Agency as a Vocation

Questions for David Kyuman Kim

The philosopher of religion talks about agency and Obama, lessons learned from Cornel West, and the story behind his immersion in a modern dance project.

Why does agency—the capacity to make choices and to act in the world—matter to us? And has it always mattered to humans in the same way, or is it a product of our times? Certainly, the need for agency has been felt across time and space, histories and traditions. But I think there's a particularity to the way we're experiencing it now, which relates to the question of urgency. Part of that is a hangover from the 1960s, a time when a frisson was in the air, particularly among young folks, about what it means to be a human being. And during the civil rights movement, from the 1920s to the 1960s, lots of people were committing their lives—indeed, some were giving their lives—to the cause. In my recent book, Melancholic Freedom, I argue that there has been a change—one might even call it a recalibration—from a moral and political culture that was saturated with a sense of urgency for the need to fight for freedom and justice to a public atmosphere in which that urgency has been compromised. I describe late-modern agency as marked by the “banality of freedom.”

Americans pride themselves so highly on their freedoms. Are you saying we've lost touch with what has to be done to preserve them? In the United States we are living under conditions in which freedom has become ordinary. While the urgency—the sense of crisis about the need to fight for freedom, for justice, and for liberation—isn't entirely lost, it has become harder to identify motivating moral, social, and political movements and causes. Of course many will say that a counter-argument is the Obama phenomenon. Obama mobilized all these young people—actually, people of all ages—during his campaign. There was surely a widespread sense of felt engagement. The challenge, though, is how—and also whether—the folks who were energized will be able to sustain a comparable sense of urgency now that Obama is serving as president.

The last word of your book is “hope.” Is it really? I'd forgotten. Well, the great energy and drama of the Obama campaign was moving and important and exciting. It was absolutely important to elect someone like Barack Obama. But you don't want to confuse that event with the completion of history. All sorts of hard work remains to be done. Agency, to me, is about committing and re-committing to a set of ideas and values. In the book, I talk about agency as a vocation—being attuned to something that calls you. One of the hangovers of secularism is that it has made us a bit tone-deaf to vocation.

One of the claims that you make in your book is that religion needs to be taken seriously. You say that agency has to involve “religious imagination.” Agency is tied to identity and freedom. When you put freedom and identity together, you find resonance with the questions that come up in religions: questions about meaning, about life and death, about worthiness, and about moral integrity. But these questions arise for secularists and atheists as much as they do for believers.

Doesn't the language of "religious imagination" imply that priority is given to religious traditions over secular ones? I wouldn't say religion has priority. The bog we often get into is that you're either a secularist or a religious believer—or if you're a religious believer in a so-called secular space, you need to somehow check that at the door. Rather than saying something is either secular or it's of a particular religious tradition, I argue for trying to see continuities, along with potential discontinuities. I think of myself as working in the spirit of the Renaissance—namely, the humanist commitment to living a life of flourishing, freedom, and (and here is the modern bit) justice. There is both astonishment and enchantment, but also a kind of humility in regard to belief. In contrast, modern secular humanism, by pitting itself against religion in revolutionary terms, hasn't done very good service to the idea of humanism. It has narrowed its frame and the horizon of its own possibilities. Conversely, the act of conceiving of possibilities is the heart of what I call religious imagination.

You seem to have an affinity for the Renaissance era. Go to Florence and look at the Duomo there. The construction of the Duomo is often cited as the beginning of the Renaissance. I remember seeing it and thinking to myself, "Yeah, that's a nice big building." Then I noticed that it's a dome without any pillars. It's suspended by the structure of itself. That kind of achievement is possible at a time of confidence in human possibilities. The Renaissance was a time when people said, "Look what we're capable of!" Brunelleschi invents special measuring tools and cranes to make this impossible structure. During the Renaissance, to be a humanist was to be involved in making the world, in making one's self. There is both astonishment and enchantment—but also a kind of humility with regard to belief. By contrast, modern secular humanism has pitted itself against religion—there is a concern about religion lapping over into public, secular life, a kind of hangover from the Enlightenment. It narrows the frame, the horizon of possibilities. For me, the act of conceiving of possibilities is the heart of the religious imagination. I think we should try recapturing this older idea of humanism.

