The Poverty of Theology

Ben Myers has a post up ostensibly about the virtues of reading in a society where “progress is worshiped”. Of course reading is good and should be prized, though I’m not willing to go all the way with Myers’ assertion that reading is an act of theological resistance (whatever that might mean, we’re never told that by theologians who proclaim that Christianity is the true site of revolution and resistance).  What really struck me, though, was the antagonism towards progress, towards the idea that our global society worships progress, which strikes me both as a bit too retro (Horkheimer and Adorno did this better than any theologian) and, more importantly, wrong.

In London today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gideon Osborne, delivered the UK’s spending review. For those who don’t know, this is essentially the budget and sets the spending agenda (in this case the lack of spending agenda) for the current government’s expected tenure. Gideon announced massive cuts to education, both for schools and universities, social housing, an inadequate spending increase for the NHS, a cut in community policing, and an increase for intelligence services. This government has essentially ended, for the foreseeable future, New Labour’s restoration of a society that valued social welfare. A number of independent think-tanks have come out saying that the poorest will be hit hardest by these spending cuts (George Eaton’s blog summarizes this) while the richest in the country will continue to pay less tax and this all despite the Con-Dem coalition’s constant braying of “fairness”.

Throughout Europe, the US, and Australia there is a return to a xenophobia, often directed towards the Arab-Other as seen in Merkel’s recent deceleration that multiculturalism has failed in Germany, and this has resulted in the election of a number of right-wing politicians with ties to far-right groups with even left-leaning governments having to pay lip service to the reactionary demands to protect the homeland from invading immigrants. This isn’t just limited to Muslims, but the Roma, one of the groups targeted for extinction by the Nazis, now has to register in Italy, they have been subject to violently expulsion in France, and in last week’s UK Prime Minister’s Questions there was talk about doing the same to protect the good people of England.

Everywhere the ruling class tells us that progress is impossible. No one believes in progress anymore, no one thinks this shit is getting better, and, to take one of Myers examples, when the iPhone 4 came out there was disappointment at the reviews stage because the phone was, in fact, not as good as previous models. In a time when we need a massive reorganization of global society oriented towards confronting the primary contradiction of contemporary capitalism, the collision of an economy that demands infinite growth (not progress) and finite ecology, our theologians are spending time helping elect the bastards that share their reactionary critique of liberal modernity or wasting their time talking about some mythical thing called political correctness. Our theologians are offended by the policing of words in the business world when they should be offended by the way the ruling class is brashly declaring class war, often under the banner of Christian values. Instead of clinging to the old boogeymen of right-wing discourse, like Myers’ Tea Party-esque claim that we will soon see memos giving the go ahead for the euthanasia of the unvalued old, theologians need to step back and examine the reality of the situation and respond to that reality. I understand why right-wing fantasies recur in theology, as a discourse it tends towards reaction and these fantasies are easy to take a stand against, but now is the the time to confront the real flesh and blood powers of oppression. Now is the time to renew a belief in progress, to progress out of capitalism, to do the hard work of envisioning a new society, to fight for the conservation of welfare, and to progress to a society where the possibility of providing the basic means for a good life is not declared to be an impossibility.

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77 Responses to “The Poverty of Theology”

  1. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    That line about whatever is old is offensive is really sticking in my craw. In France millions of people have taken to the streets to protest the raising of the retirement age precisely because they don’t think people should have to work when they are aged.

  2. KB Says:

    What’s equally offensive is the French establishment’s dismissal of young people protesting about pensions as ‘idiotic, because it won’t affect them for so long’ – thus implying that the young can’t any more have empathy for, and solidarity with, those who are older.

  3. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Yeah, I do not think that society believes in progress anymore. Hell, I do not even know what it looks like or is anymore. Really, especially in the United States even the progressive president borrows from the anti-progress logic of Christian realism (Good ole Reinhold) and so, there is to a form of real politik where even “progressive” professors tweet that we are stuck forever more in a two party system, so we should go on voting for the lesser of two evils.

    I would like to know exactly what progress is in the first place.

  4. BB Says:

    “Yeah, I do not think that society believes in progress anymore. Hell, I do not even know what it looks like or is anymore.”

    It looks like gay people getting married, which actually happens in some places now. Or it looks like gay people being generally accepted as people, not walking pathologies, which happens more now than it did even ten years ago. Or it looks like a small but respectable chunk of white people voting enthusiastically for a black man with a foreign-sounding name to be president. Or it looks like poor people getting access to health insurance, and someday soon it may look like so-called “illegals” receiving the basic respect – and citizenship, and legal protections – they so deserve.

    Granted, we have a long, long way to go, and the most important problems – namely, the class warfare enacted by the richest of the rich on the shrinking middle class and the growing numbers of the poor – are not even on the radar. But I think it’s absolute bullshit to say that we haven’t had, nor are we witnessing, some kinds of progress. People have been working really hard to accomplish some of the things I mentioned above. If you think (like I do) that economic rather than identity politics should take precedence in the near future, then let’s get to work. Organize working class folks in your area. Keep up with what the rich are up to, and what their next scheme to fuck us will be. And keep up the pressure. It’s worked before, and it’ll work again.

  5. Eric Says:

    It’s not the theologians’ fault. They’ve envisioned the new society and enact it each week — the Church!

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I let Eric’s comment through because it performs the nihilism of contemporary Christian discourse perfectly. The new society envisioned apparently means taking an hour or so out of your Sunday, singing a few hymns, performing a few rituals, listening to a homily, and having a bit of coffee afterward. I can’t even understand what is meant by this fetish word “the Church” for these theologians.

  7. Eric Says:

    Anthony, thank you for explicating upon my sarcasm better than I would have.

