Nov 13, 2015
I had a great time at the Subverting the Norm 3 conference at Drury University. The conference’s topic was political perspectives on postmodern theology, and while my field is far too much dominated by straight, white males, it was clear how much thought went into the keynotes. Thanks go out to Phil Snider, Karen Bray, and Katherine Sarah Moody for organizing.
I presented a talk titled “What Our Four Names Betray.” I was testing a structural theory of discourse from Lacan that figures heavily into my dissertation. My thesis was that religious thought broadly fits one of three reactions (Hysteric, University, and Analyst) against a Master’s discourse. The first few minutes of the recording were cut off due to my user error, but I got most of it.
I should say that I make a claim on neutrality of affect that I’m questioning as a result of my co-panelist and friend Karen Bray. My claim was that analytic thought must remain neutral against the the self-justifying fictions and rightward drift of confessional theologies. I’m not generally a fan of moderation between positions (which inevitably grants too much justification to problematic viewpoints), but while I think an academic needs to maintain at least some of the neutrality of affect exemplified by a psychoanalyst, I definitely see the value of thinking through affect in critical discourse. Since this was a test run for material in my dissertation, I look forward to taking Bray’s suggestions with regard to queer theory and the use of affect.
That said, here is the audio: STN3, What Our Four Names Betray.mp3
Nov 2, 2015
One of my favorite things about this whole academic world is the moment a friend’s new book arrives.
I first met Katharine Sarah Moody when we presented together at Subverting the Norm II (2013), and her reputation as scholar preceded her. We met again at a series of talks organized by Kester Brewin on radical theology featuring John Caputo and Peter Rollins at the UK Greenbelt Festival that summer. Her new book is titled Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices.
Both as a theoretical exposition of Caputo and Žižek and as a practical discussion of Rollins and Brewin, the book is an impressive tour of theologies emanating from a/theistic and materialist readings of Christianity within deconstructive and psychoanalytic frameworks. She frames her goal as such: “Engaging in a close reading of Žižek’s materialist theology and Caputo’s deconstructive theology will allow me to make the case that a Caputian a/theism is the proper framework for a Žižekian fighting collective. This central claim means both that Žižek’s political community of believers in a Cause is properly a/theistic, ir/religious or faith/less and that Caputo’s philosophical a/theology is also a cultural imaginary and socio-political practice—a way of life, form of sociality, or mode of association.” (RT&EM, 1)
Three-quarters of the book is theory, primarily Žižek and Caputo but also engaging just about everyone from whom those two are working. The final quarter, with original interviews and research on Brewin’s Vaux and Rollins’s Ikon collectives, exemplifies what I appreciate most about Moody: she is a clearly gifted theoretician who manages to maintain a deep interest in the practical side of things. For those on the academic end of the spectrum, Moody makes a compelling case for the use of transformance art and suspended space. For those who are newly wading into this world of radical theology through the introduction of Rollins, Brewin, and Caputo, this book provides a remarkably accessible introduction to the theory underneath.
Moody acknowledges the potential downside of all this, namely, that these critiques and re-readings may become an apologetic for a dulled appropriation of materialism for a veiled defense of traditional theism: “While I will argue against a reading of Caputo’s radical theology of the event as simply a way to resurrect God, I also acknowledge that radical theology can be (mis)read within emerging Christian discourse as a form of negative theology designed to enable us to discover the God beyond the ‘God’ of idolatry and ideology.” (8) As you can see, her critique is not an apology for those misreadings but instead a confrontation with those who are reading more complex material as a way to secure clandestine theism. The conclusion of the book returns to this question with an even-handed discussion of precisely these questions coming after the STN2 conference: first, is it possible that what we are actually talking about is a “radical theology lite” that betrays the aims and academic rigor of Altizer and the like, and second, doesn’t any theology that “works” in actually-existing religious communities already signal, by the very fact of its welcome reception, that it isn’t all that radical anyway? Though I firmly support the work of Caputo, Žižek, Rollins, and Brewin, I think the concerns are legitimate and certainly worth discussing (as does Moody along with these writers). She presents a very fair treatment of these question for the reader newly initiated into this world of materialist and post-theistic readings of Christian theology. Put differently, this paragraph is my way of saying that Moody has waded into murky and theoretically contested waters, and she presents a case that diverging perspectives will appreciate.
To that end, Moody desires to see more research on long-term effects: “My exploration of the radical elements within emerging Christian discourse suggests that there is potential for a concrete movement to gather around this religious turn in radical political and social thought and that it might be possible for ir/religious collectives to join in with others in such an endeavour. However, the effectiveness of any emerging Pauline practices of suspension has yet to be documented.” (237)
Order it from Amazon or your local bookstore. When you consider this book encompasses material normally taking 10 books to adequately cover, I say it’s a bargain. This should become the book for understanding relationships between "actually-existing" Christianity and it's more radical readings.
* The big Other demands I tell you that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Oct 13, 2015
“Today everything is theology, with the exception of what the theologians talk about.” - Carl Schmitt
None of this is new, but it becomes ambiguous.