Why did you decide to center the book around such an unlikely pairing: Charles Taylor and Judith Butler? That was about looking to theorists who had a disproportionately large impact on the contemporary discourse about agency: Taylor on the one hand and Butler on the other. In writing Melancholic Freedom, my concern was with what makes agency such a compelling concept. Furthermore, what are the conditions that make agency meaningful and effective? Both Taylor and Butler stress these concerns. The trick was to find constructive points of comparison and analysis. On first glance, the two thinkers appear to come from very different approaches and to be addressing different concerns. It was necessary to take the risk of putting them in conversation with each other, with the hope of finding some kind of continuity between them. The conceptual continuity I found is—on Taylor's part explicitly and on Butler's part implicitly—their commitment to a certain form of Romantic expressivism. Butler actually responds quite positively to the Romantic inheritance. To call her a Romantic doesn't mean that she's like Byron and the Romantic poets of the early 19th century. Rather, it's to say that she is an inheritor of this tradition and enacts it in various ways.

How do you make a conversation happen between two such different thinkers? Part of it must be sticking up for the way each of them uses language. Defending the finer points of language and arguments is important to me as a way of maintaining the integrity of different positions held. There is a reason people say things. There's a reason they argue things in particular ways. Taylor and Butler, but also other people in the book—Stanley Cavell,  Emerson, Kant, and Weber—are all careful thinkers. This idea that intellectual work is done with care is crucial, because it reflects living a life of care. Living a life of care means allowing yourself to be bothered with such details.

Has teaching religious studies to undergraduates affected the way you approach your work? Compared to other disciplines, we get more students who see an organic relationship between what they're learning and the existential questions that all 18- to 22-year-olds are asking of themselves. They come to us and say: "What you're teaching me is not simply unnerving and unsettling, but it’s also putting into question everything I believed up to the time I met you." I take that very seriously. Religious studies provides a moral vocabulary for expressing the dilemmas they confront. I tell my students that this can be enabling in the best sense. I also tell them that being a critic is easy. You can tear down any argument. But you have to do something in the wake of it. It's irresponsible to leave it there. That's why I find myself drawn to thinkers who open up new kinds of intellectual spaces. In my view, especially in the academy, there isn't enough of this generative work being done.

Did you go through a similar process when you were a student? Absolutely. I'll give you an example. In graduate school, I studied with the eminent scholar of Confucianism Tu Weiming. I used to refer to him as the original Confucian evangelical. He travels the world arguing for the revival of Confucianism as a living tradition. A critical moment came for me when I took a moral reasoning class with him. At some point I realized, “My goodness, I'm a Confucian!” I had been raised as a Confucian without being called a Confucian. All the categories of piety and reciprocity, the devotion to ritual, right practices, and certain kinds of respect—these were practices and ideas that I had always been living. Finding a moral and religious vocabulary is a very powerful experience. It's a sign of moral maturity to be able to say: "I have this intellectual identity, I have this spiritual identity, I have this moral identity, all of which place me in a lineage, in a genealogy, in a tradition that's bigger than me as an individual."

Some claim that Confucianism isn't a religion. There are people who make a lot of truck with arguments about what counts for religion and what doesn't. There are certainly conceptual reasons to do this, and there are professional reasons as well. My concern is that the debate often narrows the frame before the fact, before engaging in the actual contemplation and analysis of religious phenomena. Why not be open to all possibilities about what might be considered religious as opposed to foreclosing those possibilities ahead of time? This isn't to say that you want to come in without any categories. That just makes bad scholarship. You come in with vocabularies and with concepts—but not ones that close doors before you even look to see what's behind them.

One of your mentors was Cornel West, who has a gift for speaking in a way that also catches the imaginations of people outside the academy. Was that part of your education with him? Not formally.  It was an incredible experience studying with Cornel, but when you're a student of his, you always know that you'll never be able to engage an audience the way he does. Over the years I've had to ask myself, in distinction from Cornel and my other teachers: what is my style, what is my voice? I would look and sound foolish if I tried to mimic Cornel. Going back to Weber, not all charisma is going to look alike. Or back to Emerson: if you're really going to trust yourself, if you're really going to find your own voice, that voice will not be the voice of somebody else. What I got from Cornel is a commitment to finding the public relevance in what I study and to looking at the long intellectual traditions that constitute the positions I take.

