Name v. Event

In the postmodern theology of John D. Caputo[1], the event is “something that is going on in words and things, as a potency that stirs within them and makes them restless with the future” (Caputo/Vattimo, 50). According to Caputo’s deconstruction calculus, beneath the apparently static names and labels we attribute to things resides a kind of energy or force of movement which constitutes their true essence. For Caputo, names are constructions, and as such are always reducible to an event which itself is irreducible. As Caputo explains, “the event is irreducible; indeed (…) it is the very form of irreducibility itself. For what is irreducible is what resists contraction into some finite form or other, what seeks to twist free from the finite containers in which it finds itself deposited, what cannot be contained” (Caputo/Vattimo, 51-52). Caputo’s theology hinges on the acknowledgement of this tension between the restlessly potency of the event, which is irreducible, and the reducible forms intended to contain that potency. The name of God, too, may be understood as just another reducible and finite construction trying to contain the underlying event. For Caputo, “The name of a God is not the name of an abstract logical possibility but of a dynamis that pulses through things (rei), urging them, soliciting them, to be what they can be, and it is in that sense what is most real about them” (Caputo/Vattimo, 65). “God” is just a name and therefore shares the same functional purpose that all names have, that is, to attempt to contain that which cannot be contained. The name “God” is not in any real sense special or unique since the event which “God” attempts to contain is the same event all names try to contain. The fixed form “God” is reducible to the dynamic, pulsating energy which constitutes the potential for change contained within all things. The names “God,” “Jean-Michel,” and “apple” are indistinguishable in this sense, since each of these names acts as a cover for some deeper potentiality common to all of them. For Caputo, the irreducible nature of this deep, common potentiality nestled within names, this pulsating energy constantly escaping our attempts to grasp it and fixate it, makes it what is “most real” about things, or what is ultimately real. As Caputo explains, “instead of opposing two worlds, or of opposing God and the world as if these were two realms of being, I distinguish between the world and the event by which the world is disturbed, the unconditional claim that solicits the world from within, that interrupts and summons it” (Caputo/Vattimo, 82). The event interacts with the world with the power and intensity with which God might traditionally have been thought to do so prior to the deconstruction of God as a name reducible to something else. As Caputo further explains, “in the end, it is not the name of God that we affirm, but something – some “event” – that is being affirmed in our affirmation of the name of God” (Caputo/Vattimo, 148).   

For Caputo, the “death of God” announced by Nietzsche’s madman has to do with the name “God” and not the simmering effervescence that name, like all names, tries to capture and contain. As Caputo explains, “my theology of the event is prepared to concede, if not exactly the death of God, at least the mortality or historical contingency of the name of God, the separability in principle of the event from the name, like a spirit leaving a lifeless body behind” (Caputo/Vattimo, 70). Once the artificial or reducible nature of the name has been exposed, it is a relatively straight-forward matter to account for the death of anything bearing a name, even the name of God, as a specific manifestation of the ongoing potential for change residing within all finite forms. While the name “God” may have meant something at the height of Christendom, it seems safe to say that God is today no longer alive in quite the same way. In other words, God, like all names and forms, is historically contingent. While Caputo’s theology of the event does not justify or provide a reason for God’s death, it does allow for its possibility. The change of God’s status from alive to dead can thus be understood as an event the potential for which always existed within God since the name “God,” as we have seen, is merely a fixed form reducible to an underlying event from which it is separate. To clarify further, the name “God,” by virtue of being a name, motions inward towards an irreducible desire always present within it to change and evolve into something other than what it is. In line with the name’s inherent propensity to change and become something else, the name “God” has always been driven to escape the fixed meanings assigned to it historically. Whereas at the height of Christendom the name “God” was strong in meaning, the irreducible event the name “God” tried, unsuccessfully, to contain, and from which it is separate, dictated the lessening of the historical substance of God to such a level as to prompt Nietzsche’s madman to declare the death of God.

However, with Caputo’s dichotomization of the name and the event, the former being defined as that which is reducible and the latter that which is irreducible, it seems to me that we remain trapped in a certain play of opposites that, as Mark C. Taylor might argue[2], fails to recognize the non-exclusivity of opposites and the relativity of meaning. The unique characteristic of the event is its irreducibility, whereas everything else is name or construction, and therefore reducible. The reducibility of the name opposes it to the irreducible event such that event is, strictly speaking, that which is not name, just as name is that which is not event. But what effect might the multiplication of perspectives have on Caputo’s firm distinction between name and event? Arguably, the name-event dichotomy on which Caputo’s theology hinges, much like the God-world dichotomy it is intended to replace, is yet just another play of opposites concealing the complex interplay of differences at the root of meaning.    

