Q&A: Caputo

26 08 2010

how did you come to his works? —dmf

dmf—who clearly knows more about John Caputo’s works than I do—asked me the above question. Given that Caputo is not widely read by political scientists nor, almost certainly, by the general public, it’s the kind of particular query which opens up to the more general: how’dja find this [relatively unknown] cat?

For Caputo and me, the answer is twofold:

1. I read a long review of his works in the online version of Christianity Today; given the length of the essay, I think it was in the Books & Culture section. I was intrigued.

2. I worked in the philosophy section of the Astor Place Barnes & Noble and noticed we had a copy of Caputo and Gianni Vattimo’s After the Death of God. Employees are allowed to borrow hardcover books from their store, so I plucked this one out.

That’s the twinned short answer; here’s the bifurcated longer answer:

Early in my grad school career I became interested in the question of knowledge. It didn’t initially cohere into an inquiry into epistemology, but I did note that many of the questions I had about x, y, or z phenomena would lead me to questions about the approaches to x, y, or z phenomena, which led, ultimately, to questions about any approach to any phenomenon—in other words, not only how do we know what we know, but how do we determine something is a ‘what’ worthy (or at least capable) of being known, and what does it mean that something has been plucked out of the everything to become a ‘what’ in this particular way.

(These kinds of questions, it should be said, can go on for a very long time. You get the drift. . . .)

Epistemological issues were all the rage (really!) in some parts of the academy in the 1990s, which is when I did the bulk of my graduate work. Early on I was a dogmatic post-modernist and quite glib in my denuciations of Liberalism, the concept of the unitary individual, and the notion that we could ever truly know anything. Ah, the joys of the supercharged nihilist!

Then time did its thing, I mellowed, and while I didn’t surrender my skepticism, I no longer held it in such esteem. I don’t know that we can know, but we seem to make do, in the meantime. I toss a lot of knowledge into the category of the ‘provisional’ and go on from there.

There’s much more behind this, of course, but this is reasonable gloss on where I am now.

So I’m much less dogmatic than I used to be, more curious, and more willing to retrieve from my own personal ash-heap notions that had seem dead, naive, or hopelessly problematic. (Note: that something was ‘hopelessly problematic’ was reason both for my know-it-all (!) nihilist self to toss it and my curious self to retrieve it.) One of those things I had tossed was hermeneutics.

My department was very strong in political theory, but most of the theorists were suspicious of the turn theory seemed to be making away from the history of thought and toward considerations of method. Still, there were courses on method, and in one of those courses we mucked around a bit in hermeneutics. This, however, was a hermeneutics of the Gadamer sort, that is, an explicitly backwards-looking interpretation of tradition and meaning.

I have my disagreements with Habermas, but I think he nails it with regard to this type of interpretation: it is the method of the museum.

So to have come across Caputo and Vattimo and their arguments about ‘weak theology’ and nihilism and radical hermeneutics, well, I was intrigued: This was not your father’s interpretive method.

Couple this with an ongoing interest in questions of existence and hop-skip-jump I am led down another rabbit hole.

The second element at play concerns curiosity and cowardice among the credentialed. You see, once you get a degree, you [are able to] assume a level of expertise about your particular field. This expertise requires you both to know the Big Names and Big Debates and to have more answers than questions; it also requires you to shun certain topics and authors as unworthy of Serious Consideration.

In short, you know whose name to drop and whose to dismiss.

Now, I had never heard of either Caputo or Vattimo when I was in grad school, and I have no reason to believe that either had any kind of reputation, good or bad, among political theorists. Still, they were (are?) outliers among my kind, which makes them risky: If others haven’t heard of them, how are you to talk about them? Perhaps there’s a good reason no one else has heard of them; perhaps there’s something wrong with you for thinking so highly of them. . . .

Please note that no one has ever actually said any of these things to me; no, the responsibility for carrying this particular set of neuroses lies with me. But having been acculturated into academia, and by remaining even tangentially involved (as an adjunct) in my field, I remain caught in those cross-currents of ‘credentiality’; perhaps as an adjunct I am even more vulnerable to questions about my legitimacy as a political theorist.

Yet I have also, because I am an adjunct who is not looking for a tenure-track position, had the space to turn around and look at what and why it is I am doing, on the margins, in the academy. What is the purpose of my presence in the classroom?

And that is where Caputo and Vattimo have led me, in their forward-looking or radical hermeneutics: What is your purpose? What is the point? What is the meaning? What are the possibilities?

Answers are fine and necessary things, and in certain contexts require their own kind of courage. But the questions! Those can always get you into real trouble.