Monthly Archives: July 2012

The New Deleuze

How many books on Deleuze are coming out in the next year?  A lot.  The Deleuzian trend is far from waning.  However, the trends is transforming, growing rhizomatic offshoots.

There are a couple lines that I see developing in new Deleuze scholarship.  One is indicated by the name of Clayton Crockett’s forthcoming work, Deleuze Beyond Badiou: Ontology, Multiplicity, and Event.  Badiou’s reading of Deleuze has been very influential, yet it misses and misrepresents a lot of Deleuze’s thought (including Deleuze’s work with Guattari).  Deleuze isn’t necessarily the monistic thinker that Badiou portrays.  With the work of Crockett and many others, I think that Deleuze scholarship will continue to move “beyond Badiou,” and there is a multiplicity of directions available for such a move. 

Along with the move beyond Badiou, another growing edge in Deleuze scholarship is a turn toward the religious and spiritual folds of Deleuze’s thought, which could also be framed as an appropriation of Deleuze by fields of theology and religious studies.  Again, Clayton Crockett’s work is indicative of this turn, as he’s been using Deleuze to do political theology (see Crockett’s Radical Political Theology).  I’ve been interested in the spiritual/religious implications of Deleuze for years, and there has been relatively little written about it, with some notable exceptions, including works of process theologians (e.g., Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Luke Higgins), the anthology Deleuze and Religion (ed. Mary Bryden), and an issue of the journal SubStance (39.1) on “Spiritual Politics after Deleuze.” 

 There are three books coming out soon that focus on Deleuze’s work in terms of theology, religion, and spirituality. 

Deleuze and Theology, by Christopher Simpson

Theology after Deleuze, Kristien Justaert 

The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal, by Joshua Ramey

Misleading Titles: Foxes, Ecstasy, Laundry

“I have been watching Fox News for hours now, and I have not seen one story about foxes.”
–Russell Brand

That’s an astute observation from Russell Brand.  “Fox News” is definitely a misleading name.  What about the foxes themselves? 

Similarly, I was disappointed to read Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy the Laundry.  That book is not about laundry at all, and it’s only about ecstasy in a very limited sense: the ecstasy occasioned by meditative states within the horizon of contemporary spirituality.  It’s a fine book, I was just hoping for something that would describe the wonders of doing laundry after an experience with a psychoactive medicine called “ecstasy” (i.e., MDMA). 

I can imagine something like a narrative of a young man whose empathogenic experience helps him finally learn how to appreciate and execute the complex work of folding his girlfriend’s delicate underwear.  This new knowledge grants the young man opportunities to take up his own responsibilities more authentically, opportunities to grow closer to his girlfriend, and strangest of all, opportunities to fall in love with the weird objects that assemble in the phenomenon of laundry: a washing machine, a dryer, the quarters that operate those machines, the nickels that look like those quarters, a lint trap, some detergent, some fabric softener, a hamper, socks, shirts, towels, pants, shorts, underwear, sweaters, hangers, closets, drawers, stains, stain remover, the inordinately drafty laundry room in the apartment complex, the timer that beeps when the washing and drying cycles are done, the unusually large key to the laundry room, and the alchemical process of becoming clean.

Post-Wild, Rambunctious Ecology

Invasive species aren’t always bad.  Biodiversity isn’t always good.  There is no such thing as “pristine” nature.  Organic gardening isn’t always the best use of land.  Those are some of the points raised in the recent book by Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

Marris is a science writer.  In Rambunctious Garden, she engages some of the most controversial and current topics of conservation biology and ecology, and she does so with a very accessible style, including various accounts of experiences in the field, conversations with scientists and advocates, and histories of human impacts on species and ecosystems.  

One of the things I like most about this book is the optimism.  Marris is excited about the future, even if it’s an “eco-industrial vision” of the future (134).   She doesn’t deny the severity of environmental challenges like climate change, species extinction, and development, yet her approach is “proactive and optimistic” (3).  There are truly amazing possibilities for the future of human-Earth relations.  They aren’t neat and tidy, but messy and rambunctious. 

