Neoliberal Church?

I’ve followed Peter Rollins’ work for a couple years now and this weekend I had an epiphany: Are “transformance art collectives,” as he calls his communities (read: churches in a pub), really just a new kind of church for a new kind of capitalism?

Let me preface by saying that I’ve met Pete and his stated goals are admirable, but whether these communities, or other similar “emerging churches” (both of which mostly seem to be a white, middle-class phenomenon), are actually different from traditional church is questionable.

David Harvey continually emphasizes that changes in the deployment of political economy result in changes to the way that subjects experience space and time. Individual behaviors must be brought into a semblance of uniformity in order for particular regimes of capitalism to function. These social rules are internalized by the subjects of that regime, and therefore similarities can be found among the various institutions that thrive in a particular place and time. Simply put, under industrial capitalism, subjects are disciplined to remain passive in school, army, factory, prison, and church. The individual is not required to know how the assembly line works, never questions their superiors, can sit in church and think about where they will go to lunch afterwards, etc etc.

However, under the regime that we have entered and are currently living in, which, following Mauricio Lazzarato, I will call a debt economy, we now embody a new form of subjectivity.

[Whereas] the injunction to remain passive was dominant; now, the injunction to remain “active” mobilizes subjectivities. But the activity is empty because it offers no possibility to evaluate, choose, or decide. Becoming “human capital” and being an entrepreneur of the self are the new standards of employability. (The Making of Indebted Man, 145)

Institutions in the debt economy discipline subjects into a new form of subjectivity. We must build our personal brand and bring every aspect of our lives into the realm of exchange. Perpetually in debt, we are all required to deepen the “self,” because it is towards this biometrically reduced self that our debts are targeted. We must take responsibility for our selves, always fostering our creativity and injecting more and more energy into the institutions within which we participate. Employers monitor Facebook to see how employees are representing The Brand. Hobbies are no longer for fun, but must lead to a Kickstarter or an Etsy store.

Where do Rollins’ collectives, or more generally emerging churches, fit into this trajectory?

They articulate themselves as either successors to, an evolution of, or in opposition to “traditional” forms of church. That may or may not be the case, but whether or not any particular community has adopted the latest bourgeois views on sexuality or doubts the existence of God, it appears to me that these new forms of christian community perfectly instantiate the institutional mode inherent to the debt economy (and the answer isn’t a Radical Orthodoxy line about doing the same thing over and over again, which is mere nostalgia for old forms of oppression).

Members of these groups are expected to contribute their creativity. New versions of old liturgies and scriptural texts must continually be produced. New brands are built and carefully maintained. The self must be deepened in the drive to “be more human.”

Neoliberalism has been with us for around 30 years now. I hate to make a pure base/superstructure argument, but is “the church” finally catching up to the debt economy?

55 thoughts on “Neoliberal Church?

  1. This is an excellent post and I have written about this in various ways myself. The fact is these churches to me are spectacle churches, churches that are mere representations because they are carrying out the logic of capitalism without actually producing anything : “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity” Guy Debord. No wonder that a lot of the pastors of these churches take on the characteristics of used car salesman. I remember where I used to live the pastor and some of the congregation used to meet at Starbucks to have a latte and discuss the bible with absolutely zero historicity. Not only this they would swap business ideas at the end as if the church now functions like facebook in real time.

  2. “Members of these groups are expected to contribute their creativity. New versions of old liturgies and scriptural texts must continually be produced. New brands are built and carefully maintained. The self must be deepened in the drive to “be more human.”

    Can you say more about how you discern this “must” – this constant injunction – in Rollins’ work? I guess I’m not quite following why you think that the sort of collectives to which Rollins is pointing are characterized by this sort of drive (especially since he explicitly disavows “drive” in his published works). Obviously such collectives would not be immune to it – no one is – but I don’t see why they would be particularly egregious examples…

    I’d like to hear this point elaborated.

  3. Very interesting post. This warrants more exploration. Are you aware of any other critiques coming internally or from the sub-culture of these churches Stephen? I’d like to read/hear more.

  4. Stephen – what you describe here does sound very much like current evangelical churches and most emerging churches that are basically slightly different versions of evangelicalism. What i don’t see is the connection to Pete’s work or the collectives coming directly out of his work (ikon Belfast and VOID).

    I will admit that the branding of ikon/ikonNYC and Atheism for Lent, etc, makes me uncomfortable. I think you’re on to something there. I honestly don’t know enough about ikonNYC to comment on that. I do feel confident saying ikon Belfast and VOID (the group I was a part of) are not in the same category as what you are critiquing above. Of course, that does not mean ikon/VOID shouldn’t be criticized as well. I’m just not convinced we fit this particular criticism.

  5. On twitter I’ve been asked for more examples:
    I’m very suspicious of “Atheism for Lent” as a PR stunt that builds the doubt brand; the fact that ikon is now franchising; the unspoken pressure (and disciplinary apparatuses are more powerful when unspoken) to constantly create new experiences (see specularimage’s comment above).

    Robert: I think this misunderstanding of psychoanalysis is probably going to happen when one tries to do a “pop” version.

