.

At the same time, however, disloyalty unsettles desire. Unlike the groveling “ground loyalty” that lets itself settle for less, a noble disloyalty never lets desire stay for too long (gheduren) in any one place to establish trust with (trouwen) and subject itself to an object of desire (ghere). Disloyalty continually (altoes) calls desire into question (mestrout), for as its engine of expansion disloyalty has the utopian fear that perhaps a person is never loved enough (ghenoech). There is never enough ground in this non-place of always evasive Love. The borders can never be closed off with the false presumption that a person has finally attained to a Love worthy of loyalty (trouwe), for any Love one finds is always lower than the Love by means of which this second, strange kind of fear is cultivated. But this alternate fear no longer knows one from the other of the two fearful poles mentioned at the beginning of the letter. Now disloyalty is so high (hoghe) that it does not know what, whom, or where to fear at all. Is a person to fear that she does not love enough or that she is not loved enough? The question has become redundant, for Love has already impossibly taken place.

Only now, after writing oneself out of the the all too easily attained place of feudal Love and fashioning the continually elusive non-place of utopian Love is a person able to shift focus from her own esteem (werdech) to Love itself. Such a person now fears that she does not love enough — and that she is not enough loved — instead of fearing that she is not “worthy” or “sufficient” for Love. By the subversive fear that a subservient Love might not ever be enough, a person enters into a different, non-locatable kind of Love. Here is an infinite spacing, continually expanding, where no one is worthy and nothing is ever enough, for Love loves and is loved undeservedly and excessively. Always higher and beyond our reach, always wider and beyond our horizon, the only way to enter into the non-place of Love is through a kind of restless utopian desire. And in this very non-attainability — the impossibility of Love — a person becomes herself a working of that Love that always seems evasive.


Columba Hart, trans. Hadewijch: The Complete Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. Macwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

<![CDATA[Walter Benjamin On How to Write History with a Hammer]]>Thu, 03 Jan 2019 05:00:00 GMThttp://babouvist.com/commentary/walter-benjamin-on-how-to-write-history-with-a-hammer

To articulate something in the past historically does not mean to know it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize a remembrance as it flares up in a moment of danger. For historical materialism, the task is to capture a picture of the past as it suddenly — at the moment of danger — attaches to the historical Subject. The danger threatens both the existence of the tradition and its receivers. For both, [the danger] is one and the same: becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made to wrest anew the inheritance away from a conformism that is at the point of overwhelming it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the conqueror of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of kindling the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced of this: that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

— Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte

At the brink of the outbreak of World War II, while Walter Benjamin found himself at an acute moment of danger as a Jew in Europe, he made a last-ditch effort to grasp something truly essential. His decidedly non-Jewish, if not anti-Jewish, contemporary, Martin Heidegger had a few years prior in his Summer 1935 lecture course "Introduction to Metaphysics" framed his own project as the violent interpretation (Destruktion) of the history of Western philosophy as the forgetfulness of the question of Being. This matter, so Heidegger would argue in various forms throughout his lifetime, had almost from the very beginning of Western thought been obscured by the imposing and luminous presence of particular beings. Indeed, as Heidegger contended, what had consistently been forgotten in Western philosophy was the question of what it is that allows the possibility of such particular beings to begin with. In the end, this question was essential for Heidegger inasmuch as it allowed him to interrogate the modern technological representation of the world as a ready reserve for human consumption and use. Being itself, that which grants the possibility for particular beings to be at all, faced a decisive moment of danger, and Heidegger envisioned his historical task as thinking in, through, and beyond this crisis.

This question is not the one, however, that Walter Benjamin found truly essential at this same decisive moment in history. In his final major piece, "On the Grasp of History" (Über den Begriff der Geschichte), Benjamin does not raise the question of historically forgotten Being, obscured by and as the ever-enchanting presence of particular beings. What is truly at stake for Benjamin in this constellation of interruptive theses are historically forgotten human beings, obscured by the historical silence imposed on them from the particular way that other, more powerful human beings present and make present time and history. At stake essentially is the "concept" or "grasp" (Begriff) of history itself — how we grasp it (begreifen), who grasps it, and perhaps most importantly, for whom it is grasped. As such, Benjamin's theoretical intervention, like Heidegger's, is necessarily violent. Nonetheless, unlike Heidegger, Benjamin makes no false presumption to be above the messiness of politics. His effort to grasp history from the clutches of bourgeois liberalism, far-right fascism, and Soviet totalitarianism, while rigorously theoretical, is political through and through.

