Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Max Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and Critical Theory

Below is a slightly modified version of the paper I delivered at AAR last weekend for the Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group. The panel was titled “The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations.” My paper perhaps falls under the former more than the latter of that pair, though I think it addresses some “fixations” as well, namely the commodity form as the central point of critique in most analyses of capitalism under the heading “Critical Theory.”

 In Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism we find three different types of rationalization at work in the construction of this ethic and the subsequent spirit, which arises from what Weber calls the “inner-worldly asceticism” of Reformed Protestants. This reading of Weber, while I think quite plain from a careful examination of the text, complicates the more or less standard intellectual history which reads “rationalization” as co-terminous and interchangeable with “instrumental reason,” and, perhaps even more germane to the Frankfurt School, also complicates Georg Lukács’ appropriation of the term in History and Class Consciousness in the formation of his concept, reification. The aim, then, is to show that Weber’s analysis can offer an important supplement to what has become the dominant way of reading capitalist economy in critical theory. My conclusion is that though reification is indeed a modified version of Weber’s “rationalization,” the construction of the concept such that it subsumes all “logics” of being-in-the world to the commodity form, reduces Weber’s concept to one “type” and flattens the complexity of “rationalizations” at work in the formation of contemporary capitalism in Weber’s view. In other words, where Lukács identifies a single ideology that must be overcome, Weber sees a complex web of calculative moves, none of which are necessarily ideological in the sense of being epiphenomenal of capitalist economy and all of which contribute to the logic of contemporary capitalism.

Reification, as Lukács defines it, is the calculative process by which something that is non-commodity becomes objective commodity. Lukács’ primary example is Marx’s reading of the commodification of labor as the commodification and thus objectification of a social relationship—something that, prior to capitalism, would have been irrational. All subjectivity is removed from labor in order that it might be quantifiable, calculable, and exchangeable. However, Lukács’ rendering of the term extends beyond Marx’s reading in positing this phenomenon as the universal structure of modern capitalist society. In other words, not only are social relations reified, but everything is subject to reification via the objective, calculative logic of the capitalist system. In “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács writes that the commodity itself “can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it.” In other words, via reification, commodity has become “the form of objectivity” itself, the “natural” logic of existence within the capitalist system, subsuming all spheres of life to itself.

The “logic” of reification in Lukács and Weber’s rationalization run parallel to one another in their rejection of that which falls outside their scope as irrational. For Lukács, the reason reification has become so successfully dominant in modern capitalist society is its ideological dominance over all other ways of being in the world. That is, all activity and ways of viewing the world which do not cohere with the “rational calculative” practices from within the closed logic of the rational-reified system, are rejected. Weber’s concept, as we shall see, does contain a very similar aspect; however, at the outset, it is important to note a few crucial differences between these two accounts. First, unlike Lukács who is very clearly drawing from both Marx and Weber (as well as Georg Simmel) in synthesizing a precise definition of reification, Weber himself is not entirely clear on what he means by rationalization. Indeed, interpreters of Weber, perhaps most famously Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens, have noted the inconceivability of any attempt to systematize Weber’s methodology across his corpus. Thus, my claims in this second part are not an attempt at a systematization of Weber’s thought, even regarding this one concept.

It is clear that one can always use the word “calculation” in describing Weberian rationalization. It is a psychological calculation aimed at bringing seemingly disparate parts from the various spheres of life into coherence with one another. Furthermore, we must also note that these types need not be mutually exclusive. Especially in The Protestant Ethic, they appear to work in concert with one another, which perhaps adds to the difficulty of distinguishing them in this text. Though Weber does define rationalization in The Protestant Ethic, our best definition of rationalization comes from Weber’s essay “The Social Psychology of the World’s Religions.” Weber writes,

We have to remind ourselves in advance that “rationalism” may mean very different things. It means one thing if we think of the kind of rationalization the systematic thinker performs on the image of the world: an increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Rationalism means another thing if we think of the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means. These types of rationalism are very different, in spite of the fact that ultimately they belong inseperately together. […] The rationalization of life conduct with which we have to deal here can assume unusually varied forms.

We should first note that Weber’s concept has a different type of universal character than Lukács’. While reification is an ideological universal calculative process, which subsumes all spheres of life, rationalization as Weber describes it here seems to be a calculative feature which, as Weber writes in the Protestant ethic, has “existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture.” In other words, the type of rationalization implemented is not necessarily dependent upon the cultural sphere in which it appears; the aesthetic, religious, or political spheres, for example, do not require their own specific types of rationalization. Rather, each type may take a different form if implemented in a particular sphere.

Weber’s first “type” is instrumental rationalization, which he describes as theoretical mastery of reality. This is the type with which we should be the most familiar at this point: the instrumentalization of nature in order to meet needs, the justification of belief in the untrammeled and inevitable progress of science, or even the objectification of subjective social relations into commodities. While there is nothing inherently religious about this first type of rationalization, the next has explicitly religious origins. Teleological rationalization is oriented toward ultimate values and ends but as they are explicitly salvific and thus ultimate in a religious sense and is what Weber means by “the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end.” It is the reorientation of the world toward this practical end, viz. salvation, and involves the working out of a theodicy such that the promises of the savior (the ultimate values) cohere with the evil that the believer encounters. One must be able to know one is saved despite the apparent evil of the world.