One theme I firmly instill in my students is that for every personal belief there is a corresponding tribal background. I try my hardest to give the benefit of a doubt to the genuinness of convictions, but the truth behind that genuinness can be opaque. Belief either ossifies or reacts against a particular social arrangement (there is no neutral ground here), and an idea doesn’t need to be concrete (or coherent) in order to do something. My working theory of religion is that it is a world with two poles: 1) personal meaning/explanation and 2) tribal cohesion. It’s one small way I try to incorporate the Imaginary and Symbolic as interlocked layers of depth.
In my religious studies class, I put it this way: isn't it interesting that your thoughts on Genesis 1 might tell me whether or not you support the Supreme Court's ruling for marriage equality? Tell me how you understand the virtue of charity, and I can roughly infer your stance on wealth redistribution, taxation, entitlements, etc. Isn't it interesting that what you make of the word "sin" can help me guess your reaction to "black lives matter"?
You take a wrong turn in interpretation when you judge a belief as nothing more than the ridiculous delusion of a dull mind. Even when is no clear use value, the nebulous or apparently irrelevant belief is either supporting a social affiliation or—in the case where secondary ideas are created to protect a primary value—supporting another personal identity marker.
In God Is Unconscious, I use the famous chess match example:
Walter Benjamin wrote of a chess game in which every move was countered with a perfect move by an automaton. The automaton puppet puffed on its water pipe in the intervals between moves, creating the illusion of contemplation even though its calculated moves assured its eschatological victory. A system of mirrors created the illusion that one could see right through the table, but in fact a hunchbacked dwarf [a chessmaster] sat inside the puppet to control the game. One could imagine, Benjamin continued, that this is precisely our situation today, where the politics of historical materialism are merely a puppet controlled by a hidden theology. We suppose the material order will win the game, producing a revolutionary event or a messianic time, but what we get instead is a well-regulated technocracy supported by a theology.
. . .
In The Puppet and the Dwarf, Žižek reverses Benjamin’s chess match to observe that in an age where radical thought is prohibited, we now play chess against explicitly theological matters that conceal the political agendas controlling its moves. Imaginary ideologies directed by the big Other are proscribed from our awareness by illusions of secularity.
Ideas hide themselves among others. If someone tells me with great certainty that a Bible is copied verbatim from God’s lips and perfectly preserved down through the ages, I can infer further possible connections: likely a Protestant, almost certainly a creationist (which isn't exactly a long shot when 42% of Americans are), higher than average familiarity with the text, believes in miracles, etc. But if I guessed correctly thus far (granting that at the political level, creationism works as a front for climate science denial), I may be able to push further and list specific lobbies funding the politicians for whom he votes. Depending on age or college experience, I might even surmise something about the nature of his family structure and friendships. I know he could loose important social connections should his paradigm shift. Since he vaguely knows this too, I know he feels anxiety when studying religion in a classroom. His anxiety produces doubts which he, in turn, represses via a small handful of common strategies. I know I should recalculate my teaching style based on this knowledge in order to avoid provoking more defensive barriers. The personal belief is genuine; its utility and social background are opaque.
Which pole is the puppet, and which is the Master? It isn’t always clear. A dominant religion clearly has a vested interest in keeping personal meaning in the foreground and collective dynamics secluded in the background. Whereas Islam and Judaism do a better job keeping these two purposes together and out in the open, American Protestantism usually prefers to imagine its theology is apolitical. Wherever a belief deceives itself into imagining it is apolitical, it aggressively preserves a status quo.
None of this is a new idea. The belief is a signifier that is doing something, and its actions are deceptive.
"Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations:'You believe you are taking action when I am the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which I weave your desires. Thus do the latter grow in strength and multiply in objects, bringing you back to the fragmentation of your rent childhood. That will be your feast until the return of the stone guest whom I shall be for you since you call me forth.'" - Jacques Lacan
Oct 12, 2015
I’ll be delivering a talk this fall with the European School of New Monasticism. The five-week course, free and open to the public, includes lectures from John D. Caputo, Creston Davis, Peter Rollins, Gladys Ganiel, Fr. John Skinner and others. The course will be conducted in the UK, but all daily sessions will be streamed online and recorded. Register here, and see the full course program here.
My talk on November 11th (8:00am PST or 16.00 GMT) is part of a cluster of conversations on Jungian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. I will explore the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real and discuss the implications for mapping perceptions and beliefs along an conscious/unconscious schema. I hope you can join us!
Sep 23, 2015
Along one edge of a spectrum, there are those rare leaders with an almost foolishly direct faith that things can and will get better. As decent human beings, they provoke the Master—Equality! Rights! No more plutocracy!—in ways that fundamentally clash with a rigged game. On the other side, there are cynics and knaves who say exactly what they are paid to say. They stage debates so that we might play drinking games while we psychoanalyze whether any of them believe a word they say. In the middle of the spectrum, there are moderates who all too often descend into the same cynical strategy. And somewhere in that mix you get the rarest figure of the jester, whose goals you can’t quite figure.
