Category Archives: Conferences

Nicholas Lash Colloquium



Upcoming Conference: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination

On March 24-26, Point Loma Nazarene University will be hosting a four-day, interdisciplinary conference entitled: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination. This promises to be an exciting and stimulating event, drawing a diverse and distinguished ensemble of plenary speakers (not to mention something like 70 additional session papers). Particularly noteworthy is the panel session wherein Nate Kerr, Rosco Williamson, and William T. Cavanaugh will discuss Cavanaugh’s new book, The Myth of Religious Violence

Plenary Speakers

  • Bill McKibben Christian environmental activist, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and author of Deep Economy; The End of Nature; Hope: Human & Wild , and The Age of Missing Information.
  • Kathleen Norris — A Poet and Essayist, Norris is author of Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life; Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Cloister Walk; Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and The Virgin of Bennington.
  • Michael Eric Dyson — A Sociologist and Theologian  from Georgetown University, Dyson’s newest book April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, joins his others: Can You Hear Me Now?; Come Hell or Highwater: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster; Holler if You Hear Me.  
  • Emmanuel Katongole — Theologian and priest, associate professor of theology and world Christianity and co-director of the Center of Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, Katongole is author of A Future for Africa: Critical Essays in Christian Social Imagination; Beyond Universal Reason; and African Theology Today.

Special Guests

  • Joining us will be Dr. William T. Cavanaugh, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) who will be hosting a special conference session to review his most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence. He is also the author of Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (1998); Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (2008).
  • Dr. Ron Benefiel is the president for Nazarene Theological Seminary (Kansas City, MO). Trained as a sociologist, he is also an ordained minister who has pastored churches in a variety of urban settings. He is author of A Theology of Place: Ministry in Transitional Communities (1996).

A revised and comprehensive conference schedule can be accessed here.

A new publication

This week I received some rather exciting news. It turns out that my little essay on Ivan Illich, Stanley Hauerwas, and “crisis” has officially been published in a special issue of LORE, documenting San Diego State University’s 2009 Crisis Carnival Conference. The objective of the conference was to facilitate a critical and interdisciplinary exploration of “The Ecstasy of Speed” in our contemporary society.  A few months back I posted some of my own reflections of the conference as a whole. However, now the full text of my essay is available to view for the first time here.

In addition, my good friend, Gaelan Gilbert, not only helped to coordinate the event, but also presented an excellent and detailed paper on time, liturgy, and secularism through the lens of late Medieval Corpus Christi pagents. Pulling together such variant figures as Charles Taylor, Gilles Deleuze, Pickstock, Ricoeur, Le Goff, and Michel de Certeau, this essay is particularly interesting due to its creative (even playful) interweaving of historical data, philosophical analysis, and theological perspicuity.

For a helpful overview to the various themes addressed throughout the conference, I also recommend having a look at Gaelan’s formal introduction to the volume.

‘The Ecstasy of Speed’: Abstract

Here is the official abstract of my paper for SDSU’s Crisis Carnival conference. Enjoy.

“Outflanking the Bureaucratic Production of Urgency: Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas on Crisis and the Cultivation of Patience”

Ours is a world fundamentally determined by the politics of panic. It seems that time itself has fallen prey to the capitalistic logic of scarcity, a scarcity carefully managed by politicians and bureaucratic experts for the cultivation of both wealth and power. Recent market woes have only served to fuel this pathological urgency, rendering the creative cessation of consumptive patterns economically perilous; the willful pause for reflexive contemplation socially subversive; and the life-giving power of “free time” implicitly bound to the therapeutic satisfaction of “needs” shaped  by marketers and polling data. In these trying times, we have no time to wait; we have no time to think; we have no time “waste.” Or so we are told. As Slavoj Žižek wryly puts it, “It is as if authentic community is possible only in conditions of permanent threat, in a continuous state of emergency” (Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, p. 23). 

In short, ours is a world in constant crisis.