  8. Eric Says:

    Though I should say that what is amazing is that my comment could have been seriously made (and was seriously taken). Hopefully I beat some theologian lurker to the punch and such inanity won’t be actually put forward.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    [wipes brow] I was really hoping that Eric’s comment was sarcastic.

  10. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Eric’s comment was an imitation of Hauerwas and Milbank.

  11. Evan Says:

    Perhaps in some defense of Ben’s post, I’m having a bit of a difficult time lining up his concerns with yours here. I take it that he was speaking simply of the practice of reading as opposed to more progress-infused commitments to technologies. That you move from progress to global capitalist injustices, xenophobia, etc. is just dandy, and it’s a fine political point to make. But I’m not sure Ben really says much one way or the other to all of this. I mean, is your point of connection here that Ben speaks against a concept he calls “progress” and right-wing politics similarly opposes politics that it calls “progressive”? It’s not exactly a tenuous link, I suppose, but for goodness’ sake… he was just talking about the practice of reading rather than captivity to technology. It’s not as if he was trying to paint some grand anti-progressivist social picture for us.

    That’s not to say you can’t reasonably call Ben’s thoughts on reading a bit bourgeois, or nostalgic, or whatever. Or maybe if you were an admin at F&T you would devote the space to more politically active theses. But I’m not exactly sure what picking up an old novel as a “fuck you” to technological progress has to do with budget cuts to social welfare. Is your problem simply with the fact that he chooses to write about things you wouldn’t?

    I also agree that the mention of euthanasia seemed odd, but that’s simply because I wouldn’t have forecasted its prominence in the next century, not because concerns about it more generally should be dismissed as Tea-Partyish (I’m not sure why protests in France do much in terms of falsifying his musing, either). I’d also agree with you that theologians can make too much of theology, so all of your points about making everything at base “theological” or “worship”, etc. are well-taken and I think Ben’s post is liable to such critique. But on the whole, you two seem to be writing about completely different things, and I’m not sure why the bulk of your point here is being directed against Ben’s thoughts on reading and technology. Is there anything else to it than the fact that the buzzword “progress” set you off? Or do you take it that a similarity of language between Ben’s theses and certain damaging aspects of contemporary conservative thought imply a basic similarity of political beliefs or goals?

  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Sure a lot you aren’t sure of or don’t know, Evan. I take it that Ben and I are speaking generally about the same thing when we use the word progress. Theology seems blind to real issues and instead focuses know weird, pseudo-right-wing contrarianism. Please, I beg you, drop the simple caveman routine. It’s very passive-aggressive. Just be aggressive if you disagree. It will actually be less ugly of a conversation if we are both direct.

  13. dbarber Says:

    Evan, ok, here’s a link: Ben says progress is everywhere, so a theological act of resistance is reading. Anthony says progress is nowhere, we don’t believe anything can change for the better, and so if theology’s going to resist then it’s going to have to be creating the future (progress), and not looking back to the past.

    And once this template’s in place, I believe a lot of the other pieces makes. In case, you know, you were being honest when you said it didn’t make sense.

  14. dbarber Says:

    “a lot of the other pieces make sense”

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Re: Ben’s post — It’s hard for me to see how being curmudgeonly can be convincingly elevated to the level of a theological principle or an act of resistence.

  16. Evan Says:

    dbarber And once this template’s in place, I believe a lot of the other pieces make sense. In case, you know, you were being honest when you said it didn’t make sense.

    Well, right. I said pretty clearly that “progress” seems to be the only connection here. And while I didn’t spell it out for everyone again, yes it is clear that Ben sees a prevalent fixation on “progress” today where Anthony sees the opposite.

    But let me put it this way, in an attempt to explain why Anthony’s post seems irrelevant to Ben’s despite these sorts of stark differences in their thought about the present- what exactly is preventing someone from accepting what Ben says about reading an old novel as opposition to fixation on technological progress as well as what Anthony says about demanding political progress in opposition to capitalist, racist, or other abuses?

    “Progress” is a terribly broad concept, and I can pretty easily conceive of someone seeing it both everywhere and nowhere, depending on what exactly was being discussed. It doesn’t seem very useful to try to make a point about progress simpliciter.

    Look how you worked with the idea… “Anything can be changed for the better”? What is that supposed to mean without a bit of context? And my point is simply that the context provided by Ben and Anthony are completely different.

  17. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I guess, Even, what I’m trying to say is that I find it a bit troubling that some of the most vocal against contemporary theologians “modernity” and “progress” posit practices like reading novels as an act of radical resistance when their analysis of the contemporary situation appears to have nothing to do with reality. That coupled with the fact that people in the UK are soon going to be kicked out of their housing and fired from social work and social care jobs, not to mention the class war being waged against the poor who may want to attend a university and study a subject outside of business or engineering, and I move past troubled to a bit pissed off. The kicker, though, is that, while these theo-bloggers and theologians in general (I’ve had to read a lot of anti-progress/anti-tech theology books for my dissertation, which is related to questions around the environmental crisis) are writing this sort of stuff, they aren’t even paying attention to the fact that the government who is doing all these things has been helped by a theological school, whose vision of neo-Medieval communitarianism and its rhetoric the party is, in some sense, deploying in their defense of these savage cuts. Is that a little clearer?

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “And my point is simply that the context provided by Ben and Anthony are completely different.”

    Because one is true and one is not.

  19. Remy Says:

    I sympathise with your dismay at the turn in theology toward a proto-conservative “intimate resistance” (e.g. nuclear family as resistance, etc.), which I think has more to do with the enjoyment (in Zizek’s sense) of the people living out these “radical” proposals than any considered, analytically-gounded praxis.

