Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Movies, Music, Books

For a number of years, I have shared my favorite movies, music and books on the blog. While the list is certainly not exhaustive, it represents my favorites of what I was able to see, listen to, and read in 2014. I'll offer a few scattered thoughts about some of my top picks in each category.

Movies: What a strange year for movies. I felt like there weren't very many quality releases until the last half of the year, but a few were just under my radar. While I haven't yet seen Selma, I'm pretty confident in my picks for now, based on what I've been able to see. Calvary is my film of the year. I watched it recently on a plane ride back to California from New Jersey and found it deeply moving. Forget the recent flurry of Bible-based movies like Noah, Exodus, and Son of God - this is the most Jesus'y film I've seen in a long time. It deals powerfully with themes like forgiveness and nonviolence, while the writing, acting, and cinematography are absolutely stunning. As for Snowpiercer, I thought it was a deeply theological film that presents a forceful critique of both classical theism and capitalism. Interstellar has been lodged in my mind since I saw it last week with its amazing imagery, stunning use of current cosmological theories, and excellent performances. Nightcrawler has much to say about the violence of our 21st century reality-media machine while the hilarious but thoughtful Obvious Child portrays one of the most important female characters in cinema in years.
  1. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh
  2. Whiplash, Damien Chazelle
  3. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
  4. Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
  5. The Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre
  6. Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
  7. Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
  8. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
  9. Snowpiercer, directed by Joon-ho Bong
  10. Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Honorable mentions: Blue Ruin, The Skeleton Twins, The Normal Heart, Theory of Everything, Lucky Them, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Frank, The Immigrant, A Most Wanted Man, The Double, Under the Skin, Edge of Tomorrow, Enemy.

Music: I am so pleasantly surprised to discover The War on Drugs. It is my album of the year. Driving rock that reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits, but with the swirling atmospherics of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. Spectacular. And if you know me, you know that I'm a massive U2 fan, so I can't help but place their latest album high on my year-end list. A nearly perfect late-career album, even if it is not quite at the same level as Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Ryan Adams' latest album is one of his best - not a bad song on it. And how surprised I was to love Simpson's brilliant country album (which has almost nothing to do with contemporary Nashville country-pop, thankfully). A fine year for music, indeed. I hope this list helps you discover something fresh for your music library.
  1. The War on Drugs, Lost In A Dream
  2. U2, Songs of Innocence
  3. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
  4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  5. Damien Rice, My Favorite Faded Fantasy
  6. Beck, Morning Phase
  7. Luluc, Passerby
  8. Asgeir, In the Silence
  9. You+Me, Rose Avenue
  10. FKA twigs, LP1  
Books: Like last year, I don't pretend to lack a serious bias in this list. How could I resist? A number of my professors, both past and present, are listed below - but the truth is, I have had the privilege of studying with some of the most amazing theologians working today. Plus, most of these books engage process philosophy in different ways, which happens to be my primary interest (as readers of this blog are well aware). Keller's Cloud of the Impossible offers a compelling reading of the apophatic and mystical traditions, weaving contemporary science, continental philosophy, and relational philosophies into a provocative new postmodern theology that will create discussions for years to come. Cobb's theological autobiography is a wonderful introduction to his work. Faber's Divine Manifold is a deeply complex but impressive synthesis of Deleuze and Whitehead (hopefully a paperback version is in the works soon!). As for Organic Marxism and Universe of Things, check out my recent blog reviews of these fantastic new releases for 2014.

  1. Cloud of the Impossible by Catherine Keller
  2. Theological Reminiscences by John Cobb
  3. The Divine Manifold by Roland Faber
  4. Organic Marxism by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr
  5. Universe of Things by Steven Shaviro
  6. Worlds Without End by Mary-Jane Rubenstein
  7. Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson
  8. Iconoclastic Theology by F. LeRon Shults
  9. Way To Water by L. Callid Keefe-Perry
  10. Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism by David Ray Griffin

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Apocalyptic Cinema

I've been thinking about my love of movies while writing a paper on theology and the recent film Snowpiercer (one of my favorites of 2014). While my family regularly watched many of the great blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, by the age of 15 or so, I fell in love with the "Art House" section of my local video rental store (R.I.P.). My cinematic world thus opened out beyond the action-packed movies that I was raised on and into an often grittier, challenging, more subtle, and...well, "artsy" style of film. Visiting the rental store rather often - sometimes multiple times a week - I discovered some of the great directors of the last few decades:
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Daren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.

While a few friends and family members enjoyed these kinds of films as well, I often found myself watching them alone. Unlike your average Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy (genres I do not completely dislike!), these art films were particularly attractive to me because of my thirst for meaning, provocation, beauty, and depth of experience. But despite their ability to engage me in all of these ways, they were also sometimes disturbing, frustrating, and exhausting - even depressing. Many of the above directors flirt with nihilism and most of them raise deeply uncomfortable questions about human (and divine) existence. Nevertheless, while I located myself within evangelicalism until my early 20s, art house cinema provided me with numerous challenges and inspirations beyond the boundaries of my sometimes suffocating church experiences. These experiences have made me very sympathetic to (though not quite convinced by) Mark Lewis Taylor's claim that art will be our salvation as religion fades, as well as my own professor Robert Corrington's argument that we should leave religion behind for aesthetics.

