Jazz Thoughts

Basic Mechanics,
Concepts of contemporary authority

Concepts of contemporary religion

"Religious authority" is a common term [1], and so the relation of the present article to its parent is clear enough: One might even wonder why notions of religion were not interrogated more thoroughly together with those of authority (in general), and indeed, whereas religion has figured into many of these inquiries [2], it has not often been interrogated directly itself.[3] The present article will continue to move beyond the (presumptively) bounded domain of "modernity studies," so as to look forward to future possibilities: Once again, it seeks things as they are, then — an orientation that is, perhaps, already in tension with religion per se, as the latter might dwell in the murky past or even the ineffable. One might further observe "religion" to be a common trope for merit-less (i.e. pure, ungrounded) authority, i.e. tradition imposing itself on contemporary priorities.[4] In the latter ("because I said so") sense, it (potentially) inflects all concepts or themes of authority, but this (still preliminary) investigation largely concerns inflection of knowledge specifically: Religion can be located, at least initially, as an opposite pole to empirical study, i.e. as "what one has been told" (i.e. tradition) versus what one might observe oneself. (There is thus an anti-individualistic quality embedded in religion, anathema to the contemporary liberal subject.) Empirical study is often taken to be synonymous with "science" (which simply means "knowledge" in Latin) for purposes of such an opposition, yet "science" as a human endeavor & set of institutions entails specific, preexisting knowledge practices. Indeed, if one considers actual behavior, one can readily observe the overlap: How much "scientific knowledge" does the typical liberal subject possess via empirical observation per se, and how much because they were told? When it comes to knowledge associated with the actual disciplines of science (as opposed to e.g. seeing what furniture is in one's living room), learning & transmission are almost entirely due to instruction (by authority) — such that "scientific knowledge" is largely transmitted in the same manner as religion. One might in turn insist that the environment (or the territory or situation) of a church is rather different from a laboratory (or perhaps school), but what of e.g. a television commercial? What could be less founded in "truth" than the commercial advertising & propaganda in which so many people are constantly immersed? In other words, from where & what do contemporary subjects actually gain knowledge — i.e. learn?

As the "ineffable" remark already suggested, scientific knowledge has generally been more instrumental, i.e. was developed in the crucible of achieving specific, practical aims such as military conquest or hoarding wealth.[BM] (The instrumental qualities of religion are to be set aside for the moment....) Whereas instrumentality ramifies concepts of authority, such that e.g. knowledge contributes to acquiring wealth or perpetrating violence, the four "primary" concepts discussed previously [CA] actually relate directly to separate, traditional social groups (indeed, to Hindu castes): Knowledge is the territory of priests (now also scientists & "intellectuals" etc.), violence of warriors, wealth of merchants, and reproduction of peasants — who moreover produce the basic necessities to support the other groups (the non-productive superstructure, in Marx's terms). If science is the dominant narrative of modernity for many [BM], then in these terms, its conflict with religion involves splintering a particular (traditional) social role: Who is supreme in the field of knowledge? (Moreover, such roles — and admittedly this is a simplification, in keeping with the preliminary status of the investigation — shift further as wealth is further glorified, and therefore as merchants are placed in a transcendent position — with all its contradictory implications for religion — with respect to the priests & warriors who had previously exercised relatively greater authority. In this sense, knowledge is made to serve in very different fashion.) Beyond broad demography, then [5], one might speak of modalities of practice such as those of religion, law, morality, etc.[6] When contrasting with science, one might further note the tension between authority declaring knowledge & knowledge determining authority [CA], and indeed that any theme of authority can produce not only its own variant of religion, but its own variants of worship & glory in turn: Past accomplishments buoy present glory, and that holds for science as well. (One might further observe that learning any discipline involves learning its concepts of authority, such as the "proof" of mathematics.[CA]) What is the problem with traditional, received knowledge then, as opposed to (continual, empirical) discovery? Simply put, in scientific terms, the problem with received knowledge is when it's wrong — or, one might say, when it no longer functions in a useful manner, whether due to changes of situation or because of corrupt transmission, or any other reason.[7] Conversely, there are two basic problems with (always) being empirical: Empirical analysis of everything in every moment is impractical (if not technically impossible in fleeting situations), and there is a "chicken & egg" issue to method itself: From where does a method derive, and in what (secure knowledge) is it grounded? (Descartes famously had an answer for this: Note that when it came to observing the world, his answer invoked the Christian god.) Moreover, as the latter might begin to suggest, religion — as a body of knowledge in common — functions not only as social binding, but as a common scene for proof: We might not all conduct the same empirical experiments, or have the same life experiences, but we can all have been told the same things (by way of everyday background reference) — at least within the same territory.

