Redeeming Duality

My theological education has taught me to be suspicious of dualisms, from the Cartesian dualism between mind and matter to the conceptual and metaphysical dualisms such as form/content, speech/writing, universal/particular that post-structuralist thinkers are attempting to undercut. Nevertheless, it’s becoming apparent to me that the situation is more complex. Not all duality is equal. It very much depends on how one conceptualizes it. For example, duality often becomes dichotomy, in that two things are not only non-coincident with one another, but are opposed to one another, such that one side ends up dominating the other. This is how I understand what Derrida calls a binary opposition. We have separated out two pre-identified unities such as man and animal, or mind and body, or being and becoming, or universal and particular, or flow and stagnation, and then simply elevate the one over the other. I agree that this is problematic.

The more difficult question however, is how we are to cope with such problematic oppositions. It seems to be a common belief that duality itself is the problem and that we must do away with this structure altogether. This leads to the Hegelian move of attempting to synthesize everything into a larger whole. Get rid of the duality altogether and make the two sides merely aspects of one large immanent movement. This might be appropriate to some dichotomies (light and darkness are two points in a larger spectrum), however there are two things about it that appear problematic to me. First, theologically, I do not think we can apply it to all dichotomies – good and evil for example. We might want to say in Augustinian fashion that evil has no ontological status of it’s own, and that the two things are therefore not two opposing realities, but one reality and its absence. I think this is right, but surely this simply makes the dichotomy more profound. It is a dichotomy between something and nothing. There is a qualitative difference that we cannot reduce to two movements of some larger spirit. Precisely because this is not a metaphysical dualism of one kind (two things that have an equal claim to existence), it sets up a dichotomy of another kind, that we ought not to abolish unless we want to say that depression and the person suffering from depression have an equal right to exist. Again, not all duality is equal.

This brings me to the second problem, namely the classic Hegelian problem that this third really just ends up becoming another term in another duality. We ought to ask whether it is in fact possible to escape dualism altogether. It seems that a common way of eliminating duality is simply by choosing one side of what was previously a duality and affirming it as the entirety of reality while claiming that the other side of the duality simply doesn’t exist. So, contemporary metaphysics for example claims that all reality is immanent. There is no such thing as transcendence. But, while this clears up duality at the metaphysical level (there is only one sort of thing), the dualism persists at the religious, cultural level (those who affirm a transcendent and are associated with masculinity and violence versus those who do not and who associated with feminity and peace). Dualistic conflict still remains. It simply shifts. Another example is physicalist attempts to reduce persons to their biological identity is accompanied by the accumulation of willed, social identities, through the internet, that are divorced from our biological identity. This seems more problematic to me than a certain kind of distinction (albeit not a Cartesian one) between body and soul. This may all, as Hegel thought, lead us to a final unity, but I don’t know what evidence there is for this. It seems preferable to me that rather than attempting to escape duality, we identify dualities that are ethically helpful, and enable rather than impede unity. Is it possible to deactivate the violent implications of certain kinds of duality without violently undoing duality itself? Again, I do not necessarily think that such a thing is desirable with respect to all dualisms (good and evil for example), but it is important for many of them (think of the significance of eros here).

Giorgio Agamben is helpful here.  I will express this with respect to anthropological dualism in his thought – that between body and soul. The central theme of Agamben’s anthropology is that there is a split at the very heart of what it means to be human. Our humanity is constructed and negotiated as an interaction with this split. For Agamben, it is attempts to overcome this split that have resulted in political atrocities such as genocide and colonialism, because we think we can identify humanity as a unity and then exclude that which is not-human. In other words, we simply shift the split, the duality, from within ourselves to the periphery. Agamben’s approach to duality is not to synthesize, but to problematize. For example,  in The Time that Remains, Agamben deals with a religious and ethnic split – that between Jews and Gentiles. He suggests that messianic salvation is not one that produces a sameness or equality that allows all to be saved. Gentiles do not be come Jews or vice versa. Rather, the division between Jews and Gentiles is itself divided, opening up a remnant or rest, and thus making it impossible for a people, or an identity, to coincide with itself. Agamben defines this remnant as “neither the all, nor a part of the all, but the impossibility for the part and the all to coincide with themselves or with each other.”1 The result is that the legal operations that the Jew-Gentile division implied were rendered inoperative; not abolished, but suspended.

