March 28, 2013 / Theology
Contemporary political analysis champions the ideal of a post-racial America, and in some circles, this …
The Other Journal (TOJ): Much of your work is an attempt to trace the genealogy of the nation state, searching out its arbitrary moments and constitutive myths. What are some of the dominant myths that you see currently continuing in legitimating the state’s power and how it maps social relations today?
Bill Cavanaugh (BC): I think one of the primary myths is the myth of freedom and openness: the idea that what we are essentially about in liberal democracy is freedom to believe and do what you want within certain bounds. It is a myth of an essential respect for the diversity of ultimate projects and ultimate metanarratives, as if the state imposes none on the body politic but allows for all kinds of metanarratives to be free. This emphasis on openness, then, leads to an imperative to share that openness precisely because we begin to think of ourselves as the universal subject who has transcended all particularity. Then this project becomes infinitely exportable and expandable to other societies.
Herein I think there is a real link between freedom and violence in that way. That is, we find it imperative to share the blessings of this openness and freedom with others because we see ourselves as the universal subjects, yet this self-image is only such by repressing its own and others’ particularity. One significant example of how this myth of the state has taken hold is in the idea of America as the “reluctant super power”: this idea suggests that America reluctantly has had greatness foisted upon it in the 20th century by responding to particularities like communism and fascism through a transcending of such into total openness. Yet I think this myth pertains not only to America, but is really imbedded within the whole liberal project in a way.
Moreover, the whole myth of religion and violence as inherently linked really dovetails with this as well. Acting as the universal subject who has transcended particularity, we come to think of our own violence as occluded by the idea that we have supposedly overcome violence defined as particularity. This then assumes that it is only the holding on to particularity that causes violence through its refusal of the state-endorsed universal, with religion being a primary form of such particularity: it is as if people clinging to their particular religious beliefs, which are not judicable within the eyes of the state project, is what really causes violence.
The answer to this understanding of violence therefore becomes an attempt to overcome blind particularity, most often thought to be represented by religions, in the direction of the inclusive and neutral universality of the state. As a result we have this kind of false innocence about us as if we are the most peace-loving and open of societies because we are beyond particular attachments. This myth is one of the ways that a country like the U.S., with a military which is bigger than all the other militaries in the world combined, convinces itself that it, in fact, is the most peace-loving of countries.
TOJ: You mentioned that the state acts as if it does not have an overriding metanarrative of its own, yet it does. You’ve commented on how it does take itself as peace-loving and the greatest promoter of world peace, yet through the use of violence as well. Can you, however, comment more specifically about the myths at the very origin of the state—in the early stages of its formative history—that have especially led to these currently accepted ideas?
BC: Well, when I say “the state” I am thinking in particular of the Western liberal democratic state. What is at the origin of this form is the idea of liberalism—which is, to reiterate, the idea of openness and universality overcoming particularity. This is one of the most basic ideas at bottom of the nuts and bolts formation of the Western state. It is basically an overcoming of the local through a centralization of power in the allegedly universal. So the particular loyalties of the people in the medieval period—loyalties to church and clan and guild and town and lord and so on—all of those particular loyalties are fragmented and absorbed into one centralized, universalized loyalty to the state. This transferring of loyalties in the process of state building is then a basic project that we find at the beginning of the rise of the Western state.
TOJ: You have mentioned in your work Charles Tilley’s idea that this process of state building is a process of war-making, almost like organized crime, in trying to centralize this power and these loyalties. And the centralized ordering of social space now seems to be more de-ritualized and secularized without the older particular loyalties of the past. Yet you have claimed in your work that in order for the state to develop this seemingly open, secular order it nevertheless uses quasi-religious liturgical practices that are somewhat of a religious parody in order to discipline and instrumentalize the devotion and imagination of the people. Can you comment on this movement of de-ritualizing and yet using quasi-liturgies by the state in order to gain allegiance and order? And what are ways it is still apparent in the U.S.?
BC: This process of state building and secularization is a very ambivalent movement because it certainly is the case that the liturgical rhythms of previous societies have been truly washed away. This is evident in the ways that the rhythms of time have been changed. Sundays used to be days of rest and now everything is open all the time on Sunday and everything is available 24-7 on the internet and so on, which really does de-liturgize society in a way.