As Benjamin testifies in the thesis quoted above, the truly revolutionary historical (historisch) task has nothing to do with "knowing" (erkennen) something in the past as "it really (eigentlich) happened." To represent the historical task in this manner attempts to keep the past always at a safe distance from the present — in its own appointed spot. In spite of the claim to neutrality leveled by this particular "grasp" of history, such conceptualization subtly serves to naturalize the logic of private property so inherent to every stage of capitalism. Indeed, any historical representation that tries to delegate past events to their "proper" (eigentliche), "authentic" (eigentliche), or "original" (eigentliche) realm betrays a deep-seated anxiety about the dissolution or blurring of the boundaries of private property, of propriety, and of  proprietary rights more generally.

Thus, calling into question this predominant way of framing history cannot help but simultaneously call into question capitalism's attendant arrangement of time. The grasp of history founded upon the maxim "to each its own" wants to present itself as deeply respectful of difference. All such historiography desires to do, or so it claims, is to prevent the voice of the present from drowning out the voice of the past. Each time has its own appointed place, and we commit a scholarly transgression if we overstep the historical (property) boundaries set up — by whom, such a concept of history conveniently fails to specify. The past is utterly at odds with the present, and past eras are utterly at odds with each other as well (inasmuch as they themselves once occupied the current privileged place of the present). The past is the past, and the present is the present. Full stop.

And yet. . . . If Karl Marx's critique of classical political economy teaches us anything, it is that behind self-assured tautologies one often finds a far from innocent — and materially advantageous — concealing of strategic conceptual slippages. This is seen, for example, in the almost theological discourse of classical political economy on the "great mystery" of money (cf. Capital, vol. 1, pt. 1, ch. 3). Classical political economists offered the following equation:

value of money = value of gold (or another such precious metal).

According to Marx, however, the value of money in this equation is not in fact gold's own value, as bourgeois political economy redundantly claims. Indeed, this equation covers over a crucial equivocation with the word "value," insofar as the exchange value of a market commodity does not necessarily stand in any necessary relation with this same item's use value. (I might purchase a wooden sauce spoon for $5.00 and use it almost every day to cook, whereas an expensive single-use kitchen instrument might spend years buried in the back of the pantry.) Until the development of the computer chip, in fact, gold in and of itself held little practical use aside from luxurious adornment. Gold and other precious metals, therefore, played a formative role in the development of market economies insofar as they served as rather empty stand-ins for a standardizing exchange value. Thus, hidden behind the tautological equation, value of money = value of gold, is actually a conceptual slippage that serves to conceal the real difference between the price of commodities and their attendant use-values. More vitally, this slippage also obscures the concrete social relations of production that gave rise to these commodities to begin with. (Capitalist market exchange, that is, disinclines us to think of the children in Indonesia who produced our affordably priced cardigan for pennies in wages.)

With language reminiscent of political terror, Benjamin lauds the person "man enough [sic] to blow open (aufzusprengen)" the similarly redundant temporal continuum established by the current hegemonic arrangement of history — history, that is, portrayed as a series of temporally disparate events within a "homogeneous and empty (homogene und leere) time" (262). This theoretical explosion of this particular conceptualization of history works in its very enactment to reframe history as catastrophe, as over-turning interruption. Moreover, this reframing does not operate strictly within the established terms of knowledge (Erkenntnis) or representational thought (Vorstellung), much less those of objective science (Wissenschaft). The kind of thought that is truly revolutionary, according to Benjamin, is "remembrance" (Erinnerung). What Benjamin means by "remembrance" is the reminding that what I am, where I am, who I am — in my very time and place — have not materialized from out of nowhere, that humans, as historical beings, always owe their inherited existence and material livelihood to the unnamed and unremembered, to the misnamed and dismembered. One is reminded precisely of this obligation to the past when a memory suddenly "flares up in a moment of danger (im Augenblick einer Gefahr)." In the blink of an eye (im Augenblick), when it is our own existence that is put radically into question, we suddenly "see the past flash before our eyes," as the saying goes. The purportedly distinctive continuum of time collapses like an accordion, and history appears no longer as forward-moving progress (Fortschritt) but as "wreckage heaped upon wreckage" (257).