With joy and wit, Marris reports that there is no stable “nature” or untouched wilderness.  “Ecosystems are fundamentally stable entities afflicted by changes from without and within about as much as a ballet is a fundamentally static object afflicted with motion” (34).  “If one rusty beer can spoils a whole day’s search for the beauty in nature, then there isn’t much beauty left.  But I think there is, if we just adjust our perception” (169). 

If there is no pristine or stable nature, there is no sense in conservationists trying to restore ecosystems to pre-colonial baselines (i.e., what the ecosystems looked like before white people arrived).  Such baselines are arbitrary, since the nature to which they return is itself already altered by humans.  Returning an ecosystem to a pre-human baseline (e.g., tens of thousands of years ago) is an equally arbitrary goal, both because one can’t ascertain the exact conditions of pre-human ecosystems and because some conditions simply can’t be restored (the climate is already changed).  There is no simple origin to which ecosystems can be returned.  Conservation/restoration has to be done without baselines. 

Marris is excited about the possibilities found in restoration efforts that are embracing novel ecosystems instead of viewing a novel ecosystem as a mere degeneration of an intact ecosystem.  She also supports the creation of “designer ecosystems,” which are novel ecosystems that would be engineered for specific goals, ranging from carbon sequestration, nitrogen reduction, and the maintenance of a species to the maintenance of aesthetic and cultural values and even existence values (the value of existing without any purpose, sometimes categorized among “passive use values”) (166).  Along these lines, Marris hopes many ecologists and environmentalists will cease being “trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature and returning it to a stable ‘natural’ state” (126).

In a nutshell, give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development, and try just about everything.  (170)

We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate.  It is our duty to manage it.  Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit.  Let the rambunctious gardening begin. (171)

Overall, the book is provocative and well-researched.  My main criticism of this book is that Marris doesn’t consistently apply her insight that there is no pristine nature.  She generally does an excellent job of countering or defusing the usual dualism between human-dominated ecosystems and intact ecosystems, but occasionally she just reverses the dualism. 

For instance, she proposes that humans should see nature as “the living background” to our lives (151).  Background?  She is trying to invoke a “gestalt switch”: in contrast to most wilderness maps and protected-areas maps, which show “shrinking islands of nature” in the foreground against the background of human-dominated lands, Marris proposes that we focus on human-dominated lands “as the foreground and everything else as the background nature” (135). 

I like the shift from pristine nature to human-nature hybrids, but doesn’t that shift ultimately mean that the shrinking islands of nature are already altered by humans (at least abiotically, e.g., climate change), such that there is no clear demarcation between foreground and background?  To put it in gestalt terms, nature as multistable seems like a more appropriate metaphor than nature as background.  In any case, Rambunctious Garden is definitely worth reading, and furthermore, it’s worth reading slowly, giving oneself time to imagine, to wonder, and to contemplate the numerous case studies, histories, and debates that she presents.

Evolution, Sex, and Cephalopods

A recent study in the journal Biology Letters attempts to find out what the “costs” are of having sex, particularly with a view to squid sex.  Here’s an article summarizing the study’s findings.  There are a few interesting points here. 

Dumpling squid have sex for approximately 3 hours at  a time, and they have sex frequently throughout their year-long life.  Basically, that means that a dumpling squid spends most of its life having it off, getting busy, etc. 

The costs of this extensive sex-life are quite high.  3-hour mating rituals are exhausting, as indicated by the slow swimming of squid after sex.  When you’re tired from that much lovemaking, it’s hard to do a lot of other evolutionary tasks, such as finding food, avoiding predators, and perhaps most interestingly, it makes it harder to find other mates.  Furthermore, the short lifespans of these squid could be due to the fact that they exhaust themselves from such high-intensity sex. They are getting busy for so long, it’s killing them.

If it makes you too tired to find food, avoid predators, and pass on your genes to other mates, then why have sex for so long?  Because it’s good! 

Evolution is clearly not oriented toward survival of the fittest.  The important thing is not fit survival.  The important thing is survival of the sexiest.  Survival is only a value insofar as it facilitates sexiness.  We don’t have sex to survive, we survive so that we can have sex, exorbitant and exhausting intercourse.

