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.


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5 responses

26 08 2010
dmf

thank you, this is a most generous reply and raises many questions (if i may be so bold) but perhaps the easiest way into this is to ask if you have read richard rorty?

26 08 2010
26 08 2010
absurdbeats

I read Rorty long ago, and while I have a number of his books, it’s been a considerable number of years since I’ve cracked any of them.

And Rabinow! I read his ‘PCR’ book for/while working on my dissertation, and always had my eye out for him whenever in the anthropology section of a used bookstore.

(I just got back from my first night’s teaching, so the article itself will have to wait.)

Finally, back to you: By what ways did you wend yourself toward Caputo?

27 08 2010
dmf

the shortish version is was studying psych/premed at suny st.br. and needed a humanities req, had enjoyed camus/kafka/sartre in high school so took a philo class in existentialism which turned out to be much closer to my questions/understandings of human-being than what i had been up to in ratlab. was invited to take part in a seminar on nietzsche which was very good, started studying phenomenology but was most interested in the depth-psychology/existential-hermeneutics side of things and ed casey had been working along these lines with david miller at syracuse u. who along with charlie winquist and co. were starting to invent post-modern theology (this was long before derrida/deleuze/foucault were commonly known/studied), or as it became known secular/post-secular theology, somewhere in my later studies came across caputo’s demythologizing of heidegger and became a fan. have you read rorty’s review-essay of foucaults’ pendulum (a pragmatist’s progress) where he talks about reading with the hopes of being changed? my feeling is that what is needed in students/citizens is this desire to read/encounter/interpret to be changed, along with caputo’s negative capacity/suspension of disbelief, willingness to bear (even desire) not-knowing, and mark c. taylor’s understanding of complexity/emergence, but this is an opus contra naturam and i’m pretty sure that it can’t be taught in a classroom. any thoughts on how to convert students out of their habituated quest for certainty/answers?
rabinow has come around to pragmatism and his last two books along these lines are really very good.

28 08 2010
dmf

ps one of the other inspiring but also quite tragic things about caputo is how reading derrida gave him the courage to break out of traditional/institutionalized modes of writing.
on the one hand nice to see that someone late in their careers can find this kind of courage to speak in his own voice but so sad how powerful and enduring the socialization/control of the academy can be. being on the margins might not be so bad for the soul even as it is hard on the wallet/nerves. hope you will share more of your questing for a meaningful role in the classroom and good luck with your new semester.

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