    On Cameron, Red Tory et al and the slashing of funding to welfare and social services, I think that contrary to their claim that this is conservative and a move to restore the glory days, it actually seems like what they are doing is shaping ‘progress’ in their own vision. Nikolas Rose’s work on ‘advanced liberalism’ is interesting in this regard, where he traces the shift from welfare to neoliberal personal/community responsibility as the increase of governmental efficiency. So all this talk about returning to communitarian values seems to be the beginning of a new intensification of the same capitalist mode of production. In a perverse way, I guess this is progress, but not quite in the direction I’d prefer.

    In response, contemporary theology seems to have laughed off the project of liberation theology as utopian and/or ‘too modern,’ preferring instead the institutional fetishism of “the church.” A healthy dose of iconoclasm wouldn’t go astray.

  20. Utisz Says:

    I agree with Anthony here, if there’s an ideology that’s dominant today it’s not progress but the cod-Heideggerian lament over progress which Myers’ post recycles. Myers’ is a merely abstract negation of that concept.

  21. Evan Says:

    Please, I beg you, drop the simple caveman routine. It’s very passive-aggressive. Just be aggressive if you disagree. It will actually be less ugly of a conversation if we are both direct.

    I’m not sure why you have such a consistent hang-up about how I approach problems. As I’ve said to you before, you’ve got the admin privileges. You can always delete my comments if aggression is such a priority for your aesthetics/ethics of argument.

  22. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “I also agree that the mention of euthanasia seemed odd, but that’s simply because I wouldn’t have forecasted its prominence in the next century, not because concerns about it more generally should be dismissed as Tea-Partyish (I’m not sure why protests in France do much in terms of falsifying his musing, either).”

    So, the fact that it is a rhetorical turn that just happens to be the same rhetorical turn used by the Tea Party/Republican party in their opposition to health care reform shouldn’t give one pause? Or do you take it that right-wing rhetoric is value neutral? If so, why?

    What problem, specifically, do you have with the French example? He made a claim (no one cares about the aged because progress/new are prized above all else) and the French protests are a direct empirical challenge to that claim (students and aged people are marching together and pissed off about the same thing, changing the retirement age so that people have to work, on average, ten years more to draw a full pension).

    Finally, I don’t have a problem with people being “nice”; I don’t need you to be aggressive. I have a problem with you being passive aggressive, the faux-rhetorical question, the faux-niceness. It’s like the line in Knocked Up, “You just think because you don’t yell that you’re not mean, but this is mean.”

    Remy,

    Yes, that’s true. Progress as regression, fairness as inequality, work is freedom – the politics of paradox that these Red Tories love so much!

  23. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Just to be clear, I don’t delete your comments because if you want to be part of the conversation you’re welcome to. It just seems like the passive-aggressive tone could be lost, thus causing me not to stumble, and your point still made and entered into conversation with.

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The only people who believe that the state has any appetite for taking on new powers and tasks on the level state-sponsored euthanasia would represent are precisely right-wing paranoids. Everyone else can see that the state is increasingly withdrawing — if mortality rates go up in future years, it will be due to sins of omission on the part of the state, not sins of comission.

    Similarly, I think pretty much everyone recognizes that the enterprise of political correctness was basically a total failure, which has very little sway anymore — except in the minds of right-wing paranoids, for whom politically correct liberals are virtually all-powerful. Political correctness was a very ambitious attempt to consciously reshape culture by reshaping discourse, but again, no one can now envision a new, equally ambitious effort on the part of academics or basically of anyone — particularly given that universities are constantly under attack and under constant threat of de-funding.

    The euthanasia and political correctness bits were actually there in the post, and they do both represent common tropes of the dystopian overreach of liberal “progress.” So the connection to political progress was already there in Ben’s original post — he made that connection initially, not Anthony. On that front, progress isn’t “everywhere” — instead, as per my last post, the dominant discourse says that even holding steady is “impossible.”

  25. Brad Johnson Says:

    I would post this over at F&T, but I don’t particularly care to troll. Basically, Ben’s post just seems ill-conceived and a little naive.

    For starters, to wed so intimately the notion of progress and teleology is a concession I cannot abide. That they are often conflated on a common sense level is not enough to warrant doing so on a theological level.

    More problematically, still, as it relates to what he says about reading . . . . reading itself is a technological development, and not even one simply relegated to the hoary Past. One needn’t be using a Kindle or IPad as one’s mode of reading for technology to be involved — on a vulgar level, we cannot escape the developing technologies of publishing and distribution; nor the technologies that go into the production of knowledge that facilitate one’s reading (and/or writing). On an even more vulgar level, technology is often quite instrumental to the act of vision itself, in the form of corrective lenses, surgeries, etc. All this is to say, again, I’m not so sure about the “teleological” aspect of technological progress even. Perhaps we might call it “change,” and all such objections wither on the vine for Ben?

  26. Hill Says:

    Everyone knows that reading is already a spatialized and demonic declension from oral tradition, anyway.

  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You know when things were really great? Back when we were all just primordial soup.

  28. BB Says:

    “primordial soup” kind of sums up the discourse of the tea party folks.

  29. Alex Says:

    Most damningly he quotes Peter fucking Hitchens, right-wing nutjob and Daily Heil shit bag, distinguished by being more offensive than his neo-con ex-trot jingo-atheist Muslim-baiting brother. Anyone condemning technological progress while posting on the fricking internet should automatically be detained by the irony police.

    Brad, Hill, Adam

    Too true you could write exactly the same argument about writing: writing is cold, closed to the relation to the other person, fixed as opposed to fluid and dynamic, blah blah nonsense.