The arts have apocalyptic potential. They can dis-close novelty, surprising us, interrupting us with flashes of light and darkness, beauty and tragedy, love and death - and so many confusing spaces between. No, this kind of art does not appeal to everyone. Our culture of reality television, Justin Bieber pop, and global capitalist consumerism thrives on overstimulating distractions and quick fixes. It shapes bodies in ways that make many of us resistant to the kind of vulnerability, patience, and attention required for truly transformative art. Art won't solve the world's problems. No, it will not. But it does have the power to shift consciousness, to deconstruct certainties, and to release new possibilities in our lives.

As I look back on certain stand-out films for me over the last 15 years, I recognize that movies have indeed played a decisive role in the development of my philosophical and theological curiosities. Rarely do I write on theology without relating my work in some way to the movies that have shaped my imagination over the years. Here's just a small list of relatively recent movies that have particularly influenced my thinking, especially in terms of their ability to raise theological questions:
  1. No Country For Old Men (The Coen Bros)
  2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
  7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

REVIEW: "The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism" by Steven Shaviro

Before jumping into my review of Steven Shaviro's new book, I want to provide a quick summary of the philosophers that he is engaging throughout the text.

One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable.

Meillassoux defines correlationism as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." This created a tendency in philosophy to privilege epistemology (how we know) over ontology (what is known), which for SR is particularly evident in phenomenology and deconstruction, both of which at least "bracket" ontology - and in some cases reject ontology or metaphysics entirely. The four members of SR agree that post-Kantian philosophies of correlation are deeply anthropocentric because of their obsession with epistemology and their corresponding refusal to speculate about what is real. Particularly in our time of ecological crisis, they believe that it is time to push back against the extremism of the linguistic turn in philosophy, to resist the excesses of social constructivism, and to once again speculate about the "great outdoors" in order to give nonhuman nature its own genuine reality. Today, SR has continually expanded with a number of younger thinkers following in the wake of the original four philosophers.

While I'm not quite sure about the debate over correlationism (John Caputo has recently come out to partly defend it against what he believes is a serious misunderstanding by SR), as a Whiteheadian, I certainly appreciate the move toward speculative philosophy, critical realism, and anthrodecentric metaphysics. This is why Steven Shaviro's new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, which puts the philosophy of Whitehead in conversation with SR, caught my attention. Perhaps some philosophers will have problems with certain aspects of this text, but I found it to be a very helpful overview of SR. Shaviro's work on Whitehead in his previous publications was interesting to me because he completely bypasses process theology and just works with a nonreligious, atheological reading of Whitehead (inspired by Isabelle Stenger's approach). While this is obviously not my own approach, I appreciate this move because it offers fresh insights into process thought from a more secular perspective.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent summary of SR, noting its similarities to the New Materialism and connections to the thought of Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze. The first chapter stages an interesting encounter between Whitehead and Levinas in order to show how the latter wrongly privileges ethics and transcendence over ontology, aesthetics, and immanence while Whitehead essentially does the opposite. Chapters 2 and 3 bring Whitehead into conversation with Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, partly in order to show how the latter can help us read Whitehead's work in a new way, but also to defend Whitehead's focus on relations and events over Harman's focus on objects as substances. Shaviro ultimately sees the two thinkers offering contrasting rather than totally contradictory ontologies while admitting he is still more persuaded by process thought than OOO.

Chapters 4 and 5 are fascinating explorations of panpsychism as a possible response to correlationism, thereby giving all things a degree of 'mind' in order to decenter the human. This is something I've written about before in my engagement with the New Materialism and was thrilled to see a parallel move in Shaviro's work. It was helpful to see that Harman and Grant are open to this move while Brassier and Meillassoux resist it by totally eliminating subjectivity, as opposed to redistributing it throughout nature with something like panpsychism. This also has the effect of making the latter two much more radically nihilistic in their thinking. Chapter 6 extends Shaviro's argument for panpsychism into a debate, primarily with Meillasoux in order to show he is not anti-correlationist enough in his eliminativist ontology. Chapter 7, the final part of the book, unpacks Shaviro's ultimate effort to develop a new strand of SR with Whitehead (and a bit of Deleuze, as well as Kant - perhaps surprisingly) that he calls "speculative aesthetics."

