January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
August 9, 2010
Perhaps we can adapt just one more time Marx’s well-known and overadapted opening to The Communist Manifesto that a “specter is stalking” us. It was this same “specter” that Derrida back in the mid-1980s adapted in Specters of Marx to rejuvenate what by then was his already aging project of deconstruction to produce first the “political”, then the “religious” turn. It is from this particular “turn” that so much theological pomo derives.
Another specter, however, today is haunting postmodern religious thought itself. It is the specter of irrelevance. Or better yet – the specter of an irrelevance nurtured, especially in America by faddism, mindless Francophilia, and academic navel-gazing. As recently as two decades ago Christian thinkers shied away from postmodern philosophy because of the silly and groundless canard that it was “nihilistic”, or that it was noxiously inhospitable to “faith” (if you were conservative) or “social action” (if you were liberal).
Today most educated Christian scholars have probably read the entire postmodern “canon” from Derrida’s Writing and Difference to Zizek and Milbank’s Monstrosity of Christ. That you can take courses with the same basic reading list in contemporary theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School tells you how times have changed, does it not?
But Nietzsche’s underlying point in most of his late career tirades that when things have ripened over time they become essentially wormy at the core does not should not be overlooked when it comes to postmodernism itself. Nietzsche understood that even his own future legacy, which so much of postmodernism happens to be, would not be immune from the same kind of jeremiads he hurled at his own generation. I myself, as someone who for more than thirty years has crawled along like some tiny, clueless gnat on the vast spherical surface of this gigantic and now multi-generational, slowly ripening, pomo passion fruit, acknowledge this fact with a certain nostalgia of loss, if not a very un-Derridean Angst about what is avenir. Christian academics, evangelical and mainstream alike, were slow to jump on the postmodernist bandwagon, and they will be probably be just as reluctant to climb off.
It is not simply a matter of philosophy – and theology for that matter – “painting its gray on gray,” as Hegel famously described the end of a theoretical epoch. Nor is it merely an effect of the scholastic haute monde wearily deciding that “time’s up,” and summoning the taste-setters and market makers to define the next great thing. Intellectual fashions, unlike whatever is worn by runway models, don’t come about that way. Furthermore, the legacy of the “high postmodern” will not fade away. It will most likely be aufgehoben in the same way as structuralism, phenomenology, Freudianism, ordinary language philosophy, and existentialism were all folded into and “taken up” into the “post-structuralist” revolution of the 1970s that came somewhat later to be named postmodernism.
Major shifts and sea changes are more a matter of a widespread changing focus that recognizes how patterns and networks of ideas tended to be embedded in an underlying social and cultural reality, and that this reality is now somehow missing. They arise from the dim, but unavoidable, awareness that these ideas have now been gradually hollowed out through both overuse and an altered context. They are in their “twilight,” as Nietzsche put it, and it is in such crepuscular times that the thinker begins to test the idols, to tap them to see if they are solid, and force into the open certain questions that one’s contemporaries remain uncomfortable asking. That is what Nietzsche really meant by philosophizing “with a hammer.” It is similar also to what Heidegger meant when he wrote during the 1930s that the philosopher announces how “all the gods have fled” and one must wait for der letzte Gott (“the last God”) to “pass”, as he said in his Beiträge (“Contributions”).
The Times They Are A’Changing
Yet a shift is on, and in many ways it is eerily similar to the 1930s. I am not referring merely to what we now call the “Great Recession” that is slowly, like a toxic chemical spill, seeping out of the US where it first happened and spreading slowly, sometimes with indecipherable long-term effects, across the planet.
I am referring to a gathering “great recession” in mood and outlook that has changed the culture of the West and starkly affected the politics of the world’s own recent historical pace-setter – the United States.
If postmodernism , in hindsight, looks more like the happy, playful, effervescent, and disseminative “superstructure” (in classic Marxist terminology) of the rising economic and social order of post-70s that came to be termed “neo-liberalism” with its innovative and entrepreneurial energies, hyperindivindualistic ethics, and “post-secular” spiritual and religious proclivities, the era after postmodernism may mirror the pre-1940s preoccupation with issues of social justice, aggregate action and responsibility, and an intellectual confrontation with human complacency, self-deception, and the diverse and competing threats of collective violence against both groups and persons. Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous attacks on liberal optimism may have to be brushed off as well. The familiar political romance of the “just cause” against injustice, shared by “progressives” and neo-conservatives alike that often disguises itself as righteous religious and theological critique, will have to give way to (perhaps even an updated Niebuhrian) to a neo-realism that profoundly recognizes the bankruptcy of both facile certainties and the avante-garde cult of indeterminacy, while at the same time affirming the necessity of conscience, action, and resistance – and the appropriate context for their application and deployment – nurtured by a mature intellectual caution and skepticism of the latest enthusiasm. .
