The apocalypse is happening once a week or so

When people open fire on crowds of strangers to let off steam, that’s a sign that you don’t have a society anymore. Crime is bad enough, but it at least follows a certain rationality — the motives are anti-social and dangerous, but legible. Terrorism is a step beyond normal crime, but again, there is some ostensible goal that the terrorist group is pursuing, albeit with tragically misguided ends. But something like a mass shooting isn’t even terrorism. It is sheer nihilism. It is violence as an end in itself, as the pure expression of a rejection of one’s fellow human being.

At this point, it is part of the ritual of a mass shooting for the shooter to be declared “troubled” or “mentally ill,” and then the liberals all point out that this happens every time and is a reductive explanation, etc. Yet there is a moment of truth in the individualistic explanation, because the systemic cause of the systemic problem of mass shootings is precisely a toxic individualism that, when thwarted, can find its way to a destructive annihilation of the other — any other will do.

We can also call it toxic masculinity, insofar as it takes the least desirable traits stereotypically associated with manhood — isolation, lack of empathy, rage — while completely discarding the more desirable traits like loyalty or duty. Surely it is no accident that only men — and almost always white men — participate in this nihilistic anti-ritual, but there is a false universalism in pinning the problem on masculinity. This is not always or even often how men behave. In fact, it is only in contemporary America that they have come to behave in this way at an epidemic level.

Call it toxic Americanism, then. That will allow us to include the ritualized non-response within the broader phenomenon. Systemic effects have systemic causes, and one of those effects is the utter refusal to take any steps to remedy the problem. Our political leaders are so enamored of the romance of gun ownership that they are willing to sacrifice dozens of us per year on the idol of the Second Amendment. Here I count all our political leadership — the Republicans who love their guns and the Democrats who spent the last couple decades attempting to placate the gun lobby (which refused to take yes for an answer and used every Democratic victory to prompt even more stockpiling of weapons). As ever, the choice between Republican and Democrat is that between active and passive nihilism.

As a result of this toxic Americanism, every one of us is potentially collateral damage of the distinctive form of aggrieved masculinity that America is producing in ever-greater quantities. And it is becoming clear that no amount of collateral damage will be enough to prompt action. The Las Vegas shooting claimed at least 50 lives and injured 200 more — an unimaginable loss that happened for literally no reason. Does anyone even remotely imagine that any action other than the ritual allocation of “thoughts and prayers” will come of it?

I am not being metaphorical when I characterize the mass shooting and its aftermath as a form of ritual. In a sense, it has become the baseline ritual of American civil religion — a ritual enactment of the dissolution of society, a ritual evocation of the apocalypse. Admittedly, this ritual has become so routine that we only bother to carry it through at the national level when the victims become particularly numerous (as at Las Vegas) or when the targets produce a special effect of horror (as a Sandy Hook). But it is of a piece with all our other distinctive observances: the rituals of blaming victims of disaster, of formally excusing police violence against the innocent, of brutalizing protestors with no legal or rational basis other than the demand for absolute submission. All of those ritual observances point toward the mass shooting as nihilistic violence in its purest form, with no claim to legitimacy or justification — a nihilistic violence that we collectively refuse to stop or even impede, because we don’t even remember what it might be like to be part of a society anymore.

The arrested development of the “world come of age”

In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer begins to radically rethink Christianity for a world that no longer has need of religious guidance — a “world come of age” where human beings take responsibility for their own problems with no need to appeal to God. The immediate postwar era seems to bear out his prediction. In an increasingly secular world, humanity increasingly took consciously planned collective action aimed at solving previously intractable problems. Social democracy flourished in the West, for example, and the former colonies began to enjoy self-determination as they joined the community of nations. It was far from paradise, but one could entertain the possibility that humanity was increasingly coming to control its own collective destiny on any number of levels.

In the meantime, we seem to have suffered a regression into world-wide adolescence. Continue reading “The arrested development of the “world come of age””

Young adult dystopia

It’s well known that dystopia is the hottest teen trend since vampires, but it’s more than a momentary trend — dystopia has been a staple of young adult literature and high school curricula for decades at this point. It’s very strange, because most high schools don’t remotely equip their students to understand the abstract social questions at play in such literature. I assume that part of the reason for spending time on 1984 or The Giver is to innoculate teenagers against the temptations of “totalitarianism,” but it seems like the strategy may be in danger of backfiring. Whereas before we had dystopias about the inevitably horrific consequences of any attempt to indulge in utopian impulses, our new dystopian literature is no longer about the ironic dystopian results of utopia — instead, it’s made up of pretty straightforward extrapolations from our contemporary experience. We’re no longer congratulating ourselves for avoiding the folly of central planning, but instead imagining the consequences of our contemporary ideology of never-ending high-stakes competition.

The Hunger Games is the obvious example. It’s far from a total fantasy, because I assume that someone will figure out a way to make an actual life-and-death reality TV show within our lifetimes. When that happens, people will be outraged, but will they be surprised? I don’t think so. Divergent has a similar immediate pull, as it is essentially about high-stakes testing regimes. And it makes sense that as these dystopias ever more closely approximate our contemporary world, the protagonists tend to be teenage girls — because who has more experience of trying desperately to carve out some space for agency in an oppressive regime than a teenage girl?

Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan

In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world:  when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state.  The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.

But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws?  Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.

This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer.  Continue reading “Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan”

Like a business

Surely we are all tired of the mantra that everything should be “run like a business.” Surely we all realize that the government, or the health care system, or the education system, or your family are not businesses and should work according to their own immanent logic rather than according to the norms of business.

Yet it occurs to me: is anything inherently a business? We normally think of a bakery as a business, for example, but isn’t it actually a place where people bake things? One can imagine a bakery operating under many different economic systems. The examples multiply. A clothing retailer is a place where people come to get their clothes. A convenience store exists to provide people with easy access to frequently used items. A car factory exists to make cars. Even a bank exists primarily to intermediate between people’s different financial priorities (e.g., saving vs. spending), rather than to make money as such. All of those things are typically “run like a business” in Western countries, but that doesn’t mean that they directly “are” businesses.

Only one type of pursuit is inherently a business: hedge funds. Continue reading “Like a business”

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Depression and OWS

I am, of course, supportive of the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins. I have had issues relating to some of it, mostly to do with my pre-existing distrust of anarchist style political organization and seeing how little it gets done while protecting the beautiful souls of the leaders who deny their leadership. As Adam has said I think it is very silly to pretend that I, or any of us, know what the hell we are doing (though Adam said it, I am sure, much more eloquently). But this is what has depressed me so much about these sit-ins. First, I think we need to get some assumptions out of the way. I don’t think this is a revolution. It’s a clearly political act, but revolutions, at least real ones that don’t just sink into a form of liberalism, are radical breaks. It seems that they involve violence necessarily. And not the kind of low-scale violence that comes from clashes with police. Revolutions actually involve taking power from those who already hold it (and this, by the way, is why I don’t think Egypt, now under a form of dual power between parliament and the military, has yet been a revolution). But, and this is the second point, just because this is a revolution doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring or worthwhile in a number of ways. That “revolution or bust” mentality is not the root of my depression and I think it’s at least as puerile, if not more, as the anarchist techniques that bother me about the groups running OWS. So in a very popular post I suggested that if we were not hate the poor we had to refuse to hold one opinion regarding the English riots. I think that holds true in the case of OWS and what follows is more of a confession, perhaps entirely too personal, than it is a work of political criticism.

Continue reading “Depression and OWS”