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Culture & Barbarism
April 17, 2009 8:25 PM   Subscribe


 
Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?

Talking about God really isn't the problem. The problem is talking to God. Or more specifically, God talking to you. And God tells you to do crazy things like blow up other people because they're talking to some other God. That's just crazy, and God isn't crazy (misguided and lonely sometimes, but not crazy). Or so he tells me.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:02 PM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


From the article: "radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith"

This is easy to say about many faiths, and sects thereof: Compare and contrast believers' words spoken and actions taken with the scripture, gospel and verse they carry around in their back pockets and contradictions will be easy to pick out.

At the same time, "radicals," or any sect, community, branch, etc. have a version of the faith that IS their own, and they understand that very well indeed.
posted by longsleeves at 9:02 PM on April 17, 2009


What strange and marvel-filled world has this man been living on the past 30 years, that he's "suddenly" hearing talk about God?
posted by Caduceus at 9:16 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?"

What? Who is this joker? No one ever *stopped*. Oh, he's a literary critic. That might explain it.

Only in the ivory towers of academia or enclaves of self-satisfied urban materialists did the metaphysical obsession of mankind ever seem irrelevant or no longer a going concern. It has always been there, and for the foreseeable future it always will, because human beings are primitive creatures with a primate brain hard-wired to think religiously.

Nothing happens of any significance in human society unless it is reflected in literature, according to this guy's apparent world view. An astonishingly out of touch perspective.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:20 PM on April 17, 2009


because human beings are primitive creatures with a primate brain hard-wired to think religiously.

That's highly questionable all around, no? Which creatures make humans look primitive?
posted by Burhanistan at 9:35 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


What? Who is this joker? No one ever *stopped*. Oh, he's a literary critic. That might explain it.

Terry Eagleton is prolific scholar and intellectual historian. His interests, as the article demonstrates, exceed literary theory proper and encompass a large area of topics.

Nothing happens of any significance in human society unless it is reflected in literature, according to this guy's apparent world view.

I did not get this from the article, nor have I ever gotten it from any of Eagleton's writings. I found the example of Mann's The Magic Mountain to be elucidating of the two poles that Eagleton is attempting to describe in this essay, and not at all a statement about the centrality of literature in "human society."

What strange and marvel-filled world has this man been living on the past 30 years, that he's "suddenly" hearing talk about God?

I think Eagleton is referring to both the "God Wars" phenomenon, and the (in my opinion more profound) academic discussion on the topic of "secularism." Charles Taylor has published a new book entitled A Secular Age, which, among other works, has reinvigorated a discussion about religion and society. I think Eagleton's article points out a central concern of this "new" discussion about religion: that secularism doesn't so much mean a final victory of Enlightenment rationality over myth, but a new and different relationship to religion as a social phenomenon.
posted by Dia Nomou Nomo Apethanon at 9:39 PM on April 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


Holy shit. I tried for a long time to counter some of this author's points, but his language is just so damn over done and flowery that every point I thought I organized well, could have been countered by a wish-wash reading of a later, ridiculously complex sentence in his essay. He's either that great a mind, or I'm just a shit head.

But dammit man. Write your essay, then delete a fourth of the characters. Then if it still makes the points you want, delete another fourth. Continue on until your text no longer makes the points you want and go back one step. You aren't Tolkien.

[Terry Eagleton] is but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


Look at that, even ol' Billy can summarize this shit.
posted by Science! at 9:49 PM on April 17, 2009


I don't really see that the author has a purpose other than to restate many obvious things with two dollar words and literary allusions?

Also, Burhanistan, I think Henry C. Mabuse means primitive in the sense of "closely approximating an early ancestral type." Which is to say, not so far removed from what we normally consider primitive as we like to think.
posted by Nomiconic at 9:54 PM on April 17, 2009


From the article: "radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith"

This is easy to say about many faiths, and sects thereof: Compare and contrast believers' words spoken and actions taken with the scripture, gospel and verse they carry around in their back pockets and contradictions will be easy to pick out.
It's actually been reported specifically that most captured terrorists don't actually know much about their religion. And if you're going to blow up buildings and kill yourself in the name of Allah, it would make sense to at least learn the details, but apparently that doesn't happen.

That's highly questionable all around, no? Which creatures make humans look primitive?

Robots! But really, it's kind of an odd statement. Humans have been pretty much unchanged over the past few thousand years. Of course, humans today are educated in a very different way from those in history, and education plays a huge role in how people think.
posted by delmoi at 10:09 PM on April 17, 2009


I tried for a long time to counter some of this author's points, but his language is just so damn over done and flowery that every point I thought I organized well, could have been countered by a wish-wash reading of a later, ridiculously complex sentence in his essay.

