Category Archives: theology and religion

Animism for the Anthropocene: A Hyperobject-Oriented Analysis

[The following is a proposal for a paper in a panel on new materialism and its significance for religion, affect, and emotion in the Anthropocene.]

Articulating multifarious ways that agency is distributed across all things—human and nonhuman—various theoretical schools are emerging that move beyond the anthropocentrism for which affective agency is solely or most fully embodied in humans.  Including (but not limited to) new materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), and actor-network theory (ANT), each of these schools affirms the vibrant dynamics and unique capacities of nonhumans.  They are particularly timely insofar as they address the challenges of the emerging geological epoch, the Anthropocene—a time when human actions, magnified by technoscientific media, are so pervasively intertwined with Earth’s systems that it is becoming increasingly superfluous to attempt to neatly separate humans from nonhumans. Among these new schools, object-oriented approaches stand out for their provocative claim that adequate theories must focus on objects—things.  That contrasts starkly with more common theoretical orientations toward relations, processes, events, networks, biopower, and material conditions.

This paper provides an object-oriented account of affect in the Anthropocene, drawing specifically on Timothy Morton’s (hyper)object-oriented ontology and his claims that the Anthropocene is the age of ecology without nature and the age of animism without animism, that is, animism “under erasure” (sous rature).  To facilitate an exploratory engagement with animistic affects in the Anthropocene, this paper presents Morton’s conception of objects, elucidating his relationship with new materialism, speculative realism, and ANT, and indicating how one can develop an intimate feeling for a hyperobject like global climate change by attending to the lameness, weakness, and hypocrisy of coexistence in the Anthropocene.

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The Dynamics of Fame

In the recent edition of my column at Nomos Journal, I consider the theologico-political dynamics of fame by looking at depictions of Jesus Christ in a couple musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar and a musical currently in development, Spears: The Gospel According to Britney.

If faith is a matter of ultimate concern (Paul Tillich’s well-known definition), fame is a matter of repeated concern, which is to say, reputation and renown, where reputation is a matter of being subject to repeated considering (re-putare).  An ultimate concern (faith) is not the same as a popularly celebrated or highly frequented concern (fame), however their difference is supplementary and not simply antagonistic.  Fame without faith is empty, and faith without fame is blind, out of touch.

Looking out of my window, between the blinds, I’m left wondering about the quasi-transcendental function of blindness in faith (blind faith; faith sans voir), justice (blindfolded Lady Justice), and love (blindfolded Cupid; Theocritus, Shakespeare, and others saying that love is blind).


After the End of the World

There are at least two ways of being after something.  After can be a matter of subsequence (like tomorrow is after today), and it can also be a matter of seeking something or trailing along behind it (like a predator goes after prey).  Being after is a lot like following something: tomorrow follows today, a predator follows prey.  This double-sense of after also shows up in German, “nach” (after/toward).

Although we generally know whether someone means subsequence or seeking when the word “after” is uttered, some ambiguity is inescapable.  One can always misread contextual and syntactic clues.  There is no way to completely secure the word “after” from the possibility of being read as pre- and/or post-.

We are after the past and after the future… a dual sense of after, a sense moving in both directions at once.  It is in that sense that we are after the end of the world.  We are not simply post-apocalyptic (or post-anything, for that matter), for we are still waiting, more or less vigilantly, for an apocalypse to come.

Some people might want to put apocalypse behind us and get it out of our future, but they’re just seeking an inverse apocalypse, an anti-apocalypse, seeking an end to all this talk of the end.  No matter how much we want to, we can’t just disavow apocalypse, end, or world.  We can never be after something in simply a “post-” sense.  The end of the world is our inheritance.  What we inherit is what we have coming to us.  The end, the world, the end of the world… they haunt our future, like a past that remains to come.

We’ll always be after the end of the world, and so we cannot just drop the end or drop our sense of the world (Lil Wayne’s ability to drop the world notwithstanding).  There’s nowhere to drop them off, no “away” to throw them.  We’re here in the middle of the world’s ending, going after it, composing a world that has already ended, mourning an end that returns incessantly.  Where are we going?  Immer nach Hause, immer nach Welt.


