Heresy and the Godhead

I was quite taken with Laruelle’s calling forth of the heretical imperative in the Future Christ but disappointed with the actual heresies that he evoked, and this awakened me once again to the ultimate importance of heresy to which so few of us are open. Despite the fact that Arianism has been the most popular and pervasive of all heresies, it is not really interesting as a heresy except in its most radical expressions such as Milton, leading me to distinguish between a lighter heresy and a heavier heresy, the latter almost invariably a deeply heretical knowing of Godhead itself, such as occurs in Spinoza and Hegel. Now just as Spinoza is a far deeper heretic than is Leibnitz, and Hegel the deepest heretic in his world, Milton and Blake are the deepest heretics in the world of English literature, and yet Hegel, Milton, and Blake are all profoundly Christian. Of course, the theological world doesn’t know what to do with great heretics of this order, but at the very least they are an overwhelming challenge to faith, and to the deepest faith. Continue reading “Heresy and the Godhead”

A new proof of the existence of God

Proofs of the existence of God have fallen on hard times. We are far from the days when Anselm could berate the Fool for his failure to see that God’s existence was inherent in the very concept of God, and even from the heyday of Aquinas’s “five ways” to prove the existence of a Creator. Anthony and I have, however, devised a new proof of the existence of God that is not only fully rigorous, but also reflects much of the thinking underlying Christian practice today — a stirring example of faith completing reason. It goes as follows:

  1. We see all around us that the world is awash in sinful and perverse acts.
  2. Now God is the only standard by which we can know these acts as sinful and perverse.
  3. If God did not exist, then the sinful and perverse would be completely acceptable.
  4. But this is absurd — and therefore God must exist.

All we need now is a catchy name like “the teleological argument” or “the argument from design.” Perhaps the “argument from homophobia”?

Dan Brown the Symptom

Ross Douthat’s column on Dan Brown is getting a decent amount of attention today, with theology blogging mega-star Halden quoting it approvingly. There are some cheap shots — as Yglesias points out, the claim that no one could advance conspiracy theories about Judaism and Islam and get away with it elides the fact that the Roman Catholic Church really is structured in a way that invites conspiracy theories, whereas Judaism and Islam are decentralized — but that’s not what I want to address. The problem with this article is its central premise, which poses cheesy eclectic “religiousness” against presumably more authentic religions:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

I would contend that the problem with “Brownian” religion isn’t a lack of truth claims — instead, the problem is that it’s nothing but truth claims. It’s an overflow of purported knowledge about the real story behind Jesus, or in the case of an eclectic fascination with “world religions,” about the deeper truths expressed by all faith traditions. The distinction between “Brownian” religion and Roman Catholicism, for example, isn’t that the former has no truth claims while the latter offends our postmodern sensitivities by insisting that we take our medicine of truth claims — rather, it’s that the former is made up of truth claims that undermine loyalty to any particular institution (and implicitly reinforce a kind of generic “going with the flow”), while the latter is made up of truth claims that underwrite loyalty to a specific institution.

The accusation that eclectic “religiousness” is uncomfortable with truth claims in general acts as a smokescreen to avoid dealing with the real problem: namely, that religious institutions have consistently betrayed the trust of their constituents, making them open to anti-institutional conspiracy theory literature. What’s more, the people who most loudly claim to be loyal to the institution tend not to be the types of people you want to imitate — for instance, outside of a small hard core group, I doubt anyone found the anti-Obama/anti-abortion protestors at Notre Dame to be an admirable bunch, and I don’t think it was because they were offending postmodern sensibilities by standing up for truth claims.

(And I would add: what is more postmodern than standing up for the idea of strong truth claims in general? To the one who sees nothing but nihilism in the contemporary world, the great temptation is an “at least it’s an ethos” mindset — which is itself the most dangerous form of nihilism.)

I admit that I share Douthat’s distaste for generic “religiousness” or “spirituality,” but for a different reason: fundamentally, it’s not serious. Most of the time, it’s just a kind of vague curiosity that makes people into boring conversation partners full of spiritual platitudes. At its best, it can become a kind of stress-relief technique, which is certainly important and necessary — though perhaps not what the great religious traditions of humankind have been aiming at. But at the end of the day, much of what our great religious institutions are offering us is difficult to take seriously as well.

