This spring, my second book will go to print. I have been so excited to see this out there ever since publishing God Is Unconscious. While my first book was exactly what I wanted and needed it to be at the time, I've always felt there are definite limits to how much my work matters unless I also learn how to communicate a without the academic language. So I set out to alternate between writing academic and more accessible books every year or two. The Cynic & the Fool: the Unconscious in Theology & Politics aims to strip away the clinical jargon and deliver a critical philosophy mixed with more personal experiences and interspersed with stories in between each chapter.
I didn't, of course, plan for this to feel like so timely, but I organized the book around one question: when we hear a claim that cannot possibly be true, is the false claim pouring forth from the misinformed yet honest fool, or is the claim being twisted by a cynical nihilist who knows perfectly well know to manipulate and mislead? With everything going on in the world at the moment, there's never been a more important time to ask this question of those who have (unfortunately) found themselves in power.
Thanks to Jesse Turri for once again delivering the cover art. He won't tell you this, but he created the art for GIU and C&F without asking for anything in return except donations to nonprofits.
And if you know the writing of Kester Brewin, the forward definitely has his no bullshit style.
I presume that most who follow me here are connected through other forms of social media and will already know this, but for those who don’t, my fiancée and I are moving to Denver next month. We have loved Los Angeles and will be sad to leave, but we are excited about the change!
If you follow me here and are in the area, send me a message so we can connect.
It is important to feel sadness deeply and mourn for those who will be harmed in the years ahead. This will likely be the most heartbreaking and catastrophic election of my lifetime. The climate will continue to collapse, people will die in careless wars, even more will lose liberties, and many, many more will suffer.
I saw so many friends last night wondering how they would tell their kids this today. I can’t imagine how you all do it. My fiancée left for work this morning to teach her fourth graders. The school she teaches at is 100% black and Latino. Many have spent the last year if their families will be split up. They wondered if white America could really despise them so deeply, and they heard the message.
There has never been an election with more perfectly appropriate examples of Godwin’s Law. Today could have been the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but instead today is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
God is (nearly) dead. Last night was a last gasping breath of Christian America. Exit polling says over 4/5 white Evangelicals voted for Trump, which is higher than their support for Bush. Millennials will remember this, and the credibility will not be regained.
I like the phrase I keep seeing—“America deserves Trump"—but that’s not quite right. White men deserve Trump, but they are the only ones he will not hurt. Nobody else deserves this.
Misogyny won, and it won in the most brutal contrast imaginable. An extremist with no experience but a tendency to brag about sexual assault beat a centrist who was the most qualified candidate to ever run.
White supremacy won. According to my syllabus, I’ll talk to students tomorrow about white privilege and black liberation tomorrow morning. My writing project on anxiety, religion, and populism just became more horrifically real. I am a straight, white male and will not suffer like many of you, and all I can offer is my efforts to teach compassion and critical thinking.
Trump is a narcissist first, a fool second, and a cynical knave third. Interpret his actions in that order. His strategy is all anxiety and his tactics are all affect. He will be controlled by the GOP exactly as much as they were able to control him during the campaign.
Hold those you love close, watch out for those who will be harmed, mourn today, and then we have work to do.
[post-election update: let us hope that Žižek was right]
Since I keep getting asked about this video, and since Žižek knows his Laclau, let's think about the role of movement, ideology, and rhetoric in populism.
I'll bet Lacan's students flipped out when he told them “Freud was in no way a progressive” too. Your thought leaders don’t need to agree with you on everything in order to have something to contribute. Here’s another one: while he clearly leaned left in theory, Lacan tried to position himself as a centrist liberal. Žižek is almost certainly (though not quite certainly) wrong about Trump victory leading to a rethinking within the GOP field, and I can’t agree with Žižek on this one, but he’s making a consistent argument with regard to class struggle in opposition to capitalism.