  6. I’ve always thought of the kind of “collectives” you reference (and I participate in) as hopefully only the first stage for many people emerging from unhealthy subjective belief structures. In many ways, something like Ikon, in my opinion, mirrors the evangelicalism it helps people escape from in that it is centered on personal experience and contemplation. But, of course, most forms of psychoanalysis and therapy are also personal. At it’s best, such collectives allow a community to have transforming experiences of community, but if that does not then lead to political engagement, or taking on the “debt economy,” as you say, then I’d say a group like Ikon is pretty much as worthless as the next evangelical mega church, just another form of pop therapy. If these collectives ever become an end in themselves they should be attacked on all fronts.

  7. As an entire shift in the way that churches are organizing themselves, this is a really interesting way to look at it. At STN it seemed that Peter’s general project is not about creating a new static form of having church, but to continually deconstruct its forms and meanings. I’m sure that in the process of “radicalizing” itself, much of the debris will be caught by on-lookers or other groups trying to make sense of the shifts…so a lot of normalization and institutionalization takes place.

    Walter Benjamin said that “every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it.” and it sounded to me like that is the sort of mentality going on with Peter’s work. …Sort of never really being satisfied with how God is understood. I’m not actively involved in one of these collectives, but have read and heard much of Rollin’s work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really like this way of looking at the movement—it reveals a lot…but of course the church in the 21st century will reflect the debt economy that it is constructed within. I am wondering how much the church or theology as a system can be expected to remove itself from its social/political/economic/pragmatic environment.

  8. I share some of the same skepticism that Stephen has, with the caveat that I think we always need to enter the dominant system (in some way) in order to resist it. A good example for me is the idea of suspended space, a safe space where identities are suspended. This practice is not problematic in and of itself, yet, when minorities and other others have to suspend their identities at work, at the pub, or even at home, one cannot come to a suspended space on equal footing. In other words, the market already asks of many laborers to suspend identity for the sake of efficiency. These collectives in some way do the same. Rather, as Pete suggest, we have to come to terms with the brokenness of the other as the brokenness of ourselves. For me this is done better (although less efficiently) in encountering each other outside suspended spaces.

    The question ought never to be how to bring diversity to these collectives (or to our conferences), but rather, what collectives or conferences can I attend where I will have to suspend my identity. This is hard, and may be unfruitful. But it is exactly the kind of resistance to market values that is needed.

    Also, in remarking with Stephen at the conference, my epiphany was that the level of reverence present in the conference and in the liturgy was just as high as anywhere else. If reverence is that social force that helps to perpetuate hierarchies and limit the allocation of resources, perhaps a bit of irreverence is necessary. Hence, my bathroom satire, for anyone who heard.

  9. This really important question of the political potential of Pete’s work and of participating in transference art and suspended space is exactly what I want to explore next, asking especially what the practice of temporary liturgical identitysuspension might do to participants outside these suspended spaces. Do they actually encourage subjective transformation, leading to alternate political, social, economic life…etc? And how could that be measured? So, great questions, Stephen, even if I suspect – hope?!? – that there is a difference between collectives inspired by Pete’s work and other emerging evangelical communities.

  10. Just a point of clarification: While Islamic communities and the African American church have a strong history of political influence, I don’t really have a clue how to make “church” more “political.” If that is the goal, why not cut out the middle man and join a labor movement?

  11. Re Stephen “I don’t really have a clue how to make the “church” more “political.”” Is the church not a huge political influence? Quite large I’d say. Perhaps the real question is how to change the “church’s” politics. Which in my own experience is an affect these communities (ikonNYC etc) are having. How far and where that goes is yet to be seen.

  12. Off course church is already political, the whole point of my original post was arguing that more “traditional” forms of church contributed to the disciplinary apparatus that produces good subjects of industrial capital and that whether or not ikon or other new mutations of church want to take on the church label doesn’t matter. It very well could be a totally different type of institution, but, as far as I can tell, they are contributing to the disciplinary apparatus of neoliberalism.

  13. Great thoughts Stephen. This adds more to my worry that Pete’s brand is speaks to a certain privileged community that needs to get in touch with that brokenness and uncertainty. White folks who walk the world with a defacto power privilege need to sit in their brokenness, but does the marginalized, the laborer, under the oppression of others need an artful experience that gets them in touch with the brokenness that stares them in the face everyday? No. Pete said it worked in Belfast as (I guess) the argument against this question. Do the ikoner’s need to work through their privileged lack of brokenness and then join churches (however institutional–scary–God affirming) that can actually organize and mobilize people to do stuff?

  14. Katharine Sarah Moody, as a working shrink and recovering social theorist I’m highly doubtful of the idea of a temporary identity suspension and think that any work along these lines of engineering identity/habits would have to squarely take on the developing work on cognitive biases (wiki away for a decent list), have you followed any of James K. Smith’s work on culture as liturgy and or Tonya Lurhmann’s ethnographic work on metakinesis?

  15. Krista: I’ve never been to an ikon event, but I’m going off of written descriptions in both Katherine’s work and in Pete’s own work, along with the general attitude and comments of ikon members.

    Taking up the comments from Bultmanniac and Jonnie:
    I wonder if this explains the apparent lack of diversity in evangelical/emerging/ikon churches and that these groups are so concerned about. It allows middle class folk to experience the brokenness of the underside of capitalism that they are starting to become aware of. In other words, it assuages the white guilt industrial complex. The same phenomenon explains the existence of TOMS shoes.

