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The Necessity of Angels: Caputo and the ‘Warrior Realists’

First, I want to thank Tripp Fuller and Indiana University Press for facilitating this “blog tour,” and encourage everyone to check out the previous posts available here.

In chapter 10,Facts, Fictions, and Faith: What Is Really Real after All?Caputo continues to put his thesis of “perhaps” in play with some of the biggest names in contemporary

9780253010100_p0_v1_s260x420continental philosophy. Here, Caputo sets out to take on what he dubs “Warrior Realism,” and others call Speculative Realism. Caputo sets his sights on Quentin Meillassoux’s (pronounced may-yah-sue) critique of “correlationsim” which he believes as corrupted philosphical thought and its ability to say anything meaningful about the world itself. In this first post, I’ll simply try to give Meillasoux a bit of background and fair treatment.  If you don’t want to hear a lot about Meillassoux before diving into Jack’s critique, then skip this section in between the *’s.

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In his seminal work After Finitude, Meillassoux starts out by bringing to the fore the question of what have traditionally been called primary qualities. Secondary qualities are qualities of a thing that are produced in some relation to another thing. For example, when your finger touches a flame and you feel the sensation of heat, or burning, this is a quality that, we can assume, the flame itself does nor perceive, it does not burn itself. Meillasoux’s project does not involve these kinds of qualities, but primary qualities, or qualities of the thing itself, the flame as if there is no finger for it to burn. In short, to bypass getting stuck speaking about secondary qualities, Meilassoux, unsurprisingly given his mentor was none other than Alain Badiou, posits that mathematics are the thing that can tell us about things in themselves, or the universe, without recourse to relation. There is, in other words, a rehabilitation of the objects of relation themselves, or the related terms, rather than the relation itself.meillassoux

For those familiar with Kant, he is an obvious target and exemplar of such correlationism. Kant, along with other transcendental idealists,  took it upon themselves to mediate between idealism and realism.  Kant urged that knowledge has an a priori component that allows rational subjects to make s synthetic a priori judgements about the world. Synthetic a priori judgements are not about the world, they are about the world as it is experienced by subjects possessing certain a priori principles. Metaphysics, then, is about the conditions of experience. For Kant, the conditions of experience are: Sensibility (space and time, both subjective), understanding (intuition, concepts/categories), and reason (makes sense of world by applying a priori categories… 12 of them). This transcendental idealism of Kant meant not that objects in our experience conform to our concepts, not the other way around. Hence, in this mediating philosophy between realism and idealism, there is the necessity of what Meillassoux calls correlation, we cannot have knowledge of objects themselves, they are process through those 12 a priori categories (e.g. causality, plurality, unity, possibility, existence, etc.).

As Graham Harman points out in his treatment of Meillasoux, Meillasoux obviously rejects this correlational aspect of Kant, but happily follows Kant in his critique of “dogamtic metaphysics,” or metaphysics’ insistence on saying something about the world without first talking about how we can come to know the world in the first place. Therefore, Harman formulates Meillasoux’s idea of correlationism is that philosophers have thought that if we try to think beyond thought, we thus turn whatever that is into a thought, and return to square one. Unlike other Speculative Realists and Object Oriented Ontologists, Meillassoux also thinks there is something to privilege about the human-world relation (over object-object relations) while at the same time radicalizing the relationship to show that there must be things independent of this relationship or thought itself.

Meillassoux further asserts that the finitude exemplified or founded in Kant’s system is not unique to human knowledge, finitude is part of the stucture of all existence, objects themselves contain an obvious finitude in failing to grasp the nature of their condition or the existence of other objects. However, even if the human-world relation stands at the center, this is what can, in radical form, tell us about experience or relation independent objects “in themselves.”

One example of how this becomes possible is what Meillasoux calls the “arche-fossile,” which presents a conundrum for Kantian reason. While a fossil merely bares the marks of the past, an arche-fossil is old enough to tell us about conditions before life even emerged on earth. This kind of prehistoric science might, for those sympathetic with Meillassoux, seriously jeopardize all post-Kantian philosophy in its assumption that we simply can’t speak objectively about the world “out there” independent of our experience. Science, at least in this respect, does a pretty good job of describing the world or universe before life or Dasein existing to think, relate, or be thrown into it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ***

Caputo picks up his hammer (in a Heideggarian sense of course, his theory is not a hammer until he uses it to bash Meillassoux!) and goes to work on Meillassoux for the basic assertion that “objects fall from the sky,” and says that this kind of thought is a fundamentalist about obectivism as any Christian fundamentalism (200). To substantively counter Meillassoux, and other “Warrior Realists,” Caputo turns to philosopher of science Bruno Latour. The question about “reality” is quite tiresome when non warrior realists confront their opponents. Caputo says the problem is this:

Once we point out the role that is played by practicing scientists in constructing a scientific account of things, have we relativized science, absorbed the real into the mind of the scientist and destroyed the objectivity of science? Does not “the real” (objectivity) demand the absolute disappearance of human intervention (subjectivity)? Are not objectivity or reality and subjectivity or human investigator inversely and unilaterally related instead of being directly and bilaterally related, as demanded by the notion of correlation? Latour’s thesis is that if you asked practicing scientists that question (in a way they could understand) you would be greeted with dumbfounded and uncomprehending silence. The very opposite is true. The more complex the scientific community, the more sophisticated scientific instruments at its disposal, the more elaborate the mathematics, then the more real the result, not the more “subjectivistic.” In short, the more construction, the more reality… (200).

Through Latour, we can begin to see that the dichotomy between subject and object, or construction and reality, is not really the issue. The way science is actually practiced, the distinction is between successful and unsuccessful constructions. Physicist Niels Bohr agreed with this well before Latour, as he define scientific theory as not something that simply seeks to represent nature “in itself,” but to give us rules for manipulating objects in the world and then a language we can use to communicate or describe our results. By way of example, Caputo employs Latour’s case study of Pasteur’s famous discovery that yeast is a living organism. The pasteuronly way Pasteur could make this discovery, Latour explains, is through an ingenious series of plots and stagings, through which he was able to “trick” the microorganism to appear. Naive realism, then, is that which tries to “erase Pasteur from the scene.” It is not simply the case that the yeast existed in a living identifiable form before Pasteur came along and performed his successful experiments. Rather, in collaborative process, Pasteur worked with the yeast, they were not merely “there” before Pasteur came along, Latour insists. Experiments are not a matter of passive objects and active subjects, or passive subjects taking in the content of the objects or enviroment around them.

This is why Caputo follows Latour in thinking that we have been “blackmailed by modernity” (204). The choice is not between “omnipotent human creator (Feuerbach on religion) or an omnipotent transcendent reality (Barth on God).” There is a drive for purity of thought in the Warrior Realists which is even willing to cut off our access to the real in order to preserve its objectivity (for a great look at quests for purity of thought, see Jeff Robbins’ excellent Between Faith and Thought). Unlike these realists, Latour somewhat ironically insists that transcendence, by which he means truth or others might substitute God, never comes into view (for us) in the first place without the work of human hands. There is a direct proportion between mediation and transcendence, as Caputo paraphrases.

By the very arrival of the angel, we are instructed about the necessity of angels, of images, messages, and mediators; every parable is a parable of the necessity of parables. The angel is the “dangerous supplement” (Derrida) of/ from God, which is the point being elaborated so brilliantly in Michel Serres …The question is not how to make unconditioned contact with reality but how to find the right conditions under which it is possible to make contact with reality at all. Without the right conditions, the result is not unconditioned reality but a total lack of contact with reality…Unconditional access to reality is an illusion, like the illusion of Kant’s dove that thinks it would be able to soar all the more freely but for the resistance offered it by the wind.(206-7).

