Currently showing posts tagged tad delay

  • Available Now | The Cynic & the Fool: The Unconscious in Theology & Politics

    I'm tremendously excited to say that my new book, The Cynic & the Fool: The Unconscious in Theology & Politics, is available now! Order through the online global behemoth, directly from the publisher for the lowest price, or better yet through your local brick and mortal bookstore. 

    Ever since publishing God Is Unconscious, I’ve wanted to release another book without the jargon—something more accessible for those who don’t have unlimited time to read philosophy. I wanted to take some of the material from GIU, import the research I was conducting for my dissertation, and pay more attention to story and examples. I wanted something any of my students could read. The timing of when I wrote C&F, especially with how the political landscape has since shifted, has been extremely odd. I aim to keep oscillating back and forth between the academic and the accessible during my career, and I’m thrilled to have a more accessible book out now.

    SYNOPSIS

    The questioning of religion is the beginning of a flood, one that cannot be contained and will soon drown every theological, political, economic, and cultural orthodoxy that pledged its allegiance to a sinking cause. We are in just such an era of revolt, and those with eyes to see are learning to interrogate motives. When we are told of an idea that cannot possibly be true, the most immediate question is this: does the speaker so very foolishly believe their own words, or is the person a cynic who knows perfectly well how they manipulate the truth? As individual personalities transform into a collective drive, the aftermath is a brutal mix of motives, fictions, and anxieties. 

    The Cynic & the Fool explores theology and politics through the lens of our unconscious motives, our clever repression, and our deceptive denial. In nine chapters interspersed with nine parables, DeLay unites psychoanalysis, philosophy, and theology together for an accessible yet critical theory of culture. There could not be a more crucial moment to settle these questions. Why do we feel such anxiety over the most abstract orthodoxies, what conflicts of interest are we facing, and why we are commanded to see the world a certain way? 

    ENDORSEMENTS 

    "At a time when vicious partisan politics has replaced the wars of religion with their odium theologicum of bygone ages, Tad DeLay's Cynic & the Fool is a must-read for thoughtful people, regardless of their ideological persuasion. Through storytelling, personal anecdote, and frequent flashes of magisterial pedagogy, DeLay entices us into confronting the knotted tangles of our own 'political unconscious' and offers us hope that we will eventually know the truth and that it might free us, even if we are in a so-called 'post-truth' era." – Carl Raschke, University of Denver, author of Critical Theology 

    "Tad DeLay continues his remarkable and insightful exploration of Lacan's work and its intersections with theology in this new book. The term psychoanalytic theology would probably not arouse too much excitement except in the most arcane of circles, but that is the arena in which DeLay does his work, and it is marvelous stuff. Riffing from a Lacanian idea about the role of the cynic and fool in the political realm, he delves deep into the psyche of our times, to explore what he calls the 'dynamics of collective belief.' DeLay's gift is his ability to take complex ideas and open them up so that we can all see ourselves, and each other, a bit more clearly. This new work is courageous, challenging, and so worth the journey." – Barry Taylor, Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary 

    "While The Cynic & the Fool offers the reader insights that feel timeless, its true power lies in its ability to offer a unique and penetrating analysis of our present age. This is a book that employs the best of psychoanalytic theory to reflect on larger, societal issues. It is a carefully crafted work that will prove invaluable to anyone wanting to wrestle with, and understand, the tumultuous times we live in." – Peter Rollins, author of The Divine Magician

  • I did not intend to write this book at this moment

    The Cynic & the Fool: The Unconscious in Theology & Politics is available today.

    Immediately after publishing God Is Unconscious, I knew I’d write another. I wanted something more accessible, more personal, and not for my academic fields alone. I was beginning dissertation research and had all this new information that I wanted more than just my committee to see. I would soon start teaching undergraduates, and I wanted a book any of my students could find helpful. So three months after GIU was published, I sat down to draft The Cynic & the Fool. 

    I organized the book around a simple question: when we hear a claim that cannot possibly be true, (1) is the false claim pouring forth from the misinformed yet honest fool, or (2) is the claim being twisted by a cynical nihilist who knows perfectly well how to manipulate and mislead? A quote was stuck in my head: “The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely…’Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?’”

    But I kept stumbling through examples which seemed perfectly irrelevant at the time. I explored how delusional news stories and conspiratorial thinking operate, though these were seldom in the public conversation. I covered theories of populism, fearing it was wasted page space since America hadn't had a genuine populist movement in decades. I wrote of the aggressive drive of white supremacy, the enjoyment of cruelty in American religion, and the theological investment we put in empty symbols, which leads us to praise hypocrisy as a virtue rather than vice. For the first time, I cautiously wrote of losing a job as a pastor when my understanding of LGBT persons matured. I wrote about economics, debt, and our repetitive demand for lower pay and fewer services. I explored how widespread apocalypticism ensures the world will burn not from the fire of heaven but instead from the heat of carbon. I wrote about the Evangelical-Capitalist resonance machine—how do we understand the former’s enjoyment in being the puppet of the latter? How can we analyze our crises when we not subjects who desire knowledge but instead subjects who blindly desire? I hesitated over so many stories, arguments, and examples I feared would seem unnecessary at best or indefensibly paranoid at worst. 

    I feel a mix of excitement and horror at my work now. I wrote that first draft in May 2015. A month later, a certain business mogul would declare his candidacy, and ever since this question—knave or idiot?—proliferates in the background of the chaos.


  • Interview with the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast

    I sat down with Peter Rollins and Barry Taylor to talk about my book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology. The interview is available now!

    We are giving away 3 copies of the book. If you click over to Homebrewed Christianity and share the episode, one of those could be yours.

  • A Review of God Is Unconscious

    This is the first review I’ve seen of God Is Unconscious (which is also now on Kindle).  There was apparently some pushback, so a follow-up post is here.

    “Tad DeLay's wonderfully written book on the interface of theology/religion and psychoanalysis, God is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology (Wipf and Stock, 2015) is a fascinating recollection and meditation of the discipline's unfolding into the intellectual worlds of the 20th and 21st centuries. I identify the work as a 'book' because I have not decided just what genre the book should be received into; and that could be a good thing. I recall that Michel Foucault once said his major works were more like novels than philosophy. I'll therefore stick with 'book,' though genealogy, novel or rhapsody would work just as well.”

  • Thanks

    You can now order my first book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology at Amazon. For those interested in reviewing the book, we will have details soon.

    A theory of the unconscious is such an odd thing to write about, first because the unconscious itself is not something that exists at all but rather insists. It's a fiction with a potential, not a hidden tier of synaptic connection in the way that most people talk about “subconscious” motives.  It’s a method of speaking indirectly to schematize behavioral repetition and patterns of thought, a way of showing every attempt at meaning or tribalism becomes infused with a false consciousness retroactively justified with limitless creativity all for the purpose of propping up a semblance of security.  

    Second, as the subtitle suggests, I am crossing not one but two theories of fictions, and instead of privileging one over the other I let them expose one another with the hope of producing more than the sum of their parts. And third, almost by definition, you can’t write about psychoanalysis without saying more than you mean to say about yourself. That’s unusual for an academic work, and it scares me a little, but it makes the project all the more personal to me. I researched this book during a very challenging time, and it's to those friends who were there while I researched, processed, outlined, wrote, edited, and rewrote this project that I owe this book’s completion.