People generally have a need to belong, and so social binding is powerful. (This is an understatement.[8]) On what values is it based, or rather, to what values does it contribute? (One might suggest that the basic structure of social binding, whatever it might be in a particular situation, produces at least some particular values.[9]) If religion is about obfuscation, i.e. is about convincing people to ignore their own senses in favor of a received answer, and of course it has been that at times, then it's also not alone: The postmodern regime of marketing & propaganda revels in obfuscation & denial. (And as suggested by the description I've been using for neoliberalism, i.e. that it's a kind of fundamentalism, is amenable to its own religion, namely the religion of wealth.) What of the religious quality of awe in general? How are people convinced to believe what they're told? (Well, one might pay them, use violence or seduction....) Glorification is itself a powerful inducement, beloved of both religion & marketing: Does it necessarily involve untruth? Or rather, what truths or values are being glorified? If its function should be useful, useful to whom & for what? (Useful as empirical proof?) Another basic tension is thus suggested: Whereas marketing et al. have become about accumulating wealth for particular groups of people, is that actually helpful to anyone else (pace the dated, imperialist arguments of Adam Smith)? Is religion (instrumentally) concerned with social propagation per se then, perhaps with happiness?[10] (Does religion move beyond instrumentality in e.g. care for the poor or disabled, one of its traditional roles, and one that's increasingly left by the wayside in neoliberal governance? Or is such a role itself a crucial, i.e. instrumental aspect of social binding?) Do we continue to have faith [11] that "our culture" will propagate via the petty concerns of consumer advertising? (In the age of writing, all signs are essentially theological anyway?[PL] Such an observation is hardly comforting in instrumental terms: What does "our culture" become? What do we actually glorify?) What of broader goals & legitimacy per se versus the trope of "what one can get away with," as increasingly suggested by current legal regimes & realities? (And note that religious law has often involved separate courts, not to mention separate taxes, etc. Even in e.g. contemporary USA there are both criminal & civil courts, the distinction having derived in part from historically split authority.[CA]) So if religion involves deception, to what end? Deceiving (or convincing) whom, of what — of the results of what experiment? (Is our societal goal really to hoard as much wealth as possible? Again, to what end? Where is "truth" in such an endeavor?[12]) Yet again, how might one engender new laws in the face of new facts, and moreover, how might one construct a (new) science (or perhaps religion?) of law in the face of (increasingly brittle) textual transcendence?[CA] (Questions of law, and so in turn of sovereignty, only seem to become more urgent as modernity unravels.) As these questions might already suggest, change becomes a question of doing — even of art working through religion: After all, opposed to religion as received knowledge is the basic impulse to place doing over knowing, or toward knowing by doing (e.g. art-as-work [CA]). How then might one "discover" [BM] values per se? (This last question is, finally, moving beyond the present scope....)

  1. Indeed the phrase "religious authority" does appear in Concepts of contemporary authority — henceforth [CA] for purposes of reference, following the abbreviations detailed in a note to Further notes on fascist aesthetics [N2], along with [BM] & [N1] for previous articles in the present series (and eventually [CR] for this text) — even as religion was not a focus.

  2. For instance, previous articles have interrogated hierarchy according to transcendent (i.e. traditionally religious) themes [HR], traced the modern invention of "economics" from its religious origins [RF], and decoded familiarity (& tangentially, family) as the "real" of religion.[WF] (And do note that Notes on the value of (human) life [N1] was already addressed to the Catholic Church.)

