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.
Feb 17, 2014
A group of really brilliant friends (Joel Harrison, Sean Capener, and Lucas Wright) working in critical theory, theology, and philosophy post at this site, and Lucas invited me to explain the psychoanalytic concept of subjectivity in Lacan's schema. The post is slightly more technical than what I normally post online, so I hope it's helpful. Read it at Flux of Thought.
Feb 11, 2014
“‘Thou shalt not lie’ as a negative precept has as its function to withdraw the subject of enunciation from that which is enunciated...there where I lie, where I repress, where I, the liar, speak. In ‘Thou shalt not lie’ as law is included the possibility of the lie as the most fundamental desire...this Ding was there from the beginning...the covetousness that is in question is not addressed to anything that I might desire but to a thing that is my neighbor's Thing." - Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII, 82-3
“The unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter.” - Lacan, Écrits, 215
“For the man who breaks the bread of truth with his semblable in the act of speech shares a lie.” - Lacan, Écrits, 316
"...we learn that reality derives its existence from a refusal, that love creats its object from what is lacking in reality, and that desire stops at the curtain behind which this lack is figured by reality." - Lacan, Écrits, 366
Feb 7, 2014
“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, Écrits, 29
Écrits is rightly described as being simply impenetrable. And then you come across passages like this and it is all worth it. I came across an explanation for the book's impenetrability yesterday in The Triumph of Religion. I guess I just like his intent for writing that does something to the reader beyond communication.
“I did not write [Écrits] in order for people to understand them, I wrote them in order for people to read them. Which is not even remotely the same thing... People don’t understand anything, that is perfectly true, for a while, but the writings do something to them.” - Lacan, The Triumph of Religion, 69-70
Jan 22, 2014
I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov over the winter break. While doing so I was transcribing notes from Lacan’s second seminar where he says this of Fyodor Karamazov’s son Ivan, who despite his atheism has gained a bit of a reputation as an ecclesiologist:
“As you know, his son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular... If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naive notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day.” 128
I will be using this passage in an upcoming talk— a passage Žižek quotes quite regularly—because it exhibits the plasticity of the Autre and the need we feel for authorization. In the book, Ivan Fyodorovich is dependably cold and calculating, a well adjusted obsessional. The extreme obsessional Alyosha Fyodorovich is dependably righteous. Dmitri Fyodorovich is always passionate and foolish. Their father Fyodor is pure id: promiscuous, hostile, selfish, a scoundrel. Displaying several markers for anti-social personality disorder, Fyodor is a pervert in both the colloquial and psychoanalytic meanings of the term. He rapes a girl which results in Smerdyakov, whom Fyodor keeps around as a servant. Smerdyakov is the only true hysteric among the male characters, which means he wants to be the object of everyone’s attention but nobody’s satisfaction. After a bid for control over his life, Smerdyakov eventually has a hysterical crisis, and he can only resolve his anxiety through self-sabotage. Ivan is the point of reason, and Alyosha is the conscience. Then we find out toward the end that Ivan has been fighting a mental breakdown throughout the entire plot, so we see the well-adjusted neurotic Ivan descend into psychosis. Dostoyevsky died before being able to finish the story but not before scribbling notes for the characters’ futures, but from those notes we know Alyosha was to become a bit of a revolutionary terrorist. Repression has a way of rupturing.
Subjectivity is a balance between four symbolic and imaginary positions (A, a, a’, S): Autre (the big Other), objet a (object-cause of desire), a’ (conscious ego), and S (the subject). Every experience is filtered through this schema, and how these relationships configure determines whether we are psychotics, neurotics, or perverts, each of which is demonstrated by the Karamazovs. Subjectivity is primarily unconscious; what you are has more to do with how you actually live than how you consciously justify how you live.
Only the psychotic can operate without a big Other authorizing action. When you see a schizoid subject talking to himself as we see with Ivan, it is not that he knows what is normal and choose to disregard a standard: the schizoid quite literally does not experience the Other condemning their anti-social behavior. The Karamazov family functions as a neurotic unit, which means Ivan or Alyosha must always be part of any decision so that reason or god can authorize a course of action. The big Other has a death drive, but you are not allowed to kill it. Without the point of authority, nothing is possible.
The Brothers Karamazov continually returns to the naive and pervasive notion that morality is tethered to belief in god, but from the moment we articulate an idea we are already reduced to a conscious objet a, an object our ego has invested with meaning, which is a step removed from the unconscious Autre making demands of us. This is why difference in conscious belief has so little effect on unconscious action: the objet a is altered, but the same Autre functions regardless of plasticity in its conscious manifestation. The relationship between conscious object-investment and the unconscious injunction to repeat behavior ensure that we, as Žižek puts it, live out a staged theater: we change just enough so that things remain basically the same. The Brothers Karamazov is an 800 page book for a plot that could have fit into a short story were it not for each of the characters’ need to repeat and sabotage themselves.
All we do is for the gaze of the Other.
Jan 9, 2014
"They don't realize we're bringing them the plague." - Freud (Lacan, Écrits, 336)
I have a few talks coming up in the next two months.
The first is at the Claremont Graduate University “Religions in Conversation” conference (February 21-22), and my talk is titled Anxiety and Emptiness: Psychopathology in Religion and Art. It will be an expansion of Lacan’s Seminar VII description of religion, art, and science along the respective psychopatholgical dispositions of obsessional neurosis, hysteria, and psychotic paranoia. Evidence of early religion, especially in hominid species predating homo sapiens, comes almost entirely in the form of art and death rituals; art and religion have always had a common source in the Real. I claim politics is an alternative obsessional neurotic formulation of the same Real that religion responds to, but since Lacan is not much of a political theorist for a leftist, I’ll have to build that claim out a bit. This talk will psychoanalyze art and religion as constituting a similar experience of emptiness/anxiety-avoidance at the level of primary repression that diverge at the level of secondary repression in uniquely creative derivative returns.
Third, I hope my Los Angeles friends will join me on March 14th for an event with Peter Rollins. Pete has an excellent line-up of people included at the event, including Ryan Bell, Tripp Fuller, and Daniel Bedingfield, and he was kind enough to ask me to participate on a panel. I’m also quite excited about the after-party at Monkish Brewing. Get more information here.