Friday, 6 July 2012

Art, pyschoanalysis and humour

More Milbank eventually, I promise! But in the meantime, Becky Hunter and I are doing an online residency for the Philadelphia arts blog concept plus object. We're talking about art, psychoanalysis and humour, and why some of the people who first saw the artist Agnes Martin's abstract piece Desert responded to it with laughter. Check it out.

Image credit: pop pervert

Friday, 22 June 2012

Kant doesn't care if you're happy

We've talked before about Kant's categorical imperative and his idea of duty. One of the reasons that he was so radical is that he disagreed with one of the central principles of classical philosophy: that there's a link between happiness and ethics: that the way of life which will make us really happy is also the way of life that's really ethical. It wasn't just that ethics won't make you happy, but that happiness actually got in the way of ethics: sure, you helped some old guy across the road, but if you did it even slightly to make yourself feel good, it's worthless as an ethical action. Did you play with your children? Fine, but if you did it because you like them, or, heaven help us, you enjoy playing games, you might as well not have bothered. The converse is that, however terrible the effects of your actions, as long as your motivations are right, you're good. Morality becomes radically interior: all about what's going on inside me, with very little interest in how what I do affects the world around me. On the plus side, Kant recognised that we were never going to become ethically perfect in his sense of the word: we'll never reach a point where all our actions are perfectly disinterested and entirely without selfish motivations. There are down sides, though: can you guess what they might be?

According to Matthew Sharpe, one of the less obvious problems with Kant's ethical system was pointed out by Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher and sociologist. He argued that the way Kant opposed duty and pleasure went along with the ideology of capitalism. By making morality all about our internal motivations, Kant shifts the focus away from questions of economics and sociology and makes it difficult to challenge existing systems. His internalisation of morality is a depoliticisation of ethics: I don't care what impact buying a banana has on people on the other side of the world, because I only care about why I bought the banana. I don't care about banker's bonuses, sweatshops, the class system, poverty or injustice because all I care about is me and my inner life. I think that I'm not interested in politics, but actually my moral code is deeply political because it actively discourages me from getting involved in politics.

Roland Boer wrote a great post recently about why ethics is always political. You should go read it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Which came first, the individual or the social?

We're settling into a rhythm now: Milbank talks about the next historical movement of 'secular' thought, we think, ah, now we're really getting to the birth of secularism, and he says haha, no, actually they're totally dependent on theology still. So that's the essence of this chapter, which deals with sociological thinkers from Malebranche to Durkheim. Honestly, I struggled a little here, both in terms of caring and understanding, as half the people Milbank talks about I've never heard of and the other half I've never read: apologies in advance if that makes this post less sensical than its predecessors.

So, 'sociology' emerged as a discipline which, unlike the political economists or the liberal thinker who thought that the basic constituent of human society was the independent individual, saw 'society' as a basic fact to be reckoned with and accounted for. One of the basic problems of political and social thought is the question of the relationship between the individual and society: do individuals construct society or does society construct individuals? Sociology was an attempt to answer this and, surprise surprise, Milbank thinks they basically nicked their fundamental assumptions from theology. The really sneaky thing, on Milbank's account, is that the early sociologists didn't just steal their ideas from theology, they then pretended that those same ideas were not theological, and used them to explain theology. The cheek!

Milbank locates the origins of sociology in the thought of Joseph de Maistre and Louis Jacques Marie de Bonald. Both of them draw in turn on the thought of Malebranche, who basically thinks that human beings can't possibly create anything new, and so all new ideas have to come directly from God. In de Bonald and de Maistre, this becomes the idea that it's God who holds the collection of individuals together by directly creating social institutions like language, writing, the family and political sovereignty. 'The social' isn't something that humans have made, it's entirely dependent on God.

Next up is Comte, who basically thinks he's doing away with God, although actually he leaves the basic theological structure of de Maistre and de Bonald's metaphysics intact. Comte thinks that it's not God but religion which holds the random collection of individuals together into a society. But the essence of religion is basically the celebration of humanity: what we worship isn't actually God but a mythologised version of 'humanity'. Eventually, Comte thinks, this will evolve into a more explicitly humanistic, secularised sort of religion; but it will still, essentially, be religion.