    So to just a few of you:

    To Kester, you took an interest in my work early on and were the first to tell me over and over “write that book!” Back when it was merely an embryonic idea in my first year of doctoral work, I couldn’t imagine anyone would care what I had to say. You convinced me it was time to store the material in a book and launch it out into the world. You hosted me in London and talked through so many of the early ideas over late nights on your patio.  You care so deeply about your friends, and you have a natural curiosity that I hope I can always emulate.

    To Clayton, you went out on a limb and vouched for me back when you barely knew me.  You’ve been a perfect academic mentor, always happy to be a sounding-board, and you’ve given feedback on talks and the early manuscript. Beyond your scholarship which clearly influences mine, I’ve seen how much your students genuinely love you, and that’s the kind of professor I hope to be.  You have a reputation in our circles for enthusiastically supporting everyone you can, and I can vouch for that.

    To Pete, in addition to writing the forward, you’ve been a constant source of encouragement with talking about how you conduct your work.  It’s odd to think I started reading you within a week or so of beginning to read philosophy so long ago in my undergrad days, and it was your first book that put me on the path of seeing some nascent potential in applying philosophy to my interests in religion. I suppose I’m saying that this is your fault! We really only happened to become friends around the time I started writing this, and you’ve been there for me to the final product.

    To Jack, I don’t know if you’ll even see this, but I have a lot of respect for you and couldn't tell you how much it’s meant to me to talk through my ideas with such a great mind.  I’ll never forget talking late into the evenings at the bar in Cheltenham, and even though we have different opinions on psychoanalysis, you have been nothing but gracious and encouraging wherever we have had time to catch up.  I started my reading in this field of radical theology with your books in my first year of seminary, and what I have produced four years later is indebted to your work.

    To a great group of friends in Los Angeles and back home—Steven & Kelli, Keegan, Shane, Luanne, Billie & Rob, several Nates, Tim, Zach, Lucas, Sean, Barry, Tripp, and Bo—you all were there for me during the period where I was processing the material that is now in book form.  You all are among the very few who know me well enough to see exactly where my work—ostensibly about psychoanalysis and theology—is often enough just my attempt to process who I am.

    To the Wipf & Stock crew, you all put up with the revisions and questions that only a brand new author can panic about. And thanks to Dave, who said “hey, I know this publisher I can introduce you to.”  And to Jesse, I never imagined I would see so many people online, who know nothing about me or my work, becoming interested based purely on such a great first stab at a design.  You all are great at what you do.

    And finally Deven, you’ve been there through wins and setbacks throughout the whole time we’ve been together.  You edited the manuscript and offered so much feedback to the point that you probably deserved your name on the cover given the amount of re-writing we did together.  As a fellow educator who cares deeply about making the world a better place and who works so hard to make it so, you are the first to remind me that nothing we do matters if it doesn’t translate to enrich the common good.  You have supported me and believed in me all the way to the finish, and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.

    There are probably another fifty or so who have helped with questions, promoted my work online, responded to my talks, and encouraged me to run with this odd line of scholarship simply by helping me believe this material matters to people.  You all are the best.

  • My book is available for order today

    I am very pleased to announce that my first book God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology is now available for order!  It will be available through Amazon and elsewhere for international orders in the next few weeks, but you can order it now at the publisher's site.

    Endorsements

    “Slow reading can bear fruits that are inaccessible to those who merely skim an author.  DeLay has read Lacan diligently and searchingly, and he has come up with some important insights into the complex relationship of psychoanalysis, religion, and theology.  Students of religion will profit from his clear and careful exposition of Lacan’s rich and provocative thought.  And students of Lacan will come to understand why only theologians can be truly atheistic: our loyalties for deities come and go, but the true Other is neither in need of defense nor threatened by our disloyalties.” - Ingolf U. Dalferth

    “Tad DeLay has bravely explored and mapped the notoriously difficult territory of Lacan that others have only dared to read about second-hand.  We should not only salute his courage but be hugely grateful for the gifts he has returned within this rich and important book at the bleeding edge of psychoanalysis and theology.” - Kester Brewin

    “God Is Unconscious is a brilliant and accessible overview of Lacan’s thought, demonstrating how it directly applies to religion and politics.  DeLay develops an original understanding of perversion and how it applies to contemporary conservative Christianity.  Anyone interested in understanding how religion works in social, political, and psychological terms should read this book.” - Clayton Crockett

  • Upcoming talks

    "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.

    The second is less theoretical and more practical, and will be at the American Academy of Religion WR (March 7-9) at Loyola Marymount University.  I was accepted to the Queer Studies and American Religion sections, but I’m not sure which I will present at yet.  The paper is titled Schism and Heterosexism: the Anglican Realignment and the Future of American Christianity.  I claim that the unprecedentedly rapid split happening in the Anglican Communion at the moment is a perfect model for understanding what is about to happen in the religious and political economies once marriage equality becomes the nationwide legal norm in the next few years.  I think this is especially salient since the number of states with marriage equality doubled in 2013 and we only have two more to go before we bump up against limits from the 31 states with anti-gay amendments.  I presume the Supreme Court will have to take up again the question of the 14th amendment's equal protection clause sooner than it hoped when it punted this past summer, and I think the Anglican schism is a perfect way to economically analyze, by the numbers we already have, what is about to happen in response.

    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.

  • Supply-Side Economics of American Religion

    The truest thing I ever heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say was that religion is first and foremost a search for security rather than a search for truth.

    I’ve been in a summer intensive on American religious traditions for the past few weeks, and my readings included Roger Finke and Rodney Stark's supply-side economics of religion in The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy.  What is a good Marxian philosopher of religion like me to make of this?  To begin, supply-side theory is more a broad market theory than a necessarily capitalist variety, and I think there is potential to layer Finke’s supply-side thought on top of a materialist perspective on religious economy.

    Survey of American Affiliation

    For whatever reason, religion is not declining much in America.  In 1776, only 17% of Americans were formal members of a church.  While far more than this went to church in a stage where Christianity was ubiquitous, Finke and Stark suggest the difference in concern for affiliation between 1776 and today says something about the mythic Christian past in contrast to our supposedly secular age.  Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports 78.4% of Americans now affiliate with a Christian church, and only 4.7% affiliate with a non-Christian religion.  16.1% are unaffiliated, but the vast majority of that group (12.1% of total US) are “nothing in particular.”  As we have seen, nones tend to say things like “I’m not a Christian, I follow Jesus” or “spiritual but not religious” or other pithy quotables that tip us off to their being basically Christian.  Only 1.6% are atheist, thought that number becomes 4% when we include agnostics.  In short, around 85-90% of US is broadly Christian.  But the membership of each historic denomination is plummeting.  Why?

    We have this debate about why the mainline church is declining, and conservatives attribute it to liberal theology.  Finke would agree, but not for the reasons conservatives think.  Everyone knows the demand side of supply-demand drive price/inflation, but it’s crucial to understand supply-side economics as placing the emphasis on supply.  Your demand for the latest product drives prices up, but the demand is created by the company’s supply (strategy, product, market share).  

    Anxiety, Globalization, and Apocalypticism

    It’s not surprising that conservative-sectarian traditions are winning out over progressive groups.  I’ve always assumed that globalization, plummeting job markets for college grads (not to mention the rise in religious behavior seen in a recession), increased states of perpetual/pointless warfare, etc., all account for the need for security that conservative traditions deliver.  In 2010, 41% of Americans thought Jesus would return by 2050.  That number has climbed to 47%, and I think that’s a natural response to prolonged economic insecurity.

