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Review: Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

With their new book, Clayton Crockett and Jeff Robbins have written a novel manifesto wedding together sometimes disparate philosophical theories and even distinct disciplines. In Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism, the authors demonstrate exactly why I think theology is the most important academic discipline today. Not because I think that theology should be the “queen of the sciences” once again like medieval and Radical Orthodox folks thought, but rather theology has come to the point of self-emptying in ways which lead it to be able to think trans-disciplinarily unlike many other Robbins2disciplines. The kind of “secular theology” that Crockett and Robbins engage in is not confessional or dogmatic, it is not concerned with theology qua theology per se, but approximately Tillichian in the sense of thinking “ultimate concern,” which for us now has mostly to do with global warming, the energy crisis, and the financial crisis.

In respect to these three broad but immanent concerns, the book is split into topical chapters- digital culture, religion, politics, art, ethics, energy and a radical proposal for a new energy source, “becoming a brain,” logic, and “the event.” Each of these chapters alone is a topic that elicits endless scholarship, but  The New Materialism is laudable for taking scholarship regarding these topics in new directions. The kind of holistic and robust thinking on display is certainly more than a case of a couple of theologians overstepping their professional bounds, it is rather the birthing of a new way of thinking through which these diverse topics may be processed. Now we turn to the central and novel claim of this short book.

Underlying and supporting the analysis of this book is a claim about Being. Rather than “being” as a kind of substance (Spinoza), as narratives “about being” (Lyotard), as language (structuralists), as mental states, as time (Heidegger), or even as mathematics (Badiou), “New” in “New Materialism” signifies a kind of nondualism that seeks to exceed Materialist critiques and overcome transcendent idealism. Being, the most foundational currency of the universe, the authors argue, is simply “energy.” Specifically, the universe is all about energy transformation. This kind of materialism sets out to be truly materialist, but also non-atomistic, as well as resonate with the concepts of “life” and “spirit.” We should remember that matter is simply a kind of stored energy, but how is energy also able to be described as life?

This is where the concept of “Being a brain” comes into play. While our brains are physical, organic, material organs, they are “created by energetic becoming and in turn serve as a basis for further comlexification” (119). Here, “self-emergent complexety” allows us to blur the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic. “Brain” then comes to symbolize not simply the organic brains that we all have, but that which stands in for complex, energetic, emerging systems. Simply put, “brains” are “being” insofar as being is understood not as a static thing, but as energy, which is always becoming. Brains are adaptive, complex, and emergent brain_plasticitysystems of neurons. High level intelligence and consciousness, as emergent properties, demonstrate the uniqueness of being as becoming/energy. The authors also invoke the work of Catherine Malabou to show that our brains are plastic, which is the brain’s ability to be the “creator or receiver of form, but also an ability to exceed or annihilate forms” (119). The theory of neural plasticity that Malabou argues for, invoking the latest in neuroscience research, shows that the brain is not simply an object of history, but it makes it — it possesses a form of freedom. The basic idea then is that by showing that being is energy, not only can we overcome the dualism of matter and spirit (Hegelian or otherwise) but the earth can be understood an entirely new way –as becoming a brain. In a dialectical process, “thought returns to itself” as thought emerges from the complex emergent systems and energy forces (not least of which in the human brain) and then, lo and behold, thought is actually returning to itself (the earth) in immanent fashion as thought is realized as energy (being) and what remains is energy transformation. The authors point out that energy is also electromagnetic, and the consequences of this have been largely ignored by thermodynamic-centered physics, which I will talk about at length in my next post which will be with Kevin Mequet who has a radical proposal for a new energy source based on these insights.


Not that GDP growth is necessarily a good thing…

If this technicality can be held in mind, one might see how “new materialist” readings of things like “religion” and “politics” might be highly relevant. One begins to see energy as the interlacing principle of reality. If energy is what there is, it is not surprising that global wars are fought over energy sources
(thermodynamic and weak sources, nonetheless) and that there is a direct tie between global economic capitalistic growth and energy (oil) supply. If we are coming up against our current energy limits, that is to say economic limits, we begin to see how closely energy is tied to money, which (naturally) brings one to religion, which the authors conclude at one point is “about money.” This is to say that “religion remains resonant as the contemporary form of life” (32). The “spiritual” (read: energy?) power of money leads us toward certain ethical and political obligations (which have their own chapters) and that the role of money in religion is certainly not unique Jesus_templeto religion. Money has a funny way of contributing to ideological apparatuses, which is to say that unlike the classic materialist critique of religion as “false consciousness,” the New Materialism, following Žižek, sees false consciousness everywhere which makes religion, or at least Žižek’s Christianity, still a false consciousness, and yet one that has the potential to help us disavow our illusions and false assurances –theological or neoliberal.

As energy is a kind of “undecideable,” neither spirit nor matter yet both, we begin to see the New Materialist critique let concepts shine as both/and entities with the virtual capacity for radical change. For example, religion is false consciousness and potential revealer of dangerous ideology, art has become largely a capitalist commodity but also harbors revolutionary potential, and digital culture, the subject of chapter one, demonstrates that Facebook and Twitter are a way of corportizing people’s lives. Facebook and Twitter in a sense represent the “Roman road” scenario- they can be used to conquer or spread knowledge and opportunity; they might provide a conduit for an uncontrollable flow of information that empowers people such as in Iran in the spring of 2009. We have fallen prey to thinking of “being” either as simply atomistic matter or as spiritual/ideal, but it is energy that synthesizes the two in order to truly harness its power and understand its potential. So too with the concepts in The New Materialismit is in understanding the nature of energy and its foundation in everything that we can see new ways forward.

I have not touched on some important aspects of the book; the chapters on art, ethics, logic, and the event. Nonetheless, as I’m sure some ambiguities and even misunderstandings in my reading of the book make clear, connecting all of the dots is not always easy. While I reiterate my commendation of Crockett and Robbins for thinking in this manner through a plethora of topics, one can only feel that if the project were acutely focused, a more precise vision of “The New Materialism” might emerge. What one might hope for in a more narrow version of New Materialism is also more easily derived practical applicability. What is one to do with these concepts? This is not such an easy question to answer. Nonetheless, I believe the value here is experimenting with a new, vital way of thinking, and undoing our mistaken patterns of thinking. My hope is that this project is only the tip of the iceberg for New Materialist thought, that we see both this method and some of its concrete proposals fleshed out in the coming years, as well as an expansion of the conversation outside of radical theological circles (Which is also to say outside of Christian theological circles. I agree with Anthony Paul Smith’s review insofar is there is some worry of an overemphasis of Christianity in this work, as there is in Žižek).

In a couple days, I’ll be posting an interview with Kevin Mequet, whose ideas inspired the chapters in the book on energy. He has a radical proposal for rethinking nuclear energy for anyone interested in  further demonstration of the implications of many of the ideas discussed here.


One response

  1. Thanks for this review Bo! The brain idea is so fascinating! I read an article by Robert Wright a while back where he talks about a concept similiar to that, although his focus is the evolution of technology: http://jesseturri.com/wordpress/?p=1720

    Would love to hear summations on the Art and Event sections. (I guess I could always buy the book too…HA!)

    February 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm

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