The cult of gun violence

American society is permeated by oppressive trajectories of violence, and firearms are both the material sedimentations of those trajectories and the conduits through which they move and are sustained. Given that, we need to come to grips with the ways in which firearms are—let’s face it—treated as sacred. And there’s hardly a better resource to employ in order to understand what that means in this contact than René Girard. Girard argued that what we call sacred are forces whose dominance over us seems to increase in direct proportion to our attempts to master them, and that violence—which is more or less manageable but never completely eradicable—lies at the center of these forces (Violence and the Sacred, 31). We react to these forces with both fear and reverence, desiring both to keep our distance from them and to enlist them to serve our purposes, neither of which we can ultimately do without the risk of becoming servants of and victims to them. Guns, as material manifestations contemporary society’s general and fundamental currents of violence, have come to serve as objects of sacred fear and reverence that are not so much used as tools as they are invoked both as protectors (despite the abundance of data that demonstrate this is not h0w they function) and, more often, as resources for the exertion of power.

The police officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile invoked their guns, virtually instantaneously, as soon as they felt threatened by the potential of violence. That each of these two victims carried their own guns (though, it’s important to emphasize, without invoking them) likely demonstrates that they both lived with the threat of violence in their daily lives and that they were, perhaps, potentially willing to invoke guns for protection—in situations other than the ones in which they were killed, it bears repeating.* The person (or persons) who opened fire on police officers in Dallas (also exposing to violence, let’s not forget, all the others in attendance at the rally) in turn invoked the violence of guns in order, as it appears so far, to channel his anger about violence—and in the midst of the event a man was mistakenly suspected to be one of the attackers precisely because he was seen carrying a gun. At the center of each of these three tragedies this week, we find violence erupting around and through guns, invoked as objects to be feared and as objects on which to be relied for salvation from fear.

Of course, America’s systemic racism and sexism are separable in principle (if not in practice) from its gun worship. The latter reinforces and is reinforced by the former in a vicious feedback loop, but it’s all too obvious that racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and xenophobic) violence, including extrajudicial killings, can and will still happen even without the invocation of guns. Guns were not involved in the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, or Sandra Bland, for instance. But, as sacred objects (in Girard’s sense), guns have the power and the seemingly inescapable tendency to magnify the effects of our violence in direct proportion to the degree that we attempt to use them to master this violence and its effects. At some level, I think this is something that we already know and accept, and our very acceptance of it—our implicit awareness of the terrible power of firearms at the same time that we as a society remain, at present at least, unwilling to turn away from them—emphasizes that our collective relationship to them and to the acts perpetrated with them is not just one of obsession, but of piety.


* I want to be as clear about this as possible, lest there be any misunderstanding: Sterling and Castilo having guns on their persons in no way justifies their being killed. And I’m not trying to make any particular moral claims about the presence and use of firearms, which I think need to be situational.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 30

Day 30, A Song that You Discovered This Month: “The Only One of You”

I think the intent of this prompt is for me to pick a song I discovered as a result of the challenge—a song picked by someone else with which I wasn’t familiar. However: (1) I only know one other person doing this (and I haven’t really felt like scouring the likes of Twitter to see what the young people are picking); (2) I think the nature of many of the prompts tends to produce picks that are familiar. So while learning about the musical tastes and idiosyncrasies of one’s friends is always fun, I think the chances of “discovering” something new via this challenge are less than likely (though certainly not impossible).

I’ve definitely discovered some music I hadn’t heard before during this month, though, and this brings us to Urban Verbs. A couple of nights ago I was at a local bar with some friends participating in an Open Turntables night, wherein you can bring your own records and sign up for a brief slot during which you can play a few songs. This one is partly sponsored by a local record store, and they supply a few crates of records from their $2 bin. Participants get to dig through these and take some home for free! So after sifting through this collection myself and not seeing much that interested me, I found a record the album on which the track above is featured. I had never heard of this band before, but I liked the name. Plus, the album artwork suggests the kind of early ’80s artishness that I’m usually into. Thinking, “hey, it’s free, I should take something home,” I did.

Well, it turns out this was a great decision. The album is quite good, in my opinion, and after looking the band up it’s a puzzle to me that I didn’t know who they were. They’re from DC! Their frontman’s brother is Chris Frantz (of the Talking Heads)! Brian Eno recorded their demo! And here’s the kicker: they were slated to open for Joy Division during the latter’s (canceled) US tour!! (Seriously, I’ve read two books about Joy Division, I must have seen Urban Verbs mentioned somewhere). So, better later than never, and you can’t go wrong with free records.

30 Day Song Challenge: catch-up

I guess at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve “failed” the 30 Day Song Challenge this year, as it’s been over a week since I posted a pick. Still, today’s the last day of the month, so I can still technically get them all in on time. This post will serve to get me up to date: eight songs for the last eight days (I’ll put today’s pick, the final day’s song, in the next post).
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Does Incoherence Matter?