  3. Religion was e.g. used more as a starting point in order to reformulate the "economic triangle" around modernity [RF], and so has functioned (at least at times) as almost a "reductio" argument: In other words, these supposedly rational constructions are intimately linked to the (definitionally, at least in modern terms) irrational. (Hence, religion serves to mark the contradictions of modernity.) Further, modern denial of a religious basis for political economy per se played out via parallel denials of randomness, i.e. fortune.[RF]

  4. But then, "priorities" themselves are a (if not "the") major contemporary issue: Are we trying to hoard or concentrate as much wealth as possible, or are we trying to keep people & the planet healthy, for instance? The latter can be compatible with religion, particularly as it has traditionally preached respect for unknown forces beyond oneself. (One might also refigure the nexus between religion & youth according to these concerns: Is it a matter of retaining outmoded ideas, or of protecting the future?)

  5. As the superstructure remark already suggested, specialized (i.e. reified) social roles — & the topography explored in [CA] is certainly susceptible to reification — can be (inherently) problematic, particularly when some are leveraged into or against others via historical enfoldings. (And such enfoldings can travel rather far afield: Note, for instance, that Buddhism was largely spread by the merchant caste, whereas Christianity first came to prominence in the Roman military. Yet, here we are, with Christianity as one of the major conceptual bases for neoliberal, i.e. economic-financial, fundamentalism — after, perhaps, being embraced by the merchant caste only last! One might also ask what sort of "church" e.g. the Chinese bureaucracy was, particularly as compared to the contemporaneous medieval Catholic administration. What sorts of knowledge or authority did each differentially institutionalize?)

  6. This is another reference to Latour's modes: He differentiates religion from e.g. morality — even if morality is (perhaps?) always already theological [MA], or what Laruelle calls a "theology of the good" — as well as from law, etc. Latour's biggest contribution is likely his disarticulation of "science" (together with such seminal modern concepts as "nature"): His ensuing "reference" mode might be taken as basic to (traditional) religion as well, at least the way I've defined it, and indeed religion might even be constructed as a variant crossing of reference & "reproduction" — the latter strongly suggesting the biological in that case. Pursuing such a "variant crossing" would likely further interrogate the modern transformation of knowledge practices.

  7. In Lacanian terms, the real impinges upon both the subject & the world: We learn that the latter, as constructed (& encompassing the subject), is "wrong" somehow when it fails to sustain us or our notions through actual events. (In Laruellian terms, this suggests an amphibology between the real & tradition — the latter having possessed some manner of compatibility with the former at some point: After all, the people involved did presumptively survive.) Indeed, one can even frame stereotypical appeals to religion in times of crisis — especially by "atheists" — in these terms.

  8. Fred Moten notes via Judith Butler, for instance (referencing interpellation), that not only does moral authority derive at least in part from forms of address, i.e. from a (perhaps presumptive) "we," but that narrative (including religious narrative) constructs its own grammar, i.e. that the grammar it forges derives from requirements of the narrative itself. (Subject position is then an ongoing feature of such grammar.)

  9. In other words, the structure of any set of relations is likely to produce (some, but likely not all) "values" — whatever those might be, in context — emerging specifically from the structure per se. (For instance, if relations are typically in the form of a couple, couples will be valued. Or relations & values might both be hierarchical [HR], etc.)

  10. First, "happiness" is a fraught concept, as interrogated by Sara Ahmed & others. That said, failures of religious institutions have largely involved, at least according to modernist historical narratives (& so not necessarily in all times & places), corruption: In other words, there have been various issues of not upholding values, of not actually serving the population — and of course if religion constitutes society's transcendent body of knowledge, it cannot readily be corrected from outside itself. (And so consequently, supposedly in order to avoid corruption, one shifts to a system where the only accountability is literally in counting, and the goals are explicitly selfish...? Yet, even with vanishing promises of public service, there appears to be much corruption in contemporary political economy: Perhaps even upholding values imperfectly is preferable?)