Theologians of the perhaps, Caputo concludes, are as interested in reality as anyone. Physics, Caputo surmises, is indeed as close to metaphysics as we can get (212). The role of meta/physics is then to tell us about the real (oui, oui, viens! as Jack always says) but “we still need to talk about the real inter-relations of the real, of the chiasmic intertwining of human reality with reality at large, the curling up of reality that takes place in human reality.” This is of course no surprise for anyone familiar with Caputo, and the “curlings up of reality,” plays, intertwining, traces, etc make up his Derridian impluse.

What Jack overlooks is that these physics experiments that Latour references and we can now test empirically all started as metaphysics, or Gedanken, thought experiments, that he seems opposed to when he axiomatically asserts that “the best metaphysics is physics.” Caputo’s strategy, via Latour, is to imbricate the physical sciences with the constructivism of the social sciences, a both/and approach to science and post-structural thought. It is metaphysics, then, that is left out in the cold (and not even the “cold war realists” will touch it). The trouble is that just because we can do experimental metaphysics now does not mean that the thought experiments, a definition one might give to metaphysics, weren’t necessary to begin with. As Whitehead makes clear at the outset of Process and Reality, “metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of ultimate generalities” (8). Without the adventurous spirit of metaphysics, we wouldn’t have the ideas to test in the first place. Physicist Karen Barad in a published interview says as much, that “there has never been a sharp boundary between physics, on the one hand, and metaphysics or philosophy, on the other.” Thought experiments thought up by Bohr and Heisenberg, among other giants, were never expected to be tested, they were tools to think with. Of course now that we can test them, all the better, but the ability to test certain metaphysical propositions empirically in no way limits the necessity to “experiment” with thought to create new tools and concepts that can help us manipulate and understand the world in certain ways (Bohr).

Ultimately, affirming the danger of faith is to accept what Derrida called the “new humanities,” a blurring of the line between human and inhuman, or as is the case above, reality and construction. Faith, or a theology of the perhaps, in this instance, is the realization that “we have never been purely human;  we have never been purely alive; there has never been any pure human life.” Caputo cites Derrida to argue that “différance is shown to be the ‘dead’ element in the ‘living present,’ that is, the formal, neutral, or differential spacing of a technology embedded in the heart of living speech.” Hence, there might be said to be a kind of “technology” at the heart of humanity itself, a revelation that as human beings enmeshed in a world of language in signs, we cannot speak about ourselves without speaking of the technologies that, at least in part, compose our being.

Faith, for Caputo, is accepting that because of our hybrid identities, our “real” and “constructed” elements, we can never quite see what is coming, so we need a theology of “the event” (as many posts before me have touched on.” In this mode, theology becomes radical theology, which, of course, is not metaphysics but theopoetics. Instead of a Kantian system that shields us from knowing too much therefore allowing for a kind of fideism that believes simply because it can’t be proved wrong, Caputo’s “headless Hegelian” theology of the event/perhaps accepts the uncertainty of a world which always withdraws from our attempts to wrangle it or categorize it within our constructed systems. As we have seen, there are ingenious moments in which we can glean even revolutionary new facts about the way the world is, but the way the world is is always the way the world is with us, we are a part of the world we measure, take in, and come to know. Even though I reject Caputo’s swearing off of metaphysics as just as absurd a move as Meillassoux calling Derrida and foucault fideists, theology as theopoetics is still, in my view, a justified and effective response to a world such as ours. Theopoetics, as a drawing forth, is a practice for religious communities to engage in which might not be as different from Pasteur’s experiment as we might think. Certainly religious practitioners are not scientists, trading in the currency of empirica\tests with concrete, reproducible results to share with the world, which is why Caputo says that “religious traditions as so many ways that events take place, so many ways to make conditional historical response to the unconditional solicitations, invitations, injunctions, promises, and recollections, which take place as so many events” (221-2).

How we know about the world is inextricable from how we “intra-act” (a neologism of Barad) in the world. Knowing and practicing are bound together, and being responsible and accountable to the performances in which we all variously take part. Barad drives the point home by claiming that “things don’t preexist; they are agentially enacted and become determinately bounded and propertied within phenomena. Outside of particular agential intra-actions, ‘words’ and ‘things’ are indeterminate (Meeting the Universe Halfway 150). I think Caputo insists that we accept this indeterminacy, and through what he calls theopoetics, expose ourselves to the risk (rather than shielding our faith from in with Kantian epistemological postmodernism) of creating new and better meaning in the world, perhaps even changing it. This might be what the Bible meant by the Kingdom of God.

Müntzer, Engels, and Seeing Through the Ideology of “Theonomics”

If you have taken classes dealing with the Protestant Reformation, chances are it was explained to you in generally theological terms, centered on the figure of Martin Luther. Of course we all know that on Halloween of 1517 (they loved Halloween back then, trust me), Martin Luther dressed up like a friar in a weird hat (or something) and instead of a asking for a treat, pinned his infamous “95 Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Luther, we are told (not wrongly, just simply) was protesting the sale of indulgences, and of of course had other concerns about particular Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. From that point of the story on, we are regaled with the theological disputes not only between Luther and the Church authorities, but with fellow dissidents like Zwingli, whom he spared over the theological significance of the Eucharist. The real issues, many are led to think, were theological. Of course theological differences were both acute and real, but Friedrich Engels tells a different story when he writes about the Peasant War in Germany.  Taking up the kind of analysis he and his partner Marx are famous for, Engels looks at the social conditions and relations leading up to the Reformation, and inflects not Luther’s theses, but rather the Peasant Revolt and another radical protesting figure, Thomas Müntzer.

Church dogma, Engels explains, was also a matter of jurisprudence for the feudal order in the 16th century. Theology, at least in name, was used as a foundation for laws and various taxes everyone from feudal lord to burghers had to pay to the Church. Therefore, “existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.” In this sense, theological challenge becomes a kind of instrument for power plays within the existing social order. Protest against the feudal order had always been alive in radical mystical movements/heresies like the Waldenses and Albigenses, but the “town heresies,” which Engels says are the “official heresies of the Middle Ages… were directed primarily against clergy, whose wealth and political station they attacked.” Crucially, and especially relevant today, the bourgeoisie demanded (and continues to demand) a cheap government. In the 16th century, as we have already noted, matters of jurisprudence and theology were inextricably linked. A theological or biblical defense that could cut off the authority of well paid priests and church structures in the name of something like the “priesthood of all believers” would be a direct method of cutting the most expensive element of the church. This is the primary “burgher heresy.” This heresy, Engels continues to explain, while initially in

revoltthe name of diminishing the economic and social power of the church those in upper feudal society had to support, found unintended, more radical expression in the Peasant War and the idea of the equality of the children of God. A figure like Müntzer shows well how Christianity can thus be a radical starting point for radical social change.

