Category Archives: Humanism
Skepoet: Are these emergent church types actually popular as most of the dominations in Protestant Christianity to show growth are fairly conservative theologically and politically?
Charley Earp: I don’t think it’s their popularity that makes them important. It’s their role as “in-house” critics of Evangelicalism. They are lightning rods for issues often considered closed topics. For example, ex-Pentecostal Emergent theologian Tony Jones was invited to give a plenary address to the Society for Pentecostal Studies annual conference in 2010. SPS is an association of confessional Pentecostals who hold academic positions. It tends to be conservative, but it does have a left-wing element, which is represented via the “Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice” organization. Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an assistant professor at Azusa Pacific University Graduate School of Theology and member of PCPJ, was organizing the annual meeting and invited Tony Jones. When word of that got back to denominational leadership in the Assemblies of God – the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world – a fight broke out as these leaders tried to get Tony banned from the conference. Tony openly advocates for same-sex marriage and theological liberalization. He’s quite a fan of Jurgen Moltmann who was inspired by Ernst Bloch to create the “Theology of Hope.”
I’m not saying that emergent Christian leaders are going to entirely turn Evangelicalism to the left, but they are dividing significant sectors of the younger generation against elements of the New Christian Right.
S.: What do you think of Christianity’s movement politically on the world stage?
C.E. Christianity is a multifarious mass. Christians inhabit all social classes and cultural niches. It is the most successful human organization in history, outside the nuclear family. It has united people across cultural divides, as well as built brand new ones out of its own doctrines.
There will be Christians on all sides of any future revolution. There are forces inside and outside Christianity that will remold it and overcome its conservative tendencies. Liberation Theology seems to me to be the only viable interpretation of the faith that can persist after the collapse of capitalism, whether that collapse comes sooner or later.
I also hold that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and all other metaphysical subcultures will be forced to deal with each other and rethink their absolutist claims in light of intensifying cross-cultural interactions. This is already happening in many arenas and will only accelerate.
S.: I am more skeptical about this as intercultural exchange is not unique to capitalist modernity. Also what elements of Christianity are a successful social forms? It seems hard to see what social relationships are consistent in all strands of Christianity. However, there are pretty consistent trends in Protestantism in Asia and Africa where Christianity tends to act as a liberalizing force in its early encounters with native culture, but in also all such societies is now socially and increasingly economically conservative: although the latter seems very context dependent. For example, in South Korea and Japan a Protestant Christian socialism was the dominant strain of thought, but the churches have increasingly mirrored American Protestantism and have become politically entangled with the right. Protestantism in Latin America still seems to be predominantly a slightly left-economic force, but it’s harder to place socially. So while I recognize Christian tendencies on all sides of the question: there does seem to be definite trends that can be sorted out.
C.E.: Intercultural interaction didn’t originate in capitalist modernity, but it will reach its climax and denouement in a similar fashion as capitalist modernity will run its course. Ken Wilber emphasizes that never before in history have the greatest religious and cultural traditions across human history become so widely accessible around the world. It isn’t complete, but it will only accelerate. In Chicago I have my choice of more than a dozen different Buddhist centers from Tibetan to Vietnamese to Japanese to Korean to Westernized practice. That has occurred entirely in my lifetime, it wasn’t true when I was born. In my Quaker denomination, I’ve participated in various interfaith meetings and this dynamic is even being theorized in Evangelical and Pentecostal seminaries as we speak, not always with conventional orthodox results.
My children attended Chicago public schools and were exposed to dozens of different ethnicities and religions. My daughter is actually very attracted to Korean Protestantism, for some reason. My son is a Quaker, too, but he’s still figuring out what that means, since Quakers don’t use a catechism or enforce creeds.
S.: Islam and Christianity has seen massive retrenchment in Christianity as the there is a real decline in the mainline denominations to both left and right variants of theology. Why do think this is and what do you think the relationship is to secularization?
C.E.: Secularization seems to me to be one of the responses to pluralism, to the way modern communications and immigration patterns have forced world religions into new levels of interaction. Modern secularism arose in Europe as a response to the “wars of religion” in the aftermath of the Reformation. Today secularism in the global context as a product of primarily Western Europe and American expansion is viewed by significant parts of the world outside those spheres as both anti-religious and Christian imperialist incursions. How it is perceived depends on whether a given situation elicits a retrenchment of religious identity to resist imperialism – such as in Muslim nations – or for opportunistic economic development – Asian Capitalist “Tigers”.
American Christian fundamentalism is an important historical development in the interaction with secularizing trends. This fundamentalism was originally a reaction to the rise of unorthodox theologies that originated in Europe, as well as to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Some fundamentalists did try to harmonize evolution and creationism, but that viewpoint was often rejected in favor of more rigid views. A key element of fundamentalism was an apocalyptic pessimism. This interpretation of the Bible predicted a great Anti-Christ One World Government arising after the Secret Rapture of Christians. This issued in a nearly complete passivity and social disengagement. Evangelism and World Missions to non-Christian cultures took on an urgency and politics became unimportant. The engagement with other religions took the form of strategizing the most effective evangelistic techniques to penetrate non-Christian societies with Americanized versions of the gospel. This gospel was not the original message of Jesus about a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, but a purely apolitical personal salvation focused on the afterlife and coming apocalypse. This apoliticism was quite useful in inculcating docility in the face of capitalist and imperialist exploitations of these societies.
After World War I, the fundamentalist agenda began to emphasize other aspects, such as Zionism and Anti-Communism. After the defeat of Fascism, fundamentalism again assumed a fairly apolitiical quiescent role. This was ended when the Civil Rights movement arose using a fairly orthodox Christianity against racial segregation. The “social gospel” that had been targeted as apostasy by fundamentalists came back with a new compelling moral critique. The “New Christian Right” arose in significant measure from the old-line segregationist preachers like Jerry Falwell. The new targets were feminism, homosexuality, drug war, abortion, and the welfare system.
The decline in secularization in the latter 20th century was a result of the way a segment of the business class partnered with the New Christian Right to attain political power. Today, we are seeing a new wave of departures from Christianity and repressive religions in the U.S. though it is far from a tidal wave. The “New Atheism” was a reaction to 9/11 as an assertion that that tragedy flowed directly from religion. This argument is compelling if not analyzed very carefully, so lots of energy has flowed into that movement.
Add to this the inability of the Christian Right to win the presidential nomination, losing it to Romney, who they nearly all reject as a Christian. Some of the more pragmatic voices on the Right will try to persuade Christians to still vote for Romney, but it’s amazing to me that the choice for evangelical Christians is between a liberal Christian like Obama and a “cultist” like Romney. My family are mostly conservative Pentecostals and we were taught very young how evil Mormons were. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
I’d say secularism and pluralism are back on the agenda and in the ascendancy. If Romney wins, there will be ascendancy. Theologically strict Christians will have to work through their cognitive dissonance with Romney. They either embrace him and pragmatically elevate their politics over their doctrines, or they reject him and he’s weaker than nearly any Republican candidate since Gerald Ford. Reagan himself had weaknesses such as his divorce to contend with. Mormon heresy will seem much worse than divorce to many Christian Rightists.
S.: Do you think Christianity could completely schism over these tendencies?