  11. One might suspect that, (at least) in the (early) postmodern era, faith is more a matter of inability to conceive a (good) alternative than it is of conviction per se....

  12. Neoliberalism treats the "truth" of wealth in a tidy circle: Since wealth is (the) good, if something functions to gain wealth, then it must be good. In turn, we can know that society is functioning properly by observing that wealth is being accumulated. Such simplicity (that of accounting, say, pace parenthetical remarks of [10]) has been seductive.

Values & education

"Whatever is taught to small children, whatever the reason, is basically taught as religion" [PL6]: Whereas one can posit a direct opposition between tradition & empiricism, in practice, the former conditions the latter, and directly from birth onward, i.e. before one possesses the intellectual (or other) resources to implement any sort of "scientific method." (One might question one's earlier learning, even reject it, but one can never truly escape it: Mentality & memories exist bodily, in the brain & elsewhere.) So what is to be taught? How to do science? What about slugging your brother? (After all, violence produces legibility [PL8], "scientific" & otherwise: One can appraise the response, etc.) If one is reading this, one probably already has some distaste for the "dog eat dog" values of neoliberalism, yet these are taught relentlessly, and even universalized: Neoliberal values are imposed, by (military) force if need be, around the world. Yet they are also resisted — such that other incommensurable fundamentalisms also gain prominence [HR]: One might consequently conclude that the world is at war over values — but also over "voice" & territories (for expressing & housing those values). With whom does one identify? This is largely (although not for everyone) a matter of how one was raised, i.e. what one was taught, and such teaching is (emphatically!) not mostly about church or school: It's mostly about "home" [WF], and so commercial media & now internet (which dominate spaces far beyond the home, perhaps including church & school as well). Even as adults in public spaces (i.e. not online), even with some resources (intellectual & otherwise), one is immersed in such scenes as cutthroat (sports) competition serving as entertainment, often mixed with the depressive effects of alcohol [1], in bars featuring the same music over & over, garish lighting, and of course even more advertising. It's a lesson in what's (supposed to be) important, and particularly while it's being glorified, becomes our religion. (One's favorite team winning a championship is surely a spiritual moment for many in the interior today, and little wonder, since they've been trained to fetishize such a result their entire lives.) Yet as some experiences indeed become universalized, knowledge itself remains balkanized (with apologies to the actual Balkan people), broken down so that it might be traded & consumed: Political parties — & one might as well speak of "fraternity" parties, cults of personality unbound from principle — then insist (more violently) on their differences as their (economic) policies converge to the same neoliberal orthodoxy. Much as individual preferences are glorified by marketing (for products with little or no variation), once again [BM], the personal & universal are conflated & constricted in mutual proximity. (So in other words, we come to share the same "religion," while believing ever more passionately that we do not.[CA]) Such a fraught relation to "religion" comes to dominate interpersonal dynamics more broadly — much as it clouds exposition, including here.[2]

