November 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

I wrote the following paragraphs for an essay I was working on in spring, but the section never made it into the final version (in part because it relies too much on secondary sources and i didn’t have time to go deeper into it, and in part because the paper itself was far too long already). So the paragraphs resurface here, instead. Some thoughts on Agamben’s treatment of al-Ghazali, after the break.

In Islam, Agamben writes in Potentialities, questions about the relationship between potentiality and actuality constituted the “subject of the rupture between the motekallemim [sic], that is, the Sunnite theologians, and the falasifa.” While the falasifa inquired into the principles and laws by which “the possible” engages the creative act, the “Asharites” (“who represent the dominant current of Sunnite orthodoxy”) “hold an opinion that not only destroys the very concepts of cause, law, and principle but also invalidates all discourse on the possible and the necessary, thus undermining the very basis of the falasifa’s research.” By Agamben’s account, they disarticulate creation from all laws and causal relations, referring every act, volition, and faculty to the work of God: “when the dyer soaks the white cloth in the indigo barrel or when the blacksmith hardens the blade in the fire, the dye does not penetrate the cloth to color it and the heat of the fire does not render the blade incandescent. Rather, it is God himself who establishes a coincidence, one that is habitual but itself purely miraculous…” These theologians “drive all experience of possibility from the world” only for it to reappear “in God.” Agamben then cites a passage from the thirty-fifth book of al-Ghazali’s monumental Revival of the Religious Sciences in which an “inquiring wayfarer” investigates the origin of a written text, following the causal chain from paper to ink to pen to hand to potentiality to will to science and finally reaching the “impenetrable veils of divine Potentiality, from which a terrible voice thunder[s]: ‘One does not ask God for reasons for what he does; but reasons for your actions will be demanded.’” This text is then described as demonstrative of an “Islamic fatalism (which is the origin of the darkest name for the concentration-camp inhabitant, the Muselmann[1])” that is “grounded not in an attitude of resignation but, on the contrary, in a limpid faith in the incessant operation of divine miracles.” The consequences are dire: the very category of possibility is “wholly destroyed,” for the grounds of properly human potentiality have been obliterated. “There is only the inexplicable movement of the divine hand,” which cannot be foreseen and “which the writing tablet [has] no reason to expect.” Against this theological destruction of possibility by the Ash‘ari al-Ghazali, philosophy is “a firm assertion of potentiality, the construction of an experience of the possible as such.”[2]

What is lamentable about this moment in Potentialities is not simply that Agamben reproduces an infelicitous account of Ash‘ari or al-Ghazali’s views on causation but, more problematically, the ease by which he is able to mobilize Sunni tradition as a foil for his own argument. This occludes its alternative approaches to the philosophical problems he addresses, making the historiographical dimensions to his argument also a bid for a certain kind of sovereignty.

Agamben’s project writ large is the articulation of a form of actuality that ‘gives itself back’ to potentiality. Reading Aristotle’s argument that every potentiality (dynamis) is also an impotentiality (adynamia), Agamben suggests that “what is potential can pass over into actuality only at the point at which it sets aside its own potential not to be (its adynamia).” To set im-potentiality aside, however, “is not to destroy it but, on the contrary, to fulfill it, to turn potentiality back upon itself in order to give itself to itself.” The passage from potentiality to actuality, Daniel Heller-Roazen explains, is then not the “elimination” of potentiality but its “conservation” as such. Actuality is thus “nothing other than a potentiality to the second degree,” a potential “not to be (or do) turned back upon itself,” recasting the complex relationship between what is and what is not.[3] In briefly exploring al-Ghazali’s views on causation and potentiality, I gesture toward a heterological dimension to Ash‘ari metaphysics that is utterly foreclosed in Agamben’s dismissal.

