Nov 3, 2014
My first peer-reviewed article was just published with IJŽS. I wrote this almost two years ago, but aside from a few changes I’d make after reading the full work of Lacan, I still like what I wrote. Read it here.
“Excess: The Obscene Supplement in Slavoj Žižek’s Religion and Politics”
Slavoj Žižek often refers to an obscene excess-supplement that, depending on the subject’s pathological disposition, serves to either 1) sustain a conscious injunction by disavowing an unconscious “underside” or 2) instruct the subject to transgress the injunction. This supplemental excess is at work in neurotic and perverse belief but functions in significantly different modes depending on whether the supplement affects the ego or superego. This paper surveys and analyzes Žižek’s use of the obscene excess-supplement in his theological and political applications of psychoanalytic theory.
“In various places people are surprised. What's eating them, these students, the little dears, our favorites, the darlings of civilization? What's up with them? Those who are saying this are playing the fool, this is what they are paid to do.” - Lacan
“The ideology of the right-wing intellectual, is precisely to play the role of what he is in fact, namely, a ‘knave.’ In other words, he doesn't retreat from the consequences of what is called realism; that is, when required, he admits he's a crook.” - Lacan
With the election tomorrow, it’s as good a time as any to post this short talk I gave at the LoftLA over the summer on the cynic and the fool. Lacan taught that the progressive politician plays the role of a fool that directly believes in the causes promoted and yet depends on a logic of misdirection with regard to the cause underneath the cause, which is always economic. On the other hand, Lacan noticed that right-wing politicians operate as cynics who will admit in private that they are far too educated to believe in much of the rhetoric they use in campaigns. Groups of skeptics desire a leader that believes directly, and groups of fools desire a leader that will tell their ears what they want to hear.
I wrote more on this in a previous post.
I explore these ideas in my forthcoming book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and Theology.
Oct 27, 2014
[This 11,000 year old temple in modern day Turkey is among the earliest evidence of deity worship. For the earliest evidence of religious rituals, we have to search tens or even hundreds of thousands of years earlier.]
I think I was most of the way through my master’s in theology before I ever asked myself when exactly (and why) our species became religious.
This is a lecture I gave last week for an Introduction to Religious Studies course. I had not read William James’s Gifford lectures since my undergrad in psychology, but I frame his “healthy mind and sick soul” by exploring the personal and political aspects of rituals. I discuss shamans and religion before homo sapiens, Freud’s illusion and delusion, ISIS and American apocalypticism, and suffering in Job.
I explore these themes further in my forthcoming book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology.
Aug 18, 2014
Another new book announcement. I am so excited to have been invited to write a chapter for this book featuring John Caputo and including contributions from Catherine Keller, Clayton Crockett, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Barry Taylor, Namsoon Kang, Katherine Sarah Moody, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and a number of other brilliant friends. Thanks to Erin and Ryan for making this happen! I hear we are aiming to release this early winter.
Jul 31, 2014
I’m very excited to announce that my first book will soon be published by Wipf & Stock.
The book is a philosophical, theological, and political meditation on the life’s work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. To my friends and mentors who encouraged me to take on this project, who read the early (bad) drafts, and who critiqued me and kept asking about progress—you know who you are—I cannot thank you all enough! The manuscript is complete, but I have no details on a publication date quite yet. At the moment, the working title is God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and Theology.
I actually set about to write a really accessible book, but my friends who have read it tell me its fairly academic. I plan to begin a second book with a more accessible version of a few key themes (namely around the knave/fool and the four discourses in relation to religious groups) in the next few months.
For an idea of the direction this book goes, here is the table of contents.
- We Speak Indirectly: from the Ritual to the Plague
- Outline of the Book
1. Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real
- Illusion and Delusion, Apocalypticism and Fundamentalism
- The Imaginary Inversion
- The Symbolic, the Wolf, and the Gallows
- Metonymy: the Unconscious is a Language
- Reality and the Real
- Paradigms and Piety
2. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Beyond the Reality Principle
- Quilting Points Ex Nihilo
- The (Death) Drive
- The Big Other and the Lacanian Subject
- Das Ding is a Vase
- Trompe L’oeil and the Gaze
- The Prodigal, Anxiety, and Doubt
- Cognates for a Void and Theological Cathexis
3) Paradoxes of Law
- Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor
- The Idiot King and the Censor
- The Obscene Excess-Supplement
- The Paradoxes of Ethics \ Have You Acted in Conformity with Your Desire?
