The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.


[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.

Atonement and Economy

First, a bit of a meta-comment: faithful readers will note that some promised posts (notably on mysticism) have failed to materialize. Sorry. I’ve been a little terrible at keeping up on blog stuff this summer, what with conferences, trips, and my independent study. I’ll try to get something out here in reference to my work on Marguerite Porete soon, but this is still not that post.

I’ve been working on a study of patristic and medieval atonement theories this summer, exploring connections between the concepts of atonement and economy in hopes that this connection might yield a thesis topic. I’m happy to say that this study has been massively ‘paying off,’ and that I’ll probably be proposing a thesis related to the topic this fall. In the meantime, as I begin synthesizing some of this work for a paper on Anselm, I thought that readers might be interested in some of my preliminary thinking, since it combines several of the native interests of the blog:

…two broadly speaking political paradigms, antinomical but functionally related to one another, derive from Christian theology: political theology, which founds the transcendence of sovereign power on the single God, and economic theology, which replaces this transcendence with the idea of an oikonomia, concieved as an immanent ordering—domestic and not political in a strict sense—of both divine and human life. Political philosophy and the modern theory of sovereignty derive from the first paradigm; modern biopolitics up to the current triumph of economy and government over every other aspect of social life derive from the second paradigm.[1]

In the sixteenth chapter of the first book of his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury begins a lengthy diversion from his otherwise meticulously [streamlined?] treatment of the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. Anselm’s digression picks up a prior Augustinian notion: the numbering and replacement by humans of fallen angels.

It should not be doubted that reasoning beings […] exist in a rationally calculated and perfect number known in advance by God, and thus it would not be fitting for it to be greater or less. For either God does not know what number would be best for reasoning beings to exist—a false supposition, or, if he does know, he will bring it about that they exist in the number which he will recognize to be most fitting for this purpose.[2]

The paradox is that either the angels were created in the correct number in the beginning (and thus there are now ‘gaps’ in that number) or God made ‘extra’ angels, and thus in some sense created the necessity that some would fall, since for there to be more angels than needed would contravene the perfection of God’s ordering of the angels.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, that the question concerning angels is a question of God’s economy.[4] How is it that this aporia is to be reconciled with God’s administration of the world? Indeed, it will also come as no surprise that the history of atonement is one of the privileged places where economic theology is worked out in explicit detail: after all, where is God’s administration of the world more evident than in God’s active intervention as the God/man? And so economic theology has always been concerned first of all with an economy of salvation, of a certain administrative dispensation according to which the world is reconciled to God’s order and purpose.

What this digression into angelology reveals, in addition to the connection between atonement and economy, is a certain relation between economy and theodicy. After all, the reason the problem of fallen angels appears as a scandal is that the choice isn’t simply between two versions of the ineffectuality of the divine economy, but between ineffectuality and something more sinister; between ‘gaps’ in God’s economy created by the fallen, and a God whose economy in some sense presupposes evil as integral to its effect.

The question that motivates me here is, in a sense, Anselm’s own: “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death […] restore life to the world[?]”[5] My intent, however, is to shift the emphasis of this question ‘by what logic?’ What sort of logical machinery has to be in place to render intelligible the death of the god/man in terms of a redemption; an economy that exchanges a murder for a reconciliation. “Given a certain effect,” we might ask, “what machine is capable of producing it? And given a certain machine, what can it be used for?”[6] Further, my wager is that in posing this connection between atonement and economy, what becomes clear is a concomitant connection between economy and theodicy—a connection that continues to condition the secularized governmental paradigm of economy.

A common objection to ‘economic’ treatments of atonement—and Anselmian atonement in particular—is that these treatments flatten a mysterious and gratuitous theological motif into simple exchange and bookkeeping. What these objections miss is that the economic field already exceeds the delimitation of a field of the calculus of exchange; a field of markets and commodities. The economic field concerns a government, or a dispensation, not only of the exchange of commodities but of the allocation of bodies, of production in the broadest possible sense. Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory already in some sense explores the theological development of this paradigm, but I think there’s something important that’s missed in his zeal to separate economic theology from its traditional locus in ‘redemption:’ certainly, it is necessary to challenge the thesis according to which economy and salvation are merely synonyms of each other; in other words, the thesis that the term ‘economy’ as it appears in patristic and medieval Christian thinking refers more or less to the general notion of a ‘divine plan of salvation,’ in contradistinction to non-theological usage of the term. But by focusing on the question of economy in relation to the paradox of a unified will that directs a diverse governmental dispensation, what’s left unthought is the relation between this development and its connection with theodicy and temporality. What makes the specifically Christian form of economy effectively governmental is that it brings along with it an economic theodicy and an economic time: a time that will render thinkable new formations of credit and debt. Further, the relations between these terms necessitate the ability to think economy in terms of modes of transmission and circulation: and so the history of blood and the history of economy begin to intertwine.

I plan to post two more blog entries on this before I start writing the proper thesis: the next one will be on the question of time and economy in Anselm, and the one after that will be on blood, economy, and theodicy.


