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Courting the Abyss updates the philosophy of free expression for a world that is very different from the one in which it originated. The notion that a free society should allow Klansmen, neo-Nazis, sundry extremists, and pornographers to spread their doctrines as freely as everyone else has come increasingly under fire. At the same time, in the wake of 9/11, the Right and the Left continue to wage war over the utility of an absolute vision of free speech in a time of increased anxieties about national security. Courting the Abyss revisits the tangled history of free speech, finding resolutions to these debates hidden at the very roots of the liberal tradition.
A mesmerizing account of the role of public communication in the Anglo-American world, Courting the Abyss shows that liberty's earliest advocates recognized its fraternal relationship with wickedness and evil. While we understand freedom of expression to mean "anything goes," John Durham Peters asks why its advocates so often celebrate a sojourn in hell and the overcoming of suffering. He directs us to such well-known sources as the prose and poetry of John Milton and the political and philosophical theory of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., as well as lesser-known sources such as the theology of Paul of Tarsus. In various ways they all, he shows, envisioned an attitude of self-mastery or self-transcendence as a response to the inevitable dangers of free speech, a troubled legacy that continues to inform ruling norms about knowledge, ethical responsibility, and democracy today.
A world of gigabytes, undiminished religious passion, and relentless scientific discovery calls for a fresh account of liberty that recognizes its risk and its splendor. Instead of celebrating noxious doctrine as proof of society's robustness, Courting the Abyss invites us to rethink public communication today by looking more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of liberty and evil.
'"Free speech is not only under attack, it is misunderstood. The political tradition that once sustained it is fading, and its very defenders often undermine it by making a spectacle of their own tolerance. In this context, John Durham Peters's judicious tracing of both the free speech tradition and the moral and intellectual challenges it faces is very welcome. Courting the Abyss is an eloquent plea for more careful thought and a wise analysis of our predicament. It is not entirely reassuring, but it is eminently valuable."
— Craig calhoun
"Peters has written an interesting and provocative book. . . . Courting the Abyss is about free speech generally, but it focuses on this suggestion that we all become better people through tolerating the most hateful and diabolical speech, by staring at and listening to the Nazis and the racists in our midst. Peters is interested particularly in the expression of a Stoic sense of virtue and self-mastery in the free-speech position. The civil libertarian says: I am sufficiently in control of myself to look on the Nazis without contamination. I will not be brought down to their level. By staring at their swastikas and paying attention to their slogans, I grow and become a better person. Indeed, we all become better people and our society becomes a better society with this ability to look unflinchingly into the abyss of racial hatred. Peters’s book is a story of ‘abyss-artists’, who put their evil on public display, and ‘abyss-redeemers’, who believe in a moral alchemy that can make virtue out of our gaze into hell. (Abyss-avoiders, on the other hand, are those who recoil from the display and either shield their own and others’ eyes or at least demand a better reason for ‘defending to the death’ the Nazis’ right to march through Skokie.) Abyss-redemption, he says, is a major and neglected theme in the history of liberal thought. . . . Peters has, I think, done us a service in pursuing this idea of abyss-redemption. I don’t mean he commends it to us: he does not. But he rightly observes that we had better come to terms with it if we want to understand what is really going on, what has been going on for centuries, in free-speech debates. More than that, Courting the Abyss explores a number of connections between abyss-redemption as used specifically in this context, and other areas of life and culture where it is said that we are the better for gazing unflinchingly at sin or death or evil."
— Jeremy Waldron
Sin is behovely. -T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
THE PUZZLE OF PAUL
Paul of Tarsus is one of those figures about whom too much has been written and said; his name is invoked for good and evil throughout the world. He is often associated with some of the most troubled sides of Christianity: the institutional church and its oppression of women, sexual minorities, and Jews. Holy man or empire-builder, proud Roman citizen or defier of earthly powers, theological codifier or religious ecstatic, arch-patriarch or voice for equality of the sexes, joyous proclaimer that the law is dead or life-hating foe of the flesh: there is not much consensus about who he was. We hardly know what to call him. Saint Paul? Saul? Paul of Tarsus? This intense man stood, perhaps more than any other figure in history, at the railroad switch between Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Christian civilizations. Whether he distilled or destroyed Jesus's message is still an open question. His legacies, real and imagined, are diverse: sources for universalism, racism, Protestantism, Romanticism, Marxism, liberalism, even psychoanalysis, can be found in him. Augustine saw in Paul a forerunner fighting the battle of the flesh and the spirit; Luther read him as foreshadowing his own religious agony; Renan, speaking for much of the nineteenth century, took him as the founder of institutional Christianity and thus, to a large extent, the perverter of the religion of Jesus. For Nietzsche, Paul epitomized what he most hated-in what must rank as one of the most magnificently willful receptions of another's views in the history of thought, considering the remarkable structural similarities in their main ideas. More recently Paul has been resurrected as an interlocutor in cultural theory and philosophy by atheists and Catholics, Jews and Protestants, and the odd Lacanian: Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Stanislas Breton, Daniel Boyarin, and Slavoj Zizek. Paul anticipates modern philosophical terms such as Hegel's dialectic, Marx's class, Nietzsche's anti-Christ, and Weber's calling. "Paul and the reactions to Paul are thus a major source for a historicization of our cultural predicament."