4) Psychopathology: Psychosis, Neurosis, and Perversion
- Psychosis and the Secretaries to the Insane
- Schreber, Paranoia, and Fundamental Fantasy
- The End of (Anti-)Social Psychosis
- Obsessional Neurosis
- Hysterical Neurosis
- Traversing the Fundamental Fantasy
5) The Fool and the Knave
- Leftwing Fools
- Rightwing Knaves
- Collective Foolishness and the Rise of the Knave
- Bukharin and Kafka
- Luther Against Rome
6) The Four Discourses: Universities, Masters, Hysterics, and Analysts
- The Puppet and the Dwarf
- Hegel’s Master and Slave
- The Four Discourses
- Hosea and Yahweh’s Ferocious Ignorance
- Analysts and Bureaucrats: Knowledge, Truth, and Opinion
7) The Prophet and the Charlatan
- Why Does a Planet Not Speak?
- Father, Can’t You See That I Am Burning?
- Consume the Book
Jul 24, 2014
I thought this was a great FAQ on the Israeli assault on Gaza.
It’s been truly amazing to watch people in my feeds (who are ostensibly grown-ups) fail to recognize that when a first world nation with a power monopoly invades a third world encampment with no army, it's actually not that hard to decide responsibility. It should go without saying that terrorism is almost always a political category used by militaries with all power to justify aggression toward those with little or no power who are responding to something, regardless of whether that particular response to that particular something is warranted or justifiable. The US does this by labeling all drone targets as “al Qaeda-affiliated” even when no real connection exists. It’s meant to emotionally manipulate constituents, and we love being manipulated. Once a group is labeled terrorist (it's been interesting to watch Bashar al-Assad apply this label to the rebels we tacitly support), it's international coded language for “just let us kill these people in peace.” Israel does the same by framing Palestinian civilians in Gaza as Hamas by proxy, which simply means they are expendable bodies. It should also go without saying that Israel couldn’t do any of this without the support of US Christians. We are watching shitty Dispensationalist theological ideas actually get hundreds of people massacred in real time.
I don’t think I’ve said anything substantial here that shouldn’t be obvious at a moment’s reflection, but so it goes. With groups just as with individuals, the unconscious injunction is always repetition. States stage a theater so that things change just enough to basically remain the same.
As always, Democracy Now has done a great job covering the conflict.
(HT: Sean for the Gaza FAQ)
Jun 19, 2014
We just got word that Justice Calls (Phil Snider, ed.) is headed to the press. This will be the first chapter I have published. I believe those of us with training in theology have a moral responsibility to write and speak for equality, so I was excited to have been invited to this project. The publication date is still being finalized.
In related news, the last six weeks have included a sudden series of publishing opportunities. I hope to have a few more books to announce over the next few months.
May 5, 2014
Lacan has a comment on political psychology, which I find particularly helpful, where he says rightwing leaders are cynical knaves and leftwing leaders act as fools.
I read Zack Beauchamp’s article this weekend (which lead me to Sunstein and Vermeule’s 2008 paper) on the rightwing conspiracy problem and it reminded me of that schema. This article by Gary Marcus on conspiracies also appeared in my feeds. The Beauchamp article tries to claim the Republican party’s obsession with Benghazi is legitimate belief for party leaders. I myself have a hard time believing that Boehner buys any of this—it ironically recalls Buckley’s famous retort, “I will not insult your intelligence by suggesting you really believe what you just said.” The Benghazi scandal began as a ploy to help Romney win an election, but it's had a staying power that outlived its initial purpose and is not entirely reducible to defeating the 2016 frontrunner. It’s not like birtherism, creationism, or climate denial—conspiracies that have to be held at a distance. This conspiracy persists as a badge of honor as if the leaders truly believe the things they say about it.