C.E. I’d say the schism between regressive and progressive religion is permanent and fatal and the progressives will win, unless the Apocalypse of human self-extinction occurs. Unpragmatic walled-garden Fundamentalism (Christian or Islamic) cannot survive for long as a political movement. Even Jerry Falwell was viewed by the apolitical camp as a compromiser for working with different groups of Christians and even neo-conservative Jews! Even the Plymouth Brethren (the original source of apocalyptic fundamentalism) have regrouped and reconciled many of their dozens of schisms. Now, Romney pushes that pragmatic necessity to new heights. Before long, you might even see a politically potent New Atheist Right, followers of Ayn Rand who favor traditional marriage and banning abortion. In a weird way Ron Paul is already in that vein, though he’s still a Christian.
Christianity has been around for so long and is disseminated in the Derridean sense of producing multiple incommensurable discourses, of which one cannot choose the “correct interpretation.” This is why I, who doubts if Jesus was an actual historical person, still consider the Communist threads in the Biblical texts as powerfully useful in creating a new post-Marxist communism, which Badiou and Zizek have confirmed for me. As I’ve said before, Christian Communism isn’t a new idea for many of us, I’ve just hesitated to articulate it while Marxism still seemed to have more life within it. Latin American theologies like Jose Miranda’s 1982 book “Communism in the Bible” were here before me. Here the Zizekian story from “Looking Awry” about the man who leaves his wife and children and then turns up a decade later with a new wife and children seems to exactly characterize the possibility of Communism being reborn as a post-supernaturalist pluralist religious discourse.
Zizek’s point here was that perceiving your life as if you were moving forward to something entirely new is always deceptive, because if you look backward retrospectively, you see that you are really just going where you’ve already been. I left Christianity over 15 years ago, but I keep going back to it in new ways. I don’t think there’s nothing new in this repetition, after all, perhaps your new spouse isn’t as verbally abusive as the old one, and so on. Quakerism is much healthier for me than Pentecostalism. In fact, an argument can be made that Pentecostalism was a variant on Quakerism. Old wife same as the new wife.
As for the left and religion, I see my continuing passion to be advocating radical ideas among religious people. Atheists generally find me annoying, since I keep insisting that they are missing out on a potentially enormous mass audience. If both Christian and Islamic forms of Communist vision can be articulated, as well as other post-Marxist religious and atheist Communisms, we have a message to the world that can resonate in the present. Rather than fighting for early modern secularism of the liberal or Leninist types, a new post-postmodern political pluralism seems to be urgently needed that creates avenues of mutual understanding between Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Neo-Pagans, and others. I have even less knowledge of Hindu traditions than Muslim, though this past weekend I re-watched the film “Gandhi” and know that there’s fertile soil there as well.
I also think we can mine the traditions of Anarcho-communism here as well. In fact, some of the hard but necessary work seems to me to revolve around how to split the differences between statist and anti-statist communisms. Anarcho-communism hasn’t really had a political program for a long time (not since Catalonia, I’d say) and if they care to create one, it will have to face hard into the fact that State power isn’t going to disappear, so a new “via media” will have to be found between doctrinaire anti-Statism and engaging state power. Here I sit in an odd relation to Badiou and Critchley who both advocate “politics at a distance from the State.” This makes sense if one is talking to Marxists, not so much when talking to Anarchists. Meeting in the middle ground seems unexplored territory, yet Noam Chomsky has been there for decades advocating saving the welfare systems while maintaining his generally anarchist critique of most State actions.
All of these post-Marxist developments impinge on the possibility of multiple religious revolutionary movements that are progressive in an authentic sense, not regressive like 1978 Iran. Even Hugo Chavez has something to offer this moment, as confused as he is about Iran.
S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
C.E. I hope it’s alright with you if I take the opportunity to address a topic that came up between you and I outside the context of this interview on a Facebook thread. In particular, whether my approach takes religious beliefs seriously enough? You and I have disagreed over in what sense absolutism and religious beliefs are connected. I won’t assume that I really understand your take on it, since our discussion has been so informal.
I was a believing Christian almost from the time I could form the sentence, “Jesus is my savior.” However, as I’ve studied theories of cognitive formation such as Piaget and James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” research, I can now look back and see that my religious beliefs evolved without my conscious control of them. My cognitive and emotional grasp of ideas of God, heaven, infinity, absolute morality, and so on took place within my growth from a schoolboy to adolescent to young adult to older adult and, as Fowler documents, our “faith” “evolves,” even if a person never really goes beyond what he calls a “conventional” religious stance.
Beyond Fowler’s individual psychology, there are the social systemic orders to consider. I believe that each of us living today have been born into societies that are complexly structured by systems of domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation. Most religious believers of any known society anywhere are on one side or another – usually the disempowered side – of multiple binaries of dominated or dominating, exploitated or exploiting, and so on. A white working-class male can simultaneously be a leader in his church, a patriarchal husband, a racist, and yet be a minimum wage worker in capitalism, which leads to a subjective amalgam of both dominator/exploiter and dominated/exploited attitude formation. The facticity of being a worker under capital has been believed somewhat vulgarly by some Marxists as automatically endowing them with a revolutionary potential. However, these forms of Marxism see the process of consciousness formation in far too mechanical terms.
What has come to engage a significant amount of my thought is trying to understand the hierarchical mind that seems to take pleasure in being a subordinate. I chafe under male domination so badly that I never held a job for more than a couple years from the age of 17 to 39, when I began working for a travel company that was managed almost exclusively by women. I’ve been with them for over 9 years. My immediate supervisors have been women for that entire time and I’m generally a model employee. Apparently, I only take pleasure in being exploited by women! Apparently, many workers take pleasure in being subordinated to capitalism and that messes with simple Marxist notions of revolutionary agency.
My general observation about the complexity of consciousness and its reference to religious beliefs is that using my eightfold framework of gender, sex, class, race, religion/irreligion, politics, ecology, and aggression/violence I understand each person is embedded in these systemic dynamics which make holding a single consistent set of cognitive religious ideas nearly impossible. When I was an active participant in Christian churches as an adult for over two decades, I discussed theology at every opportunity and in nearly every single conversation I’d find some unorthodoxy in every person, many of whom were members in good standing and even leaders in confessional denominations that had fairly specific tenets. Many had a hard time accepting the Trinity, or the incarnation, or hell, or whatever. These private conversations revealed that almost no one bothered to work through their cognitive dissonances about their beliefs with much seriousness.
Even theologians and the discipline of theology are themselves built upon the need to try and resolve cognitive dissonance and it is largely unsuccessful, though one might ask is any academic pursuit ever successful in the sense of resolving all cognitive dissonances about a topic? Imagine the enormity of the task of creating the “One True Orthodox Faith” that is entirely self-consistent and coherent! It has been the agenda of certain religious elites since at least the first Nicean Council of 325 C.E. and of course, even further back. Have they succeeded? Of course not, look at the thousands of churches that the heretics, apostates, gnostics, and ostensibly orthodox have formed.
So, religious belief is a shifting protean mass, much like the various Marxisms. This is why I insist radicals and revolutionaries do not have the luxury of treating religious beliefs in isolation from the complexities of social dynamics. We can’t try to both convert people to revolution and to atheism in the manner of Lenin, Trotsky, or worse, Stalin. Our organizations should be consciously pluralist.
