Monday, March 5, 2012

Bohemian Rhapsody

Marvin stood at the end of the bridge corridor. He was not in fact a particularly small robot. His silver body gleamed in the dusty sunbeams and shook with the continual barrage which the building was still undergoing. He did, however, look pitifully small as the gigantic black tank rolled to a halt in front of him. The tank examined him with a probe. The probe withdrew.
"I'm afraid," said Marvin, "that I've been left here to stop you."
"What are you armed with?" roared the tank in disbelief.
"Guess," said Marvin.
"Errmmm ..." said the machine, vibrating with unaccustomed thought, "laser beams?"
Marvin shook his head solemnly.
"No," muttered the machine in its deep guttural rumble, "Too obvious. Er ... how about an electron ram?"
This was new to Marvin.
"What's that?" he said.
"One of these," said the machine with enthusiasm.
From its turret emerged a sharp prong which spat a single lethal blaze of light. Behind Marvin a wall roared and collapsed as a heap of dust. The dust billowed briefly, then settled.
"You're thinking along the wrong lines," said Marvin, "You're failing to take into account something fairly basic in the relationship between men and robots. I'll tell you what they gave me to protect myself with, shall I?"
"Yes, alright," said the battle machine, bracing itself.
"Nothing," said Marvin.
There was a dangerous pause.
"Nothing?" roared the battle machine.
"Nothing at all," intoned Marvin dismally, "not an electronic sausage."
"Hell that makes me angry," bellowed the machine, "think I'll smash that wall down!"
The electron ram stabbed out another searing blaze of light and took out the wall next to the machine.
"How do you think I feel?" said Marvin bitterly.
"I think I'll shoot down their bloody ceiling as well!" raged the tank.
It took out the ceiling of the bridge.
"That's very impressive," murmured Marvin.
"You ain't seeing nothing yet," promised the machine, "I can take out this floor too, no trouble!" It took out the floor, too.
"Hell's bells!" the machine roared as it plummeted fifteen storeys and smashed itself to bits on the ground below.
"What a depressingly stupid machine," said Marvin and trudged away.
-Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe [edited]

In case you haven't noticed, I've spent the last few months wrestling with the work of John Milbank for a dissertation chapter, and I still haven't recovered. I may never recover. This is the wonder of Milbank. His regular whipping boys are the apostles of what he calls "postmodern nihilism." Basically, for him, all those postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers in the wake of Nietzsche, all those darlings of cultural studies -- Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze (especially), and even Levinas -- they're nihilists.

They're like the robotic tank in the above passage: having lain waste to everything, they have nothing left to stand on, no purchase for undertaking any kind of radical politics -- never mind the extent to which they get employed in the service of such a politics. It won't work, Milbank feels, and in characteristic fashion he tells us that orthodox Christian theology is the only thing that will. It's a little more complicated than that, and more of the story can be found in the chapter "Ontological Violence" in Milbank's Theology and Social Theory.

I bring this up because it is Milbank who has convinced me that I am a nihilist, and it is my love/hate relationship with Milbank and his project that has goaded me into embracing that with something akin to enthusiasm. I want a T-shirt that says "I'm the postmodern nihilist Milbank warned you about." 

(Or maybe not.)

What I'm trying to do is accept Milbank's premise -- yes, this is in fact a kind of nihilism, and we should admit that -- without accepting his conclusion that we should therefore either embrace orthodox Christianity or just give up and acquiesce to capitalistic excess. This strikes me as a much more sophisticated but nevertheless equally spurious version of the argument that atheists, having abandoned God and therefore any basis for morality, should just become axe murderers and call it a day.

But if Milbank is correct that this is a form of nihilism, he's also correct that it is difficult to get a coherent politics out of it. I'm critical of Milbank not because I think there's a better way to arrive at a radical politics (or any politics for that matter) but because I don't think Milbank's project is going to work. It's very interesting theology, and has made quite a splash, and that's good for Milbank but I don't think anyone in the political world is going to make a hearty go of it and I don't think it would produce the desired results anyway. Of course, since it won't be tried we'll never know. Or as I like to say: history might prove me wrong, but I don't think it's that motivated. Nihilism FTW.

Milbank's articulation of a postfoundationalist milieu in which the apology for Christianity is its ability to stave off nihilism cannot, no matter how earnest Milbank's belief itself might be, fully escape the irony of the postmodern nihilism he laments. At that point it's already too late. Postfoundationalism is a nihilism, not in the sense of abandoning meaning altogether (as if that were possible) but in the sense of being forced to recognize that our attempts to create meaning don't rest on anything solid, and can't. If it's hard to get a politics out of this, then Milbank is in the same boat. On one hand, he's done it -- but then we should be able to recognize that others can, too. On the other hand, well, see above.