“The ‘fool’ is an innocent, a simpleton, but truths issue from his mouth that are not simply tolerated but adopted, by virtue of the fact that this ‘fool’ is sometimes clothed in the insignia of the jester. And in my view it is a similar happy shadow, a similar fundamental ‘foolery,’ that accounts for the importance of the left-wing intellectual.” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 182
Lacan observed this in a mid-century Parisian culture that actually contained a legitimate left. Though a leftist himself, Lacan was ever skeptical about the possible outcomes, famously telling his radicalized students, “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.” (Seminar XVII, 207). America may not have any leftist party, but his observation maps onto the liberal party well enough. Liberal leaders do indeed tend to act as if they truly believe in the causes they promote. Lacan portrays them close to the clinical category of hysterical neurosis, which is easy for an analyst to identify by the “chimney sweeping treatment”—the hysteric displays all the stories from his week that have nothing to do with the core reason he needs the therapy session. In so doing, the patient misdirects the analyst by overloading her with data so that she will not be able to identify the core symptom. More than anything else, the injunction of the unconscious is to repeat. If the distraction strategy is successful, the patient will continue with his repetition of self-sabotage to the praise of the analyst. Lacan says that liberalism acts exactly this way: here are a thousand genuinely good causes for which we should receive your vote—hopefully, you will not realize we did so little to change anything while in office.
“The ideology of the right-wing intellectual, is precisely to play the role of what he is in fact, namely, a ‘knave.’ In other words, he doesn't retreat from the consequences of what is called realism; that is, when required, he admits he's a crook.” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 183
On the other hand, rightwing ideology structures itself like the clinical category of perversion in its most cynical sense. The pervert wants to be the “missing object” desired by the big Other. Whether that big Other is the Grand Cause of History, the ideals of the Founders, or the wishes of God himself, the leader justifies any means by which the Cause can secure jouissance. Perversion depends on a latticework of fetish disavowal, so the most important thing the knave must do is keep unconscious what he knows to be true. The rightwing leader is not foolish enough to believe in the conspiracies he promotes—he is far too educated and experienced to fall for this—but he promotes the conspiracy nonetheless in order to tell the tribe what it wants to hear. He expresses, “so many heroic truths without wanting to pay the price. It is thanks to this that what is affirmed concerning the horrors of Mammon on the first page leads, on the last, to purrs of tenderness for this same Mammon.” (VII, 183)
“...the ‘foolery’ which constitutes the individual style of the left-wing intellectual gives rise to a collective ‘knavery.’” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 183
Lacan wagers that groups of fools promote and reward leaders who are knaves, which sounds intuitive enough. The leader herself need not be a cynic so long as she can promote an ideology of cynicism. We end up with groups of fools lead by a cynic, or worse, a group where every single person—leaders included—wish to honestly and directly believe in the true sense of the term but which nevertheless remain beholden to cynical ideologies.
That is the case for conservative groups. Lacan doesn’t speculate on the obverse—that groups of liberal cynics produce liberal leaders who are fools—but I don’t think that is too difficult to imagine.
You may have started to think you get to choose whether to be a fool or a knave, but that choice is already made for you. You do get to think about whether your ideological systems are cynical or honest.
Apr 1, 2014
One thing about studying philosophy and theology is that you forget what passes for populist critical acumen. A few of my theologian friends and I decided we needed to feel rage, and we grabbed our gin and went to see a film I can only describe as a phenomenon. “God’s Not Dead” was either absolutely brilliant satire of Christian Culture or the most xenophobic, anti-intellectual pandering smut imaginable. And I’m leaning toward satire!