    Why reading, reading anything, is resistance is utterly ridiculous. Let’s imagine Ben’s argument is right: surely the written culture of a society obsessed with progress would produce writing encouraging it, and perpetuating it. Why then would simply reading resist jack shit?

  30. Evan Says:

    So, the fact that it is a rhetorical turn that just happens to be the same rhetorical turn used by the Tea Party/Republican party in their opposition to health care reform shouldn’t give one pause? Or do you take it that right-wing rhetoric is value neutral? If so, why?

    I’m not sure how it’s a “rhetorical turn”… isn’t it simply a prognostication of some sort? In any case, the Tea Party/Republicans brought this sort of thing up in opposition to written legislation that clearly did not say what they claimed it said. Ben, odd as his inclusion of the worry was, brought it up as something “conceivable” as a “minor chapter” in future histories. I agree with you insofar as I just don’t see any reason to predict such a future. At the same time, though, I don’t for a minute feel like association of this with the Tea Party claims makes any sense of what Ben was doing. And I don’t think it takes mental or moral contortions to say as much… they’re simply doing different things. Call it passive-aggressive disagreement if you want. I think you’re just being sloppy about this.

    I don’t have a problem with the French example in itself. Perhaps I wasn’t being clear. I simply meant that a future dystopia of widespread euthanasia is going to be neither actualized nor prevented by protests in a single country, that’s all… It’s certainly an empirical challenge to Ben’s thoughts, though. Perhaps I read your and KB’s initial comments too strongly as, “Well of course this isn’t going to happen… look at France!” All I meant was that plenty of bad stuff happens despite widespread opposition to it elsewhere in the world.

    Finally, I don’t have a problem with people being “nice”; I don’t need you to be aggressive. I have a problem with you being passive aggressive, the faux-rhetorical question, the faux-niceness.

    Again, as I’ve said before, I don’t know how “niceness” or “faux-niceness” got attached to that rhetorical thing I apparently do when I’m online, or this reputation for round-aboutness that I’ve acquired. I think I said pretty straightforwardly what I thought of your post- that it was all well and good in terms of the constructive points it made, but that I couldn’t for the life of me figure how it followed as much of a relevant response to Ben’s post. That doesn’t strike me as “nice” or “mean”, it’s just a criticism. I think you’re being melodramatic about all of this rhetorical style business. It’s worth assuming from the outset that some folks are going to go at a discussion or an argument differently than you. Why bother making such a fuss about it?

  31. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Evan,

    Regarding your first point I just point you back to Adam’s recent comment, as I think it covers anything I would want to say.

    “The only people who believe that the state has any appetite for taking on new powers and tasks on the level state-sponsored euthanasia would represent are precisely right-wing paranoids. Everyone else can see that the state is increasingly withdrawing — if mortality rates go up in future years, it will be due to sins of omission on the part of the state, not sins of comission.

    Similarly, I think pretty much everyone recognizes that the enterprise of political correctness was basically a total failure, which has very little sway anymore — except in the minds of right-wing paranoids, for whom politically correct liberals are virtually all-powerful. Political correctness was a very ambitious attempt to consciously reshape culture by reshaping discourse, but again, no one can now envision a new, equally ambitious effort on the part of academics or basically of anyone — particularly given that universities are constantly under attack and under constant threat of de-funding.

    The euthanasia and political correctness bits were actually there in the post, and they do both represent common tropes of the dystopian overreach of liberal “progress.” So the connection to political progress was already there in Ben’s original post — he made that connection initially, not Anthony. On that front, progress isn’t “everywhere” — instead, as per my last post, the dominant discourse says that even holding steady is “impossible.””

    “All I meant was that plenty of bad stuff happens despite widespread opposition to it elsewhere in the world.”

    Yeah, that’s not what I was saying with the French example. My point was that a country that prizes itself for being progressive and modern and that is often lampooned for just these characteristics by Anglophone theologians and others, and sometimes declared to be the site of the expression of modern nihilism in politics and philosophy, is expressing something completely different.

    I’m going to drop the discussion of style, it isn’t going to go anywhere and we’re going to misunderstand each other. Diminishing returns, innit. So just one last thing in response to “I couldn’t for the life of me figure how it followed as much of a relevant response to Ben’s post.” Yeah, that’s because it wasn’t a response. It was occasioned by it and by the fact that he made strange claims that are, in my view, symptomatic of a wider problem in theology. So, if your problem is simply, “why did you write this post with Ben’s name in it”, then the answer is, “Because after reading his post some ideas I’ve had crystallized a bit more.”

  32. Charlie Collier Says:

    Change of direction. I think I get APS’s worry that critiques of “progress” as a deep cultural current might be, and in many cases are, in bed with right-wing political trajectories that undermine social support for the poor and the elderly (and others). However, it seems to me that they need not be (and I’m guessing that they are not in fact for Ben Myers, but he’ll have to weigh in on that).

    A commitment to “progress” is often displayed by those who worry about “regress.” And it hasn’t been exclusively left-wingers who worry about the “backward” nature of radical Islam (and certainly not left-wingers who’ve advocated the most brutal responses to such “backwardness”); it wasn’t left-wingers who blustered (and then got on with it) about bombing Iraq “back to the Stone Ages.” So certain assumptions about political/civilizational progress are also embedded within contemporary right-wing movements.

    I think some of the more interesting strands of postcolonial theology go after certain underlying continuities in Western intellectual/political habits, e.g., the way historicism (a wing-man of progressivism, no?) enables the sort of rhetoric/politics that produces “backward Muslims” and bombing countries “back to the Stone Age.” I’m thinking of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work in “Provincializing Europe.”

