Voyou Désœuvré

In the wake of the discussion of Radical Orthodoxy some time ago, I’ve finally got round to listening to this CBS program about Milbank and Pickstock, two of the movement’s founders. It’s an extraordinarily good radio show – I can’t imagine the militantly middlebrow Radio 4, or it’s repetition-as-farce NPR, producing something half as intellectually serious. Great podcast though it is, it’s obviously not a complete account of Radical Orthodoxy; still, if it was accurate I can see where some of infinite thought’s concerns come from. Milbank and Pickstock put forward some interesting and persuasive criticisms of modernity; but there seemed to be an absence of the kind of thinking necessary to move forward from that critique, leaving Radical Orthodoxy in the end, as IT says, reactionary.

The problem is, Radical Orthodoxy appears to put forward an account of modernity as a decline—Pickstock I think says as much, describing modernity as a movement away from the immanence of God. What I don’t see, though, is an account of the internal necessity of this decline. Without such an account, it seems to me, we’re left with no way of understanding how the decline could be reversed, except by attempting to repeat a lost past; this is, surely, the very definition of reaction (and a claim that Milbank is reactionary should surely not be based on his avowed political commitments, but on the logic of theory with which he claims to ground them). I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from Marx:

The still immature communism seeks an historical proof for itself – a proof in the realm of what already exists – among disconnected historical phenomena opposed to private property, tearing single phases from the historical process and focusing attention on them as proofs of its historical pedigree (a hobby-horse ridden hard especially by Cabet, Villegardelle, etc.) By so doing it simply makes clear that by far the greater part of this process contradicts its own claim, and that, if it has ever existed, precisely its being in the past refutes its pretension to reality (1844 Manuscripts).

The last sentence is the crucial one. Does Radical Orthodoxy invoke a properly Christian past that “precisely its being in the past refutes its pretension to reality”? As I say, this is all based on one hour of radio, so it may have little relationship to actually-existing Radical Orthodoxy, but the mistake Marx points out here seems pretty prevalent in would-be radical thought, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for.


  1. Anthony Paul Smith, 11:47 am, August 30, 2007

    I think the key may be in this notion of a lost past. For Milbank and Pickstock, but less so for more right-wing ‘member’s Radical Orthodoxy (the ridiculous Phillip Blond and the more measured Adrian Pabst), it’s not a lost past but something that is languishing here and there and thriving throughout. It’s not past, is what I’m trying to say, John doesn’t think the parish system (which Dominic has written a good post about) is over, he thinks its threatened by certain notions of protestant progress. That’s why he has that comment about hating ‘Church for Skateboarders’. It’s not that John hates skateboarders, he hates the notion that we all have our own, vacuum packed and individualized spirituality. The parish is a community for all (and I’ve experienced this in practice, though I’ve also been in an inverse situation).

    I do think there are things to worry about here and, though I think on the whole John and Catherine’s logic isn’t reactionary tout court, sometimes they do express a bit of nostalgia. I’m not sure that makes them fascist, in fact I was mainly disappointed in the lack of care with which this word was bandied about, but not being fascist does not mean the same thing as perfect.

    Still, I’m not so certain the logic of reaction is so easily differentiated from the logic of revolution. At least not as you’ve given it above.

    Thanks for revisiting this with care.

  2. voyou, 12:01 pm, August 30, 2007

    Thanks Anthony. I was reading Habermas on Foucault this morning, and it did occour to me this idea of a past which isn’t exactly past (which I think is what genealogy hopes to find) doesn’t really fit in Marx’s division. I’d be interested, if I ever get the time, to find out how Milbank and Pickstock work out this idea.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith, 12:14 pm, August 30, 2007

    I think they have a handy phrase that kind of gives you an intuition into it: liturgy is non-identical repetition through asymmetric exchange. I think it goes something like that, where the one side of the ontology is that of time and the other is that of matter.

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