This might seem depressing, and that makes sense to me, but strangely I find it all invigorating. In fact, embracing that has been what I think has been a very helpful response to my own depression. This keeps coming up lately. Once again, there are three witnesses, three conversations that on their own might have made me think, and have demanded my attention all the more by ganging up on me with the rule of three.

The first conversation came on the heels of my last post: in the midst of various cross-postings and roundups I was introduced to another blogger. His work intrigued me, especially inasmuch as he was offering a bit of a critique of mainstream atheism mainly, it seemed to me, on the basis that it didn't fully own up to being a nihilism. This intrigued me, since that's my critique of a lot of things. But when I brought it up, the conversation fell apart on two levels.

First, my interlocutor felt that my attempts to connect him with schools of thought familiar to me constituted a form of rhetorical violence and that I was failing to see past those associations and engage the real person. This apparently warranted a bit of lecturing on his part. Second, he didn't feel I was taking the conversation seriously enough, and that I was treating his own seriousness as something to be mocked. He approaches such conversations, he told me, as if everything was at stake, and faulted me for approaching it as if nothing was at stake and this was just fodder for making snarky jokes. Which is true.

To the extent that the bit about labels was a critique of representation I'm quite sympathetic; there is a kind of rhetorical violence involved. But think rhetorical violence is only the issue if by naming something we assume we are identifying its essence and thereby gaining some sort of mastery over it. I don't think there is an essence to name. I just rather automatically look for associations and connections; what I am identifying is not an essence but a possible family resemblance. His earnestness surprised me coming from someone whose writing evinced what I thought was nihilism, so maybe I was wrong about that. But I don't know why he couldn't have just said "no, I don't think this is nihilism, and here's why."

As for the other, well -- guilty. I apologized for this, but pointed out that I did admit to being a nihilist, and as problematic as the label might be for him, I might have meant something by it. It's like the swordfighting scene between Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean: Turner says "you cheated!" and Sparrow shrugs and says "Pirate...."

I tend to not take things seriously, I admit. Humor is my default. I'm a cynic, but I'm a happy cynic. Even when I'm curmudgeonly it's all schtick. My blogger friend wrote that if everything wasn't at stake, suicide would be preferable. I confess this baffles me. Suicide just doesn't seem that interesting.

The second conversation came during an independent study. One of our graduate students is doing some work with anarchist theory and wanted more background, so the department gave me the go-ahead. This has been fun because it's given me a reason to dig into to some of the history, and especially some primary sources, that I'd neglected up to this point. We've been chomping at the bit, however, to get to the postanarchist stuff. This is the intersection of postmodern/poststructuralist thought and anarchist theory, and we're geeked out about it.

Todd May is my favorite, but he has trouble arriving at a specific politics, even though he tries to do so and he wrote a whole book on practices. Still: what does a postanarchist actually do? That seems to be a difficult question. My counterpart, frustrated with May (and me sometimes), prefers Saul Newman. So I'm May and she's Newman. "We should develop a comedy skit based on that," she told me, "Except only three people would get it...and they're in the UK."

Newman's politics is more promising, but he gets there by sneaking some universals in the back door. I think this really is the central aporia: in a world where nothing really matters, what is politics? Does it do any good to critique the philosophy that tells us there is no starting point for not being a good starting point? To me, the problem is ticklish. To my grad student friend, it's a bit depressing, though she's hardly suicidal.

The third conversation was with a friend of mine who, like me, is sometimes visited by depression. We have similar personalities and wrestle with similar issues, but he has a more developed sense of justice than I do and greater sense of affront when that justice doesn't present itself.  I'm more cynical, but I don't want to take  that sense of justice away from him and I don't presume my own path to be normative. He's tempted to think that things might not be worth it without meaning or justice; he's actually had some suicidal thoughts.

I want to take that seriously, but at the same time it's a part of his experience I can't relate to. I chalk it up to narcissism: my own life is so interesting to me that if I ended it on purpose I'd be missing out on what happens next. Hey, it works: don't hate me. I also think it's precisely my nihilism that leads me to have lower expectations of the world and thus less chance for disappointment (and depression). Defense mechanism? Sure. I don't think that is unusual.

It's a long story, but I discovered in the midst of a disastrous life crisis that my narcissism can't be trusted with intrinsic meaning. I'm a nihilist for the same reason a recovering alcoholic doesn't drink. At this point you can dismiss my perspective as an artifact of my personality issues, but then I'd just point out that your perspective does the same thing for you, and we're back to the same place. Nihilism FTW again.

But who am I to say that my friend's sense of justice is misplaced or misguided? He might be led to actually do something. I don't think nihilists can go around prescribing what can and can't be done. It's just that we know it's ultimately ironic (particularly in the sense that Rorty calls "ironism"). Simon Critchley is not sending me Christmas cards.

