Thanks to Jeremy, Matt, and Ryan for hosting this dialogue!
Sean Kelly and I delivered this a few weeks ago at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA at our philosophy program’s annual retreat.
In what follows, I offer some reflections on the feminist process theologian Catherine Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (2015). Keller poetically folds her refreshingly open theological orientation into an array of important planetary topics,—including the ethical implications of quantum entanglement (chapter 4), the poststructuralist dissolution of substance (chapter 5) and of rigid gender binaries (chapter 7), the history of the Christian crusades and their relation to the rise of colonial modernity and global capitalism (chapter 8), the retrieval of Gaia as a more adequate name for God than “father” or “king” (chapter 9),—and unfolds from their implications possible sources of hope for our imperiled planet. She traverses these topoi with radical epistemological uncertainty while reiterating their, and our, ontological inseparability with every step.
Self-confident secularists may protest that turning to a theological mode of discourse like Keller’s in the face of our species’ present social, political, and ecological problems is only to regress into the very source of our problems! Why rehash the religious myths of the past if we modern, rational people now have the precision instruments of scientific knowledge, machines, and the capitalist market to guide us into a better future?
First of all, myth is not a childish embellishment upon sociopolitical reality, but the divine ground of individual and collective life. We don’t grow out of myth, we grow out of one myth and into another. Without myth, psyche and polis would have no way of attuning to cosmos. With no attunement to the cosmos, Thomas Berry would remind us that we will find no functional relationship with the ecosystems of the planet.1 Modernity’s rituals of certain knowledge, technological excess, and “progress” are themselves zealously drenched in mythic manna. As Latour taught us, we have never been modern.
Second of all, Keller’s theopoetics are not the divine fiats of Pope Urban II or the violent repressions of evangelical Christian capitalists. She talks God otherwise. She is a process theologian who learned her God-talk from Whitehead: God is “the poet of the world,” a “fellow-sufferer who understands” seeking “with tender care that nothing be lost” by luring the universe from utter loss toward complete love.2 Though in Cloud of the Impossible Keller draws heavily on “ancestral Christian sources” like Nicholaus of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, she explicates from them not the “militant ghosts of premodern omnipotence,”3 but a relational pluralism wherein God is the Supreme Complication, the dark Cloud wherein each is inseparably implicated in All. God is the “Non-Aliud” or non-Other whose name is infinite and so ineffable, and for this very reason enfolding infinitely many names. In Cusa’s terms:
“All the names are unfoldings of the enfolding one, ineffable name, and as this proper name is infinite, so it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Although there could be many such unfoldings, they are never so many or so great that there could not be more.”4
God has many names: Yahweh, Christ, Man, Machine, Capital. All more or less imperfectly convey the divine mystery. Keller performs her pluralism theologically not because she seeks to violently settle a diverse society on a new peace-instilling divine name, but because our “modern” scientific and political perspectives are “inexplicable apart from medieval theological presumptions of a creation good and open to reason.”5 We (the inheritors of European Christendom) can think God otherwise, but we cannot think without God.
In this lecture from a course on pluralism and political theory, I explored Plato’s ploy in the Republic to examine the soul by expanding it to the size of a city; in chapter 4, “The Physics of Nonseparability,” Keller invites us to examine the ethical entanglements of psyche and polis by way of a “contraction to the quantum point of view.”6 But why examine ethics by way of physics? What could be more irrelevant to untangling the ethical significance of human action than the strangely knotted world of quantum entanglement? Keller turns to the surprising and refreshing work of feminist philosopher Karen Barad to lure standard interpretations of quantum theory beyond their anthropocentric conceits. Barad reinterprets Neil Bohr’s more Kantian quantum transcendentalism (i.e., physics doesn’t tell us what Nature is, it only tells us what we can say about Nature) such that it becomes a new relational ontology. She makes no mention of Whitehead in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but their projects are clearly convergent. Rather than understanding Bohr’s principle of complementarity as a reflection of the limitations of our knowledge of quantum phenomena, Barad asserts that the undecidability of the pre-observed nature of quantum events is in fact a constitutive feature of quantum reality. Einstein was unhappy with Bohr’s quantum universe, as it’s apparent indeterminacy stood in stark contrast to the strict determinism of his relativistic universe. Einstein went so far as to joke that he’d rather give up physics to become a shoe-maker or a poker dealer than accept that electrons had free will.7 During an evening walk with a close colleague of Bohr’s, Einstein once asked: “Do you really believe the Moon is not there if nobody looks?” From Barad’s perspective, it isn’t that the Moon isn’t there when we aren’t looking, it’s that when we do look, a new Moon, and a new me, emerge in the encounter. It turns out that the idea of separability itself was only ever a convenient fiction, whether we are talking about the level of protons or persons. The very notion of a isolated “thing” (a classical particle or body-bound observer) has been undone by Barad’s “agential realism,” wherein the final realities are “intra-active” agencies rather than isolable entities. These agencies or creatures (to use Whitehead’s favored term) are not dissolved into their relational intra-actions, “rather, the creature emerges within the creative field that it differentiates [such that] the attributes that make one creature different from another [are] acts of differentiation [and not] inherent properties of a discrete substance.”8 Acts or performances of differentiation are what individuate us moment by moment; our identities are always established through intra-active relationship.