First, why were you bent on countering his points? Second, that's a pretty ridiculously complex sentence you've got there, Science! (Just kidding - it's not so bad.)
posted by The World Famous at 10:18 PM on April 17, 2009


Nothing happens of any significance in human society unless it is reflected in literature, according to this guy's apparent world view. An astonishingly out of touch perspective.

That's not at all his perspective. In his latest book (which is where all of the material in this essay is apparently drawn from) I don't recall him discussing literature at all... literary theory is where he made a name for himself (as both an historian of the ways in which literature has been analyzed, and as a critic of postmodernist thought), but, as DNNA said above, his lens has a wider angle than that.

The aforementioned book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, is drawn from talks Eagleton gave as a part of Yale's Terry Lectures last year. I personally found it very compelling, but his notions regarding religion's value were ideas for which I already felt some sympathy.
posted by the_bone at 10:25 PM on April 17, 2009


Terry Eagleton has been saying literally the same thing over and over for the past decade and a half, so if you think there's something fishy about his points, it's because he's suffering from the academic version of bit rot. This article, in particular, reads like a writing exercise wherein Eagleton attempts to repeat the same paragraph twenty times using slightly different phrasing (this accounts for the awkwardness of some of the prose).
posted by nasreddin at 10:28 PM on April 17, 2009


It's actually been reported specifically that most captured terrorists don't actually know much about their religion.

Yes I wholly agree with that observation, and the idea applies to every system of thought on any subject from blind faith to pure science when exploited. What's easier for a manipulator? To teach an underling the least amount of information about X that's needed to get the person to do what the teacher wants; or to lead them in a long, complex course of study involving learning languages, and how to study radically different, and maybe dead, cultures, and then after all that convince the underlings that the teacher's ideas are correct. This is also the same thing that many, many people have said before. As are a lot of the ideas in this essay.

Which as others are saying is a common trait in his writings.

I didn't really feel bent on counter his points. The essay was readable enough to get me to the next paragraph, though I skimmed a few. Every time I got annoyed I started to write, then realized it wouldn't really amount to anything, just like the original essay (ZIINNGG!) and gave up.
posted by Science! at 10:35 PM on April 17, 2009


Also, pay attention to his lazy deployment of binaries like "culture/civilization," which are devoid of any concrete content whatsoever and break down on closer analysis. Whenever you see someone doing that, it's generally an academic in the humanities who is trying to demonstrate his relevance outside of his field and failing to do so. It's very easy to compartmentalize the world using empty analytical categories and then endlessly bloviate on the basis of these distinctions--in fact, that's a skill one is specifically trained to have. (I say this as a future academic in the humanities.)
posted by nasreddin at 10:49 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


thanks for this. the language was a bit overdone, but I enjoyed the nuanced take on the relationship of religion to civilization. If this is what Eagleton has been saying for the past fifteen years, then maybe he should say it louder. It seems that most dialogue about the place of religion in society is driven by visceral hatred/mistrust of either religion or secularism, and neglects examining what has been gained and also lost in the trend toward secularization of the past couple centuries. Maybe I'll catch him at the Gifford Lectures in 2010.
posted by nangua at 11:26 PM on April 17, 2009


Also, pay attention to his lazy deployment of binaries like "culture/civilization," which are devoid of any concrete content whatsoever and break down on closer analysis....It's very easy to compartmentalize the world using empty analytical categories and then endlessly bloviate on the basis of these distinctions

I'm not sure these categories are really all that empty (though would be happy to accept any enlightening as to why they are). They just seem like rough categories doing some explanatory work in an intellectual model. If your point is that humanities scholars often use imprecise categories to explain the world, then sure I guess that's true.
posted by nangua at 11:39 PM on April 17, 2009


Does anyone know where I can go to read the theological informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger? Who's writing this stuff?
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:56 PM on April 17, 2009


I'm not sure these categories are really all that empty (though would be happy to accept any enlightening as to why they are). They just seem like rough categories doing some explanatory work in an intellectual model. If your point is that humanities scholars often use imprecise categories to explain the world, then sure I guess that's true.

It's not that they're imprecise. It's that when applied to actual history, they make no sense at all. (Admittedly Eagleton didn't make up the distinction or even the nomenclature--we have some old Germans to thank for that.)