[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 1.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, in The Major Works, 290.
[3] Anselm notes that one of the obvious solutions to this dilemma would be the restoration of each of the fallen angels to their original place. Such a reinstatement, however, is impossible for Anselm because of the terms under which any redemption must be effected. We will return to this point in a later section. For now, it is the concerns that animate the dilemma—rather than Anselm’s solution—that is of interest.
[4] While he does not deal specifically with Anselm, Giorgio Agamben has mapped the significance of this relation between angelology and economy—which Anselm inherits from Augustine, and which Aquinas will inherit from both—in his The Kingdom and the Glory. See especially the sixth chapter, “Angelology and Bureaucracy.”
[5] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 265.
[6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 4)

I concluded Part 3 by pointing out that Troeltsch departs from Rickert on the question of “value neutrality.” It’s worth noting that this is also a departure from Troeltsch’s friend and colleague at Heidelberg, Max Weber, who is really the father of the idea of ethical neutrality in social science scholarship.

This first departure is arguably both Troeltsch’s most subtle and his most important. His case against value free judgment is primarily built upon the fact that without something recognizable in ourselves, we would never be able to make a judgment in the first place. This does not open the door, however, for unscientific polemic against cultures and histories as objects of study; rather, it is precisely what allows for empathy, for an even handed and rigorous study of unfamiliar times and places. This is also not say that such studies become automatically subsumed under the normative value judgments of the scholar. Rather, as we shall see, Troeltsch argues along Rickertian lines that value relations constitute the organizing principle of historical study.

Troeltsch agrees with Rickert that in the course of human history thus far, there are actually very few values which we can claim as relevant to history. This fact immediately eliminates the concern of an insurmountable and overwhelming relativism which had assumed that there was no means of establishing any sort of non-arbitrary way of approaching the infinite manifold. Thus a hopeless relativism (or irrationalism) is no longer an issue. This first step is important for Troeltsch particularly in rejecting the claim of the orthodox apologetic that the materials of history are dangerously relative, offering no means of discerning values in a normative way. On the contrary, history provides us with precisely the most salient normative developments. Troeltsch writes:

The important thing is to compare these developments in such a way as to take in the widest possible historical horizon in the hope of discerning not a universal principle of law like that at work in concepts employed in the natural sciences but a principle suggestive of tendencies toward a common goal. […] We will draw together the most outstanding results of man’s spiritual development that are known and accessible to us, basing this procedure on the supposition that their being known to us is not a mere accident but is due to the fact that they are the only significant developments which spring from an elemental matrix.

Among the world’s major religions, Troeltsch argues that there are really only “three or four basic orientations in which the power of religion is disclosed, orientations that have their counterpart in, and give support to, entire spheres of culture.” On the surface, this claim sounds reductive; however, these orientations serve as value concepts in precisely the same way that Rickert’s understanding of values functions–with the vital difference that they are not universal. In other words, these concepts only function in historical study insofar as they hold validity for reality. They are ideal, not real. They do not presuppose a correspondence to reality. And they are permeable, malleable, and non-permanent. Troeltsch tempers this assertion with the following:

There is nothing to prevent us from regarding the significant results of scientific, political, artistic, social, and religious life as enduring. It must be remembered, however, that just as these results took shape within definite contexts, so too they always assume individual forms. The doctrine of endless progress, or rather the theory of endless change, is a groundless prejudgment that seems plausible only to people who have consigned all metaphysical ideas regarding a transcendent background of history to the status of illusion—and with such ideas the religious belief in the unity and meaningfulness of reality.

We may take this as yet another illustration of his attempt to temper the relative with the absolute and vice versa. He is not content to take either on their own as a ground from which to approach history—only the two together.

In broad strokes, the same can be said of Troeltsch’s ambiguous gesture toward a “common goal;” however, more unpacking is necessary to see what he is getting at there. He acknowledges that this idea is at least vaguely reminiscent of the absolute which he has already rejected. Indeed, he means the concept of the common goal to replace the absolute altogether. This common goal, as a concept, has no content but serves as a general telos, as a criterion for judgment and is in this respect at least related to the previous idea of the absolute. The vital distinction between the common goal and the absolute, however, is found in the former’s origin. Troeltsch writes:

In the same way that we today think of the ultimate primarily as an inexhaustible movement of life, we may likewise understand the criterion of evaluation as something that merges within this movement of life as a result of a universal perspective on the one hand, and involvement in this movement on the other. It can be characterized as the determining of a direction, the setting of a course among the great, dominant tendencies of history. The criterion itself is both the product of a particular historical situation and a means for its further development; it is not a static and completed principle that determines how the process will take place (my emphasis).

In other words, Troeltsch is attempting a new understanding of what it means for a concept to be essential or a priori; namely, that all such concepts have a history of development, are currently in development, and have an unknowable historical trajectory.

We can see here Troeltsch’s explicit rejection of an absolute principle outside of history as the criterion for normative judgments. In effect, Troeltsch’s argument leads to the conclusion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions–with the important difference from Ritschl that it not have an ahistorical organizing principle driving it. That is, whether the common goal takes the form of the overcoming of suffering, perfect moral and spiritual development, or the establishment of a kingdom of God, Christianity must always be understood in the context of the basic orientations of the history of religion so that a proper comparison may be made, and thus an evaluation. This comparison is not a means of establishing Christianity as the absolute religion above all others; rather, it is a means of clarifying the internal, subjective commitments of the individual Christian or Christian community. In other words, the criterion that serves as the principle of judgment is always ultimately a matter of personal conviction–the conviction of the historical church.