As a jester, you open your campaign by labeling a crucial demographic (not to mention real human beings) as rapists, and then you attack women and your party’s primary propaganda network. You can do this because you had no expectation of winning, only an expectation of attention. But you become godlike to those trained to hear what their itching ears desire to hear, and then your campaign manager starts saying “You keep being YOU!” Say whatever you like if vanity and cruelty are virtues.
And then a holy man with his own set of issues crosses the seas to make a few observations with childlike clarity about things we already know: (to paraphrase Deleuze) the economy breaths, the climate heats, the people don’t eat, and capitalism does something more vulgar to us all. A message simple and obvious to anyone with eyes to see, which is to say, not all that obvious.
Once again, as Rabbi Heschel told us, “Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”
[above: some cartoon that will really thow them!]
The mockery of internet memes tells us how hilarious it is that the Right detests the holy man’s message, which is merely a truncated version of what their messiah said. Haven’t they read the Gospels?! we ask, as if the words of messiahs ever swayed dogmatically religious types. Of course, anyone with eyes open already knows the populists prefer jesters and charlatans and won't give a damn about a message for the poor and disempowered. But never mind—have you seen this clip showing how their propaganda channel was hypocritical yesterday?!
A joke about hypocrisy, as Freud suggested, “says what it has to say, not always in few words, but in too few words.” We laugh at a joke when we are already "in" on the information omitted, but the same joke fails when told among those who aren’t privy to the information omitted. It depends on which reality we purchased.
The jester's jokes turn perpetually more hostile, leading us to wonder if he is still in on the joke or if instead, like the classic story of Narcissus, he is falling for himself. The jester continues to be more amazed than anyone at his rise. He wasn’t actually trying, but people hear what their itching ears desire to hear. He puts a toe in the waters of cultural genocide when someone says “muslim,” but he retracts when he sees he can’t predict the beast. He will try again. He begins to wonder if he actually might win, but then the choice as ruler would be between the fascism he campaigned on or admitting the language was nothing more than what xenophobia always is: a crass trick for the feeble mind.
In the end, there will be those who say we need to lower our critiques and unify as moderates, which, if political theory teaches us anything, is exactly what allows vanity and cruelty to flourish.
Sep 20, 2015
Well this is something horrifying. Give Me Sex Jesus is a documentary out now for free on Vimeo, and it explores the repression and fallout from Evangelical purity culture.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this ever since I heard the filmmakers discuss it at my seminary a few years back, and I think it’s such an important topic that I immediately looked up the Kickstarter page. While it’s terrible to think about how many tens of millions of Americans have been fucked up by purity culture, at least the film turned out well!
See the film here.
Sep 11, 2015
A professor once advised our class to write properly academic papers—“you know…dull, dry, boring,” he said—the reason being that critical research should avoid the bloviation and poetic license that all too often characterizes popular formats. It would be difficult to overstate how that advice on paper-writing seems to permeate everything we do as academic scholars.
I teach a course on Biblical traditions, and it’s humbling to realize how expertise bears absolutely no relation to decent pedagogy. Five years of graduate work in religion and philosophy means I take for granted so many tedious assumptions. I lectured on the Enuma Elish as base material for the two creation myths in Genesis before pivoting to the Wellhausen hypothesis and German higher criticism. I feared this would be terrible—dull, dry, and boring precisely due to being completely obvious by now—and thankfully several students snapped me back to reality by asking what Genesis is or where to find it.
I put it this way in my book: “The pernicious tendency of the academy is to pull up the ladder behind us, the ladder that we climbed up and benefited from yet now deny to others. The university discourse isolates itself from common parlance, and in so doing, the human sciences outlive their usefulness by forging their servitude to the master’s technocracy.” What a cumbersome way to put it! All the irony of trying to sound clever while lamenting obscurity. “It’s an academic book,” I told myself. “The accessible version will come later.”
If you have a bit of knowledge, I think you have a responsibility to give it away. I have so many friends who do a much better job than I at being a public scholar. I admire that. There are plenty of fields that would have value in themselves. Literature, histories, and mathematics (and perhaps philosophy) are worth securing in an ivory tower if our world descended into an intellectual dark age. But I don’t view religion that way, because religion is a folk language. Religion is desire and wish-fulfillment and often delusion; it’s always a way of speaking at something indirectly. It connects across our problems of politics, economics, races, and sexisms. It is an important way of organizing the tribe, and it is skilled at its repression and masochism.
At any rate, this is my way of saying I aim to start writing again here every couple of weeks. As that second, more accessible book continues to take shape alongside an even less accessible dissertation, I don’t foresee a better time to start putting my research into normal language again.
Jun 17, 2015
I have a new interview out today with the Freestyle Christianity podcast on my. I had a great time exploring the material in my book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology. Thanks to Joel Kuhlin and Josef Gustafsson for inviting me on the show!
And in other news from this week, I finished the first draft for my next book. The working title is The Cynic & the Fool, and it aims to bring my research to a more popularly accessible (and much less academic) level. It won’t be out for some time, but I’m really looking forward to getting this material out there!
Apr 23, 2015
Apr 13, 2015