Category Archives: (Pop) Culture

Saintseneca’s “James”

I’ve been thoroughly enraptured by this track off of Saintseneca’s Last entitled “James”: an account of Jesus’ incarnation by his brother James. Lyrically slim, this track is nonetheless remarkably dense, and is punctuated with some incredible imagery. Correlation between birth and resurrection (second birth), a gender-ambiguous deity, genetics metaphors, a remarkably obscure reference to the Crucifixion (“His hands, well  I’m not sure, how to get those”), this track has everything a theologian could ask for in less than two minutes. Listen to the track, love the track, then buy the track (or hell, why not buy the whole damn album?!).

My brother’s born on Christmas
My brother’s born on Easter
God was my half brother
and God, I’d like to meet her

Yeah our cheeks are similar
Yeah we’ve got the same nose
His hands, well I’m not sure
How’d he get those?

Some kind of divine hybrid
I wonder who’s recessive allelomorphs expressed
to make your neck so freckled?

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The Gift, Christ(mas), and the Claus(e) of Prohibition: Re-membering the Divine Economy of Mary and her Infant King

Forewarning: I do not intend to use this post to propagate some sort of worthless “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Let’s end the war on Christmas” folly. This is a hermeneutical discourse on the internal paradoxes of the language employed around this holiday and how they present an ethical aporia for, most of all, Christians.

Jesus was born in a feeding trough. What that means is that pigs ate from it. Jesus’s newborn, fragile body was birthed and first laid in a structure made for pig food…as the story goes.

Whether you interpret the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives as literal or symbolic, the symbolic point of reference here is the beginnings of Jesus in poverty. The historical man who came to be propped up as the very incarnation of God in flesh–he dwelt among the lowest and basest of created things. Furthermore, he lived his life touching lepers and hanging out with prostitutes, teaching unconditional love and giving.

That’s right. Jesus taught unconditional love. This means that the Gift, when unconditional, is given without expect of return or reward. There was no prohibition given by Jesus in terms of the Gift. No exception. This is the divine economy: to give on the basis of love for the other alone–worthy in his/her own being as such–without any exceptions or conditions. An impossible and difficult thing to do, but something to be strived for anyway.

Christmas has been proclaimed to be, by many Evangelical Christians, a season for honoring and remembering the humbly-born Christ. But they quickly forget that this humble Christ taught us to practice a divine economy. They claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but they do not celebrate the radical generosity he taught. Sure, they will give nice gifts to family and friends. But only on this occasion, and it is no Evangelical imperative that one should make a regular effort to give gifts of sustenance to the poor.

Evangelicals may claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but it would seem that they believe more strongly in a Santa-figure (as representative of the Divine). Santa’s economy can be summed up by the following lyric: He’s making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. 

Santa’s economy is one of prohibition. Santa’s gift is not unconditional but depends upon whether one obeys the prohibitions given by the Big Other. But Christ’s God, unlike the Big Other, does not give this way. Rather, Christ’s God makes the same rain fall and the same sun shine on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mat. 5:45). Evangelicals tend to see God as the Big Other, rewarding and punishing according to proper faith or deeds.

But this is not what Christ taught. If Evangelicals want to truly proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the solution is not billboards or media annoyance. Rather, they ought to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus and the divine economy he taught. For to remember Christ is to re-member the divine economy that has been broken and obscured by Christendom.

(Then again, when did you ever get coals in your stocking when you were bad? We all know the big secret: Santa doesn’t actually follow his own rules…he gives unconditionally to all. He just says those things to get you to be nice to your brothers and sisters!)

Texan Ideological Deconstruction (or, From Hank to Derrida)

I recently posted elsewhere about my love of (read: obsession with) King of the Hill, and following some positive response, thought I would put together something slightly more substantial. So here we go:

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First Level: Unity

If we begin by looking at the presentation that King of the Hill offers forward as its basic appearance, we find a sort of “back to the basics,” traditionalist, family sitcom, differentiated from others only in being a cartoon. Even the basic human competency of the father figure, Hank, sets it apart from its contemporaries (Simpsons, Family Guy) who sought to overtly undermine the traditional family structure by decentering the patriarchal power center (though ironically, these incompetent patriarchs nevertheless retain a redoubled narrative centering, most clearly in Family Guy). Prima Facie, the construction of this narrative around an all-American traditional family, and its refusal to undermine the central patriarch should point to a reactionary, even “conservative”  narrative. Yet, King of the Hill is significantly more complex.