The history of theology and the church move forward when emerging ideas, those beyond the historical horizon of the current epoch, flood into the mainstream by fusing with current ideas/social-historical-material conditions. And this isn’t only true for theological history, obviously. Troeltsch thinks this is how history moves–not “forward” necessarily, but it moves. Troeltsch also thinks this process is much more rational and “clean” than either Weber or the historical theologian Karl Holl do, which itself could be a whole different series. In the final post, I’ll finally give me own commentary on Troeltsch and Rickert and how I think they can contribute to the articulation of a materialist theology.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.

In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.

itroelt001p1This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?

The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.

A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.

Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.

The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.

Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.

 

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.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 2)

More time than I would’ve liked has passed between part 1 and 2 of this series. I’ve been in Berlin since the beginning of July improving my German and will be here until the end of August. My intensive language course has left little time for comprehensive exam preparation, let alone blog posts! Still, I’ve managed to find some time to crank out some reflections here. In this post, I begin to move into a discussion of theology by first considering Ernst Troelthsch’s mentor Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl provides the second stream which flows into the river of Troeltsch’s thought and is important to consider so that we can see what Troeltsch is doing in his project (which will be the third post, contrary to what the first post says.)

In the first part of these posts, I laid out Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history which includes the justification for a viable human science on the basis of historical individuals and value relations. I also pointed out the obvious ways in which this methodology went very bad very quickly and remained so until the latter half of the 20th century when critical discourses were finally able to diagnose the various problems that underlay methodology in the social sciences. I’m especially interested in how theology fits into this story, particularly in whether theology is interested in the general or the individual (as Rickert understands those terms) or if instead it can somehow take an interest in both that doesn’t fall into the traps that Rickert’s philosophy does. Aside from what, from the perspective of critical discourse, is the impossibility of value neutrality and indeed the necessity of examining value neutral discourses to expose their underlying colonial, patriarchal, etc. commitments, Rickert’s insistence on the objectivity of values (i.e. value neutrality) seems to expose him to the precise criticism which he levels against positivism in the first part of The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science.

Remember that objectivity in the strict Kantian sense does not mean and should not be equated with knowing things as they are in themselves, i.e. knowing reality as it actually is. What Rickert is insisting on instead is to regard values as objects–but this is tricky. Values, we’ll remember from the last post, though they are abstracted from empirically reality, have no empirical reality when taken as the objective ground of historical study–they are wholly ideal. His insistence on this point is a little confusing since it seems like the point he is wanting to make is that these values are basically additional categories of perception, both empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Thinking back to Kant, we’ll remember that in order for perception to even be possible, these categories are required–they’re what make it possible for us to talk about empirical reality at all. But they themselves are not observable within empirical reality (e.g. Hume’s famous refutation of the observation of a necessary cause and effect.) The problem is that value is not a demonstrable condition of perception, and Rickert is aware of this. Values, then, essentially become general categories of value. This is the best Rickert can do. Like universal laws of science, these objective values which are meant to ground historical study are universal, general categories of value that must hold some sort of validity for empirical reality for every human being across time and space. His explanation of objective values, then, seems to slip general categorization back into historical study through a back door. If we were to really dig into an analysis of how these values operate, we would see that they’re not quite the same as the sorts of universal laws of human history and behavior that positivists in the late 19th century were trying to abstract from historical study. Still, we cannot deny that in order for Rickert’s system to work, he [thinks he] needs an objective ground; otherwise, historical study is arbitrary. The problem, of course, is not that Rickert insisted on the wrong ground but that he argued for an objective ground in the first place.

That’s a well worn path, and I don’t mean to rehash something that now comes so naturally and is so obvious to cultural theory and critical discourse to the point of seeming banal, essentially behaving as a first principle of sorts. However, the way that Troeltsch comes to wrestle with mediating between the poles of what he calls “absolutism” and relativism–and in 1902–with regard to theology is, to my mind, rather revolutionary. However, we first have to get a handle on the other, theological side of things, though with regard to both the social sciences and theology, Troeltsch is wrestling with absolutism, ethical neutrality, etc. Troeltsch was perhaps the final prominent member of the Ritschlian School and arguably Albrecht Ritschl’s sharpest critic. This garnered a lot of attention for Troeltsch from younger theologians and students, notably Paul Tillich, who were seeking out alternatives to the classical liberal theology that Ritschl’s work embodies. (My own thoughts on Troeltsch’s membership in classical liberalism will have to wait for another post. In short, I don’t think he belongs there.)

One of the difficulties in undertaking a commentary on Troeltsch’s departure from Ritschl and its philosophical underpinnings is that both Ritschl and Troeltsch are usually considered, in part, neo-Kantian theologians, Ritschl influenced primary by Hermann Loetze and Troeltsch by Rickert/Weber. Ritschl founded what is typically referred to as the “History of Religions” school of theology.  He was trained under the historicist biblical scholar and theologian F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century. This was a period of great transition and turmoil for theology, philosophy, and the study of history.Ritschl The Geisteswissenschaften were already emerging (well before Rickert came on the scene), and the question of the nature of history as a proper object of study was experiencing both reactions against and defenses of the dominant Hegelian idealist paradigm of history. Most important for the fields of study within Christianity was the question of historical context: Could theology be understood as a properly scientific discipline if its scholars presupposed Christianity to be the absolute religion? Baur’s response was a decisive “No.” However, his students, most notably the biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss and Ritschl polemicized against this view, Strauss appearing to be the more orthodoxly Hegelian of the two. Ritschl insisted that the question of presuppositions was the wrong one to ask. Christianity is one of a number of major world religions, and, so Ritschl argued, it is only from the context of the history of religions as seen from the point of view of Christianity that the latter could be truly understood in its religious form, thus attempting to eliminate or at least delimit the problems Baur identified with assuming Christianity as the absolute religion.