  33. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Charlie, It would help me be more confident that Ben wasn’t embracing a kind of right-wing curmudgeonhood if he didn’t directly echo standard right-wing tropes. We can argue about whether opposition to “progress” in general is right or left-wing — I don’t think there’s any disputing that he couched it in terms of suspicion of political correctness and paranoia about what Sarah Palin might call “death panels.” Both you and Evan, in your objections that Anthony is moving too quickly to dismiss the post as sympathetic with the right wing, are seemingly systematically ignoring clear aspects of his post.

  34. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (Although to be fair, you were trying to “change direction,” so maybe the interpretation of Ben’s post wasn’t as important to what you were saying.)

  35. Charlie Collier Says:

    Adam,

    Correct, not as important. I think Myers’ entire post is over the top, which, as he says in a comment replying to you on his blog, was his intention. I loathe Sarah Palin as much as the next thoughtful person, so I find it a huge stretch to link Myers’ blog to Palin’s politics—Myers, unlike Palin, is a thoughtful person. But still, I get APS’s concern, here. There is a sort of conservative panic or paranoia about euthanasia and political correctness that it would be best not to contribute to. One could even advance a more sweeping theological critique of the whole idea of dystopian fantasies—do they not harness their power from the “timor mortis” that Augustine so beautifully exposed as the seamy underbelly of violently secured political identity?

    But the new direction I was trying to go in was not “Myers is totally right,” but rather “isn’t there something to the critique of an underlying cultural commitment to progress that also intersects with APS’s own concerns”? Hence, Chakrabarty.

  36. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s clear enough that progress is a contested term, and Anthony’s post is trying to lay claim to the term for a certain purpose. I’m sure Anthony would critique definitions of progress that require infinite economic growth, etc., etc.

  37. Kampen Says:

    Jonathan over at http://latechurchgoers.blogspot.com/ recently posted a short blurb from an interview with Slavoj Zizek which I think can be appreciated in light of the above debate:

    “What universities [or the church, I would add] should do is not serve as experts to those in power who define the problems. We should redefine and question the problems themselves. Is this the right perception of the problem? Is this really the problem? We should ask much more fundamental questions.”

    Particularly the question “Is this really the problem?” is one that APS is asking and answering.

  38. Evan Says:

    Both you and Evan, in your objections that Anthony is moving too quickly to dismiss the post as sympathetic with the right wing, are seemingly systematically ignoring clear aspects of his post.

    Well that’s obviously wrong, at least in the case of euthanasia. I address it in my first comment and in subsequent ones. I suppose I didn’t bother speaking to the Hitchens/Foucault reference, so on that count I may be systematically ignoring potentially right wing aspects of the post… although I’m not sure how someone can “systematically” ignore a single example.

  39. Adam Kotsko Says:

    As I returned to this thread in order to read Kampen’s post, I was struck by the fact that we have two people really questioning how this post even came about. Myers wrote a post that could be plausibly read as getting all huffy about liberal versions of progress and how it’s good and theologically sound to oppose them (the political correctness remarks should’ve been a dead giveaway, if not the death panel worries). Then Anthony comes along and says essentially that there’s a lot of good stuff associated with liberal progress that, far from being “worshipped,” is becoming increasingly impossible and that is what theologians should be worried about.

    I literally do not understand how Evan or Charlie can see any disconnect here whatsoever, nor do I see how it’s relevant, in this context, that “progress” is an ambiguous term that can be interpreted in a lot of ways.

  40. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You mention the euthanasia reference as something puzzling that you clearly don’t connect to the rest of the post.

  41. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sorry we cross-posted, Evan — I don’t mean to be piling on, although that’s basically the only explanation for what I did with my comment of 8:52.

  42. Adam Kotsko Says:

    But since I’m piling on: Charlie, you say there’s no possibility Ben’s position could be related to Sarah Palin’s, due to his thoughtfulness. Yet thoughtful people come to right-wing positions sometimes — as in this case, where Ben indulges in hyperbole to the point where he’s openly wondering how soon it will be until The Giver becomes a grim reality. Being paranoid about state-mandated euthanasia is, in my mind, undeniably a right-wing position. It is also a position that Sarah Palin, being a right-winger, holds. Obviously Ben gets there by a much more sophisticated route than Palin did, but they wind up in similar territory. “Death panels” is an appropriate, if pejorative, way to refer to his vision of state-sponsored euthanasia, given that “death panels” literally referred to a vision of state-sponsored euthanasia.

    I’m sure you could perform this same exercise with a thoughtful liberal person who has the same position as some hack Kos diarist.

  43. Evan Says:

    You’re going to have to spell out to me how this constitutes ignoring it, Adam. I disagree with you about it. What you’re saying is the equivalent of me saying this:

    “Adam is seemingly systematically ignoring the clear dissimilarity between Ben’s thoughts on euthanasia and Tea Party/Republican thoughts on the same.”

    …which is rhetorically more catching, I suppose, but it doesn’t really say anything except that you couldn’t possibly conceive of someone disagreeing with you on this.

  44. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I can conceive of it, because it’s happening. Usually when I conceive of someone disagreeing with me on something I am very sure of, I then take the next step and say they’re wrong. Am I making a cognitive error there?

    Here’s my executive summary. Ben wrote about a paranoid vision of mandatory euthanasia. Paranoid visions of mandatory euthanasia have been a stock in trade of right-wingers for a long time, most recently during the “death panel” debate last summer. What these two things — Ben’s post and right-wing rhetoric — have in common is their content. I’m just not sure where the dissimilarity is supposed to lie here or how I’m being close-minded or somehow wrong or rude to say that you’re missing it. (If anything, saying you’re systematically ignoring it is the most charitable way I can go, because it implies that if you weren’t ignoring it, you would see the obvious parallel.)