Then comes Durkheim, whose version of the 'God' figure holding the social world together draws on Kant, whose categorical imperative means that freedom paradoxically means that we should be obedient to a general ethical law. But even though Durkheim talks about the way that all our knowledge and laws and so on are socially constructed, he still basically assumes that there is an Absolute Transcendental Truth out there, keeping everything in place. He still (sort of) believes in God.

So, basically, the problem with sociology is that it assumes that things like society, law, politics, are just given, universal, basic facts of society as if they'd been magicked into being by God rather than constructed in complicated, messy and historically variable ways by human beings. Sociology relies on some (dodgy) theological assumptions that have been dressed up as if they're Science. And worst of all, for Milbank, is that sociology looks at human society throughout the ages, and sees that all human societies involve sacrifice. Because it can't conceive of such a 'basic' social fact being changed, it can't understand the way in which Jesus radically transforms the notion of sacrifice, making a peaceful society possible, and so one of the basic assumptions of sociological discourse in general is that humans are basically violent towards one another and unable to play together like good children. Sacrifice, violence, war and crime are just there, inescapable facts.

The real problem, Milbank thinks, lies in the attempt to try to resolve the chicken-and-egg question of the individual and society. But it's a problem that just can't be resolved: every individual action is formed by society and forms society in return, and so any 'science' which takes the social whole rather than the individual (or vice versa) as the basic fact is screwed from the outset. The only way to deal with the question is to tell stories about it: historiography is necessary but social science isn't. Did Milbank really just argue that the entire discipline of sociology is pointless? I think he did.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

He's got the whole world in his (invisible) hands

Chapter 2 of Theology and Social Theory is titled 'Political Economy as Theodicy and Agonistics'. Having dealt with some of the earliest 'political' thinkers – people like Hobbes, Locke, and Machiavelli – Milbank moves on to the thinkers of 'political economy', by which he seems (correct me if I'm wrong) to be primarily referring to 18th century political thinkers, primarily from Scotland or Great Britain more generally: Adam Smith, David Hume, James Stewart. These are the people who start to grapple with one of the fundamental problems of political philosophy: how it is that lots of individual people, acting apparently independently, give rise to a system which is ordered and regular: 'the market'. Faced with this problem, political economists drew on the theological notion of providence – the idea that God is at work in the world, making sure that everything that happens fits into the big Divine Plan for history.

Unlike Hobbes, the Scottish political theorists didn't assume that everyone acted purely selfishly; they included an account of virtue in their discussion of politics. But they didn't ground it in the traditional 'virtue ethics' idea that all human action should be directed towards some clearly defined notion of the human good. Hume argues that morality arises from our innate emotional responses to things like justice and injustice and our ability to empathise with other people. There's no agreed standard of goodness that we agree to work towards; instead, over time, political institutions emerge and slowly train us, like Pavlov's dogs, into having a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Adam Smith doesn't think we rationally figure out that we'll be better off in a society where law and order is enforced; we get sucked into it because we're naturally inclined to be cross about injustice (and to not really care when people fail to be kind to one another as long as they don't break the law). There's a moral aspect to political life, but it's nothing to do with any absolute standards of good and bad, right and wrong, it's just that nature happens to have equipped us with certain 'moral emotions'. When these ideas about virtue are translated into politics, they tend to go in one of two directions:

Machiavellian Political Economy: Once upon a time, Milbank thinks, the aristocracy operated according to a strict code of aristocratic ethics: things like courage and magnanimity (ah, the good old days). But at some point there was a shift, and aristocratic honour was no longer about their adherence to a code of gentlemanly behaviour but became a sort of social capital that you could use to gain influence, wealth or property; that was all about reputation, appearances, and changing fashions. Machiavelli had a conundrum: he wanted to make sure that war was about countries rationally fighting with one another for sensible reasons, rather than internal conflicts for silly reasons like religion. But because Machiavelli also valued a particular sort of heroism, it was important for there to be some way for people to prove their heroism within their own country. The market was the perfect opportunity for people (well, men) to prove how noble and heroic they were without all the wastefulness of war. But war wasn't going to end: in fact, for many of the Scottish thinkers, the best thing about a market economy was the way it generated a surplus which could be used to build up the nation's military power. James Stewart talked about ancient Sparta as a model for the ideal society: a society divided between a slave class generating a surplus and another class of politician-warriors. And in the absence of slaves, the next best thing was wage-labourers, who could be progressively impoverished and disempowered until they were completely under the thumb of the state. This political philosophy laid the groundwork for the emergence of capitalism, but Milbank stresses that it didn't have to be this way. This Machiavellian version of political economy is, Milbank argues, neo-pagan: it basically celebrates the will to power that Christian theology rejected. Fair enough; but then, weirdly, he suggests that this somehow undermines secular reason's claims to autonomy. I mean, surely if you want to get away from Christian theology, it makes perfect sense to draw on pre-Christian political philosophy? Anyway, there was an alternative to this Machiavellian vision:

Providential political economy: This is was more explicitly theological, and, Milbank argues, basically a heretical theodicy (theodicy being the attempt to answer the question, 'How can there be a good God when there is so much evil in the world?'). Once you assume that people are basically acting independently and selfishly, unless you're an anarchist you have to identify some principle which means that society won't just descend into chaos. Welcome, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand of the market' theory. The providential political economists appeal to some figure of God or providence or nature, working away behind the scenes of history, making sure that everyone's selfish short term decisions are somehow worked into an effective society. Various people made various arguments about why things that look either selfish or actively bad – market behaviour, crime – all work together for the good of the whole. God/Nature has wisely made individuals self-interested in such a way that, by acting for themselves, they benefit everybody. And this idea of underlying omnipotent forces holding heterogeneous individuals together should, Milbank argues, make us question the whole idea of heterogeneous individuals: the idea that people make decisions without reference to the social whole is, he says, nonsensical. Individuals are inevitably shaped by the society in which they live; choice isn't a feature of isolated individuals but is deeply embedded in society. Next up, Milbank says, comes post-Malthusian political economy. Once providence gets into the game, ethics becomes less important: if everything fits together in a harmonious whole, then there's no need to worry about right and wrong because even the bad things are valuable. Malthus, who thinks that eventually humanity will run out of resources, says that if we didn't fear for our survival, there would be no incentive to virtue. Thomas Chalmers says that the distinctively Christian virtues aren't charity or forgiveness but the virtues associated with self-interest: sexual continence, sobriety, punctiliousness, discipline and Sabbath observance. He says that the market economy is great because it encourages us to nurture those virtues; which in turn providentially are precisely the virtues we need to sustain the market economy. Everyone wins!

Milbank, understandably, thinks that all of this – the Protestant work ethic, the market economy, the death of charity, the redefinition of virtue – is Very Bad. Unsurprisingly, thought, he wants to argue that the problem isn't secularism but bad theology. Sure, theology has screwed things up before, but Milbank's theology will save us.

Photo by prayerfriends.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Once, there was no secular

Say what you like about Milbank, that's a killer opening line (and possibly an allusion to John 1, so make of that what you will). Chapter 1 of Theology and Social Theory argues that the idea of a 'secular' political space, where everyone lays aside their religious affiliations to meet on some sort of neutral territory is a recent invention, the sad consequence of bad theology (by which Milbank means either any theology that came after Aquinas and/or Protestant theology. One of the enduring puzzles of Milbank's work, for me, is that he keeps saying how awesome Catholicism is and how much Protestantism sucks BUT HE ISN'T A EVEN A CATHOLIC HE'S A PROTESTANT). Theology made 'the secular' possible by going wrong in three ways: in the way it thought about God, in its reading of the Bible, and in its understanding of time.

Bad God
First, then, theology screwed up by forgetting to think about God in trinitarian terms. If you remember that God is a trinity, you think of God in terms of relationships, mutuality, giving and receiving, of action as essentially love ordered to the good of others. And that translates into a particular way of thinking about people and about property: people are complicated, trying to get a handle on the different aspects of their personhood so that they can direct their whole selves towards God; and people own property, but the whole point of owning property is so that they can use it for the good of others: if you don't look after your stuff in a way that acknowledges it's really meant as a way of helping you and others towards God, you don't have the right to keep owning it any more. But if you start to forget about God as three and only think about God as one, then personhood becomes about being completely self-contained, about having complete control over one's own self and also over one's property. Not only does this mean that there's no ethical obligation on me to direct myself and my possessions towards God and the good of the community I belong to, there's also no way of thinking what it means to think and act as a community: society is just a collection of disconnected individuals, who relate to each other only insofar as they can exercise power over one another, and can only agree to act together if they are forced to by contracts they have signed with one another. What's gone wrong, says Milbank, is that we've lost sight of God as Trinity in favour of God as self-contained One. Instead of the world as a complicated networks of interconnected, mutual relationships of give and take, the secular is a world of isolated points, all fighting with each other for power and control.

