A Theory of Bird

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended to render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generates such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Of course, this is totally ludicrous. Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which, as I mention above, goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion (Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, etc.) you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?

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The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

There has been a veritable explosion of counter-stream movements in the last few years that have not only gained ground but have actually had serious social effects: Anti-vaccination (fear of medical professionals in general), anti-chemicals-in-food (or “chemicals” in general), continued climate change denial, etc. These movements all operate with a very similar rhetoric which points to a nefarious plot to profit off of an ill-informed and vulnerable public. The key to resistance is to arm yourself with the true scientific (or “alternative”) knowledge that isn’t being produced for profit. The recent surge of hidden camera footage produced by pro-life activists in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is exemplary of this logic as well. That case is particularly interesting because we have a now decades old position (anti-abortion/pro-life) being presented as an exposé of a conspiracy to profit from the sale of dead babies and in the name of “mainstream science.”

For those of us arguing against this kind of rhetoric, it often feels like talking to a wall. The response is typically that we have been sucked in, are blind to the reality that is all around us, are uncritical shills ourselves. It often feels as though the very arguments that we generate against these theories get turned on us. “You think I’m being uncritical? You’re the one being controlled by Big Pharma/the liberal media/the abortion industry/etc. Wake up!” The script is flipped. And the truth is, the rhetoric of these claims is eerily similar to the kind of social philosophy that has been the core of the humanities since the middle of the 20th century–the kind of social and cultural criticism out of which many of us are attempting to build a career. Furthermore, given the proliferation of the theories mentioned above, we are force to ask: What is the difference between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory? Why can’t a conspiracy theory be critical or vice versa–or are those in fact interchangeable?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour thinks, in general, they are. In his 2004 essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour laments this very thing: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He begins the essay citing a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. For example, even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

Do you see why I am worried? Latour writes. I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

Latour’s concern here is heightened even more today in a way that he probably could not have imagined even just ten years ago. Though the Internet was already showing signs of movement toward larger and larger echo-chamberfication, there were certain mediums that did not yet exist; namely, vast networks of social media. YouTube didn’t exist. MySpace, Friendster and the like were at nowhere near the level of information production and circulation that Facebook and Twitter are today. But for this reason, Latour’s “criticism of criticism” is perhaps even more important in our contemporary climate. Latour continues, chastising those of us making a career out of social and cultural criticism:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

Before I get to Latour’s solution, I want to parse this relationship between the structure of conspiracy and critique a bit more. Drawing a sharper distinction between critical and conspiracy theories at this point will help us to see how we can further distinguish them using Latour’s solution. Latour points out here, I think, only a surface level rhetorical similarity between these two discourses. He is right that there is a structural or formal similarity, but even that is only superficial. Take any of the examples I mentioned at the opening of the post; those are all structurally similar to each other. There is an entity of some kind that has duped the public into thinking its motives have been above reproach when, in fact, it has been profiting from the public’s suffering, actually putting the public’s well-being into very serious jeopardy. Arguments for the existence of institutional racism or structural socio-economic injustice also seem to follow this same pattern. There is an entity to which certain segments of the population are blind. Their continued blindness has perpetuated a threat that has always been there but is now institutionalized through its normalization (i.e. because these segments of the population think of it as normal, they can’t see it as a problem.)

However, we can already begin to see in these examples the important differences to which Latour does not give enough attention in his initial analysis. These differences, I think, can be summed up in the difference between entities. Latour does admit that while conspiracy theories identify a physical group of people, critical theories are interested in abstractions–society, discourse, etc. But this isn’t a small difference. To be sure, critical social and cultural theories accuse more “visible” entities too. For example, we implicate Halliburton and Dick Cheney in the creation of the second Iraq war. We point to a conspiracy there. The difference is that both the effects of that conspiracy and the conditions that made it possible extend far beyond the aims of the conspirators and into the realm of abstractions such as “capitalism,” “discourse,” “neo-liberalism,” etc.

