Just ordered his newest book Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (2012) after watching Critchley and Cornel West’s recent discussion. There are many reviews of the book around, but here is one I enjoyed from the Los Angeles Review of Books by David Winters. He writes:

Critchley…[claims] that politics consists of reconfigurations of religion. In this respect, the political realm is partly fictional in nature; it works with what Critchley calls “fictional force.” But if politics only becomes possible by founding itself on fictions, then those fictions are nonetheless necessary, and needn’t always be read negatively (i.e., as lies). Beneath every deceptive dogma, there’s always a suppressed potential for other, more “fructuous collisions… between poetry and politics.” Crucially, Critchley doesn’t think we can disentangle religious fictions from political facts; to attempt to separate one from the other would only mislead us. What we can do, though, is acknowledge and enrich their relationship, recovering the productive power of belief…

Critchley has been engaged in a public debate with Slavoj Žižek since the latter’s attack in the London Review of Books back in 2007. Žižek’s taste for revolutionary violence makes him unsympathetic to Critchley’s “infinitely demanding” anarchic ethos, since it leaves the liberal democratic state largely in tact (despite criticizing it for its moral hypocrisy). I look forward to engaging more fully with Critchley’s perspective… I also ordered his bestseller from 2009, The Book of Dead Philosophers, wherein he seems to develop a sort of philosophical religion, or at least shows how philosopher’s past learned how to die.

Here is Critchley speaking about his experiment in political theology back in 2010:

Levi Bryant has had a lot to say in the past several months about the relationship between politics and ontology. HERE is his latest. Essentially, he argues that academia is too caught up in symbolic and cultural forms of resistance to capitalism, when in reality what changes history are not shifts in consciousness but transformations of material conditions. The global non-locality of contemporary hyper-capitalism makes it especially difficult to resist, since, for example, if factory workers in America decide to strike and/or bargain collectively with their corporate managers and shareholders, the corporation can simply re-open a factory overseas where workers expect less. This is largely the story of the last several decades, as post-industrial America shifted away from manufacturing to become a nation of consumers.

In the comments, Bryant got into it with Tim of Fragile Keys over whether it is material conditions or habits of the heart that finally transform society. Bryant took his characteristic anti-religion stance, while Tim argued that, even with the best of material conditions, human beings still need proper enculturation in order to live in harmony with others and the universe. Religion, therefore, will be central to any social transformation. Bryant certainly has a point when he suggests that the evils of capitalism are structurally rooted, and not simply a matter of individual greed. However, I don’t think that changing the legal structure of our economy can happen without a transformation in individual and social values. But in the end, I wouldn’t want to claim the true cause is either one factor or the other. Change would seem to emerge as a result of both factors becoming effective simultaneously. I must also say that Bryant’s grasp of history is just wrong when he suggests that religion has most often functioned as a conservative force to maintain dominant power structures. I think the facts of history present a far more complex relationship between religion and politics, there being as many religious radicals as there have been reactionaries (my last post on Bruno’s radical politics and heretical religion being an example of this complexity).

On a related note, I just stumbled upon a 2010 issue of the journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy devoted to “Poetics of Resistance.” Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The register of individuality and subjectivity that is linked with the term poetics, and the evocation of collectivity and community through the term resistance, places the practices and works under discussion in a tension between these categories. It encourages an analytical approach that considers the relationship between the work of art, the subjectivities of its creator(s) and of its recipients, and the social movements or political ideologies with which it is linked. The place of the work of art in the tension field between the subjective and the collective, and the relationality that the existence of this tension field necessarily entails, has emerged as one of the most important foci of the work of members of the network.

The term ‘resistance’, in the way it is used by the network, needs further explanation. We use it with specific reference to neoliberalism, as one recent form of capitalism, while also maintaining an interest in practices of creative resistance to pre-neoliberal regimes of capital. This focus was chosen to facilitate the response to a very particular situation which is characterized by the implementation of a specific set of ideologically based policies while, at the same time, the existence of the ideological dimension is disavowed by policy makers. As Eagleton points out, proponents of conservatism (we may apply this more concretely to neoliberalism) are wary of acknowledging its own ideological status, since ‘to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation’.[4] Neoliberalism thus pretends to be pragmatic rather than ideological; interested in policy rather than ideology. This pretence is made easier by neoliberalism having originally emerged as an economic theory. David Harvey writes:[5]

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. … But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.