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Second Level: Dichotomy

At a deeper level of analysis, though still relatively cursory, one seems to find a principal  guiding dichotomy. On the one hand we find traditionalist conservativism, epitomized most strongly in the characters of Hank and his father, on the other liberal/feminism, epitomized in Peggy, Bobby, and (with less consistency) Luanne. Watched through the lens of these two paradigms, King of the Hill appears really rather shallow and uninteresting, perhaps a meta-critique of the political climate in America, but nothing substantially more. But, I would argue, there remains a key third level, below both the traditionalism and the traditionalism v. progressivism conflict, a deconstruction of the very dichotomy presented here, and perhaps then, a deconstruction of the liberal v. conservative lens of American politics and ethics.

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Third Level: Ambiguity

The show both overtly and subtly undermines/deconstructs this principal distinction at nearly every turn. But this deconstruction can be most clearly seen by a breakdown of the principal characters.

Hank:

Hank functions, as we said, as the “traditionalist.” His language and actions often reflect this perspective; he refuses to show emotion, he discourages Bobby’s attempts at non-traditional (i.e. not football or baseball) extracurriculars, and he encourages (to Peggy’s chagrin) a clear division of labor between “men’s work” and “women’s work.” Nonetheless, and most clearly at key dramatic or narrative points in the the show, Hank makes decisions directly counter to this conservative ideology. Rather than allow his friends or family to suffer, Hank overturns his own notion of the “right” or “correct” way for the world to function; at Peggy’s boggle tournament, for example, he (eventually) abandons his own desire (to check out a new lawn mower with his friends) and instead functions as a cheerleader of sorts for Peggy. More dramatically, following his close friend Bill’s mental breakdown, and cognitive split into two personalities, himself and his ex-wife, Hank dons drag in order to protect his mentally ill friend from the ridicule of his neighbors. As a Time magazine article wrote:

Hank tries to avoid both his dad’s callousness and P.C. feel-goodism while sticking to his principles of hard work in a world that rewards shortcuts.

Peggy:

In a similar manner, Peggy functions as a strange mix of the traditional housewife and a second wave feminist. On the one hand, it is easy to pigeonhole her as a liberal, given her obsession with women’s empowerment and similar causes. Yet, once again (and notably again at key moments) Peggy turns to the traditional family/communal structure in order to maintain her friends’ and family’s well being. Her ideological commitments only run as deep as the personal suffering of her loved ones and no further. This complexity emerges most clearly in her attempts to mediate the relationship between Bobby and Hank. On the one hand, she “plays her role” as the liberal in her interactions with Hank, encouraging him to open up to Bobby, to participate in his non-traditional (and generally “effeminate”) hobbies.  Yet, she also functions as a traditionalist in relation to Bobby, often encouraging him to try sports, to participate in “boys” activities.

Luanne:

Luanne is similarly “contradictory,” surpassing her role as the stereotype of the “dumb, PC, liberal, white girl.” This surpassing can be seen most clearly in a subplot of the early seasons in which it is repeatedly shown that, while she is viewed as  “dumb blonde” and other stereotypes, she is also the most skilled mechanic on the show, a traditionally “male” job, as well as in later seasons where it is revealed that she is a fervent evangelical Christian (even going so far as to host a Christian children’s tv show), a traditionally “conservative” religious orientation. Even her political affiliations wax and wane, supporting communism one episode and George W. Bush’s reelection the next season.

Bobby:

The last member of the core family, Bobby, while less dialectical than the others, also presents a starker refusal to fall into ideological traps; perhaps a motif of childhood innocence, a time before ideology, is hinted at. In a certain sense Bobby functions as a microcosm of the show itself, a direct refusal to fall into any single ideological identification, a resistance and deconstruction of what it means to be an identity. His hobbies, as we already mentioned, are not those of a traditional small town Texan boy, but he is instead obsessed with prop comedy, works as a rodeo clown, and a number of other obscure activities and jobs. He models, wears non-traditional clothing, takes women’s defense courses; as an unashamed “chubby” kid, he refuses body norms; he fails at most tasks, lacking the traditional “hard work” spirit of his father, yet still idolizes his dad as a hero; he dates Connie, a “more attractive,” more intelligent/higher achieving, girl outside of his race. He simply breaks almost every social “rule” set before him.

