In what follows, Noreen Khawaja and Nancy Levene, authors respectively of the recently published books, The Religion of Existence and Powers of Distinction, engage one another in critical dialogue.

Both of our books contend with ideas central to Western thought, to the history of concepts, and to present concerns about religion, freedom, and power. The dialogue is shaped by the fact that we also happen to be colleagues. Years of spontaneous staircase banter, overlapping pedagogical concern, and administrative partnership have built the way to this exchange. We have a great deal in common and a great deal is at stake for each of us in this common. This is the first time we have taken up each other’s work in writing. The questions we address here have grown in this interval—books that have everything to do with one another, colleagues waiting for the right moment to think through their differences, two people who have known each other and worked together for several years, uncertain of how a serious discussion of their work will affect the pitch of collaboration.

The exchange begins in medias res, but the questions are of broad concern: the interconnectedness of thought and history, what it means to center a work of thought on a principle as compared to a tradition, how that choice affects the lines we draw between friends and opponents, the complex relations between asceticism, modernity, and love, the question of personhood, and how the work of reading transforms us.


Nancy Levene: I take the principal story in The Religion of Existence to involve the acute connection of Pietism and existentialism, together with the thinkers Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, a story not of secularization but of common ideas: of the self, of work, of sin, of spiritual labor, of existence. The book discloses a history of ascetic ideas in the West, one that predates the two modern traditions it names (and names precisely as traditions) but that newly comes into view in these traditions’ striking concordance. In telling this story, The Religion of Existence disturbs the one that holds Christianity (or theology) and philosophy apart—now the one and now the other the handmaid; now the one in eclipse and now the other. It maintains that more fundamental is what they share, a view precipitated by existentialist claims concerning freedom, authenticity, and the primacy of existence-as-one’s-own. Although versions of a story in the vague neighborhood of these claims are routinely advanced, The Religion of Existence lays waste to any vagueness, rewriting the tale, the elements, the history, the concepts, and the stakes, which are considerable. In the exegetical ingenuity of its argument, everything changes.

The book stands as an exemplar of how central an author’s own mind is in the telling of a history of ideas; how creative this work can be. My question is, what and when is the thing the protagonists are arguing with—call it metaphysics, the Romantic self, essentialism—a “stable me,” a moral norm, a substantial thing? Heidegger popularizes a concept of metaphysics that he himself brings to an end. The Religion of Existence invites Kierkegaard and Sartre to the task, going further than Heidegger to give us the indiscernible religio-reason of an asceticism that constitutes a story in the shadows. This story has great integrity. Does Heidegger’s?

Noreen Khawaja: I am not sure whether you are saying that Heidegger’s story of philosophy is a bad story or a good story in which he overstates his own role. Either way, I think the question gives Heidegger too much credit. Why should his story about the end of metaphysics merit an extra knocking down? Insofar as his “end” is working ascetically—as a regulative feature of philosophical practice—I think my argument clarifies Heidegger’s metaphysical story. Insofar as his imagined “end” is not working ascetically but is meant to describe some independently present state of affairs, then I think Heidegger’s story could be fitted into some version of the modernization narratives I criticize in my conclusion (in the direction of: “It’s all contaminated so let’s go back to whatever comes before it.”).

You also seem to be asking when the contested thing (the self) is, indeed, contestable (stable/substantial/essentialized/metaphysical). I suppose the only answer: whenever it is. I don’t take you to be asking whether the object of existentialism’s critical remaking actually needs to be remade, because I see your work as practicing a related critique. Which brings me to my question for you:

Audre Lorde famously wrote that history’s most painful repetitions stem from the belief that the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house. The passage of Edward Said’s that glisters ingeniously through your book—can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems genuinely to be divided—seems to point us in another direction. Modernity, you argue, is the principle of this righteous confusion. We must critique division; we must also remember that critique comes from division and division elicits critique.

Does, and how does, the distinction of tool and house matter to your idea of modernity?