Bad Bible
All of this required a new way of reading the Bible. Again, before It All Went Wrong, the Bible was seen in the context of a complicated set of relationships: to read the Bible, you needed to belong in the community of the Church, to draw on the traditions of reading that had been passed down, to assume it was still related to the world in all sorts of ways, and to listen to the monks: a special category of people whose whole lives were dedicated to living in a community which got its authority not from money or power, but from being the place where people spent time reading. What could possibly do away with such a delightful arrangement of things? Hello, Protestantism. Luther's sola scriptura (only the Bible is authoritative, so you don't need to read theology or even talk to other Christians to understand what it's saying) meant that the Bible lost its place in community and became a thing read by individuals on their own. Revelation came to be understood as something which was private; and getting rid of allegorical readings of the Bible meant that all that Old Testament stuff, which had traditionally been read as spiritually significant (God wants us to fight spiritual enemies rather than killing actual people) became straightforwardly political: God is on the side of the nation state – go national sovereignty!

Bad Times
In a trinitarian account of the world, time itself is complexly related to God. God is at work in and through time, for all that sin means that bad things happen. Time is ordered towards God and so towards good. Theology loses this sense of time in two ways: first, when it reverts to the pagan idea that reality is basically a chaos out of which we briefly emerge, struggle, and then return to in death: this is Machiavellianism, which values heroes, Real Men, and war (Victorian Christianity?) Second, theological time goes off the rails when when it descends into a fatalistic or stoical hopelessness about the possibility of really transforming the world: we can't make things better, so we just need to cling on tight and wait for the Rapture/Second Coming etc. God isn't present in time, except in moments of dramatic and slightly random intervention (hello, Calvinism). This, for reasons I don't quite understand, is the 'natural rights legacy of liberalism'. Both are bad, because both envision time as existing pretty much independently of God, and as involving not gradual transformation towards goodness, but power, conflict, and violence.

All of this means that Christianity should not acknowledge the existence of any sort of 'secular' space. Secularism has little or nothing to teach Christianity because it's either a reversion to pre-Christian paganism or a degeneration into Christian heresy.

At this point, there are two things that seem particularly obviously problematic. First is this idea that society has degenerated, that secularisation is terrible from a Christian perspective, that it all went wrong with Aquinas. You don't need to believe in uncomplicated historical progress or a cheerleader for capitalism to see lots of reasons to be glad about modernity, the Enlightenment, etc., especially as compared to what went before. And second, surely (surely!) if Milbank's right, and God interpenetrates the whole of human history, and the kingdom of God is growing, then how does it make sense to adopt a narrative of progressive degeneration from Aquinas onwards? Shouldn't things be getting, well, better? Shouldn't God be at work even (the horror!) in Protestantism?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Theology Wins

Theology and Social Theory is probably one of the most important theological texts of the last 50 years or so. It established John Milbank as one of the big names in theology, and it's basically the founding text of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which for a while looked like the great hope of Western theology. The lustre has worn off a little in recent years, as people have become increasingly critical of its founding ideas, as the movement itself has become more conservative, as Milbank's protégé Philip Blond founded the increasingly scandal-ridden think-tank Res Publica (fathering Red Toryism and the not-particularly-beloved notion of the Big Society), and as Milbank himself became embroiled in various fights on the internet.

So, both Milbank himself and Theology and Social Theory are controversial but game-changing; and I recently decided, after reading various other bits and bobs by Milbank, that it was time to take on the big 'un. I'll be reading through the whole book with some friends and colleagues at Durham, and my plan is to try and blog it as we go. You'll get two posts this week, lucky things, as I've been slow to get my ass in gear and need to have chapter one done by Friday; hopefully from now on I'll be blogging roughly once a week till it's done, and if you're really lucky, the regularity will prompt me to blog other things too. We'll see!