Theses on The Dark Knight

The following post was co-authored with Kelsey Craven, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

  1. The Dark Knight is a critique of Batman, and precisely because of this, a critique of the neoliberal order. Here neoliberalism is understood as the combination of authoritarian politics, either the rather clumsy Republican version or the slick managerialism of the Democrats, in the service of the ever-greater concentration of capital by means of primitive accumulation (“privatization”) and financialization.
  2. Batman and Harvey Dent are the two sides of neoliberal politics. Both depend on the wealth of Bruce Wayne in order to operate. That wealth is of course inherited, but it is greatly augmented by a stock issue in Batman Begins—surely a strange plot point for a comic book movie. Under Bruce’s father, the Wayne fortune underwrote both the water and transit systems of Gotham, effectively privatizing central government functions. Bruce simply continues this trend by privatizing law-enforcement, driven initially by his thirst for vengeance against the ungrateful “criminal” class.
  3. Batman’s alleged project, to wage a war against “criminality,” must necessarily be a war against Gotham’s citizenry within the context of Gotham. This too is a major theme in Batman Begins, wherein the League of Shadows boasts of their capacity to infiltrate every level of government and considers this fact a legitimation of their intent to drug Gotham’s inhabitants, inciting them to destroy their city from within. Gotham is decadent. This theme re-emerges with the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline; when the female cop, who seemingly works directly under Commissioner Gordon, is confronted by Two-Face as to her role in the murder of Rachel Dawes, her response is: “They [the mob] got to me early, my mother’s hospital bills!”
  4. It follows that:
    • Batman’s fight against “criminals” is a fight against the working class.
    • Within Gotham, a civil servant is incapable of supporting herself and her family without outside financial assistance.
    • All wealth within Gotham is concentrated within one of the following two organizations: the mob or the Wayne Estate. It follows that the citizens must then serve one, the other, or both so as to survive within the existing social structure of Gotham.
    • Should the mob be defeated (criminality), Bruce Wayne will quite literally own Gotham.
    • With regards to this power structure, the citizenry are seemingly complicit.
  5. Batman’s elaborate show of keeping his hands clean by refusing to use guns is accompanied by tremendous “collateral damage”—in Batman Begins, the emphasis is on direct property damage, particularly the very water/transit system his father built, while in The Dark Knight, the focus is on “social chaos,” which in practice amounts to the refusal to submit to Batman’s sole authority. In response to the chaos he himself generated, Batman shows a decided willingness to torture, while still maintaining the pose of holier-than-thou pacifism. The most extreme example is when he pushes a mob boss off a roof—when the mob boss points out the fall will not kill him, Batman responds, “I’m counting on it.”
  6. Batman’s main tactic in his pet crusade is the inspiration of fear, hence the bat, the animal that frightened him as a child. He learns this tactic from the League of Shadows in Batman Begins and, as an aside, it makes his lamentation to Alfred in The Dark Knight—“This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people”—that much more ironic. Bruce Wayne is truly delusional. Insofar as fear is what he seeks to inspire, he is something of a counterpart to Scarecrow, and both must be considered at once psychopaths and terrorists, with the latter being only more honest with himself concerning his desire for power by way of fear.
  7. That “reducing crime” is not Batman’s true goal is clear: the “criminals” he fights early in the film are in fact imitators. One would think that people standing up and defending themselves and others in a situation of social chaos would be positive, but Batman derides their efforts: not only do they forfeit their ethical purity by using guns, but they’re also poor and tacky, running around in hockey pants.
  8. The Joker is the protagonist and hero of The Dark Knight. He is the only truly ethical character in the film. As he repeats three times, he is “a man of his word.”
  9. The Joker’s response to the neoliberal order of Gotham City is the only human one: he wishes for its destruction, initially symbolized by Batman. He enacts that destruction with joy, taking full responsibility for his actions in a way that Batman never can.
  10. In Gotham, just as in our present socio-political context, mental illness might be seen as a legitimate, individual rebellion against patriarchal law and its resulting hierarchy. (What better response to capitalist multi-tasking than autism?) It is thus only fitting that the Joker should seek allies in the mental instituion, that is, the one instiution that effectively falls outside of the mob/Wayne axis.
  11. “Terrorism” is not the appropriate description for the Joker’s actions, because terrorism is a strategy used by weak political actors (like the pitiable Batman) to advance their ends. The Joker wants to destroy the entire framework within which ends can be pursued, as shown by the following quote:

    I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drops of gas and a couple bullets. You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because that’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.