The similarities between al-Ghazali and the Islamic philosophers Agamben defends against Sunni orthodoxy are all the more uncanny for Agamben’s attention to Aristotle in the same chapter. Indeed, al-Ghazali adopts Aristotelian relative time and space and even a modified Aristotelian naturalism, rejecting only the eternality of the world. However, he maintains a strident scepticism regarding the phenomenological experience of causation, developing a complex taxonomy of causes in order to maintain the ultimate sovereignty of God and account for the multitude of apparent effects.[4] Visible actions, that is, “should not be confused with efficient causes.” They are more likely instrumental causes and are perhaps actual causes, but are not sole or sufficient in themselves. Things exist because of the first cause, God. Al-Ghazali thus rejects the presumption that “temporal contiguity reveals a causal connection at all.”[5] While we can phenomenologically recognize operational patterns at work, our powers of inference only extend so far. In Ebrahim Moosa’s paraphrase, “existence ‘with’ a thing does not prove it exists ‘because of’ it.”[6] Moreover, these causes can appear and disappear, for “there is nothing essential in these receptacles that means they ought to take on the shapes that they do or the colors that appear in them the way they do…The only reason they occur the way they do is because of a divine deliberation and choice.”[7] This divine decision is precisely the essence of will, according to al-Ghazali: “to make a difference where it does not find one—to choose a time as the first moment of creation, despite the fact that any moment, considered in the abstract, would be the same as any other.”[8] The world can happen other-wise, he asserts in contrast to the philosophers’ reification of principles into the very nature of things. Moosa describes al-Ghazali’s careful preservation of this divine prerogative as a “non-totalizing aspect in Ghazali’s metaphysics” and a “penumbra of uncertainty…that resists a totalizing narrative.”[9]

The difference between al-Ghazali and the philosophers Agamben defends against him hinges precisely on “how the possible is imagined.” Although al-Ghazali polemically concedes the “imaginal possibility that anything could happen [due to] divine self-sufficiency,” this need not undermine the grounds for knowledge or philosophy—or, as Agamben implies, lead to an “Islamic fatalism” echoed in the sublime abjection of the concentration camps’ Musselmänner. Indeed, Moosa argues precisely that al-Ghazali’s views on causation enter reason into “conversation” with the “poetic imagination.”[10] Where he differs from the philosophers “is over their attempt to treat the logical and the natural nexus among events as coextensive or identical.”[11] There are possibilities, that is, that ‘may or may not occur.’ The realm of possibility is unbounded: actuality does not “exhaust the scope of possibility.”[12] Al-Ghazali has no certainty, in Derrida’s idiom, that the future will always reproduce the present, announce itself or present itself as a future present in the modified form of the present.[13] The heterogeneous time thus convened maintains an openness to the coming of what is entirely unexpected, the arrival of something or someone or an event that ruptures the horizon of expectation. The limits of reason, again in Moosa’s paraphrase, open onto a limitless ontological shore that imagines all possibilities are possible but whose articulation are “restricted by the limitations that inhere in language and reason.” Where ontology is not constrained by this epistemic structure, however, opens the “realm where a taste for things and intuitions flourishes and where subjects have experiences in a unique state where essences are annihilated and pure being subsists.”[14]

Although motivated by very different operating principles and presumptions, both al-Ghazali and Agamben philosophically develop theories about the relationship between potentiality and actuality that refuse the exhaustion of the former in the latter. For Agamben, actuality must be reconsidered as a second-order form of potentiality, as the potentiality to not not be. For al-Ghazali, actuality must be reconsidered as one effect of the divine difference inscribed in limitless imaginal potentialities. While Agamben might still accuse al-Ghazali of making an argument from authority, banishing properly human potentiality into the divine realm, al-Ghazali might similarly accuse Agamben (like the philosophers he defends) of offering an ultimately closed metaphysics. It is this point of encounter—with all its perilous translations, its mutual accusations, its uncanny recognitions—that is foreclosed in Agamben’s brief account of Sunni Ash‘ari orthodoxy.

[1] For further exploration of this connection, see Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 140–149.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford University Press, 1999), 248–249. For al-Ghazali’s critical Ash‘arism, see the debate between Frank and Marmura, and Kojiro Nakamura, “Was Ghazali an Ash‘arite?” The Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko 51 (1993): 1–24.

[3] Daniel Heller-Roazen, “Editor’s Introduction: ‘To Read What Was Never Written” in Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 16–17.

[4] For a comprehensive exploration of causation and potentiality in al-Ghazali, see Frank Griffel, Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). He makes reference to the parable Agamben draws on at page 219.

[5] Lenn E. Goodman, “Did al-Ghazali Deny Causality?” Studia Islamica 47 (1978): 91.

[6] Ebrahim Moosa, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 182.

[7] Ibid., 183.

[8] Lenn E. Goodman, “Time in Islam,” Asian Philosophy 2, no. 1 (1992): 16.

[9] Moosa, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, 183.

[10] Ibid., 186.

[11] Goodman, “Did al-Ghazali Deny Causality?” 115.

[12] Goodman, “Time in Islam,” 16.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2002), 256.

[14] Moosa, Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, 187. Moosa thus urges a distinction between al-Ghazali’s skeptical but essentialist epistemology (for knowledge turns not on an ungrounded cogito but on an unfathomable, unknowable, and nonrepresentable sovereign divine being) and his antiessentialist ontology.


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