As a theologian who is always trying to engage cutting-edge philosophy, I'm grateful for this book's readable way in to the Speculative Realist discussion. I realize that there is much debate about SR as a "movement" and deep hostility between some of the original four SR philosophers, so I will remain cautious in my future engagements with these thinkers and whatever becomes of SR in the future. It is, however, encouraging to see a metaphysical turn in contemporary philosophy and to see philosophers that I appreciate, like Whitehead, Deleuze, Schelling, Latour, and Barad all being drawn into this ongoing conversation. Shaviro is not a professional philosopher, as he is always quick to point out, but is actually a cultural critic. As a side note, I was able to attend his book release at the New School in New York City last night and found him to be not just an impressive thinker and gifted speaker, but actually very humble, gracious and respectful of others. Even when the tense politics of SR came up, he avoided name-calling or speaking ill of anyone. Let's hope that kind of attitude can be a model for the future of this conversation amongst the new realists.

Monday, October 27, 2014

REVIEW: "Organic Marxism" (Marx & Whitehead)

(Note: I am very grateful to the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, CA for sending me a review copy of this book. For more information, check out Philip Clayton's overview of the book's argument at Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism).

If you’re like me and have ever wondered what a “process Marxism” would look like, the recently published Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe by Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr is an exciting vision of such a possibility. It is in fact the first serious attempt to fold process philosophy, in both Whiteheadian and Chinese forms, into Marxism. The result is what the authors call “Organic Marxism”, a constructive postmodernism for our time of environmental crisis that offers theoretical and practical possibilities for a new ecological civilization.

Organic Marxism is published by Process Century Press in preparation for the 10th Whitehead International Conference in June 2015, which is called “Seeking an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” I plan to participate in the conference, and encourage everyone who can to do so as well. It will bring together some of the most important figures in the environmental movement, including Bill McKibben and Vandana Shiva, along with many of the most significant process thinkers, including John Cobb, Catherine Keller, Joseph Bracken, Bruce Epperly, William Connoly, Monica Coleman, Roland Faber, Marjorie Suchocki, Jay McDaniel, and Philip Clayton, along with younger process thinkers like Tripp Fuller, Brianne Donaldson, and Justin Heinzekehr. And perhaps not surprisingly, after co-writing Organic Marxism, Clayton will be leading a discussion on Marx and Whitehead.

Having previously published 22 books and dozens of articles, Clayton’s important work in philosophical theology and the science and religion dialogue is by now familiar to many. He is a professor at Claremont School of Theology where Justin Heinzekehr, his former student and now co-author, is also a doctoral candidate in religion. Because their work is primarily in theology and religion, this book on ecological economics and politics might seem a bit surprising. And yet both of them work within the school of process thought, which is an amazingly diverse tradition that branches out into virtually every area of academic research. In many ways, Organic Marxism takes its lead from the work of the great process theologian John B. Cobb Jr., who writes the forward to this book. After starting his career as a Christian philosophical theologian, he shifted by the early 1970s into a focus on a variety of other topics, including economics, biology, ethics, politics and ecology. Writing one of the first book-length philosophical texts on the ecological crisis, Cobb later went on to write a massive work on ecological economics with the economist Herman Daly, which serves as the major inspiration for Clayton and Heinzekehr’s economic proposals in Organic Marxism.

At the core of the book is the conviction that “Global capitalism has created the greatest ecological and humanitarian catastrophe in the history of human civilization” (4). Throughout Organic Marxism, Clayton and Heinzekehr make a series of powerful and convincing arguments to show that this is in fact the case and that the best solution is Organic Marxism, which affirms “hybrid [economic] systems that combine profit-making activities with regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, environmental abuse, and the inordinate acquisition of wealth by a small number of citizens” (236). By reinterpreting Marx against the dominant Western conceptions of him, they argue that “socialist systems can retain an appropriate place for entrepreneurial activities…suitably constrained market forces can benefit the public good” and lay the foundation for a new ecological way of living (47).

They therefore resist a view of Marxism that would totally eliminate any place for market forces, competition, and private ownership (7). For them, the continuing relevance of Marx has less to do with his efforts to prove a strict dialectical materialism and more to do with his “work as a social theorist, a historian of economics, and a student of the class struggle” (60). They also reject the classical Marxist notion that ideas, philosophy, and religion are impotent and merely “epiphenomenal,” without any liberating power. In an organic perspective (as understood within process thought), postmodern science and philosophy challenge this kind of crass reductionism with a more open-ended, relational, pluralistic, contextual, and ecological style of Marxism.

As such, Clayton and Heinzekehr are highly sensitive to the common views of Marx as deterministic, anthropocentric, anti-religious, reductionistic, totalizing, and utopian. And yet they argue for the ongoing relevance of Marx beyond these modernist limitations and stereotypes of his thought, importantly drawing on recent interpretations of his mature thought (e.g., Jeremy Bellamy Foster) that stress Marx’s implicit environmental concerns. They also consider some recent attempts to resurrect Marxism in the work of Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, and David Harvey. Although they recognize the value of each of these important critical and deconstructive thinkers, they ultimately conclude that each of them “shy away from addressing the practical issues that policymakers face” (94).

