The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

I’m looking forward to the HBO series The Leftovers, which will begin its second season on October 4. I enjoyed the show immensely last summer despite my initial reservation regarding the involvement of a former Lost producer. One of the reasons for my enjoyment, of course, is that I think the premise of the show is quite beautifully explicative of a lesser known or recognized aspect of Max Weber’s theory of religion: The rejection of a totalizing material explanation for religious ideas in favor of understanding the latter’s efficacy in their political, social, economic, and historical contexts.

Last summer, I caught a review of the pilot episode from Slate‘s Culture Gabfest podcast. The questions and speculation surrounding the supposed aims of the show were what drove an ultimately tepid review. As I say, the reservations are not without good reason given the way that Lost spiraled out of control and, in retrospect, never really found any solid footing in terms of a premise to begin with. Reflecting back, the entire series was mystery all the way down with the promise of some kind of satisfying explanation. Deep down, I think most of us knew by the end of the fourth or fifth season (maybe much earlier) that the writers and producers probably weren’t going to be able to pull off anything satisfying. What drove the popularity of the show was the allure of a material explanation that would tie up all the mystery in a nice bow, giving us a collective sigh of relief. So strong was this allure that everything that happened in the show was somehow tied back to this center–which ended up being essentially non-existent. In other words, both action and character development on Lost never moved forward in any meaningful way. It was always directed backward, or inward, to the mysterious core, the material explanation that would make everything make sense.

And so this review immediately jumped on the premise of The Leftovers, which is based on a novel of the same name: 140 million people worldwide disappear on Oct. 14, 2011, and no one knows why. Given the first season, one thing is clear: We will never find out what happened to those people because the answer to that mystery is not what drives the narrative. It is fundamentally the opposite structure of Lost even though both shows begin in more or less the same way–the introduction of a mystery whose fog hangs over the entire series.

Rather than the cause of the mystery, The Leftovers is interested in exploring what Weber would call an irrational interjection into the rational progress of history. How do human beings respond to incomprehensible tragedy, paradox, revolution, and prophecy? The Leftovers is about the formation of new ideologies–religious ideologies in particular–out of the chaos of history. It is about the consequences of the introduction of the unexplainable, the prophetic, and the mystical into history and the ways in which these introductions render everything that follows irreversibly changed.

Weber’s understanding of theodicy is germane here. In Sociology of Religion, Weber devotes a chapter to a material account of the rise of theodicies among both wealthy and impoverished classes. His argument is that theodicies provide rational explanations of evil and fortune that would be able to reconcile why some had much and others had basically nothing. This explanation is not new. Weber is essentially borrowing from previous intellectualist traditions in theories of religion from the 19th century. The explanation is also weak and, frankly, not that interesting, but Weber then follows this analysis in the next chapter with a really interesting move. He drops the intellectualist explanation for theodicy from his analysis of what theodicy does. In other words, the political, economic, and social effects of the popular circulation of theodicies within a society have nothing to do with their “original” material cause. You can’t get to those effects from the material causes without the circulation of religious ideas (their social psychology) that bridges them.

One could potentially trace a line from the beginnings of rational explanations for fortune and evil to, for example, the development of the Protestant ethic and then the spirit of capitalism, but the reasons why Weber thinks these kinds of rational explanations devlop fit more into his broader theory about rationalization as a general feature of human life rather than as something that has specific explanatory purchase on later historical concepts like the spirit of capitalism. And when an irrational experience, idea, figure, event enters the scene, material explanations go completely out the window. That’s because, for Weber, the “concepts” that drive history in radically different directions are formed out of confrontation with the irrational.

For example, for Weber, the Calvinistic belief that one stands alone before a God whose motives are wholly irrational (i.e. not approachable by human reason) coupled with the previously existing general dominance of “moral behavior” in Christianity, generates a particular mode of moral activity (inner-worldly asceticism) that in turn produces the spirit of contemporary capitalism: the earning of money for the sake of money itself. (You can find a more detailed explanation of these moves in Weber here and here.) Importantly, it is the specific Calvinistic formulation of the problem of the relationship between God, world, and individual Christian that has causal efficacy rather than the underlying, “rational-material” cause of that formulation that would tie it to any other such formulation (i.e. in other religious practices/systems.) There is an irrational, terrifying relationship between God-I-world that necessitates the generation of new modes of social organization.

The collective character of The Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers represents Weber’s analysis quite explicitly–to the point of actually incorporating it into the core of their own system and ritual practice. Their aim is to continually instantiate the original event that generated a new way of being in the world. They don’t want anyone to forget what happened on the day 140 million people disappeared. But their interest is not simply the exercise of memory. As in Christianity, it is performative. It’s the institutionalization of the event’s irrationality into the collective memory which will generate a new politics, social structure, and economy. The Guilty Remnant, however, reverses the Christian performance of the Eucharist (or, one might say, negates it) because the very idea that reasons don’t matter–that a causal explanation for the mass disappearance is irrelevantis actually integral to their practice.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the leader of The Remnant, tells Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) that she thinks about the day of the disappearance “every fucking waking moment” but that “it doesn’t matter what happened.” This is precisely the opposite of Christianity. In both cases, we have an event which, for the faithful, utterly changes universal history. Yet in Christianity, we have a teleological cause; God’s ultimate and final reconciliation of the world to himself necessitates the Christ-event. In the case of The Remnant, there is no cause. They have explicitly institutionalized the original charisma of the event-sans-reason. It is a rejection of both the classical religious explanation as well as the reductive materialist explanation. There is no why and it is in the very act of performing this rejection that the center of The Remnant’s religious power resides. In continually instantiating the irrationality of the event, they attempt to resist the reification and institutionalization of the event on its behalf. For example, in the finale, by orchestrating the placement of the life-like mannequins of the disappeared in their former homes, The Remnant forces the citizens of Mapleton to recall the charismatic power of the original event, which in turn tears down the edifice of normalcy and solemn acknowledgement erected by the local government.

It’s unclear what endgame, if any, there is for The Remnant other than to be a living negative force (in Adorno’s sense) against the institutionalization of the event–to ensure that people understand that everything has now changed. All attempts to return to “the normal” reify and mask the irrational event as merely an aberration, a tragic but ultimately insignificant historical event to be commemorated like any other tragedy (with State acknowledgment, parades, memorials, holidays, etc.) The Leftovers, then, is not merely an indictment of institutionalized religion. It is also an indictment of the modern project of history, of empiricist accounts of religions. It is critical of attempts to synthesize the once irrational event into a rational flow of cause and effect, rather than attempt to seize upon the tension the irrational produces within the political, social, and economic and ask how its circulation contributes to new forms of social organization.

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