Contra Žižek, I don’t think a Trump victory leads to any immediate, fundamental rethinking for the GOP, because Trump is only an outlier in style, not substance. The roots of Trumpism do not simply trace to the Tea Party, the Recession, the Reagan era, etc. The roots go right back to the birth of the modern GOP after Civil Rights, to the Southern Strategy detailed in 1970 by Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips aimed at attracting southern whites. In this New York Times article, they openly acknowledged the GOP would never again get more than 1/5 African American votes (which is laughably high in retrospect), and this wouldn’t matter as long as they could mobilize an anti-black demographic. The modern GOP has always been about race, and various rhetorical devises (encoding racism into “welfare queen” or “war on drugs,” redefining conservatism with the qualifier “compassionate” or revising it as “libertarian,” or appeals to Christian family values) have never been anything other than tactical devices for the true goal, the support of capital interests. The rhetoric is pure bullshit, believed by constituents more than by the establishment, but it cannot be dismissed as merely bullshit.
In America, we at the very least need to take race (and probably patriarchy/heterosexism) just seriously as class struggle, and I saw the Žižek video as a quick, yet significant, disagreement with Ernesto Laclau’s work on populism. In In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek (a close reader of Laclau) argues that a post-politics, technocratic style of government management (Obama, Clinton) inevitably produces an “empty” populist backlash which actually feeds a need for technocratic style. He was writing while watching the rise of European nationalist movements and the beginning of the Tea Party, which we now have the research (Putnam & Campbell, American Grace) to conclude was much more about a desire for theocracy than about “smaller government” or views on debt/deficit. The classic “empty signifier” of populism is “the People!” which has been thoroughly eclipsed by “Real Americans!” since 2008. Populism can be divided into (1) movement, (2) ideology, and (3) rhetoric. They are often put precisely in this order: movement is the true thrust toward a goal, ideology is the framework reifying and sustaining a particular consciousness, and rhetoric then comes along to curate and reinforce cohesion. Laclau rightly counters this ranking to say we cannot dismiss rhetoric as a least important element. Rhetoric may be bullshit, but it is not simply bullshit; rhetoric is actively reconstructing ideology and vice versa. It is still a threat, and my interpretation is that Žižek sees Trump’s bullshit as simply that; an empty threat which will be abandoned without triggering waves of anti-black and anti-immigrant movement. Rhetoric really can get people killed, especially in an election that is all about race.
Trump has a 1/3 chance of winning, but should he lose in a landslide, I think it more likely that the temporary end of the GOP as a viable party for Presidency leads to a split between Clinton centrists and the Sanders left, who will no longer face obvious, crushing defeat should they push slightly left. That may be a delusional dream, but I think it more likely than any immediate rethinking with the GOP establishment in the case of a Trump victory. The GOP wakes up on Wednesday and either says “Ryan/Romney was right: see 2012 autopsy report” or says “Trump was right: white nativism works.” In the case of a crushing Trump defeat, capital will need to shift its support more permanently toward the Democrats (which has already happened in this cycle), and that is precisely where Žižek could turn out to be horrifically prescient.
Since the debate, fact checking sites seem to be every other post on my feed. I’m glad they exist, and I’m sure they serve some limited corrective purpose. But if we discovered that lists of knowledge (rather than desire and affect) play a primary role in counteracting patriarchal white nationalism, then my dissertation chapters on populist discourse would have been a tragic waste of time. The type of populism you are seeing right now is an exemplar of neoliberalism’s haphazardly curated consciousness. It’s the result of a whole array of ideological apparatuses built over the decades since the so-called Southern Strategy (largely to justify a series of catastrophic economic decisions). This populism is an outlet for anxiety, rage, aggressiveness, and turmoil, which are very real but generally misdirected against a false cause. You aren’t going to counter it much with facts, because this false consciousness is already doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Any decent teacher or therapist already knows this: mere information transfer has a very limited capacity to change much.
As Deleuze and Guattari put it in Anti-Oedipus, “The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still…‘Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?’ How can people possibly reach the point of shouting: ‘More taxes! Less bread!’” (or today, “More capital for the ultra-wealthy! Lower wages for the rest of us!”). The answers have to be more about desire than a simple lack of knowledge.