As such, by calling organic Marxism a kind of constructive postmodernism, they affirm the need to offer concrete policy proposals that will be useful, not just for Leftist academics, but especially for “policymakers, government leaders, and lay people” (ix). This commitment leads Clayton and Heinzekehr to conclude the book with a series of practical ideas and specific policy guidelines on issues ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to banking, all with the aim of creating an ecological civilization. The perspective of Organic Marxism is ultimately a concrete commitment to the common good within an ecological framework that does not shy away from issues of class, race, or gender. It is a postmodern and critical appropriation of Marx's revolutionary thought that is truly unique, although the authors note that it has some important connections, not only to Cobb's work, but also to The New Materialism (Jane Bennett, Diana Coole, Clayton Crockett, Jeff Robbins, et al) and Environmental Marxism (Bellamy Foster).

Despite the intensely philosophical discussion throughout the text, Organic Marxism is a surprisingly accessible read that efficiently covers a lot of ground in economic and political theory. Readers will gain a valuable perspective on the history of capitalism, Marxism, process thought, and contemporary science. This is clearly the first book of its kind, and I'm thrilled to finally have a book that weaves together Whitehead and Marx. I believe that Clayton and Heinzekehr’s eco-socialist “manifesto of society for the common good” (ix) is a provocative, original, and exciting proposal that deserves a wide reading and deep discussion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Consulting Rocks: Bruno Latour's Radical (Biblical) Hermeneutics

What happens to hermeneutics when it gets radicalized by making the claim that humans are not in a privileged position of interpretation, but rather that interpretation is ubiquitous throughout nature? If everything is an interpreting agent that negotiates alliances, connections, assemblages and networks with other interpreting agents? These two passages are taken from a discussion of the French sociologist of science (who also happens to be a Deleuzean-Whiteheadian) Bruno Latour, who argues that everything that exists, human and nonhuman, is an interpreter. To argue for the truthfulness of an interpretation would therefore depend on the hard work of building alliances with other interpreting agents, persuading them to construct a true interpretation with you - or in more pragmatist language, to form a consensus between humans and nonhumans. It is taken from Adam Miller's excellent "Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Ontology":

"Ontologizing hermeneutics by radically extending its scope clearly does not commit Latour to an 'anything goes' attitude about possible interpretations of texts. Stiff limits are placed on possible interpretations by the fact that he has so drastically increased the number of parties involved. The bar for an interpretation is much higher when you must not only persuade other humans to go along with your reading, but legions of nonhumans as well. Further, nonhumans tend to stabilize the whole affair because, in general, they are markedly less gullible." (110)

"Say you want to offer a brilliant reading of Genesis that requires the Earth to be just six thousand years old. Latour has no objection to this. You are welcome to try. But it is not enough to convince a subset of humans to go along with your reading. Nonhumans must be convinced too. The opinion of a fossil matters. Carbon-14 gets a say. DNA has a voice. Glacial ice can't be discounted. If 4.5 billions years worth of rocks and weather and radioactive decay disagree, then your reading is seriously hamstrung. The irony of a 'literal' reading that discounts the opinion of actual stones and actual letters is that it flirts with nihilism. A reading of Genesis doesn't fail to be objectively true if it fails to flawlessly repeat. It fails to be objectively true when it no longer bothers to take both words and rocks seriously as objects with independent histories, trajectories, weaknesses, and frictions of their own." (111)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Faber's Critique of Caputo: Give Metaphysics Another Chance!

While reading through a few sections of Roland Faber's recently published book, The Divine Manifold, I came across an important section on pages 498-504. The section is titled "Gift and Theft" and is Faber's sympathetic but very serious critique of John Caputo's Derridean "theology of the event" (specifically as he articulates this in The Weakness of God). There is much to consider in these pages, but I wanted to share a few passages that I found provocative. For those who are unfamiliar with Faber, he is a professor of philosophy and theology at Claremont and has been a pioneer in bringing post-structuralism and Whiteheadian process thought together, along with developing a unique form of process theopoetics. He was also one of my professors during my masters program at CST. His brand new book (which checks in at almost 600 pages, including bibliography and index) has been praised by Clayton Crockett as "an extraordinary achievement" due to its impressive readings of Whitehead and Deleuze, while my current professor Robert Corrington even suggested to me that it just might be a new Process and Reality for the 21st century (perhaps).

Faber begins this section with a close reading of Caputo's Weakness and outlines its basic argument that "God" names an event, a "weak force," rather than an entity or Being. Caputo is, as is well-known, totally opposed to metaphysics and, as such, his theopoetics is "phenomenological, not metaphysical" (Weakness, 123). Although Faber notes that Caputo is "as close to my own possible without sharing background and philosophical leanings...his reading of the philosophical and theological traditions through the lens of a 'hermeneutical phenomenological reduction' hinders [him] from engaging Whitehead and Deleuze, which he accuses of that which must be avoided at all costs - metaphysics. Hence, his 'theology of the event' not only cut itself off from a certain connectivity that would help to justify many of its phenomenological claims, which in themselves often seem unwarranted, but from a hermeneutics of intermezzo that would allow its poetics to situate itself within an eco-chaosmos. Since Caputo identifies metaphysics with the forces that hinder the kingdom to come, his seemingly innocent phenomenological reduction has already lost, or a priori excluded, the feeling and thinking of a chaosmos and its eco-bodying relevent beyond our individual human phenomenological 'presence'...In its radical 'phenomenological reduction' of the 'name of God' into 'the structure of the event' and 'the world' into the 'forces that conspire to prevent the event' (13), this 'theology of the event' is in danger of involuntarily repeating a Manichaean forces us to choose between the event and things, God and the world, evil and the kingdom. Its 'hyper-event' of salvation replaces the world."(Manifold, 500-501).