As a shift to the adult milieu already suggests, a poor childhood education is unlikely to be improved upon with age (although some people do learn later in life), particularly as the same pervasive messages continue & intensify: One might reject received wisdom, but for what? Communication is necessarily imperfect, which is why marketing & propaganda are increasingly ubiquitous, a situation facilitated by extreme concentrations of wealth. (It's one thing to have visible symbols everywhere, including in one's own home, but to have these messages constantly sounding — in human voice no less, and perhaps interactively — is an unprecedented novelty.) Yet it's mostly fractured communication: Buy this product! No, buy this product instead! (So there is a certain sameness, yet no harmony.[3] One might consider traditional religion to be inherently contradictory — & certainly this is the modern, scientific view — but it did provide a directly consistent message, subtle hypocrisies aside.) Moreover, such fractures run deep, e.g. into mind-body dualism, and from there into the distinction between conscious messaging & subconscious (bodily?) context. And how much of this situation is excluded from study by "science" per se, as a restricted (yet universalized) domain of knowledge? Or involves information asymmetry, e.g. via trade secrets?[MA] (So "philosophy" becomes the "religion" of science? What philosophy? What does it know?) How were we taught to handle what we don't understand, then? (Contemporary technology is not made to be understood anyway, at least not by most people: It thus produces further deadening of inquiry, basically religious awe.) Whereas neoliberal science preaches disdain for anything that cannot be quantified, religion has (traditionally, perhaps?) taught cautious respect for what isn't understood — and the difference in these attitudes, particularly as they play out in ecology today, cannot be overstated. Scientifically speaking, how is a "null hypothesis" constructed, for instance? (I hope that the reader will pause over this question, because it's constantly being obscured: Does the null hypothesis not mark a sort of religious position? Who decides? This is basic "religion" as meta-authority... defining the status quo.) What of fetishizing origins? Various secular creation stories mimic religion directly, but also deal with the origins of wealth in similar mythical fashion. (Adam Smith's creation story for money, for instance, is entirely fanciful & without evidence, yet still widely repeated, including by the general public.) Do any of these notions make us happy, pace the foregoing, or do they simply sustain the machine? Do they facilitate forging selves, including via love, or anything else worthwhile? Modernism was (at least in part) about optimism, & (so) what is our mood now? Is there a neoliberal afterlife?[4] What of delusions of safety, which most of us surely have — are they necessary to function? (Hope, and indeed religion itself, does bring resilience, as scientific studies demonstrate....) Or do they only keep us in misery — spiritual, economic, or otherwise?

As such questions (hopefully?) suggest, the point is not to harp on particular values here, but rather to advocate for (teaching) values in general. (What actually means something to someone? Hoarding one more dollar? Not for most people, at least not in my opinion....) What sort of teaching actually brings about — & surely in ongoing fashion, not as a fait accompli — the world one wants? What of what the student wants, or will want (or simply, wills)? Bluntly, it's not only factual — or physical — knowledge that's relevant or important. (There has been a sense that values should be taught by family, which is fine, but is that what actually happens in any explicit or functional sense? Most time at home is spent with mass media, or increasingly, video games etc. When are values taught? Oh, something is surely taught....) Attention ultimately forges & confirms authority [PL,CA], so to what do we attend? To what ought we attend? This is the main question here, and I am presenting it — emphatically — as a question of religion: Religion is not only (social) binding, but attention, watchfulness, cultivation... these are in turn its "truth."[5] One might (successfully) adopt empirical methods in order to tackle various aspects of these issues, such that there is no call to "discard science," but there is no (complete) science of value either. There is, perhaps, an art of value, though: The artist modulates attention, perhaps forging or interrogating or updating the religious in the process. However, it seems that such (artistic?) modulation happens most forcefully via the internet today, and so is increasingly sculpted by the most crass commercial concerns imaginable.[6] Perhaps one could ponder a network of value, then: If the internet consists (functionally) of competing religious authorities anyway [CA], what of hope for a different sort of network? Let's insist upon it — beyond hoping — and that starts with teaching, somehow, above the din. (And when it comes to public schools, at least in USA these days, the din includes bursts of gunfire, so it won't be easy.)

  1. Another significant drug of choice in the interior is, of course, caffeine — with its spur toward hyperactivity & then anxiety. Whereas public sociality might have developed around alcohol in part because it kills germs, unlike e.g. cannabis (which also functions as a social inducement, albeit a less violent one), those other factors have helped to propel industrial productivity & its corresponding regime of control. (The mass production of beer is often associated with the development of "civilization" per se, and I'm certainly not anti-beer in my personal life, nor anti-tea or coffee in moderation for that matter, although various religious movements have been....) What then of e.g. frankincense in the Catholic Church, and other traditional intoxicants? Moreover, what of the painkiller epidemic today? (The latter in particular seems to threaten to convert the human limits of mandatory excess production into non-productivity in ways alcohol never quite has.)

  2. Hence this attempt to extract a murky "religion" from my prior writings & shine a spotlight.... (This is a basic example & consequence of historical enfolding, of earlier concepts being denied & suppressed by subsequent developments, but never truly eliminated.)