Another friend put it to me this way, describing my nihilism as a double bind: "you feel compelled to treat other people seriously on their own grounds, allow them to define themselves to the extent that it is possible, but you also believe, so to speak, in nihilism: you feel that despite their protestations you know 'what's really going on' even if it's precisely nothing that is going on."

What I ended up telling my friend is that maybe between suicidal despair and a nihilistic cynicism is way of narrating that sense of justice as a call that can never be fulfilled but is nevertheless generative. There are shades here of Derrida's "democracy that is to come" or a kind of Levinasian ethical call; we can respond to that call but we cannot answer it. Can we get a politics out of that? Not a universal one, certainly, but I don't think that should stop people from acting on their desires for a better world. I'd just point out that those desires are always already constructed from choices we've made or choices that have been made for us.

I'm also a lot of fun at parties.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Building a Mystery

I recently referred to myself as a "postsecular atheist," which I think might be fairly accurate if I knew what it meant. I've been wondering about that. Insisting that I'm technically a theological non-realist (or a metaphysical non-realist more generally) seems pointless since nobody knows what that is, either. But the problem with identifying as an atheist is that I'm not the sort of atheist for whom being an atheist is the goal as opposed to an artifact of not believing in God. There is no "right way" to be an atheist, but some atheists seem to act like it, and I'm not sure I pass the test. It's mutual, though: atheism, as a discourse community, is not that attractive to me -- no offense to my atheist friends.

I don't share the (stereo)typical atheist disdain for religion. I don't think we'd all be better off if we just got rid of religion, as if that were even possible. I'm an atheist less by virtue of being certain that God does not exist than by not being able to say what it would mean if God did, or why we should assume there is only one God, or how I should comport myself in the face of the existence of said God. I don't know how we would know those things, which I suppose is more agnostic than atheist. But being allergic to metaphysics, I don't have a framework in which "I believe in God" is intelligible. Redefining God as whatever might happen to be "out there" doesn't really do much work, and neither does redefining God as something I might be a little less reticent about, like the Tao or something (if that worked, wouldn't it make more sense to just be a Taoist?). So, to recap: I don't believe in God, which I think is the definition of atheism. I just don't fit the usual profile. 

This is where the "postsecular" bit comes in. Postsecularity describes the sense in which we're realizing -- at least in some areas of thought -- that what we think of as "the secular" is not something that was revealed when we finally pulled back the veil of religion, but rather a way of thinking that was constructed in response to and on the heels of developments in Christian theology. There are various ways of narrating this, from Charles Taylor to John Milbank to Marcel Gauchet, but the basic idea is that there is no neutral sphere in which we can negotiate the common good without influence from religion or ideology. Moreover, the idea that there is such a sphere is itself a claim about the "way things are" that is already at odds with religious formulations.

It would be silly, for instance, to say that liberal democracy is a religion, per se (though perhaps not that silly) but it does make defacto (meta-)religious claims and cannot avoid doing so. A claim that religion and state should remain separate is still a claim about religion, and suggests that the state, and only the state, should be able to do things that might otherwise fall under the purview of religion. Questions about the common good or how we might best live to together, questions that we assume to be political, are not questions about which religion has been silent. Even the idea that there is a genus "religion" of which a given person's way of constructing the world can be seen a species is problematic -- especially for those ways of seeing the world we tend to call religions. What lies at the core of many people's construction of identity is precisely the thing that liberal democracy says they should bracket.

[Postsecularity is the condition in which we recognize that "the secular" is just some shit we made up. This opens us up to the realization that postsecularity is just some shit we made up in the wake of realizing that secularity was some shit we made up. Basically it's shit all the way down.]

So what does it mean to be an atheist self-consciously in this milieu? I can identify three candidates for what postsecular atheism might look like -- three versions of it -- and I find them all unsatisfying. First and foremost, of course, is Slavoj Žižek. I love Žižek; I don't love how that makes me a lot like a bunch of nerdy post-evangelicals who also love Žižek. And I'm not sure how much I agree with Žižek, especially since most of the stuff he's on about -- psychoanalysis and Lacan and all that -- I really don't have much use for. Still, there's an attraction. Žižek's like the crazy drunk uncle whom you secretly love just because he makes things more interesting. You don't want to emulate him, or take any of his advice, but he's a hell of a lot of fun.

For Žižek, God is the Lacanian "Big Other" we need to do without. The psychoanalysis is over when you recognize that there is no Big Other -- that you are, basically, on your own. To the extent that this speaks to the experience of postfoundationalism, I'm on board. But Žižek doesn't stop there. The twist is that it is Christianity that tells us this. Jesus' cry "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is this realization, Jesus beating the crazy old man in Thus Spake Zarathustra to the punch by almost 2,000 years.