Consider, say, the Middle Ages. Eagleton says that the cathedrals were "civilization," and presumably he would say that the Inquisition or the witch-burnings were "culture." But the Gothic architectural aesthetic is defined by contradistinction to two classicizing movements that bounded it--Romanesque architecture on the one hand and Renaissance architecture on the other. In this sense the Gothic, with its profusion of sculptural excrescences and gargoyles, is occupying the "irrationalist," "culture" pole. On the other hand, the Gothic cathedrals relied on a mathematicized structural precision unknown in the Romanesque era--so here they are "rationalist" "civilization." It turns out that the very same thing looks like culture when viewed from one angle and like civilization when viewed from another. The Inquisition is the same way. From one point of view, it represents the dark, emotional forces of religious hatred (culture) unleashed on the previously tolerant society of medieval Spain and southern France (civilization). From another, it represents the systematic deployment of rational bureaucratic systems of control (civilization) over a much more informal, face-to-face social order (culture).

It's not useful to reduce phenomena to being merely cultural or merely civilized. Any time we force a reduction like that, we are likely to miss the complexity of our object--the fact that it manifests different characteristics in different contexts. What is interesting about cathedrals and inquisitions is not that they are civilized or cultural, it's that the differences between their various facets outweigh the superficial coherence of that dichotomy.
posted by nasreddin at 11:58 PM on April 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


It's not useful to reduce phenomena to being merely cultural or merely civilized.

Nowhere does Eagleton suggest that cathedrals are merely cultural. By reading that into the piece I think you are missing the point of his civ./culture dichotomy. He's using this dichotomy as a tool to discuss and understand where we stand. The historical influences on cathedral architecture has nothing to do with it.

It seems that only by stepping back and making these larger claims do we get to say the kinds of things that he wants to say. Do you disagree with his conclusion? Do you think his question* is a worthwhile one? If so, what tools do you think are better suited to answering it?


* Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:15 AM on April 18, 2009


It seems that only by stepping back and making these larger claims do we get to say the kinds of things that he wants to say. Do you disagree with his conclusion? Do you think his question is a worthwhile one? If so, what tools do you think are better suited to answering it?

His "larger claims" allow him to construct an edifice of bullshit that ignores the specificity of the various agents and structures he claims to be basing his argument upon. For one thing, as people in this thread have pointed out, "the God question" never went away. For another, the specific conjunction of figures like Dawkins and Hitchens and the perfect storm of debate over atheism that they spawned is almost entirely an Anglo-American thing. Neither Russians nor Frenchmen nor Chinese are confronting anything like the stark dichotomy he proposes, and they do not need to overcome it.

His conclusion, likewise, is trivial. Give anyone a line stretching between two extremes and it is almost inevitable that he will choose a spot in the middle. Hey, we should all learn from each other! Wouldn't that be nice! On closer examination, though, the justification breaks down. Why is it that the Left should pay attention to theology? Because it holds "the most informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger." (I don't have anything against theology, but this claim is patently false. The amount of attention being paid to Badiou in contemporary philosophical circles far outstrips what he gets from the theologians. Same for the rest.) But that doesn't mean anything unless you belong to a particular group of leftists (postmodernists and their neighbors) whose political engagements are completely irrelevant outside of academia. Eagleton tries to paint this group as representing a third path, but the legitimacy of this position is contingent upon his reader's accepting that Deleuze and Badiou are examples of "critical reflection" and that there are such people as "liberal dogmatists" and "doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress." If the reader accepts neither of those claims--that is, if she doesn't already belong to this particular choir--Eagleton has nothing whatsoever to offer her.

I mean, sure, you can go ahead and accept the third-way alternative. I am more on its side than on any of the others. But don't pretend Eagleton has anything to say about it that you didn't already believe.
posted by nasreddin at 12:52 AM on April 18, 2009


I mean, it's clear what he really wants to say. He wants to drag out the stinking corpse of Marxism and prop it up on the third-way throne. But of course he realizes that such a move would now be passé, so he settles for the theologians, who at least talk about Marx like he's still relevant.
posted by nasreddin at 12:56 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is obviously something that's right in your field and I'm definitely an amateur at this. I'll bow out, but I'm still curious who the theologians are that are talking the Marxist jive these days. Do have names of people or books you can suggest?
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:45 AM on April 18, 2009


cathedrals and the middle ages generally seem an odd example, since part of his argument is that Christendom (and religiously oriented people groups generally) was able to fuse better than anything since the rough and ready nature of politics, toleration, pragmatism (i.e. civilization) with irrationality, longing for significance, tradition (i.e. culture). I suspect what he's really after with these categories is a dichotomy between pragmatic enlightenment era values versus irrational romantic era values as evidenced by:

If Marxism once held out a promise of reconciling culture and civilization, it is partly because its founder was both a Romantic humanist and an heir of Enlightenment rationalism.