Those abstractions themselves are not conspiracies in the same sense because those who participate in them are not “historically” complicit in their original creation; they are complicit in their perpetuation and thus their creation by cultural inheritance. In fact, it would be hard to say that these abstractions, though they certainly exist, were “created” in the same way that conspiracy theorists want to say Big Pharma created the “myth of vaccinations.” That’s a really important difference. The latter kind of conspiracy theory is the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. They begin and end with the people involved. Critical theories may point to people who are consciously involved in a phenomenon “conspiratorially”–but those conspirators are always only an example, a particular manifestation of a larger systemic problem that always transcends their specific conspiracy.

Latour, I think, downplays too much the necessity of critical cultural and social analysis of discourse, of structures of power, of political economies, etc. Of course, I too have written here in the past about my desire to move beyond mere critique and toward a more constructive discourse. And though I disagree that the state of critique is in as dire a situation as Latour claims it is, I think Latour does provide us with an interesting proposal for doing that.

Latour’s solution to this problem, the confusion between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory, is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

A better way of putting this, I think, is to say that Latour is adding a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. By “value” I mean descriptions that are not facts–attributions of beauty, certain attributions of goodness or badness, attributions of fear or disgust, etc.

I would contend, then, that Latour’s proposal shares more similarities with the projects of Simmel or Weber, with the added dimension of an ethical standpoint from which analysis is performed–that is, with the dimension of social critique. When Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned the old sociological descriptive project, which was epistemically relative and anti-empiricist, and was championed by the Neo-Kantian sociologists of the early 20th century like Simmel and Weber, we might say, anachronistically, that they also shifted the focus of social analysis from matters of concern to matters of fact. That maybe seems counterintuitive, particularly because these figures (especially Weber) argued polemically against using sociology as a platform for social criticism. Weber thought that had no place in scholarship. But his approach to social phenomena is exactly what Latour describes here. The “historical individual” (a concept I’ve written about here) in Weber’s sociology is almost identical conceptually to what Latour is calling a Thing here. That is, a Thing for Latour is an historical-cultural concept that is formed out of the nexus of other Things and values which cross it and give it its character and significance.

Using this framework casts an even sharper distinction between critical theories and conspiracy theories because we can show how the latter will always be trapped in the logic of matters of fact while the former can easily move beyond facts to concerns. In other words, critical theories are equipped to talk about values (fear, comfort, danger, safety, familiarity, violence, privilege, advantage, etc.) and show how they become transformed into facts: “White people attribute the values of danger and violence to young black men” becomes “Young black men are violent and dangerous” through the normalization of police and other state violence against African Americans as evidenced by the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers and the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, can only describe what they take to be the facts: Big Pharma wants to profit from the death of our children; Mexico is sending us its most violent rapists and other criminals; Abortion is a means for profit from the discarded body parts. You get the idea.

Why Raising Your Voice Matters

The responses from Christians to the SCOTUS ruling last week have fallen across a wide spectrum including all the hits from predictable fear mongering about Christian persecution to more reasonable responses reminding conservative folks that the church isn’t supposed to have any political power to standing united with a group who has received some measure of equality. There’s a response on this spectrum that at first blush seems easy to place because the people championing it tell us that it’s a neutral, middle ground kind of argument. These people are calling for respect on both sides, casting Jesus as neither Democrat or Republican but “just Jesus” as a means of arguing that everyone should try and love everyone else. Here are some reasons why this “middle ground” is not neutral at all.

The folks calling for this “ceasefire” are almost all white straight males. People who have never been the victims of systemic injustice have the luxury to ruminate over the potential negative effects of a watershed decision like the one last week. They have the ability to consider the feelings of the oppressors (even if they claim to understand the plight of the oppressed) and ask whether we’re being too hasty, thereby potentially infringing on the rights of those oppressors or maybe even just hurting their feelings with the way we talk about this issue.