The critique is obviously rather complex and to get at the details of Faber's argument with Caputo, one would need to read more than what I've quoted above. But hopefully this provides a glimpse into an important discussion that I think is worth considering. I am inclined to agree with Faber as I continue to find Caputo's dismissal of all metaphysics to be a bit too quick. As Faber concludes, perhaps "Caputo would need to think the possibility of the impossible in terms of a metaphysics of multiplicity" (503) as in the thought of both Whitehead and Deleuze.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Deleuze & Process Thought

My summer so far has largely consisted of digging into (mostly) secondary sources on the French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) - specifically those that address recent theological appropriations of his thought. As readers of this blog would likely expect, I'm particularly interested in relating him to Whiteheadian process thought. I've mentioned him before on the blog as a thinker who has revived interest in speculative philosophy/cosmology/metaphysics amongst certain postmodern thinkers. While post-Heideggerian philosophers like Derrida were convinced that all metaphysics are inescapably totalizing and essentializing ways of thinking, which thereby subordinate difference to a higher/transcendent unity, Deleuze called himself a "pure metaphysician" - albeit one who attempted to think difference without any underlying principle of absolute unity or ultimate foundation. So while the poststructuralist tradition of Derrida and Foucault rejected ontology because it supposedly always makes us think that what appears to us is the natural order of things (rather than contingent, constructed, an effect of difference, etc), a Deleuzian poststructuralism calls for an alternative ontology. As Todd May explains, although Deleuze agreed with Derrida and Foucault in their view that difference must not be repressed by ontological identification - as it so often has been in the history of philosophy - he did not agree "with their [anti-ontological] cure" to this perennial problem.

His metaphysics of difference are in a sense a radicalization of Spinoza, who Deleuze called "the Christ of philosophers" because he "revealed" (so to speak) a philosophy of immanence without transcendence more than any other Western philosopher. Yet Deleuze rejects Spinoza's reliance on substance metaphysics and develops a neo-Spinozan pluralistic monism. Spinoza's one absolute substance is dissolved by Deleuze into a pluralized "plane of immanence." He developed a complex metaphysical system that prioritizes difference over unity, becoming over being, and immanence over transcendence. Deleuze offers a truly experimental metaphysics, an "anti-systematic," "open-ended," "acentered," and radically "uncertain" system. He carefully developed his concepts with the goal of affirming this life over any "super-sensible" or transcendent world. In short, he argues that the plane of immanence is filled with innumerable virtual events, constantly coming in and going out of existence, that become actualized on the plane of organization. This is very much like the traditional philosophical distinction between nature naturing and nature natured (as in Robert Corrington's "ecstatic" or "aesthetic" naturalism).

The plane of immanence is like a "chaos" of seething potentialities moving at infinite speed - fully real while neither ideal nor actual. Virtual events on the plane of immanence are also called by Deleuze "pure singularities," "mad particles," "free intensities," and "nomadic singularities." These "molecular" potentialities become actualized into "molar aggregates" or layered "strata" on the plane of organization as what we experience as sensible matter and identities. So like anything else, we as humans are constituted by these dynamic and self-creative molecular events. In the Deleuzian nondual "chaosmology," there is no sharp line between mind and matter, nature and culture, human and non-human, or any other traditional ontological dualism. Identities are only "effects" of difference. Subjects are only relatively stable repetitions of differential relations. Nothing is static. Everything is in constant becoming. No transcendence, absolute presence, representations, hierarchies, dualisms, or clear identities. Everything is immanent, heterogeneous, dynamic processes of becoming, self-creative, and relationally constituted. This is Deleuze "in a nutshell" - if there is such a thing!

If you know Whitehead's philosophy of organism, you're probably sensing a lot of parallel concepts here. In fact, I agree with commentators like Catherine Keller, Roland Faber, Steven Shaviro, and Luke Higgins that the metaphysics of Deleuze and Whitehead are extremely close. This is not entirely surprising since Deleuze believed that Whitehead's Process and Reality was one of the greatest works of philosophy in the 20th century. But where do they disconnect? I'm still working on this question (I plan to work through Deleuze's primary sources more thoroughly this fall), but here are my initial observations:

1) Deleuze seems to reject Whitehead's affirmation of the radically new: although virtual events appear to be similar to Whitehead's eternal objects or "pure potentiality", Roland Faber argues that the virtual is more like Whitehead's "real potentiality." This is defined as the self-transcendence of the beginningless past, the energized potentialities of Whitehead's "extensive continuum" that give rise to the "pluriverse." Both Keller and Faber also connect Whitehead's "creativity" to Deleuze's plane of immanence and the virtual. While Whitehead affirmed a type of novelty beyond the accomplishments of immanent creative processes - the absolute futures of the world - Deleuze only affirmed a type of novelty that was always emerging in large part out of and through actual processes. Whitehead affirms this as "real potentiality", but goes further with his "pure potentiality" - which are grounded in God. This takes us to the second difference...