As mentioned, Ritschl was also heavily influenced by the then burgeoning neo-Kantian philosophy, particularly that of Hermann Lotze. A full exploration of this influence is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but a few points are of interest: 1) Lotze affirms Kant’s view that the ethical will is the will of God. 2) However, Lotze departs from Kant in positing religion as a three-part relationship, I-God-Man. 3) He further departs from Kant in positing the Kingdom of God not as a kingdom of future ends toward which we infinitely approximate but as an actuality in the present. Finally, Lotze argues that doctrine and dogma can never be transmitted in an account of their actual truth. Instead, their transmission contains an “intuitive seeming” which makes intelligible what is ultimately inexpressible and maintains a true relation to the actual.

The primary effect of this influence is Ritschl’s rejection of an absolutely transcendent will in favor of a more contextualized understanding of the human person and agency. Ritschl, however, still maintained Idealist tendencies, particularly on the concept of the absolute in theology. For Ritschl, theology requires an organizing principle, and, according to Ritschl, the organizing principle of all Christian thought is the Kingdom of God, a view he began to develop as early as 1858. In his magnum opus, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1874), Ritschl writes, “The Kingdom of God is the summum bonum which God realises in men; and at the same time it is their common task, for it is only through the rendering of obedience on man’s part that God’s sovereignty possesses continuous existence.” This definition reflects the mid-19th century tension between historically bound human beings and transcendent theological principles. The Kingdom is a good that is imparted to humans by God, something they receive passively; however, it can only be realized in the moral striving of human beings toward it as their goal. It is thus dependent upon human will, which Ritschl does not view as itself transcendent the way Kant did. Christianity solves this apparent problem by means of a transcendent connection of the two ideas in the logic of grace. Therefore, the divine act of the gift is what ultimately constitutes the ground of the highest good. Human beings only contribute insofar as their moral striving is done out of faith in Christ. In other words, membership in the Kingdom of God is the condition for any human contribution toward it’s reality in the present or future. Johannes Zachhuber writes, “In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means. Its function as telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love: The Kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an end in itself.’”

Of particular importance for our purposes here is the absolute character of the Kingdom of God. Ritschl makes it clear that this is in no way to be identified as an earthly kingdom, i.e. as a State. Its operations in how it understands wrongdoing (sin), punishment (separation from God), and justification (removal of separation) completely transcend any worldly handling of these terms. This extends to all other religions as well. In other words, in asserting the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle for all Christian thought, Ritschl is also asserting the absoluteness of Christianity over all other religions. All human development is striving toward the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Hegelian influence on this point is obvious. From this perspective, however, it is difficult to see how Ritschl can reconcile this understanding of the absoluteness of Christianity with his assertion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions more generally. This was not a problem for Hegel, who paid no attention to the world religions and was arguably only concerned with Western Europe. But for Ritschl, it imparts a nagging relativism which he does not seem to take seriously enough. Indeed, this is the primary criticism which his student Ernst Troeltsch leveled against him, to which we turn in the next post.

 

Reading the Epoché Against Essentialism

The following is a small section from the paper I just delivered at the revolting peripheries conference in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. This particular section contains some very basic thoughts on trying to read the epoche in Husserl against colonial logics that posit subjects in a particularly active way, projecting categories of understanding on the world. I am posting it here since this section in particular will form part of an article I hope to submit for publication in the next month and I want to continue to think through the links between philosophies of immanence, early phenomenological method and critiques of colonial logic. Somewhere in there too is a latent engagement with Meillassoux that I need to more explicitly bring out.

There is only what is, which is to say there is no essence, only the actual.

The epoché in Husserl’s thought functions to allow for cognition of entities as they manifest in phenomena, in givenness, contrary to the ways in which people normally proceed in thinking the world. Normal modes of cognition take form in a posture Husserl refers to as the “natural attitude.” This ‘natural attitude’ of people is a particular posture toward the world and other people in which apriori categories undergird the person’s activity in and interpretation of the world. An example of this kind of thinking is the basic formation of Kantian subjectivity in which the active mind imposes categories for understanding upon the world. The best that one can hope for in this schema, with regard to cognition of those autonomous features of the world, is a mild agnosticism, affirming only the possibility of their existence but neglecting the import of their autonomy for human reason and use.

Important to note here is the fundamental role the recognition of one’s immanent situatedness in-the-world plays for Husserl’s thinking on this point. It is important because to gesture toward givenness is to summon up a basic tension between a concept of active subjectivity, which is the primary agent of cognition, and a realist sense of the world, in which one grants the world autonomy even in the process of cognition. Givenness appears to denote something of a flux between the two. There is a tension between the place in which a person constitutes herself in the recognition of her own thereness in-the-world and the place from which one recognizes that her situatedness denotes a primary posture of being as encounter, namely, with those aspects of autonomy and otherness that constitute the world in which she is a participant.

Husserl writes, “Enough now of absurd theories. No conceivable theory can make us err with respect to the principle of all principles: that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originarily offered to us in “intuition” is to be accepted simply as what is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.”[1] Here Husserl’s language reflects the tension above, implying both an aspect of activity on the part of the subject and the characteristic of otherness in given phenomenon. The point we should take here is, namely, that what is primary for cognition is not anything other than what presents itself in and as the world in sheer givenness of actuality.

