“All Lives Matter”

“One thing I have been paying attention to,” said a friend of mine recently as he responded to the past week’s events. “Is how much people are equating ‘speaking out’ with what others are sharing on social media. As if that somehow represents the zenith of a responsible social conscious and is the best, most serious gauge on how people feel and what they think. Like those of us who have refrained from digitally expressing outrage, condolences, etc. etc., have to apologize to the rest of the world for keeping our mouths shut and being thought fools.”

He went on to give what’s turned out to be one of the most resonant pieces of observation I’ve read in a long time:

It is embarrassing that as a culture we have decided that sharing and posting online constitute meaningful dialogue and serious commitment – even if we’re “signing a petition.” Social media is far less about “dialogue” (meaningful conversation) than it is about “monologue” (shouting your opinion into the open air). And often times those opinions are not backed by action, let alone thoughtful, consistent commitments toward alleged concerns.

Finally, he hits his real zinger:

The truth is, what we really want is pats on the back, little back rubs, call them what you will, validating our ideas. We done well, saying X is bad and Y is good.

This cut to the quick, and I mean hard, especially in light of my last post. In that post, I expressed the belief that “being capable of responding,” as David Tracy argues, places us in a situation where we should say something. Of course, the other side of the coin is that, when one has very little to say it is often best to keep silent. Silence, however, has become tantamount to complicity in the digital age, while there is no patience for the type of “speaking out” which Tracy advocates because, frankly, that kind of activism doesn’t move fast enough for the contemporary culture. At this point the single worst thing you can apparently do is decide that you’re not going to participate in the masturbatory politics of social media.

This is almost exactly what I predicate my Freshman writing courses on: the need to develop and perform strategies of wise, thoughtful engagement when our technology enables and even expects us to do the exact opposite. Believe it or not, today’s college students hate the way the public forum works, too.

But one question which I’ve failed to address, and have honestly not given enough thought to, is simply this: Where? Where does one actually find a place in which to perform the kind of measured discourse which might produce effective politics? I can list a few options: The academy, the Church, public hearings organized by the State, official debate forums… All of these fall apart very quickly. Even this platform right here proves to be a misery, because as soon as I finish this blog post, I am going to share it. I am going to ask people to read it and I will be interested in what they think. The moment that happens, an entire cultural apparatus is going to pick it up and turn it into precisely the kind of artifact that my friend decried.

Writing and critical thought themselves have, for these reasons, become a sort of hypocrisy in a culture that doesn’t want to wait for them to do their extended work. The political climate in which we find ourselves is like that of a huge frozen lake that’s begun to crack under our feet; long, cruel, spidery cracks that dare us to try something.

“Come, let us reason together,” say the writer and the critic as they explore the territory, methodically tapping their ways across the ice and looking for strong places to lay their weight.

“Get over here, you’re going to get us killed!” screams everybody else, as the ice groans under their collective ideological baggage where they’ve huddled together for familiar warmth, not thinking for a moment that this might be precisely what causes the fatal collapse.

We no longer have any patience for anything which doesn’t amount to out-and-out confirmation bias. We are, in short, obsessed with the ideological use of the products which we continually churn out into the public sphere. We have commercialized our speech and determined its value based on how well it makes us feel good about X or demonizes Y.

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has a prognosis for all this, and it’s not good:

Contemporary politics is this devastating experiment that disarticulates and empties institutions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities all throughout the planet, so as then to rehash and reinstate their definitively nullified form.

These empty, “nullified” form of activism are precisely what you get when social media becomes “the zenith of a responsible social conscience.” We have no patience for any form of thought or identity which can’t be incarnated in the all-mighty emoticon. Our culture has collectively decided that it will use technology to evacuate communication of its content and power before promptly turning around and insisting that it’s done no such thing. “Now shut the hell up,” says Facebook, “and put this flag filter on your profile picture.”

“I’m tired of seeing Life politicized,” says Agamben. “Through terror, through the complete commodification of the human being, through racism, through capitalist structures. Identity politics. Through the Medical establishment. Even through religion.”

Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac has similar words:

People imagine that by reducing everything to immanence, everything, beginning with himself, would be given back to man; on the contrary, it meant robbing him of everything he possessed and “alienating” him absolutely. For it implied reducing everything to duration.

