Academic strategery

The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.

The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.

I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.

What do you think?

The Republicans cannot overreach

In American poltical discourse, legitimate opinions are represented by two different, but equally important groups: Democrats and Republicans. Political debate, as it is commonly understood, just is the dispute between the two parties. This is why it is possible to implement policies using American political institutions while at the same time “putting the politics aside” — because politics is defined as a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, a bipartisan consensus is no longer political. And since American political discourse lives in mortal fear of political division — a condition that is taken to be unnatural and illegitimate — bipartisan consensus is the most highly desired outcome.

Failing that, of course, political commentators and journalists reflexively return to the idea that the two parties, which should agree in all things, are at least in agreement as to their faults. If “both sides” were not of the same moral caliber, evincing the same degree of corruption, dishonesty, ignorance, and other undesirable traits, then that would call into question the legitimacy of one of the two sides and forever close down the possibility of bipartisan consensus. It would open up the possibility of permanent political division, rather than momentary disagreement between people of good faith whose different starting points ultimately enrich our great national dialogue, etc., etc., etc.

Within this system, neither political party can be wrong. Individual outliers within a given political party can be wrong — indeed, they can make statements and propose policies so ridiculous that, in the eyes of respectable discourse, all citizens of good faith should put the partisanship aside in order to vote against that person. Most often, those outliers are painted as outsider populists who abuse the primary system to subvert the real spirit of their party. It is even possible for the party as such to err in the short term, as the Republicans may well be doing by nominating Trump and pushing through a scary right-wing platform. Yet in the long run, each party is definitionally in the right, insofar as the Democrats and Republicans represent the only two legitimate options within the American political field. Trump will have been an overreach if the Republicans decide that he was — if they double down, Trumpism will turn out to be legitimate Republicanism.

It goes without saying that such a system is gameable, that the Republicans figured this out long ago, and that the Democrats believe so deeply in respectability that they are forced to play along with the charade of two equally legitimate “sides” — because to do otherwise would be to open up the prospect of a permanent and unbridgeable political division, which may well be the one sole taboo of American political discourse.

The fantasy of a hard boundary

The history of every hitherto existing society is the history of attempting to do away with the irreducibility of human decision-making. From the appeal to the inscrutable demands of the gods to the pious submission to the logic of the market, human beings have always been desperate to offload their responsibility for themselves onto some external agency. The newest variation on this theme is that once we hit the limits of earth’s carrying capacity, we will be forced to make fundamental changes to our collective behavior and norms.

This impulse is understandable, because the technologies for consciously directing our collective human decision-making are all laughably inadequate. Collective decision-making has historically consisted of a small group of people claiming a right to power and most people “deciding” to submit to them, often in ignorance of the fact that their power isn’t immutable. Even when people want to change the situation, the powerful often have violent means at their disposal. Great minds from Anselm to Hobbes have claimed that even decisions made under duress are technically free, since you could always go ahead and die, but even if we grant that disturbing premise, we have to agree that this minimally “free” decision to stop resisting in the face of violence does not match up to our ideal of freedom. In any case, the combination of violence and submission is unlikely to lead to very good decisions, from a collective perspective.

Hegel may have believed that the events of his era ushered in the possibility of a more transparent and deliberate form of collective decision-making (called “Spirit”). Maybe he was even right about that! But in any case, we have collectively chosen not to take it up (using the familiar combination of self-assertion, violence, and passivity). And now the car is on fire, with no driver at the wheel, and all we can hope is that market incentives will drive nihilistic corporate leaders to doom fewer of us than we currently project.

So the fantasy that Mother Nature herself will step in and correct us is appealing, but it’s also nonsense. We human beings do have limits, above all our embodied finitude. In that sense, we can’t just do whatever we want indefinitely, because we will destroy ourselves. But we can destroy ourselves. There is no hard boundary that brings us up to the point of destroying ourselves but stops us just shy of the mark. When Mother Nature pushes back, we can collectively decide — most likely through some combination of power politics, passivity, and violent coersion — to just go ahead and die.

Doubtless we wouldn’t decide that if we had a truly transparent collective deliberation on the matter, and maybe we will luck out and choose something else when push comes to shove. But whether we do develop effective means of collective deliberation or else just luck out, in neither case will it be because some external agency forced us to. It will be our collective decision, because our collective responsibility for ourselves is inescapable.

No lives matter

When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.

One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.

So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?

They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.

In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”

In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.

Why not Mormonism?