In the essay as a whole his point seems to be that the status quo in the west is for the enlightenment values to be the values of the public sphere and the romantic values to be the values of the private sphere. The problem being that the values which generate loyalty and sacrifice (the romantic ones) aren't attached to the institutions which make up the public sphere (i.e. gov't, nations, banks, businesses) and thus these institutions are fragile and lacking in humanity. But maybe I've got that wrong (it's late and he's not really a good writer).

You may be right about the whole "stinking corpse of Marxism", but he's also pretty clear that theology is interesting for him more generally because of its scope. For example:


theology, however implausible many of its truth claims, is one of the most ambitious theoretical arenas left in an increasingly specialized world-one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and transcendental destiny of humanity itself. These are not issues easily raised in analytic philosophy or political science. Theology’s remoteness from pragmatic questions is an advantage in this respect.


This kind of scope may lead some thinkers down the path of Marxism, but it can also open up avenues to novel ideas about other modes of living.
posted by nangua at 2:34 AM on April 18, 2009


and yeah, upon reflection his last three sentences are crap.
posted by nangua at 2:52 AM on April 18, 2009


Eagletons' Terry Lectures are available online here, if you have Real player.
posted by RussHy at 5:11 AM on April 18, 2009


Thanks for the post and for the comments which have helped me make sense of it. As is so often the case.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:32 AM on April 18, 2009


Which creatures make humans look primitive?

Dolphins.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:45 AM on April 18, 2009


The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own.

I think he really wanted to be.... A LION TAMER!
posted by storybored at 7:22 AM on April 18, 2009


In the essay as a whole his point seems to be that the status quo in the west is for the enlightenment values to be the values of the public sphere and the romantic values to be the values of the private sphere. The problem being that the values which generate loyalty and sacrifice (the romantic ones) aren't attached to the institutions which make up the public sphere (i.e. gov't, nations, banks, businesses) and thus these institutions are fragile and lacking in humanity. But maybe I've got that wrong (it's late and he's not really a good writer).

This is more substantive than what I got out of it. Still, variations on this same point have been made by everyone from Max Weber to Leo Strauss. (Strauss, in particular, built his career on the claim that liberalism was doomed because of the contradictions involved in tolerating the intolerable.)

You may be right about the whole "stinking corpse of Marxism", but he's also pretty clear that theology is interesting for him more generally because of its scope.

More specifically, I'd say it's interesting for him because it's one of the few disciplines we have left that can ask the same questions as Marxism.
posted by nasreddin at 7:46 AM on April 18, 2009


I'm not actually that familiar with the theology side of things--I'm kind of taking him at his word. I do know that the "Radical Orthodoxy" movement has been fairly deeply engaged with Continental philosophy (Milbank recently had a high-profile public debate with Zizek--check out The Monstrosity of Christ). I think there are other traditions as well.
posted by nasreddin at 7:57 AM on April 18, 2009


One of my favorite contemporary Russian novels is interspersed with fake projects for ad clips. One of them, I think, is particularly apropos:
Russia was always notorious for the gap between culture and civilization. Now there is no more culture. No more civilization. The only thing that remains is the Gap. The way they see you ®
posted by nasreddin at 9:38 AM on April 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


It's not useful to reduce phenomena to being merely cultural or merely civilized. Any time we force a reduction like that, we are likely to miss the complexity of our object--the fact that it manifests different characteristics in different contexts.

nasreddin, I didn't read him as reducing his discussion to these terms so much as using these terms as a starting point. they're a means, not an end; in much the same way that these reductively simplistic terms enabled your analysis of the complexities of medieval cathedrals.


Does anyone know where I can go to read the theological informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger? Who's writing this stuff?

this isn't the most useful answer to this question, but I have a friend whose academic work was trying for a synthesis of radical feminism and Catholic theology. this took me by surprise when I first found out about it, and she explained how they have a common grounding in phenomenology that she could use to bridge the two discourses. John Paul II was a philosopher, after all.
posted by spindle at 9:43 AM on April 18, 2009


The fact that radical feminism and Catholic theology can be brought together under the "common grounding of phenomenology" pretty much sums up postmodernism for me. We certainly have invented a labyrinth of a language.
posted by ageispolis at 9:50 AM on April 18, 2009


I couldn't resist:

MetaFilter: talking the Marxist jive these days.
posted by rdone at 9:55 AM on April 18, 2009


The fact that radical feminism and Catholic theology can be brought together under the "common grounding of phenomenology" pretty much sums up postmodernism for me. We certainly have invented a labyrinth of a language.