NL: Lorde is right. The master’s tools—narcissism, deception, revenge—will never dismantle the master’s house. In putting Lorde’s maxim this way, I gesture to what she practiced as a poet, an essayist, and an activist: the dismantling of the house, with tools it has not obscured. The speech is delivered at a 1979 conference on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex (1949)—Thirty Years Later,” in which Lorde calls out the gathering for its racism, homophobia, and political blindness. In one version of her remarks, she concludes with a passage from Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, a postcolonialist revision of Shakespeare’s play.

What Lorde exemplifies is the principle that the master’s house is neither impermeable nor inevitable. It can be distinguished from what a house might be. This distinction is not only between what is and what ought to be. It is the distinction of reality itself as expressive of Lorde’s commitment to difference as a value, in spite of our incapacities in face of it; reality as the relationship between existence and interpretation. Lorde stands as poetic instrument in concert with others. Her work is a tent in the desert.

Without this distinctive concept of reality, nothing can be dismantled, or, to borrow from The Religion of Existence, the house cannot be made one’s own. “Race” and “gender,” together with “class,” “sexuality,” and related markers, are not identities you simply have or don’t have. They name arbitrary asymmetries of power, resource, access, and labor. They name arbitrary constraints on human goods, including nourishment, friendship, mobility, and stability. And they name obscene stories of inhumanity entered permanently in the book of life. When critics appeal to such markers, they might be saying “You do not understand what it is like to be x, let me explain.” But they are also saying, “Share the load, even where your understanding comes to an end.” This is the demand of practical reason. There may be limits to reason. But there are no limits to its practical work: no limit to the charge to dismantle the master’s house.

This charge requires everything of persons, including dismantling one’s own submission to masters real and symbolic. It thus enjoins persons to care for themselves by the same standard. This is to see that the limitless charge of taking existence as shared is itself a limit, a distinction—from all positions that refuse, reduce, or eliminate the work.

NK: One of the things I most admire about Powers of Distinction is its seamless treatment of distinction as a tool, a concept, and a habit of thought. The principle behind this approach is shared by our books: write about “it” while testing the boundaries that separate it from whatever-else-there-is, but also while asking the reader to consider their own involvement in its constitution. Your book makes this claim with enviable clarity: distinction is a work of mind that can and must be historicized, but that cannot be contained by history, which is also a work of mind.

In linking Lorde’s concept of dismantling to my argument about appropriation, your remark reminds me of an impression I had early on in reading your book: This is a logic.

The book’s subtitle tells us that it is about religion and modernity. But wait: It is a logic about modernity/antiquity, about inheritance/freedom, about religion/secularity. Most works of philosophical logic deal in abstract symbols and do not treat history or politics beyond an anecdotal level. What does it mean for a logic to be about modernity and religion? What does it mean to consider the political work of concepts—powers of distinction—as a matter of logic? It is an unusual logic, admittedly, one whose relations to body and time and person are evident and central and multiple. Your book brings us to consider the rich possibilities of this new sort of logical enterprise.

With the question about Lorde, I wanted to suggest that there is a kind of dead zone in the passage from a logic of modern/nonmodern (or one’s-own/inherited) and Lorde’s distinction between tool and house. The principle of dismantling requires the distinction of made/inherited, and the work of dismantling may require everything we have, but is there not a difference (what I’m calling a dead zone) between the house being valued because it has been dismantled and remade and it being valued because it no longer shelters oppressors? Isn’t the word “practical” in your third paragraph above a way to name, without quite sounding out, this difference?

NL: The Book of Luke passage you link to brings out something between our books and ourselves as readers. For you, that passage means something like: in making repentance the issue, one will not be able to prevent it from becoming the only issue. For me it means something like: there is no righteousness without repentance. Even more, though, to have read your book is now to hear that passage with your voice next to mine. So, yes, there must be a difference between the two values. The activities of dismantling and remaking might busily recreate the problem. I take this to be Lorde’s point when she claims “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” My claim is that there are no tools excluded from the project of what Lorde calls “genuine change,” except those that are morally self-contradictory. Equally, there are no tools that cannot be used oppressively. What I learn from Lorde, above all, is the difference between difference as “powerful connection,” as, yes, practical, and difference as merely a distraction from foundations of supremacy. To adopt your terms, the work of a logic that treats history, politics, and personhood is to distinguish, for example, Lorde’s root concept of connection from distinctions specific to particular problems and distinctions whose operation is obfuscating. Distinction as obfuscation is my charge to Heidegger and this allows me to reformulate my question to you.