This ‘theory of political economic practices’ does, however, have ideological underpinnings which are crucially important to an understanding of neoliberalism’s impact on the arts, and also on scholarship. Those ideological underpinnings have become ever more obvious as the economic theory proves to be flawed, inadequate, and destructive. Since the crisis of 2008, it has become ever more necessary for neoliberalism’s proponents to maintain the appearance of its overall coherence and effectiveness. Ideology is indispensable for this. Other actors—not politicians—have to step in and provide the justification for the continuity of neoliberal politics. This justification draws on the previous ‘construction of consent’, as Harvey calls it, and this draws increasingly on the pretension that ‘there is no alternative’. Culture in the widest sense plays a part in translating the ideological points outlined by Harvey into more generalized assumptions, discursive figures, and commonly held beliefs. Thus, neoliberalism creates imaginaries that can then inform the creative imagination or that, conversely, are projected through works of art without this necessarily being the intention of the artist. The potentially complicit functions of art and scholarship and their co-optation, are important areas of interest of the members of the network. At the same time—and this interest is more prominently represented in the articles collected in this issue—the members of the network explore how works of art can effectively resist the imposition of neoliberal ideology and the absorption of art by neoliberal politics, either by creating alternative imaginaries or by contributing to and interacting with political projects that stand in opposition to the neoliberal model. This sometimes implies seeking spaces of artistic praxis ‘outside’ neoliberalism, but frequently involves entering into discursive, and sometimes financial, negotiation with neoliberally-informed social, cultural and educational structures. For those of us working in higher education, as we will see below, such negotiation is an everyday reality.

The essays in the issue focus on the power of art and culture to disrupt and transform the social imaginary concocted by the PR managers of neo-liberal capitalism. As an academic, I can’t help but believe that the maintenance and creation of culture can change society. I am of course still willing to put my body on the line in the few remaining sites of political rebellion. But this willingness is a side-effect of my convictions. As a philosopher in pursuit of a philosophical religion, I believe that when the opportunities for seizing history and bending its arc further toward justice do arise, the role of inspired and charismatic individuals and devoted communities should not be underestimated. Rebellion and resistance must happen on the ground and in the streets, but after the revolution, art and religion will still be necessary for civilization to construct and re-construct livable worlds. And while we are still imprisoned in the capitalist oligarchy, art and religion are the most effective weapons we have for combatting the consumerist imaginary beamed to every television and pasted on every billboard in the world.

Cornel West is another good example of a radical political activist whose radicalism emerges chiefly for religious reasons:

[Update: Bryant has responded, both below and at Larval Subjects. He is rather peeved and accuses me of intentionally misrepresenting him in order to score rhetorical points. I’ve responded below, but let me also add here that I fully agree with him concerning the heinousness of the religious right in America. I don’t so much blame the people, but the power brokers manufacturing their opinions both through economic oppression and propaganda. I’ve learned much in this respect from Chris Hedges]:

I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Part of her project is to dispel the myth that Bruno was burnt at the stake primarily for his heliocentrism and generally scientific and materialist attitude. This was certainly one of the Roman Inquisitions many accusations, but the real reasons the Church lit his public pyre were political.

…the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand…little attention was paid to philosophical or scientific questions in the interrogation…[instead, stress was laid] on Bruno’s religious mission. (p. 355)

His religious mission was to attend to the creation of the City of the Sun on Earth, which involved practicing the Hermetic arts of magic, astrology, and what after Jung we might call active imagination. This mission also had a political dimension, leading Bruno to ally with the likes of Henry of Navarro, who was to become King Henry IV of France. Bruno saw the potential for a universal reform of the Catholic religion in France, which was fresh off King Henry’s victory against the Spanish-backed Catholic League. Many heretical thinkers in 16th century Europe with more liberal views on religion were hoping Henry would bring peace to a continent ravaged by wars of intolerance. The Catholic Church, of course, had no interest in ceding its power to such a movement. The counter-Reformation was in full force.

Yates also tells the story of Tommaso Campanella, another Hermetic Magus who followed in Bruno’s footsteps by seeking to create the City of the Sun. Campanella lead a rebellion of Dominican monks against Catholic reformers in 1599.