Another apparent difficulty we encounter with Caputo’s theology of the event has to do with events that we might describe as evil, that is to say, hateful and destructive events that one could not reasonably associate with the divine. For instance, how is it that horrific historical events such as the Holocaust or 9-11 can be understood as “event” within Caputo’s theological schema? For Caputo, the substance of the irreducible event is promise and desire, and as he explains further in relation to these irreducible promises and desires, “we are continually solicited and addressed and gifted with all sorts of provocations that draw is out of ourselves, that elicit these affirmations from us. They are real and we have to respond to them. It is up to us to make these promises come true” (Caputo/Vattimo, 120). If we are to understand that the perpetrators of acts of terrorism or genocide are in this same way “gifted” with provocations that elicit affirmation, the God of Caputo’s theology of the event would appear to be morally bankrupt.  

From Caputo’s theology of the event we move to Gianni Vattimo’s secularization thesis. Vattimo employs Heidegger’s hermeneutical perspective as the basis for his theory of secularization. For Vattimo, the basic principle behind Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics can be explained as follows: “in the decision to be objective, we cannot help but assume a definite position, de-fined, in other words, a point of view that limits, but also helps in a decisive way, our encounter with the world” (Caputo/Vattimo, 27). As part of the formulation of objective “truth,” we must make certain choices or adopt certain methodologies in order to arrive at specific conclusions. For instance, as Vattimo points out, scientific knowledge “depends on [the scientists’] specific usage of precise instruments and a rigorous methodology, all of which is culturally determined and historically qualified” (Caputo/Vattimo, 29). All so-called objective statements are in some sense founded on a particular point of view, and fundamentally presumptuous metaphysical claims which pretend to settle the matter definitively therefore bring closure to the debate prematurely. Atheism, with its presumptive stance regarding the non-existence of God, is precisely one such metaphysical claim and should be discredited accordingly. According to Vattimo, “There are no longer strong, rational reasons for being an atheist” (Caputo/Vattimo, 97), or as he puts it in After Christianity[3], “The end of metaphysics and the death of the moral God have liquidated the philosophical basis of atheism” (Vattimo in After Christianity, 17).  From this denial of the philosophical basis of atheism, Vattimo proceeds to reaffirm, philosophically, the continuing presence and influence of Christianity within secular society. As Vattimo explains, “I would say that religion can have a religious meaning only with the help of philosophy – that is, with the help of a theory of secularization that recognizes in many traits of the modern world the basic features of Christianity” (Caputo/Vattimo, 97). Hence, for Vattimo, the general societal tendencies towards democracy and the reduction of violence can be understood as decidedly Christian outcomes.   

Caputo shares Vattimo’s preoccupation with the element of subjectivity embedded within the structure of supposedly objective knowledge. For Caputo, “Virtually all of contemporary philosophy is bent on showing the way in which to understand something is to operate within a horizon of understanding that has to remain tentatively in place for you to get anything done. That horizon of understanding is something like a faith. It’s a presuppositional structure that is constantly getting tested, but is has to be in place” (Caputo/Vattimo, 143). To the extent that atheism can be seen to depend on one such presuppositional structure, that being a structure presupposing the inexistence of God, Caputo agrees with Vattimo’s assessment of the inadequacy of atheism as a metaphysical claim. As Jeffrey W. Robbins puts it in his introduction to After the Death of God, “atheism is nothing but the flip side of theism, with neither understanding the true nature of belief, because both (…) still rely on absolutist claims characteristic of scientific positivism or transcendent authority” (Caputo/Vattimo, 17). But as this formulation of the matter by Robbins makes clear, theism and atheism jointly constitute another binary opposition of the kind Taylor would argue ends up oversimplifying the matter. And for Caputo, Vattimo’s hermeneutical enterprise which begins by effectively discrediting atheism all too conveniently ends up revealing the Christian basis of secularization. For Caputo, Vattimo’s hermeneutics don’t go far enough since they “fail to uproot the fundamentally Gadamerian schema that takes the history of Being (weakening) or nihilism (the death of the old God) as at bottom the ongoing historical ‘application’ of the deep truth of the ‘classic,’ which here is Christianity” (Caputo/Vattimo, 149). Vattimo is therefore disqualifying one presuppositional structure only to replace it with another obvious one.