Which brings us to another specter that is stalking the postmodern – the specter of rage. The specter of rage historically has always stalked ages that follow upon a sudden and unanticipated collapse of every “proud tower” of collective illusions that were once thought to be the great ideas that animated an age. This particular specter has already hovered routinely around the celebrity status of Slavoy Žižek in the past year or so. Žižek’s own “rock star” image, fostered earlier on through his rhetorical panache with dissecting commonplace issues of pop culture within the framework of Lacanian theory, has more recently tapped into the congenital rage of the American intelligentsia at the outsize global ghoul called “capitalism”, especially after the financial crisis of 2008 and the unravelling of economic systems, mainly in America and Europe. Žižek’s recent routine summons to reclaim the banner of hard-core revolutionary Marxism a la Lenin, even if such a clamor no longer has any resonance outside of Latin America and perhaps political nostalgia buffs in Russia, in the face of his predicted “end times” collapse of the world economy, is consistent not only with the intellectual Zeitgeist in the West but also with his accompanying fulminations against the post-structuralists and their legacy. In bad times the self-styled philosophical “bad boy” is all but assured of having an attentive audience.
Rage and History
But there is another, perhaps more telling current of rage, brilliantly diagnosed by another contemporary European “bad boy”, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in his recently translated Rage and Time (Columbia University Press, 2010). Rage and Time is far more thana a somewhat sophisticated commentary on the temper of our own time, even though Sloterdijk himself has gained fame in Germany over the past decade as a controversial television commentator and talk show host. Reaching back all the way to the Greeks, Rage and Time seeks to lay bare the “deep structure” of the modern as well as the postmodern.
Perhaps a better phrase would be the “deep economy” of things. “Rage” (Greek=thymos) is the “force” from the heroic age of the Greeks onward, according to Sloterdijk, that “holds the world together.” Rage “preserves in its essence the unity of substance in the multitude of its eruptions. It exists before all the manifestations and survives unchangingly its most intensive expenditures.” (p. 7). If Christianity with its crucified and unconditionally self-giving deity “removed rage from God” and handed it over to the work of the Devil, the growth of capitalism brought it back in spades. The “creative destruction” of capitalism, as the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called it, bears a certain resemblance to the wrathful Yahweh of the Bible. It was not accidental that Medieval Christianity denounced competition and acquisitive behavior in the name of a higher morality and divine justice.
Capitalism was only made possible, according to Sloterdijk, by the “thymotization” of social economies that had previously been made the exclusive prerogative of divine providence. The supposedly God-ordained, non-competitive order decreed by the Medieval church as both divine and natural law was revealed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a total sham, and became instead a cynical rationale for nobility and clerics to preserve their own special status in an egregiously corrupt order of things. Even Plato’s ideal republic required the thymos of the guardians to keep the state functioning. The thymos of the ascendant capitalist classes engineered the unravelling of the Medieval fabric, and Weber’s newly minted Protestant ethic” ensured what Deleuze would later describes as the “chaosmotic” dynamism of the modern eon, propelled by the violence of history itself and Hegel’s celebrated “power of the negative.”
At the same time, capitalism engendered its own thymotic reaction, the revolutionary pushback of the socialist internationale and the dream of a classless society. It has been the strange dampening of this grand historical rhythm of rage in the late twentieth century, culminating with the “fall” of communism in 1989, that a thymotic economy has been seen as a thing of the past. The golden age of postmodernism has coincided with this historical solar minimum. Perhaps in only such an interregnum has been it possible to imagine a “religion without religion” (i.e., a “rageless” religion) or a “messianism without a messiah.” Do not messiahs normally rage and smite against injustice, even if it is deferred rage, the rage of Armageddon?
We are rapidly coming out of this solar minimum, according to Sloterdijk. The theological minimalists cry peace, peace, when there is no peace; as Nietzsche might have said; the festival of peace is just a masked ball where in the back drawing rooms rage and resentment primp for their own grand entrance toward the end of the evening. Or, as Sloterdijk writes, “a wrathful God is the great impossible variable of our age. But what if, beneath the surface, he is working on becoming our contemporary once again?” (p. 43) Nietzsche could not have said it more efficaciously.
Sloterdijk as Derrida’s Own “Derrida&quo
Sloterdijk has been around in Germany as long, if not longer, than most of today’s well-known postmodern thinkers. But it is only in the twilight of the postmodern that his star has been suddenly rising. American academic publishers with the help of the German government are getting ready to crank out a stream of translations of his writings just as the French ministry of culture did for Derrida and Deleuze a generation back. Ironically, what can be considered Sloterdijk’s first mark-making on academic thought outside Germany was his publication of a short book in 2006 (the first edition was actually in French) entitled Derrida: An Egyptian (English edition by Polity Press, 2009).