But there are exceptions to this. I think the primary exception is the way that rituals of national patriotism are highly symbolic and highly ritualized and liturgized, especially as they revolve around the flag as the central totem symbol. Here I really like and refer to Carolyn Marvin’s and David Ingle’s book, Blood Sacrifice of the Nation, where they give very graphic evidence of the way the flag is treated as a sacred object. And it’s really Durkheim’s theory that is elaborated in a vivid way regarding all the rituals that surround the flag—for instance how it is not to touch the ground and how it is to be buried when it is done rather than simply thrown out. These measures, therefore, indicate its sacredness and as Marvin and Ingle argue, the flag is also a central totem that organizes sacrifice, particularly a sacrifice around war.
This can be seen in Ken Burns recent series on World War II, where those who he interviewed portrayed a nostalgia for that era of common purpose where everything was organized around the ritual sacrifice of going to war. And this patriotism, expressed in its loyalty to the flag that calls upon sacrifice for war, is not a merely peripheral sort of engagement. Rather, as Marvin says, what’s true in a society is what is worth killing for. Therefore this kind of sacrifice is a sacrifice that produces truth for the society as it upholds the state project as the highest, most sacred reality and organizes the energies of the people according to such. That is the primary way I see liturgy still manifested.
TOJ: Now someone might claim that this is a sort of fanatical nationalism of another era which no longer holds its sway. Yet it seems that this sacrificial and liturgical system is still pervasive, though at times in very subtle ways, in everything we do in the public sphere. This can be seen especially through processes of politics, voting, taxation, courtroom protocol, sports events etc., and even educational structures and curriculums, especially where every day is commenced with a citing of the pledge of allegiance. Do you see it as also this pervasive and deep within the social fabric of our current age even while nationalism and war-making are supposedly more explicitly questioned?
BC: Yes, I think it is. The pledge of allegiance is an excellent example—I don’t know how a kid could tell the difference between what goes on in the pledge of allegiance and what goes on in church. I think the ritual motions are the same.
TOJ: Now turning to the phenomena of globalization: it seems ostensibly, in contrast to the state project, to open up a more universal order beyond the hegemony of the state and its forms of pseudo-universality in nationalism, possibly offering more opportunities for world-wide communion. Yet you claim that globalization does have its own peculiar and problematic logic for configuring social relations. Could you discuss this logic or this mode of organizing social relations and how it might still be in collusion with the state project?
BC: Yes, well it does offer up a more universal order—I think there is no question about that. The question is whether it produces communion or not? I do not think communion is produced by the overriding of the particular, rather I think just the opposite in fact. There is indeed a sense in which there are good things about globalization, as it does facilitate some kind of communication between far flung places of the globe. Increasing the means of communication can potentially be a good thing, so I don’t want to make blanket statements about globalization as if it is all bad. But the way globalization is often manifested and dominantly played out is through a claim to hyper-universalization. In this sense it is just a hyperextension of the project of the state, which, as we discussed above, is itself a type of movement toward universalization over and against local forms of community.
Therefore, the same movement is at root for both. And any such project of repressing and sacrificing the particular for the universal does not really lend itself to true communion. True communion has an emphasis on the particular as well as the universal: it is a way of seeing the image of God in the other and yet being able to relate to the person not as a kind of interchangeable part for something else, but as irreducibly particular. Both identity and otherness have to be preserved for true communion. John Zizioulas’ new book, Communion and Otherness, is a wonderful Trinitarian reflection on this.
The idea of universalization is, however, an ideology that is true for some and not true for others. This is because capital moves freely across borders now but labor does not—this is one of the key places where class analysis should not be ignored. In other words, what is globalization for capital is not globalization for labor. If you think of globalization in terms of moving plants to Mexico, in that sense it depends upon the border which separates Mexico from the United States such that one mile south of the border you can pay someone fifty cents an hour and one mile north of the border you may have to pay them seven or eight dollars an hour. Globalization therefore really depends upon nation state borders in order for capital to have the ability to seek out the cheapest labor in any part of the globe while labor remains unable to be as mobile. So on the basis of this complicity with national borders, the idea that globalization is just the overcoming of the nation states I think is untrue. I think that has to be looked at much more carefully.
TOJ: So we have the reign of capital that nevertheless needs the national borders. That is, it needs the borders to ensure its sovereignty, so that it can feely move in and out and utilize and manipulate the more sedentary labor forces at will without being attached to any of them—it can just pick up and go if labor conditions of a particular place are not favorable for capital. With this complicity between the nation-state and globalization what then do you see as the shared quasi-theological anthropology more deeply engrained within each? What do they both assume about the nature and purpose of humanity?
BC: If I had to put it in a nutshell I would probably say it’s the denial of death, or that is, the transcendence of death and particularity. This emphasis on freedom and universality is in the most basic biblical sense an attempt to “eat of this and you will be gods”. When it is at its worst, of course, it is the kind of primordial sin of Genesis 3. Again there are many good aspects of this kind of universality. For example, there are good things from having access to the internet. You can have access to a lot of things that are good things and have communication with a lot of people in good ways through this kind of hyper-mobility.