Keller blames the instrumentalist Zeitgeist of the post-War US for keeping physicists from pursuing the full import of the quantum enigmas unveiled by Einstein, Bohr, and others. “Shut up and calculate” was the mantra.9 More recently, thanks to physicist-philosophers like John Bell, David Bohm, and Whitehead, the paradigm-shattering implications of quantum entanglement are now more widely acknowledged.10 In Keller’s words, “science…inherited from theology the metaphysics of separate substance, supernatural and natural.”11 But quantum physics has exposed “in broad scientific daylight [that] the minimum unit of the universe [is] a place of active relationship,” and that “each particularity is a distinct recomposition of its world.”12
In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Keller folds together (but not without remainder) the work of Gilles Deleuze and Whitehead, who each in their own ways creatively unsaid the metaphysics of substance to instead celebrate the differential connectivity of the world. Deleuze, like Whitehead, was influenced by William James’ pluralistic and pragmatic orientation to philosophy. “In the Deleuzean work,” writes Keller,
“concepts themselves are multiplied and mobilized. They do not reflect, mirror, or subserve the real; they participate in its becoming. They do not cut the world into abstractions. They ply the world; they apply themselves to its practices.”13
In other words, rather than construing philosophy as a search for the true concepts that would accurately represent or mirror the nature of mind-independent reality, Deleuze engaged philosophy as the creation of new concepts capable of transforming reality, irrespective of any imagined boundaries supposedly separating mental from physical realities. Novel concepts resonate in the world, shaking up its settled order; or old concepts repeat endlessly, shoring up settled natural and social habits. Concepts are not mere mirrors, reflectively uninvolved in the workings of the world. Their value is derived from what they do or make it possible to do.
Keller skillfully unpacks the resonances and differences between Deleuze’s Spinozist pantheism and Whitehead’s thoroughly reformed process-relational panentheism. She wonders if the former’s insistence on pure immanence is the best way to overcome the separative transcendence so characteristic of traditional theology. Whitehead’s theology rejects the tendency so prevalent in the ontotheological traditions of the West to pay metaphysical compliments to God (all-knowing, all- good, all-powerful, etc.). His process-relational God is not the all-powerful exception to but the prime exemplification of creative flux. Whitehead’s God is described as a creature of Creativity. God a creature?: it would be hard to imagine a more heretical statement from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic theologian. Nonetheless, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison the divine function entirely, whereas Deleuze celebrates the death of God with Nietzschean zeal.
In chapter 7, “Unsaying and Undoing,” Keller enters into conversation with the Kant of Queer Theory, Judith Butler. She differentiates the 20th century social constructionist Butler, who brilliantly deconstructed falsely naturalized gender norms using the tools of poststructuralism, from the 21st century social ontologist Butler, who after exposure to Whitehead overcame her earlier ethical anthropocentrism by articulating a relational ontology that queered reality itself. Keller writes:
“Whitehead, attending to the exclusions wrought by closed systems, hearkens to the nonhuman universe, alive and participant in all our finite human decisions [“We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe”14]. An attention to the not yet known of the entire creaturely plenum, nurtured by his mathematical involvement in the natural sciences and his love of the romantic poets of his region, now carries the force of ancestral prophecy. The ethical anthropocentrism of Butler’s philosophy, even after the end of the last millennium, counts in this one way as the more traditional.”15
Keller celebrates Butler’s late turn to the queerness of a relational ontology. She criticizes poststructuralism’s prior tendency to over-focus on the way we are constructed by language, culture, and society, while downplaying or ignoring our relations to nonhumans. Poststructural approaches follow the relations and ruptures of linguistic signs with other signs in systems of signification with great precision and insight. Such an approach can and has called out oppressive social structures that shape culture by disguising it as Nature, thus opening pathways toward more ethical human relations. But what about our relations to such nonhuman diversities as fireflies, microchips, polar bears, influenza, plate tectonics, and starlight?