    But I was wrong to think this is anything uniquely attributable to globalization.  My more Marxian view of religion can easily account for the popularity of conservative-sectarian religion, particularly during economic crisis, but its doesn't do as well in accounting for the proliferation of disparate typology (e.g. why is there such a thing as increasingly liberal theology if a poor economy rewards only conservative movements?)  The Southern Baptist purge, the Neo-Reformed movement’s win over emergent, the proliferation of highly conservative Evangelical non-denominationals- this has all been seen before.  Finke’s claim is that we first see supply-side economy functioning in America during the Great Awakening.  Of course, the Reformation gives a previous example as does the proliferation of Catholic orders that arose during the Roman Empire's collapse, but the US Great Awakening gives us a test case with surprisingly well-documented statistical rates of religious adherence.  The deregulated economy (revivalist preachers, new denominations) paid no attention to territory owned by established churches (even when, as with Congregationalism, churches were funded by tax dollars).  People could choose.  You would think incorrectly that people would volunteer for the churches that place the least demands on them.  But deregulation changes the cost-benefit analysis, and high demands yield a sense of “rightness” or a “closed community.”  Revivals worked not because of a shift in demand (people wanting spiritual renewal) but because of a shift in supply.

    Sect-Church-Sect Supply

    The larger pattern Finke identifies is this: 1) an established church modernizes to ease cultural tensions, 2) this produces a gap filled by a new supply of sects that attract the disenfranchised faithful, 3) the new sect becomes established and begins to modernize, creating space for new gap supplies, repeat ad nauseam.  The initial proliferation of a new sect advertises its legitimacy to a demographic that would otherwise be skeptical of the new product.

    The Anglican and Congregational churches in the colonies where completely displaced in only a handful of decades after the pre-Revolution Great Awakening launched Methodists and Baptists to prominence.  Eventually, Methodists established themselves and modernized, but the independent nature of Baptist polity has consistently allowed them to resist modernization.  Baptists retain a sect-like status, first during the Darwin-era Whitsitt controversy and later in the 1970-90s purge.  Both of these were on the one hand an expulsion of theology from the ranks (Biblical criticism and Darwinism purged, Biblical inerrancy affirmed), but on the other hand they retained the “southernness” that made the Southern Baptists distinctive from their plummeting northern Baptist counterparts.  In effect, the Souther Baptists are largest denomination in America today (and exert considerable influence on the 1/3 of US that is Evangelical) because they prioritized distinctive traditional sectarian (even parochial and anti-theological) beliefs/polity.  Ironically, they succeeded at converting America because they failed to take Biblical studies seriously.

    Vatican II Test Case

    The ground Roman Catholicism lost after the 1960s Vatican II council provides an interesting test case on how updates affect adherence.  We know modernizing loses members, but modernizing what?  Vatican II updated dogma and liturgy, but maintained high demands on personal life (e.g. prohibition on birth control, reaffirmation of priesthood celibacy).  Finke and Stark’s book was published in 1992, so it comes well before the child abuse scandal that has killed Catholic attendance worldwide.  But even in 1992, we see plummeting attendance that appears linked to the bi-polar modernizing of theology without modernizing social demands.  If this book had been written after 2000, I suspect Finke and Stark would excoriate the Vatican for not updating the celibacy requirement which has certainly been a cause for child abuse.  But post-Vatican II membership teaches us that if a church has to choose between modernizing theology and modernizing personal demands, the former can be neglected while the latter updated if the goal is church attendance.  Obviously, I think conservative-sectarian theology is inherently destructive for personal spirituality, critical thought, and social progress alike, but if you can only update one, update the practical, real-world religious demands.

    The Pattern Today

    What of today?  Clearly the brewing controversy is gay marriage, and who can say what the church will put its foot down on next?  What Finke’s supply-side economy of religion says is that whenever gay marriage becomes legal nationwide sometime in the next decade, both mainline and Evangelical/independent churches will quickly “evolve” to follow culture's lead.  But updating views tends to kill church membership, so a good number of Evangelical churches (and maybe whole new denominations) will reshape themselves as the new supply of sectarian, anti-modernization churches. Vatican II shows us that churches might best update by modernizing on gay marriage while maintaining distinctively traditional theology (yes, I know this is a contradiction, but how many people really care?).  For churches that maintain both regressive sexual views and also traditional theology, their membership will skyrockett for a while, and this will be self-attributed to better/conservative theology.  When that happens, its nothing new.  Its ephemeral.  Its a natural pattern we see over and over in religious sectarianism.  It happens because we want security more than we want truth, which is always a cycle of repression.

     
  • The secrets of the Egyptians were also secret for the Egyptians themselves

    I’ve been mostly offline for the past month on account of being on vacations- Los Angeles to Little Rock to New Orleans to Cozumel and back to Los Angeles for a spring break with family visiting.  I read a couple of great books in that time- Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism and Tillich’s Theology of Culture, which I’ll probably reflect on soon.  In less challenging reading, I finished the Harry Potter series and have a good thirty minute rant on how J.K Rowling was swiping ideas from Hegel's master-slave dialectic, but I'll spare that for now.  There is also one week left in our Atheism for Lent course.  I’ve been pleased to see a good amount of interaction and pushback at the AfL site (and I’m sorry my schedule hasn’t allowed more interaction from me!).  I’m currently reading Clayton Crockett’s newest, Deleuze Beyond Badiou, and I’m prepping my material for the Subverting the Norm conference at Drury University in two weeks.  I’m going to be reflecting on my StN material here for the next few weeks.

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    “...there was once an Englishman who was so brave, not only did he not believe in ghosts he was not even afraid of them.” - Pete Rollins discusses much the same idea here.

    What priest believes in repentance? 

    There is the old story of Charles Frederick Peace (1832 – 1879) who was led to the gallows while a disinterested priest read nonchalantly of the hellfire that awaited him. Rather than repent in his final moment, Peace’s retort exposed the hypocrisy of a priest that is unconscious of his own disbelief: “Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”

    Generic question about religion

    There is the generic form of a question I often receive: “Do you believe in (insert whatever idea)?”  I’m always happy and eager to discuss anything related to my specialities, but this framing is continually interesting and difficult for me to properly handle because it (without the questioner realizing it) implicitly assumes there is a “normal” binary wherein my “yes” or “no” means I am either heterodox or enlightened (depending on the questioner’s disposition).  Usually anyone talking to me about theology is already assuming I’ll have a lot to unpack and explain after my “yes/no,” but they still want the “yes/no” first so that we can go from there.  And that’s understandable. We want to put ourselves into categories to better understand whatever follows the affirmation or disavowal.

    But the honest answer, not always but almost, goes like this: “Not only do I not believe that; almost nobody does- not even you regardless of whether you realize it yet.”

    You would be a lot more paranoid...

    A theme in my upcoming talk is that religious thought can be schematized by psychoanalytic categories.  I’ll pick on a really easy example.  If we take a simple religious affirmation held by 46% of Americans- God created human beings in present form within the last 10,000 years- we get an impossible scenario.  On the one hand, I don’t doubt that 46% consciously think they think this.  But I also know that 46% of Americans don’t discount all modern medical science which is predicated on evolutionary theory.  They still go to doctors.  Or if all our nuclear reactors and weapons were to suddenly explode, this would be considered out of the ordinary, yes?  But nuclear technology is only “safe” because decay happens at a predictable rate, and that rate of decay to half-life is the same tool we use to measure the 4.5 billion year age of the earth.  It’s also the reason we know religion is ten times older than the wheel instead of 6,000 years old.  A creationist that not only thinks she is a creationist but also acts as if she is a creation would never see a doctor or trust that an accidental nuclear holocaust isn’t equally probably at every moment of her life.  But this is not the case, because she does not really believe herself.  She consciously thinks but unconsciously acts.  And what is unconscious is the site of truth.