The Religion of Existence identifies two key features of existentialism: first, the “obligation continually to realize one’s freedom” (or authenticity) in appropriating or explicating what one has not chosen, the “thrownness” of existence (Da-sein); second, the dissolution of this “one” (self) in the very act by which existence is realized as mine. Together these express a complex history of asceticism authored by you. Simultaneously, the second is a history-within-your-history, coauthored by Heidegger, whose founding of philosophy without the subject would distinguish him from the others—and all precursors. Your history resists his by rewriting him together with his conceptual peers. One might also note Kierkegaard’s history, according to which the difference of Lorde’s “genuine change” lies in love, “for only in love is the different made equal, and only in equality or in unity is there understanding.” What of that story?

NK: Eminently worthy of love: there are no tools that cannot be used oppressively. Equally: difference as connection versus difference as shimmering alibi of supremacy. I hear you, and still wonder about the word “practical” as something like the philosopher’s mule—bearing loads that might impede the free movement of concepts. In your vision of modernity, the place of practice is reassigned, becoming part of the conceptual work of distinction. So what sort of distinction does the word “practical” imply?

I think we’ll need a critique of the subject—whether Heidegger’s, Michel Foucault’s, or Donna Haraway’s—as long as we keep making cultures that make us into subjects and then encourage us to forget how we got there. Forced to name Heidegger’s big idea, however, I wouldn’t pick his attempt to philosophize without the subject, but rather his efforts to write about what is, in the element and grammar of relation. Relation (which he sometimes calls difference, sometimes logos, sometimes remembrance, sometimes poetry, and which might also be called love) is his most fundamental thought. It is the basis of his critique of subjectivity, which he took as difference that obfuscates. But if this is so, then Heidegger is in the company of every significant thinker since forever, including Lorde and Kierkegaard. Has there ever been an idea worth remembering that wasn’t an idea of relation? Heidegger writes in an unusual time-signature, which allows the work of metaphysics to slow down and reorder itself in the face of new and forgotten friends. Like any white boy from nowhere who wants to grow up gangster, he thinks he’s the “realest” of all. But why should we care about that?

NL: There is reason to say that the center of gravity of The Religion of Existence is your thinking with Heidegger, a thinking that discloses the structure of his work by putting it in question via the larger story you are telling. In that larger story, Heidegger’s “depersonalization” and his transposition of the moral into a way of understanding being are among the most striking things about him in relation to Kierkegaard and Sartre. The three thinkers are intricately connected, you show, but the “ascetic logic” of each feels vitally anchored in your rendering of Heidegger’s position, “the ever opportune reliving, reopening, and reaffirming of that which has been determined.”

I would connect the sure-footed way in which you do the history of ideas—the free movement of your concepts—to your sense of Heidegger’s significance, which you name here his idea of relation. I am tempted further to connect this idea of relation with my own concept of practice. One thinks freely with others in being constrained by one’s relation to them—to their not having been determined by me. Interpretation is freedom, then, precisely (and only) in the practice of electrifying a relationship. No mule required. Or rather, the load borne would be Heidegger’s insofar as he is in pursuit of a grammar of relation without a grammar of power. It is not that I think he cannot be defended from this charge. It is that I do care about the power he arrogates to himself at the same time he closes down avenues of resistance. But here is the thing: When I take up your story, this worry fades.

NK: It’s a legitimate worry. Heidegger’s thinking is hypersensitive to questions of being and in matters of power shuffles between the malignant and the trivial. The central weakness of his thinking is his faith­­ that method could be the site of the universal in philosophy (where forms, categories, and deductive laws evidently could not). I’d distinguish this weakness sharply from the depersonalizing element, which, understood in electrifying relation to a broader arc of thinking about selves, persons, and the absences and hybrids that compose and recompose them, I consider an eminently ethical thought. What I called Heidegger’s depersonalized approach to the problem of belonging (the “own”) is not incompatible with a thinking about persons as the animacy of what you call in Powers of Distinction a “non-self-identical system.”