In addition to her encounter with Whitehead, Butler was motivated to undertake her ontological insurrection by way of a meditation on loss, precarity, and mourning. Mourning reveals to us what was always already the case before the loss of a loved one, that our selves are incomplete due to their constitutive relationality. “It is not,” Butler writes,
“as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am…Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.”16
Just as with the entangled intra-actions of physical quanta, human souls are stitched together from the inside-out by threads of precarious and promiscuous influence. “Let’s face it,” writes Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”17 Keller links Butler’s still human-focused ethics of relationality to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology: “loss belongs to the ecology of becoming,” as all our relations are composed of prehensions of “perishing others as they pass into us.”18 By dying into one another, we create one another. This process of decomposition and recomposition is occurring at every scale of Nature, human and non-, and reiterates endlessly “to the crack of doom.”19 It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.20 It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”21
Butler, speaking directly to Whiteheadians eager to overcome anthropocentrism, warns of the risks of overlooking the profound singularity of loss. Keller amplifies Butler’s concerns: “celebrations of the cycles of life and death may not support the human ethic that suffers individual losses and honors grief…the human difference needs protecting from reductive indifference.”22 We ought to stay as close as possible to such concerns to attend radically to that which is not human. My hope is that it is precisely through recovering a sense of ethical relation with the nonhuman realms that our true humanness will become most apparent. Perhaps it is the very search for some supernatural identity apart from the planet of our birth that has so degraded our humanity.
In chapter 8, “Crusade, Capital, and Cosmopolis,” Keller traces the way the medieval Christian West overcame its internal divisions and discovered a unifying sense of identity through centuries of crusading against Islam. Western self-identity is thus constitutively Islamaphobic. “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”23 Such was Pope Urban II’s rallying cry in 1095, on the eve of the first crusade to push back the Turks and retake the Holy Land.
Several centuries of crusading later, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, called for a conference of faiths instead of yet another religious war. In place of forced conversion to Christianity or to Islam, Cusa imagined a conversation among representatives of many faiths who, with help from the Logos, might come to agree that though there are many religious or cultural rites the world over (among them Christianity and Islam), there is only one infinite and thus ineffable God. Cusa articulates what could be Christendom’s earliest doctrine of inclusivism. To the Logos, he says: “rivalry [among faiths] exists for the sake of You, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship.”24 While Cusa’s mystical inclusivism may fall short of the radical pluralism I’d prefer, in its time and place at the sunrise of Modernity, it, too, was radical. Perhaps even today, the two biggest religions Christianity and Islam still have much to learn from an inclusivist theology like Cusa’s, since both remain for the most part dead set on exclusivist interpretations of the truth of their own doctrines. Keller’s hope is that a relational pluralism might help exclusivists begin to feel what they share with other faiths: namely, a love of God—Cusa’s “Infinite Complication”—which enfolds all the world’s religious expressions.
Keller goes on to enter into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s thesis on the origins of Modernity, not in northern Germany with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation (as Hegel argued), but in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. From Dussel’s perspective, Descartes’ ego cogito was preceded and sustained by an ego conquiro: “if the ego cogito doubts the world around him, the ego conquiro doubts the very humanity of conquered others.”25
In our hypermodern age, the crusader complex has taken the form of global capitalism, “in which oil —and therefore Islam—figures prominently.”26 Keller quotes political analyst Thomas Frank, who in his book One Market Under God argued that sometime in the 90s people came to believe that “there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”27 What a strange litany of adjectives! The global capitalist market is entirely natural, a consequence of biological evolution, and yet at the same time it is also divine, the only source of human salvation? And “democratic”? Keller admits that capitalism’s “flexible interactivity captures something of the ontological process of entanglement,” and that attempted solutions to our planetary problems via top-down State imposition are doomed to failure.28 And yet, contemporary neoliberal capitalism does not advertise the pluriverse’s participatory matrix of “each-in-each”; rather, it asserts an ontology of isolable individuals counted “ego-by-ego,” pushing a new ruse of separability that stays ‘connected.’”29
From Keller’s process theological perspective, any effective resistance to the God of the global capitalist market must be a religious form resistance. She introduces the political theology of Carl Schmitt, who argued that all supposedly modern political theories of the state were really just secularized theological concepts. Schmitt’s approach led him to a theory of the State wherein political order is achieved through the exceptional right of an all-powerful sovereign. Keller asks instead if we “can have some transmodern rendition of political theology that does not take its cues from the militant ghosts of this premodern omnipotence?”30 She offers Whitehead’s panentheism as a truly democratic alternative to Schmitt’s totalitarian theism. For Whitehead, God is not the supreme exception, but the supreme example, the fellow-sufferer who understands.