Just as the ruling classes manipulate religion and atheism for their ends, so should the revolutionaries. I don’t mean the term “manipulate” in a baldly cynical manner, either. There are revolutionary theologies out there, notably Latin American liberation theologies but many more, that can be inserted into the religious cultures of any society as a productive intervention against ruling class religion. Atheism has limited success because it, too, is severely shaped by the elitisms within the matrix of domination. The necessary response to religious and irreligious dominator ideologies from above is to encourage a flourishing pluralism of religious and irreligious revolutionary visions from below.
Will there ever be a society that has the luxury to create a wholly consistent metaphysical system that everyone can believe? Not in my or your lifetime. Can we acheive revolutionary unity that can win the fight against capitalism, racism, sexism, tyranny, religious supremacism, and ecocide? Consider how capitalism and representative democracy came to rule the planet. Is it consistent, coherent, and lacking in cognitive dissonance? No, yet it rules effectively. A revolutionary pluralism can also come to rule in the name of a emancipated humanity and flourishing ecology.
S.: My disagreement with you is not just about seriousness because we believe in the same basic set of facts:
1) The secular and religious have been co-defining each other by various levels of cultural dominance over time, so even those concepts are inter-dependent in ways that are to break down, but if that it is the conceptual case, then the matter becomes solely about truth claims.
2) Religion is a historically development both it is beliefs and its social forms. The very idea of religion has an incoherence at it’s core that makes sense only when you look at the Pre-Christian and non-Christian categories. The way Stoics and Platonists talked about their beliefs were similar terms to the way Confucians and Buddhists talked about theirs, and yet we label one a religion and the other a philosophy. But anyone with any historically aware categorical sense
will tell you that neither of the categories really holds in the way we believe them now. Furthermore, the ideas of within a religion are similarly historically confused and that is actually a good thing: some may call this historical contingency, moral progress, or the dominance of the zeitgeist. I suppose we can take our pick on which one we mean. But this means that values that would be considered secular, as in values outside of the purview internal to religious ideology, drive the manifestation and justification of religious ideas.
3) The suppression of religion backfires if it is actively pursued. Both in the case of extremely conservative variants of Russian Orthodoxy and of “radical” (reactionary) Islamism develop out of the state suppression of religion in the various secular Pan-Arabist movements as well as in colonial periods. Often leftists lazily conflate the two reasons for suppressing religion because the outcome was the same, but that brings me to where we differ.
4) Even the most die-hard atheists has points of ethical and ontological commitments that are not empirically or rationally justified, or even justifiable. Therefore, everyone has a political “theology” in the sense that Carl Schmitt used to the term.
But our disagreement is profound and based on three key differences:
1) Historically, religious ideologies that make universal claims do so not on pluralist grounds–Abrahamic religions especially, but it is misleading to see it as unique to them because such developments can be seen in Buddhist nationalism in Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Thailand. All countries where Buddhism became dominant by interpolating or syncretizing prior beliefs and then actively suppressing them when they achieved state dominance and the support of a court or Imperial power. The versions of these religions that “remained” radical avoided or even anathematized state power, or have developed in context with other prior strong traditions would they could not entirely incorporate and had separate identities. The examples you give of the liberating versions of Christianity, for
example, have never been socially predominant in their home countries at a political level, so we do not know what they would do with state power. We have a good idea though given that even proto-Orthodox, proto-Catholic Christianity immediately became tied to schisms and violent purges the moment it had any favor from the state. The first Nicean council is a perfect example of that.
2) You’re completely correct about the parallel to Marxism on one level: that as “Marxist” thinkers interpreted the texts they developed readings that were universal, but in application and faces with the realities of the state form, more excluding forms began to dominate and could only be maintained by active purging of prior forms. In fact, as one can see in say, the Maoist cultural revolutions: forms of a hypothetical function that were “deviant” were seen as more
dangerous than completely separate religions. Oddly, something that Islam seems to have foreseen as a problem in its holy texts and over its historical development tried to enshine a protection against in the idea of Ummah and dhimmi as opposed to the infidels. Yet even in that case, the religion to which Islam most resembles is Judaism, not Christianity, and the prime tension it has after dealing with the imperialism directed against the peoples under its ideological forms.
3) The reason for this is a concept that I think applies to human cognition nearly universally: dialectical scission. A totality always divides into pluralities, or particulars, in other to be comprehensible, but the moment one links the particularities in order to classify and understand them, a second-order totality re-emerges, which then has to be demarcated. If you want to claim universal-ism without pluralism implicit within it: then you must try to render the
particular universal by stopping the demarcation and eliminating the other. This always fails in some sense even in successful genocides because the elimination or removal changes parts of the totality, this starting a comprehensible demarcation, and so the process continue. This is why the events I described in my second point seem to happen whenever an ideology, in the sense of idea, starts to dominate.
This leads me to an ultimate break with your line of thinking:
Any attempt to accommodate an claim about the ultimate into pluralism in which that absolute is given primacy will necessitate a political exclusion of some kind. Religion is not comprehensible without either a rupture of orthopraxy (“sin,” “miasma,”) or a rupture of orthodoxy (“heresy,” “wrongful speech,” etc). The pluralism necessarily undoes itself in the same way universal-ism does. While religious believers can be included in a plural universal, the moment you give privilege to that particularity, it will the process of scission will work itself out in history as groups seek to end exposed “cognitive dissonance.” The move to reduce cognitive dissonance and to end process of dialectical scission will happen in all most societies and when it is incorporated and privileged into a political praxis, it can only maintain it by using the states monopoly on the legitimization of violence. This is why I am a secularist in the sense that I do not wish to privilege any particularity to a universal status: I value the pluralism within the totality and want to learn to live with dialectical scission and the uncertainty it can create. In that sense, I agree with you on some of this but don’t think you take religion’s claim to WANT the absolute “seriously” enough. Just because people can’t come up with a coherent explanation: doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try. In history, that drive is one of the few constants.
Lastly, there is a way in which I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding capitalism and overstating on representative democracy:
1. Capitalism as a productive form exists nearly universally now in human cultures because it’s efficiency (and imperial impetus to it in the early states), but ideologies of capitalism are plural. All ideologues of capitalism, however, try to make their ideological justification for it universal. (Just like the religions do). It’s success is not predicated on that: it’s predicated on the fact that it is initially more efficient than most prior forms of organization. The list of reifications (sexism, racism, ecocide, etc) are abstractions of human relations–they are not real, you cannot fight them in that sense. Some of epiphenomenal to capitalist culture: racism and sexism are not dependent on capitalism, but existed prior and were easily incorporated into it as a means of
assigning class. Reductionistic Marxists who claim that racism is just a class development completely miss the boat on this, but so to are the non-Marxist leftists who see a litany of oppression(s) that are somehow necessarily conflated into one whole. We can see scission at work here, can’t we? Until we can offer a productive form that can answer capitalism, we aren’t going to transcend all of it, or perhaps, any of it. Conversely, until we can offer a political praxis and narrative (myth) that can lead us to a “value” system that could produce said productive form, we are essentially doing eschatology. We don’t defeat capitalism just by trying to develop a pluralist ideology to combat it, even if I think that is necessary.
2. Just as a matter of empirical fact: representative democracy is the fastest growing state form, but it does not rule the world. At least 1/6 to 1/3 of the world’s populations do not live in representative democracies and the democracies of both the US and EU have most of their state functions in undemocratic or only
semi-democratic institutions. Representative democracy is incoherent at its core: in fact, it has a contradiction in it’s very conception and has since far before capitalist modernity. That does not, however, end the drive to make it coherent. That drive to make it coherent has been a liberating feature in the past, but as economic and geo-political conditions change, then this becomes harder to maintain and something that was liberating is now oppressive.
