Bruno Latour on Religious Language

At its best, religious language does not mystify and blur, but focuses the attention with absolute precision upon some expansive reality. The ongoing use of language tends to render once-crisp metaphors stale and cliche. Given that religion tends to deal in so many intangibles and has a strong inclination to preserve and pass on particular formulations, its language is especially susceptible to codification into strange esoteric systems in which very many words are employed to say very little. This whole article is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the description (more of an exhortation, really) given to religious language.

Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.

Religious language can be risky “it requires great care,” Latour says – “it might save those who utter it” but it is never mysterious: it contains “nothing hidden, nothing encrypted, nothing esoteric, nothing odd”. It has its own robust wisdom, and does not need to beg for “tolerance”, or to plead with tough-minded sceptics to concede that the facts of science are too dry for some tastes, and that a spoonful of “wonder” or “quaint religious feelings” might make them much more palatable. Contrary to what we have been brought up to think, the daring heroes of intellectual escapology are not the religious believers but the practising scientists, going boldly into the unfathomable mysteries of eternity; while religion, properly speaking, is a set of exercises in “breaking the will to go away, ignore, be indifferent, blasé, or bored”, and focusing our minds on the intimate textures of what lies close.

via The cult of science — — Readability.

On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.

“Call the Super—the faucet is leaking, and there are missiles on the roof!”: Olympics Edition

So far, coordinated dissent has been specific: bus drivers went on strike to demand a bonus for transporting an extra eight hundred thousand passengers; protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square as part of a global day of action against Dow Chemical’s sponsorship; and East London residents resorted to legal action to try and stop the installation of High Velocity Missiles on their building’s roof. Last week, bus drivers accepted a new offer of a £577 bonus to recognize their increased workload; Dow Chemical is still sponsoring the events; and the High Court ruled in favor of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), agreeing that a tower block was a suitable site for the missiles.

The missiles, put in place as part of an air security plan to protect the Olympic site from terrorist attacks, cover most homes in East London: residents within range must like it or lump it. In an article for The Guardian, Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege, places the missiles in the context of a larger “total security” operation, which will leave a legacy of its own: “The security preoccupations of the Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian, and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested–especially in democracies.”

Via: Guernica, The Grand Project of the Olympics (Natasha Lewis)

So, this story demonstrates excellently how a planned event can serve as the trojan horse for all sorts of public security policy changes that, inevitably, do not go entirely back to “normal” afterward. The military may remove the missiles from the roof, and the “dispersal zones” may not become a permanent part of crowd-control and the restriction of public assembly in London. But London will have been a place where, in order to feel safe, society was subjected to a quasi martial-control for a time. At the next sign of instability, those measures are all the more ready-to-hand if needed.

The story also contains a heckler shouting “You prick!” at everyone’s favorite big society thinktank guru Philip Blond.

The Divinanimality of the Logos and the Curse of Human Uniqueness

I’ve been working today, editing my essay for the Divinanimality volume, coming out later this year through Fordham University Press. Here is a favorite paragraph from the essay—one of the most explicitly theological paragraphs I’ve written in years. In context, I’m making an argument for rethinking the significance of the Incarnation for thinking about the human-animal distinction:

On this understanding, the Logos of God is no longer the Master Signifier, the keystone that anchors the logos of self-reflective human thought and speech in a stable economy of meaning. Instead, relative to the logos of humanity, the Logos of God is negatively transcendent. God’s Logos is the charged silence over which humanity finds itself interminably babbling. The logos of humanity can find no entryway into the Logos of God; it tries to speak its way over a communicative abyss rather than being immersed in the silence of divinanimality. The unsettling eyes of animals—whose gazes have so little regard for human discourse—are unsettling not because they lack meaning but because they convey an excess of meaning that cannot be borne in language; they are icons of the mystery of the zōē of God. The living silence of the divinanimal Logos offers (or threatens) to swallow whole the logos of humanity—and no one can guess what kind of new zōē might emerge from this end

The paragraph and the paper in which it lives grew out of this post from a few years ago (see mom, blogging is good for something!). One of the broader contributions that I hope to make through the essay is the argument that despite their many differenced and disagreements, Derrida’s and Agamben’s texts on animality and politics are not only mutually illuminating, but have a kind of convergence. So, it’s an effort to read The Open and Homo Sacer alongside The Animal that Therefore I am and The Beast and the Sovereign—all in the context of John’s prologue.

What the Hell is a “Readflow” Anyway?

One of the inherent perils of life as a graduate student (just mentioned) is that, if one is going to get anything done, ever, one must be self-motivated, self-starting, and self-disciplined enough to do so. One of the major speed-bumps to all that good self-direction (at least for me—maybe all the other grad students are different [hahahahaha!]) is the very “interwebs” upon which you read these words.