In chapter 9, “Broken Touch: The Ecology of the Impossible,” Keller elucidates the hidden meaning of the Pergamon Altar depicting a groaning Gaia reaching out for one of her stricken children beneath a victorious Athena. She reads the scene as a metaphor for the origins of the polis or perhaps even civilization as such: “It would seem that we have to do here with an ancient complex… relation to the earth-home is sacrificed on the altar of civilization—driven into the civilizational unconscious…Might we recognize here a Gaia complex? It lends a face to the more ancient and diffuse fear of the nonhuman universe from which the human is inseparable: call it ecophobia.”31 Keller turns to the climate scientist James Lovelock to exemplify the way a new story of Gaia is being brought forth in our ecologically imperiled age. Lovelock has grown increasingly skeptical of humanity’s chances of averting the worst of climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The time to wake up and take responsibility for the destabilizing effects of human industry on the planet has passed. “I fear,” Lovelock writes, “that we still dream on and, rather than waking, we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.”32
What is still possible now that civilization has gone so far past the tipping point of planetary catastrophe? Humanity stands face to face with Gaia, and we are dumbstruck. “The entanglement of the human in the crowding nonhumanity of the species and elements of the earth…endlessly [overwhelms] speech—with wonder or horror.”33 Might a renewed attempt at ecotheology help shepherd our species through the coming evolutionary bottleneck? Might we–“we” earthlings, our collectivity delicately composed by our shared planetary fate—find in the face of Gaia a source of numinous meaning powerful enough to heal the ecophobic repression at the root of our civilization? Keller wonders aloud: “how on earth is the earth itself, Gaia, inclusive of all of us, a less apt God- name than the name of a mere bit of the earth, like a ‘father’ or a ‘king’?”34
1 Berry, The Great Work, 84: “ecology is functional cosmology.”
2 Whitehead, Process and R eality, Part 5.
3 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
4 Cusa, De docta ignorantia, in N icolas of Cusa: S elected S piritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 124-125.
5 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
6 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 132.
7 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 134.
8 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 139.
9 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 154.
10 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 155.
11 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
12 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 128, 142.
13 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 174.
14 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 111.
15 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 232.
16 Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004), 22.
17 Butler quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 215.
18 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 225-226.
19 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.
20 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.
21 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.
22 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 235.
23 M edieval Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Roberta Anderson and Dominic Aidan Belenger (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.
24 Cusa, On Interreligious H armony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of DePace Fidei, ed. James E. Biechler and H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 6.
25 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 257; Dussel and Barber, The Invention of theAmericas, 245.
26 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 253.
27 Quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
28 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 255.
29 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
30 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
31 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 267-268.
32 Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 29.
33 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 269.
34 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 281.
It has become a truism: every election is the most important of our lives. Is this any more true of the 2020 presidential election? Of course it is! As we approach what is already shaping up to be another prolonged and contentious primary season, I want to offer an autobiographical preamble to my ongoing commentary and campaign involvement. Our political opinions do not arise in a vacuum, as though the product of purely rational reflection on universal human nature. They are steeped in the circumstances of our upbringing, in our dreams and ideals, in our adventures abroad and the calamities that befall us at home, and in the company we keep and that keeps us. I’m sharing my personal story with the hope that it provides context for my perspective on the 2020 election.
In 1996, I was the ten year old child of divorced middle class parents living in Hollywood, Florida. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were running against one another for the presidency. I remember waiting in the lunch line at elementary school talking with a friend. He asked me who my parents were going to vote for. I said I wasn’t sure. With a look of sympathetic superiority, he informed me that Clinton was one of Satan’s henchmen and that only Dole could help America realize God’s plan (his parents were evangelical Christians). I should warn my parents right away, he said.
Something felt off about my friend’s opinion, but at that point I had little basis upon which to question his perspective. I didn’t warn my parents, who were and remain largely apolitical (my mom’s Christianity is mostly private, and my dad, an agnostic Jew, lost his 60s idealism waiting out the draft in Mexico). They never spoke to me about politics as a kid. My friend’s warning is one of my first explicitly political memories. I can recall earlier memories of CNN’s coverage of Gulf War 1: being impressed by new laser guided bombs accurate enough to fly into exposed air conditioning vents on building rooftops in Bagdad, being frightened about Saddam’s chemical weapons landing in my backyard and poisoning me and my family, and so on. I was only six, but having already watched my fair share of action movies, I had the vague sense that all this war business seemed awfully theatrical and made for TV. It was an early hint of the way the dominant political order was fabricated and maintained.