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Conclusion:

The result of this constant undermining/deconstruction is that the show ends up transcending both the old “reinforce the family” sitcom of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and the more modern “liberal tv” stereotypes of the 90’s and the 00’s. It challenges the stifling traditionalism of old-school america, while simultaneously reinforcing the actual value of family and community. It openly mocks Liberal america, while reinforcing the unique non-traditional, feminist, and “liberal” values of its characters (Bobby, with his constant challenging of gender and societal norms, basically embodies this aspect of the show). Because of this constant give-and-take, its ideological dialectic, it is likely one of the least reductive shows of the last few decades. It uniquely finds a way of simultaneously challenging the restrictive and oppressive character of traditionalist value, while nonetheless drawing out the failures of liberalism which are tied to its loss of community, and perhaps even, family. Moreover, like Jacques Derrida, who argues in “The Force of Law” that every deconstruction must be in the name of an undeconstructible, every law deconstructed in the name of justice, the ethical core of King of the Hill, the placement of its greatest subversions at moments of suffering, its commitment to place real human suffering above any ideological commitment, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, marks it as one of the most ethical shows on television, and the truest enactment of deconstruction: King of the Hill offers a radically unique and powerfully ethical Texan Ideological Deconstruction.

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Note: I am not alone in my assertion of King of the Hill‘s greatness, in 2007, Time Magazine ranked King of the Hill as one of the 100 Best Shows of all Time.

Death of Kumaré Theology

A Few weeks ago I was introduced to a fascinating documentary, directed by and starring Vikram Gandhi, entitled Kumaré. Adopting the persona Sri Kumaré (and appropriately thick accent), Gandhi modeled himself upon the plethora of Yogis he had discovered while filming a documentary of their lives, philosophies, and followers. Simply, Gandhi was convinced that there was something artificial to these Gurus, something that could be imitated to the same success by himself, with no formal training. Gandhi hoped that, by attaining a small group of loyal followers, leading them through a set of contrived practices, chants, and meditations, and finally revealing himself as a “false prophet,” he could reveal that the truth that they were seeking wasn’t to be found in any Guru or Yogi, but rather, that this truth was, in some sense, within themselves. [Read more]

Setting aside the (perhaps questionable) individualistic bent of the documentary, I was struck by the beauty of the film, the authenticity of the relationships, and the depth of the spirituality among Kumaré’s followers and Kumaré himself. I also could not help but wonder if there was not a more profound and unexplored theological depth underlying the film in general, but perhaps more specifically, the climactic “unveiling” scene (where Kumaré reveals himself as an American from Brooklyn, rather than an Eastern Guru).  I wonder if this unveiling scene might perhaps offer a glimpse into the theological fecundity of Death of God theology.

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In the early 1960’s, a theological movement, Death of God theology, emerged on the american scene with unprecedented speed and vigor, only to fall out of academic favor with nearly the same speed; “falling” so far that Adam Kotsko describes Thomas Altizer, one of the prime catalysts of this movement, as “the third rail of academic theology.” This movement, drawing upon the insights of Christian Mysticism, the dialectic of Hegel, and the atheism of Nietzsche, sought to articulate a theology built upon the primary intuition that “God is Dead.” While the precise understanding of what is meant by this “death of God” has been heavily debated–ranging from the metaphorical, through the performative, all the way to a quite literal understanding (of which Altizer appears to be a case)–there remains a consistent sense among Death of God theologians that, to a great extent, we are “on our own.” We can no longer rely upon a theological Big Other to guide our actions, declare right from wrong, and provide the Archimedean point of theological and philosophical reasoning.

Is it possible that the experience of the Death of God, the death of the Big Other, is precisely what Gandhi sought to offer his students at the momentous unveiling of his “true identity” at the conclusion of Kumaré?

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For Gandhi, the essence of his teaching, both as Kumaré and at a meta-level through the unveiling, was “asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on,” and presenting these deconstructive gestures as “highly ‘spiritual’ acts.” This reorientation of deconstruction as a spiritual act, perhaps even as the spiritual act par excellence, is precisely the motivation that underlies the reemergence of Radical (Death of God) theology in contemporary discourse. Caputo, Rollins, Zizek, Marion–these thinkers of the death of God, of the God who is not, who is “beyond being,” are not seeking to end religion, spirituality, or theology, but on the contrary, to revitalize it. Like Gandhi, they desire to break down the “idols” of thought. It is not coincidental that Marion’s God Without Being opens with a sustained treatment of the phenomenology of the idol. Anyone who wishes to follow the movement of the death of God, must first walk the path the includes a decisively critical/deconstructive gesture. The radical theologian, or any religious person who wishes to follow this path, must face the authentic trauma of the death of the idol, whether this idol be a clear conception of the “greatest possible being,” the moral big Other who guides moral reasoning, or the unveiling of the spiritual Guru as a mere brooklynite.