Given that I spend a significant amount of time reading items of interest that I stumble across, or that others flag for me, Alan Jacobs’ post on his “Readflow” got me thinking about ways in which I could focus, direct, and use my internet reading time a little bit better than I do. The neologism itself sounds a little bit too self-consciously “tech-saavy” for my taste and smacks a bit of corporate-speak, but the concept has stuck in my mind nevertheless. Maybe that says something about me.

I do already use Readability to filter out ads and to save longer pieces for subway travel (or other more convenient, less work-oriented time), but I think that I may start using it as something of a cache and clearinghouse. I like the idea of having periods of “more focused distraction” in which I read the bits that have come up and either share them or file them as appropriate. Pinboard looks useful for the tagging and retrieval features that are lacking in Readability, but the added step of tagging individual pieces in a separate window sounds like more hassle than I’m going to commit to reliably.

This blog, too, may be more deeply integrated my reading process—at least for pieces that are not only worth sharing, but also spark a few comments. I know—what the internet really needs is one more guy spouting his opinion—right? Well, no one is forcing you to listen.

And if others have habits or patterns of reading that have proven useful, I’d like to hear about them as well.

On Stolen Laptops and the Banal Perils of Graduate School

There are greater tragedies in the world than this, obviously; losing one’s laptop and parts of one’s dissertation are the worst thing that can happen to a graduate student, but I’ve been joking to people that being a graduate student is already one of the worst things that can happen to a person, so the glass is half-empty either way. There’s a certain amount of truth to that: this experience has forced me to think about ways I can interface with the world not through a computer screen, and that’s important; I’m going to make this experience into something healthy, a way to re-focus my intellectual energies. But it’s also kind of a bitter joke. Being a graduate student is much more stressful and anxious than people often realize. The psychic and physical toll you pay is significant there are those costs again!, and the end when you face the seemingly non-existent employment prospects can be rough. I tell people starting out that they should expect to fuck up their backs, to maybe need or go on some kind of anti-anxiety medication, and to spend their twenties intimately aware of the price of peanut butter. Your ability to be a graduate student for the next 7-10 years will be totally contingent on finding new strategies to keep yourself healthy.

via A Breather —

One of my favorite blogger-commentator-mandolin playing-manic-superheroes is drastically re-focusing his life after getting his computer stolen in the midst of writing his dissertation. But his explanation for his hiatus gives an excellent picture of the sorts of scars and troubles that one can expect from “the life of the mind”—at least the part where the mind is in grad school. My strategy (if one can call it that) of late has been more or less resignation. There are lots of kinds of “work” in the world, and I’ve chosen a good path with its own unique challenges. Graduate school—and academia more generally—has changed me in many ways, and many of them not for the better. But it’s good work, I’m at least reasonably proficient at it, and anything else I could do would likely only carry a different set of scars and neuroses. There is a kind of existential tyranny that can be overcome by thinking about a “job” rather than a “career.”

Postscript: If you’ve appreciated Aaron’s writings, you can pitch in to buy him a new laptop.

On Aldo Leopold :: Scattershot

In response to a thesis that I tossed out on twitter yesterday (“Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac’ outweighs at least 16 volumes of what passes for ecotheology in insight, analysis, and foresight.”) A.P.S. introduced me to Liam Heneghan, who has been thinking about Leopold undoubtedly much longer and in greater depth than have I (caveat lector).

Liam directed me to a rather critical post on Leopold that he wrote a while back. What follows is, in part, a response to that piece.

The sharpest edge on Liam’s critique is that Leopold is too quickly dismissive of philosophy at points within his thinking where he implicitly relies upon discourses and concepts with lengthy histories of rigorous philosophical discussion. So, for example, Leopold dismisses the philosophical history of ethics in order to develop a new “land ethic,” and again, Leopold works toward a broader sense of “community” in which the land and its creatures are regarded as a “valued” members (not monetary value here), yet  without putting forward any nuanced account of value.

I think that Liam is overstating Leopold’s disjunction between philosophical ethics and an ecological ethic. Here is the whole passage where Leopold introduces the distinction:

The extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences may be described in ecological as well as in philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced , in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content. (202)

I read Leopold a little differently in this passage and in what follows. Rather than wresting ethics away from philosophy in order to “extend” its consideration to the land, I see Leopold here trying to set philosophical ethics back into the context of ecology (that is, evolutionary/geological history). He is pretty explicit that he’s offering two definitions of what he considers to be one thing. And rather than seeing ethics primarily as a set of conventions that govern the human community, which need to be reconfigured in the face of ecological degradation, I see Leopold’s emphasis falling on a recognition of humanity’s place (for better or worse) within the larger ecological community. The concern, then, is less about extending the operation of human ethics, politics, economics, etc. to “cover” the land (in more positive ways than at present, of course) and more about getting human beings to recognize their always-already-situatedness in relations to living and non-living beings—relations which are every bit as political and ethical as relations between human beings.