But it wasn’t until the 2000 Bush vs Gore election that I really began to feel the uniquely American frenzy first described by de Tocqueville that overtakes our nation during election season (“As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state…“). Though I was just entering high school and still wasn’t old enough to vote, the electoral college fiasco, the recount chaos that unfolded just north of me in Palm Beach, and the Supreme Court finally interceding, all left a lasting impression. I watched George W. Bush’s inauguration and wondered if the country could ever unify behind him. Then, 9/11 happened. The images, emotions, and conversations of that day remain etched in my mind with great clarity. War was upon us, this time much closer to home. I was suspicious of how quickly the country lined up to support their commander-in-chief, and of the rush to seek revenge on the “evil doers.” I was especially struck by images of Bush standing on a pile of rubble in NYC, with his arm around a fire fighter and a bullhorn in the other hand through which he shouted promises of revenge over chants of U-S-A U-S-A!! I can’t say I didn’t feel pangs of patriotism in my chest as I watched this. We were under attack, after all. But again, the way the whole thing seemed staged and made for TV kept me from succumbing to these feelings.
It was in the aftermath of these events that my intense interest in politics began. I enrolled in advanced courses in European and American history at school, and at home began reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The discrepancy between my history textbooks and Zinn’s People’s History was a stronger hint that in politics, neither truth nor power lies on the surface for all to see. I was still too young to vote when I came to the conclusion that our nation’s “democracy” was more of an ideal than a realized state of affairs.
I started offering my political opinions as editorials editor for The Nova Vue, my high school newspaper. Most of my op-eds were standard liberal takes, anti-Bush and anti-war, pro-gay marriage, etc.; nothing too radical. I watched as Bush went after the Taliban in Afghanistan first, a bombing campaign I didn’t cheer but didn’t protest much, either. Then, with some WMD sleight of hand, Bush worked to convince the nation that a full-scale invasion of Iraq was necessary to bring all the evil doers to justice. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was launched with little protest from anyone in congress or the US press. Having read some of the policy papers from the neoconservative think-tank the Project for a New American Century that propelled Bush into the White House, I knew that the plans to invade Iraq and recolonize the Middle East were put in place long before the 9/11 attacks. I also read about the recent history of the region, how the US installed Saddam Hussein and trained and funded the Taliban and al Qaeda back when they were the enemies of our enemies. I read about the more distant history of British colonial rule and the artificial drawing of the map of Iraq, which somehow was supposed to include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias within a single national identity. In the run up to war, I began to entertain some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. I don’t know what really happened that day, but it seems clear enough that the official story is suspect. US history is full of false flags, so why should 9/11 be ruled out? I am not a true believer or “9/11 Truther,” but nor can I dismiss or belittle the folks who are. I simply do not know. What I do know is that Americans have a special talent for ignoring history when forming opinions about the present.
I was a college freshman at the University of Central Florida when the 2004 primaries wound down and John Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee. I now had my first opportunity to participate in the civic ritual of voting, an exciting experience that was clouded by an inner conflict I’ve since grown all too familiar with: lesser evilism. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and other establishment Democrats, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. I preferred him to Bush, of course, but my heart was with the independent party candidate Ralph Nader. But I knew he could not win and that, practically speaking, a vote for Nader was a vote taken from Kerry and given to Bush. The cynical part of me viewed the whole electoral process as merely symbolic anyway, akin to Catholic transubstantiation: through the miracle known as representation, my vote was supposed to allow me to partake in the democratic selection of my nation’s leader. In reality, my vote was but a tiny drop in a giant lake whose damn was ultimately controlled by the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. I remained conflicted until I walked into the polling place on election day. My heart told me Nader, but I didn’t want to throw my vote away and unintentionally assure the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war machine another term in the Oval Office. I voted for Kerry.
The frustration of lesser evilism, not to mention Bush’s re-election victory, squashed my budding political idealism. I was dumbfounded by my country’s decision. The war propaganda machine was too powerful to subvert: prime time coverage of “shock and awe” bombing campaigns followed by Monday Night Football kept the country in line. The faux debates between the puppets of the corporate duopoly were too carefully curated and narrowly defined for genuine democratic self-governance to be possible. I started turning away from politics and corrupt worldly institutions and instead immersed myself in the study of existentialism, depth psychology, and Eastern spirituality. I read Nietzsche, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, and Sri Aurobindo. I became fascinated by the 1960s counterculture, especially Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass’ experiments with psychedelics. I discovered Terence McKenna’s books and video lectures on YouTube (Leary once called McKenna “the real Tim Leary”). I gave up on the lost cause of American politics and decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”
I became convinced that the real revolution would be an inner one, an evolution of consciousness rather than a revolution of political order. Only when people “woke up”–not “woke” to class or racial identities, but to divine identity–would real democracy be possible. I started thinking seriously about selling my car to fund a one-way trip to India where I hoped to meet my guru and live out my days in an ashram exploring the realms of the human unconscious. Allen Ginsberg’s integration of revolutionary politics and psychedelic spirituality was a helpful corrective to my one-sided otherworldliness during this time, but his bodhisattvic commitment to the suffering of this world was not enough to bring me back into earth orbit, much less down onto the ground.