Žižek’s method of ideological critique comes to mind, when he explains that the most effective method of criticizing dominant ideological thought can sometimes be to take it more seriously than it takes itself. Žižek recounts:

In early 1980s, a half-dissident student weekly newspaper in ex-Yugoslavia wanted to protest the fake “free” elections; aware of the limitations of the slogan “speak truth to power” (“The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and that the people already know the truth as they make clear in their jokes.”), instead of directly denouncing the elections as un-free, they decided to treat them as if they are really free, as if  their result really was undecided, so, on the elections eve, they printed an extra-edition of the journal with large headline: “Latest election results: it looks that Communists will remain in power!” This simple intervention  broke the unwritten “habit” (we “all know” that elections are not free, we just do not talk publicly about it…): by way of treating elections as free, it reminded the people publicly of their non-freedom.

So in a way, figures like Müntzer and the phenomenon of the Peasant Revolt took challenges to ecclesial authority in the form of populist theology more seriously than the burghers intended. This is the distinction, for Engels, between Luther and Müntzer. Muntzer, by analogy, stepped into the role of Žižek’s student newspaper editor while Luther stepped into a position of ideological authority . In Luther, we see the same kind of disavowal of the popular elements of his thought as many communist leaders in Žižek’s youth (as he tells the story). Luther put powerful tools in the hands of the plebeians, as Engels points out, not least of which was a Bible they could read, but when the peasants began to take Luther and the Bible more seriously, or at least literally, than Luther and his bourgeois supporters did , violent upheaval became inevitable between moderates (wanting to challenge the official Church on economic grounds) and the “extremists” who challenged the logic by which the burghers and their noble supporters tried to gain an upper hand on the clergy. Luther, of course,  played the part of the “liberal,” and eventually sold out the peasants at the behest of the princes whom he owed his life. Luther’s rage at the peasants, fervently advocating for their defeat, even went as far as to seem to revel in the prospect of strangling, stabbing, and knocking them to pieces. Liberals get quite upset when material conditions present the possibility of actual change. It is here, Engels points out, that Luther totally disavows his mutiny against religious authority, selling out not only the peasants but the burghers as well in the name of the princes.

Müntzer, in refusing to engage Luther on theological grounds, insisted, crucially, on bypassing the pretense of theology as a discourse of ideology. This realization that the approved or sanctioned mode of discourse is founded on bypassing the real cause of alienation (social relations) is an important step, even in our current situation of economic downturn and class oppression. Today, one might think of “economics,” rather than theology, as an abstract, in many ways fideistic discipline and carrier of so-called inherited, unchallengeable knowledge as the turf by which the bourgeoisie insist the debate take place. Today, economics, if not quite the equivalent of theology in the 16th century, at least has taken up many of its qualities so that we might call it, more appropriately, “theonomics.”

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber describes the current state of economics thusly:

Part of the problem is the extraordinary place that economics currently holds in the social sciences. In many ways it is treated as a kind of master discipline. Just about anyone who runs anything important in America is expected to have some training in economic theory, or at least to be familiar with its basic tenets. As a result, those tenets have come to be treated as received wisdom, as basically beyond question (one knows one is in the presence of received wisdom when, if one challenges it, the first reaction is to treat one as simply ignorant­ “You obviously have never heard of the Laffer Curve”; “Clearly you need a course in Economics 101″-the theory is seen as so obviously true that no one who understands it could possibly disagree.) (90)

Graeber goes on to say that the problem with the “empiricism” of these forms of economics is that they start with  the fallacious idea that human beings are “self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment.” The issue here is not disproving rational choice theorists and conventional economists wrong, per se, given the evidence we now have from experimental psychologists. The point is that the way economics (its tenets largely resting on faith in such “received wisdom” and assumptions about human pyschology and sociology) is situated in our society seems at least comparable to theology in the time of Luther and Müntzer. In the same way scholastic debates about theology were instrumental in matters of taxation and jurisprudence, today economic theory, infamously like that of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogof, is influential in political decisions that effect millions, such as European and American austerity measures (based in part on their models). This is what I’m calling, tongue in cheek, “theonomics,” both for its similarity to the role theology played in the past, but also the way in which it is taken on faith in many spheres of influence. This “theonomic” mentality of the established departments also resembles medieval theology in so far as its political power is great, and is apparently unquestionable by the laity. In Luther’s time peasants couldn’t read their scriptures and had no theological education, whereas today, even the educated cannot question the inherited technical wisdom of so-called economists (no matter how unreliable their models and predictions turn out to be empirically). I might not understand the ins and outs of high level economics, but neither do those who these economists are advising…

It would then be up to us to, in the spirit of Müntzer, insist to not “to bring the Spirit exclusively before the high school of learning,” rather learning new ways to think and act that do not necessarily discard religion, but use it as material in the struggle against the “high learning” that falsely posits itself as truly religious.  Also following Müntzer, we might refuse to debate in front of a rigged jury the technical aspects of the new theology, economics. The point is not to discard economic theory, as Müntzer did not discard theology or religion, it is to implement them in a revolutionary manner that takes economics even more seriously than the actual economists.  Additionally, in taking religion more seriously than the religious authorities take it, by Müntzer’s example, we have a concrete, historical starting point for revolutionary change (perhaps). We must break the habit of theological thinking that “knows that the bible does not really mean it when it speaks of radical social equality, we just do not publicly talk about it” that was as alive in the time of Luther and Müntzer as it is now. This might be a new form of “theonomics” which is not the same as defined above, but economic theory working with radical religion to deliver to “Spirit” of equality that Müntzer talked about to our world. Economics today, like theology then, is not only doing what it says it is. Engels laughs at those who “accept unquestionably all the illusions that an epoch makes about itself or that ideologists of an epoch make about that epoch.” Likewise, we need to be concerned about the way we currently accept the ideology of contemporary economics, much like historians often accept the account of ideology left to us by the Reformers and are content to call it “history.”

Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of (Time) Images Part 3

So far I have been trying to keep to a certain trajectory. By following Deleuze’s tracing of the breakdown of the movement image, or images with meanings tied directly to sensory-motor perceptions, to the exposure of the true nature of time in the time image, we have hopefully now arrived at why this really matters. I ended my last post by saying that we must inhabit the radical “breaks” that the time image reveals (and I tried to describe) in order to choose, in Deleuze’s sense of eternal return, difference rather our normal mode of re-cognition and re-creation.

Ways in which we recognize the world, or see the world, might be a way of describing various “spiritual” groups. For example, mystics might be said to quite literally see the world in a way that highlights or brings forth the inherent mysteries that many of us miss or glaze over in our quotidian devotion to the status quo. William Connolly experiments with organizing people this way in his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008). Connolly observes that members of different creedal groups, whether they are straightforward capitalists and businessmen or conservative Christians, are drawn together despite creedal differences because they possess affinities of spirituality (40). For example, Connolly points out that an atheist who resents the world for containing no meaning or redemption shares a similar existential ethos of resentment and revenge with the conservative Christian who, even if unconsciously, resents God for making life unfair or making salvation difficult to attain, or generating so many rules that must be followed. These less than obvious groupings are what Connolly dubs a “resonance machine,” this particular machine Connolly calls the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” which is primarily operative in our current state of affairs. Connolly further elucidates:

Partners to the resonance machine in question have an existential orientation that encourages them to transfigure interest into greed, greed into anti-market ideology, anti-market ideology into market manipulation, market manipulation into state institutionalization of those operations, and the entire complex into policies that pull the security net away from ordinary workers, consumers, and retirees- some of  whom are then set up to translate new intensities of resentment and cynicism into participation in the machine (43). 

