Thursday, November 27, 2014

Theology and Ferguson (Roundup)

Listed below are five of the most interesting and provocative theological posts on Ferguson that I have come across. All are must-reads. Please add additional relevant posts in the comments:

  1. "Honor The Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision" (Richard Beck at Experimental Theology). Key quote: "Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status. And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage."
  2. "Justice is Possible #Ferguson" (Anthony Smith at Theoblogy). Key quote: "...I can hear Derrida protesting by saying, 'Deconstruction is justice.' We can attain some relative racial justice if we could only deconstruct the entirety of the American system.  In the case of our criminal justice system the issue of mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, communities being policed in a racially disproportionate manner mitigating vast chasms of cultural misunderstandings."
  3. "A Sad Night for America" (Jim Wallis at Sojourners). Key quote: "Whatever the facts might have revealed in the trial that will never happen, the time is long overdue to subject our criminal justice system to the requirements of racial justice. The racialization of that system and its policing behavior toward people of color is beyond dispute. The police force in Ferguson that is completely unrepresentative of the community and whose behavior has caused such deep alienation among the people they are supposed to serve and protect has become a parable. Ferguson has become a parable in America, for how black lives are less important in the ways our laws are enforced. Ferguson is not only in Ferguson."
  4. "'All Lives Matter'" (Adam Kotsko at An und fur sich). Key quote: "The black community in America is on the side of justice, objectively. They’ve seen what evil looks like on a systematic level by living in the machine we’ve built around them, and overwhelmingly, they reject it as a model. Hence at the time that the white community had produced the “best and brightest,” the architects of the Vietnam War, the black community produced Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the Civil War, when even the most liberal whites were still racist and viewed the abolition of slavery as the end-all of justice, the black community produced Frederick Douglass, who could see beyond his own immediate struggle to advocate for women’s rights." 
  5. "Michael Brown's Death & the Prophetic Fire" (Cornel West & Peter Heltzel at NY Daily News). Key quote: "And so here is our Thanksgiving prayer — the plea to God and humanity from two prophetic Christians, one black and one white, one young and one old, confronted by our own complicity in a sinful system, but united by our common call to be just peacemakers: As we gather at tables, grieving the state of our nation, may we gain spiritual strength for the journey ahead, drawing on the deepest wells of wisdom from those on whose shoulders we stand and the various faith traditions that have fueled their freedom march and continue to energize ours."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

REVIEW: "The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism" by Steven Shaviro

Before jumping into my review of Steven Shaviro's new book, I want to provide a quick summary of the philosophers that he is engaging throughout the text.

One of the most interesting trends in recent philosophy is what is sometimes called Speculative Realism. The name comes from a conference in 2007 at the University of London that brought together four very different philosophers who nevertheless were united in their efforts to resurrect realist metaphysics: Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Each of them hold quite different metaphysical positions, but all four critique what they name "philosophies of correlation." As a theologian and not a philosopher, I can't help but make a connection to my field here. Just as the Radical Orthodox movement identifies a key moment in the history of philosophy (for RO, this is Duns Scotus' univocity) that leads to its destructive decline, the Speculative Realists point back to Kant's apparently disastrous argument that the thing-in-itself is unknowable.

Meillassoux defines correlationism as "the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other." This created a tendency in philosophy to privilege epistemology (how we know) over ontology (what is known), which for SR is particularly evident in phenomenology and deconstruction, both of which at least "bracket" ontology - and in some cases reject ontology or metaphysics entirely. The four members of SR agree that post-Kantian philosophies of correlation are deeply anthropocentric because of their obsession with epistemology and their corresponding refusal to speculate about what is real. Particularly in our time of ecological crisis, they believe that it is time to push back against the extremism of the linguistic turn in philosophy, to resist the excesses of social constructivism, and to once again speculate about the "great outdoors" in order to give nonhuman nature its own genuine reality. Today, SR has continually expanded with a number of younger thinkers following in the wake of the original four philosophers.

While I'm not quite sure about the debate over correlationism (John Caputo has recently come out to partly defend it against what he believes is a serious misunderstanding by SR), as a Whiteheadian, I certainly appreciate the move toward speculative philosophy, critical realism, and anthrodecentric metaphysics. This is why Steven Shaviro's new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, which puts the philosophy of Whitehead in conversation with SR, caught my attention. Perhaps some philosophers will have problems with certain aspects of this text, but I found it to be a very helpful overview of SR. Shaviro's work on Whitehead in his previous publications was interesting to me because he completely bypasses process theology and just works with a nonreligious, atheological reading of Whitehead (inspired by Isabelle Stenger's approach). While this is obviously not my own approach, I appreciate this move because it offers fresh insights into process thought from a more secular perspective.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent summary of SR, noting its similarities to the New Materialism and connections to the thought of Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze. The first chapter stages an interesting encounter between Whitehead and Levinas in order to show how the latter wrongly privileges ethics and transcendence over ontology, aesthetics, and immanence while Whitehead essentially does the opposite. Chapters 2 and 3 bring Whitehead into conversation with Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology, partly in order to show how the latter can help us read Whitehead's work in a new way, but also to defend Whitehead's focus on relations and events over Harman's focus on objects as substances. Shaviro ultimately sees the two thinkers offering contrasting rather than totally contradictory ontologies while admitting he is still more persuaded by process thought than OOO.

Chapters 4 and 5 are fascinating explorations of panpsychism as a possible response to correlationism, thereby giving all things a degree of 'mind' in order to decenter the human. This is something I've written about before in my engagement with the New Materialism and was thrilled to see a parallel move in Shaviro's work. It was helpful to see that Harman and Grant are open to this move while Brassier and Meillassoux resist it by totally eliminating subjectivity, as opposed to redistributing it throughout nature with something like panpsychism. This also has the effect of making the latter two much more radically nihilistic in their thinking. Chapter 6 extends Shaviro's argument for panpsychism into a debate, primarily with Meillasoux in order to show he is not anti-correlationist enough in his eliminativist ontology. Chapter 7, the final part of the book, unpacks Shaviro's ultimate effort to develop a new strand of SR with Whitehead (and a bit of Deleuze, as well as Kant - perhaps surprisingly) that he calls "speculative aesthetics."

As a theologian who is always trying to engage cutting-edge philosophy, I'm grateful for this book's readable way in to the Speculative Realist discussion. I realize that there is much debate about SR as a "movement" and deep hostility between some of the original four SR philosophers, so I will remain cautious in my future engagements with these thinkers and whatever becomes of SR in the future. It is, however, encouraging to see a metaphysical turn in contemporary philosophy and to see philosophers that I appreciate, like Whitehead, Deleuze, Schelling, Latour, and Barad all being drawn into this ongoing conversation. Shaviro is not a professional philosopher, as he is always quick to point out, but is actually a cultural critic. As a side note, I was able to attend his book release at the New School in New York City last night and found him to be not just an impressive thinker and gifted speaker, but actually very humble, gracious and respectful of others. Even when the tense politics of SR came up, he avoided name-calling or speaking ill of anyone. Let's hope that kind of attitude can be a model for the future of this conversation amongst the new realists.