It would take another few years to lure me back into the political fray. The first important influence occurred in 2005. I was invited by Hillel, a Jewish student organization at my university, to travel to Israel for two weeks as part of a “birthright” trip funded entirely by the Israeli government and Jewish-American philanthropists. It wasn’t quite India, but it fed my hunger for spiritual roots and promised a dangerous adventure that the pages of books and the shopping plazas of suburban Orlando could not match. The trip indeed proved to be spiritually nutritious, particularly a pair of mystical experiences, one at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and another alone under the stars in the Negev desert. My time in Israel also re-ignited my social and political conscience. I had read enough Chomsky to be critical of Israeli militarism and to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people. I was still unprepared for the onslaught of Zionist propaganda that greeted my young tour group at every step of our journey across the tiny but proud nation. They wanted we Americanized Jews to realize that we were part of a sacred tribe, that we belonged in Israel, and that God and history were on our side. The government even offered to help pay for our marriage (to another Jew) and find a house if we moved to the country and accepted citizenship. For anyone under 26, this also meant a year or two of military service in the IDF. The offer stirred a primal desire in me to belong to a people and a place, to feel special, exceptional, chosen. I was tempted, I admit. But the identities of “Jew” and “Israeli” felt too small for me, too fake. And the evils of the occupation weighed too heavily on my heart.
In 2008, there was no Democratic presidential primary election in Florida. If there had been, I probably would have voted for Dennis Kucinich. After watching a few Republican primary debates, I decided to temporarily register Republican so that I could vote for the anti-war candidate Ron Paul. Despite the worsening quagmire in Iraq, Paul, Mike Gravel, and Kucinich were the only true anti-war candidates that year. Gravel and Kucinich were largely ignored, but Paul got some attention because of his fundraising success. US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex were the issues that stirred the most passion in me, so his outspoken opinions about the immorality of the Iraq invasion and the “blow back” theory of terrorism got me fired up. I loved seeing him attack US imperialism on the debate stage next to hawks like McCain, Romney, and Huckabee.
Back in the first decade of the 2000s, social media was just beginning to impact political discourse. But it wasn’t yet the main outlet for debate. By 2007, however, I was posting videos on YouTube about politics (and about philosophy and religion). Ron Paul was the first to inspire this sort of engagement. His battle with the US war machine was short-lived. It didn’t take long for me to grow disenchanted with him due some of the less inspiring aspects of his ideology, including his belief in the magical “invisible hand” of the free market and the taint of racism.
In November 2008, as the global economy convulsed, I was just settling in to San Francisco to attend graduate school. I voted for Obama over McCain, of course. I wasn’t entirely convinced he could bring about real change, but his message was way closer to my ideals. I watched the election in a dive bar on Market Street. When Obama won, everyone spilled out onto the street to celebrate. Cars honked enthusiastically as they slowly weaved through the growing crowds. Strangers high-fived and hugged one another. Obama wasn’t as outspoken about it as Paul, Gravel, or Kucinich, but he was against the war resolution in 2002 and promised to withdraw troops as quickly as possible if elected president. His other progressive positions, including his commitments to campaign finance reform and addressing climate change, excited me. I was truly hopeful when he was elected. I thought the system might change.
Alas, Obama became the president of Wall St. bailouts, drone strikes, domestic spying, and oil production booms. His major accomplishment during his first term was the Affordable Care Act, but despite having control of both houses of congress, the Democrats capitulated to the for-profit insurance industry and didn’t even include a public option in the new law. I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by saying the White House changed him. I believe he went into office with high ideals and that the office killed them. The weight of the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the US intelligence establishment, corporate lobbying, etc., were too much for him to counter. So he went along with what was expected of him. He still talked smart on TV. He showed genuine emotion in tragic moments. He seems like a good guy. But behind the scenes, he continued the corporate sponsored, imperialistic status quo.
In late 2011, the Occupy movement was born. I didn’t live at the San Francisco or Oakland encampments, but I joined in defending them on several occasions, and participated in marches and direct actions, including a general strike that shut down the Oakland port. I also tried to keep some spiritual perspective on the events: “Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop.”
Occupy raised my awareness of the extreme economic inequality present in the United States and globally. Alongside American foreign policy and militarism, political economy now became one of the most crucial issues for me. Neoliberal capitalism is a religion, a political theology. Opposing it makes one an iconoclast. (Here’s a taste of how I have come to view the importance of political theology with help from process theologian Catherine Keller.)