  45. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If you want, though, I can add a tagline to everything I write saying, “But that’s just my opinion and I might be wrong.” Would that help?

  46. Evan Says:

    If anything, saying you’re systematically ignoring it is the most charitable way I can go

    Yeah, I’d agree. Honestly, when I first read it I thought “…isn’t this the sort of thing that bothers Anthony about me?”

  47. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What do you want, Evan? Just say what you want us to do differently. Something annoyed you about this post that has annoyed you about other posts in the past as well, I assume. So, out with it. We’ve all been pretty clear that we find your labored even-handedness to be tedious. You owe it to us to be equally clear.

  48. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I suspect a clue can be found in this comment from Ben’s post. Anthony has just asked why Ben doesn’t call out theologians who support destructive forces, and you then say, “…because doing anything at all with a blogspot platform other than fighting the good fight is a telltale sign of complicity.” Am I right that that’s getting at what you find annoying?

  49. Evan Says:

    Nothing annoyed me about this post, I just thought it wasn’t a good response to Ben’s post and so I said as much. And if there’s a common thread running through the other times when I’ve disagreed with you or Anthony, I’m not aware of it.

    I can say this, though… I tend to lose interest in blogging when it becomes tedious for me. I am not committed enough to the medium to bother with that sort of crap, so I just don’t bother reading those posts or engaging in those discussions. If I’m even bothering to interact it’s because I’m interested in the conversation, whether I’m disagreeing with someone or not. And I’m not saying this to “play nice” or whatever… this is simply to say that in my case it’s probably not very useful to try to diagnose any kind of underlying annoyance or personal problem that I have with you or Anthony or AUFS. I do have personal problems with certain bloggers, and I simply don’t bother interacting with them.

  50. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So the comment I quoted didn’t indicate any level of annoyance?

  51. Evan Says:

    cross-posted… getting at it right now.

  52. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (Clearly we both need to get our priorities straight if we’re so avidly commenting that we’re constantly cross-posting.)

  53. Evan Says:

    Am I right that that’s getting at what you find annoying?

    That’s probably a relatively basic disagreement I have that can come up periodically, sure. And I said the same sort of thing to Ry during the ongoing discussion of Novak a few months ago, so it’s not particular to you guys.

    But again, I don’t know if that means I’m “annoyed” at you guys about it… it probably just means that I think you’re “wrong”. Honestly, I’m not invested enough in any of you to bother getting annoyed when we run into extensive points of disagreement. I’m more likely to get annoyed at a fellow student in a seminar that I’m forced to interact with every week. Or, for that matter, I’m more likely to get annoyed at someone who frequents my blog in the mode of continued fundamental disagreement, because I’m kind of stuck with that commenter when it’s my own blog being bombarded with oppositional sentiment. But disagreements in the blogsophere more generally? Why should that bother me? I’d need to consciously decide to be a glutton for frustration.

  54. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “Or, for that matter, I’m more likely to get annoyed at someone who frequents my blog in the mode of continued fundamental disagreement, because I’m kind of stuck with that commenter when it’s my own blog being bombarded with oppositional sentiment.”

    This is a joke right? Cause, if so, it’s very funny. I guess if it’s not, it’s also pretty funny.

    Really, though, I appreciate you think I’m wrong. I think you’re wrong and I’m thankful that Adam and Dan have taken the time to provide you with the textual evidence for why you’re wrong. I hope it is clear that I don’t think Ben is a bad guy, that’s not the point, I think that his post was one example of many of theology’s failure to address the contemporary situation in any helpful way. So, if you want to make an argument against that then please do so.

  55. Evan Says:

    This is a joke right? Cause, if so, it’s very funny. I guess if it’s not, it’s also pretty funny.

    I figured that would come up. But seriously, how often do I even comment on this blog? Granted, when I agree with you I tend to simply share the post elsewhere (facebook, reader, etc.) rather than bother to comment, so it may seem as if I usually disagree with you when I have any opinion at all. But what I’m talking about above is the nagging poster who can continually be counted on in voicing the same opposition on every other post. In contrast, I’m an extremely infrequent contributor to the conversation here at AUFS. It hardly seems worth calling my occasional arguments a bombardment of the sort that I was talking about.

  56. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I thought you were poking fun at yourself. No worries, I don’t think you’re bombarding the blog, no.

  57. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Anthony, isn’t your point stronger than that? Not that they fail to address the contemporary situation, but that they actively work against it — in this particular case, through a kind of exaggerated contrarianism that winds up in a place pretty similar to familiar right-wing rhetoric (even if that’s not Ben’s personal conviction).

  58. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And I’d also like to add that Ben has basically admitted his post was a pretty extreme thought-experiment that doesn’t necessarily reflect his own views — but I think that the theological critique of “liberalism” leads a lot of young theologians to similar places. (The influence of Zizek’s contrarianism on many of the same people might be an effect rather than a cause here.)

  59. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I wouldn’t state it as “actively” so much as it passive-aggressively works against it.

  60. Putting the Progress in Progressive? | Political Jesus Says:

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  62. Hill Says:

    It’s not clear to me why any of the main posters at AUFS would give a shit what Ben writes, and I mean that in an unbiased sense. I’m not passing judgment on either blog (full disclosure: I read AUFS every day and F&T never), but it seems like the only discussion generating points of contact are where you guys think Ben is utterly and completely wrong, if not actively complicit in some sort of systematic conceptual evil. And that is fine. I think the issue more generally, and this is in the frame of “what do we do that is annoying” (although I find none of you annoying at all), is the all too common practice in the blogosphere of “I read this thing and it enraged me and sparked me to think X.” Most often, the inclusion of the actual point of inspiration for these thoughts ends up obscuring the point of the thoughts themselves, as the post seems to be primarily an attack or response to another post, when it is actually independent in significant ways. What happens is that the content of the post gets sniped because of a “lack of charity” or any of a number of other rhetorical transgressions, when frequently a close reading of the original material that inspired the post is irrelevant.

