On the Uselessness of Bodies

In his essay “On Religious Illusions,” Raymond Geuss draws parallels between the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School and religion on the grounds of what Geuss sees as their shared relationship to the Enlightenment, broadly conceived. Namely, the regime of Enlightenment thought has given a certain disproportionate weight to the concept of “usefulness” when it comes to the evaluation of claims. This should not be confused with utilitarianism, for empirical facts can be useful in a non-utilitarian sense—though Geuss’s point is perhaps especially true in the case of utilitarians.

Geuss argues that for people like Horkheimer and Adorno, this intense focus on the instrumentality not only objects and ideas but action as well is part of the problematic logic of capital. The Enlightenment has made two critical errors: A sharp distinction between what is instrumentally useful and that which is inherently valuable; the development of criteria for the rationality of instrumental action (i.e. that which is guided by instrumentally useful empirical facts). There is no criteria given, however, for judging that which is purported to be inherently valuable, or for the rationality for action that is done for its own sake. A truly free society, says Geuss of Adorno, would reject this distinction between instrumentality and inherent value as having no purchase in reality.

In other words, the inherently valuable is useless on the view of the Enlightenment according to Geuss’s reading of the Frankfurt School critique. The path to resisting this ideology is not to then become useful, but to remain useless in order to disrupt the system. In other words, for Horkheimer and Adorno, religion’s uselessness is actually its greatest advantage. Geuss writes:

Religion does not fit into the modern world of universal functionality, and thus could, under some circumstances, become a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination which resulted from the full realization of the Enlightenment project, that is, against what Adorno called “the administered world.”

Of course, for Adorno, this sort of uselessness-against-administration can’t simply be uselessness as such—or any-old-uselessness. It must “instantiate an autonomous configuration of meaningfulness and value, and also effectively resist and maintain itself against the infinite ability of our society to assimilate and co-opt deviancy.” In other words, the truly useless must eschew all attempts by the logic of the capital-instrumental complex to reify it and thereby neutralize its threat.

On whether or not religion can accomplish this, Geuss is extremely doubtful. But his disdain for religion, I think covers over too quickly the radical potential this view has for reading other structures of domination, especially those in which economy and race, or economy and sexuality (or all of the above) are tied together.

This post is titled “On the Uselessness of Bodies” because as I was reading Geuss’s essay, I was struck by how quickly he connects action and what he calls “the metaphysical need” (i.e. religion) such that inherently valuable action is always a response to some kind of ideational desire. This is, I think, an ironically Protestant oversight on his part (the starkly anti-materialist activity of religion). As such, any consideration of bodies is thoroughly omitted from the discussion. But I think there is a strong sense in which we can use the concept of uselessness to read the treatment of bodies of color under white capitalism. Consider the rhetoric of most white conservatives on questions of the relationship between bodies of color and poverty: Laziness, entitlement, etc. In other words, useless. The rhetoric in response to the rioting in Baltimore, Ferguson, and the other protests around the country is similar: Riots accomplish nothing; the protests prevent hard working [useful] people from getting to their jobs, etc.

Geuss writes, “To be really useless is not simply to drop out of the society completely into the underclass of delinquents, deviants, terrorists, or the long-term unemployed.” The problem is that this too misses what it means for bodies as opposed to action to be useless. Impoverished black bodies, or other impoverished bodies of color, defy the white capitalist complex not because their action is merely inherently valuable as opposed to instrumentally useful. It is rather because their bodies themselves are not instrumentally useful and therefore not valuable. Inherent value plays a different role in the status of bodies in this reading of uselessness. Bodies are perhaps one of the only things in the logic of capital today whose value extends beyond utility/commodity as long as they’re white. White bodies are inherently valuable. Bodies of color are thus useless in the double sense of being neither inherently valuable nor instrumentally useful.

To take this reading of bodies via uselessness to its full conclusion, however, entails that these bodies remain useless since the demand of human flourishing, according to the Critical Theory, is not to fix the current system but to overhaul it completely. This is the logic of riots over against the logic of the current system which demands that people destroyed by it work within it for change. It is for that reason that people of color and those in solidarity with them must riot and protest. They must remain useless to the current system, because it is only in this uselessness that there can be any radical hope for a different future.

Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.