Feb 2, 2016

Program Update

I'm very pleased to say that, as of yesterday, I have passed my qualifying exams and am now a doctoral candidate! These exams were the most challenging aspect of my programs so far, but the work paid off with truly encouraging praise from my committee advisors. 

I'm now on to my dissertation, which is titled Theologies In Five Discourses: Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolism of Anxiety. It aims to produce a novel theory of religious symbolism using Nietzsche, Lacan, and Tillich to examine resonances between American Christianity, late capitalism, and populist politics. I'm also excited to have more direct engagement with the Frankfurt school, liberation theologies, feminist critiques, and queer theory. By the end, I'll be discussing concrete social movements (BLM, Occupy Wall Street, fundamentalism, and the rise of neofascist or theocratic populism). With any luck, I'll have a (very) rough draft by summer. Thanks to everyone who has supported me!

During this phase, I'm continuing to polish up my second book (The Cynic & the Fool), which will present a more popularly accessible version of the theory I do in God Is Unconscious. So the dissertation will be my third, and it will round out these first three books which I collectively think of as my overarching project at the moment. I'm excited to do this!

Tags dissertation Theologies In Five Discourses

Jan 16, 2016

Taking Lacan Public

I was recently reminded that I never posted this talk from last April at the University of Denver. Shortly after the launch of God Is Unconscious, Dr. Carl Raschke invited me to present on my work at a conference called “Taking Lacan Public,” which brought together a number of clinical psychoanalysts and academic theorists from three continents to discuss this peculiar line of theory in which we are all caught up.

My talk summarizes some of the salient themes from my book, and though I was a bit nervous with presenting in front of clinicians for the first time, I think it went well.  The video’s audio quality isn’t the best, so I’m posting a higher-quality MP3 as well.

Denver Book Event, "God Is Unconscious".mp3


Dec 9, 2015

The Desire of the Masses for Fascism

They came for the American education, and then nobody saw reasons to speak out. We didn’t know how to identify problems anymore, and an irresponsibly polite relativism reassured us that both sides had a good point.

There is a curious phrase that floats around in my niche of studies: "the desire of the masses for fascism." It rings immediately true and then triggers the question why?. A proto-fascism has been brewing under careful watch for years now, and it is currently bearing its fruit, as always, by those who haven't any clue their ideals are fascist. What percentage of Americans could correctly articulate where fascism sits on the political spectrum or what the common characteristics might be? To even ask such crucial questions make you a pariah.

Nobody "Experiences" Themselves as a Bigot

An exercise I use in my class presents the arguments Civil War-era Christians used to support slavery; oddly enough, the arguments are perfectly clear extensions of specific biases. Nobody experiences themselves as a bigot, and every example of bigotry has its clever self-justification in the bigot's heart. You only ultimately detect bigotry by listening to the minority voices who've been excluded from the picture. It takes very little effort for students to see that each argument is still alive and active today, used by those who imagine they'd have reacted differently.  The detail missed (or never taught in the first place) is that for every horrific instance of oppression of the past, there were always specific reasons for that oppression.  You think this is different because Muslims are dangerous? I know that feels reassuring, because I thought that same way before I learned to read.

If an outright fascist (who is merely expressing the full, rational conclusion of a carefully-cultivated sentiment) is dethroned, it will only be so that a crypto-fascism may take his place. The Citizens United decision made sure of this. This is very much a “big picture” post, because it needs to be said, but that means there are details over which I admittedly skim. You might see Umberto Eco’s 14 points on fascism, and I highly recommend Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is a fascinating study of fascism in the real time of the war. I have my own ideas about why fascism has become so suddenly popular, but history will not look kindly on this moment of white rage.

A Close (But Not Quite) Symptom-Disease Relationship

There are only thin shades of grey between neoliberalism and a new fascism; it isn’t clear where one ends and another begins. In old fascism, the state exerted its full control over economic processes. By the late-twentieth century, an emerging crypto-fascism (with the full support of Cold War era “anything but Communism” sentiments) rendered this explicit state control unnecessary. Government and economy were intertwined such that state desire and corporate desire were one and the same. This was true whether corporations and PACs wrote legislation for which a small-town congressman could take credit or whether instead the DC/NY “revolving door” ensured the Federal Reserve board and Wall Street boards were literally the same people. The conscious reasons don't much matter; the effect was the same. What emerged from this arrangement was financially beneficial for a few and disastrous for most; how does a system with disastrous results keep itself voted into power?

It should go without saying that prejudice must be called out for what it is. I’ve been really proud to see so many of my friends in academic and religious fields calling out this behavior even though they have a lot to loose by doing so. What concerns me is that I also see many supremacists denouncing outright supremacy so that we can instead have “supremacy with a smile.” The prejudice of fascism is not merely a symptom-disease relationship; to be sure, the fascist leader uses the tool of prejudice regardless of his personal beliefs, but prejudice is only useful because it is already there, operating in the background with massive social support.