  3. Notions of "harmony," at least while contrasting religious & secular authorities, (again [HR]) invoke tension between consistency & liking as principles of influence. How does this nexus articulate across modern & now postmodern conflicts? (Religious turns might even be called medievalisms, and so present more folds.) Doesn't feeling liked (or loved) involve feeling consistency or commitment? Such a question, in turn, suggests an interrogation of attachment styles: Insecure attachment has become a secular goal, or simply an outcome? (Postmodern society seems particularly adept at functionalizing pathologies.)

  4. Perhaps having no values can become a kind of (quasi-nomadic?) freedom. Isn't this a religious idea, though? Buddhist nirvana... the solitary tao... do not become involved. (Such notions are the opposite of contemporary evangelism, but not quite of social binding.) Yet, not becoming involved seems that much less... survivable in a world of encroaching ecological destruction. (And entrepreneurship is supposedly a solitary pursuit? I would differentiate "selfish" from solitary there.) One might not survive non-involvement in the future, making for a completely different setting than that forging those traditional values. (And perhaps environmental destruction is simply being folded into new mechanisms of control?) All that said, neoliberalism posits nothing after itself — unless it's more neoliberalism, via inherited wealth, such that one's money continues to live.

  5. Of course, neoliberalism doesn't respect "truth," not in the scientific or (traditional) religious senses, anyway: It respects money — according to its own religion of accumulation. (One might further suggest that neoliberals, and perhaps economic liberals before them, have played the conflict between these modes of knowledge to their own advantage.) Indeed, under neoliberalism, money (or price in the market) equals truth: It's very straightforward.

  6. Following Hito Steyerl, what of the value (in this case in terms of money, i.e. in the market) of art works? That such objects should come to involve millions of dollars in exchange in the face of bargain-driven, generically interchangeable consumer commerce is perhaps unsurprising. (It's a matter of scarcity, a longstanding principle of influence, and moreover a principle increasingly remodulated & reemphasized according to concerns of ecological collapse. Further, it becomes a matter of elitism.) Yet what of the authority thus granted to art & artist (by this notion of art as "investment" or even "currency") according to the terms of neoliberalism itself? Such authority is attenuated by treating an art work as atomized & independent, rather than as a matter of relation (including to its creator): The high price serves to rupture & extract it. If instead, art is about relation (as I've been treating it), then what of its network more broadly... its generated or generating network of value? In other words, in blunt summary, given its basic networked form, (artistic relations on or via e.g.) the internet could involve so much more.

Folds & tangents

Notions such as "belief in god" have been absent from this discussion so far: Instead, religion has been interrogated as social binding via traditional learning (of values, especially). Does it matter what values are taught? Of course it does, and that's the point. Still, theism is basically tangential to the topic, an accident of history: Or is it? Both the modern & postmodern have been excoriated (at least in critical theory, not so much in popular media) for their ongoing anthropomorphism, and presenting (a) "god" as (virtual) embodiment of poorly understood forces is simply a prior example. (Such a god is real in the same sense that intangible, impersonal forces are real, i.e. in that they intrude upon one's prior world — in other words, according to effect. Whether one prefers the hierarchical abstraction of monotheism to the many explanatory forces of polytheism is a further topic....) But how does such virtuality actually function in society? Whereas abuses of religion are well-known, the literal-mindedness — and indeed explicit focus on quantification — of contemporary (practical, in the sense of privileging economics) epistemology must be appraised according to its outcomes too. (Wouldn't that be empirical?) Isn't glorifying "nature" in all its various aspects & complexity exactly what we need in the face of ecological crisis? (And maybe people who were already doing this knew what they were doing all along?) Whereas the anthropomorphic surely has its explanatory limits — and these limits continue to be significant, including within a functionally atheist regime — it also presents an opening to the other, e.g. to stories as figuration of a reality far larger than ourselves. (Isn't this how people actually learn, in many arenas?) In particular, the notion that one can have no religion — short of a pathological childhood or subsequent devastation, leaving one devoid of social context — needs to be discarded [1]: Broad experience has shown that the most stridently anti-religious people behave in (virtually) religious ways (but often with "alternate" values), and modernism itself has long functioned as a religion — an increasingly desperate religion in recent decades. So what stories might be involved, and to what ends? This is a broad question, embracing virtuality.... (Neoliberalism is building its own repertory of tales, and some have become rather deeply embedded in only a few decades....)