In regard to how this narrative continually plays out on our plane of immanence, one might say that we are living in the midst of a very long, bad movie (C2 115). The movie we live in, directed by global capitalism and neoliberalism, is repetitive and self-enclosed. This is precisely why Deleuze turns to film as a philosophical site of resistance.  As a philosopher committed to being open to life, Deleuze shows that cinema, as one of the most important events of modern life, gives us mode of “seeing” that is outside of the human subject and opens up new ways of seeing and interrupts the dominant way seeing and receiving data that continually bombards us.

Unlike everyday life, where we see things from a particular position grounded in our own subjectivity, cinema has the potential to temporarily liberate us from our limited embodied perspective. The organizing structure of our own perceptive consciousness can disrupted by cinema which contains the unique ability, via its use of background, sound, light, movement, and time, to create its own novel perspective that liberates us from the normal sequence of everyday life. While our brains normally organize subsequent images into a coherent whole in what we assume is a shared world with others, films can present images apart from this normal ordering sequence, as well as disrupt our sense of a shared perspective. Ideally, cinema might corrupt the everyday viewpoint that we are used to, and how we synthesize sense data into abstract “time” is disrupted. Images become singularities, dislodged from logical sequences, so that we can achieve a glimpse at time itself not as a linear construction, but an outward and infinitely divergent movement of becoming (again, as I tried to articulate in my last post). The time-image allows us to see that common sense perception is not all there is, history as a series of images and movement is not closed but open, things can always be otherwise than they are if only we see differently.

To this effect, I quote Deleuze at length from Cinema 2:

We see, and we more or less experience, a powerful organization of poverty and oppression. And we are precisely not without sensory-motor schemata for recognizing such things, for putting up with and approving of them and for behaving ourselves subsequently, taking into account our situation, our capabilities,and our taste. We have schemata for turning away when it is too unpleasant, for prompting resignation when it is terrible and for assimilating when it is too beautiful. It should be pointed out here that even metaphors are sensory-motor evasions, and furnish us with something to say when we no longer know what to do: they are specific specific schemata of an affective nature. Now this is what a cliche is. A cliche is a sensory-motor image of a thing. As Bergson says, we do not perceive the image or the thing in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally only perceive cliches. But, if our sensory-motor schemata jam or break, then a different type of image can appear: a pure optical-sound image, the whole image without metaphor, brings out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess of horror or beauty, in its radical or unjustifiable character, because it no longer has to be ‘justified,’ for better or worse…  The factory creature gets up, and we can no longer say ‘Well, people have to work…’ I thought I was seeing convicts: the factory is a prison, the school is a prison, literally, not metaphorically… On the contrary, it is necessary to discover the seperate elements and realtions that elude us at the heart of the unclear image: to show how and in what sense a school is a prison, housing estates are examples of prostitution, bankers are killers, photographs tricks- literally, without metaphor. (C2 20-21)

In some sense, as Deleuze argues, the less we recognize the more we see…. “there is no knowing how far a real image may lead” (21). One might think about the Wal Mart shopper, enticed by “Always Low Prices. Always,” who only chooses to see the surface level images presented to them, accepting that they flow from the narrative presented to them via the media and advertisements europa2which praise the benefits of exploitative capitalism by hiding its true nature, the images of its underside. In the marketplace we always find buffers that serve to keep many aspects of the world, or the image, apart from our consciousness (lest we question our habits and sensory-motor schemata that allow the system to function).  We cannot see the factory as a prison because it acts as nothing more than an abstract image in our minds or it is simply a piece of scenery we see on our way to our various destinations. In the film Europe 51, the wealthy protagonist only comes to see the factory, to reinhabit the image of the factory anew, by working within the factory which unlocks the images behind the images that we willfully accept in our desire to continue to not be disturbed.

For those who take part in the conservative resonance machines, what is shared is a tragic view of reality wherein time and movement are viewed as linear and there are no singularities, only products or commodities. In this way, conservative politics often seem to be grounded in a resentment that grows out of profound disappointment in the world. Time as serial and located within the subject is taken for granted, and I suggest the corollary of this acceptance is in fact a passivity in the face of exploitation and the resentment and revenge impulse that living in the midst of an unchallenged system of domination, i.e. capitalism, is created. Hence, as Connolly pointed out, victims often “translate new intensities of resentment and cynicism into participation in the machine.” Traditional theology, according to Deleuze, views God’s plan as the constitutive of the virtual and we, humanity, are here enacting the virtual “plan” in actuality. The script is written and we, as actors in God’s movie, are here to play it out. This is the conservative fallacy, and the fallacy that ideologically undergirds our inability to envision difference qua difference and being qua becoming. One Deleuze scholar Ronald Bogue, puts it thusly;

One mode of life, for example, is that of the ideologue, or the true believer, for whom the answers are already given and there is nothing to choose. Another is that of the  indifferent or uncertain, those who lack the capacity to choose or who never know    enough to be able to choose. A third is that of the fatalists and devotees of evil, those who make a single choice that commits them to an inevitable and unavoidable sequence of actions that afford no further choice. And finally, there is the mode of existence of those who choose to choose., those who affirm a life of continual choosing. The choice in this last mode of existence, in short, “has no other object than itself: I choose to choose, and  that means I exclude every choice made according to the mode of having no choice (Deleuze on Cinema 121)

We must choose to reject the bad movie we are stuck within. Traditional theology, according to Deleuze, views God’s plan as the constitutive of the virtual and we, humanity, are here enacting the virtual “plan” in actuality. The script is written and we, as actors in God’s movie, are here to play it out (and not simply those with supreme confidence in the sovereignty of God, that is more of a narrative faith in determinism, what Deleuze is getting at is a sensory-motor implicit fatalism, we associate certain A’s with their effect B, over and over, “e.g. ‘it’s just the way it is’). This is the conservative fallacy, and the fallacy that ideologically undergirds our inability to envision difference qua difference and being qua becoming. In choosing to choose, what we are doing is choosing multiplicity, choosing difference, and choosing becoming. The second “choose” in choosing to choose represents a multiplicity and contingency that opposes the fatalism of market capitalism and theologies of divine providence alike (which, we have seen, resonate together).

We must choose to choose, choose to continually inhabit the rarified image, cease the suppression of the illusion that we are seeing everything when we are seeing almost nothing. Here, the revolutionary potential of cinema might be realized as truly Catholic in the sense new “resonance machines” might be formed with Catholic, or universal, aspirations for reestablsihing the link between humanity and the world itself, not the cheap representations of the world passed off to us in the interest of our own exploitation, or the exploitation of the many at the hands of the few (who, one might argue, do see it all). This link, Deleuze claims, is always at stake. Deleuze harps on the notion of belief as a choice, one that is more necessary and at the same time more difficult than before (that is, prior models of belief, i.e. religious belief, or even atheism). “The less the world is,” Deleuze teaches, “the more it is the artist’s duty to believe and produce belief in a relation between man and the world, because the world is made by men [sic, of course]” (C2 171). Now, however, especially after the revolutionary potential of Christian faith seems to have passed, as we are trapped in the jaws of capitalism and a failed Enlightenment, we no longer believe in the world, “we do not believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us” (171). Whether we are atheists or Christian, we must not resonate together as Connolly sees the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, but “in our universal schizophrenia, we need reasons to believe in this world.” I can only imagine the despair of Deleuze if he were here as I write this and millions still debate Miley Cirus “twerking” (don’t ask me) at the VMA’s as America is on the verge of bombing Syria.

