White on White (Malevich, 1918) | Image via Wikimedia Commons
White on White (Malevich, 1918) | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Although scholarship is dedicated to complicating popular stories about the way things are, scholars, too, have their stories and they often overlap with popular ones. It is risky to change a story that is lived in, or even to revalue elements of a dominant one. This is good, and perhaps the risks are not great enough. The word “story” will seem prejudicial. I am speaking of history—the shared sense of things. Historians, to be sure, not only complicate but add to what is shared, yet there are limits to what can be moved around. You can question elements of the story of the American Civil War, but not the events it names. The Civil War is a historical story not a fictional one.

Not all histories are like the Civil War, let us say. Some are more mobile—closer, if not to fiction, than to story in a sense inclusive of both history and narrative: tales about reality that we tell and retell, foraging for new facts but mindful that it is not only facts that secure the case. Western secularization epitomizes such a history. The risk here is by now quite low, the popular stakes weakened by the thing itself: the splintering of value that licenses everyone to do their own thing, tell their own history. The scholarly stamina for telling this, the story of its own possibility, is without clear motivation. Gone are the days—the signature elegy intact—when there could be some rousing announcement. God is dead. God is a white imperialist totem. Nietzsche would be unsurprised to learn that, while we are still managing the carcass, we do it with comic cross-purposes more than the sober mortification of executioners. This is very good, it might be countered. But still.

It is this mobility that reminds readers of something like the Civil War that they stand responsible for their case; that a debate will not only involve trading what happened and when. Not even the Civil War is like the Civil War. This may seem obvious, but its freedoms, like the death of God, remain disorienting. If it is not only facts that tell the story, how do you choose between different stories? It would be too bad if the answer was merely convention or power, though these comprise a legitimate contending story. Ideally—and this, too, is a story—we would not only be pointing to the facts as we overlay them with our interpretations, but reconceiving the thing itself: reconceiving reality itself. Lest this seem a relativism that saps scholarship of its power, to conceive reality is also to be limited by it, assuming relative sanity. It is only the convention that sees interpretation as an overlay on facts for which such a reconception would do violence to any of them.

What is reality? This is a question historians and philosophers can ask together. Let me use it to ponder the story under review, in which immanence is retrieved from secularization as a history in its own right, one whose telling will uncover resources for thinking in the present. This is a history on the more mobile end of the spectrum. But unlike secularization, there might be real stakes and risks here, both popular and scholarly. The tone is not only one of Look what we might do with Western theological thinking on the wane. It is also, there has been another story all along. Nietzsche knew it, though he was no born-again pagan. Leo Strauss knew it, Augustine knew it, Spinoza knew it, and so on: choose your own adventure.

Knew what?

The story other than secularization is that Spinoza and other heretics, having gotten to the philosophical bottom of a variety of human illusions, give us, according to Yirmiyahu Yovel, three propositions of immanence: “(1) immanence is the only and overall horizon of being; (2) it is equally the only source of value and normativeness and (3) absorbing this recognition into one’s life is a prelude—and precondition—for whatever liberation (or, emancipation) is in store for humans.” What’s more, Spinoza and his comrades, however innovative, are not the authors of the position but merely its early modern and modern exponents. “The idea of immanence,” found in the pre-Socratics, Epicureans, and Stoics, “re-emerged after having been discredited and repressed by the overpowering weight of medieval Christianity.” So, too, for the Spinoza of Jonathan I. Israel’s Radical Enlightenment and for Stephen Greenblatt’s Poggio Bracciolini, the Florentine layman whose discovery in 1417 of a 500-year-old copy of Lucretius’s first-century BCE De Rerum Natura “turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world”: the promulgation of a scientific perspective, a rejection of gods and demons, an embrace of beauty, pleasure, curiosity, desire, individuality, materiality. Greenblatt’s Lucretius dispels not only the inheritance of a Christian past but also the standard story of secularization from x to y. “This is the story then of how the world swerved in a new direction” by recapturing what Christianity had erased. From y to x to y+.

Here arises a fork in the road of my own story, with one direction hewing to this story other than secularization by pursuing an addendum: that Yovel, Israel, and Greenblatt express a history in which secular Jews are given to finding footholds in Greek and Roman antiquity the better to resist an imagined Christian behemoth. One could observe the Marrano plotline in which Yovel’s thesis, hidden in a scholarly work, has quietly endured, while Greenblatt’s popular history was greeted with measures of rapture and scorn. One could furthermore observe that Spinoza, too, was such a Jew, scorned, rapturous, holding off the Christians.

But here I swerve. Spinoza was not that Jew.

I want to tell another story than the other story. Let me re-envision the stakes.

There is a historical-philosophical layering of the very question here. Why immanence? It is not just a matter of position y as opposed to position x: immanence versus metaphysics, theology, religion. It is that a history of religion is precisely what releases the mobility of stories. It is the story of stories. Immanence might then name the second of these, one story among others. It also makes a bid for the first: the story in which there are stories. Why immanence? It would be because it gives us all the things and all the stories; it gives us reality. Religion may abide, but this other story of immanence would get back behind it—as a particular story and as mobility as such.

There, though, it fails. Like secularization and unlike the Civil War, immanence cannot be given quick coordinates, but its concept as sourced in Greco-Roman antiquity and connected to modern and postmodern paragons makes its supposed agility impossible, and indeed spectacularly so. God bless Lucretius and his unplanned universe, “pounded, pushed, propelled,” in which prime bodies “created and form this Sum of Things.” All power to the “uncertain times” and “uncertain points” at which atoms moving through the void “swerve a bit.” It makes a good story. But it gives us no resources to think about reality, no resources to think about history—the history that suppressed it or the history that would re-present it. Although I can overlay Lucretius’s immanence with an interpretation that is correct or incorrect about it, I cannot reconceive it. It has no concept of such a thing.

What then am I doing? I am reconceiving, consistent with another conception of reality. Do it. Change the story. Nothing is sacred except in relation to the mind, says Spinoza. I will say yes to this thinker and no to that one, and you will counter. The claim is simply this. Reality as a concept committed to mobility is inclusive of the knowledge that it will be yours, ours – the shared, if contentious, sense of things. The battle of x took place on day y: that car drives itself. History is what x and y are and involve. That there are stable things in all histories of the Civil War should make us relieved for our collective sanity, but not too relieved. There is the aforementioned grip of convention, the accidents and strategies of power that must be wrestled with. If the stable reality, no less the mobility, of our shared stories is constituted on Lucretian or Epicurean grounds and not Spinozan ones, how will we do so?

We will not, and the recognition of the distinction at issue is good. Paint a Keith Haring baby with an Epicurean purple and hook it to an ancient tradition of a certain freedom and power: this takes a freedom and a power that belong to another story. The story of Lucretian immanence is not doing the thing immanence itself is. It is doing the thing immanence is not, which makes immanence also a story of something else. Does this dump us back at a beginning this forum had hopefully pressed to advance? Not at all. If it is important to let die both the concept of transcendence as the mistake that calls for an immanent reply and the concept of immanence as a constriction of a fuller truth, we are liberated, thank god, to do what we will with these stories. This time, we might even stay true to the thing, however we conceive it.

This essay was updated on January 17, 2019.