    Hopefully that doesn’t come across as critical. I’m really trying to get at what has happened in this thread and why, because it happens all of the time on lots of blogs. I guess to try to restate what I just said in hopefully intelligible terms, Anthony’s post doesn’t really require having read Ben’s post, or that Ben’s post even exist, to make sense (with a bit of editing), and had it not been cast as a “response” to Ben’s post, would have been more likely to generate productive discussion rather than what actually happened. That may not have been the point, though.

  63. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If Anthony hadn’t included the specific example, then everyone would’ve been demanding an example: “This doesn’t sound right to me — show me one theologian who does this!” And whatever this unproductive discussion has achieved, I think it has certainly provided evidence for why Anthony’s post was a plausible response to Ben’s post.

    Trying to make sure a blog post doesn’t generate petty unproductive discussion strikes me as a hopeless enterprise on par with Democrats who are always trying to position themselves so that Republicans “can’t” attack them. At the end of the day, a comment thread’s a comment thread.

  64. Marvin Says:

    I suppose that reading could be an act of resistance as long as you’re reading stuff you’ve checked out from your local library and not stuff you’ve bought at Borders along with a $4 latte.

    I thought that Ben’s post was all over the place-[-which is fine, it’s merely a blog post–but to to me it seems that what holds together “reading as an act of resistance” with concerns about euthanasia and political correctness isn’t he stated desire to smash the idol of progress, but an unstated desire to fix the canon where it used to be. Nobody reads; nobody reads dead white males, everybody texts, before you know it, we’ll be texting mom and dad’s doctor to have them put to sleep.

    No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    To tell the truth, I’m kind of down on the elderly lately, mainly b/c all my conversations with them seem to begin and end with the moral turpitude of the young and the evils of health care reform. It’s like, they’ve got theirs, and they don’t want anyone else in on it. And yes, the young are immoral, but at least we aren’t lynching people like your generation did.

    But just b/c I’m down on the elderly doesn’t mean I want to put them down.

  65. Charlie Collier Says:

    “Myers wrote a post that could be plausibly read as getting all huffy about liberal versions of progress and how it’s good and theologically sound to oppose them (the political correctness remarks should’ve been a dead giveaway, if not the death panel worries). Then Anthony comes along and says essentially that there’s a lot of good stuff associated with liberal progress that, far from being ‘worshipped,’ is becoming increasingly impossible and that is what theologians should be worried about.

    I literally do not understand how Evan or Charlie can see any disconnect here whatsoever, nor do I see how it’s relevant, in this context, that ‘progress’ is an ambiguous term that can be interpreted in a lot of ways.”

    Okay, I’ll try again. My own executive summary of the thread would be as follows. Ben writes a post about reading as a site of resistance to a deep cultural idolatry of progress, an idolatry epitomized by the worship of technology, but he also relates political correctness to the same idolatry (he makes a parenthetical remark about enforced euthanasia, but I’m going for the forest, not the trees).

    APS responds to the post saying that what most struck him in Ben’s post was “the antagonism towards progress,” and he goes on to point to various political problems in Europe that allegedly nullify Ben’s critique of progress (the rise of the Red Tories in the UK, the attack on multiculturalism in Germany, etc.). Myers is not only wrong for thinking that progress is a deep cultural idolatry, he’s also blameworthy for invoking right-wing tropes in his post (enforced euthanasia, political correctness).

    So that’s my summary, and I’m happy to be corrected where I got it wrong.

    What I was trying to do in my comment was suggest that APS was mistaking one of Ben’s trees for his forest. Ben doesn’t say anything about liberals and conservatives, and his examples are far from simply anti-left-wing (though some of them could certainly be construed that way). Ben sees political correctness in the managerial memo, which is hardly what schmucks like Dinesh D’Souza were whining about in the late 80s and early 90s. He sees the cult of progress at the heart of technology, and I find APS’s appeal to the iPhone 4 launch as proof of the abandonment of progress as wildly off base. I suppose some critics might have said that about the iPhone, but David Pogue at the NYT gushed like he always does, and Apple has sold more iPhone 4s in a shorter period of time than any other iPhone. And let’s not forget Steve Jobs’ confident declaration that the iPad was a revolutionary new product. The “revolutionary new product”—how many of those are being marketed quite successfully these days, and do they not epitomize what Myers’ worries about? Marketers and consumers alike appear to be quite content with the temple of progress, so I honestly don’t know what APS is thinking when he says nobody believes in it anymore.

    Maybe he means nobody believes in the progress of left-wing political projects. Even if that’s true (and I doubt it, certainly in the US: even Tea Party folks refuse to endorse cuts to social security, Medicare, etc., making their “anti-government” shtick all the more perverse)—even if that’s true, Ben’s critique of progress wasn’t concentrated against left-leaning social and political projects; the critique was aimed, as he put it, “deep beneath the floorboards of our culture,” meaning something on which we probably all stand.

    I pointed to the work of Chakrabarty because I think his postcolonial work gets at something like this pervasive underlying current of our culture, and that it does so in a way that intersects with both Myers’ post and APS’ politics.