As the philosopher and social critic, Ivan Illich points out, crisis now all but univocally denotes acceleration. It “evokes an ominous but tractable threat against which money, manpower, and management can be rallied” (Toward a History of Needs, p. 2). Writing over 30 years ago, Illich prophetically denounced what he considered the culturally perverse and socially debilitating effects of our “Epoch of Speed.” This rapid-fire commodification, professionalization, and eventual elimination of human flourishing results from a malformed perception of value, relationality, and freedom proffered by a host of modernized institutions – the school, the hospital, the prison, the corporation, the nation-state – all of which seem to require the formative power of crisis to legitimize their own place of prominence. For Illich, there is something monstrous, alienating about this frenetic cooption of time.

However, he maintains that crisis need not be fatalistically bound to this understanding. In the deeper sense of the word, crisis implies an instant of choice, a moment of decision when new possibilities and social formations are suddenly revealed. In a similar vein, theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues for a conception of time outside the narrowing logic of use and waste, strategic efficiency and managed results. Time, in his view, is a gratuitous excess that must be endured, even suffered. Faithfully abiding in time is both a practice and a skill.

In this paper, I will trace Illich’s critique of contemporary manifestations of crisis and then, following Stanley Hauerwas, suggest that an alternative perception of time capable of resisting the politics of panic is best rooted in the practice of patience.

‘The Ecstasy of Speed’: SDSU’s Annual Graduate Conference

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase"About three weeks ago, I presented a paper at San Diego State University’s annual Crisis Carnival conference. The guiding theme for the day was “The Ecstasy of Speed” in our contemporary culture. While predominately organized by SDSU’s lit. department, the conference sought to engage in a wider, more interdisciplinary conversation regarding questions of slowness and acceleration, hyper-mobility and technological growth, local particularity and globalized hegemony. The various presenters approached this agenda from widely divergent perspectives, ranging from from philosophy and critical theory to ecology and poetic performance. Several key thinkers seemed to dominate the theoretical foundations of most of the papers: namely, Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Fish, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Virilio. In terms of the creative lit/performance pieces, many of the papers reflected the style and tone of Alan Lightman’s wonderful little novel, Einstein’s Dreams.

On the whole, the event yielded several fascinating conversations, most of which dealing with varying perspectives on time. Paper after paper discussed the disjointed, transitory, chaotic, and irreducibly fragmentary nature of human experience of time. The frenetic pace of a culture over-saturated with capital, technology, and a pathological desire for immediacy dramatically intensifies this already aggravated social environment. From what I could gather from several of the presentations, this perspective results in a definitive re-conception of our relation to the past in particular. History, memory, retrospection, recollection, all of these are so “fractured” and so “unreliable” that they ought not (cannot) be allowed to determinately constitute the shape of the present. Some papers reflected upon this admission with a twinge of regret and even nostalgia. But for the most part, this splintered rupturing of collective remembrance was touted as a necessary existential axiom of emancipatory liberation from tradition, ideology, location, borders, and identity.

There is undoubtedly degrees of legitimacy to many of these arguments. Nonetheless, the conversation seemed oddly one-sided. Two striking voices were surprisingly absent throughout the day: Paul Ricoeur and Alain Badiou. On the one hand, Ricoeur offers a deeply compelling counter-perspective to such attempts at temporal deconstruction through his phenomenological study of memory. Therein, Ricoeur is able to acknowledge the fickle nature of human recollection, while nonetheless maintaining it as constitutive of personhood. On the other hand, Badiou notion of fidelity suggests that the production and preservation of subjectivity belongs to the logic of the Event. This fidelity necessitates a certain relation to that which precedes, a relation actualized and performed through praxis, through thought, through repetition. During the conference, I raised this question to the faculty panel without a very clear response. If our embodied experience of time is so murky and distorted, what do we do with the something like fidelity to a past event? If we grant that all identity, all modes of tradition and formation (cultural, ethical, spiritual, political), all inroads to our collective past are fundamentally bankrupt, inaccessible, and irrelevant, do we not thereby guarantee the co-option of such (deterritorialized) individuals by the wider forces, structures, and narratives of the state and the market? In other words, the question remains, as MacIntyre has aptly pointed out, not tradition or no tradition, but whose tradition; not identity or no identity, but which identity. A conception of time bifurcated from its past and relegated to the narrowing confines of the now deprives itself of the means of fostering genuinely alternative modes of resistance to the raw politics of power.