  16. I don’t feel my responding directly to this post would add much to the conversation that is happening. I’m not in the academy and while I value it deeply I sometimes get frustrated by seemingly unending one-upmanship of university discourse. For instance I remember, while doing my MA in Political Theory and Social Criticism, seeing the game of “who is less capitalist” play out in various ways. Each thinker of the left was critiqued for really being a part of the system they worked against by someone who was more leftist and smarter. The reasons ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it was hard to find anyone who could escape the trap. The main exceptions to this rule of course being the dead, although my formative teacher James Daly was someone for whom it was hard to dismiss as an (unconscious) instrument of neoliberalism.

    Having said that I value critique and am glad that some of the work of my collegues and I is being reflected on. I enjoy this blog site and respect those who write on it, so I will be open to the criticisms (as others are being in the comments) and let whatever critiques surface here not only influence my thinking but hopefully impact my actions.

    Saying this I would like to make a few clarifications. The first is that I would hate my friends who are part of ikon to be tainted with the same brush as me. While my own work and “transformance art” overlap, they are not synonymous. For instance ikon Belfast was originally formed from a wide mix of people that have included a psychoanalyst, a catholic worker, an anarchist, theists, atheists, artists, social workers, musicians and a few theorists. Indeed this is pretty close to the current make-up of the team. While I was the spark behind the formation of ikon I quickly became one member in the creation of the gatherings and almost four years ago left completely to move to the US. Any criticism of me should not necessarily be directed at that group (many of whom take a very active stand against neoliberalism through protests, demonstrations, employment choices, ethical eating and involvement in local grassroots co-ops etc.). While I might be open to critique for being an armchair theorist fully immersed in, and perpetuating a neoliberal ideology I would ask anyone to spend a week with those involved in ikon Belfast and come to the same conclusion about them in either their beliefs or practices.

    Believe me when I say that Belfast is not a city of privilege and economic might. We suffered from a fierce and bloody conflict many of you will know called The Troubles. Not only have many of my friends been actively involved in the peace process, few of them have anything near the wealth or comforts that I see among the American middle class. I stand by my friends in Belfast and New York as among the most ethical, tireless and committed people I have met and they inspire me to be a better person.

    In addition to this I must say that some of my friends in ikon Belfast were dismayed by my becoming an author and talking about the group in my work. Most had never heard of the emerging church and had no interest in what was going on in the church there or in the wider world. They were worried that we might be seen as something we were not and indeed this article might be viewed by some of them as confirmation of that fear. It was, for some of them, an unfortunate coincidence that one of our co-ordinates happened to be ‘emerging.’

    I thus think it is a little misleading that this post starts by quickly and in an off-hand way (employing brackets) reducing transformance art to “pub church.” I can’t help feeling that this is a little like the sleight-of-hand a magician uses when she moves something before our eyes so fast and with such ease that we take it to be something it isn’t. Of course in ikonNYC we do meet in a nightclub (although ikon Belfast now meets in an art gallery), but this is mostly to do with a lack of resources and desire for some kind of social space. Most of what I know to take place under the banner “pub church” is neo-evangelical.

    In terms of deep criticism of what I am doing I am happy to say that there is some serious work coming out (and more being planned) by people like Katherine Moody, Xochitl Alvizo, Gladys Ganiel and Gerardo Marti exploring these issues in depth (two of whom have done extensive participant observation).

    Moody has two books coming out next year entitled, Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist (Cascade, Wipf and Stock) and Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practice (Ashgate) as well as currently seeking funding to perform quantitative and qualitative research on the effectiveness of the contemplative practices like Atheism for Lent. Alvizo, who studied under Mary Daly, is completing her PhD on ikon and other communities to explore their significance. While Ganiel and Marti are publishing a book that deals extensively with ikon from a sociological angle.

    While I am sure some of what they say will involve criticism, I am hopeful (perhaps hoping against hope) that none of them will see us as simply a form of crypto-evangelical pub church affirming a neoliberal ideology.

  17. This is really interesting to me in the context of a lecture I’m currently helping my girlfriend compose. She was asked to guest lecture in an undergraduate course on “encouraging creativity in the church,” largely because she’s a mixed media/installation artist who happened to do her BFA at a private Christian university, and because she’s done a couple of her installations in “churchy” contexts. One of the things that immediately struck us in the text this class has been reading is the way “creativity” seems to so consistently signify something like the ability to provide a certain sort of shaped emotional experience. Whether that’s a deconstructive performance/installation space, traditional iconography, or whatever, there’s something akin to the injunction to enjoy always at play; it’s not enough to believe and do, one has to really *feel* it.

    In the comment thread of thelastpsychiatrist’s 3/22 post on Sheryl Sandberg, a discussion broke out about workspaces where hoodies, free pizza, beer tastings, etc are part of a work culture that interpellates the worker in such a way that the she is invited into a sort of faux-utopian office culture where the lack of pay and leisure time is disguised. I tend to have a sort of preferential option against ‘experiential’ movements in general precisely because a heavy emphasis on aesthetic experience is almost always (even if not deliberately) covering over a more primal lack.

  18. Peter,

    I think your woundedness is misplaced. On my reading Stephen had done a rather good job of making a basic Marxist distinction between the kind of easy moralism you’re describing and a description of how the structure is, or in this case might be, shaping the construction of a particular ideology.

