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.

Conservative Christianity and the Rhetoric of (In)tolerance

I’m taking a quick break in the middle of the series to address something I’ve found very interesting recently. Part 3 should be up tomorrow.

I’m not really in the business of searching the Internet for conservative rhetoric on issues like gay marriage, contraception, etc. I do try to stay abreast of the “opposing side’s” point of view like any engaged citizen should, but in the same way that it’s probably difficult for conservatives, I have a really hard time sorting out legitimate arguments–or arguments from those whom conservatives would consider legitimate figures–and absolute wacko garbage. Thankfully (or unfortunately, as the case may be), Facebook quite often brings the more legitimate articles to my doorstep as it were on a fairly regular basis. One such article caught my eye recently, posted by one of Lucas’s “acquaintances” which garnered over 50 comments, most directed at Lucas who was attempting to bring clarity to the conversation.

The blog post, by someone named Matt Walsh, can be found here. The blog is titled “If you want to prove you don’t hate the gays, all you have to do is worship at their feet,” and in a contemporary world of click-baity Buzzfeed-isms, I found that to be rather refreshing. I knew exactly what I was getting into before I even read the first sentence of the article.

Or I thought I did.

From the very first paragraph, I encountered something I’d not yet seen, at least not at the level of strength and emphasis with which Walsh was writing. Assuming many of our readers wouldn’t waste their time clicking on the link to the article, here’s the first paragraph:

I have never in my life encountered a religion as oppressive, cold, and stiff as Progressivism. I’ve never known a faith more eager to burn heretics at the stake. Even a fundamentalist Iranian Muslim would flinch if he came face to face with a western liberal’s rigid dogmatism. I imagine that even a Saudi Arabian Islamic cleric would take one look at how American left wingers react when anyone deviates ever so slightly from their established orthodoxy, and say to himself, “man, these people REALLY need to chill.”

I’m really not trying to condescend when I say that I was utterly shocked by the diction and tone of this opening paragraph. It honestly read to me like a parody–as if someone were making a joke by parodying the language of progressivism directed toward fundamentalism and reversing the positions.

But no, Matt Walsh is completely serious. I say it’s a parody because while some progressives perhaps have used language like “eager to burn heretics,” “rigid dogmatism,” or “established orthodoxy” to describe conservative Christianity, “progressives” ranging from the more conservative and clearly still Evangelical like Rachel Held Evans to the more Leftist like Adam Kotsko have shifted away from what are now sort of tired and well-worn ways of talking about conservative Christianity.

Here we have a conservative who has caught on to the cultural power of this kind of “fundamentalist bashing” discourse in post- or late-postmodern culture and is attempting to turn the very weapon used against him for a while now back onto “the liberals.” That in and of itself is absolutely fascinating to me, but there’s a much more basic point that I want to make here because unfortunately what could’ve been a very interesting read–what I thought was an actual moment of shift in the language of conservative Christianity–turned out to be the same old boring crap peddled through what is becoming increasingly more and more hostile language. That is, Matt Walsh thinks the liberals are hypocrites for being intolerant of what they see as intolerant opinion.

Progressivism, at least in the Christian context, is not nor has it ever been about the tolerance of all opinion. In some more Leftist strands (e.g. Kotsko), the discussion ends there (i.e. intolerance of bigotry with an ethical imperative in some cases to not forgive), and in others, this understanding of tolerance is carefully balanced with the call to forgive. In other words, the far Left has a problem with the idea forgiveness in all cases being touted as radical and moderates tend to want to find a way to mediate between intolerance of positions like racism and forgiveness for racists who repent.

That’s a ham-fisted representation (sorry) but I really want to just make one thing especially clear: The word tolerance does not imply, nor has it ever implied, the acceptance of all positions. The argument from Walsh and nearly every other conservative is something like: “You claim to be tolerant, but you’re intolerant of what you think is intolerance (i.e. my own opinion)!”

Yeah, no shit!

Tolerance doesn’t have any meaning if it doesn’t have the freedom to not tolerate intolerance when it sees it. By the way–progressives aren’t even interested in tolerance. Tolerance is the lowest form of acceptance of another person or idea. When you say you tolerate your neighbor practicing the accordion terribly at eight in the evening every night, you’re saying that you’re doing everything in your power not to go next door and smash it over his head. Tolerance can coexist with active mental hatred.

So to even apply tolerance to progressive Christians as if it’s their modus operandi is perhaps a misnomer. We’re not asking others to “tolerate” people of color, the LGBT community, women, etc. We’re after full participation, a recognition that folks like myself who are not members of traditionally oppressed communities need to do a lot more listening to those communities and active reflection on the places of power into which we come. And we refuse to even tolerate those who think they have the right to hate speech and bigotry. In other words, if you’re a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, a misogynist, or just a good old fashioned asshole, I’m going to call you that and not feel bad about it–even as a Christian–because I don’t think any of those things have a place in the Kingdom of God.

A Punk Rock Eschatology

Growing up in the 90’s means participating in any variety of teenage subcultures.  Certainly, the most contentious is punk.  Anyone who has ever listened to The Sex Pistols, The Ramones or The Clash has participated in the endless dialectic of authentic punk and poser.  What is authentically punk: TRUE PUNK™?  Fundamentally, these discussions are absurd.  Cultural movements among all people, though especially teenagers are dynamic and ever-changing styles.  There is only one guiding logic of punk rock.  Maybe this guiding logic relies on too much on a historical example for its legitimacy, but I think it works.  In 1977, Sid Vicious chanted the bridge to God Save the Queen: “NO FUTURE.”  Boldly, I argue that “No Future” is the logic of punk as well as an eschatological statement.