In dividing the division, the division is neither engulfed in a larger synthesis within which everything is equal to itself. Nor is it a dichotomy in which two whole unities are opposed to one another. Rather, the identities of each are muddied, and the caesura also becomes a suture – the site of a particular sort of unity between two non-coincident things that nevertheless conspire together. With respect to anthropology, Agamben sees a similar division of division in the eschatological body in which a certain duality is maintained, but is probelamtized to allow for perfect unity, although not the unity of simplicity. In the parousia, the resurrected body’s image, or likeness to itself, remains immutable, but its material composition is in a state of ebb and flow.2 This opened up the possibility of a certain movement appropriate to the post-resurrection body, which applies to both the body as a whole and to the movement of its internal processes. This glorified-movement is distinct from the movement of our present bodies in that it is not goal-directed. The organs cannot be used, they can only be displayed through a movement of “inoperativity,” or Sabbath rest – a sort of empty repetition in which the functions of the body are not directed towards a goal, but exhibit themselves in a movement for the glorification of God.3

According to this account, the resurrected person, in a sense, continues to be split. The body’s image or likeness to itself on the one hand, is the site of the immutability and eternity of the resurrected body, but there exists on the other hand a certain kind of movement, or rhythm of ebb and flow, that is also appropriate to the resurrected body. A glorified separation between body and soul is one in which man is traversed by two different sorts of redemption appropriate to both sides of the split. On the one hand, there is a raising of the soul to immortality and immutability. But this would be artificial without the saving of the body for its own distinct salvation precisely as creaturely and transient. Thus, we might say that the relationship between immutability and movement represents a post-resurrection extension of a soul-body relationship which is freed from the goal-directedness of the anthropological machine, and the tendency towards the domination of one side over the other that it implies, and is instead exhibited to the glory of God. Agamben says that salvation means precisely that “neither must man master nature nor nature man. Nor must both be surpassed in a third term that would represent their dialectical synthesis…what is decisive here is only the ‘between,’ the interval or, we might say, the play between the two terms, their immediate constellation in a non-coincidence.”4 So, the unifying relationship between immutability and movement is made possible by their non-coincidence.

Thus, duality itself is not a problem for Agamben. It must simply be complexified in order for it to be a means of unity rather than division.


1 Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 55.

2 Giorgio Agamben, Nudities 93.

3 Agamben, Nudities 95-6.

5 Agamben, The Open, 83.


3 comments on “Redeeming Duality

  1. I love this point about dividing the division! The dynamism is so interesting: it seems remarkable to me way dualisms fold into themselves, continuously into infinity, perhaps always-already intolerable or ‘unendurable’. I am tempted to submit that it is these crystalline structures of ‘extended’ implications which are precisely what make dualisms so complex and profound, and ‘infinitely’ more so than their trivial/superficial explicit sense.

    It seems to me Derrida is perhaps seeking the asymptotic residue of this absolute movement; their spatiotemporal tension or intensity: dust, incubated with fire; what remains (cinders/ashes).

    The equation of monism and dualism in Deleuze and Guattari might also be interesting to consider here as well; that in the residue of asymptotic conception we find another kind of couple or dyad-system, one which exceeds monism and dualism in that it is internally differentiated by evaluation, by a synthesis external to the things synthesized; the will to make a distinction, a qualitative mark (rather than merely recognize/represent) which alone would be actively engaged in posing new problems.

  2. (D+G’s equation of monism/dualism of course goes all the way to equation with pluralism as well.)

  3. Lexi says:

    Thank for your comments. I think you’re right that Agamben and Deleuze share a similar desire to rethink the dynamics of dualism. Where they differ, I think, is that Deleuze is attempting to set up a new conception of the whole as an immanent system without any sort of rupture (see The Fold), whereas Agamben’s thought is far less the setting up of a new ontological system, or accounting for the whole of reality, and more the opening up of spaces in which such dualisms are hollowed out in order that we might see new possibilities for the relationship between them.

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