[1] Caputo, J. D., Vattimo, G., & Robbins, J. W. (2007). After the death of god. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Taylor, M. C. (1984). Erring :A postmodern atheology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

The Relativity of Meaning

If Mark Taylor’s intent in Erring[1] is to hopelessly confuse his readers with an endless stream of symbolic reversals and logical contradictions, he masterfully achieves this objective! Erring is a tortuous journey requiring from the reader (or “wanderer,” as Taylor would put it) an inordinate amount of patience and mental endurance. This journey, as Taylor emphasizes, is in fact a journey without a beginning and an end, so for starters, even the traditional concept of a journey itself is called into question here. Yet after having read Erring and suffered its unrelenting intellectual pace beyond exhaustion to the point of shear frustration and annoyance, the reader experiences after all a slight hint of clarity, cohesion, and an admittedly disturbing desire to start over again from the very beginning with a newfound hope of discovering what might have been missed during the first attempt along Erring’s twisty, circular, senseless path to nowhere. Armed with the understanding that for Erring to make sense it must be allowed not to make sense, the reader may begin anew.

It should serve as a fairly obvious warning to the faint of heart that in the prelude to Erring Taylor describes his deconstructive criticism as that which “unravels the very fabric of most Western theology and philosophy” (Taylor, 10). As Taylor further explains to the reader who is perhaps still oblivious to the truly daunting substance of the chapters ahead, “When subjected to a deconstructive critique, the structure of relationship that both joins and separates opposites is reformulated in such a way that contraries are not merely reversed but are recast to dissolve their original propriety and proper identity” (Taylor, 10). Properly understood, Taylor’s objective here is to loosen the logical connectors and the structural integrity of the established mindset and to dismantle the apparatus that is responsible for the ordinary production of meaning. Once the connectors are removed and structure is compromised, intellectual chaos arguably ensues. The point of Erring, it would seem, is to show the reader how a few simple twists and turns may expose the inherent weaknesses and limitations within the formation of identities and the ascension to meaning.

Taylor in this deconstructive enterprise is decidedly intent on dispelling any illusion of permanent truth. For Taylor, “The radical temporality of signification renders meaning both transitional and transitory. Floating signifiers yield only migratory meaning. Within this nomadic economy, meaning, which can neither settle nor be settled, is an event that is always arising and passing away. As a result of this endless drift of meaning, erring can never be overcome” (Taylor, 175). The suggestion that signification is radically temporal implies that meaning is inseparable from its historical context. Meaning is the product of historical movement and any particular instance of meaning is inextricably linked to the specific historical circumstances which gave rise to it. Since history evolves with the passage of time, or to put it slightly differently, with the movement from one temporal period to another, it follows that meaning or truth should also evolve in the same fashion. Meaning, therefore, is “migratory” in the sense that it cannot be fixed and is always fleeting. Meaning understood as the product of “floating signifiers” is susceptible to adjustment and revision as the present moment elapses and transforms into the next. Meaning thus understood denies the possibility of a “transcendental signified,” that is to say a permanent truth immune to temporal movement and historical variation. Since meaning evolves with history and is thus constantly subject to revision, it is always essentially an error waiting to be discovered. Truth is, in this sense, an “optical illusion,” and to the extent that we abide by the particular edition of meaning that characterizes the present moment, we are always in some sense erring, since today’s meaning will inevitably prove to be tomorrow’s falsity. Yet despite the unreliable nature of meaning when considered over time, we still cling to so-called “truth” as a means of protecting ourselves against instability: “The monologism of truth is pre-scribed to ease the distress induced by the uncertainty that arises from the polymorphous play of appearances” (Taylor, 175). For Taylor, the “floating signifiers” which constitute meaning engage in a “play of appearances” which results in the “optical illusion” of truth. But truth, although illusory, serves the important purpose of providing stability to what would otherwise be a hopelessly unstable conceptual framework.