  19. While Pete’s critique about Marxist one-upmanship addresses a phenomenon that exists in the academy, I think this post and my paper at STN2 addressed the lack of discourse in the church concerning the abusive effects of capitalism and its ideology. Self-reflection on one’s own embeddedness in a capitalist system is in fact very difficult. But if postmodern theology is to exist in the church, it at least must exist as a set of lenses to critique each congregation’s/collective’s own embedded ideology. We can argue whether one is more/less Marxist than the other, but it is still the conversation we need to have.

  20. When has anybody said that either incarnation of ikon (Belfast or NYC) was, in and of itself, a church? None of the members of the NYC branch consider it a church, and I’m fairly certain from Pete’s statements that the Belfast branch has no interest in being a church, and yet you’ve lumped them in. Can this please be explained?

  21. Pete,

    I agree with Anthony and worked hard to avoid the moralism that you ascribe to me. Ironically, it seems as though you are the one pulling a sleight of hand. I don’t think it would be too difficult to rework the critique into purely Lacanian terms (drawing on his reaction to the 1968 student riots), if the economic language is troubling to you. While you rightfully critique the Master’s Discourse of traditional christianity, it seems to me that somehow the movement has slipped into a form of the University Discourse. Obviously, doing the real work of putting it into those terms would take a lot more time, and would exclude from the discussion almost anyone who has not closely studied Lacan’s Seminars.

  22. I know nothing about this ikon thing, but I appreciate the tack you take with the post. I would love to hear more on this; maybe get your thoughts about things like the excitement over house church movements, etc. It seems a little funny that smaller gatherings in suburban homes consisting largely of middle class white people would be a new form of church because it looks like the kind of private, tailor-made religious experience that US capitalism has made hay with. Boutique church experiences for the busy searching for meaning apart from community and, erm public life? Anyways, thanks.

  23. Really interesting post Stephen – and some great thoughts to mull over.
    One thing I’d perhaps add here: I think there’s an important point about the ‘collective,’ as opposed to the capitalist idea of joining a ‘corporation.’ To use the pirate motif that I’ve been exploring, and to quote Marcus Rediker:
    ‘Rather than work for wages using the tools and machine (the ship) owned by a capitalist merchant, pirates commanded the ship as their own property and shared equally in the risk of their common adventure.’

    You write that ‘members of these groups are expected to contribute their creativity. New versions of old liturgies and scriptural texts must continually be produced. New brands are built and carefully maintained,’ – and I think this is a really good critique. But I think there is some push-back in that in collectives such as Ikon it’s not about producing resources for some ‘other’ – whether that be a capitalist or a god. And that’s different to many churches where one joins the body, but really one is signing up to an industry – and serving that industry by working hard to produce. [I like what Stephen Johnson says in Wired: “with Facebook we are ultimately just tenant farmers on the land; we make it more productive with our labor, but the ground belongs to someone else.”]

    With Ikon the community is itself the incorporation: ideally, no one works for Ikon, rather the body symbiotically creates life for itself. I think that means that the resources generated are about pushing forward into an economy of gift (in Lewis Hyde’s sense) rather than an economy of debt. The question here is, within your critique, would it be possible to do *anything*? The danger is that fear of what you point out above paralyses communities, who then end up doing nothing. Great post though.

  24. I can’t speak for ikon and those folks but my understanding is that these “collectives” replace the church in a Zizekian post-resurrection world.

    And I know this isn’t the question that others ask, but I do… One of the primary tasks of the church is educational. It seems to me that transformance, or whatever you want to call it, can be a new kind of liturgical act. What kind of sustained or sustaining community continues is another question, but I wonder whether it could have meaning without the sustained or sustaining dialogue before and after “events.” Where do children fit into this? Where is mythology inculcated for children that practices “atheism for lent?”

    It’s interesting that Pete mentions someone who worked under Mary Daly. If one reads the feminist literature out of, for example, Womanspirit Rising, and what follows–Starhawk, for example, there is a similar move around deconstructing and reconstructing the traditions, having occasional rituals, etc., but the collectives always have an educational component, and require an educational component. I see the future church emulating this in some way, as the mass appeal is declining. The Freemasons are already doing it (though without creating new ritual, there are plany of obscure traditions to engage). Anyway, this is what I find compelling about what Pete and his folks are up to.

  25. I didn’t really want to become involved in this discussion — but I mean, is it any coincidence that a gift economy became such a huge intellectual trend precisely during the rise of the current debt-centric regime? Financialization with a human face….

  26. Stephen, I think your article is fascinating. I see how you can make these connections between pm forms of church and a debt economy in which people are disciplined to produce, and reproduce themselves to serve the market. The analysis also seems a bit removed. One of the symptoms of such debt economy, it seems to me, is to judge things from the outside – to gaze from a distance at the re/presentation of the “product” – its packaging, image, brand – to judge whether it will draw consumers and make of them empty ‘active’ subjects. All that is required in this economy, after all, is a surface engagement. So there’s danger, or at least dissatisfaction, with that kind of analysis. Thought the questions might be worth asking nonetheless…

    However, what I see Pete and others who participate in these collectives, myself included, is the active, evaluative analysis, critique, that may break open and subvert these disciplining forces and tap into – or break open for…wait for it…god. A potentially possible Other that makes things new; that frees one to be differently in the world (be-come, in the Active Verb sense, a la Mary Daly/Tillich) and in relation with one another. Yes, more Human, not in an achieving/striving way, but in a broken open -potentially changing everything – way.