For me, Heidegger is not the center of The Religion of Existence; Sartre was much more an anchor in working out the ascetic logic that frames the book. But writing about Heidegger always felt like a creative death knell because of the supple and saturating character of his methodism. Until, in dialogue with Sartre and Kierkegaard, and also Max Weber and Lauren Berlant, I found a way to name this feature and make him flinch. Then his whole thinking cracked open, good, bad, and ugly. I still see value in his work, but I don’t see the arrogance in the same way.

These questions of gravitational centers, tools and their uses, grammars that codify power but do not think it, are as much about how and with whose help a given story can be told as about its content. I also see important connection in the philosophical core of our books: we are both engaged, albeit in quite different ways, in a critique of the in-itself. What do you think about this claim? Its limits?

NL: I embrace the claim, and elaborate it this way. To work in the guts of ideas-in-history is to identify what thinkers want and what they want to displace. A philosopher will have reasons for advancing big, counterintuitive claims: human beings are not free; there is no subject or author; there was only one Christian and he died on the cross. In understanding the claim, one strives to understand the desire, the conceptual targets, and their histories, named and unnamed. It becomes possible to connect thinkers who (think they) disagree and to emend or redo unconvincing stories—whether received secondhand or polemically advanced in the course of thought. I think of this work as learning another person at the same time as one’s own questions join and enlarge the authorship. It might equally be identified as a depersonalizing element of interpretation—in your words, the thinking about selves, persons, [and texts] and the absences and hybrids that compose and recompose them.

I don’t want to downplay the specificity of how you are thinking about ethics, how much it unsettles and provokes. As I recompose my own mind in this light, the question of content is inescapable. One name for the content at issue is paradox, which could also be a name for relation. Your figures, for example, are expressive of a story of asceticism, Christian (or simply biblical) and secular. But the content is (the) paradox: that truth is historical, that each is blind without the other, that they are at the philosophical core of each other, as of our books. In other words, a critique of what is in-itself. This is the content that makes it possible for readers to creatively enter (borrowing from Salman Rushdie) a “sea of stories.”

NK: In moving nimbly among these bound asymmetries—text/person, author/target, truth/history, content/form, blindness/creation—you take my question to a much more interesting place. This is also what’s so illuminating about Powers of Distinction: that with what seems like just one needle and just one spool of thread it is possible to bring together such diverse concepts, histories, images. And in the dimension revealed by this unprecedented connection to hear what they have already been saying to one another, and to us—from Anselm to Madeleine L’Engle, Wallace Stevens to René Descartes and Edward Said.

Your parenthesis—“Christian (or simply biblical)”—elicits a murmur at the edge of my thoughts that I’d like to examine. If the parallel is drawn between our books as critiques of the in-itself, my “asceticism” runs alongside your “modernity.” I recover among existentialists an ascetics of authenticity that works against the idea of a being in-itself; you recover across the open range of Western culture a principle of modernity cut into the work of every natural philosophy, every historical positivism. But then: Powers of Distinction is about this principle. No particular boundary (classical/modern, Christian/Jewish, religious/secular) holds up under its weight, because the principle names what gives life to the line. The Religion of Existence is about the critique of self-identity made possible when selves are enacted ascetically, but also about how the critical potential of asceticism diminishes when ascetic norms format the work of self-making. When the form (ascetic) becomes the content of authenticity, we can have the methodism of non-identity (difference as distraction?) rather than the thought, the principle, of relation. Is this perhaps why the adjectives mean more in my story than yours? Christian and not only biblical, Protestant and not only Christian—determinacies that condition how the principle of relation becomes pretext for self-reproduction, how the work of reform buckles under the pressure of mission.