2) Deleuze implicitly rejects Whitehead's panentheistic God in favor of something more like a pluralistic pantheism: while Whitehead tends to be interpreted as a type of panentheist, it is difficult to read Deleuze along these lines - even though Deleuze looked quite favorably upon Whitehead's notion of God in his late work The Fold. Like Spinoza, Deleuze is more adequately interpreted as a kind of pantheist. When he is appropriated in a theological way by thinkers like Clayton Crockett, Luke Higgins, and Kristien Justaert, "God" is interpreted in close relation to the Deleuzian plane of immanence: the infinite creative forces or unconsciously differentiating multiplicities that the world "expresses." Yet for Whitehead, "God" names the advent of a more radical novelty (the primordial nature), as well as the relationality of all differences (the consequent nature). God is therefore an "actual entity" in Whitehead's thinking as the "ground of [radical] novelty."

For more on this topic, check out these seven good resources:

Deleuze and Theology, by Christopher Ben Simpson
Theology after Deleuze, by Kristien Justaert
Process and Difference, edited by Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell 
God as Poet of the World, by Roland Faber
Without Criteria by Steven Shaviro 
Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) by Claire Colbrook
Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction by Todd May

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Karen Barad and Process Thought

Karen Barad is a feminist physicist-philosopher at UC Santa Cruz who has written an immensely important text called Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007). For anyone who knows Whitehead's philosophy of organism, Barad's relational ontology that she develops in response to the mysteries of quantum physics will be familiar. Like Whitehead did in his time, Barad is interacting with the physicist Neils Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. However, while Whitehead's primary philosophical conversation partners were William James, Spinoza, and Leibniz, Barad engages post-structuralists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

Very much like Whitehead's "actual occasions," Barad argues that the basic constituents of the world are "intra-active phenomena" or "relational atoms." In other words, they agree that everything is agential in some sense, so nature is not divided in two. This ontology also implies a view of nature as interconnected or "entangled." As such, nature is not composed of preexisting entities or individuals but is fully relational and always in becoming. Anything that endures (i.e., sensible matter) only arises out of various relational processes in repetition. There are therefore no substances or essences, which Whitehead identified as examples of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" and Barad calls "the metaphysics of individualism." There are only relatively stable patterns of repeating processes, which we might call "habits" (Whitehead) or "sedimentations" (Barad) of nature.

One additional similarity that I will note between Whitehead and Barad is that they each affirm a type of realism. Neither of them are talking about a naive realism, which is the position that we directly experience the world as a collection of external objects in an unmediated way. And they equally reject representationalist realism, which is the dualistic view that we can stand back from the world as an external collection of individual objects and indirectly re-present them to our mind. Instead, Whitehead and Barad affirm relational realism (not their term, but an accurate one nevertheless). This position affirms a real world that is irreducible to our social constructions, and also affirms that scientific theories can provide reliable access to the ontology of the world. But it rejects the basis of representationalism - the notion that there are external and unitary objects that we, as internal subjects, can perceive more-or-less accurately.

What relational realism affirms is that humans, like anything else in a panagential world, are always in becoming and relationally constituted. The traditional realist divides between external world and internal knowing, nature and culture, nonhuman and human, matter and mind, dead matter and lively matter do not hold in this view. Instead, our knowing directly participates in and influences the world - even as the world reciprocally influences our knowing. Knowing is thus a creative event of intra-acting material processes. Knowing, theorizing, or experimenting never take place from the outside in some sort of neutral space but always from within, as material practices. There is therefore no such thing as purely "objective knowledge" because - as quantum physics teaches us - objects only emerge as a result of particular intra-actions. Knowing is always involved in particular intra-actions as much as any other type of activity, human or otherwise. As such, we are responsible for our knowledge claims and cannot separate ethics from epistemology or ontology. Barad thus coins the term "ethico-onto-epistemology."

While post-structuralists are usually identified as anti-realists, Barad goes out of her way to argue for an extremely critical kind of realism that she calls "agential realism." Whitehead calls his similar perspective a "pluralistic" and "provisional" realism. I find this connection between process thought and Barad's new materialist ontology to be encouraging and exciting, especially since Barad never interacts with Whitehead's thought in her work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Whitehead's God: Between Radical & Confessional Theologies

As a process theologian, I often find myself in the position of needing to explain or even defend the God that Whitehead affirms.  I have these conversations with fellow academics and intellectual types who just can't see how some of us can still call ourselves theists after the 'death of God,' as well as fellow Christians who struggle to see how one could reconcile process panentheism with the God of the Bible.  While the former group tends to be extremely critical of any hint of transcendence (whether in reference to God or otherwise), the latter group gets uneasy with the process theologian's special emphasis on God's immanence.  For the former, transcendence is more-or-less relativized - if not entirely eliminated - by immanence.  For the latter, it is usually the other way around: God is infinitely transcendent and created everything out of nothing.