Delueze urges us to go beyond mere ideological criticism. Ideology is certainly what significantly undergirds our sensory-motor schemata, but it is our perception of the world that, most fundamentally, determines our belief. Through theorizing time in this way, and pointing to media such as cinema that might help us see differently, see again, see differently, in order to realize the vast potential of this world so we might believe, that is the legacy of Deleuze’s corpus. Traditional forms of representation (which are rarely truly “art”) ally themselves with the conspiracy to hide this fact that inspires authentic belief, instead inducing an all too complicit ennui.

Cinema might help us regain the certain “Catholic” aspirations that we now seem to lack. Deleuze quite rightly observes that today, “the people are missing.” Cinema, and art in general, must not address a people that we presuppose are already there, but “contributing to the invention of a people” (C2 217).  Clayton Crockett articulates the project as “The invention of a people today involves a construction of a time-image, a new way to think, to directly short-circuit the clichés, deceptions, and manipulations of the State” (Crockett 183) Whether or not we agree with Deleuze that Christianity and perhaps religion in general has lost its revolutionary character (though for better or worse, the events of the Arab Spring might give Deleuze pause), we need reasons and apparatuses that help us believe in this world, to create a people that can oppose neoliberal regimes that eviscerate the common human being. And again, it may not be a simple matter of giving peoples more information (the failure of Wikileaks and other organization to produce arguably any substantial change helps demonstrate this) or a more inspiring message to hear, but quite literally helping them to see differently in order to overcome. The creation of the time-image, for Deleuze, was the cinematic attempt to create images that could not be so easily hijacked for sinister political purposes due to their ambivalent nature. We would do well to think again about how to create new time images that due not fit the current aesthetic model of politics as usual. Art for art’s sake is not impervious to subversion, so it must continually renew itself to stay ahead of a kind of sterilizing aestheticization.

The hope is to begin to cultivate positive “resonance machines” that can operate across creedal differences  not on the frequency of resentment and greed but genuine belief in the world and a commitment to seeing again the cliches of our world in order to break them apart and begin anew. Connolly shows us how such resonances are possible, that indeed respect difference to the point of radical plurality, yet Connolly and Deleuze both help us rehabilitate a kind of “spirituality” that can be identified that is open to be shared which does not so much transcend particularity but work within it. Religion may or may not be a source of this spirituality in the future, but it has never been more important to seek it, or better yet create it.

Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of (Time) Images (Part 2 of 3, and this is a bit dry)

In my last post, I tried to explore the significance of what Deleuze calls “the movement image.” Sidestepping or questioning the way in which semiotic (Derrida) and psychoanalytic (Lacan/Freud) interpretations function, Deleuze insists that we pay attention to images in themselves as signs, looking for ways in which juxtapositions of images affect our habits of thought, perception of movement (as well as time), and therefore our (political) imagination. If, as Deleuze claims in Difference and Repetition, that “We live with a particular image of thought, that is to say, before we think, we have a vague idea of what it means to think, its means and its ends,” (4) then we must take quite seriously the circularity of the mode in which modern philosophy has functioned since its inception. Deleuze goes on to argue that classical philosophy often identified the image of thought with “common sense,” or what everyone is supposed to know, or proposing a natural representation of what it means to think. Eventually, Deleuze argues, in Hume philosophy realizes its own groundlessness, and thinking becomes nothing more than a higher form of Habit far from being grounded in Reason. Finally in Kant philosophy becomes “critical” of its own image and in Hegel images of thought are arranged “in a dialectical progression that leads up to the contemporary moment where the circular nature of the relationship between idea and image is grounded in the movement of Ideology” (Lambert 2). Deleuze, however, sets out to attain a “new image of thought and act, its functioning, its genesis in thought itself” (D&R xvii) Though I jumped the gun a bit at the end of my last post lapsing into the time image a bit toward the end, it is this concept I wish to explore now. Cinema, as I have hoped to begin to show, contains immeasurable depth in creating new images of thought through breaking established habits of perception and thought (though Deleuze explores this project of creating new images of thought in virtually all of his work).

I say that I jumped the gun in my last post bringing in the link Deleuze draws between cinema or the screen and the brain because this point is directly tied to the time image itself. To understand the significance of the “brain” for Deleuze, we might start by contrasting it with the understanding of the psyche put forward by Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. A psychoanalytic image of thought concerned the brain, like the movement or action image, remains deterministic. For Freud, for example, there is absolute causality even if it is often un or subconscious, there are not accidents. For every slip of the tongue, to take the most obvious example, there is a causal link to some repressed element of consciousness and it is the analyst’s job to make this causal linkages apparent. For Lacan, the relationship between signifier and signified might be open to metonymic displacement that appear to be irrational, but the analyst again interprets them thought a “grid of semiotic determinations” (Lambert 168).

These semiotic images of the brains are still fundamentally based on (metaphysical) Reason, Deleuze says. In Cinema 2 Deleuze insists that “the discovery of the synapse was enough in itself to shatter the idea of a continuous cerebral system, i.e. the brain as a whole…since it laid down irreducible points or cuts… Hence the greater importance of a factor of uncertainty, or half uncertainty, in the neuronal transmission” (318n). Deleuze has no problem acknowledging how psychology and analysis help grant insight into our relationship with our brain, but little of the lived brain itself (212). We must, for Deleuze, move away from thinking of the structure of a brain in terms  terms of a separation between subject and object, causally related.

If we recall, this problemitizing of causality is also party the problem of the movement image in postwar cinema leading to the advent of the time image- the faith humanity once had in the onward march and success of history, in organization, in straightforward progress is deteriorated. Organic unity is no longer assumed in history after the movement image, and here we now speak of the non-unity of a brain, which correlates to that which the movement image gives way to, the time image… “time presents itself when history fades away” (Marrati 65). The way in which time begins to present itself in cinema has to do with a transformation of cinematic subjectivity, Deleuze write “Subjectivity, then, takes on a new sense, which is no longer motor or material, but temporal and spiritual: that which ‘is added’ to matter, not what distends it” (C2 47). The memories and thoughts that compose our subjectivity are not only “in” our brains, but they exist in time. It is not time that is in us but we who are in time (Marrati 72). All of this points to the presenting or imaging of time itself as an expression of a change in cinema from the movement to the time image. To reiterate, when a causal, motor-sensory model falls apart (movement image or deterministic psychology), we begin to think time itself.

The time image is not a negation of the movement image, and Deleuze does not simply wish to malign its existence, but rather the problem is that it has broken down (much like, we might say, deterministic psychology based on the Whole or structure). This way of thinking has to do with the aforementioned “cuts” that Deleuze finds exhibited in synapses, but are actually part of time itself. So what is this thing Deleuze describes as “time itself, ‘a little time in its pure state'”? When the actual and the virtual are compressed into the tiniest possible form. The actual and virtual images form a “crystal” that represents the diffraction of time (rather than its full unveiling, which is the time image, which is more than the crystal of time). A classic example of such a crystal of time  (or “crystal image”) wherein the actual and virtual become indiscernible from one another is in the classic Orson Welles film The Lady from Shanghai in a palace of mirrors. In this famous scene, the virtual images produced by the seemingly endless mirrors subsume the actual image (the actual actor/actress) into a sea of the virtual. The actor becomes one “virtuality” among others (Marrati 73).  The only course of action for the characters becomes smashing all of the images until they can “win back” their actuality and find each other (Marrati 73/C2 70). One way of rephrasing this is thinking of the characters un-defracting time and winning back the present, because the only form of the actual image is the present, while it is the contemporaneous past which makes up the virtual.

