Monday, March 26, 2007

The action is not addressed to the oppressors but the witnesses

One of the things that struck me about Jodi's claim that she can't see any coherent alternative was the sense of inevitability that it embodied, as if the institution of Christianity or religion could not possibly disappear. Yet historically we've seen all sorts of institutions and religions disappear, and new things emerging in their place.
Additionally, you seem to be suggesting that the very awareness of this, the very awareness of the contingency of institutions, accelerates this process and opens up new potentials for engagement that would not be there without the thought of contingency. Reason must come to see itself as a contingent formation within history, which isn't to say that reason is somehow undermined or dismissed.
I have a tendency to think of a number of these issues in terms of populations, in much the same way that a biologist or an ethnographer might look at processes of speciation. One of the things I've found interesting in this discussion and the original post has been the tendency to focus on the *content* of the discourse, its propositions, whether it grounds itself or not, etc., and to evaluate it academically or intellectually in these terms. What seems to be forgotten in this is that discourses are populations or ways of life that are more or less intense or present within a historical setting or society. That is, we miss the dimension of these discourses as material realities that people live. Materially Christianity has been tremendously successful in the United States. There are churches on nearly every street corner, they own multiple television networks, speech addressing them is present in nearly every major governmental event, there are mass mailings that go throughout the population, they publish a tremendous amount of inspirational and fictional works, etc. It can, of course, be pointed out that the vast majority of Christians are not fundamentalists as Adam rightly points out. But what Adam seems to miss is that the content of a position erases itself in its actuality, reducing itself to what is most immediately present, i.e., the signifier "Christian". As a result, when legislation is enacted its inward content might very well be "nutjob fundamentalist" material, but it is supported by the larger population as this content erases itself and all that is heard is the signifier "Christian". That is, the distinctions disappear. As a result, those moderate secular Christians end up unwittingly supporting fundamentalist policies and public officials as they assume that the signifier has the same content as their own use of the signifier. Hence we cannot strongly draw these distinctions at the level of their material practice.
The question then becomes one of how new populations can be produced, new material forms of subjectivity traversing the social field, new speciations, etc. This is not a question of sterile academic debate where we wonder over whether this or that is grounded, or whether this or that is formally identical to religion, etc. Rather, it is a question of how to get certain strands of communication as material reality out there in the social field. This, for instance, is why I see books like Richard Dawkin's God Delusion or the Left Behind books as far more powerful than an ideological critique by Zizek or others in effecting change. When you see such a book advertised on the major news networks, spoken of in popular press, etc., you also see that the themes of discourse are changing. It's not a question of agreeing with Dawkins or whether he has a particularly sophisticated view of religion, and so on. Suddenly entire populations of youth find themselves with a vocabulary to voice thoughts that might have before been vague and undeveloped, and apoligists find that they must respond-- which entails making concessions --and the discourse shifts as a result. Rather, it's a question of how the field of forces is modified by the emergence of such things that must then be responded to at very basic and public levels outside the academy. I'm not expressing very well what I'm trying to get at here. Perhaps I'm trying to say that it's less a question of whether the position is true or false or the cleverness of an argument, but more the question of the relationship between a communication and an audience, and what potentials there are for producing a new species, subjectivity, or population. Posted by: Sinthome March 25, 2007 at 01:50 PM
Anthony you're correct, I'm talking about liberating the non-religious kernel from the religious flotsam in Jesus' religious teaching. And so yes, I'm certainly talking about a disfiguration. I think Jesus says some non-religious things of value such as loving ones neighbor, defending the marginalized, turning the other cheek, etc. I don't see why any of this need be connected to the Paul Bunyan stories that came to be attached to him. Certainly you weren't thinking that I would somehow ever become supportive of religion, did you? The most you might hope for there is a bit of mild tolerance for it as it isn't going away any time soon. I will also, of course, feel that some of my religious fellows are well meaning and have the right political and ethical aspirations. But that doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to begin seeing belief in divinity and the supernatural as a legitimate stance. Posted by: Sinthome March 25, 2007 at 01:56 PM