For our purposes I want to say that the tension between revolting and being subsumed within overarching structures of power reflect the tension between givenness and its alternative. That is to say, the tension between an affirmation of sheer givenness and a notion of subjectivity that makes the subject’s prior categories for understanding the basis for intelligibility and order in the world is precisely the struggle for how to speak of the constitution of people without such speech subjugating them to authoritarian pronouncements. The latter sort of configuration predicates itself upon the assumption of essentialist definitions of identity. Contrary to essentialist forms of reason, the point to take away from a recourse to phenomenological givenness is that whatever is actual, is. Actuality is the only place from which to think self-possession, and actuality is always a matter of givenness unbound by any transcendental notion of essences.

What I want from the epoché, then, is a wider application that points us toward particular moments of givenness when we try to talk about revolting identities. In this sense, what we are doing in speaking of revolting peripheries is affirming the integrity of something already there in-the-world, without the need of any authoritarian transcendental to guide our affirmation. We seek to bracket what is our natural attitude with all of its essentialist content, we reject all of its concerns and we look toward something immanently given in our experience of oppression to constitute ourselves for ourselves.

To affirm actuality in this way is to undercut colonial logics of being. Colonial logic does work to impose its categories for understanding upon the actual world. Insofar as this type of logic functions to impose such a causal order upon the world, it functions very much like what Heidegger refers to as onto-theology, which is the logic that forces one to ground everything in essentialist definitions that correspond to transcendent notions of pure categorical essences. If this is how thinking of the subject occurs, then it is not too far to state that a colonialist ideology is our natural attitude

The real issue is not then an onto-theological constitution of metaphysics, but more accurately an onto-colonialist constitution. I think this is interesting, especially as Sean and I continue to discuss how to think concepts of “hope” in ways that jettison the impulse for teleological grounding for political or other actions. Political teleology is onto-theologic proper. It is that way of thinking which necessitates a regress into a transcendently given ground for proper cognition and reason. Such logic pronounces judgment upon revolutionary acts that do not think, that cannot think, in terms of what comes next due to the vast powers that are set against them. Colonialist ideology is exactly onto-theology insofar as it seeks to prescribe the structures of being in-the-world for those in the periphery. This is an authoritarian move that consigns all native speech that does not align into categories of non-being or unintelligibility.

Thus, we may here reconfigure Heidegger’s insight, in conjunction with this reading of the epoche, claiming that onto-theologic is not a matter of ideologically neutral ‘reason,’ but rather, a recourse to an onto-colonialist vision of the self, which is our natural attitude in contemporary western societies. Enrique Dussel notes, “That ontology did not come from nowhere. It arose from a previous experience of domination over other persons…Before the ego cogito there is an ego conquiro; I conquer.”[1] The conquering subject sets the parameters for all subsequent attempts to think self-possession. Insofar as this is the case, the colonial powers maintain the ability to subsume attempts at criticism, forcing them into categories of intelligibility.

 

[1] Dussel, E.D., Philosophy of liberation. 1985, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. p. 3.

 

[1]Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Collected works/ Edmund Husserl. 1982, The Hague: Nijhoff. p. 45.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 1)

I’ve been immersed in neo-Kantianism this whole year between reading and rereading Weber as well as the literature that surrounds his work. This last quarter, I worked through a handful of texts that came from the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, spending most of my time in Heinrich Rickert’s The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science. Two seemingly unrelated questions were raised as I worked my way through it: (1) What sort of discipline is theology? and (2) What is the status of valuation in critical discourse. I have a number of friends working on the relationship between theology and science, something I too have waded into since my time in seminary, and I think Rickert provides some ways of thinking about the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences that have begun to change how I think about theology’s place in that spectrum. It also, I think, provides another way of conceiving materiality in relation to theology and some good reasons for why a materialist theology, carefully defined, is ultimately the most fruitful way forward.

This is going to take a few posts. In this one, I’m just going to lay out Rickert’s philosophy of history, and at the end, I’ll allude to what I’m going to do in the next post, which is to start talking about theology in relation to Rickert.

Rickert’s primary aim is to illuminate a logical opposition between concept formation in the human (historical) sciences and the natural sciences as a means of establishing what it means to conceptualize what he calls “historical individuals.” When Rickert is writing at the turn of the 20th century, historical study (broadly, what we call the humanities) is still emerging as a collection of disciplines in its own right over against the natural sciences with its own methodology and authority. Prior to Rickert, the study of history was regarded more or less as one of two things: the study of antiquity (what we call “Classics” today) or the far more contepmorary positivist sociology. The latter, championed by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, argued that the study of history was just like the study of the natural sciences: the goal is to collect the data and abstract from it general categories and universal laws. This was untenable for Rickert, who, following his mentor Wilhelm Windelband, argued that general concepts destroy that which precisely makes history what it is: uniqueness and individuality.