I think that draws out my disagreement with you, but I hope you see that while the disagreement is profound so are the points of agreement. I will let you have the last word as it is my interview of you, and I don’t want to be uncharitable by responding with a highly philosophical and long form of my polemical engagement with you. Anyway, you do give me hope that religious thinkers can come to right conclusions and should be seriously listened to, and not shut out or oppressed out of existence, but I do think ultimately “irreligion and religion” from below will predicated on secular pluralism in any political or social form “the left” (whatever that actually means now) advocates.
C.E.: On your first point of “our disagreement”, I think I see one disagreement and one apparent misunderstanding in this topic. I do *not* advocate any religion or atheism holding state power. As a communist of universal love (I should coin a term like “agapestic communism” maybe? Naah, too Christian.) with anarchist tendencies, if there is some transitional state apparatus constructed after the revolution, I see it as very limited, with most power being exercised in direct democratic councils that are specifically constructed to be pluralistic in matters of religion. I envision ecumenical and interfaith consultations being conducted that work out specifically religious conflicts, in contrast to directly economic and political ones. Of course, most religious conflicts will overlap with these other sorts, but disentangling the overlaps is still a substantive religious task. Interactions between religious and irreligious groups will be conducted in keeping with democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian forms.
Before the revolution, I advocate socialist, anarchist, and other left organizations partnering with religious leftists to highlight the diversity of ways that revolutionary goals and values can be justified and propagated by a plethora of atheist and religious “political theologies.” Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and atheist “theologies” of religious pluralism have already been developed in academic forms, these need to be taken on explicitly by revolutionaries and advocated in the public square.
So, the revolution will be pluralistic and no religion or atheism will lead it. In a majority Christian society like the U.S. this means we need to work to change the politics of the churches, mosques, and synagogues more than their theologies, which will subtly or overtly change their theologies, but the horse of political goals needs to lead the cart of religious reformation. This means convincing those in the religious and irreligious camps to come to political agreements that are justifiable from diverse theological and atheological premises.
On the second point of our disagreement, I am not sure where we actually disagree there. I would probably emphasize even more the horrendous effects of State-sponsored atheism on civil liberties and social freedoms. The massacres, imprisonments, and repression of priests, monks, and lay religious adherents by some Communist powers are simply staggering and appalling. Atheism is no guarantee of fair jurisprudence or policing.
The mutual hostility between Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot be solved by a purely secular approach. These groups need to engage in a decades-long reconciliation process. This has been initiated by various bodies on all sides and the work of disentangling genuinely religious issues from non-religious ones is in part a theological work that cannot be carried out by atheists, though they should be brought into the dialogues as well. There is actually a movement for “interfaith humanism” being formed by younger folks who are getting involved in ecumenical and interfaith organizations to work out how to contribute to better understanding across the secular/religious divides. The blog nonprophetstatus.com is dedicated to this work.
You’re dialectical points in third section are little bit abstract. I am less than fully comprehending your totality/scission construct here. I don’t doubt that there’s valuable ideas in there, but it’d take some work on the background assumptions you employ to grasp some of this. If I can really vulgarize it, you seem to be saying that the quest for absolutism cannot be tamed within a pluralist framework, that a more robust secularism needs to be enforced so that absolutists can’t find the means to re-assert their dominance. My objection to that is, who the hell decides who enforces secularism? It’s democratic turtles all the way up and down the revolutionary social structure, to infinity.
Is absolutism a constant drive? Well, your darling Hegel was certainly an absolutist and Marx learned quite well from him. Not to be harsh on either of them, but I am inclined to believe that absolutism is actually a neurosis, sometimes a psychosis. It certainly was in my case. Is the very concept of an infinite creator an absolutism that has to be restrained by a secular functional atheism? There are grounds within the classic monotheisms for pluralism such as the notion of universal sinfulness, the critique of hypocritical religion, mercy & forgiveness, the very fact that this infinite creator doesn’t itself wipe out unbelievers wholesale, mystical incomprehensibility of the nature of G-d, the Golden rule, etc.
On the first point of my “misunderstanding,” I think we’re talking around similar issues, but you come at the problem of e.g. religious, male, white supremacy from the assumptions of Marxism, yet see Marxism’s limits so you move away slowly from Marxist ones towards a more complex formulation. I come from a religious supremacist viewpoint initially, moving away somewhat rapidly, but often not rapid enough, towards a pluralistic revolutionary viewpoint. Neither of us are reductionists, but we do think some things like capitalism have to remain close to the top of our revolutionary priorities, so we approach incorporating anti-capitalism with political theology from different directions. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle somewhere, but maybe our initial starting-points are on different planes, so we always just miss each other.
I conceptualize the multiple systems of domination not in terms of capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. at the most fundamental level, but as power inequalities between agents moving through collectively constructed relational networks situated within the ecosphere of planet earth. Capitalism, racism, religious/irreligious supremacism, ecocide, and sexism are constructed by (mostly) white ruling class males (with some female and non-white collaborators) to deploy multiple power dynamics, with some dominators spending more energy on maintaining gender inequities, and others more focused on economic ones, etc. In the end, they are all constructs of the ruling classes. The subordinate collectives (who are often already the construct of the matrix of domination) construct their counter-systems in opposition to some of the ruling classes’ powers, but these have historically been much weaker than the power of the ruling classes. The revolutionary break will occur when a progressive convergence of key oppositional constructs focuses enough social power to actually permanently undermine the stability of the ruling classes’ hegemonies.
On the second part of that, representative democracy is the public form that legitimizes the governments and, by tacit implication, the ruling classes of the US and Europe, which from there rule the world. I didn’t mean to suggest that every government on the planet is a representative democracy, nor that this form is the actual dominant power. Representative democracy and capitalism as paired terms functions as a sort of syndecoche for the current forms of the matrix of domination.
I’ve been dismissive of secularism in part because both its Communist and Liberal Democratic forms have only aggravated religious tensions and hostilities worldwide, which are embedded within the economic, racial, and political systems of domination. The working-classes, women, people of color, and ignorant masses of the world are predominately religious. Their absolutisms aren’t the absolutism of the powerful, but of the excluded and dominated. They absolutely believe that G-d or Buddha or whatever Final Judge may exist will exonerate them as innocent victims of unjust suffering. Just as science needs immutable natural laws to reach useful knowledge, humans needs a kind of moral certainty to demand justice in this world. Religion is far more capable of this than is atheism. In a world where the poor are finally emancipated then, maybe, religion will wither away like the Communist State.
S.: My last word is this: when the absolutism of below has power, what will tame it? There seems be a essentialization of people in there some where that assumes that having power won’t cah be the characters of the oppressed. My own Jewish roots make me skeptical of that given the history of Zionism and orthodoxy when the diaspora is ended. In a strange way, you talk more Hegelian than I do when it comes to religious progress: I don’t think there is an end to history nor do I think that religious moral certainty is actually all that certain in some key way atheistic frameworks aren’t. I don’t think you believe that either, but the language creeps back in. That’s the leap I don’t see since as we have both agreed that religious thinking change from things outside itself and internal to believers in a non-religious way, the moral certainty of individuals will come from somewhere. It may have been born of the church or innate to our biology, I suspect it’s somewhere in between. I think absolutism in second order logic is unavoidable as even the claim of epistemic relativism is an absolute claim in the second order. Those formal tensions to the way we structure thought have politically implications, but I definitely see the issue with enforced irreligion. That will turn most of those on that opium into raging addicts in withdrawal. No better way to make reactionaries than to make martyrs, and no better hypocrisy than that either.