"In fact, you would have to erase much of his teaching to get at anything like a ground for ethics of the decent, procedural liberalism the Enlightenment bequeathed."
I always find it odd when you say things like this. I would claim that the Enlightenment has bequeathed many things... For instance, I would see Marx as a culmination of the Enlightenment. It's a little jarring for someone as steeped in Deleuze and Guattari as yourself to have such a difficult time with the concept of creative repetition or a repetition that is not a repetition of the same. I perpetually get the sense that you think I'm defending a position like John Locke's (your remark about Voltaire seemed to suggest this), or a form of rationality like Descartes'. It's more a question of a certain type of spirit and less a question of the content for me. Posted by: Sinthome March 25, 2007 at 02:00 PM
And, of course, Jesus is not the ground of anything... He happened to say some things that I believe are true. Talking of any man as the ground of anything is the whole problem. This is why I side with Socrates over Jesus. Socrates says "ignore me and evaluate what I say". Jesus says "I am God therefore obey what I say". I think this simple difference distils the entire difference between the religious tradition and the philosophical tradition and why they're not ultimately compatable. Jesus, no doubt, was deluded as to his identity and authority, but we, of course, can use our critical subjectivity to determine whether he nonetheless said some true things. Posted by: Sinthome March 25, 2007 at 02:04 PM
Yes, I am convinced that your approach to religion is essentially politically, intellectually, and ethically useless, much like Voltaire's. I value your insights on other things, but religion is not one of them. Love your enemies is not a truth one comes through by way of reason. Posted by: Anthony Paul Smith March 25, 2007 at 02:19 PM
"Love your enemies is not a truth one comes through by way of reason."
Sure it is. It is an exercise in rhetorical warfare at the level of political practice. Take Gandhi. In practicing non-violent protest and allowing themselves to be brutalized by their followers, they earned the sympathy of the witnesses of this violence. That is, the action is not addressed to the oppressors-- though perhaps the unwillingness to strike back horrifies them too --but the witnesses. In doing this, the witnesses come to side with the victims and the power of the oppressors is diminished. Socrates makes similar points at the end of the Apology. All of this strikes me as very reasonable political praxis.
You would have to make arguments as to how you see my remarks on religion as politically, ethically, and intellectually useless. Politically I'm discussing moments in history where fighting against religion in highly religious environments has been successful, thereby undermining the canard that it must simply be accepted. Moreover, I'm troubled by the way in which religion has so often been used as a tool of the oppressors. Here Zinn's opening chapter in the People's History is priceless. These issues would be related to ethics as well. Moreover, I'm simply refusing the common thesis that there can be no ethics without religion or that ethics somehow come from religion. Finally, intellectually, I'm bothered by the way in which religious belief has so often been anti-intellectual and inhibited intellectual development. The Middle Ages put Europe behind for about a thousand years. You can disagree, of course, but really you should make an actual argument rather than simple assertions. Posted by: Sinthome March 25, 2007 at 02:35 PM
Sinthome, "You can disagree, of course, but really you should make an actual argument rather than simple assertions."
It's a blog comment box. If you believe your words have gone past a slightly complexified assertion this is purely fantasy. And, of course, I have my own reasons for disagreeing. The reasonable question always in conversations like these remains "Is it worth my time to write them all out knowing full well it likely won't really change anyone’s views?" Frankly I think you are very convinced and even the discussion of empirical evidence to the contrary concerning the role of religion in intellectual and political life in the middle ages will fail to persuade you of anything other than the average historical summary found in most history of philosophy books.
Non-violent protest is not love. The purpose of Gandhi's movement was not to love the British but to defeat them. Instrumental reason of this sort is not at work in the Gospels. Posted by: Anthony Paul Smith March 25, 2007 at 02:48 PM
It's unclear whether the historical Jesus claimed to be God. It's also unclear that the intellectual "lag" in the middle ages was due to "religion" rather than to a really tenuous political and economic situation. The authority of the pope varied from decade to decade; certain parts of Europe were able largely to ignore it, etc. And on the other side, a lot of the accomplishments of Islam -- in astronomy, for instance -- were motivated by religious needs (precision in locating Mecca for prayer purposes, etc.). Overall, your non-dialectical and ahistorical approach to these questions is astonishingly unconvincing. Posted by: Adam Kotsko March 25, 2007 at 03:01 PM

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