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To unpack this, Clayton Crockett suggests we read the the crystal image – the diffraction of time – through the lens of the three syntheses of time from Difference and Repetition. If we recall the first synthesis of time is “habit, or the present, [which] corresponds to the sensory motor image, which is under the sing of the movement image” (Crockett 95). The second synthesis is that synthesis which grounds the present, it is the form of memory that grounds our perception of the present (a point Deleuze takes from Bergson in Matter and Memory). In Cinema 2, this is couched in terms of the “recollection image.” As Crockett explains, the recollection image in its smallest form is actually the crystal image, which “serves two functions: seed and mirror” (Crockett 95). As mirror, the crystal image subsumes the actual into the virtual, as we noted in the example taken from Lady from Shanghai. As seed, the crystal image acts as the cut or caesura that “breaks through to the time image proper, which is also a shattering of all images based on representation” (Crockett 95). The time image proper, then corresponds to the third synthesis of time we find in Difference and Repetition, the passage to the future. This passage to the future is where we get a “break” or caesura (keeping in mind the constitution of a brain for Deleuze is also made of of many cuts and caesuras, see above). This caesura is within the image as it is torn in two unequal parts, which Deleuze calls an “interstice.” This split is the seed of time generated by the crystal image (Crockett 96). It is the unequal exchange past and present (correspondence between the virtual and actual) that generates the break which “bursts forth” future . This break, if we harken back to Difference and Repetition, also exposes the fallacy of representation in general, as the actual continually shatters the virtual (much like in Lady from Shanghai), breaking open time itself and birthing the future, making representation, in any straightforward, common sense manner, impossible.

Time has to split at the same time as it sets itself our or unrolls itself: it splits in two dissymmetrical jets , one of which makes all the present pass on, while the other preserves all the past. Time consists of this split, and it is this, it is time, that we see in the crystal. (C2 81)

There is a kind of coexistence of past and present, virtual and actual, that disrupts our common sense notion of time as linear. The past does not “pass,” Paola Marrati explains, in a point Deleuze takes from Bergson, it “becomes endowed with its own virtual reality distant from any psychological existence” (Marrati 74). Subjectivity, then, is not something we have it is something we are in, not in the sense of a world spirit or something, but time itself.

Citizen Kane is a prime example of the way in which the “virtual sheets” of the past are explored: “The  succession of cross-cutting shot-reaction shots describe Kane’s habits, the ‘dead time’ of his life, while the depth shots mark moments in which Kane’s life changes dramatically.At these points, the image operates…as a true leap into the past” (Marrati 77). The way in which these “sheets” of the virtual past play into the narrative is an example of Deleuze’s argument for what he calls the “powers of the false.” Time, according to Deleuze, always puts truth “in crisis,” and cites an old Stotic argument to make his point. If it is true that a battle might take place tomorrow, then a paradox arises the next day. Today’s possibilities always become impossible tomorrow. Therefore, we might say that the past is not necessarily “true.” Rather than being a sophism, Deleuze argues that this paradox demonstrates the direction relationship of truth and time. Leibniz solved this paradox by famously positing multiple worlds, wherein both scenarios are possible, just not together, or so they are “incompossible.” Deleuze, however, does not separate incompossible scenarios into different worlds like Leibniz, but asks the question of their contemporaneous existence (C2 170).  In this sense, each “peak” of the present can be said to be “true” along with its possibilities, but each peak of the present cannot be true along with other peaks as they come into existence. The trouble is that peaks, or presents, cannot be fully sperated from one another by virtue of the present and past being folded into one another in the virtual and actual: “incompossible presentsrelated to not necessarily true pasts” (C2 171). Narrative, a method that tries to string together events into a coherent sequence, thus employs the “power of the false,” it is these “not necessarily true” pasts that bear on the present and give it semblance of meaning. We have the ability to decide which sheets of the past we might treat as true, however the consequence of this is making other sheets of the past (which are equally present in the ever passing present) false. In other words, time does not proceed A ->B->C, etc. Rather, present ‘A’ folds into present B, AB folds into C which becomes ABC, etc. as time progresses. This is a progression of time that renders fixed or “true” identities continually “false.”

Art, for Deleuze, and especially film, deals in the powers of the false, rather than being fraudulent for not dealing in “truth.” There is no longer opposition between truth and falsehood in a common sense manner, the false quite literally produces the true. The artist is “the creator of truth, for truth is not something to be attained, found, or reproduced- it must be created” (C2 191). Again, this is a riff on Deleuze’s major repetitive point- identity is not fixed and cannot be represented. As such, traditional notions of truth must be rethought, especially as the product of creativity working within and with myriad “false” representations.  The payoff, for me, after all of this [no one is reading, I don’t blame them] is the revelation of the radical choice we face- the matter is not representation or finding truth (instead setting out to create it), but also realizing the rich “virtual” realities of time itself which we perpetually inhabit. We must inhabit the radical “breaks” that the time image reveals in order to choose, in Deleuze’s sense of eternal return, difference rather our normal mode of re-cognition and re-creation. This seems crucial if we are to break the linear, cause and effect common sense that seems to peretuate our tolerance for a world that seems to be speeding toward cataclysmic collapse at the hands of neoliberal global capitalism. Cinema, in revealing the image of time itself, is the creation of a brain. That will be what I talk much more interestingly about in my next post.

Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of Images (Part 1)

I’m a terrible and inconsistent blogger, why not try and try again! Anyway, I’ve been reading through Deleuze’s Cinema volumes (and some commentaries on them) and have had been experiencing another one of those cliche “wow, I can’t believe I’ve not thought about this in this way before” moments. In a way, I feel fortunate to have first read Derrida, then Lacan, and now finally Deleuze. For Derrida, of course, we are usually talking about semiotics, the play of signs, differance, the trace, etc. Lacan extends semiotic logic (of the Sausserian variety) to the unconscious, and hence we can crudely say each gives us a way to think about the world. Deleuze is fascinating to me because he does not so much build on either semiotics or psychoanalysis (though he certainly works through these modes of thought) but returns to a seemingly more obvious and basic way of understanding the world via the image of thought. Deleuze is suspicious of essentialistisms whether they be linguistic or psychoanalytic, and sets out to demonstrate that images themselves carry their own logic that cannot be subsumed into other categories of thought, hence a philosophy of cinema itself. If we are always looking “behind” images we miss the importance of the images themselves.

I’ve already been speaking very crudely, and so I’ll continue to be indefensibly cursory. What I want to talk about is the historical development of what Deleuze calls the “movement image” in pre-war cinema to the so called “time image.” D.W. Griffith, infamous racist and undeniably prolific innovator, for Deleuze, stands as emblematic of the movement image which employs techniques such as montage to an kind of organic unity previously unrepresented in film. One can think of Birth of a Nation and think not only of its propagandizing racism, but the way in which wide shots, close ups, and montage are used to represent the supposed onward march of history, the unity of a people as they confront their enemies in order to restore harmony to their world; the life of individual parts depicted in the film depend on the harmony of the whole. Black people, in this case, are the disturbance that throws of the unity of the United States, and intolerance is posited as organic unity (Marrati 99). A point Deleuze draws out is not that the images derive from a narrative, as we tend to think, but precisely the opposite: narrative forms from the composition and sequence of images. When the filmmaker invokes a montage, as directors like Griffith and Eisenstein often do, they present us with a depiction of an organic, living entity, a people, and from our internalization of the wholeness of that entity, when it is disturbed we naturally want to see the balance restored, almost the way in which gradients function in physics to restore equilibrium. A  video I found on YouTube demonstrates how this form of the “movement image” is in no way a bygone method of film making, with the narrator pointing out that Steven Spielberg is perhaps contemporary cinema’s greatest purveyor of these pre-war techniques (though not necessarily toward the same political ends, at least explicitly).

