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.

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Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?