C.E.: I don’t worry about some of these things, because I do see most political actions as practice that justifies its behavior retrospectively. I don’t think there is a way to give everyone a set of correct political opinions, nor a complete philosophical framework. You and I and many of our interlocutors do try and create philosophical frameworks to reach correct political opinions, but invariably, we are quite imperfect at this task. The Christians, left or right, are often victims of the Reformation’s insistence on correct “faith” which gets reduced to holding a correct set of propositional beliefs. Catholic ideas of orthopraxy mattering more than orthodoxy is quite in keeping with a late modern post-Marxist political situation in which we don’t have the luxury of believing in revolutionary inevitability.
So, we intervene where we can, imperfectly. For me, Christians are the people with whom I am most likely to discuss politics, whether it’s my conservative Republican mother, brother, and sister, or my Green Party wife (who I think voted from Obama in 2008), or the various young theologians I have the pleasure to know, or various Christian Quakers. My perception that there simply are not enough atheists to carry out a revolution in the U.S. leads me to think that I have to continue to work within that reality.
Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first.
Skepoet: You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately. Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?
KMO: I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”
NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’
That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time, although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.
S: You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?
KMO: You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.
As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.
S: What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?
KMO: Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.
S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore. It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?
S: Money for whom? That’s the real issue for me. It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”
KMO: I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.
S: What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?
KMO: That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.
Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”
S: Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.
KMO: The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.
Those who profit from the Drug War (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies) cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.
One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.
S: The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers. This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.
S: What gives you hope right now?
KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.
Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”
Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ. I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.
Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.
Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.
Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.
Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.
Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.
My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.
Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.
The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.
S: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
KMO: Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.
He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.
I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.
I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.
I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.
Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.
A Book Chat with Richard Wolin on Wind from the East, on the French Moaists and their original hostility to May 1968, and the merger between the anarchists and Maoists after the first botched 1968. The tensions within Maoism and Post-Maoism seem to be encapsulated in this, to use an ironic work, “problematic.” So the Maoist point of reference is moved away from 1974 afterwards for “cultural revolution,” sort of merges in cultural politics one sees in the Foucault-inspired left in both France and America. One sees a rightward shift after 1968 in France for many of the Maoists who shifted towards the nouvelle philosophie, and while one sees Alain Badiou as a development of the period, there is a highly problematic tendency of the Post-Maoists in France to resemble the Post-Trotstkyists in the US.
I wish Wolin would have gone into more detail about the influence of the Alhusserian strain other than Foucault particularly given the popularity of Ranciere these days, but we can’t always get what we want.
This is the second part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part prior to this.
Skepoet: So moving you away from epistemology or avoiding it: Do you think the skeptical movement is just naive about both the philosophy and the sociology of science, or is there something more generally problematic going on? I am particularly interested in the assumption of sort of center-left or libertarian liberalism as a default assumption, and also roblematics around gender relations within the movement.
Jamie McAfee: Ha. More or less, yeah.
I’ve been persuaded that epistemology is a bit of a tarpit that isn’t productive to get into. One thing about all of the sociological approaches I’m referring to is that they tend to be really emphatic about rolling their eyes at epistemological debating in favor of evaluating science, to paraphrase the bible, based on the fruit it produces. Collins and Evans and Latour are in very different camps withing sociology, but they both make the emphatic move of tossing epistemology aside. (I mean that they explicitly say “we think epistemology isn’t helpful.) Scientists are good at doing stuff, so lets talk about it as people doing stuff. They can make arguments based on the stuff they did (like making matter behave in particular ways), which is where rhetoric, in the diminished, conservative sense of “arguing,” comes in. You could, I guess, use argumentation theory, which is a lot more like philosophy than the “rhetoric” that I do, to talk modestly about epistemological issues if you wanted. I’d go along with that. Epistemology is always creeping up, and I think we have to be careful when claiming not to imply claims about epistemology, since we might be doing so. I guess the length of my last answer is what “boundary policing” might look like in my subfield. I’d like to keep myself away from epistemology, or to manage it so I can do other things. I don’t really want to make claims about it.
It’s naivete, but hubris as well. Not to get too meta, but the problem in the Skeptic movement is, I think, a lack of respect for the disciplining that takes place in the humanities. When I see Dawkins, Harris, or an internet troll straying into philosophical debate, the word “precocious” comes to mind. I don’t expect public intellectuals, or anybody not writing in a scholarly journal, to perform scholarly literature reviews in their writing, but I do expect them to approach conversations with either some familiarity with what people who have expertise in a topic have said or with modesty. I’m not saying you have to be a professional philosopher to talk about philosophy. I’m saying you probably shouldn’t write books about it or start a movement about it. Skeptic folks dive right into debates without doing the work required to become expert. They certainly have some expertise in what they are talking about, since they are generally speaking to broad questions that relate to anyone. Since Collins and Evans are on the table, we can call the experience they have “ubiquitous” experience. But ubiquitous experience doesn’t make you a philosopher.
Modernism is a hegemony, which is, I think, why a naive celebration of reason and science allows people to charge ahead confidently and wrongly. As I discussed a bit in my last answer, science is a very institutional thing that is obviously well articulated to power. I’m not claiming that because people have respect for (or participate in) institutions, their ideas will be predetermined. I am, however, claiming that that kind of critical, in the “capital C” sense that cultural studies people mean it, work is deliberate and requires some real engagement with power and culture (when I say “culture” here I don’t mean something that is apart from materialism). That is work that Skeptics seem unwilling to do.
When you charge into debates demanding that everything behave like “science,” and you are unwilling to do the work to understand how other people think about the world, you are going to end up in some of our default small “c” conservative categories. I’d say that center left or libertarian liberalism are those. I’d say that being suspicious of people who want to interrogate gender is one of those. These are “commonsensical” ways of seeing the world. To make matters somewhat worse, Skeptics embrace and ethos of commonsense (in opposition to superstition, etc.) and they embrace the idea that reason is unproblematic. Political radicals and feminists are in violation of that common sense, and for people who define themselves as primarily “rational,” that stuff is just not to be taken seriously. (Coincidentally, or not, perhaps, a lot of conservative rhetoric is based around some form of common sense. “Conservative prudence” for example. Were American conservatism not so overly inane, I’d guess there’d be more Skeptics over there. Oh, and the religion thing, of course.)
So, for example, when feminists are concerned about privilege or objectification, that’s a step too far for common sense.”Equality” (of. . .something?) is fine, but asking people to question the power that comes with gender is out of bounds. So you end up with Richard Dawkins finding it preposterous that someone might be (mildly, originally) offended by an inappropriate proposition, or to use a more extreme example, you end up with the Amazing Atheist ridiculing rape victims. (Yeah, yeah, conversations about those issues can be problematic on the feminist end too, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a “there” there.) The way Shermer reifies capitalism is, in my mind, the same thing.