    So someone can ask me to explain why the Psalms speak of Elohim sitting on the “council of the gods”- or why does the commandment tacitly acknowledge the existence of other gods when it commands “no other gods before me”?  Do the Israelites believe in other gods?  The short answer is, “Yes, everyone in the ancient world believes in other gods.” But then we have to qualify that general “everyone” to say “well, ok, not everyone.” Or we discuss the theory that there was never an exodus from Egypt or a camp in the Sinai, and we have to remind the questioner that the Pentateuch was redacted into final form hundreds of years after it claims to be written.  We have to talk about the theory of the northern tribal henotheistic Elohim and its eventual merger with the southern tribal monotheistic YHWY.  We have to talk about how older Scriptures have a lot more polytheistic language than newer Scriptures, and that is why Biblical scholars take it for granted that the Bible probably had more polytheistic language at some point in the past.  We also have to point out that, just as the Greek philosophers spoke of god without believing in god, Israelite and Jewish theology doesn’t necessarily imply everyone- or even authors/redactors- believe in any strict senses.  It doesn’t mean that they didn’t either.  You can imagine how laughable you would find it to know that a thousand years from now someone will think they fully “understand her beliefs” (even better if the future reader assumes you believe the same static beliefs as everyone else during the “American era”).

    As Hegel wrote, “The secrets of the Egyptians were also secret for the Egyptians themselves.”

    Did the Greeks actually believe their own mythologies? It doesn’t matter.  Some did, some did not.  But the symbols function regardless.

    Does the American politician actually believe our mythologies of the Founders?  Doesn’t matter- he has to act deferentially regardless.

    Symbols need psychoanalysis

    I am partial to Clifford Geertz's definition of religion as a network of symbols.  I come to psychoanalytic theory out of personal, even selfish, reasons.  Psychoanalysis gave me a language to talk about how religion works.  The critique I should have a better answer for is that I use the theory to talk not only about fixed dispositions but also as modes that get adopted (I'm not sure whether a traditionally trained psychoanalyst would like that, but then again, I'm not paid to do therapy).  Out of the psycho-pathological dispositions of psychosis, neurosis (obsessive, hysteric, and phobic), and perversion, Lacan describes neurosis as the default for most people (without the qualification of a subtype).  Once I figured out that I fit one category but that most religious language is geared toward two other psycho-pathological types, that told me something about the gap I felt between what I was hearing and what I was seeing.  Obsessives are good at following rules and taking things too literally- that is their downside- but the upside is that they are the most likely to eject if they cannot put together what they hear in a rational way.  Almost anyone interested in apologetics is going to be an obsessive- very systematic, devouring information- but they are going to have to repress further or crack and eject at some point.  Hysterics do not have this problem- hysterics simply don’t want to hear about contradictions in what they consciously and unconsciously believe.  But they tend to be very happy this way.  Perversion is the most interesting to me, because I think you almost have to adopt a perverted relationship to symbols (characterized by constant, active disavowal rather than mostly harmless, passive repression) in order to be in the spotlight where options for opinions are constrained.  And the term “pervert” for Lacan does not have an explicit sexual connotation- its just that people who must constantly endure a “splitting of the ego” tend to be shady people if you give them enough time.  I don’t at all mean that as a totalizing statement, and I know plenty of great, normal, neurotic leaders; I’m just claiming there is a pattern.  And that pattern tells you something about how mixed messages get sent while being encased in the exact same words.

    So when someone asks, “Do you believe in XYZ?” the better answer is to figure out if this is being asked as an obsessive (desiring to follow the rules for a correct answer), a hysteric (desiring to please the gods by retaining a fixed point or status quo in their world), or a pervert (desiring to strategize how to exclude your answer, include it, or ignore you altogether).  In other words, the first answer should be, “Why is that question important to you?” - not that we will know the answer to this either.

  • EROEI and the New Materialism

    Bo Eberle wrote a review of the New Materialism that I recommend.  I've been meaning to write more on this fantastic book for months, so that's finally on the way over the next few weeks.

    ----------------------------------

    EROEI- energy return on energy investment- was one of the simplest and yet most eye-opening concepts introduced to me in Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism.  The book tackles the big three crises of capitalism, climate change, and energy, but the latter two are often conflated as one and the same.  Unfortunately, this means the two are ignored together as well by the climate denialist crowd.  But I couldn’t stop thinking that this single concept of EROEI- intuitive as it sounds once you realize its simplicity- is being left out of the talk of energy today.  It could change the conversation.

    A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to cause devastation in food supplies and species extinction, not to mention the weather anomalies we are already seeing and the decade of nearly consecutive “hottest years on record.”  But the has IPCC estimated that without a switch to cleaner energy, the best case scenario is a rise of 2.52 degrees (worst case, 10.44).  So we naturally frame the conversation in terms of clean energy alternatives.  But what happens if there is no serious alternative yet?

    Kevin Mequet joined Crockett and Robbins to write the two chapters on energy.  The second chapter is a radical proposal for athermal nuclear power, and the need for alternatives to nuclear fission is set up by discussing EROEI.  The reason we need to think about alternatives (even alternatives to our current low-EROEI alternative/renewables) is simple: 

    “Unfortunately, while capitalist economics is premised upon the possibility of infinite growth, you cannot have infinite growth given a finite resource.  Oil, along with coal and natural gas, are fossil fuels; they result from deposits of vegetation that trapped carbon during the Carboniferous Period, around 400 million years ago.  We are using up these deposits of “ancient sunlight” at an astonishing rate, and they will not be replenished.” (95-6)

    [Like all of life, economy is energy transformation]

    For 9,800 of the last 10,000 years since the dawn of the agricultural era, we relied entirely on wood for energy.  The EROEI for wood is 4:1- for every unit of energy put into using wood, we get 4 units of energy in return.  Since all of life (and by extension, economy) is energy conversion, an EROEI of 4:1 produces natural limits on expansion.

    The advent of coal provided a resource with an EROEI of 10:1, a 2.5 increase over wood.  This provided the energy for industrialization.  But coal was expensive, dirty, and difficult to transport.  We were not yet able to acquire and transport large quantities of natural gas, so we shifted to petroleum.

    There was- and still is- absolutely nothing like petroleum.  Its EROEI was 150:1 when we first began to scale its acquisition and use.  We went from wood’s 4:1 to petro’s 150:1 in a century.  But here is the catch: EROEI changes as the resource depletes and acquisition becomes more costly.  By the mid-20th century, oil EROEI fell to 100:1.  It is currently at 50:1 and will continue to drop.  This is part of the controversy wrapped up in the Canadian tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline.  Recent estimates are that tar sands oil will have an EROEI of 7-10:1 (read: less than or equal to coal).

    What about nuclear energy and alternative/renewable resources?  This is where it only gets worse.  We have yet to figure out nuclear fusion for power plants.  Our reactors use fission.  Nuclear fission has a 4:1 EROEI (yes, you read that correctly- nuclear fission EROEI is the same as burning wood) because of the enormous costs of building plants and handling radioactive waste.  No other alternatives- solar, wind, hydroelectric- have an EROEI much better than 4:1.  We are depleting ourselves back into the EROEI of ten millennia ago.

    If we shifted all energy production to nuclear fission reactors, Cal Tech’s David Goodstein tells us:

    “You would have to build 10,000 of the largest power plants that are feasible by engineering standards in order to replace the 10 terawatts of fossil fuel we are burning today.” (97)

    That would make energy-production cleaner; it would also last all of 10-20 years until we burned through all our current fissile uranium supplies.