    Also, in connection to Bultmanniac’s comment, I do think these collectives have the potential and aim to foster encounters between ‘others’ that may impact, enables us to resist, our participation in and perpetuation of market values as they now stand. The question of who and how one is able to choose to suspend identity, is an important one. I might have more to say about that eventually – how and why I am able to do so…

  27. You might mean a longer period stretching back beyond the current financial crash of late 2000’s, but I started engaging in gift economics in relation to church practice at the end of the 90’s, so it’s not particularly something that’s linked to recent financial events for me. Anyways, the issue of debt in a gift economy is interesting, but is a very different sort of indebtedness with a very different demand to that of the market. It’s too simple to write it off as the same but lacking ‘precise quantification.’

  28. I do “mean a longer period stretching back beyond the current financial crash,” namely neoliberal financialization — the very same long-term phenomenon that has been at stake during this entire conversation. Financialization was going on at the end of the 90s, for instance in the normalization of perpetual debt (the rebranding of “second mortgages” as “home equity loans”), the central role of the national debt in political debate, etc., etc.

    Your second and third sentences seem to say more or less literally, “But it really is a debt economy with a human face!”

  29. “A gift economy is often put forward as an alternative to capitalism, particularly by Christian theologians.” Really? An *alternative* to capitalism? Often? Lol, now you’re really lacking precise quantification.

  30. Maybe eventually you can say something concrete, rather than just dismissing me? Wherein lies this difference between gift and debt economies that is so decisive and can’t be limited to quantification?

  31. Oh FFS Adam lighten up! Apologies for not being more expansive, and perhaps should have waited to make a more full reply. Truth is, I’m rushing around for the next few days at an event, so limited in time to engage more fully. But I’d like to do that.

  32. A very “productive” post — thanks. While Adam is right about the gift economy being a vague debt economy, I think we need to distinguish more carefully between the new forms of capitalism and activity in general. People have always made things. The question is: what is the precise relationship between the person’s labor, the production of things, and their consumption? I think encouraging people to make things is great. Encouraging people to make things (or to “create themselves” or market themselves) for the sake of their own economic exploitation is the new form of capitalism. I don’t see the economic exploitation here — as I understand it (I may be wrong) if we reduce this to economic terms, at Ikon the people producing the objects are also those who consume them, and they are also the same ones involved in “management” of production and consumption. Perhaps I would argue that the production and consumption at Ikon resonates with the capitalist shift in formal/aesthetic terms (e.g. they both encourage individuals to be active producers, they both encourage hobby-like use of individual artistic talents from people who have day-jobs, and so on). But I think I see a structural difference.

    I might be way off here, so I would appreciate polite rebuke.

  33. My comment may be a bit confusing — when I say “encouraging people to make things is great,” I then contrast that with encouraging people to make things for economic exploitation, which, for the oh-so important record, I do *not* think is great. I’m saying that “making things” can be good or bad, depending on the structure of production and consumption.

  34. Right, yes, and I’m saying that I don’t really see the alienation at Ikon. I do see it with, say, Facebook, which makes billions of dollars from asking me to market myself to my friends.

  35. Stephen, I’m interested in your thoughts regarding Kester’s question: “The question here is, within your critique, would it be possible to do *anything*? The danger is that fear of what you point out above paralyses communities, who then end up doing nothing.”

    In the group I was part of (VOID) this tension was very present within the coordinators of the group. There was much debate about whether our actions were a true alternative or merely another instantiation of the same. But in the end, we did choose to act in the presence of this real risk. We may have been wrong. But that’s the risk. Do you think it’s worth taking a risk with these types of collectives? As Kester wrote, is it possible to do anything?

  36. Sorry, *really* should be doing other things, but jumping in quickly again… If Capitalism alienates people from their own production then gift exchange is *ideally* a way of engaging in transactions that do the opposite of that. We make, we transfer – but what are the results of those things?
    The sense of ‘lack’ – or debt – following a making/transferring can drive things two ways: as an urge to profit more from this empty place, or as an urge to deepen relationships through it. So when you say ‘wherein lies this difference between gift and debt economies that is so decisive and can’t be limited to quantification?’ I’d want to argue that it’s the different drives to fill that void that are the key difference. It’s not quantification, but about the motive: to profit and alienate, or draw together. To draw it back to Ikon etc, I’d see them working towards a gift exchange because the motive is not to profit or alienate (ok, oftentimes they do!) but to draw into relationship.

  37. Fun conversation all. Brennon makes important points above, ‘people have always made things.’ Seems to me, groups like ikon would more fit a model like Richard Wolff’s WSDEs (worker self-directed enterprises).

    Adam Moore and Kester ask “is it possible to do anything?”

    It seems the only option we’re left with is the spontanious, anarchic approach that some artists take (e.g. not recording or writing down songs). Seems like Jesus had this idea–he didn’t write anything down. However, he did sort of “re-brand” judaism though didn’t he? (Matt 16:14)

  38. Theology class beckoned, so I had to step away from the conversation for a bit. A few things:

    First, I’m getting a ton of push back on the “church in a pub” line. This blog has a very broad audience, the vast majority of whom are not familiar with the latest things happening in christian circles, so I was trying to provide a starting point of understanding. In fact, I think my argument works better if ikon precisely is *not* a church, but you have to read the post carefully to see that. However, I do find it interesting that the pub church label is so offensive, since it is *literally* true. The groups meet in a bar and are centered around a self-consciously christian discourse (perhaps trying to implement a “Zizekian” version, but nonetheless christian). It’s a bit like the analysand saying they had a dream, but it’s definitely not about their mother. Why the vehement denial? Denial of that label has kept some from even trying to understand what I’m saying in this post.