Sounding Sacred: Religion and Popular Music

I recently started writing a column on religion and popular music (“Sounding Sacred“) for Nomos Journal, an online journal covering multiple approaches to the study of religion and popular culture.  My first piece went up a few days ago.  It introduces “two, too loud pops” into religion: 1) the pop expressing the loud, noisy, sonorous aspects of the sacred and 2) the pop of popular culture.  In short, music and the multitude.  It’s a fun topic, but it’s also extremely important.  Profound encounters with sonority and intimate psychoacoustic relationships are of crucial importance for the ongoing composition of a shared world, a world “belonging to the people” (popularis) (and nonhuman and more-than-human persons are welcome!).

Heidegger said that only a god can save us now, but I don’t think he ever heard rock, hiphop, psytrance, bubblegum, metal, house, acid, country, synthpop, ska, punk….


Latour, Rejoicing: A Critical Review

The recent work by Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME, for short), deals with the various felicity conditions of different modes of existence, including religious modes of existence.  Along these lines, AIME extends his previous works on religion, including his writings on factishes, iconoclash, and the freeze-frames that convolute science-religion dialogue.  It is appropriate, then, that the release of the English edition of AIME was accompanied by the release of the English edition of his 2002 work on the felicity conditions of religious speech, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity, 2013).  With these works as well as his recent Gifford Lectures, Latour is making important contributions to theology and religious studies, opening up nice points of contact with science studies, ecology, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

There are a lot of good points coming from Latour’s Rejoicing, which he articulates elsewhere as well.  Religions and sciences are not amenable to worn-out oppositions such as transcendence and immanence, subjective and objective, spirit and matter, fetishes and facts, iconography and iconoclasm, traditional and modern.  Instead of separating religions and sciences into two different realms of being or knowing, Latour recognizes that there is only one world, “no other world, just this one here” (174), and there is no truth we can discern about this world without constructing that truth.  Neither religion nor science has a monopoly on truth about existence, and neither one lays claim to knowledge of another world (since there is no other world).  Religions and sciences involve two different kinds of speech acts which thus have two different sets of felicity conditions, and when those felicity conditions are met, different things happen.  Scientific speech acts bring us knowledge of distant things (atoms, the Big Bang, the climate, etc.), whereas religious speech acts bring us closer to one another (family, friends, loved ones).  Sciences enact references and information about the distant and far away, whereas religions enact translations and transformations of what is close by, the everyday.  Nonetheless, I have a few problems with Rejoicing (which are, more or less, also problems with his other writings on religion).

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One Earth: Sloterdijk and Monogeism

Affirming the transition of humanity toward a global or planetary civilization, Peter Sloterdijk proposes what he calls “monogeism,” a term which Bruno Latour adopts in his recent works.  From monotheism to monogeism…from God to Globe….

Here’s a couple of excerpts on monogeism from Sloterdijk’s In the World Interior of Capital (Polity, 2013).

[…] the historical object, the terrestrial globe, is a thing full of metaphysical quirks that like to hide beneath the veneer of the ordinary.   It constitutes a geographical philosophical bastard whose logical and physical peculiarities are not so simple to comprehend.  On the one hand, the printed blue orb with the savannah-coloured patches initially seems no more than one thing among many things, a small body among many bodies, that statesmen and schoolchildren set in rotation with a single hand movement; at the same time, it is supposed to represent the singular totality or the geological monad that serves as the foundation for all life, though and invention.  It is this terrestrial question of location that becomes ever more binding the in the course of modernization: while the ancient conception of the cosmos paradoxically made the earth the marginal centre of a universe that humans could only observe from within, the moderns perceived it as an eccentric orb whose roundness we could verify ourselves through external viewing.  This would have unforeseeable consequences for the generations after Mercator.  For us, monogeism—the conviction that this planet is unique—transpires as a fact that is rejuvenated daily, while monotheism can never again be more than an age-worn religious thesis that cannot really be brought up to date, not even with the aid of pious bombs from the Near East.  The proofs of God’s existence must bear the blemish of their failure, while those of the globe’s existence have an unstoppable influx of evidence on their side. (5-6)

[F]or half of millennium, the notion of the round earth settled in the consciousnesses of Western people and their media like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It drew a very small, active minority of these into an unprecedented departure—a pragmatic mixture of a conquering expedition, apostolic history and research process.  But the idea of the earth’s spherical shape did not remain merely a symbolic figure; monogeism was more than a postulation of beautiful physics.  The carriers of this true, as yet unproved idea—tough seafarers, patient cartographers, metal-addicted monarchs and noble-minded spice merchants—piled proof upon proof until the last deniers, ignoramuses and indifferents had to yield before the advancing evidence.  […]  Possible doubters of monogeism must tolerate being labeled revisionists.  The faith of the seafarers changed into knowledge, and that knowledge became trivial and specialized; the earth-believers of the sixteenth century are now postmodern geoscientists—eleven thousand of them gathered in Nice in April 2003 for a Euro-American working conference.  On the flight, most of them would only have cast a brief glance from the air at the strange object of their theoretical desire. (161)