    The solution- which Mequet notes is always 25 years away- may rest in developing nuclear fusion.  Mequet again cites Goodstein, writing: 

    “...1 gallon of water if converted by nuclear fusion would equal the current exploitation of 300 gallons of gasoline.  At petroleum’s 100:1 EROEI that would be a phenomenal increase to 30,000 EROEI.  Given the last 350 years of history if the transition from wood to coal increased energy resource productivity by 2 1/2 times, then from coal to petroleum it increased another initially 15 and then 10 times, then a jump from petroleum to fusion anticipates a jump of another 300 times, it is reasonable to speculate the expected jump for athermal nuclear technology could be in the range of 25-30 times the petroleum EROEI.” (98)

    The age of Homo carbonicus will come to an end.  That is simple math.  What the New Materialism asks is this: 

    “As Homo carbonicus goes extinct what can we do? Exactly what we’ve been doing- evolve... again.” (96)

  • There is no genealogy between a bucket and a turbine

    I’m working through my own extra-curricular reading of Seminar XVII, which is a development of the master-slave dialectic we are reading this week in my Hegel course.  For Hegel, the slave exists for the master as an object and for itself as subject, but the master only experiences the slave as a use-value object.  The master does not experience the slave as a person, only as an instrument.  The wager is that this dialectic can be expanded to account for modern economic antagonisms that lead to the french student protests in '68. Lacan keeps the Master category, switches “slave” to Hysteric, then develops a University discourse as a über-master discourse in our modern time, and finally adds the discourse of the Analyst to complete the set of relationships today.

    He’s doing his best to psychoanalyze the cultural effects of capitalism, and so he links Marx’s surplus value to the Lacanian surplus jouissance.  Apropos of Hegel’s master discourse, Lacan asks, “Does he have the desire to know?  A real master, as in general we used to see until a recent era, and this is seen less and less, doesn’t desire to know anything at all- he desires that things work,” (24).  On the other hand, the slave/hysteric only desires to be known, but this cannot be allowed by the master because it would cause the master to treat the hysteric as a human being.

    At the end of The Parallax View, Žižek has an interesting analysis of US politics along the master-slave dialectic.  He ditches the traditional liberal/conservative polarity.  Instead, one party occupies the elitist, semi-progressive-but-mostly-technocratic master position and the other party occupies the regressive, fundamentalist hysteric/slave position.  These positions are mostly fictions- politicians of both parties are mostly technocrats, but they thrive on the antagonism of occupying roles.  Žižek responds by saying, in true Hegelian fashion, every two should be read as a three.  Much as the slave/hysteric would self-destruct if she (hysterics are always a metaphorical “she” in Lacan) got what was desired, the fundamentalist party would (and is currently doing so now more than ever) destroy its own future if it got what it wanted (less regulation, higher tax burdens on lower classes, no family planning, etc.).  The sexual metaphor Lacan uses for hysterics is that of the woman who acquires a “proxy” jouissance/satisfaction not by experiencing direct sexual satisfaction but by her partner being satisfied- if she gets what she “wants”- the satisfaction only of the partner- she is still not as happy as she should be.  Yes, the metaphor is sexist, but blame the ‘60s or the French.  You see this in the language of Evangelical varieties of Christian fundamentalism where satisfaction is defined as pleasing the big Other.  Same with the Stalinist purges, burning the Party out to please the gods of dialectical materialism.  So the antagonism of the two political parties plays out because the hysteric wants its own self-dissolution in the big Other and the master wants to treat the hysteric as stupid, regressive, and so on.  Sure, the fundamentalist party actually is regressive, but accentuating this fact obscures the reasons for this fundamentalist language, which is actually a remarkably coherent ideology that mobilizes latent resentments.  The antagonism of the two resists sublating into a modality of a third and better option (i.e. wherein the antagonism is relocated to class and capital).

    Lacan says the subject desires jouissance, but the acquisition is interrupted by knowledge.  I think “knowledge” is Lacan’s way of talking about Hegel’s sense-certainty or consciousness, which is different than “truth” (I become conscious/knowledgable of something, but since I can be mislead, my knowledge has no direct connection to truth).  So for Lacan, knowledge is the Other’s jouissance that intercepts and deflects the subject’s drive toward jouissance.  

    Lacan then has a Derridean the-truth-is-there-is-no-Truth moment in discussing signification: “...[the signifier] represents a subject, and nothing but a subject, for another signifier,” (47-8), which I take as the post-structuralist element that psychoanalysis requires: all that effectively matters is signification, not “truth” as such.  Caputo’s metaphor for Derrida: there is no word in the dictionary that describes all other words; there is only relationship.  That is why the master-slave dialectic (whether we are talking about slavery or modern politics, religion, culture) cannot transcend its current antagonisms without a reorientation of relationships, which requires a new enemy.

    This coupling - of Marxian surplus value to Lacanian surplus jouissance -  and their relationship to materialism is to me the most interesting element in these opening chapters of Seminar XVII.  Surplus value is the engine and genius of capitalism, but it creates the class antagonisms that make capitalism itself bound for obsolescence.  In the same way, the struggle for jouissance creates, says Lacan, a component of entropy.  The introduction of the signifier creates a new mode of being that runs on its own; the introduction of an ideology creates a new consciousness that runs on its own.  It is different than what comes before, leading to this quote that I thought amusing:

    “There is no genealogy between a bucket and a turbine.” (49)

    The jouissance entropy is linked to the Freudian death drive, the desire toward repetition wherein the subject substitutes direct satisfaction by settling for less.  I don’t entirely understand how this relates to his theological materialism, but Lacan seems to be saying that we are anxiety-ridden because of the pressure toward satisfaction (which we avoid because of repetition and death drive).  You understand what this means if you’ve ever talked yourself out of an opportunity because the possibility of success is too overwhelming.  The big Other (A) commands us to act this way:

    “What has a body and does not exist? Answer- the big Other.  If we believe in this big Other, then it has a body, ineliminable from the substance of the one who has said “I am what I am,” which is another form of tautology altogether... We are beings born of surplus jouissance, as a result of the use of language... I do not mean that we use [language].  It is language that uses us.” (66)

    In the same section as the above quote, Lacan writes his much-repeated line: “materialists are the only authentic believers,” [66, emphasis mine].  Žižek uses explains this as third option beyond fundamentalism and liberalism.  Fundamentalists cannot believe in the proper sense of the term because they do not experience (or disavow altogether) the symbolic nature of belief (making them psychotic or perverse)- belief for a fundamentalist is too direct. Liberals fail to believe because they elevate the symbol to the level of the Real (a characteristic of obsessive-neurotics or hysteric-neurotics) to please the big Other of human rights, equality, and so on- they believe only indirectly.  Same with economics: capitalism works as long as society believes the economic axioms directly as if they constitute something more than a fiction (again, psychotic or perverse) or if legislation can restrain the id impulse of a bucket that has turned into a turbine that will burn itself out.  Capitalism has to expand indefinitely to function (a drive toward surplus value) but its genius engine is also a death drive (toward market fluctuations, the wealth-poverty gap that generates class antagonisms, etc.).  The theologian that does not “need” a surplus jouissance of gods and heavens (a purely materialist theology) is the only one capable of truly believing- in the proper sense of the term where belief is not under compulsion and symbolism is properly situated.  An economy or political ideology that does not “need” surplus is the only one that could avoid a death drive.  Whether such a modality is possible, who knows? (my wager is that it is very possible).