NL: Yes. I really get this now. As you unfurl the relationship of our arguments, then, one clarification. The principle of modernity—the relationship of existence and interpretation, the notion that collective life is subject to the work for inclusion (difference)—is a history. If it cuts into “every” alternative, it does so in terms of a concept of “all” that is not given in the nature of things. No boundary is decisive, except this one. This is again to call upon the Kierkegaard of Philosophical Fragments, who grasps the structure of the diminishment you speak of. He calls it Christendom. (Friedrich Nietzsche calls it the bad conscience.) This is to say that, as much as your story rightly includes Kierkegaard in what one could call an ascetic mania, he is also involved with you in the spirit that identifies it. This coauthorship might be true of your other figures as well. But in Kierkegaard: it could be the line I’ve quoted from Fragments about love, or one on paradox, or on what it means to begin, to come into existence, to think historically. He conceives the structure on the basis of which one can find him here and there wading in the distracted bog of his own seducers and churchmen.

This power of his—yours—is about more than Christianity, adjectives and no adjectives. Or, as you (and he) show, Christianity is never merely itself. The one boundary, then: between the position (asceticism, modernity) and its diminishment (form as content), on the one hand, and what these vanish, on the other. Kierkegaard calls the latter “paganism.” The language is discordant, the distinction essential. So dangers need to be acknowledged, solidarities shored up.

NK: Right—the principle cuts into historical thinking and is itself a history. This suggests an amendment to my earlier claim—your vision of modernity is at once a logic and a philosophy of history.

Kierkegaard scholars have long tried to contain slippage between Kierkegaard’s interest in Christianity as a bounded religious formation (bounded by the concrete event of the God-man) and the principles at the heart of that interest—existence, irony, love, beginning, paradox. These discussions often seem turned on a choice between the particular and the universal: paradox in general, or just this particular paradox? If not just any paradox, then a wall has to be constructed around the particular, distinguishing it from the rest. That wall is usually built from the idea of revelation. Here and in Powers of Distinction, you offer a highly compelling path through this problem, rewriting the terms of the choice. The distinctness of this paradox lies not in its dogmatically-revealed-historical-positivity but in its embodiment of the principle: truth in time. A particular principle, yes, but as principle not only a particular, thus asking us to squint at the oppositions between Christian-Christendom and Christian-pagan, to think them anew.

Which returns us to the person. I am deeply interested in what you call the bog—the seducers and churchmen, and especially the way in which his thinking formed in the manic theater of their conversation (taking “distracted” in the early modern sense). They are the actors for whom the words were written, without whom they might not have been. When one delves into a body of work, sifting through the fractures of imagination that both nourish and constrain a given concept, the author-person is not just lying there, waiting for us to catch up, but is remade by the sifting. I read you as remaking Kierkegaard’s person around the principle you teach us to appreciate. This makes me consider the difference between person and principle.

One might say, in your idiom, that person and history occupy a similar place—the principle is history and that means a history in and of persons. What defines the bog? Part of the principle-person to be learned and supported through interpretation? Fruit of the person but betrayal of the principle? We draw these lines in different places within Kierkegaard’s authorship, but I sense more accord than not about how the lines are drawn.

NL: I love the first formulation of the bog. Kierkegaard’s conversations are part of the principle-person to be learned and supported through interpretation. To conclude from that place: In times of great upheaval, which this moment surely counts as, what does it mean to speak of principles at all? Who is in control of them, who gets to redo them, or light the torch for the bonfire? Who gets to say what, if anything, is left in the ashes? Who gets to speak first, or at all? Who is speaking for whom in saying “there is no ‘who,’ there is no ‘we’”? Who tells the story of how it all broke, or democratized; changed or didn’t? The temptation is—the resolution of these questions in either preaching or silence. The test of principle is whether, whoever its authors, it lets everyone speak as themselves, remake themselves, support others. The details? Let the storytellers continue to step forward.

NK: And we will continue not to know, in advance of any telling, how the test of a principle is to be distinguished from the temptation to resolve it. Sometimes mania—ascetic, aesthetic, or otherwise—diffuses concepts. And sometimes mania is the only form thought can have.