One more thought:
Since I’m talking about rhetoric, I’ll throw out the analogy sometiemes called “Burke’s parlor,” after Kenneth Burke. Burke wrote:
“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
That’s how scholarship, or any kind of serious intellectual work, happens. The trouble, for me, with the Skeptic movement is an unwilliness to “listen for a while” and “catch the tenor of the argument” when they talk about things that other people are talking about. Their movement is, because it doesn’t have the patience to become serious, remakably shallow and remarkably beholden to a liberal status quo.
trying to say “We’re bracketing that it” and “it’s impossible” at the same time. The later is a philosophically substantive claim; the former is not. However, I am going to charitable read you as saying the former for now.
I, however, really do like your other points here: One) since the demarcation lines of science are under-developed at best and philosophically impossible at worse, it does seem problematic to ignore it. Two) There is a hubristic problem of completely ignoring non-scientific expertise, which given the problematic standing of the demarcation line is science right now can’t work. Three) This leads to all sorts of ideological and psychological heuristics being presumed as a sort of baseline of truth. Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself.
You made an assertion about modernity I find interesting: would you like to go into how you see the Skeptic’s movement as a philosophically modernist project? Also I think there has been, to defend the “Skeptic’s movement” for a moment, some push back on this political assumptions. For example, there were many within the movement who started agreeing with me on Sam Harris with his last book, and there were many who took Rebecca Watson’s side in the Watson/Dawkin dispute. What do you see going on there? Do you think there could be a skeptic’s movement that learned from the sociology of science and dealing with the philosophy of science seriously? Massimo Pigliucci, for example, has definitely taken on the problem of ”scientism” within the skeptic’s community.
I’ll start with some clarification about the epistemology thing, since that is related to the modernism thing. While I insist on being disinterested in epistemology, getting away from it is an important “move” in a lot of the literature from which I’m drawing my ideas about science, so it’s important. That move is, as I think we’ve made clear, important for justifying a sociological/rhetorical approach for discussing what science is. I do mean to bracket it, and I do not to say it’s impossible. I also mean to bracket it deliberately, not so skip it as Harris skips stuff. (Although I generally don’t dwell on it as we’ve done here.)
I would, however, say that trying to work out “epistemology” seems to lead to endless debate and discussions of problems that don’t seem to be useful to think about. Rorty’s prolonged explication of that stuff in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” or Latour’s various efforts to contrast a more modest epistemology (if you want to call it that) with Cartesian problems or Collins’s and Evans’s deference to “expertise,” or various efforts by rhetoricians to reclaim parts of some kind of Aristotelian or Roman worldview are all various ways of trying to get some traction that epistemology doesn’t offer. Some of the “thin” theory that is rhetoric is similar.
The comparison to Sam Harris’s meta ethics (or lack thereof) I can see, but I think there’s a huge difference between trying to carefully (and recursively, by the way) bracket something because it’s not useful and plowing through without acknowledging your assumptions. To borrow a metaphor from actor network theory (since we’re talking about that), you have to blackbox things. You can’t have everything in play all the time. But you should be able to justify the choices you make, and to, when problems arise, go back into those blackboxes and do work there. There’s a parallel between what I’m doing and what Harris does, but the people who’ve persuaded me to make that move are a whole lot more conscientious than he is. I hope I’ve satisfactorily explained why I’m don’t think epistemology “is impossible” but, rather “it’s a useful a point of departure and not a thing to be solved.” It’s down in the weeds, but it does matter since I’m complaining about scientism.
And that point of departure is pretty closely related to this “modernism” business. “Modernism,” of course, is a messy, term that can mean a lot of different things. In the context of talking about science, I mean “Modernism” in, more or less, in Latour’s way, which is filled with odd paradoxes, some of which explain how scientistism ends up being at odds with itself. Latour’s shtick is that Modernism is the division of the cultural from the physical from the discursive, and those divisions are what enables science. He bashes this division for creating unnecessary philosophical problems, and he makes fun of Cartesian dualism a lot. He has a lot of bad things to say about “discourse” as a category, for example, although he has come back around to celebrating “rhetoric” in recent years, which he understands as something other than postmodern “discourse.” He also points out that science, when you trace what it does, is good at bending those Modernist categories and then discursively and through practice purifying them.
Modernism is a hegemony, not a “real” thing. Nobody behaves as if they actually believe in the divisions of Modernity, but they talk as though they do. A departure I make from him (although he says this, it’s not his point) is that people who can ground their arguments in some kind of physicalist language can gather a lot of ethos for themselves, because the modern. (Before the latter stages of the Modern that we call post-modernism, but Latour insists is late modernism. . . .my interest in synthesizing Latour with rhetoric is a pretty serious departure from the “pomostrawman,” and the fact that Latour has been often lumped into the “pomo” side of the “science wars” speaks to the light/heat ratio of the science wars.)
I would argue that the Modernist, in the Latour sense, way of talking is the problem. Modernism has empowered science, but as a way of talking about knowledge, it’s a mess. The Skeptics I’m complaining about talk that way.
You are right that there is pushback. The Skeptic thing isn’t monolithic, and their core goals of arguing with fundamentalism and superstition are fine by me. I’d like to see a skeptic movement that was more feminist, that contained expertise in thinking about philosophical problems, and that was more interested in rhetoric (not the discipline, necessarily, but persuasion). I’m aware that there are participants in the movement who are tying to do that.
The question “do I think there could be a skeptic movement that took philosophy of science seriously” however, is trickier. I’d say “yes, there COULD be, but I think it’s unlikely.” Why do I think that? I think that because it’s hard to imagine a well articulated skeptic “movement” that wasn’t rooted in that problematic commonsense stuff discussed earlier. I obviously (I hope it’s obvious) think that a pro-science, pro-skepticism position does not mean one accepts scientism, etc. However, it’s hard for me to imagine a “movement” based on that kind of a position. What’s it in opposition to? What are it’s boundaries?
Now were kinda talking about politics. Here’s an analogous issue. . . “Christian” movements have been all over the political spectrum over the years, but more recently, “Christian” culture is really right wing Evangelicalism. That narrower, activist group has claimed the word, even though there are more Christians who are not conservative Evangelicals than who are. (I’m thinking about this because there was a flap about it yesterday.) While I’d be happy to see more pushback against that appropriation of the word “Christian,” until there is some other movement that’s articulated out of some exigency and has some clear idea “what it’s not,” I think we’re gonna keep having to remind people that not all Christians are Republicans. Christianity, as a political movement, is defined by oppositions and tensions. Skepticism is the same way. It’s hard for me to imagine a nuanced, non-scientistic Skeptic movement coming out of the U.S. right now. There are plenty of us who are, nominally, skeptics who do not embrace skepticism as a part of our identity of who have any need for a movement. The attitudes that have pushed people to embrace skepticism as a “cause” seem increasingly foreign to me.
Like, even if everybody in the Skeptic decided to embrace Massimo Pigliucci and Rebecca Watson, I’m not sure what it would be that they would do with themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine.Why people who are dissidents from scientism and anti-feminism stick around in the skeptic movement? I dunno. Sometimes people define their ideas through smart dissident positions. That’s valid. Some of those folks are probably really interested in science and like participating in the community of other people who are as well. There might be people who, like me, were attracted to the idea when it was (or seemed, anyway) more narrowly focused on pushing back against the religious right but who have invested more than I did. I’m an apprentice academic. I have plenty of outlets for talking about philosophy. Not everybody has that, and the Skeptic movement is, for all of it’s problems, one of the places in American mass culture where people have those conversations. (Libertarianism, oddly enough, is another.) They’ve created a sort of weird counterculture that looks sorta like academia in some ways. It’s oddly like the religious right, actually, in that way.