Weber sees this developing in Calvinism first from a revised conception of God, writing that, for the Calvinist, God is “[A] transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.” This totally irrational conception of God, in the sense that human rationality can never approach the will of God, demands the teleological rationalization that Weber describes. Therefore, though salvation itself is a gift of grace from God, assurance of salvation is a thoroughly rationalistic endeavor with specific practical consequences. Weber still has one more mode of rationalization in mind however because the teleological type neither prescribes nor proscribes the proper behaviors necessary in order to secure this assurance.

This third type, ethical, can “assume unusually varied forms” for Weber it is simply the organization of life around the particular values one holds; a behavior is rationalized as ethical if it coheres with the values present in one’s life. These values are derived from all spheres of life and from both instrumental and teleological rationalization. This is perhaps a frustratingly nebulous way of defining “ethical rationalization;” however, reading this definition into Lukács’ account brings to light a deficiency in the latter. For Weber, it is ultimately the ethical rationalization of particular patterns of behavior in Calvinism on the basis of a previous teleological rationalization that is the driving force behind the development of the Protestant ethic that creates the spirit of capitalism. Calvinist teleology demands that all activity in the world be rationalized such that it can point one to the assurance of salvation. In light of the absence of sacrament, this must be done through moral behavior, a recasting of Christian activity as “solely activity ad majorem Dei gloriam.” This final move necessitates ethical rationalization in order to have psychological certainty that all one does brings glory to God. One’s activity must be constantly morally justified in order to cast oneself as a “tool of the divine will.”

The assurance of salvation is demanded at all times since, for Weber, one is from eternity either elected or damned. Thus this creation of assurance “cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen of damned. […] The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.” This system is ultimately what Weber is attempting to explicate through the employment of rationalization as a conceptual tool. Teleological rationalization gives Calvinism the form for the relationship between believer, God, and salvation while ethical rationalization provides the specific content that helps the believer cohere his personal relationship to this structure. Weber calls this system “inner-worldly asceticism.” This is a double asceticism in the sense that one is simultaneously rejecting and remaking the world in order to rationalize one’s being-in-the-world as worthy of God’s glory. Once the teleological concern drops away from Weber’s structure (as in his example of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic) we are left with an ethical “spirit of capitalism.” Weber defines this as the accumulation of money for the sake of money itself. This occurs via a set of rational, ethical calculations, which include the rejection of greed coupled with value of hard work reflected in how much one is able to earn. This brings into a unity all economic activity operating according to this spirit regardless of religious belief.

We can now see the relationship between these two structures and the difficulty of drawing a straight trajectory from Weber’s concept through Lukács and into the analysis of later figures such as Horkheimer and Adorno. The primary difference between our two structures, of course, is that the center of the structure for Lukács is the commodity form under the logic of reification rather than money itself. The dominance of instrumental rationalization in Lukács’ structure, is intended to highlight a problem which Marx had already explicated with regard to liberal democracy in “A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” namely the illusory non-normativity of the structure of contemporary capitalism. In other words the reification of subjectivity into the commodity form introduces a kind of non-normative (i.e. non-ethical) relation between subject and commodity, commodity and other commodities, subjects and other subjects, and subjects and the structure of society as a whole. This calculative move serves the function of concealing the true, exploitative relationship between subjects and subjects-become-commodities. If labor is merely another commodity with exchange value, there is no necessary ethical imperative—except to protect the rights of subjects to reify other subjects into commodities, rights that are themselves taken to be “natural.”

It is in this moment that Weber’s analysis provides an interesting compliment to Lukács. Weber introduces a different imperative, another rationalized calculative move that is not a non-normative operation, but a radically ethical one—the cultivation of particular virtues whose sole end is the accumulation of money for money’s own sake. If we read Weber’s analysis of this ethic back into Lukács, then we achieve a much more complex picture of the motivations behind ways of being in contemporary capitalist economy. Not only are laborers trapped by their reification into commodities, but they perhaps willingly accept this reification on the basis of an ethical belief in hard work, frugality, honesty, punctuality, etc. strictly as a means of accumulating money. In other words, what Weber’s account gives us is a much more textured analysis of the functional attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of capitalist economy. It is a starting point for understanding how capitalism has been so resilient in the face of impending collapse: strong ethical attitudes that tie together money and morality.

Dave Ramsey and the Spirit of Capitalism

Three blog posts began circulating last week that I think give us the opportunity for some serious reflection on the relationship of Christianity to economy. The first was an article written by Tom Corley that appeared both on his own website and then on Dave Ramsey’s site called 20 Things the Rich Do Everyday. A commentary addendum was tacked on to the end of the list: A response from Ramsey answering all of the negative criticism the post received. In this response, he calls negative respondents “doctrinally shallow” and “spiritually immature,” telling them to “Grow up.” This sparked a host of immediate responses, most notably Rachel Held Evans who wrote this response on CNN’s religion blog in which she points out the obvious fallacy in the list Ramsey defends: Correlation does not equal causation. That is, many of the “habits” of the poor likely stem from their poverty rather than the other way around. This point was emphasized strongly in the most recent blog to circulate: 20 things the poor do everyday.