    Second, I don’t think it’s very clear what the desire of these communities is. Kester, you basically admitted that they employ the exact neoliberal disciplinary apparatus that I, via Lazzarato, have outlined. As such, I think it is obvious why the current appeal is to middle-class people with the time and energy to devote themselves to yet another neoliberal institution with all the demands that that entails. If this is the case, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing! I’m not throwing moral stones!

    However, I don’t think that I’m wrong in pointing out that this is marketed towards evangelicals and post-evangelicals, implements the disciplinary apparatus of neoliberalism, while at the end hoping to produce subjects that will be elevated out of that subjectivity. Again, if that’s the desire, then I am not criticizing that desire. I am, however, extremely skeptical that it could work, but that is for people like Katharine Sarah Moody to work out in their research.

    Finally, as I said above, I think there are even resources in religious traditions for overcoming the prevailing ideology of the time (Islamic communities and the African American church for a start). I’ve made my own decisions for how I will respond to the state of things, but I’m not going to sit here and justify myself. I would prefer not to. Also, let me echo Dan Barber’s recommendation to read the book by Maurizio Lazzarato that I mentioned in the post. It clears up a lot of the confusion that some seem to be having in understanding the notions of subjectivity/debt/etc.

  39. I appreciate your Bartlebian sensibility in not defining your own response to the state of things, Stephen, and that’s fine, but again, short of joining the African American Church or an “Islamic community,” what else are (post) Evangelicals to do? One of Ikon’s “coordinates” is “failing,” it “acknowledges that it constantly falls short of its hopes.” What is the hope? Is it that “subjects that will be elevated out of (neoliberal) subjectivity?” That would be ambitious! Really, the more realistic and descriptive way to describe what’s going on is the formation of a subjectivity that can even question or become conscious of the neoliberal ideology that saturates the church and even our collective, maybe it’s even a quasi-Hegelian process of neoliberalism becoming conscious of itself in order to negate itself, I don’t know (though if one takes a dialectical approach, it is certainly no surprise that any collective that sets itself against neoliberalism contains neoliberalism (A contains B, B contains A… C(?) who knows).

    But as far as I can tell, no one has claimed more extravagant or ambitious goals than you have pointed out that white evangelical folks meeting in bars can’t attain to begin with. It SEEMS like you’re insisting that a dream is about our mother, and then we’re just trying to add nuance to the dream. I don’t think our positions even began or started out with “we’re not a pub church! (so I had a dream not about my mother!)” Maybe I just agree with your post so much that I’m confused why there is any conflict. Perhaps there are some that have greater ambitions than I in this setting, I don’t know.

  40. 1.) You don’t like it and don’t provide alternatives
    2.) You accuse groups of not being able to attain things they never set out to attain and readily admit that they never will
    3.) It’s really never a surprise that something that sets itself in opposition to a thing contains that thing (but that can be part of a dialectical process)

    The last bit is basically my observation that you seem to make an accusation (Ikon is a pub church) then try to analyze why Ikon wouldn’t accept that label (or is even insistant about not taking it). I find that interesting but not all that important.

  41. Howdy, y’all!

    Sorry to join the conversation late. But I’m glad the conversation is happening, and I’m glad to be a part of it. Here’s a far-too-lengthy response to all the thread, and if it’s circular, entirely or in part non-sensical, please forgive me as I’ve got jet lag like woah. Thanks again:

    Agreed that institutions and the global(izing) market are interested in co-opting anything and everything into its abusive, exploitative, objectifying systems. Agreed that such processes are the norm into which we are acculturated, thus making them our indigenous. They are where we come from and they are our nativity. Indeed, we are disciplined to remain passive in the various institutional/cultural/etc. instantiations of our status quo. Difference, creativity, even (perhaps especially) radical alternatives are domesticated. Those who were/are on the margins are allowed ‘in,’ so long as their contributions remain muted and conformist, and ultimately not radical. And yet I refuse to acknowledge that any and all ‘activity’ is empty, nor do I accept that ‘activity … offers no possibility to evaluate, choose, or decide.’ What an ‘evaluation’ that claim portends to be able to make! What epistemological high ground such an assertion claims for itself!

    Frankly speaking, we only get into debt when we… get into debt. Because I don’t take out credit I owe nothing. And if I may say so, if there is an alternative possibility to capitalism, it lies in the fact that capitalism requires the movement of capital. It grows where expenditure feeds it. We vote with our dollars, whether personal dollars, institutional dollars, etc. etc. It requires surplus value to be accrued. And insofar as we do not participate in practices which add surplus value to capital, we act in ways which do not further capitalism. And whether or not I, myself, can entirely act outside of the global market, is not exactly the point. Perhaps I can, and perhaps I cannot. But surely if we all make a concerted effort to act outside of it, to inaugurate new, alternative, sustainable economies with one another, we can make progress toward a perhaps unimaginable possibility: a new world order that is different than the one which is now globalizing. A pipe dream? Perhaps. But if people weren’t running the capitalist machine, the birds and the trees and the squirrels won’t take over for us… Anyway let’s not naturalize what is contingent: the global market is not absolute, is not an ultimate inevitability, and will likely crumble just as all empires crumble. But then again, who can know? Maybe it won’t. I’m rather sure that it won’t crumble in my lifetime. But then again I’m just a speck on the map of history — if history can be mapped.