First up, then, is the introduction, which sets out the overarching argument of the book. Theology and Social Theory, Milbank says, has a dual purpose. First, he is setting out to prove to social theorists that only theology can save them; second, he wants to tell theologians that they should stop being so impressed by social theorists and realise that theology really is the Queen of the Sciences, the basic framework within which all other disciplines belong (These claims are, for obvious reasons, quite appealing to theologians, but perhaps less so to social theorists). Sure, theologians are constrained by their historical and social context, but theology is still More Right than any other discipline. Even social theorists are, Milbank argues, increasingly aware of this fact. There are two ways in which social theory screws up: either it reverts to a sort of neo-paganism, or it degenerates into heretical theology. Either way, only theology can save the day! Theology and Social Theory explains why four different types of social theory are wrong. Firstly, liberalism tends to assume that human culture is fundamentally about power and violence; theology can explain why, actually, culture should point us towards the transcendence of God. Second, positivism is basically a fake theology and a fake church: there's some good stuff there, but it's all been stolen from Christian orthodoxy and made a bit less good. Third, dialectics has some good ideas, but goes wrong when (can you guess?) it deviates from Christian orthodoxy. Finally, secular social theory suggests a vision of the world aa world in which difference always means conflict and violence; only Christianity is able to imagine an infinitely varied world as peaceful and harmonious, where we can't ever fully understand the world (except for the fact that THEOLOGY WINS) but that's OK.

Theology is better than social theory; in fact, it is social theory, only better; and as such it must prove that it's better than social theory by living out the truths it proclaims, by showing (not just telling) that the Church makes the world better. Sure, Christians and Christianity aren't perfect, but they're still our only hope.
'This is why it is so important to reassert theology as a master-discourse; theology, alone, remains the discourse of non-mastery.'
Coming soon: chapter 1.

Monday, 30 April 2012

A book review wot I wrote

Ages ago, I wrote a review of Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher's book 'Žižek and Politics: A Critical Introduction'. The review has finally been published in Political Theology, and you can read it here.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Chesterton, inevitability, and the NHS

In his book on Eugenics (chill out, he thinks it's a Bad Thing, albeit for some slightly weird reasons), G K Chesterton, never a modest man, has a crack at identifying the overarching themes of different eras. The Middle Ages, was all about 'building and planning, dividing this from that by walls and fences'; the seventeenth century was about fear and panic, and the eighteenth century was all about 'tidying up'. He admits to being less confident in ascertaining the defining characteristic age, but goes on to suggest one regardless: inevitability. It used to be, he says, that as much political energy went into repealing laws as went into making them; now that's different, and once a law has been made we give it up for lost. People at the time were sad that universal education had been introduced (the horror!), and that America had been allowed its independence (the calamity!), but no one talked seriously about undoing what had been done, however vigorously they had campaigned against its being done in the first place. Chesterton argues that this sense of inevitability is to do with our corporate inability to admit mistakes. We would rather forget the past than admit we might have screwed it up. We no longer believe that we can change the past by rewriting history or the statute books, and so we just pretend it never happened.

I've been thinking about this in light of all the recent argy-bargy about the NHS bill (unlike universal education and the emancipation of the USA, this one is BAD). A lot of the force of the argument for opposing it has been that if we don't act now, it will be too late. And maybe that's true. There's certainly no sign that the railways will be unprivatised, even though 51% of people in Britain would support it and the whole thing is such a mess that surely even capitalists can't think it's worked out well for us. I can't remember the last time any significant bill was repealed. But why? Is Chesterton right? Or is there something else going on?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Feminism hasn't won until you stop throwing like a girl.

On International Women's Day, it seems appropriate to think about what it means to be a woman in our society. And for all the ways that women's status has changed, it's interesting that you can still, often, recognise a woman by the way that she moves. If I asked you to show me what 'throwing like a girl' looks like, you could probably give me a rough demonstration without having to think too hard about it.

In Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality, Iris Marion Young argues that looking at the different ways that men and women move can tell us a lot about the different status of men and women in society. She says that when men move, they tend to use their whole bodies, to move expansively, and to adopt open postures; women tend to use less of their bodies (they throw from the hand and the wrist rather from their shoulders), to move as if they're in a restricted space, and to adopt defensive postures. Men swing their books by their sides; women carry them in front of their chests, like a shield.