That is not to say Sloterdijk offers us a “turn” beyond the postmodern. Our era is not so much a turn as an “end” in the same sense that both Hegel and Heidegger used the word in talking about the “end of philosophy,” and which I myself adapted in publishing the inaugural text of American postmodern religious thought entitled The End of Theology in 1979. An “end” in this connection constitutes a fruition rather than a termination, a fulfillment and maturation of thought trajectories that can now be redirected through new and equally productive strategies. Early “deconstruction” was thus the “end” of phenomenology and the philosophy of language in this sense. Speech and Phenomena, Derrida’s fascinating prolegomenon to deconstruction that is unfortunately seldom read any more, harbors all the indices. Sloterdijk does something totally un-Derridean with Derrida – he takes him to a new level. In that respect Sloterdijk can be seen as Derrida’s own “Derrida,” mimicking in many ways Derrida’s relationship to Heidegger.
As a tribute to Derrida upon his death – especially the Derrida that has never really been known or acknowledged in the U.S. – Sloterdijik’s Derrida: An Egyptian is most telling, because it goes back to the latter’s “pre-theological” sources in the essays of the 1960s and argues pithily that something was going on there that “immortalizes” what deconstruction was all about in the first place. On the death of a great thinker this moment of immortalization both preserves, but also sets in motion the next great trend or wave. Sloterdijk ingeniously compares Derrida to Moses, so far as Freud was concerned in Moses and Monotheism.
If Mosaic Judaism ultimately “historicized” as well as democratized Pharonic immortality in making the “pyramid” nomadic and mobile in the form of the ark of the covenant containing the stone tablets of Torah, Derridean deconstruction perhaps has served to pyramidize the Torah-like reading and re-reading of texts as a way of archiving the history of philosophy. Derrida’s “aporia”, therefore, is not really “Jew-Greek”, but “Egyptian-Jew,” according to Sloterdijk. There is no more Graeco-form “essential” meaning of the text. There is only the strange immortality that comes from its endless de-construction and de-positioning with trace-like “deposits” of its signs. Deconstruction was the new postmodern way back into philosophy, as Heidegger himself had sought to accomplish, if only on his own terms.
Deconstruction created at the same time its own tensive cultural and intellectual “economy” that brought about an ever-broadening and hyperkinetic play of previously pyramidized, “traditional” significations which, if we follow this analysis beyond Sloterdijk’s own somewhat technical philosophical reading, were mirrored in the post-1989 expansion of the global consumer economy.
This play of cultural signs was largely new media-driven. It was truly Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreality,” fostering a seemingly limitless and purely semiotic economy of consumption and excess, guaranteed with a kind of romantic moral mandate pressed by the already comfortable, but hypercritical Western intelligentsia to disseminate the infinite, generative, substanceless surplus to every corner of the globe.
That intoxicating sense of a burgeoning, real-life, global economy of excess, of course, was what Georges Bataille had lionized at the height of 1930s austerity and what neo-Marxist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri had described in their book Empire as the “ripe” set of condition for a new and final “proleterian” revolution of the wage-liberated, culturally enfranchised at the turn of the millennium. Hardt and Negri were simply the left-wing Tweedle Dums of the neo-liberals and neo-cons, prophesying an equally wrong version of Francis Fukayama’s “end of history.”
It was this infatuation with excess, however (not so much the policies of either the Clinton or George Bush administrations), that led to the Götterdämmerung of the global economy in 2008, according to economist Raghuram Rajan in his recently published book Fault Lines (Princeton University Press, 2010). Rajan, by the way, was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 collapse. At the conclusion he writes that “progressives in the United States blame the bankers, while conservatives blame the government and the Federal Reserve. The worrying reality is that both are to blame.” (p. 228)
Both are to blame because hyperidealized models of predicted economic performance that came from both free-market conservatives (so-called “supply siders”) and the apostles of government intervention, regulation, and stimulus (the current Obama administration team) have led equally to disaster. Both, if we follow Rajan’s logic, can be attributed to what he calls the myth of “arm’s length” relationships between economic players, where Deleuze’s “desiring machines” are more than a kind of Weberian “ideal type” (as they actually seemed to be for the philosopher himself), but the signifying processes born of the very generative grammar of theory itself that seem to take on the curious semblance of sentient embodiment.