    I’m only a quarter of the way through Seminar XVII, so I’ll probably be posting more as I figure out what direction he is taking this.


  • Three meanings of theology

    One of my seminars this semester is on transdisciplinary theory and practice.  Our first assignment is to analyze a particular controversy or turning point in our field.  Since my field is philosophy of religion and theology, and since religion is older than homo sapiens, that leaves me with a lot of options, but I think I’m going to confine it to one of the turns in religious studies in the past two centuries.

    There’s the advent of German higher criticism, of course, but I’m considering the influence of economic theory as well, or perhaps the history of the Frankfurt school.  But I’ll probably end up analyzing the history of radical theology.

    I’ll admit up front that if you already do philosophy of religion in any capacity, this isn’t going to be anything new. You can stop reading.

    Christian theology today has- at least as I think of it- three distinct varieties:

    1. Traditional pastoral and lay theology

    And maybe we could group in the lower tiers of biblical theology here as well.  This is the stuff that sells well on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, the various versions of pop-spirituality and self-help, and the material you would encounter in a sermon or church theology curriculum.  It is relatable to parishioners that have little background in religious study, but tends to be oversimplified, naïve, and even hostile to the same theology taught to pastors in seminary.  There are a lot of reasons for this- DIY religion encoded by 18th century revivalism and 19th century industrialization to today's resurgent "biblical christianity" which is a predictable reaction to pluralism and globalization.  I get skittish around all that, so I don't have much to do with this world anymore.

    2. Confessional/academic theology

    This is historic and systematic theologies, hermeneutical studies, and some varieties of philosophical theology.  Its sister field is biblical studies proper.  Academic, confessional theology has a hard time because it really does aim to do theology “for the church,” but sometimes runs against the naïveté ingrained by traditional pastoral/lay theology (I don't mean to say that's always the case- just depends on region and denomination).  I always use the example of biblical inerrancy, since you can’t believe in inerrancy and do serious biblical studies/criticism.  Hermeneutics has this trouble too- it can feel threatening even to seminary students to realize just how far the “death of the author” movement has killed off traditional readings of the text.  And if the three most important protestant theologians of the 20th century are Barth, Tillich, and Cobb (or exchange him for Whitehead), we see a big variety in confessional theology.  A lot of it is assinine, but some of it is brilliant.  But I only call confessional theology brilliant if it can tell me something about the material world in a way that I could not have accessed otherwise.  And I have nothing but respect for its sister field of biblical studies, which I don't have the patience or brilliant linguistic ability needed to do.

    3. Radical theology

    The last is one I am interested in, and it’s the hardest for people to wrap their minds about if you aren’t already reading Derrida, Žižek, Badiou, Benjamin, Schmitt, and so many other names that you either know or you don’t.  This tends to be done by atheists, and I usually can’t explain why atheists do theology (or more importantly, what this says about the shifting meaning of theology).  I count this as starting with German Idealism, and it exists today as a transdisciplinary mix of political and economic theory, psychology and psychoanalytic theory, lit-criticism, and it draws from any and all Continental philosophers.  It’s a use of theological categories to talk about material reality and avoids any and all speculative metaphysics (except maybe dialectical materialism).  It is not what normal people mean by normal theology- in fact, I’m never that surprised when seminary-trained theology MAs haven’t thought about the distinction at all.

    >> book recommendation for radical theology: Crockett and Robbins, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: the New Materialism. Interviews with the authors here.  

    So I’m thinking about writing on the 200ish year history of this latest variety of theology.  I don’t mean to say that these categories are strict- Derrida is rightly an atheist in his theology, but he left his mark forever on confessional theology and biblical criticism.  Process theologians (I don’t know if I should group you guys into confessional or radical theology- or some other independent category- but forgive the oversimplification) still love their Frankfurt Marxists.  And radical theologians have always had a crush on Augustine and Aquinas.   

    But what radical theologians mean by “god” tends to be something very different than what is meant by the average parishioner, leading to the question: Can postmodern theology live in the church?

    Good news, there is a conference coming up on exactly that question.

  • Moody's Downgrades Universities for Raising Tuition Too Slowly

    The New York Times reports Moody’s has downgraded US colleges and universities for diminishing revenue.  In other words, they’ve downgraded because tuition is not rising fast enough while federal and state funding is cut.  Aside from endowments, universities have three options for financial growth: 1) maintain tuition levels and increase student numbers (straining current resources), 2) increase tuition, and 3) federal/state funding.  Option 1 looses potential as we reach a critical mass of education.  Option 2 and option 1 both discourage students from attending, and option 3 can't work because of a myopic strategy of reigning in government spending.  

    Capitalism only knows how to reward growth.  It can float on stable revenue if it can cut costs (e.g. cutting tenure, shifting coursework to online classes, postponing infrastructure repairs, etc.), but this is only a temporary measure.  The Moody’s downgrade is a microcosm of the economy's entanglement with higher education: the system is punishing itself for not extorting its revenue stream the way a business should.  Yes, a “revenue stream” is what a student is.

    Infographic on student loans.

    Previously, I used the DoE’s debt calculators to show how our system incentivizes surplus loans and actually disincentivizes full repayment.  Read it.

    I also raised a question about the capital and secondary markets- the big nasty missing peice of the puzzle that nobody is talking about after the 2010 ACA reforms.  Read it.

    Also, a bit on the recent history of how predatory lending works.


    From the NYT report

    The credit reporting agency Moody’s said on Wednesday that it had revised its financial outlook for colleges and universities, giving a negative grade to the entire field.

    For the last two years, Moody’s Investors Service gave the nation’s most elite public and private colleges a stable forecast while assigning a negative outlook to the rest of higher education. (Moody’s assigned a negative outlook for the sector in 2009, but it upgraded the most elite ones to stable in 2011-2012.)

    On Wednesday, Moody’s explained the change by saying that even the best colleges and universities faced diminished prospects for revenue growth, given mounting public pressure to keep tuition down, a weak economy and the prospect that a penny-pinching Congress could cut financing for research grants and student aid.

    The report advocates “bolder actions by university leaders to reduce costs and increase operational efficiency.”

    “The sector will need to adjust to the prospect of muted revenue growth,” the report says. “Strong governance and management leadership will be needed by most universities as they navigate through this period of intensified change and challenge.”

  • Student Loan Infographic

    One massive student loan infographic - to share with those who think "students should make better borrowing decisions" is a responsible solution to what is unquestionably a much, much bigger problem.  We are going to dig ourselves really, really deep into this hole and then blame students for the problems that we, as a society, desided to hand them.  It wasn't always like this, and it doesn't have to be.

    Previously, I used the DoE’s debt calculators to show how our system incentivizes surplus loans and actually disincentivizes full repayment.  Read it.

    I also raised a question about the capital and secondary markets- the big nasty missing peice of the puzzle that nobody is talking about after the 2010 ACA reforms.  Read it.

    Also, a bit on the recent history of how predatory lending works.

    College Isn't Cheap

    (thanks to HBC for finding this.

  • How the 2007-8 collapse happened, and why a 10 billion dollar settlement is supposed to sound serious

    From the New York Times: $10 billion fine negotiated with 14 banks is supposed to settle the 2007-8 crisis? So in other words, crashing global finance turned out to be enormously profitable for only a small closing fee.

    For more on the inner workings of the 2007 crisis, I recommend Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.  Instead of blaming the poor, which is what you do if you don't know anything about the CDOs and CDS trading that actually collapsed global finance, you will find in Lewis a remarkably readable description of how 2007 not only happened but was inevitable.