The moderate position is attractive because it situates itself as having critically considered all view points equally. Like Libertarianism, it has an “in-the-know” quality that marks those who espouse it as privy to something concealed from the majority of other people. For Libertarians, it’s knowledge of particular government operations and agendas that “someone” is trying to obscure from public view–only those smart enough to see it can. For moderates, it’s the sense of clarity that they attribute to themselves over those on either the left or the right–a division, by the way, which is always uniquely demarcated by the moderate person. The moderate claims a unique sense of clarity on the issue which is unavailable to either the conservative or the progressive person. That doesn’t mean that moderates are always smug and self-satisfied. Nor are they stupid. I think the opposite is true actually. They have a firm utilitarian conviction that what they’re after is happiness for the largest number of people, and they see love and respect as the best road toward that goal.

Moderate Christians, who think that those celebrating last week’s decision are dangerously aligning the church with the state, who want to remind everyone that, yes, Jesus wasn’t a Republican, but he wasn’t a Democrat either, are misunderstanding something very important though–the reality of facing systemic oppression. From the moderate perspective, conservatives should drop the vitriol and carefully consider the arguments of the opposition. On the other side, progressives are supposed to treat conservatives with more respect, understanding that they’re people of tradition, and not inherently bad. This, however, misses the point. The argument from the progressive side is not that conservatives who want to deny equal rights to same-sex couples are inherently bad people; it’s that the system in which we have all been complicit is bad and needs to change.

Moderates and probably many conservatives (at least in Chicago) wouldn’t flinch at all at the idea that there exists a bad system in which we are all complicit, if that idea is put in the context of race. If you live in a densely populated urban area (as my wife and I do), it is an inescapable reality. It confronts you daily. No one would ever think to return to those passages once used both implicitly and explicitly to build this system in the first place and say, “Now hold on everyone–are we sure we aren’t stepping on the feet of those with a religious conviction that the races should remain separate?” I see no tenable reason to think that the issue of homosexuality is going to be any different.

If there’s one thing that the movement for gay rights can learn from the landmark decisions on the part of racial minorities that were made 40-50 years ago, it’s this: The fight is far from over. Those who have lost their jobs, have been denied housing, have been bullied to the point of suicide, have been maimed or murdered have no time to nicely explain to those on the other side of these acts of horrible oppression why they want them to stop. They don’t owe them a nice discussion about it either. And the ruling last week doesn’t end those things. There is so much more work still to be done.

It’s true that this work is going to involve a lot of dialogue. But it is not the case that said dialogue need involve a patient respect on the part of the LGBTQ community for opinions that are clearly bigoted and wrong, that are causing violence against them. As a white, straight, male Christian, I may have the time and and ability to speak lovingly and patiently with people who think that SCOTUS made the wrong decision, who want to double down on their reading of the Bible, etc. Certainly, there are people in my life with whom I want to be patient and loving when it comes to this issue because many are my friends and family. Most of my friends and family are thoughtful, caring people, and when you’re a thoughtful, caring person, it takes a really long time to come to see that you are actually complicit in a system whose construction you had nothing to do with but whose benefits you receive daily.

At the same time, I have to recognize that the middle school boy who is just beginning to realize that he is definitely gay does not have the same opportunity to have a patient dialogue about this realization. I have to recognize that the woman denied a job or housing for being gay does not have the time to patiently listen to those who have just denied her those things explain their reasons for why they think homosexuality is a sin. So while I have the incredible luxury of patience and kindness on the one hand, I also stand with folks who do not have that luxury, who need voices to be raised because they are actually in danger. My voice is raised not because I’m being hasty, not because I haven’t considered all the angles, but because real lives are at stake, and my religious commitments call on me to do something about that.

On the Uselessness of Bodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?

Criticism II: Issues with Critique

What We are Doing    

In the last five posts from Joel and I, with four of those posts being from Joel (overachiever?), we have sought to direct our readers toward the critical project of Kant. The purpose of this direction is to firstly communicate tensions that Joel and I have discussed with regard to our own respective research projects. In addition, we are seeking to examine other tensions that lay beyond the purview of our immediate research contexts.