Multifarious Philosophy

I found the cutting-edge of the creative advance of Whitehead studies.  It’s in the new anthology edited by Jeremy Fackenthal and Roland Faber, Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness (Fordham, 2013).  It takes its cue from Whitehead’s philosophy, particularly on two points.

First: Multiplicity.
“Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world—the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 338).

Second: Poetics.
Theology is most effective and interesting when it is theopoetics, not only in the sense that poetic speech about God is more accurate than prosaic or formulaic speech, but also in the sense that God is “the poet of the world” (ibid., 336).

This is a must-read book for anybody dealing with Whitehead studies.  Even if you aren’t interested in poetics or radical theology, the book contains a lot of other discussions relevant to metaphysics, cosmology, ecology, and the history of philosophy.  My favorite essays in this collection are in the penultimate section, “The Pluriverse,” which focuses on the cosmological/ecological dimension of Whitehead’s theopoetic philosophy, including pieces from Catherine Keller, Luke Higgins, and Roland Faber.

The piece by Faber presents an “eco-theopoetics” that synthesizes Whitehead and Deleuze in a radical affirmation of wild multiplicity after the “ecological death of God.”  Moreover, “wild” does not refer to any identity or opposition of nature or culture, but is about the necessity of our constitutive contingency in the chaosmos.  Nature and humanity are put back in their place (khora), becoming “eco-nature” and “becoming intermezzo.”


Interfaith Dialogue, 1240

Putting a book on trial?  That’s exactly what happened in the 13th-century trial in which King Louis IX of France decided to hold a trial prosecuting the Talmud, a central book for rabbinic Judaism.  Many documents from that trial have been translated and are available in a new book, The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240.

The book lost that trial.  However, the trial still holds relevant lessons for cultural contact and interfaith dialogue today.  One of the main lessons is that interfaith dialogue puts too much emphasis on…dialogue.  Peaceful religious coexistence is not always the result of dialogue or conversation.  Instead of aiming at mutual understanding, where both parties have a proper knowledge of one another, it could be helpful to let different parties differ.  Instead of hermeneutics , deconstruction (I’m siding with Derrida in the Gadamer-Derrida exchange).

Instead of religious coexistence facilitated with dialogue, I’m more interested in religious coexistence facilitated sans dialogue, indeed, sans voir, sans avoir, sans savoir.   This resonates with some of Michael Schulson’s comments on the new translation of the documents from the 1240 trial.

[I]ntellectual examination can actually interfere with the daily realities of religious coexistence. Above all, religious groups need to be respected, and to see that someone is making an active effort to coexist with them. Listening is important, for sure. But some of the details of religious traditions don’t make for easy hearing. To repurpose an old saying about marriage: in interfaith relationships, it’s wise to be a little deaf.

Coexistence, not through dialogue and vision, but through a touch of deafness and blindness.


Atheism = philosophy of religion

One of Deleuze’s greatest (and most frequently cited) questions: “Why is philosophy so compromised with God?”   The question comes from a course on Spinoza in 1980.

Throughout most of its history, philosophy has been so involved with discussions of God that the philosophy-theology boundary seems extremely vague.  Why do philosophers focus so extensively on God and God-talk?  He responds to the question through an analogy with the prevalence of God in modern painting.

Why is there so much focus on God in modern painting?  One way of thinking about it is this: the artistic activity of painting wells up out of religious feeling, such that painting inevitably expresses some religious dependence on or devotion to divinity.  In that case, religion is an inevitable constraint on art: the necessary dependence of art on human-divine relationships.  Deleuze isn’t interested in that way of thinking about it.  He risks another hypothesis.

For modern painters, God is not a necessary constraint, but is a site of “maximum emancipation.”  With God, the painter can do things that can’t be done with humans or other creatures.  With God, painting finds “a kind of freedom for itself that it would never have found otherwise.” This means that a pious and impious painter “are not opposed to each other because the way painting invests the divine is a way which is nothing but pictorial,” which is to say, nothing but artistic conditions for the “racial emancipation” of the painter and of the lines, colors, and forms of the world.

