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.

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.