But what did Bruno and Campanella’s religious mission have to do with new scientific ways of thinking and with the Copernican heliocentric theory? Campanella “praises Ptolemaeus and [admires] Copernicus, although Aristarchus and Philolaus were before him (in teaching heliocentricity)” (transl. Yates, p. 372). Both geocentric and heliocentric systems are upheld as worthy of study. Bruno’s primary reasons for holding to the heliocentric perspective were not mathematical or scientific (Ptolemy’s system was still more accurate than Copernicus’ at this point), but magico-symbolic and politico-religious. The return of the heliocentric theory was read by Bruno as an omen, a sign in the sky sent from God, prophesying the coming Golden Age when Europe would be ruled by Philosopher-Magi skilled in calling the winds of justice down to earth from the heavens.

What interests me in Yates’ historical account is the way Bruno was both modern and non-modern in his Hermetic religion: modern in that he affirmed the infinite reality of the universe; non-modern in that an infinite cosmos is the necessary counter-postulate to an infinitely real God. Modern in that he saw the moral necessity of religious freedom, but non-modern in that he felt the universe (or earth-heaven continuum) must be inter-woven throughout with astral spirits and permeated by an anima mundi (or world soul). All the beings in the universe are magically linked through the soul of the world to one another, and also to the One God, who is beyond being. The One beyond being, infinite in itself, is necessarily in relation to the beings of Being. This relation takes place through a series of revelations, beginning with the heavens. God’s infinite Speech/Word is “stepped-down” into the songs of the spiraling stars and dancing planets, which Plato identified with the Cosmic Intelligence of the World Soul. This revelation of the One through and to the many continues through every individual creature of earth, which in its individuality contains in hologrammatic form the entirety of the cosmos. As an earlier Hermetic thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, had intuited, the universe, as a reflection of God, “is a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Yates ends her study on Renaissance magic by asking why it was that the scientific revolution of the 17th century began when it did. She speculates that the Renaissance Hermeticist’s new attitude concerning the place of the human being in the natural world re-directed the will, such that penetrating the secrets of the universe and coming to have mastery over nature no longer seemed so far fetched.

Behind the emergence of modern science there was a new direction of the will towards the world, its marvels, and mysterious workings, a new longing and determination to understand those workings and to operate with them. (Yates, p. 448)

Compare this attitude with that of the 3rd century Church father Tertulian, who argued that those interested in the workings of nature:

persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge their curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather [direct] to their Creator and Governor.

There is a vast difference between the mechanism and mathematics of thinkers like Mersenne and Descartes and the animism and magic of thinkers like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. But the transition between the two is not as clear cut as it would seem from our modern perspective. Like Bruno, many of the supposed fathers of the scientific revolution were deeply interested in occult knowledge. On Nov. 10th, 1619, while still a young man striving to discover a new foundation for knowledge, Descartes had a series of dreams and visions that he believed came from a higher source (Yates, p. 452). He began searching for the elusive Rosicrucian order (a Hermetic society) in Germany in the hope that they might help interpret his visions of a universal science of nature. He finally gave up in 1623 and returned to Paris, though some speculate that he actually did make contact with the secret society and had been initiated into the brotherhood. Kepler was also a rather transitional figure, having studied the Corpus Hermeticum quite closely alongside his astronomical research. Then there is the importance of alchemy to Isaac Newton, which is increasingly well-known: see especially Phillip Fanning’s recent book Isaac Newton and the Transmutation of Alchemy: An Alternative View of the Scientific Revolution (2009).

Yates points out that the early mechanists attempt to distance themselves from the magicians left them with a rather embarrassing problem: if nature was all mechanics, where did the knowing mind of the scientist fit in? The problem was especially pronounced and given its clearest formulation in Descartes infamous dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa. “This bad start of the problem of knowledge,” writes Yates, “has never been quite made up” (p. 454).

Yates goes on:

[The mechanists] may have discarded notions on mind and matter which, however strangely formulated, may be in essence less remote than their own conceptions from some of the thought of today. (p. 455)

Writing in the early 60s, she was well-aware of the paradigm shift continuing to unfold as a result of the quantum revolution:

It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An enquiry into both phases, and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of historical approach to the problems raised by the science of today than the line which concentrates only on the seventeenth-century triumph. Is not all science a gnosis, an insight into the nature of the All, which proceeds by successive revelations? (p. 452)

Might there be room in contemporary science for the return of the anima mundi?