For those who care to go into this kind of discussion, the core theological question up for debate is this: how immanent and/or transcendent is Whitehead's God?

I'm certainly not going to try to answer this with any sense of finality (although I've discussed my approach in other posts).  What I primarily want to do here is to point out the difficulty of this issue when we have, broadly speaking, two types of theologians reading Whitehead in different ways today: those who resonate with Radical Theology and those who are committed to Confessional Theology.  This is exciting to me, even as it brings new challenges to process theology.  I'm not claiming that there is a full-blown contradiction between these two approaches, and perhaps there's a way to bring these two approaches closer together.  Even so, they are starting out with different assumptions and concerns that certainly shape their contrasting readings of Whitehead's theism.

At the risk of oversimplifiction, there's a sense in which Radicals tend to read Whitehead primarily through a poststructuralist lens (Derrida, Deleuze, Butler) while Confessionals read him primarily through the lens of tradition and scripture.  This makes for a rather striking difference between the two.

One could always follow the "Whitehead without God" approach (Bob Mesle, Donald Sherburne). One can also see Whitehead's God as nothing more than a cosmic function - and therefore wholly "secularized" - that is necessary for a coherent process worldview but totally uninspiring for spirituality or religion (Steven Shaviro's reading in his "Without Criteria").  Personally, I think there are serious problems with these interpretations (that's for another post) and they remain minority reports within the process community.  Having said that, let's consider two streams of process theology, what I'm calling the Radical and Confessional paths.

On the one side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that strongly emphasize immanence - a kind of Radical theology, perhaps, usually with the help of Deleuze's poststructuralist philosophy of immanence.  Few process thinkers go so far as to deny God's transcendence entirely (although see Kristien Justaert's process pantheism in "Theology after Deleuze"), but the concept as more commonly understood is very much relativized by a more immanent God.  This is rapidly becoming an influential way of reading Whitehead (I can confirm this based on my experiences at both Drew and Claremont where most students of Whitehead tend to lean this way).  My former professor Roland Faber, signaling a stronger shift towards immanence with his Deleuzean reading of Whitehead, argues for "trans-pantheism" as opposed to the more standard reading of Whitehead's panentheism.  He digs deep into the Cusan paradox of God as "Not-Other" and places a stronger theological emphasis on Whitehead's immanent creativity.  He interprets the later Whitehead as seeming inclined "to replace any remaining connotations of God's transcendence with a totally immanent divine creativity" (Process & Difference, 216).  As with John Caputo's radical theology, Faber will also say that God does not exist but insists as the interrupting event of the new.  For Faber's radical process theology, God is always "In/difference": the insistence on difference and relationality of all differences.  For the Radical approach, questions of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, Revelation) tend to be secondary (at best) to the political and ethical implications of theology.  The thinking here is that an immanent theology is better equipped for this-worldly activism based on democratic practices, over against difference-denying oppressive forms of hierarchy that are rooted in transcendence.

On the other side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that try to maintain more traditional theological intuitions of transcendence.  I see this as a kind of Confessional trajectory for Whiteheadians that has been much more common for Christian process theology over the last fifty years.  Confessional process theologians are not necessarily Orthodox in their beliefs, but they tend to have a stronger concern than the Radical process theologians to maintain ties to the Christian tradition and to more thoroughly align their theology to the Bible.  John Cobb is an obvious example here, especially evident in his rather high Christology in which he intentionally remains close to the creedal confession that Jesus was "fully God and fully man." By reading Whitehead's God as a balance of immanence with transcendence, he can affirm that God is the most powerful reality in existence, that our existence is radically contingent upon God as our Creator, and that we depend upon God's grace.  Attempting to do justice to key themes of the Bible and Christian piety, Cobb will claim that because God is always working for the good in the world and truly loves her creation, God can genuinely reveal herself in particular ways, our prayers can be answered, people might even sometimes be healed through God's action in the world, and that death ultimately does not have the last word.  Unlike Radical process theology, Confessional process theologians unequivocally affirm God's existence as a real being (e.g., David Ray Griffin's cumulative argument in his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism).  A neo-Whiteheadian approach, as in Joseph Bracken's theology, pushes even closer to traditional commitments and asserts a stronger ("asymmetrical") sense of transcendence than even Cobb.  Like Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle and Augustine did with neo-Platonism, Bracken will use Whitehead as a general philosophical framework for special revelation in scripture and tradition, allowing the latter more authoritative sources to revise the former when necessary.  The doctrinal results for him are an orthodox view of the Trinity, creatio ex nihilo, and bodily resurrection.