This video points out how we organize ourselves according to images, we use our senses to place ourselves within the images and flow with them. We always try to compare the way in which we see in film to how we see the world, by virtue of our expectations of how images flow from one another in our everyday experience, we want to see our experience reflected within the film, we play out visual narratives.  As the narrator here puts it, with film we “see outside of our bodies that which had previously been

The perfect organic harmony of "nature."

The perfect organic harmony of “nature.”

confined in our minds.” So with someone like Spielberg and his film Jurassic Park, we can start to see how this is the case. Spielberg presents the viewer with a miraculous discovery of nature, petrified DNA that unlocks wondrous scientific possibility. The first third of the film, both narratively and visually presents us with a beautiful, harmonious world even after dinosaurs have been created. We see them grazing in the fields, moving together peacefully and in diverse packs. From these images, we form a sense of normalcy, of equilibrium, which is only later disturbed. Never mind the fact that we never see images of creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rexs or Velociraptors, even if narratively we know of their existence, before the event that disturbs the balance of the world (this is a nod to how the images, not simply the narrative, are anterior to our understanding of the film). Hence we yearn for the return of the stability of the pre-disturbance world, the harmony that was stolen from our perception. So in Jurassic Park, it is

The natural organization of white society

The natural organization of white society

not just the narrative we are invested in, e.g. we want to see the children survive, we want to see Newman get eaten as punishment for his disruptive actions (like black people in Griffiths’ BOAN) etc, but our consciousness gets caught up in the motion itself and wants to complete the motions that have been presented to us (a harmonious world that reflects our understanding of how things should be) which means deleting whatever is a threat to our visual perception of organic unity. As Deleuze would say in his earlier work Difference and Repetition, we seek the return of the same, rather than the return of difference. We get caught up in bad “habits” of thought, always seeking to represent, categorize, expect one thing must always follow another thing, rather than fully realizing the rich virtuality and possibility of difference containing within immanent reality, without thinking difference. As historian Lewis Namier quips, the problem is that we are always “remembering the future.”

The "disturbance"

The original “disturbance,” although at this point ironically the T Rex is restoring balance

Film is not simply a matter of light projected on a screen, as Clayton Crockett argues, it is a kind of simulation of our brain itself, our brain is also a screen so it is not surprise that film is capable of affecting us in the profound, diverse ways that it does. Just as we said earlier that the key is to look at images themselves and not the hidden linguistic signs (images are signs, just not lingusitic)or psychology behind them, so too the brain itself is a screen because there is nothing behind it. Crockett defines a brain broadly following Deleuze when he says “we need just a little order to protect us from chaos” (WIP 201). A brain thus “names that minimal order… we use to represent the minimal degree of organization required for being (Religion, Politics, and the Earth

Well, here it's black people rather than giant lizards, but you get the point

Well, here it’s black people rather than giant lizards, but you get the point…. they must be driven away to restore the normalcy of intolerance

121). The complexity and self-organization of reality itself is a brain, following Hegel in a manner of spirit, or thought, returning to itself by “positing itself outside of itself and then affirming the identity in difference between spirit and what it is not, substance becomes subject, becomes conscious of itself” (RPE 118). Crucially, then the “screen,” or consciousness in the form of a brain, is what “distinguishes something from chaos, makes something be” (RPE 122). Accordingly, chaos does not exist without a “screen,” chaos, Crockett explains, is only possibility, determination comes only with a screen, with some kind of ordering principle. Nature then, and its physical laws, is something like a giant “screen.” Recall how the narrator in the youtube clip observes that with film we “see outside our bodies” what was previously confined to the inside of our minds- in this sense, cinema represents a kind of externalized brain, or location of perception and organization, that not only mimics the way we see, but can change the way we see by creating new ways of not only conceiving of movement, but also time.

If this is the case, we can see the importance of creating new kinds of film, and I’ll get to that in my next post regarding what Deleuze calls the “time-image.” With the shift from the movement image to the time image, coinciding with World War 2 and having much to do with it, faith in “history,” or the unimpeded progress of mankind (sic) is disabused. No longer, after such global trauma, is organic unity and decisive action assumed. The way in which the world was assumed to be a the height of modernity becomes unrecognizable, and it is exactly when these recognitions fail (and Deleuze is always troubling recognition) that the structure of the “natural” and social habits of perception break down (Maratti 59). Rather than perception being directly tied to individual or collective action or movement, i.e. faith in history, our illusions of representation and recognition fail us and we are left with a demand for “increased thought, even if thought begins by undoing the system of actions, perceptions, and affections on which the cinema had been fed up to that point” (C1 206). Time begins to present itself, that is to say the diffractive, nonlinear, virtual, preganant nature of time that allows us to reconsider all that is, when faith in history is lost. Old conceptions of history give way to concepts like the “event” and continual becoming and the eternal return of difference. We need new imaginations and new ways of seeing, which will have to do with recognizing (re-cognizing, thinking the same again and again) less so that we can see more, as Deleuze argues. These are concepts that the time image deals with, and I’ll write about soon.

Thoughts on ‘Man of Steel’… Redemption for Kansas?

For weeks I had resigned to skipping over this Superman film… it’s a character I really do like and didn’t want to be disappointed like I was in 06 with the Brandon Routh incarnation. What I was worried about primarily, however, wasn’t just a bad script or stale acting, but a sinister dose of Christopher Nolan ideology like we got in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, wherein the message was crudely that the people cannot be trusted with power should they wrest it from the hands of the powerful.

martinansin_regular_largeSo many thoughtful posts have already been written on this film, and for good reason. To put my cards on the table here at the start, I loved the film. I thought it was conceptually rich, intelligent, and actually quite ambiguous. I especially appreciated the articulation of the “death of god” theme one could read in the film by Kester Brewin , and Joshua’s Ramey’s post on how to “read Krypton for capital,”  wherein Ramey gives a reading revolving around the rejection of biopower and salvation via otherness.

In regard to my ideological concern pertaining to Nolan’s involvement, I expected that this might be yet another love letter to conservatives, this time not on the finance/political front but on the religious front (not that the two are separate). In was widely reported that Warner Bros. was aggressively marketing this new Superman film to Christian pastors, expecting them to preach sermons to their congregations around the obvious analogy between Superman and Christ. Suggested sermon notes include ““How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” In itself this is an absurdly plain way in which corporations reach into churches to profit off of religious faith and interpellate the masses, but that’s another matter. Turning Kal-El into Jesus is problematic for anyone familiar with the character’s history, and now having seen the film, I don’t actually think that’s what they’ve done. If that is the analogy Christians want to make, I think this Superman might be a bit more subversive than anyone at FoxNews or Saddleback Church realizes (heck, Kal-El contains billions of potential lives in his cells and he won’t let them be born! That’s genocide in Texas!)