“The sole form in which life as such can be politicised,” says Agamben, “is its unconditioned exposure to death – that is, bare life.” This unconditioned exposure to death — the Orlando shooting, the killing of a black man in Houston, retaliatory killings of a number of police officers in Dallas — all of these deaths have exposed people to the fact that their political status is implicitly “reduced to duration,” namely the length of time for which they are useful for producing useful material. “The way in which humanism, which regards man as the supreme value, ‘gives value to man’ ends by resembling the exploitation of land or livestock.”

That is how you commodify a person, their words and thoughts: you reduce their identity to their usefulness in a competitive capitalist superstructure which is only interested in itself. The unconditioned exposure to death jars them, they begin to face down this reality and they start asking questions. They realize they have been “disfigured,” as de Lubac says, they demand a ground for their being. That is what a movement like Black Lives Matter is, in the end, all about: “Tell us we’re valuable! Tell us why we’re valuable! Show us!”

“All Lives Matter,” is the insidious response, and insidious because of this: there is nothing actually on-offer. Those who have faced down death, the bareness of their lives, have asked for something absolute, something particular, some assurance which does not reduce them to their labor, and culture has nothing to give them. “All Lives Matter,” we chant, “Black Lives Matter, Pray for Orlando, End the Hate” and the utter emptiness which those words disguise weighs them down.

Because, in the end every single statement of either solidarity or revolution spoken into the politicized sphere of social media is recast within that platform as a mere assertion rather than providing hurting, frightened people with the ground of Being which they are demanding. The public sphere we have created divides every issue into clean black-and-white, us-and-them, and paradoxically this clean division utterly erases the particularity of individual situations, it ravenously co-opts and appropriates real people into its sprawling ideological narrative.

The erasure of people and particulars for the maintenance of that narrative ultimately guarantees that all our most heartfelt prayers and protests alike are reduced to soothing coos of “All Lives Matter.” And by this, we mean that “All lives matter the same,” which is to say that no life matters beyond its capacity for production. “A capacity,” says culture with a knowing glare. “Which you have all disrupted by taking all this time insisting that you matter.”

Until there is actual content behind the assertion that life matters in all its forms, any rallying cry that “Lives Matter,” whoever’s lives they may be, will be essentially meaningless, not knowing what it wants. The words  will simply be a negative space, a canker, a weight into which we will fall and fold, “collapsed into the relative, carrying the whole of man with it.”

And, without another medium, we will still go down tweeting about how much “life matters.”

 

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On being capable of responding

‘Not all are guilty but all are responsible.’

“To see how ambiguous our history has been, however, is not simply to retire into that more subtle mode of complacency, universal and ineffectual guilt. Rather, as Abraham Joshua Heschel insisted: ‘Not all are guilty but all are responsible.’ Responsible here means capable of responding: capable of facing the interruptions in our history; capable of discarding any scenarios of innocent triumph written, as always, by the victors; capable of not forgetting the subversive memories of individuals and whole peoples whose names we do not even know. If we attempt such responses, we are making a beginning — and only a beginning — in assuming historical responsibility” (David Tracy, Plurality & Ambiguity).

This weekend, early on the morning of Sunday, June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen opened fire with an automatic weapon inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty-nine people and wounding at least as many others.

Meanwhile, I am privileged, normative, living hundreds of miles away in the American Midwest, which certainly leaves me with very little to say. I know that, and I know regarding that about which one has nothing to say, it is best for one to keep silent — especially where my friends have already done so much. The best I can do is immortalize this moment here, bear witness to it, show that I am thinking about it and will not stop thinking about it. Perhaps the most important thing I can do is make a monument here, a Beth-El, making sure that there is just one more waypoint through which someone can go on their way to remember the victims.

The only contexts I have for this are my books, my only interface with the outside world right now is my library. There’s something miserably dehumanizing about that. I learned of the attack just as I was finishing David Tracy’s Plurality & Ambiguity. Writing in 1987, in the heyday of cultural theory, Tracy, a Catholic theologian, argues for the power of conversation in navigating the intense plurality and ambiguity of our human condition — of our language, our history, and our hope. Confidently, Tracy describes the power of critical theory for the turn of the century:

Any theory that allows primacy to critical reflection is on the way to becoming critical theory. A critical theory in the full sense, however, is any theory that renders explicit how cognitive reflection can throw light on systemic distortions, whether individual or social, and through that illumination allow some emancipatory action.

Tracy goes on to describe his optimism in the possibility of such emancipatory action through critical theory: “The uniqueness of modern critical theories…is that our situation is now acknowledged to be far more historically conditioned, pluralistic, and ambiguous than theories like Aristotle’s could acknowledge.” Tracy cites such subversive and re-visionary voices as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Edward Said as exemplars of this kind of thinking. Our power is in our awareness, says Tracy, and through the humility of our moment, we can pursue “genuinely new strategies of attention, resistance, and hope.”