Lesser evilism prevailed again in 2012 when I voted for Obama over Romney. I needn’t comment on my reasoning, as it should be obvious. I became even more cynical during Obama’s final term, criticizing his allegiance to the military-industrial complex and his support of neoliberal theology. I began to fall back into the somewhat escapist perspective of my late teens, the idea that progressive politics was pointless because real change could only unfold because of transformed human hearts. Obama was the most progressive president I could imagine winning office, and yet even he continued largely to defend and maintain the same old neoliberalism and militarism.
In mid-2015, I decided to take a chance on Bernie Sanders and hitched myself to his presidential campaign. He carried forward the spirit of the Occupy movement by rejecting the entire neoliberal establishment. It was obvious from the start of the 2016 Democratic primary that Hillary Clinton had already been chosen by Democratic power players. Nobody expected Sanders to make a dent. I made calls for him in state primaries all across the country. These phone conversations taught me how little most Americans kept up with the economic and political issues affecting them. It was discouraging. But I also realized the importance of authenticity to capture the attention of those who’d given up on politics. Even in places I thought would be solidly conservative, like West Virginia, people were open-minded. They were also very kind!
I won’t re-hash here what I’ve already written about the 2016 primaries as they unfolded (“Hillary v. Bernie and the Future of American Democracy,” “Democratic Socialism or Corporate Cronyism,” “In defense of other possibilities“). I will just say that it was clear enough to me as the primaries wound down that Clinton was the weaker candidate against Trump. The country was in the midst of a populist uprising and there was no way another (particularly unpopular) neoliberal corporate-funded centrist was going to win. Sanders spoke to the pain of the poor and working class people who didn’t trust Clinton. His authentic populist firebrand was the only antidote to Trumpism.
As recent events in France make clear, the populist uprising continues to unfold. Bernie is older and by no means the perfect candidate. But I have not seen anyone else yet who I believe can (a) win an election against Trump (or a more articulate right wing populist should Mueller’s investigation bring Trump down) and (b) at least begin the political revolution necessary to achieve the economic, social, racial, and ecological justice that this country and the world so desperately needs. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kamala Harris are possibilities, but I have nagging questions about each of them (Warren has voted for Trump’s military budgets, Gabbard seems to have a homophobia problem, and Harris hasn’t yet proven she is willing to follow through on crucial policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal).
Notes from a talk I gave at CIIS this past March titled “Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene”
Here’s the video of the whole panel:
Foucault on Hegel:
“[T]ruly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.” (Discourse on Language, Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1970-1971. tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith)
Begin with Hegel’s claim to have achieved absolute knowledge of Spirit, and to at least foreseeing the becoming concrete of this Spirit in the historical, social, and ethical life of the human community.
Marx read Hegel upside down, but still read Hegel. He was a materialist, but a dialectical materialist who recognized the potential of the human spirit, and this potential’s degradation and alienation from itself at the hands of capitalism. Marx tried to shake human beings awake, out of their slumber, out of the false consciousness that commodifies labor, life, and value.
It is not easy to do better than Hegel and Marx in terms of understanding, diagnosing, and prescribing action to overcome the contradictory situation in which humans find themselves as neoliberal capitalist subjects. But the dawning realization that we live in the time of the Anthropocene is fundamentally changing our situation. We can no longer talk about the nonhuman world, about what used to be called “Nature,” as though it was something separate from us, some kind of inert background or stage upon which human history progresses. As good dialecticians, Hegel and Marx fully recognized this entanglement of the human and the physical world, but they did so in a rather anthropocentric way that still presupposed and celebrated the idea of mastering nature. The Anthropocene signals, yes, the end of history, but also the beginning of (or at least the beginning of human recognition of) what Latour refers to as geostory. From Latour’s point of view, Hegel would never have expected our current situation, where Spirit, after its millennial march of dialectical progress, suddenly finds itself at risk of being suffocated, sublated, by carbon dioxide. As Latour describes it, the ecological crisis is pushing us into a profound mutation in our relation to the world. When the world as it has been known to the Western metaphysical project ends, we are left not with no world, but with many worlds. For Latour, politics is the composition of common worlds through the negotiation of differences. Political negotiation cannot be undertaken with the presupposition that unity has somehow already been achieved. If politics fails, we are left with a war of the worlds. A pluralistic politics asks us to forgo the desire for the premature unification of the world, to accept that “the world” has ended and diplomatic negotiation is the only viable way of “worlding.” Ours is always a world-in-process, and any unity we do achieve is fragile and must be continually re-affirmed and maintained.