What’s most interesting to me are the strongly polarized conversations regarding capitalism and Marxism that crop up when stories like this break. Quite the same thing occurred last week in response to Pope Francis’ first major treatise that in part questioned the dominance of global capitalism in the context of the need to care for the poorest among us–an economic position on social justice which the Catholic Church has held for quite some time and is not necessarily Marxist.

A major part of the problem, it seems to me, is that most people don’t have a clear understanding of what capitalism really is to begin with. A view that seems to circulate strongly among Christians (and many others) is that capitalism means “free enterprise” broadly, or variously, defined. That is, what capitalism affords is the freedom to be able to be compensated for labor, for a skill, for an invention, a business of one’s own choosing through the effort of hard work and thus be able to achieve success that will allow one to live and hopefully live comfortably. The problem is that this conception of what it means to work in order to survive is not unique to contemporary capitalism. All sorts of capitalistic endeavors, from speculation to the financing of wars for monetary gain have existed in many places and times. This is one of the early arguments that drive’s Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber, whose aim is to define and then locate the primary originating factor of “the spirit of capitalism,” emphasizes the importance of understanding that modern capitalism is not simply a matter of earning in order to survive. Furthermore, he notes that the existence of an aristocracy, a bourgeois class, is not limited to capitalism either. Capitalism cannot be defined as unlimited greed. That is, greedy rich people have existed in other economic systems as well. Ultimately, the spirit of capitalism, Weber argues, is the rationalization of the accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth itself.

To illustrate this point and the difference between this definition and the others, he cites a passage from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which Franklin espouses this financial advice:

Remember this saying, The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse. He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the money his friends can spare. This is sometimes of great use. After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings; therefore never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.

The passage cited is much, much longer. Weber notes that what Franklin advises is not just a way of simply surviving in the world–there is a particular ethic here. This is absolutely crucial: Franklin is not simply giving sound financial advice. Weber describes the ethic thus:

Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues […] In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudœmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.

The telos of this sort of wealth-earning is not to live an absurdly extravagant lifestyle (i.e. hedonism)–which may seem counterintuitive to what we normally think of when we think of the “evils of capitalism.” There is a necessary frugality, a temperance which ensures that money will always be earned and nothing else.

Weber’s central thesis, that it is a particular Reformed Protestant ethic originating from the doctrine of predestination that gives rise to this spirit of capitalism, certainly contains flaws and for a long time has not been taken seriously. Let’s set that aside for a moment and take the fact that Ramsey is a Reformed Protestant as coincidence. Regardless of the origin of the spirit of capitalism, Ramsey’s emphasis on “virtuous choices” is hauntingly similar to Weber’s analysis of Franklin (Weber published this text as an article in 1904-5 and then as a book in 1920.) Note Ramsey’s three factors of poverty:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;
2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

He separates out the third as irrelevant to the first two (which is absolutely baffling.) Even more baffling are his next few sentences:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

What happened to the second factor on his list? The spirit of capitalism dictates his dismissal of it. On Ramsey’s account, the second is actually the fault of the poor themselves. The cultivation of character (virtue) is the primary factor in determining one’s financial success, and it is an autonomously willed endeavor. One has the ability to transcend all environmental factors in order to participate in this ethic. If the poor don’t, then they are subjecting themselves to oppression by allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. (The state lottery is Ramsey’s example of this.)

I think understanding capitalism this way is important because it moves the conversation about how best to serve the poor away from a capitalism/Marxism distinction (which is absurd anyway), away from a debate about “hard workers” and “lazy people,” and toward an important conversation about the role of money in the life of a Christian. 

That is, we do need to raise questions about systemic oppression, but we also need to help people see how money functions in their lives. There isn’t anything wrong with Dave Ramsey wanting to help people get out of debt and take control of their finances. I’m sure my wife and I could benefit a lot from what he has to say. That itself is not necessarily a capitalistic or oppressive endeavor. Yet, Ramsey would probably answer the comparison of himself to Franklin (or Weber’s sketch of Franklin) by saying that one earns wealth not for the sake of wealth but in order to “Live like no one else so you can give like no one else.”

Here’s where Weber is important in reading this: Giving generously is all well and good, but unfortunately, one is still earning money for the sake of money–it’s just money one can give away.

Can giving money to charity accomplish some good? Absolutely. But what is vastly more important than that is being able to see the role that money plays in our lives in forming an ethic that drives how we see the world around us. If we firmly believe that one’s situation is solely determined by a particular set of capitalistic virtues that one cultivates, then of course one is going to see everyone in poverty as having failed at or been too lazy to cultivate those virtues.

Contrary to Ramsey’s claim, there is nothing Biblical about earning money for the sake of money. One could more or less make the case that honesty, frugality, punctuality, and industry are virtues that can be found somewhere in the Bible, but, as Weber notes, they are not necessarily connected to the capitalistic spirit–the capitalistic spirit made them that way. Jesus, on the other hand, has some more direct things to say about our relationships to others. They usually have to do with serving the poor, disdaining wealth, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of–all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There’s no such thing as a taker who doesn’t work hard enough–just a division between those who give all to serve the poor and those who oppress them.