Regarding the first goal, Kant represents a particularly interesting turn in the history of thought as Joel and I (and Sean I’d wager, though I’m waiting to pick his mind more on this/convince him over a few drinks in the next week to be sure) think through how to think ‘hope’ and ‘utopia’ in relation to eschatology, political theory and personhood. I will say more about this in in the next post which will tease out a working thesis regarding Kant’s importance for thinking these concepts in relation to phenomenological projects, beginning with his influence in the work of Brentano and more importantly Husserl. For now, it suffices to say that Kant’s turn to the subject and the characterization of his particular turn as a ‘critical’ notion occupies much of our attention as it pertains to thinking through the pronouncement and enactment of critique.

The latter sort of engagement reflects our constructive insistence on re-appropriating Kant, insofar as this constructive insistence exercises a critical function upon a particular sort of discourse that is related to but not identical with our respective research projects. Our concern here is rooted in our feeling of a tendency in thought to make particular use of that adjective ‘critique.’ My approach toward this use is, as one might expect, an approach that assumes a possible misuse. Here I want to name or at least direct attention to the possibility of that misuse’s occurrence in discourse. In so doing I do not wish to lay claim to singular definition of critique’s definition, contra this targeted notion. Rather, this is the attempt to tease out a feeling of an occurrence that I perceive in my own interactions with people and in readings that concern themselves with the use of critique (i.e. critical theology, pedagogy etc.)

A Posture Toward Criticism

 To begin, I take as necessary a rigorous and self-reflexive posture toward the occurrence of critique so as to elucidate and safeguard any intelligibility of the notion whatsoever. It is important to realise this engagement, which in the verbal and written form we call ‘discourse,’ as one itself an ‘occurrence(s)’ in which one takes on or ‘is’ that entity-which-inquires as a mode of Being for the agent involved.[1] Such an occurrence for the person is with regard to another occurrence, or, to use the more familiar phrasing, phenomenon, that manifests among other types as the impetus for our becoming that particular entity, namely the object(s) of inquiry. Discoursing, the draw from Heidegger’s descriptive account, is always verbal, always itself “_‘ing” and in reference to _ in-the-world.[2] This is I believe to recognise, despite Heidegger’s best efforts (to say nothing of Husserl on this point for the time being), one of the most important recognitions by Kant. Namely, the realness of the person’s complicity in the creation of discourse, the recognition that this complicity is one of thought in-the-world, that the space in which thought occurs is real. This is the “space for intuition.”[3]

Recognising this as a basic understanding of how discourse, human lividness and cognition relate, I am not sure we know what we mean when we recourse to the concept of critique as our conceptual-object of meaning or action. Generally speaking we know that critical theories are all about emancipation of agents and exposing the ideological oppression at work in the world. This seems a simple enough definition but I want to question the notion that to schematize critique in this way is enough, that this reflective notion of critique in its most basic form is not without further assumption with regard to something like the constitution(s) of the person. For in addition to the necessary nature of recognising the person as constitutive in the constructive process of discourse, what do we decry if not the mechanization and dehumanization of people? To engage in the descriptive task of critically speaking of the experience of coercion by those who are viscerally oppressed is always a prescriptive activity. To decry is verbal, and with regard to a declaration of rebellion against forces of domination, a verb that requires a subject immanently present and known as authoritative for such speaking of critique.[4] Here I feel a tension with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s work in The Undercommons insofar as they point toward the necessity of recognising the immanent person, while chastising a logic that would seek to ground action in anything other than the immediate. . They note, “Uncut devotion to the critique of this illusion makes us delusional.[5] Yet, this is situated always in the self-possesion of persons without need for anything more than proleptic moments of hope that correspond directly with the unknowing of the present.[6]

The philosophical linkage between subject and object is, in this case, one for immanence as the beginning space, relation or context of construction in-the-world.[7] Construction is the rupturing of the communicative horizon by the newness we call ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’. The ‘always relation’ to an object implies an immanent immersion with other entities in-the-world.  By so conceiving the relation one is not making objects dependent on the thinking entity, that is that entity-which-constructs. Rather this affirmation of the relation is to recognize the reality of the world and one’s existence as verbal, as “_-ing” in construction, ‘_-ing’ in-the-world with and as entities(y), constituting the most basic stuff of what we refer to when we talk of “discourse.” As such, critique must be always thought in the face of the imminently human. To speak without this recognition or without reflective description is to run the danger of our critical speech becoming nothing other than jargon.