It was this Golem-like transformation of theory into both politics and policy, which could only happen during a profligate planetary regime of conceptual errancy and excess – a true Bataillean economy gone mainstream. In the economic sphere both monetarists and Keysians turn out to be fellow-travelers on the same ship of fools. As Rajan points out, the true “moral hazard” was never really the bank bailouts, mainly because the same systemic hazard can be traced to the total sublimation of investment, risk, and the seemingly boundless expansion of the capacity for consumption summed up in Alan Greenspan’s memorable phrase of the 1990s – “irrational exuberance.”
As Rajan points out, however, there was nothing “irrational” about the economic expansion. It went “unregulated” because the underlying econometric metaphysics of excess demanded it. There was also a deep, moral, “categorical imperative” behind the expansion. Thou shalt consume, and thou shalt be oblivious to the consequences, because justice demands it. There shall be no more any such thing as privilege and marginality, as gain and loss, as winners and losers, so to speak. We have now entered a truly win-win world. The “revolutionary” economy of each according to his abilities and each according to his needs is founded overthrows the “economy” of scarcity, which is what economics is all about in the first place. The economy of excess was in vitro designed to abolish “economics” as we know it. No more “dismal science,” only liberty and justice for all!
Such a hyperconsumptive “meta-economy” followed its own self-propelled trajectory of a new “exuberant” rationality based on the postmodern productivity of the sign process. Technically speaking, this hyperreal economy was postulated on what a philosopher such as Alain Badiou identifies as the confusion between the virtual and the potential. The virtual is infinitely productive of significations, and hence is – as I have lately argued – the “event horizon” of the religious. But virtuality is not the same as potentiality. Potentiality inhabits matter, as Aristotle underscored, not form. It was this underlying confusion of the formal and the material, the virtual and the potential, the signification and the signified (a confusion first found in DeSaussure) that has enabled both the end and the “material” crisis of the postmodern.
Is Rage the New “Rage”?
It is that peculiar sense of material crisis that animates Sloterdijk’s most recent work. Rage economies, in accordance with Sloterdijk’s philosophical modus operandi so to speak, are woven from the threads of disjunctions in the sign-process rather than the processes themselves. They are fashioned from the
lesions that make up Žižek’s “barred” subject, incised from the episodic events of the Real. But unlike these events, which remain in Žižek’s neo-Lacanian analysis mere fractures in an otherwise continuous “dialectical” economy, the inscriptions of trauma are stored in an underlying “rage bank” that invests in the various economies of resentment and revolt.
Unlike Žižek, Sloterdijk is not at all impressed with Marxism, and therefore fails also to be entranced with the enduring academic fantasy of a raging worldwide proletariat, which he understands has sunk beneath the waves of history. Today’s rage bankers are investing far more productively in the vengeful mobilization of traumatized collectivities who still bear memories of having been an erstwhile “universal class”, whose seemingly seamless imagination, perhaps even in their lifetimes. The new jihadist Muslim internationale is one illustration he profiles. Another one, not yet perhaps on his radar, is the current “Tea Party”ism of the new, disenfranchised, American middle class. But these are not really postmodern phenomena at all. Sloterdijk, in contrast with Derrida, does not view Muslim jihadism as a “return of religion,” but as the “thymotization” – and hence the historicization – of what was previously simply the play of signs. They are significations not in their own right, but symptoms of profound trauma. They are indicators of the end of the postmodern.
In his 2009 interview with the German national magazine Der Spiegel, Sloterdijk characterizes what the publication’s editors call the Eingeweide (“viscera”, “embowelment”) of today’s Zeitgeist. The editors did not intentionally perhaps suggest through the title that Sloterdijk’s philosophy of rage is the “dirty” essence of today’s disenchanted politics – the term is employed more in the sense of the “guts” of the issue. But Sloterdijk, who uses the platform to criticize the European welfare state from the standpoint of a “lifelong social democrat,” makes the broad point that the dysfunctionality of the system can only be addressed by an appeal to the implicit “generous” virtues of our thoroughly thymotic culture. In other words, “forced” taxation and redistribution only leads to evasion, criminality, and narcissistic self-seeking, which hides behind the grand illusions of state-supported architectures of “social justice”. In true Nietzschean (whom Sloterdijk routinely quotes) he calls attention to the current global crisis as a kind of apocalypse of ressentiment brought about the toxic involution of the will to power of inherently self-seeking consumerist individuals masquerading as champions of compassion.
Sloterdijk’s analysis is neither comforting nor encouraging. It is not one more recipe for the appropriation of contemporary philosophy by the Christian conscience. But neither was Nietzsche’s. It just happens to be philosophically provocative enough to ask questions in this Indian summer of avant-garde enthusiasms that we have never asked before.
Carl Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, specializing in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to religion, popular culture, and technology.