But the difference doesn't come from some mysterious feminine or masculine essence. Not all women throw like girls. It's a generally true phenomenon because of the way that women are generally socialised into seeing and being in our bodies. There's a fundamental contradiction in women's existence in patriarchal Western societies: on the one hand, as human beings we are autonomous and creative; but as women we are treated as objects rather than subjects, passive rather than active. And, Young argues, you can see this tension in the way that women move: our bodies are constantly stuck in the tension between transcendence and immanence.

We move as if the space available to us is restricted. In ball sports, we wait for the ball to come towards us and react to it; our movements are timid, uncertain, hesitant, we don't fully trust our bodies, and we focus on what our bodies are doing, rather than what we are trying to do with our bodies. We are taught to see our bodies as things, whereas men are taught to treat their bodies as capacities. Our bodies are burdens, which must be dragged along, protected and prettified. We move as though we are always being watched, wondering how we look to other people. We are encouraged to play quietly, and discouraged from risky physical activity, from sport, and from lifting heavy things, and so we underestimate our bodies' capacities. We are taught to see ourselves as fragile and delicate, and to treat our bodies not as extensions of ourselves and as ourr own power but as objects. It is more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand because we're constantly looking back on our bodies which we've been taught to see as things which are looked at and acted on rather than that which enables us to look and act. As a result, we're never fully in our bodies. We walk like girls, we throw like girls, we run like girls.

Photo credit: Macomb Paynes

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Andrew Shanks on Gillian Rose (or, Why Everybody Thinks Rowan Williams Is Wrong About Gay People)

Gillian Rose was a secular Jewish philosopher who was baptised into the Anglican Church on her deathbed. A lot of her work was on Hegel, and like Hegel she is incredibly difficult to read and understand. So, as a preface to actually reading her work, I've been reading Andrew Shanks' book Against Innocence, which is about her work, particularly her ideas about ethics. Rose was also a good friend of Rowan Williams, who was very influenced by her thought, and in the book's foreword Giles Fraser points out that the book as a whole is constantly hinting at the connections between Rose's work and Williams' task in trying to hold together the Anglican Communion.

Shanks starts out by pointing out that Rose was dyslexic: reading was never easy for her, and she seems to have sought out difficult thinkers like Adorno and Hegel to study. She was also caught between secularism, Judaism and Christianity for most of her life, and her thought reflects this too: she is difficult to read, doesn't quite fit in with a lot of other contemporary philosophy, and is drawn to complicated tensions and ideas which open up conversations between those three positions.

Shanks' basic argument is that a key element to Rose's thought is the rejection of innocence. We all want to feel innocent; we all want to feel like we are in the right (and therefore that others are in the wrong). But the world is more complicated than that, and the only way to keep our hands clean is to disengage from the world. What Rose wants is an ethics of engagement with 'the broken middle': the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world. If we really want to engage ethically, politically, socially, we have to be prepared to compromise, to sacrifice our innocence and our desire to be right.

One of the things that happened in the 20th century was that philosophers were so traumatised by the terrible things that came out of Enlightenment rationalism (e.g. the Holocaust) and the Marxist dream of liberation (Stalin, Mao) that they became too afraid to offer political alternatives: what if it all went wrong again? Rose isn't satisfied by this: we can't just stop engaging with the world. But she argues that the problem with a lot of the utopian political movements of the 20th century such as Marxism or 'Orientalism' (all the different movements concerned with resisting Western cultural imperialism the civil rights movement, various national liberation movements etc.) rely on the solidarity of people who think that they are right and other people are in wrong; they are innocent and other people are guilty. What Rose wants instead is the 'solidarity of the shaken', communities bound together not by their shared innocence but by their shared acknowledgement of guilt. This, Shanks suggests, is why she eventually became a Christian.