I’m left wondering whether we prevent articulating an intelligible conception of time if such paradigms as fidelity, memory, and formation are methodologically excluded through an appeal to the vacuousness of time’s incessant flow from the anticipated to the forgotten. Surely the later ought to humble our confidence in the former, but to absolutize such a move seems to me phenomenologically unjustifiable.

Anyway, enough of my own little squabbles. I ended up presenting a paper of a slightly different flavor. It was entitled, “Outflanking the Bureaucratic Production of Urgency – Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas on Crisis and the Cultivation of Patience”. Inspired by the insanity of the last few years of American history, I decided to reflect a bit on crisis itself. Ours is a world sustained, powered, and fed by panic and catastrophe. Our mantra is “ACT!” (which normally translates as “BUY!”). Towards what end? Well, we’re not quite sure. Or at least we’re not told. Žižek has a great quote from his new book on Violence that clearly elucidates a subtle frustration I’ve felt for years:

Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts the function of which is to make the system run more smoothly (acts such as providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities). The threat today is not passivity, but the pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate,’ to mask the nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, ‘do something’; academics participate in their meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken. The voters’ abstention is thus a truly political act: it forcefully confronts us with the vacuity of today’s democracies. [. . .] Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do. (p. 138)

As with most things Žižek says, it’s worth taking it with a grain of salt and trying to sift through the hyperbole to what’s actually being talked about. That being said, he’s right in pointing out that currently “action” is always deemed more appropriate than “non-action”, even if we have lost the conception of what might constitute a “good action” or what “good” that action aims at realizing. For Žižek what we could use a bit more of these days is thought. Of course, a world spun into a constant state of emergency does not allow much time for such things. Urgency and reflection make for awkward bedfellows. At least, that seems to be the ruling ideology.

Then again, not everyone is perfectly content with this state of things. In mounting a critical intervention, I found in the sharp polemics of Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas some rather profound conversation partners. Reading Illich in our present situation is certainly sobering. His writing cast quite a prophetic gaze upon the future we’re now inhabiting. Hauerwas also has a way of throwing sideways reflections into a situation that manage to change the perspective just enough to see things a bit clearer. In particular, his work on the virtues provides resources for thinking freshly about our frenetic approach to time. In his view, critically evaluating the nature of crisis itself can clear the space necessary for a fruitful exploration of the Christian practice of patience.

I’m still getting used to this whole blog thing. If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll put the whole paper up a bit later.

The 2008 Kyoto Laureate Symposium: Additional Lectures by Charles Taylor

Here are links to two (and a half) additional talks Charles Taylor gave as part of the Kyoto Symposium. The first is his commemorative lecture, “What drove me to philosophy.” Herein Taylor offers several fascinating, albeit brief, autobiographical comments on the key events and defining moments in his life as a philosopher. This provides an interesting window into not only his methodological approach, but also the genealogy of his thought and work.

In his the second lecture, “A Secular Age and After: Secularization and Modernity,” Taylor reflects upon his recent, groundbreaking intervention into … well … just about every topic and academic discipline pertaining to the rise of modernity. I have yet to read this talk in detail. However, a brief skim suggests that it provides very helpful synthesis and clarity to many of the key themes found nestled in the meandering pages of A Secular Age. It’s as if someone finally pinned him down and demanded point blank, “800 pages aside, what exactly are you on about? 20 minutes. Go.” 

Finally, here is a short interview with Taylor. To access his bit, “fast-forward” through the first two Kyoto Laureates. Taylor’s is the last talk.


The 2008 Kyoto Laureate Symposium: Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah

On March 18th-20th, 2009, the Inamori Foundation, a Japanese humanitarian organization, recognized the distinguised contributions of Charles Margrave Taylor to the field of philosophy and ethics by awarding him the internationally acclaimed Kyoto Prize (according to the event pamphlet, the prize consists of “academic honors, a commemorative gold medal and a cash gift of 50 million yen [approx. $500,000]” and it is also “Japan’s highest private award for lifetime achievement”). The Symposium was hosted by several universities throughout San Diego. I had the pleasure of attending the final session at the USD where Taylor gave a lecture entitled: “Democracy and Exclusion: The Darker Side of Political Identity.” In response, Robert Bellah presented a paper on “The Fragility of Political Identities.” A complete, high-quality video of the event can be found here.