    In response to this, Adam, you seem to be saying to me, don’t look at APS’ forest, concentrate on his tree—the Palin resonance. Why should I fixate on that? I’ve already said I agree at least about this, we shouldn’t contribute to conservative panic. You want me to go further and link him to Sarah Palin. Why must I chase this rabbit? Palin’s “death panels” bullshit was deployed in a particular American political context to defeat healthcare legislation that for all I know Myers would have supported. Myers’ “enforced euthanasia” comment, on the other hand, was employed parenthetically in a blog post meant to get us to think about a deep underlying commitment to an idolatry of progress. Enforced euthanasia, as I’ve said, strikes me as a stretch, even in Oregon where I live and where euthanasia is legal. If there’s a dystopic future involving euthanasia, it will look more like the present when it comes to plastic surgery—an option freely chosen by millions. But the parenthetical remark in Myers’ post is not what the post was about, should not be allowed to frame his politics, or get blown into some nefarious connection with political adversaries who are probably, when it comes to what Myers was actually writing about, progressives in their own right.

  66. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So I feel like we’ve pretty thoroughly exhausted all possible interpretations of Ben’s post, a post that he himself said doesn’t necessarily reflect his own views. I’m glad I could contribute to such a wonderful use of everyone’s time.

  67. Charlie Collier Says:

    Yes, thanks for that Adam, and thanks for allowing my waste of time to prompt you to decide no more time should be wasted. :)

  68. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I seriously don’t know what else to say — we’ve reached the point where we’re saying either that the euthanasia remark is a curious aside or that it’s an integral part of what he’s saying. To me it seems like the climax of a rant, to you it seems like a small detail. I don’t know how we’re supposed to bridge this gap, aside from you agreeing with my obviously correct opinion.

  69. Charlie Collier Says:

    I’m an hospitable guy. You’re welcome to come around to my obviously correct opinion.

  70. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m thinking of writing a post about how this conflict over the correct interpretation of what scholars now call the Euthanasia Pericope shows everything that’s wrong about the blogosphere, so that commenters can come along and point out that I’m not properly responding to the stakes of the conflict — more just riffing on a theme vaguely suggested by the Euthanasia Pericope Scandal.

  71. Hill Says:

    I’m curious about this “euthanasia pericope” and how many scholars are referring to it. It apparently has not been discovered by Google.

  72. queenemily Says:

    *wonders if the euthanasia periscope is connected to the submarine of Political Correctness*

    Honestly, I couldn’t take that at all seriously as an argument given the lazy use of “political correctness” as emblematic of the present day. There’s one thing just really really really WRONG with the world, it’s that people just aren’t tolerant enough of bigotry anymore.

  73. dbarber Says:

    Charlie said: “isn’t there something to the critique of an underlying cultural commitment to progress that also intersects with APS’s own concerns”?

    I do think there is something to this — in other words, I think there is a sense in which the motif of “progress” can be and has been used in a racist manner, such that it would be good to be against progress. Though i should add i don’t see that at all as the sort of progress Anthony has in mind (and i think Charlie’s in agreement with me). So i do think there’s something to be said for a critique of progress as Christian-secular motif of colonization.

    I think the thing is that progress, in Anthony’s sense, as a political decision-commitment to a different, better future, doesn’t at all imply the sort of “naturalized/teleological” notion of progress that ought to be opposed. And i think the political, i.e. decision-commitment oriented, character of Anthony’s progress could then be the means of distinguishing from the naturalized progress of colonialism. What “good” progress and resistance to naturalized progress have in common, in other words, is an insistence on decisional commitment. The problem, on the other hand, with Ben’s account of resistance is that it does not affirm the “good” progress (in fact it forecloses this possibiilty by the way it conceive progress), nor does it think, as explicit object of resistance, the colonializing aspect of “bad” progress.

  74. Bryan Says:

    To “riff” on @dbarber’s post, I think it would also be worth adding that even the so-called “good” definition of progress, as Anthony defines it in his response, comes out lacking in my mind, and there’s even a certain sense in which I would find myself in opposition to it. Obviously, as a tactical measure it’s necessary to support the progressive cause in all its forms against right-wing attacks on the welfare-state, but on the other hand it seems that the entire politics of progress gets caught up into a politics of infinite deferral. I have in mind in particular Walter Benjamin’s critique of the German social democrats in the 1920s whose defense of abstract progress provided, in some ways, the condition of possibility for fascism by more or less foreclosing the possibility of a radical break in the linear-historical-continuity. That’s kind of an extreme example, but nonetheless it seems like a matter worth pausing over for a moment to consider whether opposing a right-wing notion of “progress,” or a right-wing critique of “progress,” with a left-wing notion of “progress,” is already in some sense an aborted (no pun intended) project at the outset.

    I hope this response does not sound like cheap contrarianism.

  75. Highanddry Says:

    Throughout this entire (quite entertaining albeit disenchanting) dialogue, has been a memory for me of Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Wounded Healer’.

    Now I must admit that I haven’t read the book for almost ten years and I have lent my copy to a friend so I could not double-check my memory. But…I remember a reflection in the early chapters about the ‘modern man’ or ‘nuclear man’ or something, in which Nouwen critiques the future-mindedness of the contemporary experience (remembering of course that he was writing in the sixties).

    If anyone has a copy of the book to check or can remember in greater detail than I, I’d appreciate the reminder.

  76. dbarber Says:

    Regarding Bryan’s comment, and perhaps i’m just churning the ashes of a dead fire here, but… it seems important to note that Benjamin’s critique, though obviously against “progress,” held out the hope that a turn towards the past would supply conditions for a construction of the future. Isn’t it possible to understand Anthony’s progress as pointing in the direction of that progress? In other words, I think what Anthony’s calling progress points more to the belief that it is possible to construct what Bryan calls a radical break?


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