    Where do Ikon-like groups fit in? Well, where do we all fit in? We (at least mostly) all currently sustain ourselves materially because we participate in abusive economic and political institutions. So what should we do? Best to ask tough questions. Should such questions be purely political? Be purely economic? Perhaps. Are there any questions that are not political? Even silence is political. But of course, we should intentionally ask political and economic questions. Especially about our own complicity and involvement in such violences and objectifications as those which occur in the world. Will such questioning solve our problems? Likely not. Is there a space for questions about God(s), the divine, faith and doubt, in our intentionally political and economic conversations? I think that yes. Maybe I’m wrong.

    The question begged by some posts I read here, is, what should we do? Is there anything we can do that resists the logic of the capitalism into which we are born and by which we are fed, clothed, housed, medicated, etc.? Let’s ask that question. And if there are spaces which seek to intentionally inaugurate new ways of thinking and being, speaking and relating to others, then instead of simply declaring our imbeddedness in capitalism, shouldn’t we offer constructive criticism?

    Because I’m not one to acquiesce to any kind of fallenness – whether a Christian notion of original sin, or a post-modern notion of the vacuity of language and of action, which BOTH posit that because of where we are born, because of the scope of existential possibilities, we cannot help but live in sin, live complicitly in violence, live as a member of a herd marching toward a precipice. Such a fallenness breeds a passivity akin to that which Debord is quoted above as referring to.

    As to whether or not Ikon-like projects encourage passivity and deliver a spectacle that “supplants genuine activity,” I think, must be evaluated on an individual basis. Unless, of course, we want to acquiesce to a PostModern fallenness which sees ALL activity as actually a passivity, as a supplantation of “genuine activity,” thus rendering ALL activity inauthentic… In which case we might as well all fight tooth and nail to get to the top. Right? Yeah, we’re all fallen anyway, might as well make sure we’re on top and not on bottom, right? Are you with me?

    I’m not with me:)

    So what else? What can be done?

    Anyway, I can speak to VOID, as I was one of many founding members, and one of a few of the founding members who stuck around till the end.

    I am also a Jew. And one who seeks to, as much as possible, imagine and enact alternatives to the abusive globalizing world which is my indigenous, which is my self. Of course I do so imperfectly. Horrendously so. And yet I try.

    And as a Jew, I am particularly — let’s say extremely sensitive to re-packaged confessional Christianity that is exclusivist, that is other-worldly, that is supercessionist, that claims to ‘know’ who/what/how God or Jesus is. Such epistemological high ground is, for me, anathema. For me, if God/Jesus/Mohammed/Krishna/Modernity/Science isn’t there to save the earth, overturn oppressive structures and fight for conditions – socio-politico-theologico-economico- conducive to human flourishing, then I say fuck em. The liturgical practices of VOID were incredibly interesting, and, I think, fruitful. Worthwhile. VOID is confessionally non-confessional. Confessionally searching for the possibility of living another way, of seeing, acting, relating, on the whole living in ways which are non-violent, non-objectifying, etc. Does this mean that VOID took on the global market? Yes, and no. We often broached such subjects, but most of the participants were what I call ‘recovering evangelicals.’ Whose doubts, whose hard-line, necessary questions, were pathologized, demonized, declared anathema. It’s only natural that they would seek out ways to affirm alternative theological modes of believing etc. Can anyone blame them? What else could they do? Should we shame them for not leaving theological questions behind entirely? Should they embrace confessional secularism, which proclaims its own moral, epistemological high ground? Is secular modernity any cleaner, more just than its religious contemporaries? On the whole, I think that not.

    And if the attempt to “create new experiences” is unacceptable, then the only other option is to let things carry on as they were, as they have been, etc. etc. I think that the intentional approach of VOID (I can speak less authoritatively about IKON and New Monasticism(s) and other emergent communities) is one which seeks alternative ways of relating to others. Yes, this is done in hopes of building healthy community. And yes, hopefully such attempts (which occur in secular circles as well) are moving toward outright political engagement, advocacy, etc. of the radical, liberationist sort. How to judge whether or not “these collectives ever become ends in themselves” is unclear to me. Especially if they, like VOID, explicitly strive toward more inclusive, more honest community, then why they should be “attacked on all fronts” if not overtly political is unclear to me. Rather practices which seek to further exclusionary, violent and abusive ways of life should be the ones attacked on all fronts. Insofar as we must pick our battles, and indeed we must, emergent communities, IKON and VOID more especially (I can comfortably say) are the last of my concerns, for crying out loud.

    As to whether or not, and how, a Church community can “remove itself from its social/political/pragmatic environment,” I would point to the Liberation Theologians and their radically activities in Central and South America, as well as in North America. Great stuff. Flawed? Sure. Does violence etc still exist in those places? Absolutely. Let’s continue fighting that fight, which means starting the conversation and starting the action somehow and somewhere. I’m always open to suggestions ,)

    For the record, white churches in America are incredibly powerful. Who owns downtown Dallas? HmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmBaptists! Eyo!

    As for “suspended space,” I think that inviting people into a place where they are invited to leave the egoic armor they’re habituated to inhabit at the door, I’m all for it. How we can make such spaces more effective is another question. Anything that helps us cultivate alternative ways of relating to one another, is worth exploring. And, of course, always interrogating as it is explored.