Joyous Cosmology: Chemistry of Consciousness

I spent the day re-reading a classic Alan Watts book, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Vintage Books, 1965).  Basically, the book is a retrospective summary account of his experiences with psychedelic drugs (e.g., LSD, mescaline, psilocybin).  It could be described as his version of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.  Indeed, Watts justifies writing his book by referring to Huxley: “since Huxley and others had already let the secret out […]” (20). 

LSD is currently only 73 years old.  Psychedelic chemicals are still a newcomer on the world’s stage (or at least the “Western” world’s stage, as many of those chemicals come from plants or fungi that were already known and used by ancient and indigenous societies).  Huxley and Watts were among the first to respond to the new discovery/invention of psychedelic chemicals, and they did so by bringing honest and thoughtful attention to the matter from two perspectives, that of a literary artist (Huxley) and a scholar of theology and religion (Watts).

What is cosmological about Watts’ joyous cosmology?  He aligns his vision with a “new image” of the human, what I would call an anthropocosmic image, where the human is viewed “not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his [sic] social and natural environment” (100).  The complex unity of human and cosmos is not only an interesting or astounding fact, it is also an existentially fulfilling realization, such that this cosmology is “not only unfied but also joyous” (ibid).  That’s not unlike Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s description of “the most astounding fact.” 

What is an experiment with psychedelics like?  Well…for Watts, it is “a sort of cycle in which one’s personality is taken apart and then put back together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion” (89).  Here are a few more quotes that reflect Watts’ thoughts on his experiments with psychedelics: 

It is even now being recognized in the United States that the real danger of psychedelics is not so much neurological as political—that “turned on” people are not interested in serving the power games of the present rulers. (25)

I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. (89)

The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to be the center from which I seek.  The elusive substance beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate gesture of my hand. […]  Everything gestures.  Tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing—a world of events instead of things. (75) [Note: later on in the text, Watts rejects the thing-event dualism and contasts it to his vision of a “unified cosmology” (100)] 

This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other.  […] Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost.  In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels. (99)

[E]ach one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don’t know it.  Life is basically a gesture, but no on, no thing, is making it.  There is no necessity for it  to happen, and none for it to go on happening. […] There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play—exuberance which is its own end.  Basically there is the gesture.  Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. (77-78) 

It is by no means impossible to set up […] sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its ways. […]  The function of such intervals of nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, thought at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms. (94)

One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch.  (99)

How Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, Unhappy

“When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.” (1)

I just finished reading David Webster’s short and fun book Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy (Zero Books, 2012).  I was happy to read a book that offers a critical analysis of contemporary spirituality, both because I teach theology and religious studies and because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which contains a vast array of flavors of “spirituality.”

Before reading the book, I read an interview with Webster about the project.  The interview makes some interesting points, including Webster giving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a response to the question of what book he wishes he’d written.  Along those lines, I would say that Webster’s critique of spirituality is good, but it’s not quite as critical as Hunter S. Thompson’s, nor is it as hospitable and affirmative.  In any case, Webster’s overall thesis seems correct: contemporary spirituality is indeed making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy. 

Webster is careful to say that he is talking about contemporary spirituality in general.  He acknowledges that some people use the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” in constructive, life-enhancing ways (e.g., Pierre Hadot, for whom “spiritual exercises” are part of philosophy as a way of life).  Aside from such rare instances of spirituality, contemporary spirituality does make us stupid, selfish, and unhappy. 

There is a cafeteria/buffet style of pluralism and syncretism that allows spiritual people to pick and choose what they want and don’t want from each tradition (even picking things that aren’t compatible).  This apparent inclusivity and openness harbors some serious anti-intellectualism.  Debates between competing truth claims?  Those are only for religious people (dogmatists, fanatics) or for materialists (spiritually immature reductionists).  Truly spiritual people transcend debates by participating in the perennial truth of mystic unity. 

In short, spirituality is “faith-lite” (17).  Whereas religion (or Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”) makes heavy demands on practitioners to adjust their thinking, feeling, and acting to fit with what’s been revealed according to the tradition, spirituality doesn’t make such demands, and it thereby makes us stupid or at least intellectually lazy.  It also makes us selfish. 

Institutions (religious and secular) are forces of community building and organizing.  Spirituality is about a personalized inner journey to the true nature of the self.  That privileging of interiority makes spiritual people less engaged in social and political activities.  “Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly” (7).  