Taylor’s talk was indeed excellent. His bold critique struck at the core of the frequently invoked narrative of progress and enlightened rationality that presumably undergirds modernity in general and the democratic nation-state in particular. By exposing both the totalitarian logic veiled behind the language of tolerance and the artificial mythos employed to legitimize political collectivity (i.e. the “general will” of “the people”), Taylor neatly laid bare the systemic violence against dissenting outliers that such national political identities inevitably engender. This counter-narrative, so brilliantly displayed in A Secular Age, was made all the more engaging when condensed into a sharp and succinct rhetorical performance aimed at the very roots of political and theological liberalism – foundations especially cherished among many of the social and corporate elite in attendance – namely, the unquestionable necessity of human rights, democratic freedom, universal rationality, and a collective (that is, politically mediated) social solidarity. 

That being said, it seems to me that while Taylor’s critique of the origins of modernity and the state are sound and deeply compelling, his overall discussion of political identity remained opaque. This happened at several levels. On one hand, Taylor talked about how our modern “age of mobilization” threatens to dislocate formal political identity in contemporary western societies. In fact, Taylor hinted that this disintegration of trust, mutual commitment, and political participation is already well underway. However, by limiting his discussion to explicitly political and social analysis, Taylor ignored perhaps the greatest mobilizing and identity shaping forces at play in the world before us, namely the pervasiveness of global capital and the oversaturation of “civil society” by the market. Whether Taylor is reaching for a new articulation of multicultural identity that would exists outside or beyond the bounds of the nation-state, or whether he is trying to preserve levels of thick particularity that seek to flourish somewhat within existing power-structures, either move will inevitably be faced with the challenge posed by corporate hegemony. The reality is that most people in this country find their lives and social identities, their orientation to time, their feasts and festivals, and even their needs and desires more deeply shaped by marketing, strategic annual spending cycles (aka “holidays”), brand loyalty, debt, and discounts than by either a strictly nationalist or even religious sense of belonging. In other words, economic powers de-center social moorings as well. This raises several points regarding the question of identity.

First, how might this analysis deepen Taylor’s exposition on the darker side of democracy? I think the work of William Cavanaugh, Stephen Long, Žižek, and others demonstrate that point clearly enough. Not only are state, market, and civil society empirically inseparable – sustained only through a constant economic growth that remains ecologically perilous and insidiously linked to the military industrial complex – but  each mutually legitimizes the other through the totalizing discourses of universality, globalization, and insistent appeals to an ambiguously defined notion of the common good. Taylor’s challenge to a state-sanctioned freedom could just as easily be levied against this understanding of economic good: whosegood and at whose detriment? To list evidence of the economic exclusions of modern democracy (in particular democratic systems on the scale of the United States, Britain, or the European Union), one need only mention institutions such as the WTO and their “egalitarian” management of the global south.

Second, how might communities sustain genuine difference in the face of such homogenizing cross-pressures? This of course raises the issue of practice, narrative, virtue, and memory. Taylor briefly hinted at this toward the end of his paper when he talked about how language and discursive matrices of meaning challenge mere biology as the site of moral formation. The question I would have liked to have asked is what sort of practices, what sort of habits engender the type of identity Taylor has in mind? It’s a teleological question really, because as soon as we qualify identity with the word “good,” we immediately invoke a deeper frame. This is a very important point to keep in mind. I suggest that the truer question is not “identity” as such, but “loyalty” or “allegiance.” Democracy might be a system of governance that “allows” for multiple identities to coexist. But it does so insofar as those identities adhere or give their deepest allegiance (pejoratively labeled “tacit consent”), to the good as defined by the state and the market. Local particularity is allowed so long as difference does not come on the level of loyalty. Hence Alain Badiou’s critique of democratic tolerance:

“Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference. For them, African customs are barbaric, Muslims are dreadful, the Chinese are totalitarian, and so on. As a matter of fact, this celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other – which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?” (Ethics, p. 24)

In its incapacity to accept the inexorable public and political difference of (so-called “sectarian”) religious communities that maintain levels of indifference or autonomy from the “good” as defined by the politics of power, liberalism exposes its own masked tendency towards cultural totalitarianism; this being further evidenced by its panoptical policing of that which might challenge its fictive right to political authority.