The moment I first got really excited in the film was when we see a flashback in which middle-school aged Clark stowed away in his dad’s pick up truck reading Plato’s Republic. I think this represents a critical juncture for Clark early on where he faces an inevitable choice that he finds elucidated for him in Plato. Will he be a fascist king, set to remake Earth more like Krypton, or does he see in Republic either a veiled warning against fascism in favor of something more like radical democracy or communism (as Alain Badiou argues), or at the very least is he repulsed by the kind of society in Socrates’ thought experiment? The funny thing is, before he learns anything about his past or Krypton, he knows something about it through his engagement with Plato. Krypton is in fact, more or less, the city Clark reads about as a young teenager. One stunningly open analogy is that Zod is a guardian. Zod declares once, if not twice, that he was bred to ensure the well being and survival of Krypton. Plato describes guardians as those who must employ techne to “construct” and acieve solutions of problems toward already structured sets of ends. This is precisely Zod. Krypton’s means are hardly anything but structured, its registry of future citizens is set for generations to come, and Zod is a kind of calculated pragmatist, he has found a suitable planet to terraform with his “world engine” and he has the skill and know how to use the tools and resources at his disposal to realize his “structured ends,” i.e. a repetition of Kryptonian society.

But this is where the juxtaposition of scenes in Man of Steel is key. Directly after the Plato flashback, we see Clark in a church speaking to a baffled priest, asking this religious leader for advice even though Clark has already thought that his very existence throws into serious question the existence of God at all. After Clark decides the priest has nothing to offer someone like him, the priest hits a buzzer beater of sorts by calling to Clark that what he must do is take a ‘leap of faith.’ Alright, so this sounds a bit trite, and there might be conservative overtones, we all know how these kinds of ‘leaps’ can be invoked to justify all sorts of horrible decisions. Nonetheless, in this context, the Kierkegaard reference comes directly after the deliberate invocation of Plato. Represented in Plato we have Krypton, and ordered, structured society of concrete ends. One might even speculate that Krypton is something like an “Accelerationist” society, expecially in regard to the removal of the contingency of human births, and we can surmise in other respects as well. As Joshua Ramey points out in his other post, contra accelerationism, invoking the work of Nagarestani:

Nagarestani…seems to realize that maturity and “Enlightenment” are not to be found in systems of total control and the sadistic- violent imposition of epistemic norms, upon fields of probability (i.e. “compression”).  The future we want is not one of increasing control over chance, change, and contingency.  What is needed, rather, is an entirely different relationship to contingency, and to chance, as such, one that is neither marked by fear and self-deception (neoliberalism) nor fascinated by dreams of total control, dominance, and escape from the peculiarities of flesh, blood, and earth (facile accelerationism)

It’s not perfect, but I read this ‘leap’ that the priest councils Clark to take has something to do with this, an embrace of contingency that Clark inherently (perhaps as Kryptonian) does not trust. Ramey concludes (and I realize the context of this might not be clear for those unfamiliar with accelerationism and the full text of Ramey’s post) that “The desire for total control is a desire for death.” Quite literally, Krypton, a society of biopower and control, willfully committed suicide… the council knew that mining their core would collapse the planet and somehow they did it anyway. This ‘leap’ that Clark ends up taking, if anything (and I think many reviewers misread this in asking why a stoic Clark even care about humanity) is an embrace of contingency, a choice on behalf of life against biopower, control, and death. This might not even be a particularly human choice, it may well be a decision against Krypton, which Clark sums up as “having had its chance.” When Zod appears, even though Clark has only just recently uncovered limited information about his past, he knows Zod. Zod is a guardian. Humanity may not be trustworthy, as Clark notes, but it has already shown him Zod. The temptation that Zod presents to Clark, a repopulated home world ruled the Kryptonian way is not a new thought for Clark, he has been contemplating this temptation since at least 6th grade, and this is why such a seemingly tantalizing proposition is never really an option for the mature Clark we see on Zod’s ship.

So there’s all that. Others have worried about the pseudo-patriotism or Americanism of the film… is there “truth, justice, and the American way” presented here? Here is where I also think the film is interesting. When a US general asks Clark for an assurance of his loyalty, i.e. why would the military take a ‘leap’ and trust Superman (not that it matters…), Clark has a great response: “General, I’m from Kansas. That’s as American as it gets.” In the classroom scene where Clark is struggling to control his powers as a young child, the lesson happens to be about the founding of Kansas as a territory. This, of course, is the same period as “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown, the great militant abolitionist. As Thomas Franke chronicles in his important book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Kansas is a very strange place. It began as the seat of political radicalism in the US, but now has become the land where Conservatives consistently vote against their own social and economic interests because certain issues such as abortion and gay marriage are considered more important than their education and economic well being, for example. I hardly think it’s a stretch to say that Clark actually does take being from Kansas quite seriously and proudly and is acutely aware of its political history. Because the only thing uniquely “Kansas” we are shown in the film is a lesson plan dealing with Kansas’ radical history, the invocation of his Kansasian roots may well be Clark’s subtle signal that while he is as “American as it gets” his idea of America is not quite what many might expect it to be. At the very least there is a very interesting ambiguity here that I hope is developed as the series develops. Kal-El was meant to be something for humanity to be inspired by, to achieve a greatness Krypton could not (also not in line with conservative Christ, who is a blood sacrifice who imparts righteousness to the believer justified by faith, not a moral influencer a la the liberal theological tradition). Based on the hint we’ve been provided and the actions Clark has taken so far, I hope that what we end up with isn’t another Dark Knight Rises scenario, but actually worth aspiring to… The film closes with Superman bringing down a lethal government drone and basically spiking it in the face of one of the generals (“That was a 12 million dollar piece of equipment!”). So far, Superman is relevant and is indeed a lead to follow. Superman isn’t about Superman, it’s about what Superman can inspire us to do on own own, and we see human agency portrayed very prominently in this film. It might be a bit cheesy (Superman always is) but we could use a superhero who swats murder robots from the sky and reads up on John Brown and Plato. It’s the principle of the thing.

Also, come on. Those action sequences were killer.

Crockett and Robbins in Dialogue With Cornel West and Mark L. Taylor

At long last, the video from our event at Union Theological Seminary with Clayton Crockett and Jeff Robbins in dialogue with Cornel West and Mark L. Taylor has been uploaded. The event was a lot of fun to host, and I’d especially like to thank Professor Taylor for his time and preparation coming all the way out to Union from Princeton and preparing such an eloquent constructive response. It’s these kinds of dialogues that need to be staged more than ever, “Radical” theologians talking to liberals and liberationists like West, and figures like Taylor who already are synthesizing some of the best of Continental thought with Liberation Theology. No longer can there be silos of thought on the Left, each more or less disinterested with what the rest have to say. James Cone was in the audience for this Robbins2event, and while we had hoped that he would ask a question, he was at least interested enough to admit that he would have to read some of the material he heard about because it seemed important. West himself remarked that what Crockett and Robbins are doing might be a new kind of liberation theology, and while that may seem like a stretch in the early stages of “the New Materialism,” I hope that at the very least it represents the beginnings of the formations of certain crosscurrents that are novel and useful in the face of the biggest threats both civilization and the planet has ever seen. Crockett and Robbins’ book is truly a manifesto, and I hope that this event was an embodiment of the spirit of the book, which is a call to engagement across borders and activism rather than just a new theory (though that’s in there, too!). Enjoy, and don’t miss the questions that were asked at the end from brilliant minds like Karen Bray, John Thatmanil, and Jan Rehmann! (And btw, f you haven’t had a chance to get the book yet because of cost or it’s not at your local library, the paperback is due out in October for a much more reasonable price).

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