Twenty-nine years later, the victims of Omar Mateen were not recipients of emancipatory action. The LGBTQ+ community as a whole, brutally reminded of their terrifying lack of safety in this world, is not experiencing emancipatory action. The Muslim community whose beliefs and ideals are being blamed for Mateen’s hatred and violence are not recipients of emancipatory action. Praying Christian communities, whose motives are questioned and even decried due to the Moral Majority’s long history of homophobia and oppression, are not experiencing emancipatory action. Despite all our awareness of history, plurality, and ambiguity, emancipatory action is a far-flung wish that comes fifty lives and more too late.

I guess I’m trying to say that, on a certain level, Tracy was wrong. Insofar as Tracy seemed to see a theological light at the end of the tunnel via the road of Critical Theory, I think Tracy may have been wrong. “The golden age of cultural theory is long past,” writes Terry Eagleton in 2003, and this sentence alone, it seems, is enough to blithely dismiss a number of Tracy’s hopes, as “plurality” is devolving into the viciously-policed boundary-lines of warring ideologies which have less and less patience for “ambiguity.”

“Indeed, there are times when it does not seem to matter all that much who the Other is,” continues Eagleton. “It is just any group who will show you up in your dismal normativity.” If I as an academic may be forgiven for saying this, Orlando, and all its echoes, represents just such a situation in which it ought not matter all that much who the Other is. As I write, processes of Othering are happening all over the place as people look for someone to blame: “There is just Them and Us, margins and majorities.” But there are also those who are choosing to stop Othering just long enough to help pick up the pieces of people’s lives, without caring whether or not these hands are gay, straight, trans, cis-het, Muslim, Christian or atheist, only caring that there are hands at all, hands to shore fragments against ruins.

I’ll be reading Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination next, the theology which under-girds the view he presents in Plurality and Ambiguity. Following him will be more of Eagleton, with After Theory (2003) and his recent Culture and the Death of God (2014). I want to know where Tracy failed, or where history and society failed him, and what explanation there might be for a society that just wants to fight about what’s happening to it rather than reason together. I want to know why just a few, venomous voices are allowed to dominate the “conversation” which Tracy once imagined so hopefully, cheapening the silence the rest of us keep not because we’re passive or afraid, overwhelmed by what Tracy calls the complacency of “universal and ineffectual guilt,” but because we’re just trying to take a few moments to focus on holding one another.

And, I want to know what to do next.

On (maybe) asking how to dance

There’s something tragic about David Tracy.

I’m currently in the middle of reading his Plurality and Ambiguity (1987), after which I will work through The Analogical Imagination (1981). Though chronologically inverted, P&A really is his cultural diagnostic and his rationale for writing TAI, which is his attempt at a systematic theology of Christian pluralism.

If I can try and sum up, Tracy is moved to respond to an age of theological tyrannies, brow-beating fundamentalisms which cannot appreciate how complicated and even indeterminate the theological imagination and its history really is. Rather than easy systematic theologies which totalize the religious imagination and yield it up to easy human disposal (at the expense of everyone else’s religious experience, one might add), Tracy offers up one of the greatest voices of late-twentieth-century liberal theology and argues for the public appreciation of plurality and ambiguity in all its forms across all religions. This does not become an easy relativism, however, which Tracy says is woefully inadequate and implausible; Tracy is insistent that practical pluralism cannot come at the expense of a rigorous methodology which insists on pursuing the truth. As to how that truth manifests, however, Tracy outs himself in Plurality and Ambiguity, saying,

“My own hope is grounded in a Christian faith that revelations from God have occurred and that there are ways to authentic liberation.”

That hope, however, remains just that: not a politic, not a polemic, not even a dogma, really, but a hope — an eschaton.

In many ways, Tracy’s thought is a more accessible, public iteration of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s. Both thinkers argue for a re-aestheticization of Christian faith, both argue that Christian hope is ultimately eschatological, deferred into the future rather than manifested in the  political present, and both believe that the reality of the event of Christ requires a plurality of representations and interpretations. Indeed, history itself is the unfolding of such work.