In the aftermath of the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, during the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I remember seeing another academic somewhere on social media (my apologies for not remembering exactly who or where) saying something to other academics with the gist of: “If you’re not in some way working to fix this, you’re part of the problem.” I couldn’t help but agree and immediately recognize that I was not doing nearly enough. In the wake of the assault on the LGBTQ community in Orlando, I’m once again asking myself how what I do is in any way relevant to the most urgent problems facing those with whom I must ally myself. This is a partial attempt at an answer.

A Washington Post piece published on Monday notes that the perpetrator of the massacre in Orlando seems to have held “confused, perhaps even incoherent” religious views. The piece goes on to describe the differences between the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah—all of which the murderer apparently claimed allegiance to—in terms of both their theological alignments and their political and military alignments. Focusing on this individual’s supposed beliefs and evaluating them for consistency or lack thereof, though, obscures not only deeper and more culturally diffuse motivations (like homophobia, misogyny, and a fetishism of violence) but also the role that religions play and how they play it.

Despite the way it tends to appear to us in the modern West, religion is not primarily about belief (understood as assent to certain sets of propositions). Religions are made up of practices that orient their adherents within the world around them, and adopting particular beliefs is only one part of the much broader set of practices that make up religions—sometimes a very small part. From the point of view of the general patterns of behavior, it doesn’t seem that there’s anything particularly “incoherent” about an individual with developed tendencies toward bigotry and violence pledging allegiance to a variety of organizations or movements within the contexts of which his tendencies are reinforced and given meaningful content. That details of that content such as theological and political commitments are themselves not mutually consistent wouldn’t mean much particularly to someone attaching himself to them from a long geographic and cultural distance.

It is important to say, emphatically and repeatedly, that “religion” (whatever that may be) is not inherently homophobic, or sexist, or violent, etc. Nor is any particular religion. It is difficult make the opposite claim, though; to say that religions are inherently peaceful or compassionate, and that beliefs and actions that aren’t peaceful and compassionate aren’t really religious even when labeled as such. I’d like it to be the case that religious institutions don’t ever serve as the soil in which hateful behaviors grow or the cover under which violent actions are carried out, but that’s not the world we live in. There may be a sense in which a group like the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, is deeply non-Christian, but there’s also an unavoidable sense in which they are Christian. That’s the tradition they claim and the practical and conceptual vocabulary they use. To call the actions of the Orlando murderer “Islamic” (even “radical Islamic”) is, in a true and important sense, incorrect and an affront to Islam. Nevertheless, the existence of groups like DAESH, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah allowed him to spin his actions as Muslim—and there is, sadly, a sense in which this makes his violence Muslim violence. Of course, it should go without saying, reactionary Islamophobic vitriol (or even militaristic protectionism masquerading as prudent concern) does nothing to address this issue. What I think might help, though, in some small way, is paying more attention to the various ways in which religious practices interact with other social forces in the world to influence individual and group behavior (and paying perhaps less attention to the fine points dogma).

Thank You for Not Packing

I2000px-no_guns-svg‘m not old enough to remember when the majority of Americans smoked and one could smoke nearly anywhere, but I am older enough to remember when most places of public accommodation (e.g., restaurants) had Smoking and Non-Smoking sections. In some cases, the Smoking sections were larger than the Non-Smoking sections. In a relatively short amount of time, though, public smoking went from a practice that was mostly tolerated to one that, in many locales, is mostly not tolerated. And before that, it was a relatively short amount of time in which smoking went from an activity that was, implicitly at least, socially encouraged to an activity that was largely discouraged while still mostly tolerated. One could look solely at governmental restrictions regarding the advertising, sale, and use of cigarettes and other tobacco products to try to explain these changes, but it’s also the case that public opinion trends have consistently moved more and more in favor of greater restrictions. So, one could also try to explain increases in restrictions as simply the result of changing public opinion. However, I think the reality is that the many aspects of these two sides feed into and reinforce each other. Banning tobacco advertising, together with anti-tobacco media campaigns, clearly affects people’s attitude toward the use of tobacco products, which will in turn affect both behavior and subsequent policy, etc. In short, not only have rules about smoking changed over time, but our entire culture with regard to it has changed. America used to be a Smoking society, and I think it’s accurate to say that, while many Americans still smoke and while there are still many public places where Americans can smoke, we are now a Non-Smoking society.