Exactly. Everyone in the liberal arts should be required to read a bunch of Wittgenstein, so with any luck they'll change their majors.
posted by phrontist at 11:07 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does anyone know where I can go to read the theological informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger? Who's writing this stuff?

I recently took a grad class in Political Theology, so at least some people are thinking and writing about this stuff. Our course mostly looked at the divide between religiosity and secularism, starting with the problem of Paul and the Jews, moved to political jurisprudence (ie what authority does secular authority have), discussed the problem of sacrifice and religion, and concluded with an examination of the confluence of religion and capitalism - Weber, Luther, Badiou, and so on.

Some highlights:

Georges Bataille fits your question on who is writing about these topics from a theological perspective - he considered the seminary. In particular, his books Theory of Religion and The Accursed Share are accessible, though dense. In Theory of Religion he talks about the problem of immanence - of being fully present, of immediacy - which he sets up as opposite to 'thingness' - of using people and things instrumentally, of subordinating them, and setting yourself against nature. He argues that it is through sacrifice that we escape from this utility. A lot of this book is premised on the idea that there is this inner drive through negation, that we desire death as the ultimate expression of life even though we fear it. In The Accursed Share he asks why modern capitalism requires accumulation and tries to explain it - part of is explanation is that it derives from the impulse to give everything a purpose, a utility, rather than accepting it as purely excess.

Much denser, Alenka Zupancic also talks about the problems of excess and capitalism, though more working through a Hegelian lens. Her essay is called "When Surplus Value Meets Surplus Enjoyment," and is in an edited volume on Lacan.

Walter Benjamin in 1921 wrote a great sort essay, "Capitalism as Religion," in which he argues that capitalism fulfills the same needs that religion did, and that the rise of secularism and the rise of capitalism are linked. In talking about capitalism as "a cultic religion" and its relationship to guilt, he is parallel with Freud.

Norman Brown's book Life Against Death also deals explicitly with the rise of capitalism and what it means theologically. Part V, "Anality" is somewhat crazy and all over the place, but is worth is for his discussion of money as shit and Luther flinging shit at the devil alone.

He also wrote a lot about the problem of time (which Deleuze, Badiou, Marx, etc. all were interested in), but from a theological perspective, setting the cyclical structure of returning prophets (what he terms prophetic time), from the now linear structure set up by Christian theology. This is in Islam and the Prophetic Tradition, which is forthcoming, but is basically a reprint of some lectures he gave at Duke in the 1980's. In this new religious linear time, you now have this constant looking forward for first the initial sacrifice of Christ on the Cross (the transfigurative event) and then the second looking forward to the return of Christ and the end of time. He argues that this teleological structure represents a major shift in thinking (in Bataille's terms, from thinking of events as means to events as ends, and then the problem of what the world will look like after this transfigurative, apocalyptic moment, which you can see echoed in Hegel, Marx et al.


Philiop Rieff
's book Charisma is fascinating, and pretty straightfoward. I haven't red the whole things, but argues that the original impetus for obedience came from a charismatic religious figure (touches of Weber here), and hence that with the secularization of our legal structure, it has lost the heart of its efficacy."

Okay, sorry that was so long. I think its a really interesting topic, particularly the relationship between time, religion, capitalism and accumulation. Particularly looking towards the future of capitalism in this time of global financial collapse and looming environmental catastrophe, this theological and philosophical thinking offers some ways to re-orient our thinking about capitalism. If you're really interested, I have pdfs of the essays I mentioned.
posted by foodmapper at 11:44 AM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


foodmapper, thanks! I found what looks to the the Benjamin here. It is indeed very short; is that it?
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:55 PM on April 18, 2009


wemayfreeze, it looks the same, though a different translation. Hope the above is useful to you if you decide to investigate further.
posted by foodmapper at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2009


This is, if I were paid to do so, the essay that I'd write about radical Islam vs. the West. The conclusion that "flag-wavers" and "dogmatists" need to get out of the way is where I end up on most intractable debates.

But they won't, will they? It's god that he's explained precisely why, at least in terms of his own field, but it won't bring the world any closer to a solution.
posted by saysthis at 6:09 PM on April 19, 2009


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