In what is perhaps the first film ever to be the direct result of a completely fabricated Facebook meme—wherein either Einstein or a Navy SEAL stands up in Philosophy 101 to defend God’s existence—this film covertly bills itself as the story of brave freshman protagonist Josh Wheaton (oh, the crafty references throughout!) who takes on quasi-antagonist Professor Radisson. Radisson has a blinding hatred of God because his mother died, and he’s in a committed relationship which began as a student-teacher affair, because relativism. Radisson begins the class with a whiteboard full of famous philosophers and asks what each of them has in common (no spoilers). Whether because Radisson is an atheist or just because he’s a liberal, the lifelong academic is obviously too stupid to so much as pronounce the names correctly, surely a subtle jab by the director, as if to say Christian culture is so content not to understand Nietzsche’s argument that they won’t even notice. Freshman Josh agonizes over whether to write “God is dead,” but as his pastor points out, this would result in burning in hell for all eternity. Decisions: what is a freshman to do?
What indeed. Cute Christian Girlfriend says Josh shouldn’t cross the liberal academy, because he needs to get into law school. How else is she going to homeschool their offspring? Josh bravely chooses arguing with Radisson instead of sex. Invoking the patron saint of Evangelicalism, he says “I’ve been thinking of this quote from C.S. Lewis...” and so it begins.
This brings me to the true cleverness of the script in its inversion of the expected protagonist-antagonist schema: the true antagonist of the film is Reverend Dave, a man who destroys the lives and relationships of everyone around him. We never discover his secret life, his clear internal contradictions being perfectly sublimated into telling people to fail in school, cut ties with family, and go to worship concerts. Rev. Dave tells Josh he may be the only person in that class that could ever tell a bunch of (American) students about Jesus, a statistical improbability so astronomically remote that even a moment’s reflection would cause the audience to erupt in laughter and walk out. But the filmmakers know that Christian Culture’s rampant persecution complex will effectively beat out Pew and Gallup any day.
Rev. Dave travels about the city with his sidekick, the Happy African Guy, whom the director knows the Evangelicals will love, because AFRICA!
Angry Muslim Dad is abusive, as Muslims typically are, and is enraged when he finds Independent Daughter listening to sermons of (not Billy, but) the one and only Franklin Graham, the man famous solely for his bigoted evisceration of everything good his father ever did. The director knows the obligatory honor killing would be a bit much for the audience, but oh, how terrific that another female has been delivered from ultra-patriarchy to patriarchy with a smile! This is confirmed at the end of the film, when (damn, I’m going to have to spoil this guys, sorry) Independent Daughter asks Josh if he is the guy that Michael My-God’s-Not-Dead-He's-Surely-Alive Tait praised from the stage for defeating Radisson. Josh smirks, as if to gently say “eff off” and ignores her.
Classmate Token Asian, who has never believed in God (because, Communism), is convinced. Overbearing Asian Father texts back and forth with Classmate Token Asian, but in the end this family too is destroyed. Richard Dawkins, who is treated as someone that would be taken seriously in real life philosophy class, was the foil, but Dawkins stands no chance if we correctly combo Stephen Hawking and Lee Strobel. Again, it's a subtle accusation over and over and over again that Christian Culture will buy all this solely because it has no interest in actual philosophy. What do you think? Either this strategy is preposterously insulting or else the strategy will work marvelously.
But all this is overshadowed by a far more clever theme: the director pokes fun at Christian Culture’s total (though unconscious) disregard for theology. Not just skepticism of critical thought, philosophy, or entrenched disrespect for the university system in general, but complete obliviousness to theology itself. The filmmakers are well aware that absolutely no serious theologian would endorse any of this and that Nietzsche and Co. are taken quite seriously as assets in the niche world of theology. But the filmmakers are also counting on the fact that pastors are never going to explain any of this to parishioners. Whether because the MDiv didn’t do his assigned reading in seminary or because he (and I do mean he) doesn’t want to lose his job and opts instead to suppress 95% of what he learned in seminary, the director is counting on pastors urging their congregations to pay up for contrived conversations any theologian would laugh out of the room. That is the true brilliance of this satire: it beats charlatanism at its own game.
There are some other liberals in the film, and they all die. One of these, a reporter for Lame Stream Media, has the audacity to question Duck Dynasty about the ethics of duck calls. How can one call homosexuals sinful when you made your fortune tricking ducks into landing in your pond to mate with you? Just after this unnecessarily vituperative attack, she rightly gets the cancer she deserves.