The Theology of Star Trek

I.

“What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

 II.

A classic element of Marxist historiography is the responsibility taken on by the historian to the liberative possibilities that have gone unrealized. Just as the Marxist revolutionary takes on a certain responsibility to discern the contingent possibilities for revolutionary action and class intervention—possibilities which will not realize themselves according to any historical necessity—the Marxist historian commits herself to discovering the latent potentiality according to which history might have been otherwise. In a sense, there is a sort of apocalypticism to Marxist history; from the horizon of the hoped-for revolution, these latent possibilities are transformed from inevitable false-starts to the real birth pangs of a new world to come. In the work of Walter Benjamin, this responsibility appears in the notion of redemption through repetition: the task of remembering history is not to describe the bare facts of the past, tracing in them the source of the present situation, but to unearth hidden possibilities and failed hopes which continue to demand realization.

This retroactive movement is theologically fecund. Slavoj Zizek frequently claims that the natural tense of apocalyptic historicity is the future anterior, taking the form ‘it will have been.’ The Hegelian move, he argues, is to “reintroduce the openness of the future into the past, to grasp what was in the process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated [the] existing necessity.” These possibilities are specters that ‘haunt’ history—possibilities in search of actuality—from the point of view of the collective. This stance is what G.K. Chesterton called “thinking backward,” as an attempt to “render palpable this open moment of decision.” The collective—the gathered body—is to recognize the possibility and contingency that underlies the present order, its lack of necessity strictly correlative to the lack of a big Other to underwrite that necessity, by virtue of the spectral, failed hopes of the past.

The relation between authentic and ideological apocalypticism is visible in the gap that separates Lenin and Stalin. Lenin, for Zizek, represents the recognition of absolute contingency, and the concomitant need to act decisively, to take responsibility for the future that will arise if he does not act. Stalin, on the other hand, represents an order founded on its own historical necessity. The revolutionary, who lives fully within the death of the big Other, takes responsibility not only for the present, but for the failed hopes of the past.

III.

It is precisely in the mode of the sort of history-as-necessity that apocalyptic historiography refuses that most readings of the Star Trek franchise proceed, whether optimistically or pessimistically. Traditional leftist praise for Star Trek revolves around the commitment to the notion that any truly utopian future society involves a future without money, without a labor force divested from the surplus they generate, etc. The multiracial cast of the original is often cited with positive regard, as well as the anti-militarist bent, and the structuring of stories according to the demands of a group of people solving problems they encounter in the unknown, rather than the logic of a hero’s journey, or some other vaguely conservative story structure. The criticisms, of course, operate on largely the same level; Star Trek is rarely anti-capitalist enough, or anti-militarist enough or whatever; something happens in any given Star Trek episode or film, something that can, in the end, either be regarded as liberative or conservative; entertaining or boring.

I should confess at this point that I’m a huge sucker for almost-masterpieces. Something in me is constantly intrigued by films, books, and music that approach something truly intriguing, but don’t quite become adequate to it, that break down before they can arrive at the destination they promise. That I’m such a sucker for “almosts” probably explains my deep love for the film Blade Runner. And it is in this spirit of “almost” that, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I have to confess that my favorite film has never been The Wrath of Khan, but the almost universally derided Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, with one notable exception, most of my favorite things about the film are precisely those things that are often cited against it. [1] For instance: it’s the only Star Trek film that’s actually about going out to meet some unknown horror together with open arms. The other films rely either on villainy or a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin whose nature is immaterial to the film to drive either an action film or an action-comedy. And I think the fact that the film plays so much of the time like a long, subdued waltz almost works with that; that it is a (for the time) high-budget visual effects movie with absolutely no explosions or bombast is really interesting to me. The film is driven into some really intriguing corners by the fact that it revolves around the Enterprise’s attempts to know an unknown entity that is simultaneously attempting to know the ship and her crew; Vger literally has to kill something to really understand it as a scientific object, and thus interprets the Enterprise’s scans as an attack. As poorly cast and executed as the character of Commander Decker is, I really like the idea that, at base, he’s right; there’s no reason Kirk should be in command except to satisfy his own ego; there’s no moment when Kirk gets to triumphantly demonstrate that he, by virtue of being a fiction character, is the “chosen one” who should always have his rightful place. There are all sorts of things like these that are almost happening in this film, but it’s important to note that for the most part they never do; the film circles around its own potential on all sides, illuminating a possible—but unrealized—moment, theme, film, etc. In The Motion Picture, Star Trek gets as close as it ever has to actualizing a certain happening that has lurked within it before and since. The specter of Star Trek hangs uniquely over this film.

IV.

