The Criminal Politics of Wilderness

“In a world truly left to itself, that is, unviolated, as we say, or at least very little penetrated or marked by humans, there would obviously be no need to reserve spheres for animals that could protect their overlapping territories. To evoke such a world is to evoke something that was the unwritten rule, the instantaneous adjustment for millennia; it is to evoke a form that has given way only during the last few centuries in Europe and during recent decades in the rest of the world. But the movement seems irreversible, so much so that one cannot help sensing, while traversing those reserves, that one is facing the vestiges of a world about to disappear.

The possibility that there will be no more wild animals, or that they will exist only confined or subjugated, is taking shape before our eyes day by day. Reactions to the threat of the avian flu that recently spread throughout the world, for example, all conformed to a model in which wildness itself was accused and singled out: peaceful domestic fowl threatened by hordes of uncontrollable migrators. This will become the accepted schema—even though intensive breeding and all the modes of confinement (the word speaks for itself), far from sparing animals effectively, have been, on the contrary, the direct origin of the most serious epidemics ever known. Between the thousands and thousands of carcasses burned during the years of mad cow disease and the common graves of birds in the new century, what is taking shape is the psychological preparation of humanity for the necessity of total control, a world in which wild animals will be no more than tolerated and in which they too will be, in a way ‘in human hands,’ in allotted spaces that will be more and more restricted or instrumentalized. . . . It came back and it comes back, it goes around in a loop, discourse is unhinged, this had to happen: our sisters and brothers by blood have kept silence forever. What would the world be without them? The sky without birds, the oceans and rivers without fish, the earth without tigers or wolves, ice floes melted with humans below and nothing but humans fighting over water sources. It is even possible to want that? In relation to this tendency, which seems ineluctable, every animal is a beginning, an engagement, a point of animation and intensity, a resistance. Any politics that takes no account of this (which is to say virtually all politics) is a criminal politics.”

Bailly, Jean-Christophe. The Animal Side. Translated by Catherine Porter. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.

Wildernesses, wildlife reserves, and protected lands of all sorts are critically important; and we need desperately to strengthen and expand the protections that we have put in place. But these isolated wild spaces are also symptomatic of a collective bad conscience. They give us places to “escape,” and get “back to nature” for a few days. It’s hard at times, though, to wonder if this kind of adventuring amounts to more than a petty nostalgia. After all, it would seem from both our political rhetoric and the voracity of our economic systems that these are little more than isolated Exceptions that allow us to tolerate our own Rule of appropriation, expansion, consumption, and the commodification of “resources.” Ecologically speaking then, our politics (by which I mean the network of our power relations to others of all stripes) is a criminal politics, and we’ve found perverse ways of assuaging our consciences.

Gregory of Nyssa on the Nearness of Heaven

I came across this passage in a letter of Gregory of Nyssa to a friend of his, and immediately wanted to share it:

“It does not seem to me that the Gospel is speaking of the firmament of heaven as some remote habitation of God when it advises us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, because the divine is equally present in all things, and, in like manner, it pervades all creation and it does not exist separated from being, but the divine nature touches each element of being with equal honor, encompassing all things within itself.”

If there is a heaven, it is to be seen in the dignity borne by each bit of being; not infinitely elsewhere, but breaking out from within the dishonor and decay with which we are more familiar.

Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.

Zizek :: what humans will never know

Here is Slavoj Zizek’s answer to the question: What will human beings never know?

Do you find his answer at all plausible, or does he obscure and deny knowledge that we ought to have confidence in (gaining)? Do you think that the creation he describes might still be called good? Does such a vision of creation undercut or inspire wonder, awe, and reverence?

I see a connection in Zizek’s thought here with the conviction of Augustine and other early Christian authors that the being of creation is essentially derivative and incomplete, and all the more so when any creature turns away from God. Things are most real when they exist according to the manner in which God fully delights in their existence. The slippage and gaps (what Zizek here calls “blurriness”) that we experience in reality can be attributed to our own fallen psychology (a divide between our minds and creation “as God intended”), but might also at a deeper level be attributed to the derivative being of creation itself.

At any rate, I’m more and more interested these days in the points of incomprehensibility in creation—not at all in the rather facile sense that these unexplainable bits are stumbling blocks to science and proofs of God’s existence or activity—but in the sense that fractures and incompleteness seem to be an inexorable part of human life, and even Spirit-filled redeemed life. Paying attention to the points at which orders and systems break down or turn absurd is perhaps the best way to understand what is “normal” within those systems and orders.

If I were to sketch out this thought trajectory, it might run something like this: We search in vain for the site of total satisfaction, total fulness, totally saturated presence. There is a hole in creation that pierces the very core of human subjectivity. We could call it a God-shaped hole, if God had a shape, or if this fundamental lack pointed in a straightforward manner to God—but at minimum, its not obvious to everyone that it does point to God (or which god, for that matter). The interminable “blurriness” of creation, of our own selves, of each other, and most of all of God, persists even amidst the conviction that God has broken into history. Christian faith is actually nourished by this hole insofar as it is an inexhaustible source of desire; hope stretches out into this abyss on the conviction that God has been intensively present in Jesus, and will again be extensively present through the work of the Spirit already in-process. So, in some quiet manner, God accompanies creatures in and through a creation that remains incomplete—that very incompleteness the cause of a desire that stretches out and clings to grace where it is (made) capable of recognizing it.

h/t: Verso

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

person and nature in Zizioulas

Is it only a drive to rhetorical clarity that pits person and nature so strongly against one another in the writing of John Zizioulas, or is there something more sinister at work?

Zizioulas’ major ontological theme is the primacy of personhood over nature, over necessity, over essence. Persons are free with respect to their nature—supremely in the case of divine persons and sacramentally in the case of human persons—not determined by them. Thus, God’s being in Trinity is not a fated necessity imposed upon the hypostases by the divine ousia, but represents the freedom of the Father in the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. While human persons are beholden to their natures in their biological personhood, by baptism and the eucharist human persons may be incorporated into the Person of the Son and reborn into a new mode of personhood. Zizioulas marks this transition as the movement from bondage to nature and death to a life of freedom. Nature for Zizioulas is a fundamental limitation; the connection of personhood and nature is the imposition of the necessity of death.

The caricature that Zizioulas is open to (but barely avoids) is an equation of nature with death, that the limitation of finitude is already the necessity of death. This barely-evaded equation would lead him to speak of created persons (as beings in the image of divine personhood) as entrapped within nature and awaiting release. It is clear enough that this is a caricature and that Zizioulas has a more positive view of bodiliness, finitude, and the particularity of being in a certain manner (i.e. according to a nature). But the tension only renders the strength of his anti-nature rhetoric all the more baffling.

The concept “nature” carries a double valence—nature as essence / nature as creation. My fear is that Zizioulas’ vehement differentiation and privileging of personhood finally endangers the positive theological value of both. Of course, there is a destructive and arbitrary privileging of personal freedom over “nature,” in which the power of personhood is excercised upon nature, bending it according to the will— and this is not at all what Zizioulas intends to advocate. But his theology stands open to development in that direction without additional safeguards.

Pace Zizioulas, sacramental grace does not convey a freedom from the limitations of nature, but abolishes death by engulfing its “necessity” in the illimitable communion of God’s love, where it is overwhelmed, judged, and forgotten.