[1] Heidegger, M., Being and time. 1967, Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 26-27. Heidegger points us to the complicity of Dasein in asking the questions that comprise discourse. Indeed, this complicity is an integral part to any sort of investigative truth that the discourse might elucidate. “Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, access to it-all these ways of behaving are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of Being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers, are ourselves.” (Italics are mine).

[2] Heidegger, M., Being and time. p. 56. “When fully concrete, discoursing (letting something be seen) has the character of speaking [Sprechens]-vocal proclamation in words.” The act of discoursing is itself then verbal, actively occurring in the world as a mode of Dasein’s Being and in tandem to its referents in-the-world. This process occurs in simultaneous fashion, on the same plane of action, the plane in which we speak of the Being of beings manifesting in such action.

[3] Kant, I., A.W. Wood, and G. Di Giovanni, Religion within the boundaries of mere reason and other writings. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. 1998, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 5. In this first section of the work Kant makes a rather simple argument for how to think of what it means for oneself to “orient.” He runs through examples of geography and mathematical calculation and then proceeds to explicate the space in which one orients with regard to thought. “Finally, I can extend this concept even further, since it could be taken as consisting in the faculty of orienting myself not merely in space, i.e. mathematically, but in thinking in general, i.e. logically…By analogy, one can easily guess that it will be a concern of pure reason to guide its use when it wants to leave familiar objects (of experience) behind, extending itself beyond all the bounds of experience and finding no object of intuition at all, but merely space for intuition.”

[4] Horkheimer, M., Critical theory: selected essays. 1982, New York: Continuum Pub. Corp. pp. 244-245. Horkheimer writes, “Every datum depends not on nature alone but also on the power man has over it. Objects, the kind of perception, the questions asked, and the meaning of the answers all bear witness to human activity and the degree of man’s power. In thus relating matter-that is, the apparently irreducible facts which the scientific specialist must respect-to human production, the critical theory of society agrees with German idealism. Ever since Kant, idealism has insisted on the dynamic moment in the relationship and has protested against the adoration of facts and the social conformism this brings with it.”

[5] Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. 2013, New York: Minor Compositions. p. 18.

[6] Harney and Moten. The Undercommons. p. 18. Here I am thinking of the description by the authors of the necessity for the undercommons to take possession of themselves in the immediacy of their situatedness, which manifests as one of being surrounded by an enemeny force, behind enemy lines. Such self-possession breaks apart the categories of politics and ontology and leaves only the immediacy of the present. “In the trick of politics we are insufficient, scarce, waiting in pockets of resistance, in stairwells, in alleys, in vain. The false image and its critique threaten the common with democracy, which is only ever to come, so that one day, which is only never to come, we will be more than what we are. But we already are. We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic.”