One can study Paul only, to use his phrase, with "fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). One central difficulty is the sheer militancy of his doctrine, his pressure to force a commitment on the part of the reader. To appropriate his thought for purposes other than the direct preaching of the cross is seemingly to violate his omnipresent purpose. His boastfulness, self-referentiality, apparent inconsistency, defensiveness, and tirades have long constituted a high barrier for some readers. His extraordinarily evocative eloquence, his knack for parallelism, and his excursions into hymn and poetry, on the other hand, have made him deeply beloved of others. How many weddings have been graced by his chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13? Augustine called Paul "our great orator." Paul can erupt into great geysers of eloquence. He is the master of the denunciation, the preemptive self-clarification, the pithy nugget, or a swoop into the valley of mortality. The occasional fury and violence of his language sometimes seem at odds with the attitudes he counsels. As Matthew Arnold noted, "Never surely did such a controversialist, such a master of sarcasm and invective, commend, with such manifest sincerity and such persuasive emotion, the qualities of meekness and gentleness!"
John Locke, one of many readers of Paul in the liberal tradition and one of the few who explicitly admitted it, tried to account for the peculiar plasticity of his texts, which, Locke noted, abound in meaning for ordinary readers but puzzle the learned. He attributed the diverse reception of Paul to several factors: (1) the nature of epistolary writing, in which much may be tacitly understood between writer and recipient; (2) the odd character of New Testament Greek generally, which is heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic; (3) Paul's loose use of personal pronouns (such as his frequent floating "we"); and (4) the posthumous division of his writings into chapters and verses so "that not only the common people take the verses usually for distinct aphorisms." Though he did not add another, more recently noted factor, (5) the dense interleaving of first-century rabbinical and Hellenistic culture, Locke fingers some of the key problems. Lost shared references, a moody style, an alien world, and fragmentary format: all these things make Paul one of the great inkblots for nearly two millennia of opinion. Paul's letters are a script from which both friends and foes since have taken speaking parts.
To read Paul as a theorist of communication, as I do here, is also to enter into communication difficulties with a figure who perhaps best exemplifies the principle that authorship is a slippery matter of authority more than of who really put pen to paper. All we have of Paul are communications at a distance, composed in conditions of absence, to specific people and situations of which we have often only the vaguest notion. All of his writings are occasional, oriented to a specific situation of specific people. We have no general treatise from him, though the epistle to the Romans has often been read this way. We still know his letters by their intended audiences (Romans, Corinthians, etc.), in contrast to the general New Testament letters known by their ascribed authors-James, Peter, John, and Jude. Paul's epistles were not theoretical treatises sent to whom it may concern, but traces of interactions, and we have access to only his half of the conversation. We are cryptographers eavesdropping on messages not intended for us. We belated readers of Paul are in a situation similar to that of his first readers: deciphering texts sent from afar. Discourse liberated from an immediate situation, the rhetorical brilliance of his letters creates and implies new situations, and writes itself into many others. Since the first century people have been writing in his name, and just what Paul wrote has been a puzzle that modern scholarship has tried to untangle (seven of the letters attributed to him in the New Testament canon have escaped serious doubts about Pauline authorship among modern scholars, the so-called undisputed letters: Romans; 1 and 2 Corinthians; Galatians; 1 Thessalonians; Philippians; and Philemon, all of which were written between 50 CE and 58 CE). After his death Paul grew into texts he did not author in the same way that his audiences, once the members of tiny Christian communities throughout the Hellenized Mediterranean, subsequently grew into hundreds of millions. (Modern scholarship calls Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and Colossians "deutero-Pauline," and 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus "pseudo-Pauline.") Paul's literary remnants are a giant switchboard for connecting senders and receivers in a communication network distended over space and time. As with Homer and other founders of traditions, mysterious authorship is often as enabling as it is debilitating. That Paul's name was an attractive authority for early Christian writers suggests what W. H. Auden said of Freud: "to us he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion." Reading Paul's letters has constituted perhaps the central hermeneutical enterprise in the European tradition.
