Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”.
Crockett and Robbins write the book under the sign of a disaster. The disaster of our contemporary age whose name is in some sense Legion, but whose true name is Capitalism. This fundamental insight, drawn from Philip Goodchild amongst others, is put this way by the authors:
The problem is fundamental: Western capitalism is based upon assumptions of indefinite if not infinite growth, but the natural resources of the planet are finite. We are running up against real, physical constraints to growth, and the capitalist machine is desperately searching for more resources to fuel ever-shorter periods of apparent productivity or profitability, like a junkie shooting up more often with higher concentrations to get that same hight that is diminishing with each hit. [...] We will briefly lay out three aspects of our current crisis: the ecological crisis, which is often view primarily in terms of global warming; the energy crisis, which involves peak oil and the limits of our ability to extract and exploit the cheap energy of fossil fuels; and finally the financial crisis, which involves the deleveraging and destruction of massive amounts of money and credit. Each of these problems is interrelated, because money is dependent upon energy, and energy is a product of natural physical resources that are finite and diminishing. Rather than give in to despair, or idealistic wishful thinking, we suggest that this crisis could provide an oepning for a new kind of orientation to thinking and acting, a new way of being in and of the earth (my emphasis).
As this long quote shows, it is the disaster that conditions in some way the thought but, hopefully, does not determine it. The crisis is a call to think and to be in ways that are more creative and more interesting than the failed forms of thought and practice that are determined and reign under the capitalist crisis.
The authors then take us on a comprehensive tour through a number of very important loci for contemporary radical theology ranging from digital culture, religion, politics, art, ethics, energy, onto-neurology, logic, and the Event. Each of these loci are privileged as a central node for any contemporary form of thought that would respond to the crisis outlined above. Each is analyzed through Crockett and Robbins’s understanding of the Hegelian dialectic where, in their reading, thought returns to itself as, in this case, the earth. What they aim to do with this conception of dialectics is bring together a number of disparate thinkers, to reconcile figures that normally wouldn’t be thought to be reconcilable, namely a number of new Hegelian thinkers (Zizek, Malabou, and Badiou) with the work of Spinozist thinkers like (Deleuze and Negri). The synthetic aspect of each chapter is on display as the authors move from one thinker to the next, linking them as if they were simply amino acids to construct a DNA code that organizes a larger body of thought.
In many ways the authors are not the authors in the normal sense, setting aside that some of the chapter are co-written with a third (Michael W. Wilson assisted with chapter on art and Kevin Mequet co-wrote the two chapters on energy). Instead of a stable author there is a proliferation of names, different lines of thought taken and extended by some antagonistic name. A line from Zizek completed by connecting it to a line of Deleuze. In many ways the claims of the book will certainly be familiar to its readers. What is new is the synthetic form it takes here and ultimately its readers will need to decide if such a synthesis is possible, or if one of these figures or terms will overdetermine the rest, for the manifesto style of the book precludes the authors doing that themselves.
For my part, I found the book exciting for all the reasons stated above, but I remain suspicious of a certain Hegelian, and so Christian, overdetermination of this kind of radical theology proposed. One of the fundamental claims of the book is that the current crisis requires new alliances between the sciences, humanities, political movements, and religion. I, of course, agree with them on this point. However, the challenge is to make this a truly new alliance. For example, while some attention is given to ecology, it is only in the mode of disaster ecology or a discussion of global climate change. Ecology as such is absent from the chapter detailing a proposal for a new kind of paradigm for thinking about energy. I am unable to evaluate the validity of the claims made in this chapter, relating to conceiving of energy without heat, and I suspect that the authors wrote this with a bit of fear and trembling. But what did struck me is that, even if the proposal to look into the electromagnetism of the Earth as a potential for energy production holds up scientifically within physics, there would still require an ecological element that is missing. Ecology teaches us not that everything is connected, that’s quite simply obvious when one just thinks about causation, but ecology is the science of those relations, showing where some links are more intense while others are not. All of this translates into material questions about the effects of some new human technology upon the wider human and non-human biosphere. Since much of this discussion of energy is predicated upon a kind of Hegelian vision, I can’t help but wonder if the issue of reconciliation, ecological theodicy, is not laying underneath this proposal.
There is also the issue of the way religion, and thus materialism, is conceived within the book. The authors only ever reference Christianity and seem to privilege the Hegelian version of the death of God outlined in Zizek over other forms of religion. This is in some ways a result of the genre of the book. As a synthetic manifesto it will only really be able to respond to how things truly are within the fields it builds on and announces. And much of the new materialism, whether it be secular philosophers like Badiou or a philosopher playing a theologian which we sometimes find in Zizek, is predicated upon an unspoken supremacy of Christianity as the only religion that actually ends in the secular, that ends in a kind of productive atheism (against the New Athiest style atheism). For any truly radical rethinking of politics an engagement outside of the Christian form is called for. One where the notion of Event may too be suspect.
Yet, these criticisms aside, Crockett and Robbins have done us a great service by bringing together a number of exciting but disparate lines of research in their synthetic manifesto. It may help younger intellectuals develop and go forward in a genuinely new way that may yet just respond, at least within thought, to the contemporary crisis.