If we want to occupy the 'broken middle', we can't do this by brushing over differences and disagreements, by pretending that they're not there or that they don't matter. Philosophy, for Rose, is all about recognising and identifying conflicts which are ignored or overlooked. But what we then need to do is to refuse to identify the different positions as 'guilty' or 'innocent'. To live in the middle is to experience the impossibility of reconciling different positions, to refuse to take sides and so to look guilty to everyone, to satisfy no one, to be torn apart. This, says Rose, is where the sacred is. In particular, the broken middle tries to mediate between 'the ethical', the collective tradition and culture of a particular community and 'self-expressive nonconformity': individuals who refuse to be bound by tradition or culture. For Rose, the two thinkers who are best at practising this philosophical mediation in the broken middle are Kierkegaard and Hegel.

The key virtue of the broken middle is anxiety. Anxiety comes from allowing ourselves to be unsettled by the way that 'self-expressive nonconformists' challenge our ideas and assumptions, bringing uncertainty and insecurity. But you can't properly experience this anxiety unless you are also bound up with the life of a particular community: it's easy to challenge everything you believe in if you have a group of friends who all think exactly the same as you. But to challenge everything whilst also remaining committed to a community of people who have very different and deeply held ideas is another thing altogether. Rose is very critical of people who maintain their innocence by refusing to belong to an institution. Let's take an example that I think Shanks is hinting at: it is easy to be a conservative Anglican who thinks that it's wrong to be gay. It's also easy to leave the Anglican church and be a liberal Christian who thinks it's ok to be gay. But to live in the broken middle is to commit to the Church as an institution made up of people who deeply believe that it's wrong to be gay, and also people who deeply believe that gay people should be treated the same as straight people, and to refuse to take sides, to open yourself up to the compelling arguments from both sides, and to be torn apart by that tension. Hmm, which Archbishop might be a good example of that?

Shanks' Rose is basically arguing for liberal pluralism at its best: not the multiculturalism that pretends we're all fine and agree and can get along, but the pluralism which recognises that different groups and individuals have fundamentally incompatible ideas about the way the world is, and tries to hold them together anyway. Churches can model this sort of approach, but not if they force everyone to agree or keep splintering off into sects where everyone agrees with everyone else, and not if the basis of their community is that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

In Defence of Luther

I've talked about Luther before; I'm not his biggest fan. So it seems fair, for a change, to say something in his defence. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone isn't without its issues, but Christos Yannaras points out that Luther's obsession with it wasn't just theological, but was also deeply political. The medieval Roman Catholic Church argued that we could get at the truth about God through rational arguments which proved that God existed and that God was a certain sort of being. But the only people who got to study the logic and philosophy that let you understand those proofs, or offer their own proofs of God, were the people (and, let's be honest, the men) whom the Church educated. That was a double win for the Church. On the one hand, you could argue that anyone who disagreed with the Church wasn't only wrong but was culpable for their wrongness because they should have known better (you don't need to read the Bible to know that God exists, it's just obvious to anyone who can reason), so it's ok to kill them or take their land or go on a crusade against them because they're not just wrong, they're deliberately wrong. But it also meant that the Church, as the institution which controlled and owned those proofs of God's existence, got to claim the same absolute and obvious authority for themselves.

Luther's obsessive focus on faith alone as the means of salvation, then, wasn't just about the problems with thinking you can logically prove the existence of God, it was also about power. No institution could get between people and God and claim to control the truth about God, because everyone could and should know God for themselves, directly. That's why the earliest translators of the Bible were treated so harshly: if everyone gets to read the Bible, then the priests don't get to control that knowledge about God.

In that sense, it's fitting that fundamentalist Christianity in the US overlaps so much with the sort of far-right politics that wants to do away with the government. No one else gets to tell us what the Bible says: we read it for ourselves. No one else gets power over me. But actually, what happens in most fundamentalist churches is just that power is better hidden. You can't not interpret the Bible, but you can appropriate its authority for yourself by pretending (or believing) that you interpretation is just 'what the Bible says'. It's harder to argue with someone who's just telling you what the Bible says than it is to argue with someone else's
interpretation of the Bible. Truth is simply objective, obvious, accessible to everyone: it always comes to us through people, through institutions. The question of how we know the truth about God is never just a question about how we know the truth about God, it's always also a question about who in the Church gets to have power over other people.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Catholic attitude to sex isn't Catholic enough

Žižek's comments on the Catholic church's attitude to contraception seem particularly appropriate in the light of recent debates in the US. He says that the reason that the Catholic church objects to contraception is that sex just isn't properly human, isn't what it's meant to be, unless it involves at least the possibility of reproduction. Never mind that official teaching somehow thinks it's ok to use the rhythm method (where you only have sex when you think the woman's not ovulating) or if you know full well that either the man or the woman is infertile. Žižek highlights a more fundamental issue. His question is this: isn't it precisely when we have sex for reasons that have nothing to do with making babies that we're most human? Isn't it animals who have sex primarily to reproduce and humans who have sex because they see sex as intrinsically worth having whether there are babies or not?