Thanks to everyone who has reached out over the last week. It’s felt completely overwhelming to finally be a PhD, which has been six years in the works, so I’m trying to slow down and give myself space to celebrate a bit.
Those six years have included a cross-country move and learning about whole worlds of thought contained in however many hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve been assigned. Like most students of philosophy and religion, I ended up studying fields very different from what I expected. Those six years included an MA Theology, an MA Philosophy, and learning to translate Greek, Hebrew, German, and French. There were the six months I spent studying for qualifying exams, which was the most challenging thing I've ever done. Two chapters in edited volumes and a few articles in journals. Lots of new cities and new countries and the conference presentations we use to justify traveling to new places. I even got to pretend to do archaeology and see Israel, which I’ve wanted to do all my life. I published my first book, and I finished my second (which will go to print in the spring!) while writing a dissertation in a busy four months. I taught my first few courses with undergraduates. Most of the worst and best experiences of my life have fit inside those six years. I’ve met so many fantastic friends and professors, and I even met one really brilliant girl who dealt with the endless stress of academic life and who was with me when I finally heard the words “Congratulations on acquiring the degree of Doctor of Philosophy!” last week. It’s been overwhelming to reach the end of a long goal, but it has been good.
There’s a online book group reading and discussing God Is Unconscious over the next few weeks. We’ll be doing a Google hangout to interact and engage questions, and looks like that will be on Wednesday evening, Sept. 28th. My favorite part of writing has been meeting so many new people, so I’m looking forward to it. Find info here.
I’m have remarkably little intuition for spreading my work, but if this goes well, I’ll be looking forward to setting up another group when my next book comes out in the spring!
I’m excited to share this talk I gave a few weeks ago on my upcoming book, The Cynic & the Fool: The Unconscious in Theology & Politics. The book will release in spring 2017, but I’m starting to test this material out in public. This presentation format—not a prepared academic script nor a classroom lecture—still feels brand new to me, but I think it turned out really well.
A psychologist I’m briefly using in my new book is Jonathan Haidt, who explains the liberal/conservative communication impasse as a different number of moral categories. According to his research, responses seem to fit within six spheres of moral judgements:
1. Care/Harm: Others should be protected even when they cannot or will not protect themselves. 2. Fairness/Cheating: Rules should protect everyone equally and discourage unfair advantages. 3. Liberty/Oppression: Society should be organized to maximize freedom 4. In-group Loyalty/Betrayal: Fidelity to the tribe and its traditions should be maintained, even if they err. 5. Authority/Subversion: Those in power over us are to be respected and obeyed. 6. Sanctity/Degradation: Certain objects or behaviors should be avoided.
Liberals (and also the left) tend to only see the first three as distinctly moral issues, and they feel those values intensely. Conservatives tend to place a lower—but equally distributed—emphasis across all six. So a liberal ends up saying “Shouldn’t this policy (related to guns, healthcare, black lives matter, immigration, etc.) be obviously good if it saves lives, encourages equality, or expands liberties?” But to a conservative, it isn’t immediately obvious that harm-avoidance necessarily outweighs infractions against loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conversely, a conservative argues for loyalty, authority, or sanctity (American or Confederate flags, blue lives matter, bathroom bills or anything related to sexuality) without realizing those three simply aren’t inherently moral issues for progressives. He uses the analogy of taste receptors to suggest liberal candidates have trouble communicating because they’re using three flavors (in an effort to transcend the darker aspects of groupish morality), while the rightwing candidates present a broader palate of six.
I’m not trying to equivocate (neither is Haidt) to suggest these are equally justifiable viewpoints, but I’ve found it helpful to understand differences. I grew up extremely far-right, so I feel I already intuitively get the mindset and understand why so many progressive arguments don’t work for the conservative mind, but Haidt’s research has been really refreshing to my understanding of moralities. His book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Or you can watch his TED talk.