In this catastrophic collapsing of historical distance, if a person seizes upon and gives authority to (bemächtigen) the troubling memory of the countless atrocities that have co-attended any society or culture known to human history thus far, something indeed happens. This specific picture of the past, as barbarism, when captured and held in view (festzuhalten), attaches itself (einstellt) to the "historical Subject" (historischen Subjekt), as the one who is continually and variously implicated in this very same history. As Benjamin makes clear at another point in this piece, the historical Subject, that one who is the real concern of "historical knowledge" (historischer Erkenntnis), is none other than "the struggling, oppressed class itself" (die kämpfende, unterdrückte Klasse selbst) (260). As historical, this Subject is not and cannot be universal in any kind of invariable sense. This Subject is not humanity in general, nor any particular class existing throughout history. The Subject of history according to Benjamin is absolutely singular in each time and place. Even so, this Subject nevertheless always stands in a particular formal relationship with "the way things are" — or better yet, the way things are assumed (wrongly) to have always been. The historical Subject is the one always appearing on the margins, the one necessarily excluded by the particular way that space and time are partitioned off in any given epoch.

On Benjamin's telling, the historically revolutionary task would thus lie in facilitating this continually excluded, marginalized, and ever-shifting Subject of history to speak out in defiant protest. In contrast, the type of historiography that continues to allow the mute and buried-over horrors of the past to remain unspoken and unexcavated in the name of the avoidance of "anachronism" falls prey to the danger besetting our historical existence at every turn: "becoming a tool of the ruling classes."

As founding myth, both the tradition (Tradition) passed on as history and the successive reception of this same history have the potential to grant legitimacy to the ruling class of each era anew. Such a counter-revolutionary grasp of history may fall prey to this danger in at least four partially contradictory but nonetheless related ways: 1) it might keep the "wreckage upon wreckage" of historical atrocities at a safe distance from the present state of things through stretching out time as a temporally distinct continuum; 2) it might present these same atrocities as far removed from and foreign to the supposed progress already achieved in the present; 3) it might frame a history wrought with the violent silencing of the oppressed as nevertheless necessary for the present "advanced" state of society; or 4) it might facilitate the oversight and forgetfulness of contemporary barbarism in projecting a steadily progressing future as purportedly inevitable.

In countering this way of conceiving history, Benjamin suggests that the revolutionary historical task is ceaseless. "The attempt must be made in every epoch to wrest (abzugewinnen) anew the inheritance away from the conformism that is at the point (im Begriff steht) of overwhelming it." In other words, the revolutionary writing of history is a constant political struggle whose very goal is to "win back" (abzugewinnen) the always about-to-be pilfered historical "inheritance" (Überlieferung) from playing the role of pawn to the ruling class.

The revolutionary writing of history transforms this historical pawn, silenced "in the grasp" (im Begriff) of an overwhelming conformism, into a Subject that makes this very history matter. As such, each successive generation is potentially "endowed with a weak Messianic power" (254) in regard to the generations that preceded it. History in Benjamin's sense always requires a decision: either work to redeem the memory of history's forgotten and abject or work to silence anew these same good-for-nothings (in the estimation of the ruling class would). The former task, however, is not only that of redemption. It involves just as much the overcoming (Überwinder) of the powers that be in the writing of a counter-history that calls into question at its root the sanitized and triumphant history of the victors.

Thus, a person who sets out to write such a history, Benjamin reminds us, will only have the "gift" (Gabe) of kindling the "spark of hope in the past" if she keeps in mind not the sunny prospect of future generations of liberated grandchildren — which are, after all, only guaranteed in the ever-progressing continuum-representation of historical time — but rather the ever-present threat of the desecration and eradication of the memory of her ancestors who cannot speak for themselves. This is what has been at stake in the historical struggle in every era, and this is what continues to be at stake even today. Being always mindful of this danger provides impetus to enter into the historical struggle, to begin to "grasp" history anew. And it is by this revolutionary "grasping" (Begriff) that history, although shot through with grief, takes on a whole new meaning. No longer the simple putting in the proper place of events of the past, the revolutionary writing of history has the potential to become the disruptive site where the downtrodden of each and every generation can step out of the non-place of historical forgetfulness into the contested place of the historical Subject. This practice of history-writing has the potential to unleash an uncontrollable conflagration of revolution by the always improper and untimely fanning of the slightest of sparks that, if the ruling classes had it their way, should not have been there to begin with. Such, at any rate, is how one might begin to go about writing history with a hammer.