Rickert is neo-Kantian in the sense that he doesn’t think that our knowledge is about reality as such. So when he’s setting up this logical opposition between concept formation in the natural and human sciences, it’s on the basis of how we regard our experience of reality. In other words, the difference between the natural and the human science is not in the ontology of their objects but the phenomenology of them. They share the same real objects as they come to us in experience but regard that experience differently. That experience, Rickert says, comes to us as an infinite stream of individuals. It’s actually doubly infinite in that there is an infinite number of individuals (extensive infinity) and each individual itself is infinitely complex (intensive infinity.) Because this is how we experience reality, general concepts are always less real than our immediate experience, i.e. they can never represent our experience of reality as that infinite stream of individuals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t produce knowledge though. General concepts still hold validity for empirical reality. They just can’t give us any knowledge of individuals in their unique individuality. This is a logical impossibility, says Rickert, because the very definition of general concept precludes uniqueness. The goal of the scientific method is to erase anomaly (uniqueness) in favor of repeatability (which we usually call verifiability.)

It’s also, then, logically impossible for general concepts to apply to history. History is by definition unique and therefore unrepeatable in that uniqueness–at least, the history that interests us (more on this in a minute.) The data that eventually becomes “history” in the sense Rickert is after has the same nature as empirical reality (doubly infinite) and, by definition, cannot be made sense of in the same way that natural science makes sense of the infinite manifold. Rickert’s explication of concept formation in natural science shows us that there is this piece missing from our knowledge that natural science cannot provide–a concept of the individual. But now there’s a further problem: How is a concept of the individual possible if individuals are doubly infinite and unique? Up until this point, concepts have only ever been general. Historical concepts have to be something else that isn’t abstracted from the exact historical material in question but is instead formed out of something else.

This ‘something else’ also can’t be arbitrary, which is the other problem facing historical concept formation. As we’ve seen, natural science has the advantage of repeatability in forming its general concepts. Kant showed us this. Scientific observation is about the perception of a sequence (not a sequence of perceptions.) The repeatability of any sequence of perceptions is what eventually becomes knowledge in natural science. Clearly, historical knowledge doesn’t have that advantage within the data itself because in order for a datum to qualify as “historical” it cannot be repeatable. Returning to the idea of interest that I mentioned earlier, Rickert acknowledges that there are many more individuals (infinitely more, actually) within empirical reality than what we could actually study according to the methods of historical science. You can look at every leaf on a tree, every dog, every lump of coal in its unique individuality. But why would anyone do that? Though these individuals, in our immediate experience of them, are unique and individual, they are almost just as quickly subsumed under a general concept, which is what allows us to take in an infinite manifold and not be driven insane by the unique individuality of an infinite number of objects who are infinitely complex. So instead of trying to take in and consider each individual leaf, dog, rock, etc. we instead have leaves, dogs, and rocks as general concepts

But why don’t we do this with every individual? What’s the difference between Goethe and a guy at Tuesday’s open mic night? We can just as easily refer to both as “poets,” “humans,” “men,” etc. as we can examine them in their individuality and uniqueness. What non-arbitrary ground could there be for selecting one over the other as the proper object of historical study? How can we justify our interest in one over the other? Rickert’s answer is that there are two types of individuals: those which become automatically subsumed and “in-dividuals”–those whose uniqueness simply isn’t subsumable under a general category because of the values that intersect it.

Values, for Rickert, are very similar to general concepts in natural science. They have no empirically real content–they are ideal–but they do hold validity for reality. In other words, they are true insofar as they are valid. (“Truth,” by the way, is also a value for Rickert, which may be a problem in how he defines values, but we’ll table that for now.) Thus, Rickert establishes a number of “spheres” which he believes exist in every society–but they have variable content. Examples include art, religion, science, ethics, sexuality, etc. Each sphere has a value relation attached to it, i.e. art-beauty, religion-spirituality, science-truth, ethics-morality. The claim, then, is that the scholar selects historical individuals of interest to conceptualize based upon the ways in which they intersect these values as those values hold validity within the culture and time period in question. Goethe, rather than the guy at the open mic night, intersects beauty, spirituality, etc. in a way that one can identify within German culture at the time that he was alive but also perhaps today and certainly within other cultures as well (especially in the West.) The open mic guy just doesn’t do that in the same way.

That last paragraph probably made anyone familiar with critical discourse cringe. There’s an obvious tendency in this theory that leans toward old white guys deciding what’s culturally valuable, and certainly that’s how this panned out during the majority of the 20th century in the social sciences and humanities. Without giving Rickert more credit than he’s due on this point, I actually don’t think he was interested in the superiority of any one culture (unlike Hegel who clearly thought Germany represented the pinnacle of all civilization and that the history of any non-Western civilization was totally irrelevant to the progression of absolute spirit.) Rickert insisted on a rigorous value neutrality when it came to the scholar’s own personal valuations. This should be familiar to any of us in a social scientific field. It’s one of the challenges of being a theologian in a religious studies department. Value neutrality is still one of the most important aspects of good social science today.

The story should sound much more familiar now. The combination of these two aspects of Rickert’s method, value relations without valuation, inadvertently introduced into humanities/social science discourse the possibility for a normative colonial, patriarchal, bourgeois, and even Protestant agenda disguised as value neutrality, intentional or not–a truly catastrophic combination if there ever was one. This has in turn created the necessary space for genealogical critiques of social scientific disciplines (Foucault), particularly religious studies (Asad), as well as the post-structural critiques of social science found in Derrida, et. al.

All of those discourses have been and continue to be necessary tools, helping to pry open the door for important voices to speak in all of the humanities and social science disciplines, and theology has been no different. In the next post, I’m going to turn to the earliest theological critic of modern sociology, Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch is more often than not seen as the first theologian to embrace the modern social scientific method–and he is–but he did not do so uncritically.  It is in his critique of the value neutrality found in Rickert and his close friend Max Weber that we begin to find the answers to the two questions we started with: In what sense can theology be a science and given critical discourse, can theology engage in positing normative values?