According to most reviewers, however, the “best” Star Trek film is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And certainly, from the point of view of what actually occurs in the film, I’d probably agree. Where The Motion Picture is paced sluggishly, Khan wastes not a single moment of its runtime on redundant moments and lines. Where The Motion Picture reduces its characters to stoic, analytic problem-solvers who can barely be said to relate to one another, Khan both restores and surpasses the familial dynamic of the TV series, placing its narrative weight on the various sorts of families in which Kirk finds himself. There really is a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and it would be a mistake to say that the spectral possibility of Star Trek isn’t haunting this film; even as it leans on hero/villain conflict and reverses a lot of the prior film’s refusal to beatify Kirk as a creature of destiny, this is something different than, say, a Star Wars film; something else is at work, something whose play of appearance and disappearance gestures towards a different ghost.[2]

This ghost, though, is one that can only be missed, even in the most piously leftist analysis of The Wrath of Khan, as long as the primary attention is given to what appears, or what happens. It’s no accident that many of the worst moments of the franchise after Khan’s release consist of attempts to emulate or repeat Khan. Star Trek: Nemesis, in particular, is an attempt to repeat the tonal and structural content of that film, to universal and just dismay. The problem, here, is the same basic problem that haunts classical historicism: by enacting the point of narration and repetition from the horizon of what actually happens, what necessarily leads to the present, the ghost is disavowed, refused.

V.

I’ve begun to repeat a specific anecdote when asked about my feelings on the new, J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek films. Growing up watching zombie horror, the moment I could never comprehend was the moment when a character can’t bring themselves to shoot their undead loved one. “It’s not him! It’s not her!,” I want to shout. And yet, on opening night, I found myself at a showing of Star Trek Into Darkness. It is only in light of this particular spectrality of Star Trek that one can make sense of the unique betrayal that Star Trek Into Darkness represents. On the level of content—of what actually happens—STID appears to be at least as faithful an entry in the franchise as, say, Star Trek: First Contact. The timeline divergence enacted in the first film covers over almost all continuity quibbles, and those that remain (how phasers work in this new timeline, the ability of starships to submerge in water, etc) can only appear to be relatively minor. And yet, something is horribly amiss.

trek_nokia

Whatever could be wrong?

It’s probably not worthwhile to spend too long recounting the structural and thematic changes—a lot of this is pretty on-the-nose stuff. We find characters sipping labeled Budweiser beers, using Nokia phones, and engaged in heroic personal journeys to greatness in which they defeat ever-stronger foes. Star Trek has fucked up before; why is it these particular films in which we find not a distance or absence of Star Trek’s spectral promise, but films given over to another ghost entirely?

It’s hard to say, exactly. I know that the setup of this post probably promises an answer of some kind, but I’m not sure I have one. There’s simply very little in this iteration of the Star Trek franchise that doesn’t seem to be given over to exactly the sort of ghost that the ghost of Star Trek disrupts. That ghost seems to have very little to say in a film like Star Trek Into Darkness except “no.” It’s no coincidence, I think, that so much of this film is cribbed from The Wrath of Khan; in this case, what appears is an entire film given so wholly to what actually happened in Star Trek films of the past (in addition to the obvious TWOK nods, the film apes plot points from Deep Space NineStar Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis, to name only a few) that the ghost is given up entirely.

VI.

There’s a connection to be drawn here between the sort of living in a tradition this post enacts with regard to Star Trek and the sort that the Christian or the Muslim or the theologian might engage, but this post is already too long, so draw it yourself.

_________________

[1] That exception is, of course, the fact that the characters don’t really start interacting as characters until just about the last scene.

[2] “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else would be a waste of material.” Spock, to Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 2, Religion

In the second chapter of their book Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, Clayton Crockett and Jeffery Robbins tackle the history of the relationship between religion and its materialist critique and the differences between the critique of the classic materialists (Feuerbach, et. al.) and the new materialist critique of Slavoj Žižek before offering what they see as the constructive implications of the latter for Christianity specifically. What I want to do here is talk a bit about Crockett and Robbins’ approach to the materialist critique of religion and add to the practical implications that they outline with an eye to Evangelical Christianity specifically. This chapter is conceptually difficult without any background in Žižek or Lacan, so I’m going to do a lot of summarizing and explaining before getting to the extension of the practical implications. My hope is that this can serve as a primer for those who are interested in the book but are intimidated by the approach Crockett and Robbins employ while highlighting some additional things to think about.

In essence, the difference between classical and new materialism resides in the consequences of the critique. Feuerbach and Freud saw religion as a debilitating crutch, something that had to be overcome so that the ultimate truth that science and empirical evidence provide could shine through and humans would no longer be dependent on anything but their own reason: the epitome of secular humanism. Religion, in other words, is a false consciousness–a way of thinking that helps us escape the reality of our situation. Žižek and other [Lacanian] materialists point out, however, that all consciousness is false consciousness. Following Lacan, Žižek argues that our symbolic and imaginary orders (how we imagine ourselves to be and the social-judicial order that governs that) are our reality; they keep us from experiencing the terrifying Real (what we really are, which shatters our imaginary selves.) So even if religion were to be erased, it would immediately be replaced by some other false consciousness, and there’s no telling if that would have better or worse results.

Žižek is willing to bet we’d be worse off since he thinks that religion, at its core, really has a lot to offer. What is metaphysically or ontologically real is of no consequence for Žižek since no “system,” whether that be a purely empiricist epistemology or any other way of being in the world, is the Real itself. The choice between a world in which there is religion and one where there is not is a false dichotomy because one cannot not choose false consciousness. Religion has the potential to be politically mobilizing, to be the driving force in moving humanity toward a better political reality. In this way, New Materialism moves beyond critique to a reconceptualization and radicalization of religion.