America is a gun-having, gun-carrying, gun-shooting society. Just think of all the places one can legally carry a gun, but not smoke! There are roughly as many privately-owned guns in the U.S. as there are people. The vast majority of these guns, I’d imagine, are either not used at all or used in safe and legal (or maybe just legal) ways. Yet some are used to perpetrate barely conceivable acts of violence: Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech… frankly it’s unbearable to try to think through the list of just the most publicized killings of the last few years. After each of these tragedies, calls are made to make it just a little bit harder for at least some people to obtain some kinds of guns (like the AR-15, which seems to be the weapon of choice for hateful mass murderers). And then… nothing happens. Or rather, what happens is that these calls are immediately answered by defenders of our Gun culture, pointing out all the law-abiding gun owners whose rights would hypothetical be infringed by increased regulation, pointing out all the legal things gun owners can do and should be able to continue to do with their guns or any gun of their choice, pointing out how difficult it would be to enforce new regulations anyway. And the political inertia created and sustained by the NRA and like organizations, spread out across the entirety of our Gun culture, keeps anything more from happening.

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Factishes, divinatory and divine

I’ve been working through Isabelle Stengers’s Cosmopolitics for a long while now, my thought—my conviction, really—being that there is much in her approach to the history of modern scientific practices that would be useful when translated into the medium of philosophy of religion. This would include not only what she calls an “ecology of practices” (according to which diverse practices are to be understood in their interrelationships, as a complex network of modes of being in and relating to the world—rather than searching for a single universally valid practice to which the truths produced by the others can be reduced), but also her treatment of the various entities to which different scientific practices allow us to relate. In the same vein as Latour, Stengers treats beings such as microbes, atoms, and electrons as “factishes”: entities whose reality is confirmed, and whose power to dictate the terms of their existence, to the degree that they are constructed in particular practical environments (rather than in spite of this constructedness).

Of the seven short books (published in English as two volumes) that make up Cosmopolitics, it’s clear to me that the most relevant for a project outside the scope of philosophy of science proper are the first and the last, since these are the ones in which Stengers makes broader arguments about the relationship of scientific practice and thought to society at large. And honestly, some of the material in the other books—concerning the history of kinetics, dynamics, quantum mechanics, et al.—is difficult for me to follow, not having a very deep background in any of these fields. Yet, there are still plenty of moments where, in the middle of a discussion of what to me is an arcane point, something strikes me as holding potential insight outsid of its context. For instance, in her detailed and (as far as I, as a non-expert, can tell) incisive treatment of the early history of interpretations of quantum mechanics, she writes:

The wave function together with its reduction serves as a kind of divinatory apparatus, enabling us to interpret, to confer meaning, to inscribe within a practice, “messages” that have arrived from a different reality, that physicists are unable to appropriate, and whose ways they are unable to penetrate, much less represent. … The veil is the counterpart of the formal divinatory factishes of quantum mechanics. (II, 62)

Now Stengers goes on to critique the idea that the superposition of states in the non-collapsed quantum wave function points to some hidden reality to which we have no direct access, as well as the simply anti-realist interpretation that denies any reality to that which the wave function represents. Her account aims to place the formalism of the wave function in the practical context(s) in which it is used, and allow it and the beings it represents to exist fully within these contexts. But it naturally caught my attention that she not only uses the word “divinatory” to describe the factishes that emerge in the context of quantum mechanics, but that she also identifies (at least according to a particular interpretation) a veil—traditional marker of the sacred—as the counterpart to the divinatory operation that quantum factishes enable. Could one, then, identify this as a point of convergence, or at least intersection, between a philosophical understanding of nature and a philosophy of religion (insofar as the latter is oriented toward the concept of the sacred and of divinatory powers)?

Not so fast. For one, enough has already been said (sometimes well, but more often badly) about the possibility of finding a kind of mysticism in “the new physics” that a good amount of caution is called for in employing the latter even if one’s aim is to better understand rather than endorse religious practices and ideas. More directly, though, it’s clear from both Stengers’s and Latour’s work that factishes are situated within the contexts in which they arise, even though they can in turn affect their environments according to their own particular abilities. If the scientific practices that uncover microbial life are markedly different—and thus orient themselves to a markedly different mode of being—than those that uncover the quantum states of an electron, then a fortiori will religious practices construct and orient themselves toward different modes of being than the “divinatory factishes” of quantum mechanics. Divine factishes, while no less (but perhaps no more) constructed by the practices that seek out and respond to them than are divinatory factishes, should not be reduced to or explained by that which has little concern for them. This, as I take it, is the ecological model.

On cosmotheism

Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now – albeit, with varying levels of attention, though my plan is to bring it to the front burner for the foreseeable future – is the relationship between scientific and religious ways of being in and relating to the world, particularly within the Anthropocene context. Having spent a lot of time with the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, I’ve become convinced that what they’ve done in the history and sociology of scientific practices can be constructively applied to religious practices as well. And to be clear: I don’t just mean to suggest historical and sociological approaches to the study of religions – after all, these are ways religious studies has been done since its inception as a discipline. I mean specifically taking insights form science studies and working with and through them to better understand religious practices and ideas. This, more or less, is my present project.