One thing that hasn’t been brought up is the overlap between the Skeptic thing and pop culture subculture like sci-fi or gamer communities. In my completely undisciplined observations, there is a lot of overlap, and some of the hostility toward the humanities and problems with gender can be an issue in those communities. I don’t mean to suggest that those are monolithically sexist communities, but there are quite a few blogs by female “geeks” and quite a bit of scholarship that suggests there are problems there. That’s about all I have to say about that, really, but it’s worth bringing up.
Althusser or Foucault, that historical “epochs” have structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society. So I wouldn’t reject Latour’s way of thinking outright, but I wouldn’t accept it’s conclusion either.
My point in being critical of you here is not political, but that I think there is still a problem of naturalization of practices that the empirical approach, of which bracketing out questions of philosophy necessitate, do lead to certain conceptual limitations.
That said, I think I we should talk about two key events that can be seen as points of tension in the skeptic movement: the “Sokal Hoax” as the beginning of the hostility towards to the humanities and the Watson/Dawkin’s break as beginning of re-politicization in movement. What do you think about the Sokal hoax?
I might be missing you, but he’s pretty emphatically not making those mistakes. Now, then, you might argue that he’s implicitly making those mistakes regardless of what he claims. If there’s a good explication of that position around, it’d be interesting to read, but Latour claims rather emphatically that he’s not doing those things.
He wants us to talk differently about science and technology by insisting on them as networks, and he thinks that that move is a way out of the Cartesian trap. That’s another way to paraphrase him. The parts that rhetoric people are interested in are things like unpacking the processes of transcription or re-inscription that create data or the way that writing helps to articulate networks together. Also, his blurring of human and non human is something that some folks look at as a way to try to recover materialism in rhetoric.
The problem with historical demarcations is a problem though, as it always is when people talk that way. I’d go along with “structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society.”
I’m leaning on Latour here as a way to talk about modernist discourse because it’s the way that I know because that’s most informed by concern for how scientist work. It’s compatible with more narrowly rhetorical ways to do that, but I don’t want to give you impression that Latour is THE guy for us, or for even for a booster like me. He’s pretty good though. This is one part of an ongoing conversation that involves different syntheses of Latour that I’m sharing. Plenty of rhetoric folks dislike Latour. My advisor is sorta one of them, actually. I think over-focusing on him might distort my position, which is a lot more in flux than it seems, even in this response, by making it seem like I’ve put all the eggs in the Latour basket. We are having a conversation that people have withing rhetoric.
(While I’m thinking about it Pandora’s Hope has some chapters from which you might extrapolate some implicit argument about Latour’s epistemology. He works overtime to be a realist, if one who’s modest about knowledge but who glosses over many of the problems that philosophers might worry about. The Sam Harris analogy might fit at some moments there.)
I agree. Affordances and constraints are intertwined. I think Latour is useful, but when I slip into Latour mode I sacrificed the ability to make other kinds of arguments. Although I have taken issue with the specifics of what you say Latour sacrifices, I suspect you’re kinda in the ballpark. I wouldn’t know quite how to articulate Latour’s problems without re-reading it with that in mind, but yeah. When I defend him, I don’t mean to say that you aren’t getting at something important. I just don’t think you’ve put it together in a way I agree with.
“Naturalization” is actually my biggest concern with Latour. Donna Harraway is, in my view, Latour on radical and feminist steroids (and they have been in contact with each other). She’s really dense and difficult to haul around though. When I’m doing academic writing, I always try to stick here in there. I’d like to move toward here as I keep doing this stuff.
I’d be quick to note that Latour is not a philosopher by training, and I’d be happy to concede that he’s probably not put the Enlightenment to bed. Let’s leave the poor guy alone. He’s had a long day.
As for “What do I think about the Sokal hoax?” I think it makes a lot of people look very bad.
My understanding of the Sokal hoax is that it has been, in part, misrepresented. I might be incorrect, but my understanding is that the Sokal piece was not blind reviewed in the usual way, but published, in part, out of excitement that an actual scientist was trying to participate. Given the nature of the performative writing that was going around at the time, I have no idea the degree to which Sokal actually “fooled” people and the degree to which people regarded his piece as whimsey. I am certain that he put in a lot of jokes that Social Text readers didn’t understand. So I don’t quite “buy” the conventional account of the story. It’s cheap and kinda dumb.
Having said that, you couldn’t pay me to read an issue of Social Text from that period. I tend to be something of a defender of the Social Text side as they were doing experimental, avant guard stuff. It was also trendy and not particularly robust of good. I think Sokal killed some of the faddish postmodernism of the time, so it wasn’t all bad.
The follow up stuff Sokal wrote (and Dawkins talked up) was silly. I actually kinda sympathize with some of the points he was trying to make, both politically and about philosophy, but sheesh. The lessons that people took from the whole fiasco are wrong though. The legacy of the Sokal Hoax is to embolden people who want to embrace scientism.
This, by the way, popped up on facebook while I was typing this out, and it serves as a convenient artifact. Ug. I am holding fire on about Dawkins and Watson.
I wanted to go into one of the first assumptions of Sokal and Bricmont text: It literally asserted that all philosophy of science was silly including Popper and Kuhn, not just the sociological and po-mo critiques of the science wars. I found this fascinating because it was defending the idea that science is just rigorous common sense. What do you think that assertion?
It is a very interesting problem. We keep trying to get out of epistemology and keep getting sucked back in. I think that trying to get out is a good move, but I’ll acknowledge that those of us who think that was are going to keep having to perform variations of that move that over and over. Pretty much every philosopher I’ve mentioned has made versions of that move multiple times. I do, actually, appreciate being made to wrestle with it a bit. Its something that’s easy, in my field, to gloss over. That phenomenon, repeating the move of “departing” from some problem (incommensurability was a popular one for a while), is common in rhetoric, so I’m comfortable with it. I dunno how it looks to other people. Seems like something anybody with a toe in philosophy will spend time doing.
I think I agree with the assertion that science can be understood as rigorous common sense. The techne/episteme thing from Rorty I was talking about somewhere earlier is a way to say that. I think most of the people I’m drawing influence from would agree. One of the really fascinating things about the science wars (once I get past being annoyed, and once I manage to forget how they helped to empower scientism) is that there was a lot of people talking past each other. Once you take the Lacan brigade off the table (some of the complaints about them were substantive differences, and the science people had a point there), I think everybody who was arguing with each other agrees that science is rigorous common sense.
I’ve never encountered, by the way, anything with a whiff of Lacan in rhetorical science studies. We have spent a lot of time theorizing the word “practical,” so that stuff is a little far out for us to even read. I’ve seen Lacan elsewhere in rhetoric, of course, but never in science stuff. One of our saving graces, when it comes to that stuff, if that we came to science studies, in part, through technical communication. We had an inside/outside relationship to science and technology that Social Text did not. Digression over.
BUT. . . there’s the trick. . . both “rigor” and “common sense” deserve very serious interrogation.