The discourse-network of Paul's time informs his reflections on communication, specifically, about the difference between speaking by letter and speaking in person, presence and absence. Paul effectively adapts the letter as a genre of preaching and intervention in Christian culture. Paul's letters were dictated to an assistant (except for Galatians where Paul admits, not perhaps without a pride in classy sloppiness like the handwriting of doctors today, to have written the letter with his own hand; Gal. 6:11). His scribe for the epistle to the Romans was appropriately named Tertius ("third party" or "witness" in Latin), who takes the liberty of adding his own greeting to Paul's long list of personal greetings to the saints at Rome (Rom. 16:22). His letters began and ended as voiced speech and were designed to be read and heard aloud in the assembly (see 1 Thes. 5:27), not as private silent reading, which was relatively rare in antiquity anyway. Few people in Paul's time would ever even face a written document. The intimate letter, sent from one person to another for their eyes only, is historically recent. There were no envelopes or mailboxes in the Roman Empire. "The transmission of letters was entirely a matter of private arrangements between individuals. Although there was an imperial post, it was exclusively for the use of the emperor's staff, and it was not available to the general public. To send a letter to another city, it was necessary to find someone who was going there and would be willing to take it." (Phoebe the diakonos delivered Paul's letter to the Romans, for instance.) Paul's use of the epistle certainly had cultural precedents: the epistula was a literary genre in Roman culture, and Cicero's or Seneca's letters were intended as generalizable ethical counsel, not private advice, just as Acts, like the Gospel of Luke, was addressed to Theophilus ("friend of God"), a name with perhaps both a generic and a specific reference (as Luke-Acts was probably intended for publication on the Roman literary market). Addresses, like authors, are usually approximations.
All letters are apologies for absence, but Paul's letters also seek to explain Christ's absence, the delay of the parousia (presence, i.e., his return). The proximate cause of his first letter (that we know of), 1 Thessalonians, is the concern that Christ's return, which Paul had announced, was taking longer than expected. (Deutero-Pauline 2 Thessalonians tries to clarify 1 Thessalonians.) We might read Paul as an apologist for absence, and communication theorists are always more interesting when they start with absence rather than presence. Paul is absent from his friends; Christ is absent from the church; the church is absent from itself, being spread across diverse cities. Paul's epistolary practice, as Peter Simonson argues, figures the church as a community dispersed in space, not unlike the social configurations later enabled by print culture and broadcasting. Paul's vision of a collective that is united ritually at a distance is a central source for the western tradition of theorizing mass communication and anticipates print culture's national readerships and electronic media's simultaneous but dispersed audiences. The salutation that opens 1 Corinthians, for instance, is addressed to "the church of God which is in Corinth ... together with all those who are calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in whatever place [en panti topo], both theirs and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2). Here is the imagined "horizontal comradeship" among a geographically dispersed population that Benedict Anderson regards as the origin of the modern nation. The phrase "theirs and ours" is grammatically ambiguous, suggesting both "their Lord and ours" or "their place and ours." Either reading gives us a far- flung assembly-Paul's term for church, ekklesia, classically signified a political assembly-united by forms of communication that bind people together across various places, an assembly that, as the subsequent history of his letters suggests, can stretch across hemispheres and millennia. Paul calls on the church; the church, in turn, calls upon Christ. He calls a body that is calling. His letter serves as the first step in a two-step relay, the communicative means of constituting the assembly, which then, in step two, unites in calling yet another source. Paul joins the two key types of mass communication-broadcasting (one calling to many) and acclamation (many calling to one). Paul and Christ take similar structural positions in the circuit of communication: twin termini, the mouth (Paul) or ear (Christ) of the calling. Apostle/epistle: agents that are sent to extend presence across distance and absence.
In a sense the problem of how to read Paul was alive from the beginnings of the New Testament canon. This is a chief topic of many of the letters directly from Paul, as well as the letters that purport to be from him (e.g., Ephesians or 1-2 Timothy) or clearly respond to him (2 Peter, Jude). Acts, written decades after Paul's death, weighs in on his identity as well, portraying him as a heroic missionary to the Gentiles, performing miracles, surviving shipwrecks, defending his doctrine before magistrates, judges, philosophers, and priests, on a triumphant journey through the eastern Mediterranean world that culminates geographically and symbolically in Rome. The Paul of the letters is an equally cantankerous but different fellow from the Paul of Acts. Paul in Acts is a courageous crusader, a brilliant master of the standard genres of Hellenistic eloquence, an unstoppable force; in the epistles he is a more gnarled and tender figure, all too human compared with the resourceful hero of Acts, by turns apologetic, furious, browbeating, and rhapsodic, gifted with an original theological and moral imagination of the very first order. Acts also makes Paul a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the respected rabbi who defends the young Christian movement in a strikingly libertarian way. Noting an earlier messianic movement that came to a bad ending (the short life of so many past "fighting faiths"), Gamaliel exhorts the Sanhedrin: "Let them alone: for if this council or this work be of humans, it will be destroyed; but if it is of God, you will not be able to destroy it" (Acts 5:38-39). Either way toleration is the best policy, leaving truth or error to fend for itself. Gamaliel the Elder-and the rabbinic tradition-are thus one source for what we think of as liberal tolerance, as I suggest below.