All that said, I can’t help but feel that Balthasar does the work better, in some ways, than Tracy. Perhaps it’s the angle of approach; Tracy both does and does not walk the postmodern line of undecidability. Not only is one still obliged to stake a claim, says Tracy, even in a pluralistic context such as our own, but he believes that a rigorous methodology can help us keep in step with truth — though not, perhaps, just yet. So it is that Tracy places his hope in Christianity, stakes his claim that Christianity will ultimately prove itself to be true, while also acknowledging that, until the end of days, that claim has yet to be definitively proven and that one must remain open accordingly. Tracy then attempts to build a theology which can contain this position.

Balthasar, meanwhile, stakes his claim within Christian theology first and, from his theological imagination, a pluralism emerges which is itself rooted in the formal beauty which Balthasar finds in the Catholic metaphysic. Perhaps this is where Balthasar beats out Tracy for me, insofar as Tracy seems to do precisely what Balthasar cautions against: he begins with the beauty of pluralism, which Balthasar would call a “worldly” aesthetic, and uses those standards to gauge his theology. Balthasar, meanwhile, begins with the “Glory of the Lord,” and finds that a certain pluralism emerges quite beautifully from within Catholic doctrine itself.

I think this different point of entry and its resulting implications lies at the heart of why Tracy seems a tragic figure to me. His planned book on practical theology has never ultimately surfaced, and his presence in the conversation between Christianity and postmodernism has significantly waned. Tracy bases much of his thought on Heidegger’s insistence that whenever something is revealed, something else also disappears from view, and Stephen H. Webb chronicles Tracy’s own descent into “hiddenness,” calling him “our Erasmus.” Among Tracy’s rare recent appearances is the transcription of his response to Richard Kearney which appears in the latter’s book, Reimagining the Sacred (2015). If one listens to the actual lecture, an exhausted-sounding Tracy does indeed seem to be trying to uphold the classical hope of a Christian God whose omnipotent power manifests as boundless love and self-limiting relation, over and against “the smallest possible God” of Kearney’s anatheism, the (end?) product of a postmodern theology which Tracy himself helped create.

To some degree, I wonder if Tracy’s exhaustion is sourced in the same place as Jeffrey Nealon’s critique in Post-Postmodernism (2012). There, Nealon argues that the postmodern modes of social critique which interrupted claims at totalization, which disturbed the notion that we can have the world at our disposal, no longer function the way they once did because we have so thoroughly internalized the lessons of plurality and ambiguity which Tracy helped elucidate. Truthfully, this sort of redundance creeps into my reading of Tracy on some level: even as a religious believer who has staked my claim in a given interpretation, I have accepted that my own tradition is itself surrounded by a plurality of others and that my own position is not innocent of intense ambiguity, even darkness and trauma. While Tracy successfully diagnosis such a situation, I did not need him to do it for me, I only needed to grow up in the first decade of the twenty-first century, where fundamentalism is on the wane and yet not being replaced by the sort of liberal theology of which Tracy was perhaps the last great expounder. Not that such camps don’t exist, but on the whole it seems that some other kind of religious identity is quietly asserting itself.

If Nealon is correct, and the future of literature lies in its very “falsehood,” in its power to “give another account of the real altogether,” perhaps the same can be said of theology to come.  Again, perhaps this involves not the disappearance of doctrine, as in Amy Hungerford’s account of a literary religion of content-less form, but rather doctrine’s resurgence, though not as dogma but as drama. Certainly, stories such as Shusaku Endo’s Deep River (1994) or Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead (2004) should be read as such, not as catechisms but more as invitations — Imagining a dance of source, and a space in which the dance does indeed flow, have rhythm, logic, and then perhaps finding that this rhythm and form carries over into lived experience, into the real world where, as Tracy says, theory can once again prove useful for life.

Webb reminds us that Tracy was always critical of evangelizing theologies, but perhaps this has less to do with evangelism itself than with its mixed-up set of priorities. Certainly it does no good to shout the steps of a dance over the top of everyone else who is already contentedly dancing in some other way. As Tracy would insist, all must be allowed to dance as they will, but if, as in Balthasar’s thought, the steps of one dance come together as something truly beautiful, as something which truly does justice to all the others, then might we end up asking to learn that dance after all?

… Well, it depends. As Tracy says:

“Others — and this, I believe, is the most serious charge — find themselves, despite their acknowledgement of the cultural and ethical achievements of religion, unable to consider seriously the intellectual claims of theology because the history of religions also includes such an appalling litany of murder, inquisitions, holy wars, obscurantisms, and exclusivisms.”

The stakes of this invitation do, indeed, seem to come down to beauty after all.