“With God, everything is permitted.”  God allows the painter to break with the paradigm of representation: “to achieve a liberation of forms, to push the forms to the point where the forms have nothing to do with an illustration. […] the lines and colors lose all necessity to be verisimilar […] to resemble something. It’s the great enfranchisement of lines and colors […].”  This liberation from representation means that the use of God also liberates painting from religion, theology…and God.  “So much so that, in a sense, atheism has never been external to religion: atheism is the artistic power [puissance] at work on [travaille] religion.”

Just as painters used God to liberate percepts and affects, philosophers are so compromised with God because they are using God to liberate concepts from representation (thus liberating concepts from any representation of God and, mutatis mutandis, having done with the judgments of God).  Atheism is the conceptual puissance at work on religion. Spinoza’s pantheistic atheism is a case in point.

This is not postsecular or postmodern theology cleverly defining itself as atheism.  In this Spinoza course, Deleuze is explicitly affirming atheism, secularism, and modernity for their subordination of God to the demands of speculative philosophical invention.  Atheism is the philosophy of religion.


Deconstruction and Buddhism: The Mohel and Manjusri

Although I’m not a specialist in Buddhist studies, Buddhist discourses and practices are definitely included among my general research interests.  One of the things I’ve been following for years now is the developing relationship between Buddhism and deconstruction (specifically Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction).  The groundbreaking work to forge that relationship came in 1984 with the publication of Derrida on the Mend, by Robert Magliola.  For Magliola, the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is staged through a comparative analysis that shows a lot of affinities between Derrida and Nagarjuna (a “founder” of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the path of the middle way).  Subsequently, Magliola’s work has been a key reference point for further discussion.

Along with Magliola’s text, another important resource is Harold Coward’s Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990), which situates Magliola’s Derrida-Nagarjuna comparison within the broader context of Indian philosophies.  Coward focuses too much on speech (a typical problem for deconstructionists), but there are some good chapters connecting Derrida not only with Nagarjuna but also with nondual Vedanta of Shankara and the evolutionary spirituality of Aurobindo.

It is interesting to note that Magliola and Coward published their works before Derrida’s ethico-religious turn (before the messianic without a messianism, before the apocalypse sans apocalypse, before his allusive piece on religion for a conference on the island of Capri, before the regular reiteration of tout autre est tout autre).  The writings from the last decade of Derrida’s life are much closer to Judaism than Buddhism, making him look more like a “young Jewish saint” (Cixous) than Nagarjuna, or in other terms, more like a mohel than Manjusri.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to say about Buddhism and deconstruction.  Quite the opposite.  Derrida’s religiously oriented writings provide even more points of Buddhodeconstructive contact.  Along those lines, one of my ‘forthcoming’ books is titled The Mohel and Manjusri.

Much has been written in this century on Buddhism and deconstruction.  Some of it still stays with language and semiotics, as in Youxuan Wang, Buddhism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Semiotics (2001).  Other works focus more on ethics and religion, like the essays in Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought, edited by Youru Wang (2007).  That anthology includes discussions of Derridean and Levinasian ethics in relation to ethics in Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions.

Another notable anthology that highlights ethico-religious dimensions of the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park (2006).  That book includes an afterword by Magliola, reflecting on how the dialogue between Buddhism and deconstruction has developed in the decades since his groundbreaking work on the topic.  Park has subsequently become the most prolific and influential writer on this topic, with the wide reception of Buddhisms and Deconstructions along with her articulation of a Buddhist postmodern ethics in Buddhism and Postmodernity (2008).  As the latter title indicates, Park is extending the discussion beyond Buddhist connections to Derrida/deconstruction to the wider field of Buddhist connections to postmodern philosophy.  This extension is further evident in her work with Gereon Kopf editing the anthology, Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (2009).

In close proximity to this whole discussion of Buddhism and deconstruction is the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, which brought continental philosophy into contact with Buddhism starting in the early twentieth century with Kitaro Nishida.  My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger for a short time before completing his PhD at Kyoto University (his dissertation is on Bergson and Schelling).  I’m far from catching up on recent research regarding the Kyoto school, but I’m looking forward to checking out the anthology Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conservations with the Kyoto School (2011), edited by Bret Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason Wirth.  Quot libros quam breve tempus!


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