Ironically, while critiquing consumerist materialism, the only kind of community that spirituality engenders is consumerist community, where members are all buying the same kind of magazines and meditation retreat packages, patronizing similar therapists and life-coaches.  Spirituality sells happiness, but that happiness is not authentic.  Webster follows the existentialist approach to happiness, for which happiness can only be attained by resolutely facing one’s own finitude and mortality.  Spirituality doesn’t face the fear and loathing of existence, the abyss.  Instead, it covers over the abyss with easy answers about an immortal soul or about happiness coming from within.  When happiness comes from within, you don’t have to worry about the countless others outside of your spiritual bubble who are far from happy.  Thus privatized, happiness becomes the name for a rather unjust and miserable way to live.

Webster’s diagnosis of contemporary spirituality is great, and I appreciate his appeal to existentialism.  I also appreciate that he teaches religion and seems to have an extensive knowledge of South Asian religions.  However, there are a few big problems with his analysis.  First, his existentialism sounds too humanistic (too Sartrean, not enough Kierkegaard or Heidegger).  Although he attempts to distance his position from humanism in the concluding two paragraphs of the book (too little, too late!), he only distances himself from the British Humanist Associations version of humanism, and even then it’s a very small distance.  Webster seems to think that, if we want/need rituals, “then we are as capable of inventing them without spirituality and religion as we have been when we invented them as part of religious traditions” (75).  Who is this rather capable “we”?  It is a bunch of humans, as if the plants, animals, seasons, songs, and dances involved in rituals are so involved solely  because of human inventiveness, and not because of any other-than-human power (which doesn’t have to be God or Being, but could also be the agency of plants and animals).       

Along with Webster’s humanism, his atheism is also a problem.  Let me put it another way: he gives no account of the ontological weight of angels, spirits, and God.  Maybe angels and deities don’t exist, but how do they have the impacts and effects they do?  Belief is one thing, but what about self-declared “spiritual” people who are actually having visions and encounters with these things?  Are we just going to chalk it up to hallucination?  Imagination?  If so, what is the ontological significance of a hallucination or of image?  Even if they’re hallucinations, they’re still powerful, and not something to be dismissed as if they’re merely a facade for anti-intellectualism or death-denial.  On this point, I think a better critique of spirituality is given in that book that Webster would have liked to write, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Hunter S. Thompson critiques theism, Satanism, and hippy spirituality while still honoring the reality (or hyperreality) of hallucinations, images, and even God.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking book.  It’s short, accessible, and clever.  I’ll probably use it for teaching my course on society and religion.

Integral Ecologist as Spiritual Guide

Thomas Berry began speaking of an “integral ecology” in the mid-1990s.  For the most part, his understanding of integral ecology was expressed in lectures and conversations, not published texts.  One exception to this is his essay on “An Ecologically Sensitive Spirituality” (1996).  Here’s a very fragmented excerpt from the essay, which was finally published a few years ago in a wonderful collection, The Sacred Universe (Columbia UP, 2009).

We need an ecological spirituality with an integral ecologist as spiritual guide. […]  The integral ecologist can now be considered a normative guide for our times.  The integral ecologist would understand the numinous aspect of a universe emergent from the beginning. […]  The integral ecologist is the spokesperson for the planet in both its numinous and its physical meaning […].  In the integral ecologist, our scientific understanding of the universe becomes a wisdom tradition. [pp. 135-135].

Also in the mid-90s, the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff began speaking and writing about integral ecology, seemingly independently of Berry.  Like Berry, Boff emphasizes the cosmological breadth and spiritual depth of integral ecology.  This cosmological and spiritual focus is also found in Ken Wilber, who developed his “all-quadrant all-level” (AQAL) model of Integral theory in the mid-90s and began applying it to ecology and environmental ethics, setting the stage for Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman to write their gigantic AQAL-based work, Integral Ecology (2009).

This doesn’t mean that integral ecology is a synonym for eco-spirituality.  Rather, integral ecology can refer to any approach to ecology that integrates spirituality (whatever “spirituality” is) with scientific knowledge of the universe.  Such integration can go in a lot of directions, from new age holism to new feminist materialism…and everything in between.