A point Taylor stresses throughout Erring is the relativity of meaning and the non-exclusivity of opposites. For Taylor, “The coimplication of differing viewpoints establishes the contextuality of all perspectives. Every interpretive stance is inextricably entangled in a formative context. This contextuality carries important semantic implications. Since perspectives are radically relational, meaning is irreducibly relative” (Taylor, 173). Since a specific viewpoint always depends on the existence of other viewpoints, all viewpoints are to some extent dependent on each other. Indeed, a particular perspective only makes sense in relation to other perspectives, in the same way that the color red can only be conceived in relation to other colors (blue, yellow, etc.). Since all perspectives dependent on each other for coherence, they mutually comprise the context required for their own existence. Furthermore, since meaning is derived from perspectives which are radically relational, meaning must also be relational. The crucial point is, however, that if meaning is relative, then it is far too complex to be contained within the firm categories employed in ordinary discourse. For Taylor, “The relativity of meaning presupposes the nonexclusivity of opposites. This complex interplay of differences escapes reflection that remains bound to and by hard-and-fast distinctions and firm definitions” (Taylor, 173). Our commonly employed categories and definitions are usually defined in relation to their opposites (for example, rest is understood as the opposite of movement; permanence is nothing but the opposite of change; life is, strictly speaking, the opposite of death, etc.). Implicit within this semantic structure is the exclusivity of opposites (for example, a body is either at rest or in movement; one is either alive or dead, etc.). But for Taylor, since every instance of meaning is derived from perspectives which are themselves dependent on the existence of other perspectives, that is to say, since meaning is itself always relative, the definitions and distinctions built into the language of opposites we commonly use to categorize and signify things appear by their very nature to deny the inherent complexity of the structure of meaning as such. Simple, oppositional categories create artificial barriers that lock meaning into predetermined categories, and we err insofar as we continue to abide by these inhibiting categories and ignore the “complex interplay of differences” which resonates beyond those artificially constructed barriers.

Another significant target of deconstruction for Taylor in Erring is the historical narrative. Taylor draws our attention to the fact that the historical narrative always revolves around a center point which serves as its organizing focus: “I have stressed that narrativization ties together the dangling threads of chronicle by forming a centered structure. The overall coherence of historical narrative requires a specific center, one that refers back to an inaugural moment and ahead to a conclusive moment. The center governs the pattern of the plot by forming the prism through which all events are reflected and refracted. This organizing focus functions as a point of orientation; it protects striving subjects from the confusion and conflict wrought by decentering and excentricity” (Taylor, 156). In much the same way that “hard-and-fast distinctions and firm definitions” save us from the potentially destabilizing effects of radically relational meaning, narrative organized around a central “prism” instils customary structure and thus avoids contradiction and confusion. The structure of the historical narrative which unfolds between inaugural and conclusive moments implies a temporal progression from past to present to future, yet as Taylor points out, “time is not made up of three separate tenses or three discreet moments. There is but one tense of time, the present. The present, moreover, is comprised of three inseparable modalities. Memory and expectation join in the present” (Taylor, 43). Narrative which, by design, seems to suggest the existence of three separate tenses obscures the fact that “we have no access to hard, immediate, irrefutable facts, historical or otherwise” (Taylor, 67). Historical data conveyed in the narrative should not be understood as directly-accessed historical facts, as if the narrative had the ability to bring us back in time to witness specific historical events with full honesty and precision. Rather, events having occurred in the past are transcribed by the author of the narrative as memories of past events experienced in the present. Furthermore, this transposition of the past into the present by way of the narrative involves creative acts of selection and interpretation on behalf of the narrator, and in this sense the historical narrative is somewhat imaginary. For Taylor, the conventional distinction between facts and interpretation obscures the degree to which the two work together to produce a cohesive story. As Taylor (quoting Hayden Smith) explains, “It is not the case that a fact is one thing and its interpretation another. The fact is presented where and how it is in the discourse in order to sanction the interpretation to which it is meant to contribute. And the interpretation derives its force of plausibility from the order and manner in which the facts are presented in the discourse” (Taylor, 67). The historical narrative can therefore be understood as the creative output of the orchestrated interplay of selected facts and the interpretations they conveniently support. This orchestration is a creative process which applies equally to fact and fiction since it is by way of this orchestration that both the narrative and the novel acquire their coherency and their power of illumination. As Taylor explains, “We experience the ‘fictionalization’ of history as an ‘explanation’ for the same reason that we experience great fiction as an illumination of a world that we inhabit along with the author” (Taylor, 71). In other words, “The novel and the history must both … make sense” (Taylor, 67).

[1] Taylor, Mark C. 1984. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.