[7] Beginning is a notion that requires more delicate handling and definition in the future. However, the recognition of the turn to the subject in the space of the phenomena as beginning is important both for understanding the historical meaning of this in thinkers such as Kant and Husserl and for our present purposes of thinking the tension between discourse, immanence and critique. Here it is possible to tease our the necessity for such a notion as beginning in immanence. Moran, referring to Husserl, writes, “Husserl also recognised, however, a point that is often forgotten in the consideration of his philosophy, that this methodological solipsism could not be the whole of philosophy, but merely its beginning.” See: Moran, D., Introduction to phenomenology. 2000, London: Routledge. p. 61. Heidegger furthers the realization of this beginning in placing the question of Being, of the Being of beings, as we noted in footnote 2. Heidegger requires one to recognise the primacy of actualities, of particular beings and the respective actions and phenomenon when one seeks after and attempts to schematise essential definitions. This is a collapse of cognitive categories of metaphysics into the immanent plane of active existent reality. However, it is not a methodological move toward an immanence that dissipates the subject’s primary position with regard to the verbal occurrence of discourse. Heidegger retains the primacy of the Husserlian subject and the legacy of Kantian idealism, though with modification, in his privileging of Dasein in the task of inquiring after Being. In addition, it is worth noting how Daniel Barber’s notion of immenence as relation, in conjunction with what Heidegger does with injunction to recognise ontological difference, further illuminates the necessity of this recognition for thinking discourse. Barber, regarding the transgressive nature of naming immanence, writes, “being by recalling the difficulty engendered by the requisite refusal to make immanence immanent to something. This leaves us with an immanence that is autonomous, an immanence that is, as it were, in itself. Yet, immanence if we think of it as simply in itself, suddenly becomes a transcendent. Immanence cannot just be in itself, for this would make immanence relation into an object, into something that precedes the enactment or deployment of immanent relation.” (Italic are mine). See: Barber, D.C., On diaspora: Christianity, religion and secularity. 2011, Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books. p. 6.

The Origins of Critique IV: Objective Judgment

We now turn to the final part of our task which is to explicate the idea of objective judgment for Kant in order to show that the knowledge that results from an objective judgment cannot be knowledge of an object as it is in itself and further explicate the central role of the person in the production of knowledge. Within what we have covered already, we have touched quite heavily upon the arguments that Kant sets forth in his objectivity thesis; namely, that the appearances of objects are correlated to objects outside of intuition, but these objects, “can serve only as a correlate of the unity of apperception for the unity of the manifold in sensible intuition, by means of which the understanding unifies that in the concept of an object.”[1] We shall now examine the steps in Kant’s argument for this thesis, so we may see the function of the thing-in-itself in relation to objective judgment.

Kant begins from what he calls the transcendental unity of apperception—the ‘I’ that thinks.  He writes, “The I think must be able to accompany all my representation; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me” (B132).[2] The manifold of intuition (prior to any proposed application of the categories) must have a relation to the I think. This is a pure self-consciousness. It cannot be given in experience, nor is it an a priori intuition. It is rather “an act of spontaneity, i.e., it cannot be regarded as belonging to sensibility” (B132), and it must be regarded as a unity so that we may say the representations that correspond to it belong to only that I think.[3] That is to say, the manifold of the intuition must be synthesized in one consciousness that I call “my representations.” The categories which Kant proved in the Metaphysical Deduction are the rules by which this synthesis takes place. It follows, then, that “The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognize an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other way, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness” (B138).[4] The categories are, therefore, objectively valid, meaning they apply to objects, and they allow us to make objective judgments, which give us knowledge about objects.

Kant makes his “object argument” in the third part of the A Deduction (A104-105) in order to show what an objective judgment is and how they are possible. He begins by reminding us that when we say our representations are appearances in objects, we mean that our appearances “must not be regarded in themselves, in the same way, as objects (outside the power of representation)” which raises the following question: “What does one mean, then, if one speaks of an object corresponding to and therefore also distinct from cognition?”[5] One might think that we simply have nothing to say at all about the object as distinct from cognition, and indeed, we cannot say anything about it; however, we do know that there is necessity in the relationship between our representation and the object outside of our cognition. Kant writes, “[I]nsofar as they are to relate to an object our cognitions must also necessarily agree with each other in relation to it, i.e., they must have that unity that constitutes the concept of an object.”[6] Kant has already established that our intuitions are necessarily intuitions of objects as they appear to us and that the categories apply to objects because we have a transcendental unity of our apperception, which is only possibly through the application of the categories to the manifold. But this has only demonstrated that the manifold of our intuition is a unity in our self-consciousness.