My aim is to read Paul as a theorist of communication and of public space, including as a source of ideas about liberty of expression. Paul offers a variety of resources toward understanding communication and public life today. Fortunately this approach requires little straining, since liberty and communication are among the most prominent themes in his letters. It exceeds my competence to explore the details of Paul's situation in first-century culture or discuss important but technical debates about exegesis. Paul has been given new life in recent decades by the so-called new perspective on Paul, which saves him from being the sole interpretive property of theologians (especially the Lutheran tradition, which long read him as a rebel against Judaism) and makes him available to cultural history as one of the most interesting and influential thinkers in world history. Recognizing Paul's Jewishness is not only intellectually important, but also morally and politically important, since it allows for fresh recognitions of affinity and ancestry. The founders of Christianity were Jews: this obvious fact has rarely been grappled with fully (it is a variant of the foreign-founders script). Despite the placement of Paul's letters in the New Testament after the four Gospels and Acts, they deserve a special status not only as the earliest surviving canonical documents of early Christianity but also as an unparalleled glimpse into the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew.
To use his own term, Paul is a figure (typos) of things to come (Rom. 5:14). Nineteen and a half centuries later, brief passages call for attention as the embryos of entire cultural problems we face today in public communication. Single phrases in Paul's writings now resound with meaning for our contemporary condition. This is the principle of retroactive enrichment: the accumulation of intellectual residues makes texts richer in maturity than they were in youth. Paul is a rich quarry for the variety of options that confront us for thinking about public space: the notion, shared by liberals and civil libertarians, that everything is permitted; the tactic, shared by "abyss-redeemers" such as John Milton and his many legatees, of edging as close as possible to the crest of the abyss without falling in; the antinomian or Romantic faith that strength of conscience has the power to define right and wrong; the pragmatist sense that collisions of interest must inevitably compromise world-making ambitions; and the insistence that knowledge is not necessarily the best way to cope with evil. I will focus on a repertoire of attitudes in Paul's writings: the advantages of absence; the priority of the onlooker; the (uneasy) demarcation of zones of religious neutrality; the benefits of impersonality; the willingness to play host to dangerous doctrine; and the hope that crime can be redeemed. This family of gestures makes an important intervention in contemporary debates about social theory generally and free expression in particular. My point is not that the historical Paul necessarily thought all these things, but that his texts authorize such thoughts. Paul gives us almost everything that recent civil libertarians do-respect for autonomy and appreciation for liberty-without the nihilism or moral thinness. As a religious theorist of liberty who encourages critical analysis of self and society, Paul is suggestively situated beyond (or before) the impasse of critical rationality, cultural relativism, and fundamentalism.
Excerpted from COURTING THE ABYSS by John Durham Peters Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Introduction: Hard-Hearted Liberalism
The Intellectual Options Today
Liberals, Civil Libertarians, and Liberalism
The Free Speech Story
Self-Abstraction and Stoicism
The Method of Perversity
Chapter 1. Saint Paul's Shudder
The Puzzle of Paul
The Case of Meat at Corinth
The Privilege of the Other
In Praise of Impersonality
Hosting Dangerous Discourse
Stoic, Rhetorician, Jew
Chapter 2. "Evil Be Thou My Good": Milton and Abyss-Redemption
Areopagitica, a Misplaced Classic
Scouting into the Regions of Sin
The Morality of Transgression
Chapter 3. Publicity and Pain
The Public Realm as Sublimation
Locke's Project of Self-Discipline
Adam Smith and the Fortunate Impossibility of Sympathy
Mill and the Historical Recession of Pain
Stoic Ear, Romantic Voice
Publicity and Pain
Chapter 4. Homeopathic Machismo in Free Speech Theory
The Traumatophilic First Amendment
Holmes and Hardness
Brandeis and Noxious Doctrine
Hardball Public Space and the Suspended Soul
Impersonality, or Openness to Strangeness
Chapter 5. Social Science as Public Communication
Positivism as Civic Discipline
The Arts of Chaste Discourse
Democracy and Numbers
Objectivity and Self-Mortification
Ways to Rehearse Death
Chapter 6. "Watch, Therefore": Suffering and the Informed Citizen
Pity and Its Critics
News and the Everlasting Now
Chapter 7. "Meekness as a Dangerous Activity": Witnessing as Participation
Witnessing with the Body
Witnessing from Captivity
Persons as Objects
Martin Luther King's Principled Passivity
Democracy and Imperfection
Conclusion: Responsibility to Things That Are Not
The Sustainability of Free Expression
The Wages of Stoicism