Thursday June 24, 2021

What are we talking about when we talk about “political theology”? It’s a rejection of the secularization thesis. Religion never goes away; theological notions haunt the structures and discourses of capitalist modernity. I think of the lyrics to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” The song’s title is a line from a poem in Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. “I propped two pages of his book up on a music stand,” she recalled when asked about the song in an interview, “and I just sang it out, ad-libbing the melody and guitar music together as I went along.” Who is it that tells us “mind itself is magic coursing through the flesh / And flesh itself is magic dancing on a clock / And time itself, the magic length of God”? Is it Sainte-Marie, or is it Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th century Mohawk saint worshipped by the narrator of Cohen’s novel?

Wednesday June 23, 2021

As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.

Friday May 28, 2021

A flute is blown, a tone sustained, strung like a bridge of sound across an otherwise silent expanse. By flute I mean the shakuhachi, the most important of traditional Japanese wind instruments. “Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th-century avant-garde flute repertory,” writes David Loeb in the Kōhachirō Miyata album’s liner notes, “were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.” The sounds are ones I reimagine come evening as I listen to birdsong. As May concludes, it’s time to plant. ‘Tis summer–nearly so. If not for rain, I’d have been at the pool reading Reclaiming Art, a book by Weird Studies podcaster J.F. Martel. Or perhaps I’d have finished Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I find the latter troubling in its traditionalism. Japanese communists of the 1930s regarded Tanizaki as a reactionary in the years prior to the Second World War. His writings failed to adopt a recognizable ideological “stance.” He was a foot fetishist; a masochist; his writings explore the erotic and the grotesque. To the ideologues of his day, this made him “decadent,” his worldview colored by nostalgia for premodernity and by an embrace of fantasy and the unconscious. The elements I admire in Tanizaki, however, are his visceral aversion to capitalist modernity, his respect for embodied being, and his desire to live well.

Tuesday April 6, 2021

I read an article about “zozobra,” a concept devised by Mexican philosophers of the early 20th century. Zozobra names a type of anxiety. For the philosopher Emilio Uranga, “Zozobra refers to a mode of being that incessantly oscillates between two possibilities, between two affects, without knowing which one of those to depend on.” “Zozobra,” write the article’s coauthors, “is a soul-sickness,” a “gnawing sense of distress” due to “cracks in the frameworks of meaning that we rely on to make sense of our world.” Figures like Jorge Portilla proposed what the authors call a “nationalist” solution to this crisis, with leadership intervening to construct “a coherent horizon of understanding at the national level…a shared sense of what is real and what matters.” Is the US, as these authors suggest, afflicted with zozobra? Is zozobra another name for what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”? Haven’t frameworks of meaning always been sites of struggle between dominant and subordinate groups — classes, sects, tribes, etc. — as per Gramsci? To understand zozobra as a distinct affect, I hear myself thinking, one needs to situate it amid what was happening in 1950s Mexico, this being the moment and place of the term’s theorization. With spring underway, though, the concept slips away from me and evaporates — for my mood is less one of anxiety than one of excitement.

Thursday January 7, 2021

DC was quite the creature feature yesterday. I’m puzzled, though, as to what to make of it. Laugable LARP or ill omen of things to come? The possibility remains ever-present for yesterday’s farce to become tomorrow’s tragedy (Marx’s equation reversed). But my hope is that history sloughs off past genres and unfolds into something new. Utopia’s atemporal too.

Wednesday January 6, 2020

News media platform spectacles, political theater: a Trump-incited attempted coup. Jedi warriors like Obi-Wan Kenobi sit in caves and meditate until called upon to aid the Force in its struggle against the Dark Side. Sometimes the way forward is to perform a paralogical move. In Obi-Wan’s case, it means vanishing temporarily from the gameworld. His body departs from the antagonism — the conflict with Vader — so that he may return thereafter as a spirit-guide for the story’s other hero, the warrior who wins the fight: Luke Skywalker. The Star Wars universe’s war-torn cosmos is the cosmos of decolonizers and antifascists. Of course, there are other paralogical responses. When the US entered a war against global fascism after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sun Ra refused induction. Like fellow mystic Aldous Huxley, Ra opted out of the conflict, declaring before the State his status as a conscientious objector on account of his pacifism. What about today? What would be an appropriate paralogical move in response to Trumpism? Should we try again to levitate a building, as did those who marched on the Pentagon in October 1967? Do new superheroes arrive: Pink Panthers? Or do we let the Spectacle dissipate of its own accord, washed away by subsequent waves of narrative?

Thursday December 31, 2020

A friend with whom I recently reconnected shared with me his fears about what he calls “The Authoritarian Left.” Why has his thought territorialized around this concept? Where is this friend’s analysis, I wonder, of the actually-existing fascisms, the authoritarianisms of the right? Deleuze and Guattari are somehow authors this friend and I share in common. Let us attempt, then, to construct from their Anti-Oedipus a “tool for conviviality” (xxii). Let it be “a manual or guide” — or as Foucault said of Anti-Oedipus in the book’s preface, “an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life” (xiii). Just to be clear: I am proposing here a practice of mutual self-care. By these means, we heal.

Sunday November 22, 2020

Earthseed is a religion that worships “change,” figures “God” as a force or a process rather than a person. Change is a condition of being, in a sense — but not just a fixed fate. It can be “shaped.” Lauren Oya Olamina’s journal entries act as living testimony. Hers is a life of massive change, much of it painful. But Lauren plots and wishes and writes the story of her survival. She acquires followers through the sharing of her teachings while fleeing north following the destruction of her neighborhood. Is Earthseed political? Can we interpret it in light of political theology? As answer to these questions, consider the following. Butler’s novel was published in 1993. The following year, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, an act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It’s also known as the Biden Crime Law. Current president-elect Joe Biden, serving at the time as Senator of Delaware, drafted the Senate version of the legislation. In a 1993 speech promoting the crime bill, Biden warned of “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale.” “We have no choice,” he said, “but to take them out of society.” Biden’s 1993 “predator” remarks are remarkably similar to comments made by then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 warning of “superpredators” who had “no conscience, no empathy” and who needed to be “brought to heel.” Lauren, the inventor of Earthseed in Butler’s novel, uses this same language, imagining dangerous “predators” lurking near commercial water stations during her journey north (202). Lauren’s Earthseed religion encourages her to think this way. “Hyperempathy” makes one wary of “predators.” Lauren’s saving grace, though, is her distrust of police. That’s what distinguishes her from, say, Watchmen‘s Angela Abar.

Saturday November 7, 2020

On the table before me is a new board book, an interactive one with a “Slide and Find” feature. Frankie and I slide panels on each page and meet animals: Water Buffalo, Spider Monkey, Bald Eagle, Macaroni Penguin. The book is called Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? The election votes have been counted, and a result declared: Biden/Harris victory, Trump/Pence defeat. Many celebrate, as there is certainly reason to. Jes Grew-style dance parties erupt in the streets amid a mood of general happiness and relief. Frankie and I listened to the new Terror/Cactus single “Churro vs. Crow” and the accompanying track “Regresso” by Orquestra Pacifico Tropical aloud on our morning walk.

She and I admired the leaves, a colorful array of browns, red, oranges, and yellows, on this beautiful autumn day. Afterwards, a friend pulls up and honks her horn in our driveway. She and Sarah walk Frankie midafternoon while I run to Goodwill and score a stack of LPs from the Nonesuch “Explorer Series.” ‘Tis a good day.