The Desire of the Masses

Thus as a political category, fascism has undergone revisions of definition throughout the twentieth century. We already see supposed experts telling us the candidate is not fascist, and they can reasonably make this argument by pinning the definition of a polymorphous term to a specific historical iteration.  Educators know all this, but elections bring with them the frequent transgressions of Godwin’s Law that decry a term while never defining it. We do this all the time; it isn’t an accident that we have no standard definition for “terrorism.” The term needs to float on a case-by-case basis in order to keep us from asking critical questions. The same is true of fascism. Fascism has a set of fairly specific definitions in political theory, but on Facebook it gets misrepresented as nothing more complex than prejudice and fear. A fascist system doesn’t mind. In fact, it thrives on being misrepresented as xenophobia, which is merely the preferred affect that fascism deploys in order to keep the masses cheering in its favor. And the masses certainly do desire fascism, because control feels safe.

“In the affirmation of the desire of the masses for fascism, what is troubling is that an affirmation covers up for the lack of any precise historical analysis.  In this I see above all the effect of a general complicity in the refusal to decipher what fascism really was a refusal that manifests itself either in generalization—fascism is everywhere, above all in our heads—or in Marxist schematization.  The non-analysis of fascism is one of the important political facts of the past thirty years.  It enables fascism to be used as a floating signifier, whose function is essentially that of denunciation.”  - Michel Foucault [1]

I’ve always loved this quote from Foucault, because it has a chastising effect on me. As an educator, I have a responsibility to think in systems and give people a certain picture. The risk is that sometimes the picture is overly broad, and at other times the picture seems clear to me but nobody else. My friends who’ve devoted themselves to critical theory would have more to say, but this is how I try to make this understandable in my book: 

The right-wing leader has the education and experience to know that much of what he needs to say to win the hearts of a demographic will be purely foolish. Take the extreme example of fascism, an abused word with a rather simple meaning, namely, the perfect union of capital interests and the state. Fascism, like liberalism, exists in a democracy and requires the support of the people. The obstacle it faces is the simple matter that capitalism’s defining profit reallocation does not work out well for the vast majority. Capitalism thrives when its population lacks the understanding of a system that, by definition, cannot ever pay its workers for the value they contribute to their corporations; if we are paid for all the value we contribute, it is by definition not a specifically capitalist enterprise. Economic crises, wealth inequality, and even lack of basic necessities are not accidents of this arrangement but are instead predictable and required sacrifices. Thus the fascist, in order to capture the support of a population whose lifestyle is directly threatened by moneyed interests, must deploy the perverse strategy of fetish disavowal. 

The figure of the Jew became the standard exclusionary device in the West, but modern forms of fascism in Europe and North America deploy the same basic structure by blaming the immigrant, the ethnic or sexual minority, education and science, etc. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, who are interesting to read as intellectuals processing anti-Semitism during the war, describe the phenomenon as a repressed mimesis. “Anti-Semitism is based on a false projection. It is the counterpart of true mimesis, and fundamentally related to the repressed form; in fact, it is probably the morbid expression of repressed mimesis. Mimesis imitates the environment, but false projection makes the environment like itself.” [2] Psychoanalysis views anti-Semitism (and xenophobia in general) as a case of morbid projection where the subject’s own unconscious taboo impulses are transferred upon an external object.[3] The exclusion of the object (whether in sacrificial or murderous form) reveals some truth about the subject. They continue, “But in Fascism this behavior is made political; the object of the illness is deemed true to reality; and the mad system becomes the reasonable norm in the world and deviation from it a neurosis.”[4] The consequences between extremist exclusion in the 1940s and today clearly have vast differences, but the structure of exclusion—for the purposes of projection and distraction—remains the same. Also remaining the same is the fact that the leader on the far right does not need to believe what he says in order for his rhetoric to function. 

When in the upcoming election you feel tired of choosing between lesser evils (perhaps a neoconservative and an all-but-in-name fascist), what you are actually tired of is a natural, predictable, and likely inevitable result of politics in late-capitalism. 

[1] Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 130.

[2] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 178

[3] Ibid.,192.

[4] Ibid.,178

Tags fascism the desire of the masses for fascism

Dec 2, 2015

New Interview

Ryan Bell was an ordained minister who deconverted and is now interested in exploring post-theism. One part of his project is the Life After God podcast, and he invited me on to discuss my work and the overlap in our stories.

Listen to the interview here.  Or download on iTunes.

I’m really excited and really anxious about this new interview. I’m excited because I always like talking about the material I study and the value it's had for me, and I’m anxious because this my first public discussion on one small part of the personal history behind the theoretical work I do.  I spent a long part of my life assuming I would be a minister, and this is about why that train derailed.

Tags tad delay interview life after god god is unconscious

Nov 13, 2015

My Talk from STN3

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

Tags subverting the norm stn3 audio

Nov 2, 2015

New Book from Katharine Sarah Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity

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.

Tags Katharine Sarah Moody Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity Slavoj Zizek John Caputo Peter Rollins Kester Brewin

Oct 13, 2015

Not an Original, New Observation

“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

Tags theory of religion religion and politics

Oct 12, 2015

Speaking Event

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

The Jester Tells a Bad Joke

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. 

Tags Pope Francis Donald Trump

Sep 20, 2015

New Documentary

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.

Tags Documentary Give Me Sex Jesus