A full-fledged religion (as binding) requires an aesthetic, a system (perhaps informal, but de facto) for ordering bodily sensation: Such an ordering (or hierarchy per [HR]) is a basic aspect of subject formation, and indeed of religion: What does one perceive, how does one perceive it, and — again — what is important? How might a (religious) aesthetic intertwine awe & seduction, freedom & coercion, say? Via what senses & sensations? (What is "freedom" with respect to an ordered subject position, anyway? Is religion "work" in the sense of art-as-work?[CA] Is it art?[2]) In the contemporary world, aesthetics is increasingly conditioned & animated by marketing & propaganda, to the extent that (formerly) religious symbols are deterritorialized & made to circulate as atomized images (aesthetic objects [WF]) — such deterritorialization already having been urgent for (modern) imperialists.[3] In this sense, prior religion is less instrumentalized than diffused, such that a new status quo can incorporate it seamlessly (& in small pieces) into the (neo)imperial profit regime via (superficial) incorporation of its images: Social binding, which is basically antithetical to selfishness, is thus reoriented to greed — a solitary pursuit in which (paradoxically) all can participate (especially while failing). Today, one is bound more to an economy than to a religion (in its more restrictive sense), further transforming notions of (divine) providence (which had always prefigured modern statecraft), etc. Moreover, while the religion of nationalism appears to have climaxed in the late modern era, we appear to be entering an era of neo-nationalism: Are postmodern "nations" about (or defined by) their own laws, and hence their sovereignty (which produces a kind of binding in turn), or about the (increasingly geological, but still also human) resources that they control (i.e. that are within their designated territories)? The national form has thus been transformed into residual leverage for exploitation by global corporations that now transcend it — having previously been nurtured by it. And in an ongoing reinflection of patriarchy, nature (i.e. as feminized, as opposed to the "male" economy, ironically deterritorialized from the home [RF]) is then portrayed as unreasonable, i.e. as in need of being made to yield to (resource & other) demands — by whatever force is required. Economics is thus placed not only in a transcendent position with respect to (withering, secular) politics, but with respect to ("natural") aesthetics: Little wonder that (public) arts funding is all but eliminated. (A disembedded economy thus becomes subject only to itself, in parallel to raising a neo-"merchant caste" above all others.)

Particularly in the modern (& in turn postmodern) era, (public, in the USA sense) education has relied largely on structures of governance: There is an ongoing debate as to whether religion proceeds or follows governance per se, but archeological evidence increasingly suggests that they arise together. (There are also suggestions that both arise from aesthetic "personality cults." Of course, there are also still various religious schools today, especially Catholic.) In that sense, that the concepts of the modern state are ultimately theological — and, as one might note (by way of the long, cyclical shadow of history), vice versa — is unremarkable.[4] And now "climate change," as part of a new ecology of fear (and hence control), refutes (human) transcendence & motivates a new theology in turn [CA]: We thus face a new, urgent mode of eschatology, already enfolding both (medieval) Christianity & modernity: How are we to be saved now? Perhaps more (directly) urgent around the modern-postmodern fold (again, principally articulated economically) is the question of how this (theological) transition inflects notions such as "merit" & ability.[5] (Notions of merit were always already theological, particularly as allocation retained its ritual form under the modern regime, even nominally absent religion.[RF,MA]) Again, what is important? Perhaps it's become cliché in this space, but postmodern enfolding continues to impose & prioritize debt & inheritance in particular — religious concepts, mind you, which can become theoretically infinite — as basic means of (biopolitical) control: So again (pace [RF]), what is the legacy of this debt-inheritance nexus, and how might it (truly) be reconfigured (rather than not-so-simply folded into further regimes of control)? What are the relevant values to learn (or, for that matter, unlearn)? What then is our proper debt & inheritance? (Whereas neoliberalism declares answers to these questions to be self-evident, modern imperialism had imposed such notions only by force. They have never been acclaimed, and indeed are straightforward questions of religion, i.e. of tradition & explicit transmission.) Moreover, on account of this nexus, laziness has come to permeate the interior, such that a "psychology of poverty" [6] increasingly undermines general helpfulness & social resilience. There is thus a powerful feedback loop, a sort of "turning of the screw" that must be reversed, perhaps with great effort (although such reversal should likewise gain momentum, once underway), perhaps subtly-artistically at first, in order to return actual values — embracing multiple, virtual figurations — to the center of both education & governance. Of course, such a "reset" is probably (much) more likely to arrive via massive, global disaster — not coincidentally, itself a longstanding religious image.