Žižek and Jesus are like Tyler Durden telling his minions, "You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you, never wanted you, in all probability he hates you. This is not the worst thing that could happen," except that God can't be bothered to actually hate you because he's not there. God the father empties himself into Jesus the son and gets whacked and can now only be found "resurrected" in the Spirit in the form of community. And we all have to enter into this realization. There is no God, no Big Other; there's just us, muddling through, doing whatever we can. We, collectively, are the only God we're going to get.

Two things bother me about this. One, it seems to prescribe a normative (and normatively Christian!) path. If we'd just get over our fixation with the Big Other (God being merely one candidate for this), we could be free and move on to...whatever. And this, to me, introduces a kind of back-door humanism -- that's the second thing -- an emancipatory project presuming a human subject to be liberated.

Another possibility is Alain de Botton's "Atheism 2.0." I'll be honest -- I haven't read the book, Religion for Atheists; I've only seen his TED talk. And I hadn't heard of him at all before I read this scathing review by Terry Eagleton. So my introduction wasn't great and my knowledge is not robust. I may be getting him wrong. Still, Botton is interesting in that he thinks atheists too quickly dismiss aspects of religion that might be helpful. From the aforementioned talk:
Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I'm talking about -- people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can't bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It's almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you're living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.
Botton's solution? Raid the various religious traditions for ideas, concepts, rituals, etc. (the "nice stuff") that might give us the purported benefits of religion without committing ourselves intellectually or otherwise. On one hand, this seems hopelessly consumeristic; on the other hand, Botton seems to be enriching his particular tradition -- atheism -- with things learned from outside that tradition, much as postmodern Christians might enrich their tradition with the findings of science or the musings of philosophy. Traditions are not hermetically sealed, and most if not all have a history of syncretism and cross-pollination. Nevertheless, I don't much see the point. I really don't see atheists banding together in a parody of religion to feel better about themselves. Or they already do and we call them Unitarian Universalists.

Finally, there's Robert Jensen. Jensen shares a leftist politics with Žižek (I'm not sure of Botton's politics; Eagleton calls him a libertarian), but unlike Žižek and Botton is actually a member of a church. He tells his story in All My Bones Shake: he met the pastor of a Presbyterian church in the course of his political activism and became attracted to the church's collective life and the way it intersected with progressive politics. Eventually he got sucked into that life even though he's not really come around to believing in God as such. The story is a good one, and while Jensen is not the riveting memoirist that Anne Lamott is, it's the best part of the book.

The rest of the book outlines what we might call his political theology, which he sums up in the paradoxical "There is no God, and now more than ever we all need to serve the One True Gods." The construction is deliberate. By "there is no God" he means basically what Žižek means by there not being a Big Other but without that language. What we think of as God, he says, is just a name for mystery itself, which is not something we worship or commit ourselves to.

The "One True Gods" are community (as a concept) and communities (as concrete expressions of that concept), things we must attend to if we're going to survive as a species. This is, perhaps, compatible with  Žižek's emphasis on the death of God and the birth of community in the Spirit. Jensen comes off as a communalist (and something of a localist) with a bit of anarcho-primitivist ecological apocalypticism thrown in the mix, but without landing on anything recognizable as anarchist theory. He's a progressive, which is better than a lot of the alternatives, and his theology seems like a bit of a mainline liberal rehash that at least has the stones to admit to being atheist.

There are also out-and-out Christian Atheists, and Žižek and I have both been branded with that designation. I'm sometimes loath to call myself either one, let alone both. My atheist friends wonder, given my interest in Christianity (and my not-infrequent defense of Christianity as a coherent body of thought) if I'm really an atheist at all. Some of my Christian friends who know of my "status" are holding out a none-too-subtle hope that this is just a phase for me, and that I will come around. It's been over a decade, but there are days I can almost imagine what it would be like to believe again. I don't think they're right, but I can't predict the future.

On the other hand, I'm reluctant to call myself a Christian because it seems like, well, God is kind of a big deal. At any rate, I'm coming to realize that my own admixture of intellectual atheism and social participation in Christianity is largely artifactual, a result of what I call "social inertia": I've been part of the Christian tradition for most of my life. In some ways I've been in and out; in others, I've just been in, with the idea that I could ever be out being largely illusory. These are my people. Many of my friends and most of my family are Christians. I also don't believe in God -- but being an atheist isn't enough of an identity marker for me to disrupt all of those relationship and become "the atheist" in that social grouping. Or become somebody's project, which is what tends to happen.

I'm not, however, trying to combine those things into a cohesive philosophical framework. I happen to be a theologically literate but otherwise nominal Christian, mostly by heritage. I also happen to not believe in God.

This is not the worst that could happen.