Part of where I want to go with this is to focus on how religious practices orient – and orient themselves within – the natural world, the world (κόσμος) with which scientific practice busies itself. And one of the resources that has helped me begin to think about this is Jan Assmann’s The Price of Monotheism, in which he refines and expands his claim that the radical monotheism that has (at least in principle) dominated Western religion for the last 3,000 or so years is actually best understood as a “counter-religious” movement insofar as it in insistent on an absolute, unique divine reality and truth that other forms of religion (retro-actively named “polytheistic”) are not. Adriel Trott recently wrote about Assmann’s argument as it relates to philosophy and to politics, making the excellent point that the philosopher (as “monotheist” in Assmann’s sense) has to make her case, initially, for the value of a concept of absolute truth within the context of a democratic marketplace of ideas – i.e., the context against which radical monotheism stakes its own position. It’s just this rhetorical struggle on the part of the philosopher that comes to light, I think, in Latour’s reading of the argument between Callicles and Socrates in the Gorgias (see chapters 7 & 8 of Pandora’s Hope), or in his reading of the Cave in Politics of Nature.

In any case, it’s also clear, I think, that one of the things at stake – in religions, in politics, and in the self-conception of philosophy – is a struggle between immanent forms of thought and practice and forms that necessarily appeal to a transcendent reality, force, or truth. Assmann’s claim is that the latter is characteristic of monotheism, and that what it rejects – which is better understood as “cosmotheism” than “polytheism” – is the former.

The opposite of monotheism is not polytheism [i.e., simply the multiplication of transcendent deities], nor even idol-worship, but cosmotheism, the religion of an immanent god and a veiled truth that shows and conceals itself in a thousand images that illuminate and complement, rather than logically exclude, one another. (43)

The concept of god in cosmotheism is immanent because divinities, humans, and nature occupy the same conceptual space. This cosmos is a realm of creative abundance, excess, and novelty. And while it certainly permits distinctions between, for instance, the human and the divine, or the cultural and the natural, or the divine and the mundane, these cannot be absolute divisions because the interactions of beings and forces within these distinct realms nevertheless have meaningful implications for the other realms. Divine actions affect humans (and the non-human natural world), but human actions also affect the divine and nature. Combining these pluralized, the immanent, and the mutually co-implicated aspects, I’d venture to call the cosmotheist position radically ecumenical – in a sense similar to that of the radical democracy that Derrida (et al.) discuss and that I think Trott has in mind in her discussion of Assmann and Arendt.

On Not Blogging

A few years ago, I started a blog called Effervescent Crucibles. I posted only sporadically, and eventually ceased completely. But recently I’ve decided that it would be a good thing for me to give it another try, so here it goes. (I’ll be re-reading Augustine’s Confessions at some point this summer, in preparation for short unit on it I’ll be teaching in the fall, so what better time, right?)

On the one hand, the trend toward blogging as a way for academics to seize hold of and amplify their public profile – and, maybe more importantly, to converse with each other – is a good motivator to push me back into the blogosphere. On the other hand, there are a few things that continue to make me hesitate. First, blogging strikes me as an inherently narcissistic activity: even though whatever one publishes online is potentially available to anyone in the world (and on this, see the next point), I know that this blog does not have an audience – not now at least, and possibly not ever – unless, that is, I put serious effort into giving it one, which strikes me not only as self-serving but also tedious. So it tends to feel somehow disingenuous and arrogant of me to write as though others are paying attention.

Second, though, is the constant awareness of the radical public-ness of a blog. Not only is it available to everyone, but qua bit of internet data it is available to everyone in potential perpetuity. Writing traditional academic products, you can take a long time to process ideas, choose proper words and phrases, organize points, etc., to make sure you’ve said exactly what you want to say how you want to say it. And then, if it’s a book or journal article, e.g., a few other people will read it and tell you what’s wrong with what you’ve said before anyone else sees it. And only after you’ve fixed that will it be available for the broader public. Here, all I have to do is hit “Publish” and ZAP, there it is for everyone. So there’s a much greater chance what I’ve written will include something that I’ll later (or even immediately) decide wasn’t worth writing. Add to this the idea that there are many blogs written by philosophers that are going to contain, routinely, far better content than I feel I can provide, and I wonder if my time is better spent just reading and occasionally commenting on those. Which gets us to the next point…

Third, as is universally the case in academia, there’s already more work for me to do than there is time in which to do it comfortably. The time I spend on this isn’t (necessarily) getting me closer to completing a paper or book, or preparing for class, or ticking off all the bureaucratic tasks that really never go away anyway. It’s likely that nothing I do here will be included in performance reviews. Blogging requires time and effort, but it’s not “work.”

Still, I’m going to treat these as obstacles to be overcome rather than reasons to stay quiet.