  1. Lacan had already suggested e.g. that psychoanalysis occupies a brief window before religion reasserts itself.[RF] And Byung-Chul Han has analogously noted that freedom is inherently brief, felt only when passing from one mode to another, and soon to shift into a new kind of compulsion under a new regime. (One might further analogize these observations to those concerning happiness by Ahmed et al.) Such transitions are themselves painful, and I'll further suggest that in the postmodern era, we've yet to grasp what our religion actually is — unless it's simply neoliberalism.

  2. The notion of "personal taste" was already a kind of leap of faith in the Enlightenment era [PL]: It arose as a counter-balance to increasing demands for rationalism. Aesthetics thus quickly became the shadow of (presumptively discarded, but merely enfolded) religion.

  3. For instance, one can read first person testimony regarding the (urgent) displacement of e.g. Mexican religious symbols under the Spanish conquest. (An alternative, of course, has been genocide — which some symbols do survive.)

  4. Nicholas Heron suggests (updating Schmitt) that early Christianity constructed an anti-politics, such that its theology was already a sort of depoliticized (i.e. heavenly, rather than of the earthly city) politics, yielding another kind of (public) assembly or state: "Civil Society" becomes a Christian heritage via providence & "divine economy." (Of course, as Christianity became preeminent — much as merchants were later to become preeminent — its sense of theological anti-politics became enmeshed in statecraft per se: Concepts of enfolding figure such a result as unidirectional.) One might further critique the Schmitt-ian response by noting that emphasis on origins arose only as modern faith in discovery faded [BM], i.e. as religious impulses were being further displaced (or enfolded).

  5. Indeed, Robert McRuer suggests that austerity — now a pillar of neoliberalism — makes no sense without concepts of ability (& so disability). Jasbir Puar adds, moreover, that neoliberalism increasingly denies an "adequate" threshold for ability, i.e. that there is no longer any such thing as being "meritorious enough" to warrant allocation — one must always do more. (In this sense, not only does debilitation per se become a biopolitical aim, but the more fluid the better: After all, a concrete & stable designation of "disabled" might bring its own kinds of rights & privileges, something murky ongoing debility can never do.)

  6. The notion of a "psychology of poverty," (of having nothing to spare) is from Sloterdijk — as are notions of interior.[MA] A desperate race to hoard more & more resources (& so to kill others, usually abroad — all to prove divine merit) has meant few resources remaining for physical or human infrastructure, including (especially) in the formerly robust modern states: It amazes me how little so many of the people around me believe they can accomplish as a group anymore, and that transformation has occurred over a mere two generations. Now they mostly avoid taking responsibility for actual outcomes, while fretting about "saving money" — amid all the crumbling institutions & soaring debts. (I also disagree with many or most of Sloterdijk's suggested cures, which ultimately validate the modern, imperial impulse. However, some of his explanatory structures have been helpful. Much of this work on debt per se otherwise continues to come from Graeber & Lazzarato — with whom I more often find myself in broad agreement.)

Further orientation

Please see Basic mechanics of modernity for an introduction to this sub-project....
Or go back to Concepts of contemporary authority.

Todd M. McComb
25 February 2018
Re-edited for flow & clarity: 24 April 2018