Who are some other influences? It's a broad range of folks. Recently, I give the example of Stanley Cavell, whose work I came to late. It's embarrassing that Stanley was still teaching at Harvard when I was a graduate student there and I didn't take a course with him. There is a fluidity to Cavell's writing that I find very engaging. And there’s also James Baldwin, for whom the most searing political and social critiques find their vessel in such beautiful writing.

How would you describe your own writing? It's this funny thing. Sometimes, in response either to the book or a talk I give, a person will say to me, “That was really beautiful.” And my initial response to that is rather self-conscious, “So you're saying I'm not rigorous? Are you saying I'm not being critical enough?” I've been learning that paying attention to the craft of writing doesn't mean that I have to give up rigor. I think we're finally in a time and in a space, particularly for intellectuals, where clear, accessible expression is finding an audience and has found new value. Engaging in translation of the work we do in the academy for a wider audience becomes a constructive act in and of itself. It has to be. It means recognizing that, because of my democratic commitments, what I do behind the door of my study and in the classroom need to have an organic relationship to the world—to the everyday, to the ordinary.

I think"organic" is the right word. Translating intellectual thought for a broader audience can give a whole new life to ideas. That's right. If, say, I can write about love only for an academic audience, then I'm not really writing about love. Certainly as an intellectual, as a scholar, you're trying to analyze and be critical. But you also want to be open to when your work can actually be made accessible to the non-specialist. What a gift if after you've been laboring in the fields on a concept, it suddenly finds purchase with a worker in a factory or someone in a different part of the world! Translation is inherently a practice of human connection. Why do you translate in the first place? You translate because people want access to something that is inaccessible to them. To me this is why, in my own work, I appeal to the arts. The arts are constantly engaged in forms of translation.

Speaking of the arts, I know our readers are going to be interested in knowing what you're working on now. For the last two years, I've been working with the choreographer David Dorfman, who is a colleague of mine at Connecticut College. A couple of years ago, David invited me to come to the final rehearsals of a piece that he was premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called underground, which was his gloss on the Weather Underground. It was a very powerful piece. He invited me to come talk to his company, and apparently he found this constructive. I did a number of post-show dialogues with him, at BAM and elsewhere. Actually, at one of them, Bernardine Dorn showed up, and I brought her up on stage with me!

Now you can't run for president. Exactly. Later, David and I were chatting, and he said he was trying to think of the next project for the company. Given his interest in exploring the experience of freedom, I suggested that he look at a figure like 19th-century abolitionist John Brown and the idea of disavowal. John Brown is a white man who disavows his whiteness to be in solidarity with slaves, in solidarity with black people. The piece started as a meditation on John Brown and then developed into something else. I think they bill me as an "artistic consultant" or "dramaturge." I love it because the program says, "Disavowal, choreographed by David Dorfman, based on a concept by David Kuyman Kim." The ultimate philosopher's conceit: a piece of art based on a concept.

How did your concept shape the piece? It became less about John Brown and developed into an evening-length, conceptually-driven meditation on identity. What does it mean to claim one's identity? What costs come from claiming one identity versus another? What kinds of communality and solidarity can you have if you get away from cheap associations, cheap identitarian associations, and actually engage in rich, robust commitments to people? The piece premiered in Chicago last October. There have been performances at Connecticut College and also at Duke. It continues evolving, and there will be a different premiere in New York on May 21st to the 24th at Danspace Project. It has been this wonderful experience for me, working in an idiom I didn't know much about. I see it as another act of translation, as another act of engaging the human connection—only this time with the arts. The arts open up possibilities. Folks like myself, who are interested not just in philosophy but also in religion and in the political, need to pay more attention to the arts.

Interview conducted by Nathan Schneider, condensed and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.


David Kyuman Kim is an associate professor of religious studies at Connecticut College and inaugural director of its Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. Currently on sabbatical, he is serving as senior advisor and acting program director for the SSRC's work on religion and the public sphere. He also serves as editor-at-large for our blog, The Immanent Frame. His most recent book is Melancholic Freedom: Agency and the Spirit of Politics.

Photo: Jessica Chong.

Published on: Tuesday, March 31, 2009