When Latour spends months following scientists around and watches them transfer data from one place to another, isn’t that an interrogation of what counts as “rigor”? Can’t “rigor” be interrogated? When Feyeraband or Kuhn did there early work discussing communsurability, isn’t that also a discussion of rigor? I once sat through a presentation/workshop by a college dean trying to describe what “rigor” looked like in teaching. (It was a shitty presentation, as most presentations of that nature are, but it was a good topic.) I’ll go along with rigor. It seems to be a useful place to start if you want to defend science studies.
And I’ve already pointed out, and you’ve pushed me to more carefully explain, that “common sense” is an extremely loaded phrase. My dissertation research, which is why Laclau and Mouffe keep coming up, is all about “common sense” in therapeutic rhetoric that is used in politics (James Dobson). “It’s common sense” says to me that “it” needs to be unpacked and that we need to trace what “it” is, does, and where it comes from. Calling something “common sense” is putting a post it note saying “study me.” (Let’s be careful though, and say that “study me” does not mean “debunk me.” “Redescribe me” might be better)
I think, to offer some benefit of the doubt to Sokal and Bricmont, that that assertion might have been a response to some of the bolder claims of avant guardians who were trying to stake territory. Even the more modest science studies people in rhetoric were doing a lot of sloppy colonizing. That’s what early work can look like sometimes. So there’s an opening for some benefit of the doubt for them.
One counter argument I’d make against the claim that philosophy of science is silly is to point out that before Kuhn and Feyeraband, we understood science through a highly edited, retrospective point of view. “Oxygen was discovered in such and such, and that was some more science, and then somebody did and experiment using cowpox, and then. . . .” The process of the community that is science was erased. Kuhn’s breakthrough was to imperfectly introduce that process to the discussion.
One last thought. . . . I have a former professor who does rhetoric stuff with science who is very skeptical of postmodernism, science studies, Marxian theory, etc. His argument with that stuff was that it was just too mundane, and the thought the “action” was in taking more traditionally about persuasion and public policy. I disagree with him about the value of that kind of interrogation, but his point is well taken. Meaningful science studies does more than say “THAT IS LANGUAGE” or “THAT IS HEGEMONIC.” Those are really obvious things to say, and even Sokal agrees. I think, though, that using those claims as a starting point can be useful. William Keith argues that “redescription” is a key step in scholarly work. I think that it’s a STEP, but to make that step and start spouting radical claims is silly. That premise does not mean that humanities studies of science isn’t potentially valuable.
On theory, theories exist. In practice, they do not. — Bruno Latour
I have just come back from the market after walking my fiancee to her teaching job: my students are doing independent work for the mid-term, so I have only had to be available by consultation, which I have been by phone, e-mail, and skype. There is something to being an academic and a teacher, even one is not phoning things in, that makes for time to reflect, plan, critique, and study. In other words, to propose knowledge for students as oppose to merely replicating prior knowledge. Or, at least, that is the hope. There are moments in my more cynical periods where this seems far from clear to me: particularly given the staggering number of papers and projects that either don’t go anywhere or don’t do anything.
Anyway, being in Academia, particularly in the social science and humanities region thereof, I often linger in philosophical abstractions, and there is a good reason for this, as I am trying to deal with conceptual frameworks for handling and speaking about highly, highly complex issues, but I find myself more and more finding a certain level of philosophical abstraction completely not only alienating, but itself obfuscating issues. I have been critical of the way math is used in economics in a way that often hides important qualitative information, such as behavioral cues, which the Austrian economists were right to critique (there are to this is a set of apriori rationalistic arguments, however, is worse than the disease). I also critical of methodologies being given as an answer without specifics or context.
In a sense, this seems to serve two functions: to avoid symbolic violence and to distance oneself for failures of theory in action. I feel that when I read hyper-abstract theories of meta-history and teleology, which one sees in most Marxist writings and, frankly, most Anarchist writings. Why? In Marx and even in Lenin, one sees all sorts of specifics being dealt with in addition to a Hegelian dialectic. After Adorno (in one tradition) and Althusser (in an opposed one), the critique you get is either not theoretical at all in “actually existing socialist” societies or it is highly abstract dialectics or structuralists analysis in which the analysis seems to be subject of politics. There the lack of abstraction and the hyper-abstraction seem like moves of avoidance.
I am speaking know of Marxism and anarchism because that is what I write about here. I also despite appeals to simplicity and absolute concreteness as somehow proof of deep thought: such clarity can be profoundly muddling and obfucatory, but when abstraction is not backed with something concrete other than form immediately, I am beginning to think that this is an abstraction of politics. It is a form of obfuscation and avoidance.
I have written on Sam Harris before in both his claims about Buddhism, which Meera Nanda has covered better than I, and his claims about objective morality, which Rationally Speaking has covered better than I, his arrogance at avoiding meta-ethics, and his veiled advocacy of pre-emptive violence in The End of Faith, which I have written about at length. On the later, I have been told time and again that Harris doesn’t believe this, but here’s the quote: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. … We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith). Notice how Harris keeps plausible deniability by the use of “may,” which is rhetorically cowardly to boot.
But, before I can called a theist or a religious apologist or some such nonsense, my problems with Harris are largely that I see him as dangerous to science and philosophy. Philosophy because, while he has an Undergraduate Degree in it from Stanford, he seems to not truly understand a quite a bit of the history of philosophy nor does he seem to be able to make a logical argument. What most of my “skeptical” friends say about Harris is that he “sounds” reasonable, and always speaks calmly. They also dislike relativists and post-modernists. I often, however, get the distinct feeling they actually have never read the philosophers they are arguing against. It is almost always a straw-man argument. Few of the words are quoted or addressed directly, which is telling. Why I see Harris as dangerous to science is that he doesn’t seem to respect most accepted notions of a demarcation line. In many ways, I think Harris is making category errors and also trying to more morality into a scientific category: this seems like a slapdash move to confuse correlation/causation on Harris’s part and to confuse descriptive/normative. To put this in logical terms: this is two category errors. Or, to put in my cultural Marxist language, he is trying to committing trying in a process of rectification to support an ideological complex.
This episode is excellent, but not so much when they deal with Sam Harris who they can barely find a philosophical argument in to actually reject. Points where the Partially Examined Life Crew point out that there are philosophical errors in Dawkin’s, particularly a equivocation on different forms of the antropic principle and pointing out that the “Tea Pot” argument which has always seem to me be flippant actually also contains an error. Furthermore, it seems like the “principle of sufficient reason” is a problem for physics in either a theistic or an atheistic frame work. It may be that the “principle of sufficient reason” itself is not applicable to things that happen before motion in our universe gave us some sense of time. This seems like a major problem in physics right now, but it has major philosophical implications.
Still, I wish they have discussed Dennett more and maybe a more philosophically inclined New Atheist like Victor Stinger instead of Christopher Hitchens, who is admittedly a charming and robust polemicist. Dennett’s concept of memes has been problematic to me. I am not the only one who finds problematic either on the skeptical/atheist spectrum. Rationally Speaking has been exploring the problems of the concept for a while (here and here). The problems with meme and memeplexes is that even as an analogy they are incredibly imperfect: they have no physical or material implantation mechanism, they seem to treat ideas has have no sociological or material context, and almost seems like a (pseudo-)biological dualism as it treats ideas as almost self-existing.
Anyway, I am going to quote Julian Baggini, one of my favorite professional atheists:
This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”
But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.
I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.
However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.