Leopold’s language is not consistent, he does indeed talk quite a bit of “extending” ethics to the land, but this way of speaking (it seems to me) cuts against the grain of his stronger argument that humanity is always embedded within a biotic community, even if it seems to be the most radically disruptive member. Leopold also overtaxes metaphorical references to the land (and the natural community) as an “organism” that maintains balance, harmony, and equilibrium, but for all that he does not think of the land in static timeless terms, nor does the “community” that he refers to necessarily have to be an irenic one. These inconsistencies seem superficial to me, easily worked around.

Furthermore, I’m not convinced that philosophical ethics or a more nuanced theory of value is actually the point at which Leopold’s project most needs supplementation. In fact, Leopold himself seems to recognize that the root of humanity’s tendencies toward destructive behavior is not primarily a deficiency in ethics, but a delusional self-understanding. Or again, the faulty ethic that validates ecological degradation derives from a faulty self-understanding. It is a theme repeated at length:

“In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (204)

“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” (210)

“In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.” (223)

But if a “land ethic” contains the correct “role” for human beings to comport themselves in a more ecologically sensible way, we are nevertheless left without a clear sense for the means by which people are supposed to adopt the land ethic and be changed from “man the conqueror” to “man the citizen.” If anything (as Liam points out) this is the work that is supposed to be done on someone by a “vision of the land” (that is, all the interdependencies of the biotic pyramid). I’d agree that Leopold is too optimistic on this point.  I would guess that Liam’s project working at a theory of value is one effort at finding a way to draw people into embracing environmental ethics (and I look forward to reading Jordan’s book, which I’ve got on my desk as I write).

I regard the identity-construction of what Leopold calls “man the conqueror” as an ideology deeply embedded in the fabric of our day-to-day lives, reinforced by our interactions within political and economic systems, and underwritten in the West by the bulk of the philosophical and theological tradition. For that reason, I’m more or less convinced that the best point at which to address ecological degradation is not a theory of value which leaves the subjectivity of the “value-er” (the one who registers and perceives value) relatively untouched, but instead, by exposing the ideology that reinforces our own self-identification as some form or another of “man the conquerer” for the constructed, arbitrary, and malleable pattern that it is, and pushing toward a framework in which it is feasible for people to sincerely and coherently self-identify as citizens and members of the ecological community.

Again, the ecological “community” (likely a poorly chosen word) need not be irenic; but the major cause of ecological degradation will not be addressed, in my opinion, so long as we maintain the ideological machinery by which we are convinced that we human beings are creatures categorically different than all the others. Positing a fundamental, unbridgeable difference between being-human and being-lizard, or leopard, or lemur enables us to disregard the basic interests of these creatures even where we understand those interests quite plainly (and much worse where we do not). Human progress, time and again, trumps the interests of every other creature.

Sand County Almanac is an amazingly prescient text for having been written over 70 years ago. There is plenty to disagree with, plenty of points at which we should go further, but Leopold’s unique combination of insight and analysis is, in my opinion, pulls its  philosophical/theological weight well enough.

The Salted Meats of the Earth

Among those in antiquity who argued that animals exist for the sake of human beings, it was a commonplace to say that animals (usually pigs, though Philo mentions fish) do indeed possess souls—what we would call vitality, or the spark of life. For these philosophers and theologians, though, ensouled-ness does not really count in the animals’ favor. The purpose of animal-souls, they say, is  that a soul is so much more effective than salt at preserving meat for human consumption.

It seems to me that this trope is generally written with a wink, as a bit of a joke. It is however, a theory for which our society has perfected the practice. In our intensive agricultural operations, life is simply the best way of producing, reproducing, and preserving meat for human consumption. Our regard for the creatures who live among us is flattened such that they are no more than walking meat.

I’m more interested in the conceptual tricks by which we are able to think this way, and feed our society on these premises, than I am in moralizing or in pushing a vegetarian agenda. I imagine that very few people who look a fellow-creature in the eye actually “see” animated meat looking back at them—even (and perhaps especially) if they intend to kill and eat the creature whose gaze they are returning. And yet, our agricultural system is organized as if the “salty-soul” theory were a common-sense reality, a simple fact of nature.