TOJ: Like this interview.
BC: Yes like this interview, for example, and that’s a good thing. In discussing the perverse character of globalization I don’t want to ignore these good aspects because any doubts about globalization are easily caricatured as some sort of Amish Luddite sectarian anxiety from someone who does not consistently use indoor plumbing and that sort of thing. Therefore, I don’t want to say there is nothing good in it, but at its worst what underlies it is an attempt to transcend our particularity and transcend death and that’s the most fundamental problem.
TOJ: Well, what is odd about this attempt to transcend death as you have mentioned is that it also seems like a death-drive as far as it is also an attempt to continually put to death our particularity.
BC: Yes, well it is an obviously illusory attempt to transcend death. It is an attempt to have a God’s eye view of the world and therein an illusory attempt to be like God. And of course there is a sense in which Christians believe that we do ultimately transcend death. But this is not by trying to be like God in the sense of Genesis 3. Rather it is in the sense of being made into God in the sense of Genesis 1: made in the image of God, in other words, as theosis as opposed to the denial of death.
TOJ: Maybe we should here get into questions more specifically around pathology. Our current issue concerns areas of social pathology and you’ve mentioned in your works something of the schizophrenic character of globalization, which has also been commented on by many others such as Lacan, Deleuze, and Jameson in different ways to name a few. I was wondering if you could expand on how you understand its schizophrenic character?
BC: I have a feeling that the word schizophrenic is probably being used in a way that’s not very faithful to its original meaning if you were to look it up in the physician’s desk reference. But what I mean, if I am to use that term, may be best illustrated in the following: there is this stretch of road near where I grew up, in a town that used to be surrounded by corn fields, which has now spread west and is surrounded by shopping malls and subdivisions and so on. This one stretch of road fascinates me every time I go past it. It’s right in the middle of an Illinois corn field and there is a McDonald’s restaurant that has been recently built in the style of the original ones from the 1950’s. Next to that is a restaurant with a Medieval English Castle theme and next to that is a seafood restaurant with pirate paraphernalia and next to that is a fast food Mexican restaurant with an 18th century Spanish mission theme. It is all utterly fake and it puts us in this really weird situation where I don’t even know if you could discern what an authentic suburban Illinois culture actually is. Instead we’ve got available to us all times and all places and . . .
TOJ: And the new kingdom come of the global village!
BC: (Laughing) Well yes it’s suppose to be. You can have anything you want from around the world or any time you want—you can just storm right into any place or time. Yet we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There is, then, this tremendous sense of nothingness and no-whereness. It is as if when you are standing in front of this strip of road you could just as easily be in Quebec or Sidney or Bangkok. So you are in a way everywhere and nowhere; you’re every time and no time at the same time which leaves no identity except for the identity of pure difference. And this ironically, of course, produces not real difference but conformity. You could be anywhere and there is still a tremendous homogeneity. You could drive coast to coast for three thousand miles and pass this same scene repeatedly. This is, then, what I think of as the schizophrenic type of character—it is this doing away with identity for the sake of pure difference and yet the difference itself is not real difference at all.
TOJ: And that sounds like it’s along similar lines with Jameson’s understanding of the schizophrenic character insofar as you speak of society being made up of and organized by de-historicized and depthless fragments of images just floating around.
BC: Right, right, exactly.
TOJ: But what other social pathologies might this system require or perpetuate?
BC: Well it produces detachment from people. I do a talk where I discuss detachment from production, because we don’t make anything any more; from producers, because we don’t see the people who make them; and consequently from products themselves, which rounds out the three forms of detachment now so prominent. That is, consumerism is not an attachment to things but a detachment from them and a disposability of them.
Along with this detachment, there is a certain kind of pathology, a mode or way of “seeing” space and time. It is a universal gaze that I have noticed in my students at a university where there is an assumption of this universal gaze. This is prevalent, of course, in what we tell our students all the time: that we are going to take them from their little provincial small towns in Minnesota and we are going to give them the world and make them universal subjects of the university. It is amazing the way they assume this character and assume their ability to enter into any time and/or space. We teach a course on the church in Latin America and we used to start with Rigoberta Manchu’s autobiography. It is incredible how quickly these suburban middle class Minnesota kids assume that they can identify with this Guatemalan peasant woman. And the message, of course if we are going to be honest, is that who we really identify with in the story are the landowners who cheat the peasants. But they assume that they can really just walk into the story and immediately identify with this Guatemalan peasant woman. So in light of this presumed gaze I want to give (God knows nobody will ever allow me to do this) a commencement speech at a college where I would stand up and say, “Please don’t go out and change the world”. The world has had enough of well-meaning middle class university graduates from the U.S. going out and trying to change the world and the world is dying because of it. . . go home.