Traditional Christian theology holds that God didn't need to create; Robert Farrar Capon says that this means that all creation is fundamentally pointless. It is an end in itself. It exists for joy. Every year when the grapes ferment and turn into wine, it's not that God says 'Aw man, that time of year already? I suppose I'd better get brewing...' No, every year, God looks at the grapes ripening on the vines, and says 'That was nice. Do it again.' Wouldn't it be more coherent – no, more Catholic – to take a similar approach to sex? Every [insert frequency according to taste], a woman looks at her husband and thinks 'That was nice. Let's do it again.'

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why The Artist Can't Speak

*This blog post contains spoilers!*

The Artist is, as I'm sure you've heard, a charming film; and it's certainly not the most philosophically complicated piece of cinema ever. But there is one thing that's not immediately clear in the film itself: why is it that George Valentin won't speak? It's not that, as in Singing in the Rain, his speaking voice is dreadful; and it's not like Sunset Boulevard where Norma Desmond's dying career seems like something that happened very much against her will. George Valentin is offered roles in the talkies, but he refuses, and it's never really clear why. Half way through the film, as his marriage is falling apart at the same time as his career, his wife confronts him, and says 'Why won't you talk?' It's a clever play on words: he won't talk to her about why he won't talk in the movies. And here's my theory: he won't talk to his wife for the same reason he won't talk in a film, because The Artist is actually a film about changing gender roles, with the shift from silent films to talkies a metaphor for a shift from a world where Men are Men and rule the world to a world where women are in charge and men are emasculated [Note: I don't actually agree with this version of the history of gender politics in the 20th century].

First of all, notice what happens when we shift from silent films to talkies: first, we shift from films headlined by George Valentin to films headlined by Peppy Miller. The specifically gendered nature of that shift just isn't there in films like Singing in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard. And the genre of films shifts too: all of Valentin's films are action films where he does the manly thing and rescues the damsel in distress, with plenty of swashbuckling along the way. Peppy Miller's films, by contrast, are all romantic comedies, that classic women's genre. In one of them, a man proposes to her and she looks shocked as well as pleased, only to wink at the camera over his shoulder - look, she caught him! Those crafty women with their emotional manipulation.

The exception to this rule is Valentin's last silent film, which ends as our hero sinks into the quicksand. The damsel tries to save him, but he won't accept her help: and this, of course, is exactly what happens to Valentin himself. Valentin has already saved Peppy twice: first when she clumsily and publicly embarrasses herself and he saves her by making a joke of the situation; secondly when he intervenes to stop her being fired from her role as an extra in his film. But George Valentin simply will not allow himself to be saved by Peppy: she rescues him after he nearly dies in a fire, offers to save his career, and buys up the things he is forced to sell when his money runs out. It's this last one which nearly proves the final straw for George: when he stumbles on the room with all his old furniture in he is so horrified that he runs off and tries to kill himself again: better suicide than salvation by a woman! Peppy has to come and save him again, and the least satisfying thing about the movie's end is that it's never really clear why all of a sudden he is prepared to accept her help, which has been so unacceptable up till now. They find, at last, a happy compromise between the two genres of film which lets them both be stars: tap dancing! And then the camera pulls away, and you see why the film's thesis about the end of male dominance is so terribly flawed: the studio crew are (still) all men.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Lacan on the Gospels

What is recounted by the four texts described as evangelical not so much because they are good news as good announcers for their sort of news... They write in such a way that there is not a single fact that cannot be contested in them ... but that these texts are nonetheless what go right to the heart of truth, the truth as such, up to and including the fact that I state that one can only half-say it ... In this style of things, you cannot say better than the Gospels. One cannot say the truth any better. That is why they are Gospels.

From Lacan's seminar Encore, as quoted by Cormac Gallagher.