Latour has been deeply influenced by William James. James positioned his ontological pluralism against Hegel and Marx’s dialectical monisms. William James was appreciative of Hegel, but certainly he was an counter-Hegelian thinker. As far as Marx goes, James was too American to ever fully reject at least the individualist spirit of capitalism, even if he was suspicious of capitalism’s larger cultural impact and its relation to American imperialism. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1906, for example, James lamented “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” James thought worship of success, by which he meant money, was “our national disease.” James championed the individual, but an individual who is sympathetic to meeting and being transformed by novel differences, whose selfhood is leaky and perforated by human and nonhuman otherness, whose identity is always in-the-making and open to question and revision.
James on excess: “Every smallest state of consciousness, concretely taken, overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only ‘reason’ deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely beyond its overflow. In the pulse of inner life immediately present now in each of us is a little past, a little future, a little awareness of our own body, of each other’s persons, of the sublimities we are trying to talk about, of earth’s geography and the direction of history, of truth and error, of good and bad, and of who knows how much more? Feeling, however dimly and subconsciously, all these things, your pulse of inner life is continuous with them, belongs to them and they to it. You can’t identify it with either one of them rather than with the others, for if you let it develop into no matter which of those directions, what it develops into will look back on it and say, ‘That was the original germ of me.’” (A Pluralistic Universe)
James leans strongly in the direction of particular, unique, once-occurrent individuals (even if he does not see individuals as autopoietic, but as sympoietic). In contrast, some historical performances of communism have leaned in the other direction, toward some abstract conception of communal will, and when individuals stood in the way of this abstract will, as we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, they were crushed. Our capitalist society claims to prize the individual highest, but it is corporate individuality that we really cherish. We human individuals are mere cogs in the labor machine, and Earth is a store of raw materials and a garbage heap. So either way, in either situation, capitalism or communism, human and nonhuman communities and individuals are in trouble.
Our challenge today, in the Anthropocene, is to think individuality and community concretely, to think relation, difference, and particularity concretely. Normally thinking seeks out universals, essences, substances, and to the extent that the Western metaphysical project has sought out universals, essences, and substances that failed to align with the particular contours of the sensory, social worlds that we inhabit, it has done great violence those worlds. As a result of the failure of our ideas and concepts to cohere with reality—that is, to sympoietically relate to the communities of actual organisms composing the living planet—these concepts have functioned to destroy them. Humans, whether we like it or not, are in community with these organisms, our worlds overlap and perforate one another; we touch interior to interior, my inside bleeding into your inside bleeding into all nonhuman insides. But our subjectivities do not just add up or sum to some seamless Globe-like Mind. Gaia, Latour is constantly reminding his readers, is not a Globe! To the extent that we are all internally related to one another, we form a network of of entangled, overlapping perspectives, where each perspective is still unique and once-occurrent, novel; and yet each is also related to what has come before and will be related to what comes next. We are individuals-in-communion, communities whose wholeness subscends the individuals who compose them. Subscendence is a concept developed by Timothy Morton to refer to the way that wholes, like Gaia, are actually less than the sum of their parts. He calls this “implosive holism” and contrasts it with “explosive holism,” the sort of holism that led Stalin to murder millions of individuals for the sake of the Soviet Union, or that leads some environmentalists to emphasize saving species or even the whole planet without paying enough attention to individual organisms (a species doesn’t feel pain; only individual organisms feel pain, etc.).
So the question becomes, how do we think pluralism, difference, and diversity concretely, and not abstractly. Because when we think particular identities or individuals abstractly, we do violence to them, we try to universalize them in an overly abstract way without being sensitive to their unique contours. This is a form of reductionism. We can reduce individuals “up” to the whole, or reduce them “down” to their parts. Pluralism is trying to find a middle path between both forms of reductionism: It seeks a “strung-along” sort of holism (as James put it), not a global or continuous holism where each thing is connected to everything else in exactly the same way. Instead, as Donna Haraway puts it, “Nothing is connected to everything” even though “everything is connected to something.”
Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping out of a sense of exclusively human society, out of the self-enclosed social bubble that used to insulate us from any access whatsoever to something called Nature, or “the environment” standing in wait “over there” for science to objectify into knowledge or for the economy to commodify into money. Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping outside of the monetary monism of contemporary capitalism, where all value is reduced to exchange value in the human marketplace, to instead become part of a democracy of fellow creatures, as Whitehead puts it, where values pervade the biosphere, and “Nature” is no longer just a realm of inert, law-abiding facts but of creative, expressive agencies. Thinking pluralism concretely means walking out of the old Copernican universe, forgetting the mastery-seeking knowledge supplied by the monotheistic gaze of Science, in order to inhabit a new cosmos composed of infinitely many perspectives, more a pluriverse than a universe.
I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.