Periodically, one reads of an evangelical leader or Republican legislator who believes that the Bible has a great deal to say about America. Yet biblical scholars are buzz-killingly insistent that all of the biblical writings were composed during a time when no one in the Eastern Hemisphere had any idea that the Americas existed. Even more buzz-killing: if there is an analogue for America in the Bible, surely it is Babylon or Rome, both of which are demonized as simultaneously opponents and unwitting tools of God.

There is an existing version of Christianity that gives evangelicals everything they want: Mormonism. As people my age learned repeatedly from watching commercials offering free Books of Mormon, that book includes accounts of “other sheep” who will “hear my voice” (John 10:16) — i.e., Jesus’s post-resurrection visit to America. It’s a bold retcon, but it’s not the only one. It makes the American West the explicit promised land. It dials the emphasis on family up to 11 compared with traditional Christianity. It takes a belt-and-suspenders approach to textual inerrancy: the original document is written on metal plates (hence no need for a manuscript tradition that might introduce errors), and Joseph Smith’s translation is “re-inspired.” And if there is any worry about the Church becoming irrelevant or behind the times, there’s a principle of progressive revelation that takes the fundamentalist idea of dispensationalism (where God has different requirements in different historical periods) and shifts it into the contemporary world.

Perhaps there are signs of a rapprochement in the evangelical embrace of Romney last time around and the general trend of greater alliances on social issues. But if anything, the question is why it’s taken so long — Mormonism actually is what evangelical Christians think Christianity should be.

(Note: I do not say this to make fun of Mormonism, which I think is a really interesting historical phenomenon and which, all things being equal, seems to contain a similar mix of bad and good as evangelicalism or any other mainstream contemporary religious movement.)

Trump family values

I have never been very close with my family as an adult, but I am increasingly afraid to call home. Within the last couple weeks, my mother and grandmother both, despite having serious misgivings about Trump, have suggested that the alternative might be worse. In fact, both, though they seem to agree on little lately, used the exact same word: she’s “scary.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Social media as liturgy

Hegel once said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” For most of us, the role of the morning paper has been replaced by social media. It is our go-to site for world events and more intimate news alike. For most of us, it is the first page we pull up to read over our morning coffee, and our experience of the internet is increasingly intermediated through it. We visit other sites only when social media brings them to our attention, and we then return to social media to comment on them.

This latter aspect makes social media appear very different from a traditional liturgy, but there is a ritual aspect to the kinds of comments we make and the interactions we have. Only a few naive souls genuinely hope to persuade anyone of anything — we are all preaching to our respective choirs, which means performing our membership in a particular choir for all to see. The social media space includes competing choirs, but their interactions are routinized into something like harmony, or at least a predictable call and response.

Our proclamations express our particular form of piety, praising ourselves and people like us for our wisdom (though not for our power). This praise is coupled with prayer: prayers of thanksgiving for our achievements, “prayer requests” for ourselves or for those caught up in major public events. As Ted Whalen once pointed out to me, the concrete meaning of “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is to post about it on Facebook or Twitter. It’s what we do instead of lighting a candle.

This liturgical character of social media is clearest when the general public is mourning. David Bowie was seemingly the turning point in solidifying the ritual, and when Prince followed, everyone knew exactly what to do. Public mourning is now an established ceremony, and just like a funeral in a house of worship, it trumps all other issues. Similarly, a major tragedy like the Dallas shootings dominates the atmosphere to an extent where it feels somehow disrespectful to talk about anything else. A certain type of service is going on during those times, and our own personal concerns have to take a back seat.

Mourning and tragedy bring out the “high church” element in social media. Mostly we are dealing with a very low church, however. Facebook is more formal and top-down than Twitter, though Facebook still tries to give the appearance of authentic spontaneity — not so much a high church as a megachurch atmosphere. But even the lowest church has its de facto rituals, and every morning we line up in our various competing choirs to play our small part in the endless liturgy.

For this liturgy is truly endless: both in the sense that our so-called “conversation” can never culminate in decision and action and in the sense that it has no rational end or goal aside from its own perpetuation. One could object that these sites do have a goal, namely the accumulation of capital in the form of ad revenues, but that aim seems somehow secondary or extrinsic. What they are doing, far out of proportion to any conceivable monetary payoff, is demanding our attention. And we give it to them, day in and day out.

Philip Goodchild says that piety is a form of directing attention, and if that’s the case, then we are growing more pious every day. Our worship is not directed at a creator, however, because social media only aggregates what is created elsewhere, or else what its own users create for free on its behalf. Nor is it directed at the one who will judge the living and the dead — social media’s refusal to effectively make judgments is what has let the atmosphere of harassment become so toxic. We are worshipping nothing but the very act of worship itself, world without end.

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