Some of us might cringe at the Radical approach, others at a Confessional approach.  To Confessionals, the Radical approach might sound even more esoteric and complicated than Whitehead himself and irrelevant for practical or spiritual life outside of the academy.  To Radicals, the Confessional approach might sound outdated and naïve at best, or imperialistic and oppressive at worst.  Or some of us might instead be able to see the two as constrasting rather than contradicting and perhaps look for a way to learn from both, even if we share the more basic assumptions of one or the other.  If the Radical approach is helping to keep Whitehead relevant to postmodern intellectuals, religious skeptics, and academics - perhaps even effecting a "Whiteheadian revolution" or a "return to Whitehead" in contemporary philosophy and science - the Confessional approach tends to have much more traction for pastors and laypersons.  This distinction seems to me to exemplify the challenge of identifying the task of theology today: is it important to do theology primarily for the sake of the life of the confessing church, or can we (should we) move on and do theology primarily because of its continuing politically subversive and ethical power for society?  This is not a question just for those of us in the process community, but rather for any theologian who finds herself in this predicament, between the Radical and the Confessional. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Theology & the New Materialisms

What is the New Materialism?  And what does it have to do with theology? These are some of the questions that I'm continuing to explore this semester. If you read this blog, you might remember my engagement with Crockett and Robbins' Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism in which I pointed out how similar their paradigm is to John Cobb's process theology.  In that post, I mentioned that I hoped to continue engaging the New Materialism from a theological perspective.  I recently read The New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost to continue my interaction with this new way of thinking about materiality.  I picked three of my favorite chapters that I very briefly summarize below just to give you the gist of their general approach - and if you know process theology, you will notice the parallels.

In Jane Bennett’s “A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism,” she concentrates on the vitalist philosophy of Hans Dreisch.  His vitalism affirms rightly life as irreducible to matter and that a life-principle (entelechy) animates matter, which is otherwise inert. But she criticizes Dreisch for not going far enough by still viewing matter as inert stuff rather than being intrinsically lively. 

In Diana Coole’s “The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh,” she concentrates on Merleau-Ponty’s efforts to develop an ontology that is attuned to our embodiment within rather than external to nature. Rejecting dualism, he developed something like a “new materialism” that recognizes the auto-productive, non-mechanistic nature of matter. Coole points out that Merleau-Ponty’s immanent ontology avoids charges of anthropocentrism by seeing continuity between humans and nonhumans. For him, nature, life, and mind are not separate categories of being but are manifestations of diverse folds in being, or “potencies with different powers of organization.”

William Connolly’s “Materialities of Experience” also explores the way that Merleau-Ponty assists us in thinking about new materialisms. Like Coole, he argues that Merleau-Ponty developed an immanent ontology without teleology, divinity, or mechanism. He is critical of any perspective that “overstates the autonomy of intellectual life [or]… the self-sufficiency of reason…”

Each of these New Materialists argue for an immanent ontology but reject the assumptions of scientific materialism that matter is inert stuff in motion. Instead, matter is to be conceived as lively and self-organizing. Consciousness can therefore be understood to emerge out of matter and always be enmeshed within it. There is therefore continuity between human and nonhuman nature, which has clear ethical implications. A lively matter is not merely a means to human ends, but has its own reality in and for itself. It is not, therefore, fully calculable by the power and light of scientific reason but is far more elusive and complex. Lastly, they are all very much nontheistic in their approach. There is no need for God in these new materialisms, it would seem (obviously not including the "God" of Radical Theology, of course - Caputo, for example).  Words like “mysticism” were used in a pejorative sense – although, Connolly sees a place for a kind of positive nontheistic spirituality in his new materialism.

Now, apart from the typically nontheistic approach of New Materialists, their ontology is very much aligned with Whitehead - although he's hardly ever mentioned in this text.  In particular, Whitehead's Science and the Modern World is a close analogue for the New Materialist critique of reductionist forms of materialism.  While Whitehead criticizes "materialism" in that text, clearly he has in mind a reductionist, mechanistic form of materialism that the New Materialists equally reject.  His proposal for a "philosophy of organism" is an alternative to both mechanistic materialism and absolute idealism.  Connolly has more recently come out as a nontheistic Whiteheadian, so it looks like there are some exciting conversations in store for those of us in the process camp as a major new form of theory begins to recognize the significance of Whitehead's thought.  For those of us who are theists in general and Christians in particular, I believe the New Materialism offers an important way of thinking about the world that can possibly open up new paths for theology.  Think of the way that Ernst Bloch's materialist philosophy of hope influenced Moltmann and others over the last fifty years - I think the New Materialism offers a similar conversation partner for contemporary theologians.  If you're interested in this conversation, there will be a conference at my school, Drew University, on the subject next month with Crockett, Robbins, Bennett, Catherine Keller, Karen Barad (a brilliant and important feminist-physicist who I will be posting about in the near future!), Philip Clayton, and others.  Check out Entangled Worlds: Science, Religion, Materiality.