TOJ: I can imagine the horror on the students’ and administration’s faces (laughter).
BC: Exactly…go home to your little towns and work in your father’s hardware store. I beg you. That’s really what I want to say.
TOJ: So you mentioned this pathological character as a mode of “seeing” and it definitely affects the way we understand social change; that is, it affects how we are to understand others and their situation and how we are to bring about change. Our last issue was on the phenomena of pop revolutions and how there is a wide array of revolutionary images and symbols and practices being disseminated on the market. I wonder if you can comment on how this form of seeing is in collusion with the market parodies that we now have of revolutionary images—which seem to be now an almost complete commodification of the category itself of revolution.
BC: Yes. Obviously, I want to change the world in one sense, as I am a Christian and I am therefore in favor of revolution. I think Genesis makes Jews and Christians revolutionaries right from the start. The whole idea of the fall means that the way things are is not the way things are suppose to be and so there is a revolutionary principle set up right from the beginning. Therefore, clearly I think that revolution is an imperative in that sense. But the problem is that revolution just cannot be made by sheer difference—it cannot be made by saying “not this” and “not that”. But often what is assumed to be revolutionary in our society is really at base this kind of destruction of and relativization of everything, as if any form of authority is wrong and to be doubted and everything is disposable. But it is impossible to make true revolution out of that. There has to be something positive and not just destructive.
The problem with a lot of the students I encounter who want change is that they are not revolutionary because nothing sticks. You just cannot get any traction when everything is disposable. In order to be a revolutionary you have to start from a particularity—you have to start from a particular place and have a very particular vision and not just a vision of generalized change. I teach different kinds of students and there is a large catholic studies program here on campus where the students tend to be fairly politically conservative, although not across the board by any means. But I think there is more revolutionary potential in those kinds of students who have a sense of the seriousness of life rather than other kinds of students who posture themselves to be more revolutionary because they’re detached and yet nothing sticks. With these latter students there is no way to get any traction with them because everything is merely somebody’s opinion.
TOJ: So this latter comportment is part of the mode of seeing that you were discussing, the transcendence of death and particularity where one is trying to detach oneself from any particular reality or view point or narrative in order to see through everything and therein to supposedly maintain freedom?
BC: Yes, that’s right.
TOJ: And so, in other words, then, you’re mentioning that we need to take on particular identities, substantive identities and practices and narratives in order to truly “see” in a certain way?
BC: Yes, but not just any identity will do.
TOJ: Of course.
BC: There are plenty of particular identities that are demonic. There is nothing good per se about particularity. But I am thinking of the Christian narrative and the particularity of Jesus Christ and to understand and perform this well, of course, there has to be this interplay of unity and otherness at the same time. So I don’t want to say that particularity as such is in and of itself a good thing, because obviously you can point to Nazi Germany and talk about blood and soil and that sort of thing but there is nothing good about that.
TOJ: So then how do we conceive of the universal and the particular, how do we find a site or location or a form of practice? More specifically, you have done much work on exploring and understanding the Eucharist as another way of seeing and imagining and mapping social relations—so how do we understand the Eucharist in a revolutionary way or as an alternative to these other forces?
BC: Yes, well I don’t want to say that the Eucharist in and of itself is a kind of panacea, as if there is an automatic nature to it or anything. But the Eucharist is the material participation in God’s redemption of the creation. And I think that if it is understood and practiced rightly that it can overcome these dichotomies of global/local and me/you and God/human and identity/otherness, etc. All of those dichotomies are reworked and transformed in different ways. I have talked about the way the Eucharist in particular overcomes the dichotomy of local and global. This is because, on the one hand it is something that is cosmic, it’s the body of Christ and it unites people from all over the globe, and on the other hand at the same time it is intensely local because it is a gathering around the communion table in one particular place. So there is a kind of particularity there, but it is also invites everybody regardless of age, class, gender, etc. to gather around the table. So, yes, I think that if it is understood and practiced well it can help to heal a lot of these dichotomies.
TOJ: How can we understand it being practiced more explicitly as a political act? It may assume a metanarrative of the universal and particular in a way that is beyond the debased forms of understanding that we have seen in globalization and the state project, yet the practice still takes place within local communities that are within national boundaries and certain political apparatuses that still do need to be challenged and changed—how then do we understand the Eucharist as affecting change at a structural level without it being reduced to just another political cause or form of identity politics?