    Collateralized debt obligation (CDO) packages were comprised of hundreds or even thousands of subprime mortgages made throughout the 2000s.  Subprime loans were made with a “teaser rate” of 8% interest that would jump to a floating rate of 12% or more after two years.  Many subprime loans did not require a single payment for the first two years either.  By 2005, the default rate after two years (meaning people were not even making a single mortgage payment) on subprimes totaling a half-trillion dollar per year was above 5% and getting close to 10%.  Whereas subprimes had made up 5% of the market in the nineties, some estimates put them at over 90% of loans made by 2005. Why were banks giving out loans they knew would not be paid back? Because the CDOs could be sold off to investors that didn’t know this, tucked into the retirement portfolio of your grandmother that doesn’t have a clue what the default rate of 2005 subprimes is.  Goldman Sachs knows, but GS is still making a killing.

    Tranches are segments of the CDO packages.  Each tranche was rated by S&P or Moody’s.  The tranches suspected to default at a higher rate (because of a low average debtor credit score- I’ll come back to this) were rated lower.  Call it Triple B.  The higher end of of the CDO tranches were rated triple A- the same as a US bond- in theory, completely safe to invest in.  But since people were spellbound by the myth that ratings meant something, it was harder to sell triple B tranches.  So Wall Street extracts the triple B tranches and creates a new CDO credit tower comprised entirely of triple B loans.  S&P and Moody’s make their money from Goldman Sachs and friends by rating the loan packages they are handed, so they have a vested interest in pleasing Wall Street.  So they respond to a CDO made up entirely of triple Bs- again, loans that are 100% guaranteed to default- by rating only 20% of the new CDO as triple B and the rest as B, A, on up to AAA.  And those average loan credit scores? Here is a story that was going around to show you how insane the system is: an immigrant with a fruit stand making $14K/year- but who had taken and repaid a tiny loan to start the stand- had a higher credit score than someone with a stable income of $150K/year who had paid the minimum on his credit cards every now and then.  A subprime conference in Las Vegas, January 2007, resulted in one trader telling his table he had met a stripper who was able to take our five- FIVE!- loans for new houses.  So a CDO’s credit score could be good without any real assets to back it up.  Grandma’s retirement portfolio buys this as well, because there is no incentive not to, and at the end of the day, who really cares if Grandma’s portfolio crashes and leaves her destitute?  

    Let's say a CDOs’ value goes to zero the moment the default rate goes to 8%.  Subprimes in 2005 had absolutely no chance of not soaring past 8%.  Enter the credit default swap (CDS).  CDSs were insurance policies.  A capital management firm sees a CDO with triple B tranches, realizes the B’s defaults will cause the whole CDO to collapse, and places a bet against the triple A tranches at the top.  So the firm agrees to pay a low $1 million per year (which it knows will only take 2 years) and gets $100 million back if the triple A loan tranche collapses (which it does as soon as the minimum wage subprime debtors can’t repay even a single house payment).  The firm knows- because they can read reports- that 2005 tranches will collapse, so they make this bet over and over and over again, against Goldman Sachs- who is happy to take a million dollars here and there because it is free money.  AIG takes most of these bets until 2006, when they realized they were out-leveraging their ability to pay out by a factor of 50:1 or worse, but what incentive do they have to tell anyone? None, nada, zip.

    The smart ones were the firms paying for CDSs on 2005 CDOs.  Moody’s and S&P could have stopped all this by rating loan towers correctly, but that would mean Wall Street would have to create a new ratings agency that would do their bidding.  In other words, Moody’s and S&P are incentivized to do a really bad job of rating loans.  They are just doing their job, which is to provide a service Wall Street will buy.  Wall Street is just doing its job too- leveraging itself into a corner as it aims to make more profits than history has ever seen.  The prophets taking advantage of CDSs are the villains who see the collapse and make bets that the system will not be able to repay, but its hard not to cheer for them.  The only thing that could have killed their bet would be for the federal government to step in and guarantee the subprime tranches- which would have kept Grandma in her house and the foreclosures at bay, but why would the Fed and Treasury want to do that?

    This is why the collapse was a financial collapse, not an economic collapse.  The latter came as an effect of the former.  Leveraging CDOs and CDSs allowed for billions upon hundreds of billions to be swapped in ways that banks could not repay.  There was (and still is) no incentive for them to be able to pay out on these bets.  So we blame Grandma instead.  We blame people who took out subprime mortgages without the ability to pay them even though a lack of subprime payments alone would never have been enough to do this kind of damage to Wall Street.  But we need a scapegoat- and since the taxpayer doesn’t know what a CDO or CDS is, its easier for our semi-conscious, patriotic taxpayer to blame Grandma’s bad finances- especially if Grandma is black or poor.  It makes as much sense as blaming the moms of Wall Street- if they had just never had kids, then Wall Street traders could have never wrecked the economy.  That is technically true, but.... wait, wait, wait- no, let’s go back to blaming poor people.

    And instead of asking difficult questions about the nature of late capital markets, let’s scapegoat OWS instead.  Have someone draw up plans to snipe those terrorists!  And since the Fed and the Treasury sure as hell are not going to address any of this, they just need to extract a $10 billion settlement from 14 banks.  Nevermind that the $700 million average that 10,000,000,000 divided by 14 equals is less than the Christmas bonuses for just the board of directors for some of these banks.   It’s still $10 billion!- just enough for a people to say “How unfair to make the heroes of the free market pay so much!- that’s more money than I will make in 10 lifetimes.”  That’s the point. 

  • Remember to Take the Parallax View (The Weekly Žižek)

    This will be the last of the weekly Žižek series before I finish and post my term paper next week.  I’m fairly proud of how the research on the “obscene supplement of the superego/ego” has turned out, and it includes a pretty good synopsis of Lacanian psychotherapy.  Again, I have never received so much positive feedback on a blog series before, so thanks to all who have shared/emailed/linked/retweeted/etc.  It’s made for a fun semester.

    The Third Way

    Resurrection

    Ecclesiology

    Truth-Event and Betraying the Revolution

    We Need More Apocalypticism

    The Exception is the Rule

    Atonement

    Hitler

    Bukharin at Stalin's Show Trial

    Perverts and Fundamentalists

    ... and lots of Žižek audio is available on my Resources page

    On a totally unrelated-to-parallax note, Žižek explains why Gangnam Style destroyed Bieber on youtube views.  Also, the Ke$ha+Žižek tumblr.

    “When an army is in retreat, a hundred times more discipline is required than when the army is advancing.” -Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33, 282.

    The final text we explore is The Parallax View, Žižek’s first supposed magnum opus before he declared his recent Less Than Nothing to be his new masterpiece.  Parallax View is part of the “short circuits” which he explains as:

    “The underlying premise of the series is that Lacanian psychoanalysis is a privileged instrument of [the short circuit] approach, whose purpose is to illuminate a standard text or ideological formation, making it readable in a totally new way- The long history of Lacanian interventions in philosophy, religion, the arts (from the visual arts to the cinema, music, and literature), ideology, and politics justifies this premise.  This, then, is not a new series of books on psychoanalysis, but a series of ‘connections in the Freudian field’- of short Lacanian interventions in art, philosophy, theology, and ideology.” - Žižek, The Parallax View, ix

    The parallax gap is used in astronomy to calculate distance and relative motion of the stars.  Introducing parallax into ideology, philosophy, and theology is a really interesting idea to me- deploying a method that “doesn’t belong” in the mix to understand something fundamentally different.  I suppose that is the most curious thing about psychoanalysis: of course there is no “unconscious” or “superego” part of the brain, but nevertheless it accounts for and predicts patterns of behavior.  Galileo’s eppur si move.  The gap between Žižek’s materialist theology and Milbank’s confessional theology in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? has this same problem: is the universe paradoxically One or irreducibly multiple?  Žižek hates paradox.  In Monstrosity, he boldly claims that Milbank’s theology is less orthodox and more pagan that Žižekian atheism, because Milbank wants to believe all paradoxes in theology actually only bear witness to our ignorance, our seeing through a glass darkly.