Preservation as Iconoclasm

This post is a brief departure from our usual more philosophical posts.  Rather than masterfully tackling Spinoza or Deleuze as previous contributors have done, this is post attempts to engage with my current digital humanities project.  Working with Art historians and art theorists, I’ve been working toward digitizing Greenville College’s Richard W. Bock Sculpture museum.  However, in this pursuit a few interesting theoretical questions have emerged.  What’s the state of the aura of a piece when it is captured digitally.   Moving from this practical experience I began thinking about the importance of religious art and iconography and the digital reproduction of these pieces.


 

So much of western culture is based on the notion of preservation.  Exceedingly, the museum, the library and all of the auxiliary media apparatuses function toward the end of preservation.  Preservation, overall, is a slippery topic.  What does it mean to preserve, maintain, keep or protect an artifact?  There’s something paradoxical or aporetic about in the relationship between preservation and destruction.  I think we can see this aporia most clearly when we turn to the trajectory of the Christian art of the east: the icon.  The preservation and reproduction of the religious icon has been a practice throughout the history of the church as well as in the humanities.  Though, changes in technique and new possibilities introduced through different technologies make it necessary to consider the reproduction, and in turn preservation, of the icon.  The critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, offers up a helpful thesis concerning the mechanical reproduction of art.  This thesis holds some helpful insight concerning iconography and will help work out my thesis on aporia inherent in preservation.

In eastern Christianity, the icon functions as an organ of worship as a signifier of the divine.  Very simply, the icon is a visual analogy of the divine: an attempt at reflecting the divine through artifice.  The icon has a specific function and context in liturgy.  The veneration of the icon in eastern Christianity is apart of the array of bodily discipline inlayed into what it means to worship.  The icon is, perhaps, a component of interface with the divine.  The notion of the icon has its roots in Christian notion of embodiment and is a testament to the bodily life of Christ.

The traditional reproduction of the icon is very much inline with Benjamin’s observation in the opening lines of his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.  Benjamin says, “art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain.”  Essentially, icons have been reproduced with a fidelity toward the original.  This results in only incremental changes and differences between reproductions.

Though, following Benjamin’s analysis on reproduction, the 19th and 20th century’s method of reproduction orients toward the mechanical.  When a piece can be reproduced mechanically something is necessarily left out.  Benjamin notes the differences photography brings to reproduction.  The lens of the camera may capture qualities of a piece that are beyond the capacity of the human eye, therefore the reproduction, while faithful to the original, is substantially different.  Even more, the camera introduces the possibility of the transmission of an image.  The photograph introduces a new vector in the reproduction of a piece, however within this new vector we see the exclusion of what Benjamin calls the aura.

On the aura, Benjamin says, “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”  The technical reproduction of a piece removes a piece from its context and history.  The piece loses something when reproduced mechanically.  Mechanical reproduction is a method of mass culture, it brings a piece to the masses while excluding the so-called aura.

Benjamin’s orientation in his essay creates a helpful mode of criticism when approaching mechanical reproduction.  While taking what Benjamin offers, mechanical reproduction has largely been subsumed within the digital.  Digital reproduction offers more possibility and ease in the reproduction of images.  Digital reproduction is inherent in the production of digital images.  The digital image is always already reproducible.  However, when it comes to the meeting of the physical and the digital, things become more complicated.

The digital reproduction of the physical piece has largely become the project of a discourse called “digital humanities.”  When the physical piece is reproduced digitally it is often done so for its preservation.  Digital preservation is inseparable from digital reproduction.  Even more, digital reproduction perfects the ability to extract a piece from its tradition or context.  The digital acts like a sieve, the mathematical properties of a piece can pass through to the digital, but the aura is necessarily left behind.

Then, turning back to the icon, we see the problematic nature of the digital reproduction of such an embodied aesthetic work.  To preserve a piece digitally, as is so common, has an aporetic relationship to the destruction of that same piece.  When we, as digital humanists, strike out to preserve a piece digitally for future generations we inevitably destroy or kill the piece: we transmute the piece into a ghost of its former self.  To reproduce the icon digitally is to put the piece in stasis, to remove it from tradition and context.  Reproduction, in this sense, pins down a living piece.  The digital mediation of religious imagery disconnects it from the bodily discipline and liturgy it is apart of.  The reproduction of the icon destroys the aura or the signifying power the icon has in liturgy.  How do we move forward with preserving historical liturgical artifacts while not destroying them?

The preservation/destruction of a piece removes the aura from the work and disembodies it.  As the digital creates a disembodiment of its users through tele-presence, it also creates a disembodiment of artifacts, the humanity is strained out and representation becomes empty.  In this aporia we see that to preserve something is also to destroy it, though this observation should not produce any reactionary ethics or romanticism in the dignity of simply letting a piece die.  Despite these problems with preservation, the prospect of preservation calls for a fidelity to the future of humanity.  Though, we are betrayed by our attempts at preservation, we still preserve.

Digital means of reproduction introduce new avenues for consideration in the preservation of aesthetic and historical artifacts.  The digital humanities is perhaps too utopian about the digital piece of the equation.  Preservation of an artifact is never guaranteed and often eludes the act of preservation all together.  However, some of us feel the need to remain true to the future of the humanities and future generations.  History and art are seemingly important and to reproduce these artifacts is a necessary, but problematic task we must face.

Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

I’d like to reflect on something that I picked up on in reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus a few weeks ago. Right from the beginning I was fascinated by the way in which Spinoza talks about God, consistently anthropomorphizing God in the standard way theology has done in order to speak of a personal God: i.e. “God said,” “God did,” “God demands,” etc.

The problem, of course, is that Spinoza doesn’t think that “God” is a personal God in any way. For Spinoza, as detailed in his Ethics, God is the totality of the universe. God is an infinite, necessary, self-subsisting, uncaused substance with two attributes, extension and thought. That isn’t to say that our physical world is God. Rather, by positing God as Nature, Spinoza means that God is the only substance that there is, and we (and every other physical thing) are modes of that substance. In other words, there are two sides to Nature: Natura naturans (naturing Nature) and Natura naturata (natured Nature.) God is the former, the sustaining activity that causes everything else. The physical world is the latter, sustained and produced by the former. Consequently, we also take part in the mind of God. Therefore, for Spinoza, knowledge of the natural world (what he calls natural knowledge in the TTP) is also, in his special sense, knowledge of God. The more one can stop seeing the world as individual, disconnected substances and events and begin being able to see that world is actually a unity, the more knowledge one is gaining of God.

This way of conceiving of God, though the argument is not worked out until the Ethics, frames Spinoza’s entire discussion of Judaism and Christianity in the TTP which, for me, gives rise to a really interesting phenomenon that I want to explore here briefly regarding Spinoza’s method in the TTP. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge at the outset that one of the likely reasons Spinoza uses the language that he does is his fear of the Dutch government. There’s no getting around the fact that Spinoza’s conception of God would have been (and was posthumously) seriously problematic for church authorities. So in one sense we could say that Spinoza is simply disguising his metaphysic in language that would be palatable to those authorities whom he rightly feared.

But on the other hand, I think I have to agree with Spinoza scholars who argue that Spinoza seems to be obsessed with the idea of God. It would be a mistake, then, to read Spinoza as merely prefiguring scientific material accounts of religion a la the New Atheists, in effect explaining away religion or pulling back the curtain, so to speak, in order to reveal what’s really happening–that behind religious language, ideas, and practice, there is a natural explanation. If that’s all Spinoza were doing, then why insist on retaining all of the religio-theological language? I don’t think fear of persecution is strong enough.

For example, in the first two chapters, Spinoza addresses the ideas of prophecy and prophets, concluding that there should be no sharp distinction between natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, since all true knowledge simply is knowledge of God. What the prophet brings is a particular imaginative power to knowledge, giving it its peculiar quality. The prophet, then, is someone who has this capacity, who is receptive to the way God “chooses to speak” to him. In other words, Spinoza is content to say that when someone like Joshua sees the sun stop in the sky, we shouldn’t criticize the account on the basis of our knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. Everyone in Joshua’s day, including Joshua, thought the opposite; hence, the sun stopping in the sky would make sense to them. Spinoza suggests that “God speaks” even through what seems like insanity to us today (e.g. the visions of Daniel.)

Note that this prophetic knowledge for Spinoza, even when based upon something that we today understand as scientifically erroneous, is still real knowledge. All real knowledge is knowledge of nature, and Spinoza’s claim is that prophetic knowledge really is natural knowledge. For this reason, it’s a mistake, I think, to read his account as strictly removing the special status from prophetic knowledge, viz. reducing the prophetic to the natural. Because of how Spinoza has defined God, all knowledge in his special sense is “revelatory.” That may be too far for some readers, but I think it’s fair to say that his understanding of the relationship between God and nature allows for that step. I think a better way to read Spinoza here is that instead of demoting or demystifying the prophetic, he’s heightened the status of natural knowledge. This puts Spinoza’s account in this odd place of reading as reductive but not actually being reductive. He is giving a natural account of the supernatural but writing as if supernatural language still retains some meaning and relevance.

The as if I think is what is most important in this text. Spinoza, the arch-atheist of the 18th and 19th centuries, is actually advocating for what he thinks is a politically viable religion such that religion is a necessary component of society. In other words, for all the talk about Spinoza’s God being non-personal, pantheistic, etc., he sure does speak very seriously as if God is not those things. E.g., Spinoza on what his new, politically viable faith requires in chapter 14:

Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible.

Just a few paragraphs later, he details seven tenets of this faith that include God’s existence, omnipresence (both uncontroversial Spinozist was of viewing God), God’s “supreme right and dominion over all,” worship and obedience to God consisting “solely in justice and charity, or love towards one’s neighbour,” etc.

Here, it seems to me that Spinoza is not making a case for how to regard religion (i.e. as a mistaken understanding of nature); rather, he’s making a case for how to regard the political religiously. To take it a step further (but maybe too far), this is a case for how one could and should regard reality religiously–or at least the experience of reality (though the latter is not Spinozist.)

To dial it back for a moment, I think it would be reaching too far to say that Spinoza intended the TTP to be anything more than a rendering of religion as a political theology that could be accepted “universally” and uncontroversially with the shadow of the religious wars of the 17th century looming in the background. But I’m interested in this idea of regarding as a methodology, as it has echoes both in Kant’s account of religion and in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century among neo-Kantians like Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

(I’m planning a post on Rickert for the not-too-distant future.)