BC: Yes, well the Eucharist doesn’t do anything, God does things. Sometimes we lapse into the idea that the Eucharist does this or the Eucharist does that. But I think it would be a real mistake to try and politicize the Eucharist and politicize the liturgy in a direct way and do liturgies for Burma or liturgies against global warming and so forth. I think that’s a real danger. I think it is better to see the liturgy and the Church as a politics in and of itself, as a way of organizing and symbolizing and relating to the world—and specifically in a way that overcomes sacred/secular dichotomies so that we don’t have to make it relevant by introducing something from an alien field, as, say, the field of politics. The liturgy itself imagines the world as God sees it and returns it to God in thanksgiving and praise. There was never any kind of pure nature or natural way of seeing that could instruct the Eucharist, from outside of its own vision, on how to be politicized for other causes.
TOJ: Graham Ward recently wrote an essay on the process of commodification with Marx and how late-capitalism has now commodified religion almost completely. That is, it seems revolutionary and religious symbols are nothing more now than mere packaged images, commodities, and spectacles to be exchanged and consumed and of course the Eucharist could easily be commodified and made into a mere spectacle. What are some ways that you have seen it commodified? Especially in speaking of the attempt to politicize it, would you consider something like the U2charist to fall into that category?
BC: Yes, goodness, this can be problem. But I don’t want to criticize it too much and I do like U2. I think the danger is in shaping the agenda of the Eucharist rather than letting it shape us. And yes, it can certainly easily be commodified if we see it as something that we can shape and manipulate. One of the wonderful things about belonging to a boring church where all of the rubrics are set is that it kind of frees me up from having to tinker with it and make it relevant. Certainly there is room for different kinds of music and I am in favor of various modes of enculturation in certain forms of culture. I think enculturation in some cultures is a good idea while in other cultures it is a bad idea. It all depends on the culture and how healthy it is; enculturation in the US is probably something to be a little wary about, whereas enculturation in New Guinea might be a good idea.
But in general, the idea is that God shapes us in the Eucharist and it is not that we have to tinker with in order to make God say or do what we want God to say or do. One of the wonderful things about the Eucharist is that it turns the act of consumption inside out. Instead of just consuming something, God consumes us. It is the idea that we are made into the body of Christ by eating the body of Christ which is this weird sort of turning the act of consumption inside out.
TOJ: I like this idea but don’t we need to talk about transforming the act of consumption more completely rather than simply reversing it? We have been talking about the sacrificial economies of the state project and globalization where everything is made into a passive thing ready to be consumed by the universal subject, which remains the only sovereign active agent. Yet in talking of God as now the only active subject, who does everything and who consumes us in the Eucharist, have we still left in place the dominant sacrificial paradigm of oppositions such as active/passive, subject/object possessor/possessed even though it is now God who occupies the former position in the binary? Couldn’t we speak of God’s sovereignty as somehow transcending and thus enabling something other than an oppositional structure of relations in the Eucharist, where the human agent would no longer be stuck choosing between either demonically attempting to consume all others on the one hand or letting itself become a passive object to be entirely consumed by another, on the other hand?
BC: Yes, certainly turning consumption inside out also breaks down the dichotomies you mention. The body of Christ in the Eucharist refers to the gift (the host), the giver (Christ), and the recipient (the Church). This is a radical breaking down of the boundaries between subject and object. This is the way the patristic writers often understood sacrifice. For Irenaeus, for example, our offering is participation in the Son’s sacrifice to the Father, so that it can be received and offered at the same time. Augustine, too, refers to sacrifice as union with God, that which makes us whole again. Since there is nothing “outside” of God, there is no zero-sum game. The classic dichotomy between Lutheran approaches (we are merely passive recipients of God’s grace) and Catholic approaches (we offer up our sufferings for God) is a misunderstanding.
TOJ: To conclude could you give some concrete examples of communities or organizations that you think are carrying out a Eucharistic vision?
BC: I give a number of concrete examples in my forthcoming book, Being Consumed (Eerdmans, 2008: how’s that for a shameless plug?). Examples range from community-supported agriculture to Fair Trade to the Focolare Movement’s Economy of Communion. It’s all about breaking down the perceived boundaries between what is mine and what is yours.
Ben Suriano is a theology editor of The Other Journal and studies theology and philosophy at Marquette University.
William T. Cavanaugh
William Cavanaugh is Senior Research Professor in the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. His latest books are Migrations of the Holy (Eerdmans, 2011) and The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, 2009). His books have been translated into French, Spanish, and Polish.