    “The illusion on which these two stories [use of art in torture and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, a devastating attack on Stalinism] rely, that of putting two incompatible phenomena on the same level, is strictly analogous to what Kant called ‘transcendental illusion,’ the illusion of being able to use the same language for phenomena which are mutually untranslatable and can be grasped only in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible.” - Žižek, The Parallax View, 4.

    “Is not ‘parallax’ yet another name for a fundamental antimony which can never be dialectically ‘mediated/sublated’ into a higher synthesis, since there is no common language, no shared ground, between the two levels?” ibid.

    There is a “‘minimal difference’ (the noncoincidence of the One with itself)” (p. 11) which he approximates with Derrida’s différance, “this neologism whose very notoriety obfuscates its unprecedented materialist potential” (ibid.)

    He has a way of putting things.  I really like the idea of a parallax gap, an irreducible difference between positions and fields that cannot be resolved into a sensible whole.

    I’m visiting home for the holidays in two weeks, and this chapter struck me as speaking to some of the same anxiety I always experience before going home.  When I tell people I study religion and philosophy, a series of assumptions get made and a fairly standard set of questions are asked.  Coming from a very religious culture, the first assumption a lot of people make is that I’m trying to figure out what I think about my own faith, and so I get asked “What do you believe?”  Sometimes it get’s followed with “What’s the use in PhD coursework?- why can’t you just learn everything you need to know about religion/theology from the Bible?”  There’s really no good way to answer that without an always long (and often tense) conversation, because what I’m doing has everything to do with trying to “believe in” as many different mutually exclusive theories as possible.  I’ll stop exploring something as soon as I’m certain.  I’m extremely excited about taking a theories course next semester that does exactly that (one week physics, the next is neuroscience, literary criticism, economics, etc.).  It’s why Žižek claims only the materialist can be a Christian, and only the Christian experience can lead to a big Other-less materialism.  It’s why reading above your reading level and outside your normal field is the only way to really learn anything.  Certainty is dull.  Mixing ideas that don't belong together is the way forward.

    Remember to short circuit and take the parallax view.

  • Strike Debt's Jubilee- using capital markets against capitalism

    "If we can buy $50,000 worth of debt, we can buy a million dollars worth of debt -and abolish it."

    This is how you use capital markets against predatory capitalism!  Play by the rules.  Let the beast eat itself.

    I've been following Strike Debt- an offshoot of Occupy- for a while. It's another group anyone interested in student loans should be familiar with. Debts (including student loan debts before 2010, possibly still- I explain this here) are repackaged into derivatives and sold to shareholders the same way any public company is.  Then the buyers (debt collectors or alternate banks) take out derivatives on the derivatives (student loan versions of credit default swaps are called SLABS- student loan asset backed securities).  It gets complicated in a hurry, but the eye-opening fact you need to realize is that many lenders can actually make more money if a debtor never repays a dime.  The system isn't too concerned with your petty repayments; you are much more valuable as a commodity to be traded and sold.

    If you are a student or homeowner that defaults on your loan, the lender- the government or bank- does not have the time or resources to go after you.  So they sell your loan to a debt collector for pennies on the dollar.  The collector turns around and wants you to pay the full amount, but this is why- especially with student loans where this is practically no penalty for non-payment other than lower credit score- they can settle your debt for less than you owe and still make a profit.

    Strike Debt’s Jubilee campaign wants to buy those debts for cheap just as any other debt collector would.  But instead of collecting on loans in default and home mortgages near foreclosure, they will simply eliminate the debt.

    www.rollingjubilee.org

    www.strikedebt.org

  • Feuerbach the psychoanalyst

    “Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image… God is the idea of the species as an individual… And so in revelation man goes out of himself in order, by circuitous path, to return to himself.” - Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity

    We discussed Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) and read his very short Essence of Religion this week in my course on theories of religion.  The big idea that he is projection- largely because of his followers, Marx and Nietzsche. Man attributes his worst aspects to Nature (or evil demi-gods) and projects his best aspects onto the Gods.  This produces a split subject (between gods and nature, will and ability, abstract and concrete).  The gods have lots of gold and silver because mankind has associated these metals with an economic value, and so on.  Not a terribly fantastic insight for us today.

    But he gets more interesting to me in the final chapters of Essence of Religion.  Greek gods have limited gods because the Greeks have limited desire.  Greeks don’t want everlasting life, only postponed death.  The gods on Mount Olympus have sex and rivalries, govern wars, fertility, and wine- nothing transcendent.  By contrast, the Christian god has unlimited capability and transcendence (at least in folk varieties of Christianity).  Feuerbach reads this as Christianity’s unlimited wish- which, of course, can never be satisfied- but therein lies the early foundation of psychoanalysis.

    Freud’s term for this is the fetish disavowal- the unfulfilled desire is excused by the symbol incorporated into the subject’s perception, providing an explanation for why the desire is left unfulfilled.  It’s an “x” factor that balances the unsolvable equation, the “I’m not happy, but it’s only because of...”  

    After Freud, Jacques Lacan developed the idea of transference in analysis, whereby the analysand projects her unconscious onto the analyst in order to (without the analysand’s conscious recognition) analyze herself.  But further, transference allows satisfaction even when desire is unfulfilled precisely by enjoying the (imagined) fulfillment of the other’s desire.  Even Feuerbach’s closing line in The Essence of Christianity (“He who no longer has any supernatural wishes, has no longer any supernatural beings either”) parallels Lacan’s formula for successful analysis which is concluded when the subject realizes there is no big Other (e.g. when the subject no longer feels the desire to please her own projected demands).  As a forerunner, Feuerbach focuses on how religion could essentially solve no problem in the present by promising unlimited enjoyment in the future (transferring the future enjoyment into present reassurance).  Finally, the projection of the subject onto a god allows the subject to enjoy the pleasure/jouissance of the god (e.g. by obeying divine ordinances, you please the gods) instead of fulfilling desires in the present.  

    Here is my shot against his new atheist descendents: Feuerbach is not just claiming some crude idea about religion being a ridiculous delusion that accomplishes nothing- it’s almost the exact opposite: Feuerbach is saying a religious illusion (in the Freudian sense- which is different from a harmful delusion) can actively accomplish everything it means to accomplish precisely by accomplishing everything “in the future” or “in the past,” never in the present.  “Though he slay me, yet I shall hope in him,” etc., etc.

    It is the proverbial tail wagging the dog.  Project and transfer your image onto something, and then you try to please that something.  Psychosis, neurosis, narcissism, and all that follow.  We create our gods, and then our gods return the favor.


  • Foucault quote on Fascism

    Maybe its because we have an election coming up- the first presidential election since Citizens United- that I keep noticing descriptions of fascism in Adorno, Horkheimer, and Foucault.  

    The “floating signifier” and the “desire of the masses for fascism” made this quote from Foucault stand out to me:

    “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, Power/Knowledge, p. 130