In recent days while browsing through posts on Reddit, I came across a really troubling post.  If you’re familiar with Reddit you know all too well of the troubling content regularly posted.  Though, the post that piqued my interest was not explicitly because of misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc (however, these things were all present).  The post was a simple picture of a young Muslim girl dressed in typical “punk” fashion.  Punk is such a contentious term in regards to fashion, culture and music, this contention was played out rather typically in this post.  One user says,

Punk is about rebellion and the rejection of the accepted social standards. That taqwacore stuff, “islamic” punk etc. seems like an oxymoron. Punk is punk. The concepts of “christian” punk, “islamic” punk make no sense to me.

This user misunderstands the logic of punk.  Punk rock is not about rebellion, it’s an eschatological prediction on the future made based on a certain critique of neoliberal capitalism.  Yes, punk rock is rebellious, but this rebellion is secondary to its eschatology.  This is why punk rock works so well within Abrahamic religious traditions.  Being a Christian youth often means needing to find spaces for self-expression outside of normative Christian culture.  Okay, so I’m clearly speaking from a position of Christianity, but my diagnosis of self-expression can be extended to other religious traditions, like Islam.

Why then does punk work with Christianity? Simply, it is because Christianity and punk rock share a similar eschatology (generally, I feel unable to talk about eschatology in Islam.  However, it shares a similar form with Christianity).  There is an orientation toward the meaning and politics of the end times.  Christianity and Islam share a certain apocalypticism that echoes punk rocks “No Future.”  The early church understood this the best.  The budding biblical scholar often asks why were the gospels authored so long after the death of Christ?  This is due to Christianity being apocalyptic and expecting Christ’s imminent return.

The early Christian church lived in a tension with apocalyptic themes.  They lived precarious lives: Christ could return any day.  The contemporary context is certainly different, but there is a certain apocalyptic tension that exists in the present with punk rock.  There is a questionable future: life lived under the flows of neoliberal capitalism make tomorrow uncertain.

It may be the case that the early church lived as a precarious and apocalyptic assemblage, but can a similar assessment of the contemporary church be made?  It is true that some strains of fundamentalist Christianity hold that the stars are right and Christians could be raptured at any moment.  In this interpretation of eschatological events, there is very seriously no future.  Though, the precariousness of capitalism also puts all Christians in an apocalyptic position: a position of no future.

PSA: White People Have Privilege and Paula Deen Shows Us Why

The train wreck that is now Paula Deen’s career has been smattered all over the news and everyone’s Facebook feeds the last few days. I just want to point out an important take away for all the white people who may be following it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read excerpts of the deposition that started the firestorm here.

Let’s get one thing straight off the bat. There is no context, there is no way to interpret, there is no place that would make anything she says in the deposition okay. None of that is okay–ever. I think most people are on the same page about that, hence the firestorm.

Her statements about jokes, however, really get to the heart of a very important issue. (The bold is the attorney asking the questions and the normal type is Deen’s responses):

What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —

It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.

Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?

That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.


They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

Okay, well —

I can feel out that person pretty good on what would offend them, but I’m not sure…what — what the question even means.

Only someone in a position of power could attempt to justify derogatory jokes or comments by claiming they affect them just like everyone else (she mentions “straights” and “rednecks” twice, though I’m only assuming that she would put herself in that latter “category.”) Those sorts of jokes don’t typically bother white people, seem completely harmless, because the vast majority of white people in this country have never been on the receiving end of systemic oppression, negative racial profiling, etc. that these sorts of jokes and comments tend to highlight. That is, white people have a particular unspoken privilege that allows people like Paula Deen to wrestle with the ethics of telling off color jokes or to fantasize about slave-staffed dinner parties or to justify using the “N-word” under certain circumstances, which white people dictate.

And I’m not going to insult the intelligence of Deen or any other older white Southerner by saying, “Well, they grew up in a different era, so I’ll forgive the fact that they’re a little racist.” They live in this era, and I know that there are plenty of older white folks who grew up in the South who are totally outraged by Deen and her comments. They’re just not excusable, and they confront us directly with the reality of white privilege in this country.

**Addendum: 6.25.2013**

I don’t like editing posts since I think blogs should be a crystalization of the writer’s thoughts at a given time, but through a conversation with someone about this issue, I thought it really important to add a note about the public outrage, Food Network’s firing, and the buzz that others who have contracts with Deen are considering breaking ties. I think I made it sound like that since everyone is more or less onboard with her comments being racist, the outrage alone is justified. However, I should mention that this public “execution” of Deen is really nothing more than a pseudo-action which allows the white public and Food Network, et. al. to disavow their own secret racist attitudes.

That isn’t a conspiracy theory. In psychoanalysis, this is called fetish disavowal (see Lacan and Zizek.) People hold all sorts of “closeted” negative attitudes or secret desires–that shouldn’t be a revelation. Casual racism among white folks is probably one of the most pervasive in our country. It goes as an unwritten rule that you don’t name that racism explicitly (i.e. you don’t talk in public about black children tap dancing for your entertainment, whether seriously or in jest.) As soon as it is named, people are confronted with their own similar attitudes and are forced to condemn and condemn strongly. Plausible deniability is impossible once the unwritten rule is named. This is what I meant by the last sentence of the original post.

So the outrage allows us to demonstrate that it’s not us but someone else, while still maintaining the casual racism we want to continue participating in (i.e. enjoying shows like Game of Thrones or Madmen, telling jokes, etc.) It’s uncomfortable to think that some of the things we enjoy are actually part of the problem, and scapegoating Deen helps us cope with that instead of using the situation as an opportunity to exercise our own racist demons.