Christian films always end on an unambiguously good note, and that is where Prof. Radisson gets hit by a car and lies dying in the street with nobody left that loves him. The subversive antagonist, Rev. Dave and Happy African sidekick are at the scene to provide last rites. In Evangelicalism, last rites is where you tell them their life is a waste and they have only seconds to accept Christ. Rev. Dave—I shit you not—tells the dying atheist that he is “lucky” and that he is “about to know more about God than I do.”
There were times in the film where the delicately weaved allusions and twists seemed a bit much, where I thought even the most obtuse viewer would see right through the ruse. But after its second weekend the film still grossed a fifth of the opening weekend sales for mega-blockbuster Noah (which Christian Culture rejects because it has Nephilim in it), so I guess the ploy worked. Anyone who does theology just had a swift reality check: the success of this film says something about the void in your future!
Mar 10, 2014
I gave a talk this weekend at the American Academy of Religion’s western regional with the queer studies caucus, entitled “Schism and Heterosexism: the Anglican Realignment and the Future of American Christianity.” Since I have no plan for publishing this yet, I figured a few of you interested in the question of how religion will adjust in the wake of national marriage equality might want to see it. I claim the Anglican realignment is an early preview of what many denominations will go through after the Supreme Court applies the 14th’s equal protection clause. Something similar is going on in Evangelicalism under the aegis of Neo-Reformed theology, which is crafting a fiercely populist, patriarchal, and heterosexist ideology in its networks. It’s a reaction against modernization, but it follows a pattern.
When I read the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions this past summer, it was really clear the Court was hoping to punt on a decision—I’m guessing they didn’t want to see this case again for 5 years. But a few things happened in 2013: 1) the number of states with marriage equality fully doubled, 2) this means there are only two more states that can pass marriage equality before hitting a limit imposed by 31 states with anti-gay amendments, but 3) in late December, and continuing throughout the South over the last three months, federal judges began ruling (all stayed, pending appeal to SCOTUS) these amendments unconstitutional. Most even cite Scalia’s DOMA dissent, and all this means the Court will have to take up one of these cases in the next term or two. Bracketing the likelihood of a SCOTUS intervention, even the GOP nominee for 2020 will have to favor marriage equality (I suspect at least one primary contender for 2016 will be so inclined as well). As the recent 10-year Pew study shows, the 4% shift per year puts a short time limit on the political viability of heterosexist policies.
The big question is how religion will respond. Will it adjust as it did after Civil Rights and miscegenation laws or will it dig in its heals as it did after Roe and Reagan? My bet is on the former, but I was looking for a group to which I could apply Finke and Stark’s sectarian gap theory of religious economy. I stumbled onto the Anglican realignment. Finding out that St. Andrew’s Church in Little Rock was a key early player in AMiA was a nice surprise (I spent most of my life in Little Rock before relocating to Los Angeles for grad school, so I know a lot of people in that group). Information on the Episcopal-alternative ACNA was hard to get and required me to do some original research (there isn’t much published longitudinal data on a five-year old organization), but they were kind enough to send me the parochial reports I needed to project stats over the next decade.
I should probably clarify that 1) I fully acknowledge queer theory’s insight that focusing on marriage equality itself is problematic inasmuch as it imposes a certain middle-class schema. But I do think it is a barometer of whether society sees LGBTIQ people as human beings. And 2) I fully acknowledge that ACNA is not simply and only a reaction to gay clergy and unions; but those were the tipping point. Planning for ACNA did begin within a year of Gene Robinson’s ordination, but this was also 2003-4 when the Rove strategy for Bush’s re-election included the populist push for anti-gay amendments. Let’s at least acknowledge 2004 was a different time and not retroject our currently more progressive views on a much more openly bigoted time. But the realignment is certainly more complicated than any one issue, and I want to clearly acknowledge this.
Of course, it's a properly academic paper, which means it is dull, dry, and boring, but take a look if you are interested in the question of how religion will adjust. Here it is: AAR/WR, DeLay, Schism and Heterosexism (extended).pdf.