  12. Yet it’s not a sheer negativity—or better, it’s a negation so thorough-going that it becomes its own kind of positivity. The Joker’s plots require huge amounts of labor and creativity, and he calls forth a community characterized by loyalty and fearlessness. Already in the very attempt to destroy the neoliberal order, an alternative spontaneously begins to take form.
  13. Aside from the Joker, Harvey Dent is the only other character who escapes sheer bad faith: he is the “good liberal.” Dent actually believes in the spectacle, as is clear in his participation in and enjoyment of the theatricality of the courtroom scene—and this despite the fact that this very theatricality points up the bankruptcy of the judicial system, including a corruption that extends to allowing a witness to carry a gun into the courtroom. His betrayal by the system he sought to reform was arguably even more painful to Dent than the loss of Rachel.
  14. In the end, the Joker succeeds only in forcing a slight reorganization of the power structure—Dent’s murders are covered up and Batman is scapegoated. The symbol of the brave vigilante watching over everyone is replaced by the symbol of the brave martyr to whom society will be forever indebted. In both cases, the people remain passive spectators. However, were the Joker’s project to be comprehended by the populace, a more thoroughgoing destabilization would be achieved by default—for it is the Joker who consistently addresses the populace at large, demanding action and above all the assumption of responsibility. In sharp contrast with the practitioners of the “noble lie,” the Joker is not only a “man of his word” but attempts to drive others to be the same.
  15. To allay any suspicion that this interpretation is motivated by a contrarian’s willfulness, we conclude with some words of wisdom from the loyal Alfred. We are referring here not to his oft-quoted characterization of the Joker as a man who “just wants to watch the world burn,” but to his final solution to men who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” The famous quote occurs in the context of an analogy between the Joker and a Burman jewel thief who steals from the British colonialists and throws his spoils away—a situation that is only revealed when soldiers find a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. Much later in the film, when Bruce Wayne asks how the soldiers finally defeated their foe, Alfred replies: “We burned down the forest.” Who, then, wants to watch the world burn? Alfred himself says it: the lawmen, the money men, the punishers.

Nihilism and American Religion

For many many months my living room has been so cluttered with books as to be truly offensive even to myself, so yesterday I discovered a decent and inexpensive bookcase, bought it and quickly filled it full of books. Peace! And an unexpected one at that. Now could anything comparable occur to my writing? For my mind is cluttered with more writing projects than I can count, and I continually move between them writing here there and everywhere, certainly no real order is thereby realized, and now I can’t think of my writing without thinking of deep disorder. One such project that has been suggested to me is a genealogy of nihilism.

As a good Nietzschean ‘genealogy’ is a fundamental word and category for me, but I have seldom openly employed it and I can believe that the time is at hand for that. Nietzsche himself devoted a great deal of attention to the genealogy of nihilism, but for the most part this occurs in his notebooks, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to bring this genealogy into a coherent whole. One matter is clear, however, and that is that for Nietzsche it is the Biblical God who is the primal source of nihilism, and this is just why the death of this God is the origin of the most ultimate liberation and joy. Now I sense that a good move could be made at this point by centering upon the American God, a God already envisioned by Blake as Satan, and conceived by Hegel as the “Bad Infinite” or the purely abstract God. This is the God who is not realized until the historical realization of the death of God, which both Blake and Hegel could know as occurring in the French Revolution, and a revolution itself only made possible by the American Revolution. Blake’s America is not only his first prophetic poem, it is also the first imaginative enactment of the death of God, and we would not be irresponsible in looking upon this short epic as the inaugural unveiling of a uniquely American destiny. Now if this is a genuinely nihilistic destiny, as perhaps not openly unveiled until our own time, then a quest for the genealogy of nihilism would simultaneously be a quest for the genealogy of America, or of a deeper and darker America.

Continue reading “Nihilism and American Religion”

Benjaminian Studies in Nihilism and Thomism

‘Philosophers are familiar with reason but are only beginning to discover intelligence. Impersonal, anonymous, and disinterested, intelligence may have found a temporary support in the terrestrial biosphere, but certainly not a home. It cares nothing for the norms of pure reason, the bounds of sense, or the interests of life. While transcendental orthodoxy wastes time staving off the imminent liquidation of reason, sense, and life, transcendental materialism celebrates the deterritorialization of intelligence.’ — Ray Brassier

‘So the highest, most perfect level of life is that of the intellect, for intellect can reflect upon itself and understand itself. The human mind, even though it can come to self-awareness, must still start by knowing outside things, and they can’t be understood without sense-images… More perfect then is the is the intellectual life of angels, in which intellects know themselves not from outside but by knowing themselves in themselves. And yet their life isn’t yet the acme of perfection, for although the idea in their mind is altogether within them it isn’t what they are, since in them to exist is different from to understand… The acme of perfection in life, then, belongs to God, in whom to exist is to understand… so that in God the idea in his mind what God himself is.’ – St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 4.11