This way of thinking about religion–or reality itself for that matter–may strike some as extremely problematic. But instead of attempting to make a counter-case for why this isn’t how things really are (i.e. false consciousness, etc.), I would encourage readers to understand this Žižekian-Lacanian move as the implementation of a theoretical method. That is, one need not accept Lacanian psychoanalytic categorization of reality as really true in order to understand that, as theory, it can help us think about something familiar in a radically new way. Crockett and Robbins are reading religion. This is how literary theory (which “popularized” Lacan among humanities disciplines outside of philosophy) typically works. What is important in this method is that it helps highlight the implications of a non-reductive materialist approach to religion which validates religion as a way of seeing the world that is compatible with science and can also provide the resources for more robust political action. That is where we now turn.

The implications for this in Christianity should be pretty obvious: Take the Incarnation seriously, tracing out its implications as far as they go. For Žižek and Radical Theology, that means the death of God. That is the inevitable conclusion of a truly materialist Christianity. Some might call this “Christian atheism,” but there’s a very important difference between not knowing if there is a God and claiming that there definitely is no God. The latter is what “atheism” implies, and that doesn’t seem to be what is going on in this move. This conclusion allows us to believe the efficacy of belief itself. That is, when we claim the fundamental truth of God, we are not believing, but claiming direct knowledge instead. The classical materialist critique works the same way: what is repudiated is not a leap of faith, but a fundementalist empirical claim to know God directly. Belief has no efficacy in either case. By continuing on as if we believe, it is not that we come to a more authentic faith; rather, we  come to see our belief as externalized (it is not I who believes, but my prayer believes for me) and can finally see and understand the structure of our [false] religious consciousness. No more transcendental guarantees. No assurances. Just a dangerous leap of faith. This is how Christianity truly reclaims the fundamental risk with which it was established in the first place. Christianity is re-radicalized.

The importance of this move is to reconfigure Christianity in such a way that it can be a viable mobilized political force. If we are aware of the structure of our false consciousness, then we will be able to finally unmask and root out the commodities that appear to us as “a magical object endowed with special powers” (C&R quoting Marx) within that structure. Put differently, we can come to see much more clearly that religion in America is ultimately about money. The solution is not to sever the connection between religion and money but to read the Gospel through the lens of this problematic. We suddenly see that stories like Jesus feeding the 5,000 really are about the redistribution of wealth and not primarily about a supernatural miracle. When Jesus says, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” it’s a mistake to read sin into debt. This is an economic claim. (C&R follow John Dominic Crossan on both of those examples.) We are then poised to organize political action against systemic oppressive structures.

Now that we have a good sense of what Crockett and Robbins are gesturing toward, we can ask: Why would this be difficult for a Christian to grasp, but particularly an Evangelical? The Bible says it right there, doesn’t it? There are many passages and verses that instruct us to always plead the case of the widow and the orphan, to make sure that our religious practice always results in mercy and justice. Why does that not lead to organized political action against systemic oppression? One obvious answer is that using words like systemic and political sounds a little too socialist for some Evangelicals. That may be reductive, but I think we can generally agree that most Evangelicals are part of the religious Right, which sadly means they hear the gospel and discourse about contemporary social justice on a systemic level in two different registers. But there is another, more complex issue that I think is actually more problematic than right wing political rhetoric.

Evangelical Christianity is too spiritualized.

Evangelicalism has a long history of personal spirituality going back to Lutheran Pietists in the 18th century (and probably earlier than that.) What follows should be so familiar to Evangelicals, that it might hardly sound like a problem at all–it will just sound like what Christianity is. Becoming a Christian means having faith in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is a personal intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Once one is a Christian, there’s a lot of talk about one’s relationship with God and Jesus, God’s personal love for us and plan for our individual lives, “being Christlike” in our actions (which usually means abstaining from “bad stuff”). We also want to feel something from our faith. We can do that if we “go deeper.” How one goes deeper in one’s faith usually involves adding more prayer, memorizing more scripture, thinking more about the sermons we hear, “being obedient to God’s will,” emulating Christ’s humility, worshipping harder, being in the light of Christ…

Am I being vague enough?

What the hell do any of these things actually mean?

Many Evangelicals complain about feeling like they’re “in a rut” spiritually. They remember feeling God strongly at some previous time, but now everything seems so mundane. That’s because most of what Evangelical Christianity requires of believers are abstract, personal, intellectual activities (meaning in one’s mind, nothing academic necessarily). We have to read the Bible. We have to pray more. We have to contemplate… stuff. Engaging in service activities is one way of achieving a closer relationship with God. But the purpose is always our own spiritual health and development. Serving becomes an intellectual exercise–a way for us to feel closer to God. Our orientation is always toward our own personal spirituality.

And it’s important to note that “service” among Evangelicals rarely if ever requires any sort of political action let alone in the radical way Crockett and Robbins suggest.

We just have to “love on people.”

I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase. Jesus didn’t just love people; he actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. He actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. And for that, he was crucified. If all we are doing is trying to be friends with some homeless people, with some inmates, with some refugees, we are not part of the solution. We’re part of the problem. We’re not doing anything to help them.