    I wonder who you are, Jonnie (I think I know who you are, love ya since Revival!), to say that the marginalized etc. don’t “need an artful experience that gets them in touch with the brokenness that stares them in the face of the everyday” ?? … The marginalized have, as far as I’ve read/heard/etc., been involved in producing “artful experience” that confronts their marginalization. And not always in ways that are politically efficacious, and change their situation. Though often action can emerge from a community when its arts confront power symbolically. See Vittorio Lanternari’s “Religions of the Oppressed” and James C. Scott’s “Domination and the Arts of Resistance.”

    And for cryin out loud, whether confronting white guilt assuages it or not must be subjected to an examination of the lives of people who confront it. Perhaps, since Rome wasn’t built in a day, and history works over long periods of time, and cultural hegemony is quite a heavy load to try and buck, we should at least show “middle class whites” the underbelly and brokenness of the situation into which they are acculturated. After all, the affluent need to be liberated from their enslavement to their privilege and its accompanying institutions and interpersonal practices. Granted liberation for those on the oppressed side of the privilege-divide need liberation in different ways, and such a project is more pressing. But both need to occur, it’s clear to me.

    Back to VOID. If creating an experientially inviting atmosphere at a bar, whether by the proprietors or by a VOID-style group, is wrong, then we’re doomed to live in an ugly, ugly world. Surely we shouldn’t accept utilizations of aesthetics, atmosphere, etc. to mask violence. Again, what battles should we choose to fight on that issue?

    Indeed the ‘Marxist conversation’ or whatever trajectory it takes — liberationist, feminist, etc. etc. – needs to help us to reflect upon and reorient ourselves away from abusive economic orders. And I have personally told Pete that I feel like his work ought to be more explicitly political. I haven’t seen him speak or read anything he’s written in a good while, so I can’t comment on his activities since summer 2011. I imagine I would still push him to radicalize further than where he’s at. I’d hope that he, and anyone/everyone else, would do the same to me. Would that we were all so lucky as to be pushed in such a way by our friends.

    And now that I’ve read ALL the posts, I realize that Xochitl Alvizo has already said a lot what I’m trying to say, and in a more succinct way! Although I would say that, as opposed to

    “A potentially possible Other that makes things new; that frees one to be differently in the world (be-come, in the Active Verb sense, a la Mary Daly/Tillich) and in relation with one another…”

    I would say rather that, in the vein of Liberation Theologians like Joan Casanas, as well, I think, as Mary Daly, at least the Daly of Beyond God the Father, as far as I can remember, it is our enacting such a different relation with one another that can free God, open up the potential possibility that God frees us to be-come simply, compassionately be-ing – amongst – others.

    VOID was only “centered around a self-consciously christian discourse” to the extent that participants in the process, in the formation of events or in the audience, were “centered around a self-consciously christian discourse.” Organizers and contributors were left to their own devices. So were audience members. So was our lovely sound man, Charlie Brown. Should Christians apologize for being Christian? It’d be good to note at this point, that we had a number of events which did not mention any uniquely Christian anything. I think. “Compendium of Meaning” was one of those. At other events we invited people to simply tell stories, and introduced/concluded/liturgized/gifted the events with various elements that had nothing to do with Christianity, but rather with the power/possibility/danger/fruitfulness of stories and storytelling in space with others. Sometimes people from outside the group mentioned exclusively Christian things. Sometimes people didn’t.

    Perhaps some of this absence of exclusively Christian things was due to my presence at VOID, as well as the later presence of a Muslim-raised gentleman from Bangladesh in the group. People were sensitive to the issue of exclusivity/inclusivity, themselves having felt excluded in faith communities on occasion. The two of us who were not from a Christian background also insisted on being inclusive for all possible audiences – inclusive of all so that hopefully we could all be encouraged to question what assumptions were brought to the event, be open to alternative possibilities to be filtered through conscience and what beliefs are so central they are not opened up for critical re-evaluation. What more could one ask for? Of course we hoped to even touch nerves beneath our scaly egoes, treating issues we thought to be foundational so that we might direct our intentional energies toward issues well worth the attempt. Of course the way to catch all of us up in the most fundamental ways is to get together with people whose fundamental ideas are so different that all foundations are called into question, submitted for inspection in a diverse, open, safe communal setting. In other words, talk to people who aren’t from Christian backgrounds. (see Dwight Conquergood on Dialogic Performance and Paul Reisman’s Freedom in Fulani Social Life to see how encountering difference can show us how we can be blind to our own shortcomings.)

    So I do think that some of the concerns raised in the posts about demographics and race/class/religious affiliation are issues to be taken to heart. It’s when we encounter differencee, I think, that, as Levinas says, our egoic spontaneity can be interrupted and we can see the contingency of our own posture, our own position, our own foundations, and also unmask our free and easy, matter-of-course complicity in violence, objectification, etc.

    This all, of course, also in true Levinasian/Liberationist fashion, is to be held responsible to the needy others who are marginalized in order to sustain our privilege. Our surplus commodity situation is predicated on the exploitation of others, of the world. And so our greatest project would be to turn our tools, our creative capacities, our individual energies and collective resources, toward the transformation of objectifying, violent institutional and interpersonal practices, so that we might, together, begin to enact a togetherness which is conducive to human flourishing and ecological sustainability.

Comments are closed.