Of course, such a path has its risks. As Kumaré illustrates, anytime that one challenges these idols, idols that may be fundamentally orienting in ones life, there is a chance that this trauma will be unbearable.  There are those who simply refused to speak to Gandhi after the unveiling, who stormed out of the room and never returned his calls. But there were also those who understood, who felt the freedom of his message, who recognized that there was no other way that his teachings could have concluded.  And this is the risk of the the Death of God–it can be freeing, opening, empowering, and it can be devastating and destructive. This freedom, as Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra so beautifully illustrates, can inspire terror as easily as dancing. When one gazes into the abyss of the Death of God, or the Death of Kumaré, one does not know what one will find.

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This is Existentialism.

lmfaoNK
[Source: Reblooged~?]

Irony, Masochism, and Hipsters

hipster2The philosophic value of irony has been a topic of investigation from Kierkegaard’s On the Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates, if not all the way back to Plato’s dialogues themselves.  Yet, seemingly unaware of the long philosophical tradition of practiced irony, Christy Wampole’s recent article “How to Live Without Irony,” through an irredeemably surface reading of so-called “hipster” culture, advocates a total rejection of irony, a self-conscious cleansing of the inauthenticity of ironic self-reference.  Yet, is such a radical position vis-a-vis irony necessary?  Is there no possible value to be gained from the use of irony in discourse or even life?

In Slavoj Zizek’s Are We Allowed to Enjoy Daphnée du Maurier?, he offers the seemingly paradoxical assertion that, not only does feminine masochism fail to support patriarchy and its most heinous manifestation in sexual violence, but that feminine masochism is subversive of this patriarchy itself.

“What this means is that, paradoxically, the staging of what appears to be a masochist scenario is the first act of liberation: by means of it, the servant’s masochistic libidinal attachment to his[sic] master is brought into the light of day, and the servant thus achieves a minimal distance towards it. In his essay on Sacher-Masoch, Gilles Deleuze elaborated this aspect in detail: far from bringing any satisfaction to the sadistic witness, the masochist’s self-torture frustrates the sadist, depriving him of his power over the masochist. Sadism involves a relationship of domination, while masochism is necessarily the first step towards liberation.”

In essence, through the overt enactment of patriarchal power relations, the frailty and fiction of this power structure is made manifest.   The apparent acting out of this problematic structure, in reality functions as its very undermining.  By playing out the structure as fiction, it is revealed to already be fiction.*

hipster_fucksCould not irony, even “hipster” irony, provide such a necessary acting out.  Does ironic fashion not reveal the vacuous nature of fashion?  Does ironic language not reveal the artificiality of language?  Rather than reject irony, perhaps it is the role of the philosopher to live out irony, to live it out as radically as Kierkegaard or Socrates.  Perhaps it is the destiny of philosophers to become hipsters.

EDIT 12/06/12: [Check out THIS response to Wampole by The Atlantic‘s Jonathan D. Fitzgerald]

 

*Special thanks to Noelle Vahanian’s “Theology ‘after’ Lacan”.  Presented at SPEP 2012

Das Kapital on Stage

Das Kapital stage production!

“Producers promise blend of Broadway and Vegas for all-dancing, all-singing adaptation of Marx’s treatise”

Best ever!

Žižek on Butter

Here’s something a little lighthearted.  I promise I’ll get off my Žižek kick soon….

Dan Deacon and the 21st Century “Theater of Cruelty”

“The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself.” (W&D p.324)* Antonin Artaud, in his 1948 Le théâtre de cruauté, sought to enact a revolution within theater on par with Kandinsky’s abstract turn. Rejecting the traditional model of theatrics, theater as representation, Artaud developed his “Theater of Cruelty.” In The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation Derrida describes this theater as the sixfold rejection of:

1. All non-sacred theater…

2. All theater that privileges speech or rather the verb, all theater of words…

3. All abstract theater which excludes something from the totality of art…

4. All theater of alienation…the non-participation of spectators…

5. All nonpolitical theater…

6. All idealogical theater… theater seeking to transmit a content.

These six principles outline a theatrical experience, an enactment which is conducted within (not in the face of) life. This Theater of Cruelty is therefore a spontaneous creation of its participants, no longer divided between spectator and performer, observer and observed. Instead of actions, words, plot, etc., externally viewed by non-committed observers, the Theater of Cruelty can not be observed: it must be lived; it is not theoria, it is praxis. It does not exist (ek-sist), in the sense that its experience cannot be divided from its enactment. It is only through participation in its enactment, in the theatrics, that the theater can manifest itself.