We have a mental block. Evangelicals don’t really know what Christianity is all about. Saying it’s about Jesus, it’s about forgiveness of sins, it’s about freedom for ourselves, seems to me (and to Crockett, Robbins, Žižek, Crossan, etc.) completely wrong. Christianity must become the political force that it has the potential to be, one motivated by justice from systemic oppression; the problem is that, at least for Evangelicals, we are going to have a really hard time laying down our own feel-good personal spirituality in order to do so.

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Forgive Us Our Debts

Strike Debt! is one of the latest movements of Occupy Wall St.  Strike Debt! is a push for a dialogue as well as action concerning debt culture in the United States.  Perhaps this movement has gained so much traction because debt is such a familiar topic for Americans.  Daily life in our society has become anxious and precarious.  Some of us live paycheck to paycheck; others live nervously anticipating movements of the market.  How long can we continue?  Will we get sick and not be able to work?  Will we experience another devastating market crash?  How long can we keep up on our monthly payments?  Strike Debt! strives to create networks of support and withdrawal from debt culture.  Certainly, these are activities that are important for a large portion of the social body, but what about Christians?  Can Christians Strike Debt?

The Christian church we hear about in acts is one that shared things in common.  This is a radical network of support that Christianity has lost.  The church has lost its radical community to family life centers, zumba classes and Christian bookstores.  Detractors of anarchism and communism often cite that the early Christian church lived in such a way because they were waiting for the end of the world and the return of Christ.  Though, is this much different from the way we live, don’t we live expecting some apocalyptic event?  Every Sunday we pray for the coming kingdom; we anticipate the end of the world.  Michael Hardt and Toni Negri explain this apocalyptic tone in contemporary politics saying,

“…the predominance of violence to resolve national and international conflicts not merely as last but as first resort; the widespread use of torture and even its legitimation; the indiscriminate killing of civilians combat…This vision of the world resembles those medieval European renditions of hell: people burning in a river of fire, others being torn limb from limb, and in the center a great devil engorging their bodies whole.”(Negri and Hardt, Commonwealth, Pg. 3)

How can the Christian community prepare for the end of the world?  Can Christians strike debt?  Can they take revolutionary action?  Perhaps, instead of striking against debt and other types of refusal, the Christian approach to the precariousness of everyday life is to forgive debts.  The forgiveness of debts is not simply the refusal of participating in debt culture, but the extinguishing of destructive and violent energies.  To forgive is to unbind one’s love upon another, blotting out one’s sins.

There is a strong precedent in the Christian church to spiritualize the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps one of the most oft said prayers in the Christian church.  Though, it is in this prayer we ask:

“ Your kingdom come
 Give us each day our daily bread
  And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:4 NRSV)

As God forgives our sins, we are to forgive “everyone indebted to us.”  If our belief and actions are to be anchored by the Christian faith then the debt culture and the violence of financial capitalism must be wiped away.  Forgiving debt is a much more radical move than simply withdrawing or striking.  The Forgiveness of debts imagines new relationships between individuals and capital.  If we are to be subjects of Christ, as Joel said in his previous post, it requires an erasure of our capitalist subjectivities.

Perhaps, to parse this transformation out in a more radical way we can use the language of Deleuze and Guattari.  In the essay Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium, Deleuze and Guattari explain, “There is no ideology, there are only organizations of power.”  This is to say that Capitalism is a certain organization of power and to counter this power new organizations must be implemented.  In using this logic we find the means of the erasure of our capitalist modes of desire and production.  Changing the organizations of power changes the way one desires.  We must re-purpose our social organs toward a new becoming, becoming-Christ.  To forgive debts is to transgress against the capitalist organism.

Parenthetically, a temptation here might be to call for conformity toward what Paul in First Corinthians calls the body of Christ.  Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ is one body with many members, assemblages of members performing the duty of organs. Thinking hierarchically, the church certainly is a dominating organization of power, but hierarchy and rigid organizations of power must be exorcised from the church.  Can we imagine the church as a radical community of support and care?  There is merit to Paul’s words, but the image of the body of Christ, that is the hierarchy of the church, is far too stratified and fixed.  Paul’s body allows only for a narrow outpouring of the multifaceted desires of the Christian body.

Becoming-Christ is a repurposing of our machines of accumulation into machines of forgiveness and hospitality, our machines of hierarchy and stratification into machines of support, mutual aid, and democracy: the organs of Christ and the church must be organized into machines of kenosis, which is to say machines of self-emptying.  Instead of acquiring wealth and extracting labor we must construct they machines of love and forgiveness.  Private property has no place in the kingdom, for there is enough to go around.  What is a debt anyways?  Debt is a semiotic agreement, but Christ frees us from our debts and in turn we must free each other from debt.  Not a year of jubilee, but a world turned on its head.

A rigid grid ought not be fixed to the kingdom of God simply because love is not rigid.  Forgiveness is hard; especially when we are required to forgive that which capitalism makes us cling to.  Christian love is often transgressive against capitalist machines of accumulation.  Property, exchange and capital hold no bearing under the logic of Christ who instructs us to forgive and love wastefully.  In the face of precarity and capital let us freely love and freely forgive.