What Kant is adding in the object argument is our ability to make objective judgments about the objects found in our representations. We must remember, Kant writes in the third step of this argument, “that since we have to do only with the manifold of our representations, and that X which corresponds to them (the object), because it should be something distinct from all of our representations, is nothing for us, the unity that the object makes necessary can be nothing other than the formal unity of the consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of the representations.”[7] We might worry, therefore, that even though there is a correlation between representation and object (outside of representation), we might only be able to have subjective judgments about those representations since they are not the objects as they are. These would be judgments of perception only.[8] However, we must also remember that the categories are rules that apply to objects, and, therefore, the above worry is “impossible if the intuition could not have been produced through a function of synthesis in accordance with a rule that makes the reproduction of the manifold necessary a priori and a concept in which this manifold is united possible.”[9] In other words, the synthesis of the manifold into the unity of transcendental apperception is not possible without the categorical rules by which this synthesis takes place. The categories are universal, necessary, and known a priori. Therefore, if we think objects according to the categories, we have the means by which we can have objective judgments about objects of appearance that produce objective knowledge that is also universal and necessary.[10]

Here’s where we are now: objective judgments that produce universal knowledge about objects cannot be equivalent to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but they are related. The conditions of possible experience that make the manifold of our intuition possible also produce a necessary methodological distinction between intuition and objects as they are outside it. But this methodological distinction also produces a necessary correlation between object outside of intuition and the appearance of the object within it since the distinction is merely two ways of considering the same object. But the manifold of intuition alone is not enough to make coherent judgments—it is a chaos of sense impressions.

We know, however, that the manifold is transcendentally unified in our self-consciousness; it is our manifold. What gives the objects of the manifold unity is the synthesis of them according to the rules of the a priori universal categories. Therefore, when we examine these objects of intuition, which are correlated to how the objects really are outside of it, according to the categories of the understanding, we can make objective judgments which produce knowledge about the objects of intuition, but not about the objects as they really are. The worry that what Kant gives us in his explanation of objective judgments is knowledge about things in themselves cannot be the case since Kant demonstrates quite clearly that objective judgments are confined to the conditions of possible experience which cannot apply to things in themselves but because the manifold of our intuition is unified by a priori categories, both transcendentally ideal and empirically real, we can make universal judgments about objects that are necessarily correlated with things in themselves but cannot apply to them.

What this study has hopefully done is given us an important starting point for the constitution of the person in critical discourse. I would encourage readers not to get too caught up on words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” right now. The important take aways from this study:

1) Intuition belongs to a subject.

2) “Objectivity” is not removed from subjective intuition but is rather an integral part of it.

3) Correlation here is not 1:1 between objects of intuition and objects as they really are.

The demand of these conclusions for contemporary critical discourse is that we employ more care when we talk about the problems that terms like “objectivity” and “correlation” pose. As I mentioned in the first post, continuing through the history of critical discourse, we’ll see how the role of the subject in the production of knowledge and the articulation of the limits of knowledge becomes reconfigured and contested such that, eventually, words like “correlation,” “necessity,” and “universal” become immensely problematic. For right now, I hope readers will find it useful to think through these issues with figures like Kant (and later, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and others) in order to arrive at a more robust understanding of one’s own place in the larger tradition of critical discourse.


[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 347-8.

[2] Kant, 246, his emphasis.

[3] Kant, 246-7.

[4].Kant, 249, his emphasis.

[5] Kant, 231.

[6] Kant, 231.

[7] Kant, 231.

[8] Hume thought that outside of mathematical knowledge, these were the only sorts of judgments we could make, i.e. “The sun is out, and the ground is warm.” There is no necessary connection between these events, only a series of perceptions.

[9] Kant, 231.

[10] In contrast to the example in the previous note regarding judgments of perception, an objective judgment is one of experience. That is, given the categories of the understanding, one could examine a series of perceptions (“The sun is out, and the ground is warm”) and produce a necessary connection between them, i.e. “The sun caused the ground to be warm.” This is an objective judgment that produces necessarily true knowledge about the objects in question.