More and more I am convinced that the theology ontology of John Milbank and his followers’ conception of the analogia entis shares, at least on the formal level, with the mathematical ontology of Badiou and his followers’ conception of the void. To make sense of this one needs to argue that Badiou’s philosophy is an analogia nihilio nihili. I’m aware of passages in Being and Event which could be used to argue against this notion, but it seems to me that thinkers like Brassier are far more honest heirs of Badiou’s philosophy than the man himself. For ultimately Badiou’s philosophy posits the void as the groundless ground of being – ultimate being is nothingness. For the Thomist this groundless ground of being is God via an impressive folding of negative and positive theology not unlike Badiou’s own axioms and denigration of ‘mysticism’.

But what of these two quotes given? Brassier’s valorization of deterritorilized intelligence shares in the Thomist obsession with perfection and teleology. For him it is the end that counts and the end that is most perfect is anti-humanist in its rejection of any value in life. Of course Thomas has a conception of humanity and the rest of creation that lives on eternally in God, but is Brassier’s vision so different if humanity ends up as nothing when the nothing is itself primary?

A Comparison

In the recent history of theology, the figure who most closely approximates Milbank is Reinhold Niebuhr — with the important exception that Niebuhr at least tried to elaborate a constructive theological position (viz., The Nature and Destiny of Man). For both, the main task is to deploy the “Christian” view as a solution to contemporary social ills.

The similarity may be obscured by the fact that Milbank is dealing with “cutting edge” European philosophers while Niebuhr is resolutely uncool to our contemporary eyes, but Niebuhr was dealing with Lenin and Freud, for example, and both have a kind of historical genealogy for when the truly “Christian” view was lost.

Perhaps Niebuhr’s “selling out” to American hegemony could be considered parallel to the supposed reunification of Christendom that Radical Orthodoxy is apparently managing to bring about, particularly when one places such rhetoric in the context of the so-called “War on Terror.”

The Damp Earth – The Mother of God

I’m linking to a paper I wrote second semester looking for some feedback. It forms, in part, a response to certain articles in Collapse II through some issues surrounding vitalism I’ve been tarrying with for some time. It has already been turned down from one journal but I wasn’t very happy with the readers notes. Any specific issues you see I would appreciate, though I do ask we stay away from the meta levels.

I should also warn you that it is a pdf.

A Sophic Phenomenology of Invariant Vitalism

The Deep Shame of Living In These Times

When I wash up the dishes I listen to radio documentaries and to the daily newscast from Democracy Now! I find it helps when doing these necessary tasks to optimize my time and see if I can connect with the outside world. I say outside world because I spend most of my day reading, studying, and writing. There is nothing particularly interesting about living this way and I’m sure it is a common experience among grad students.

Today something about it really got to me. Democracy Now! aired an exclusive segment on the torture and subsequent psychological damage of Jose Padilla. The segment featured forensic psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty who interviewed Padilla for 22 hours. Everything disgusting and morally reprehensible about the American War on Terror is present here and given the narrative of a singular human being. While listening I was struck by the realization that someday, if Hayley and I have children, we will have to explain to those children that we lived in this time. That we were in university when the reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11th turned into a xenophobic, imperial campaign against Muslims, especially Arab Muslims. That it was used to silence dissent against the administration. And that it was used to slowly take away our most basic protections against the government and for our own power; all seemingly with popular support by way of apathy.

At this moment I felt a deep sense of shame. Not guilt; guilt is an emotion tied to something we have do. I have not done anything wrong. By all accounts I have no real reason to feel any guilt and when I do one can assuage it easily enough. But this shame is tied to what I am as a person living in these times. It’s shame at not knowing what to do to resist the actions of my government. Shame at knowing that the work I do, while I value it highly and know it is worthwhile, will not fix any of this. Even where my work will hopefully find fertile ground I know it is unlikely to have much of an impact. Teachers can do good, they helped me, but how do we teach our pupils to be something unshameful when it is so deeply rooted?

The Fallow Universal

Spread before is a field razed of all interesting life. The universal, we are told, is colorless and so they hope to rid themselves eventually of even the fallow field. They don’t know that even a deteriorated ecosystem still persists, that fallow is just another name for living. Ridding the world of experience in the name of extinction, as if this means nothing.

An ecology of thought rids us of nothing but the riding itself. The universal, well, can we admit that it is not so interesting after all. Only what is produced in the damp earth, the fallow universal, is interesting. It matters most of all, and that is not nothing.