New Book: Genesis and Christian Theology

I was very excited to find a contributor’s copy of Genesis and Christian Theology in my mailbox yesterday. The book has, at long last, been released by Eerdmans and is available for voracious and inquisitive readers everywhere.

Among a host of other fine essays, the volume includes my piece, “Gregory of Nyssa on Language, Naming God’s Creatures, and the Desire of the Discursive Animal.” Here’s an excerpt/summary:

In this paper I take Gregory’s emphasis on Genesis 2:19-20 as a starting point for examining the way in which Gregory’s account of language [in Contra Eunomium] structures his theological anthropology, particularly insofar as language is implicated in Gregory’s articulation of the differences and similarities between humans, animals, and God. I contend that while Gregory explicitly uses language to distance/differentiate the human from the animal and to connect/ compare humanity to God, Gregory’s careful attention to the limits of language sets up a basic structural parallel between human and animal life focused on the orienting and compelling power of desire. In light of this parallel, both God’s image and God’s redemption of humanity can be seen as events that stand open to the animal rather than points of differentiation and exclusion.

Many thanks to Nathan MacDonald, Mark Elliot, and Grant Macaskill for all of their editorial work, and to Eerdman’s for publishing the volume!

Flowers from the Cross

Our church here in New York began the Easter service a few days ago with a ritual that I borrowed from our previous church in Vancouver. The congregation was invited to approach a rough cross assembled by binding thorny sticks together, they each took a few flowers and filled the dead cross with color. Below is the piece that I wrote to introduce the idea and begin the service (channelling my inner Brueggemann).Image

This rough, dead, thorny, barren cross is the symbol of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Romans.

But Jesus’ life shows us that this cross is also the symbol of:

the poor choking on injustice,

those who society views as suspicious, dangerous, dirty, immoral, or stupid,

the migrant far from home, overworked yet under-welcomed,

the bullied, tied up in knots of fear, anger, and self-loathing

those on the underside of every history of privilege,

those suffering and dying of diseases easily cured because of the indifference of neighbors,

those imprisoned, especially those imprisoned wrongly, or imprisoned for trivialities,

those on whose backs fortunes are made, but who never see the benefit,

the sexually abused, exploited, confused, repressed,

the nameless numbers enduring every systemic bureaucratic, faceless evil,

the dispossessed animals, suffocating oceans, sterile streams, oily rivers, smoke-clogged skies, and collapsing ecosystems trampled by a “non-negotiable” way of life,

the souls crushed under repetitive, mindless demands for hollow productivity,

the invaded, colonized, occupied, and displaced,

the conscripted, indebted, swindled, and ignored.

We all know the cross in these ways. We carry these crosses and we force them on others.

But today more than any other day we remember:

that God raised life up after people had used this dead, thorny, barren tool to do their worst,

that all the death the systems of this world could muster couldn’t contain the life of God’s Spirit,

that hell itself, its damnation and judgment, couldn’t contain the life of God’s spirit.

So we wait (with our fear), we hope (with our anger), we keep the faith (with our guilt), looking:

for God’s revolution,

God’s apocalypse,

to overturn and overwhelm,

to undo, flood, and wipe away these systems in the name of life.

As a gesture or ritual of this hope,

an image of change,

a pledge of reform,

a seed of faith,

a whisper of the resurrection,

I invite you to take a few of these flowers and fill this death-ridden cross, and all the injustice it represents, with fragile life. Take a few flowers, find a way to jam them into the crevices of the cross, and then we will worship.

TODAY!: Of Miracles and Machines — Derrida and Religion

I should have thought to post this earlier, but if you in the NYC area today and looking for a good conversation, you should come by Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for the following symposium on Derrida and Religion. The symposium is centered around a recently published book, Miracle and Machine by Michael Naas, who will be one of the speakers, along with Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Martin Hägglund. There are, apparently, other things to do in New York City this afternoon, but this one will be hard to beat.


Of Miracles and Machines

A Symposium on Derrida and Religion

Thursday March 22, 4:15–7:00 pm

12th Floor Lounge, Lowenstein Building ● Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus 60th and Columbus, New York City

To mark the publication of Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media (Fordham UP, 2012), this symposium brings together four leading scholars from across the disciplines to debate Derrida’s continued relevance for religious thinking.


Penelope Deutscher, Northwestern University ● Sarah Hammerschlag, Williams College

Martin Hägglund, Harvard University ● Michael Naas, DePaul University


Samir Haddad,

Sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Theology, the Deans of the Arts and Sciences Council, and Fordham University Press.

This event is free and open to the public.

For More Information Miracle and Machine Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media Michael Naas

432 pages 978-0-8232-3998-6, paper, $30.00 $20.00 (Promo Code: Naas12)

To Order: ● 800-451-7556

Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.