It is through this understanding (of theater as enactment) that Artaud’s bizarre claim of the Theater of Cruelty, that it can only take place once, must be understood. This claim must not be misread as an ungrounded assumption that pure theater can only be conducted at a single historical-objective time, that the successful undertaking of this theater would permanently and necessarily bar future theater. But instead, that the enactment of the Theater of Cruelty is manifested as an event.

Jean-Luc Marion, in Being Given, captures the unrepresentable character of The Event when he writes, “This means precisely that nobody can claim for himself a “here and now” that would permit him to describe it [The Event] exhaustively and constitute it as an object” (p.228). The Theater of Cruelty, as the enactment of an event, cannot be constituted as an object, as a representation, because it cannot be encompassed within a horizon of visibility. It cannot be seen as such, but simply experienced.

Nonetheless, even with his conception of pure theater, Artaud was never able to successfully “perform” the Theater of Cruelty. This difficulty has lead to its designation as “impossible theater” and the general consensus that Artaud’s description is too abstract and metaphorical for literal performance. Yet, the performance of this theater, in its purity, may be identifiable, not within the world of theatrics, but from an unlikely source within the Baltimore indie music scene: Dan Deacon.

Notorious for his immersive live performances, the experience of a Dan Deacon show can only be expressed as an “event.” If one examines this experience in light of Derrida’s six principles, the direct correlation between the Deacon “performance” and the Theater of Cruelty becomes undeniable.

“1. All non-sacred theater.” This first principle, the rejection of the non-sacred, is by far the most unclear, for the simple reason that no further elaboration is provided. Yet, if we recognize that the Theater of Cruelty “inhabits or rather produces a nontheological space” (W& D p.235), than we can further recognize that the sacred is not identical with the theological, i.e. traditionally religious. Instead, the sacred is a direct, though potentially indefinite, experience. Through this bracketing of the traditional-religious, the Dan Deacon show can be recognized as essentially sacred in its tonality, particularly in its more explicitly reflective modalities (notably, the experience of Snookered).

“2. All theater that privileges speech or rather the verb, all theater of words” The rejection of logo-centrism in Dan Deacon’s performances can be recognized in the simple fact that early all speech is improvised and contingent upon the present experience. There is not script, no director, no plot. Certain themes may recur and broad underlying structures (e.g. set-list) may be discernible, but, much like a jazz improvisation, these factors do not diminish its essentially improvised character.

“3. All abstract theater which excludes something from the totality of art.” It is perhaps in its artistic inclusivity that the Dan Deacon show bears its closest affinity to the Theater of Cruelty. Music, dance, comedy, visuals, tactile sensation, spoken word, athletic activity… all coincide at the event, blurring together in an unprecedented affective milieu.

“4. All theater of alienation…the non-participation of spectators” At the Dan Deacon performance, there are no spectators and there is no stage. The representational “4th wall” does not, and simply cannot, exist. Instead, it is precisely the enactment of the audience/performer which engenders the event. Certainly, Deacon functions as a master-of-ceremonies, holding a particularly unique role in regards to audio-performance. But his role is qualitatively similar to, perhaps nearly identical to, the audience/performer. His perspective, like every other, is unable to “describe it exhaustively and constitute it as an object.” Simply put, the Dan Deacon performance relies upon its audience/performer as much as on Dan Deacon himself.

“5. All nonpolitical theater” and “6. All idealogical theater… theater seeking to transmit a content.” These final two principles must be taken together if their meanings are to be accurately understood. For, the “politics” of the Theater of Cruelty must not be misunderstood as ideological. Pure theater does not seek to communicate, interpret, create, or deliver a content; even a political content. In what sense, then, can the Theater of Cruelty be understood as “political”? The theater is itself a political act. Once again, it must be recognized that the nonrepresentational character of the theater derives from its essence as enactment. The theater is political because it enacts politics, not because it transmits political ideologies. Like protest, rallies, or the recent “Occupy” encampments the simple act of gathering, the assembly of individuals, is itself a political act. Precisely the same can be said of the Dan Deacon concert. The act of assembly, even assembly with an aim toward the arts, is a political activity.

We must therefore reject the common assertion that the Theater of Cruelty is an impossible theater. For, not only is it possible, but it has been and is being actualized. Perhaps not within the “theater world,” but certainly within the wider world of artistic expression. As a twenty-first century Theater of Cruelty, the Dan Deacon performance permeates the audience/performer. It moves beyond mere representation and strikes at the nonrepresentational core of human reality, life itself.

*Derrida, Jacques. “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978)