Whirring Machines: Capitalism, Christianity, and Subjectivity

“A sum of money is the leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

This is how Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, begins. In much of his work, Vonnegut draws the reader’s attention to the painful observation that humans are not much different than machines in the way they interact with the world of the late 20th century. His characters seem to have little control over what happens to them, the victims of immovable forces, as he likes to say. These forces, however, are not simply “forces of nature” as they are for the American nihilists of the late 19th century (Stephen Crane, for example.) Elsewhere in his work, Vonnegut writes of humans as having little motors whirring inside of them as they mindlessly bend to another force inside of them: the drive to wealth at any cost. Capitalism.

Capitalism is “natural” in the sense that it is the mode of production currently employed at this time in history. This understanding is, of course, what Marx means by historical materialism. Put simply, historical materialism is the claim that history is guided by the human need to produce in order to survive–which is the truly natural piece of capitalism (of any mode of production.) This is coupled with the fact that human beings have the ingenuity to adapt to their situation in order to accomplish this goal; thus the mode of production in use will always be adapted to changing circumstances until a point where it collapses in on itself, giving rise to a new mode. We can see at once that, unlike a hurricane or earthquake, capitalism at least feels like it’s in our control to some degree and probably more so than any other mode of production in the past. We make ourselves. Our success is dependent upon how hard one works, and if one has failed to procure a comfortable lifestyle, one has simply not worked hard enough. What we earn belongs only to us.

But think about what we give up in order to accomplish the goals capitalism sets forth. We become part of the labor force for a capitalist (a CEO or a small business owner–doesn’t matter) and have our subjectivity erased, or we try to control some of the means of production and thus participate in that erasure. Certainly there are more nuanced modes of subsistence (non-profit work, for example), but for the purposes of this illustration, let’s stick with the most common forms of participation in our economy.

When one is hired to work for a corporation at any level, one surrenders one’s subjectivity to that corporation. Let’s say you’re a barista at Starbucks. You probably make an average of 10 beverages an hour during a shift that sell for $3-$5. You see maybe $8 of what is made, a small amount goes back into the corporation to procure more means of production, and the vast majority goes to the people who own the corporation–who own the means of production. Some Starbucks baristas are incredible: they’re creative, friendly, they make your drink quickly and very well. Others are awful (as a recent SNL sketch illustrated.) Both will be paid the same. The amount each is paid is determined by how much wealth the owners of the means of production can amass while ensuring that the corporation will continue to produce as efficiently as possible. That baristas at Starbucks are given health benefits is not a sign of the company doing something “extra” for their employees. It’s a sign that the labor force requires more from the owners of the means of production in order to continue producing at the necessary rate. It’s a way for Starbucks to remain competitive by keeping employees happy (maybe happier than employees elsewhere) and improving its public image.

If you’re an employee and you have a bad day, make a mistake, do something that costs the company money, you’ll most likely be fired. An employee’s personal situation is of absolutely no consequence. The only thing that matters is the accumulation of as much wealth as possible. And if you’re a small business owner with all of your assets on the line, it’s even more important that employees mean nothing to you. How could you fire your own brother? We know that this is how capitalism works–those who accept it unreflectively will readily admit that one has a right to make as much money as he or she possibly can through whatever legal means necessary. This is justified because of the false belief that one of those baristas, if she just works hard enough, can eventually become the CEO. That is the fundamental lie upon which capitalism continues to operate. This is how we see that money cuts two ways in capitalism, which is why the bee metaphor is especially apt. On the one hand, the vast majority of people under the capitalist system are drones, making up a labor force to create wealth to be used by very few. On the other, they are drawn to the wealth they are creating, and those who are more successful than others will do anything to acquire more. In other words, the promise of money (and more money–an infinite potential) traps people in this system under the pretense of a false hope.

Employees are not people. They are whirring machines. They are worker bees. Their story and circumstances do not matter to the people who need what they contribute to the labor force as a whole. And in the process of grabbing more for themselves they perpetuate the erasure of subjectivity. Christianity also erases subjectivity, but in a radically different way. Christ’s call to lay down our lives, to give up all that we have, is a call to forsake our own personal identities and take up a new one as a follower of Christ. That isn’t a new insight–I think Pete Rollins has made the same point. But the Christian relationship to subjectivity doesn’t end there. As we forsake our own subjectivity, we do so in order to help others who have been robbed of theirs through injustices perpetrated against them reclaim it.

It is in this way that we can see a radical break from capitalism in Christian practice. (Matt has described a different way here.) Christianity requires knowing–not in a “God knows me, and I’m special” way–but in a way that calls on us to know people. This is what discipleship is. The Great Commission is a call to make disciples, to draw people close into your circle, which has no borders. This discipleship-making is not first and foremost a task of conversion (a terribly destructive misreading of that passage.) Rather it is a calling of people into our midst–people who have been marginalized, treated as objects, as machines, as filth or garbage, so that their subjectivity may be restored and their lives transformed. Again, this isn’t conversion. A conversion (as a confession of Christ and a commitment to taking seriously what it is to follow him) is a forsaking of subjectivity. In other words, we are making disciples when we help people reclaim their subjectivity so that they can come to realize they should forsake it in order to help others reclaim their subjectivity and thus rehearse the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. That is the gospel message.