So when Taylor hints at the possibility of moving beyond the narrowing confines of current (violent) manifestations of identity, how do these new formations resist co-option, either directly into the service of the ends of the market or indirectly through an (albeit tacit) allegiance to the (false) good determined by power? What keeps us from “backsliding” into a desire for Badiou’s good other?

These question bring me then to Robert Bellah’s paper. Here’s where the event got especially interesting. Prior to launching a very powerful and compelling critique of the monolithic identity of nationalism, Bellah began his response to Taylor by underscoring the fact that we all have multiple identities shaped by our participation in varying local and particular social interactions. Our communities overlap. The identities that these communities create are as fragile as they are contingent. Yet Bellahwas quick to note that this all takes place within the context of a transnational globalism, both political and economic. Having said this, Bellah then hammered out a brilliant critique of the widespread ideological “belief” in the market. Citing Harvey Cox’s essay, “Mammon and the Culture of the Market,” Bellah noted that this belief carries with it disturbingly religious overtones. Framed by “an identifiable, value-laden, religious worldview,” the market is touted as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Of course, the recent collapse of the global market has radically called this parody into question.

In my opinion, this was a very helpful correction, or perhaps simply a flushing out, of Taylor’s wider theme. In light of what I have written above, it should be clear that I think that Bellah’s critique of the market’s impact on identity cannot be ignored.

As somewhat of a side comment, Bellah’s alternatives to this problem were not nearly as developed as his polemic. Interestingly, Bellah suggested at this point the need for a global level of governance (aka global civil society) to manage the forces of global capitalism. He coined this necessary forward move the development of a “world legal system.” This global governance, it seems, would be necessary to sustain a degree of human universality. He said,

“[. . .] global culture is not the same thing as global civil society or global governance, which it is our present task to forge if we are not to be overwhelmed by global forces that no nation, even the strongest – our own – can control. With the emergence of transnational corporations in the 20th century it was widely recognized that the economy has transcended the nation-state and the rapid growth of the global economy in the last few decades has made it clear that no nation alone can control it. [. . .] Now that it has collapsed, it is clear that a global economy without a global civil society, and to some degree, global governance, is simply not viable.”

For Bellah, sparking global identities is a key solution to the identity crisis posed by nationalism.

I cannot help but think of Cavanaugh at this point. I would guess that Cavanaugh would quickly retort that such a political global agenda demonstrates yet another secular parody of the Christian church, namely an artificial catholicity that is rooted in our common capacity to consume and be managed by bureaucratic experts for the financial benefit of those in power, rather than a genuine catholicity of participation in Christ’s body as creatures bearing God’s image; that is a catholicity rooted in the ministry of word, sacrament, and the works of charity (see Theopolitical Imagination, chapter 3).

It’s worth noting that Bellah acknowledges that empirically most of us don’t think and act globally or nationally (except in times of crisis or festival). We think and act locally. We go to parks, schools, churches, shops in the places we live. That occupies most of our energy. However, he invests a deep sense of normativity into this vision of global civil society. This is necessary to further cultivate “transnational identities.” My question would be: What would those identities look like? If we are to take Bellah’s analysis seriously, we must recognize that this global civil society is first and foremost responding to the crisis of global capital. This society and governance would seek to harness the force of global capital to what end? Or in support of whose understanding of the good? Again, such a sweeping global appeal smacks of the same totalizing universality that created the very violence that Taylor is reacting against in the first place. What happens to those who cannot or choose not to participate in this system? Is not this vague global governance controlled by the powerful simply a hyper-version of the nation-state without clearly defined borders, perhaps more aptly defined as empire? To what extent would this “global” civil society be any freer from both political and economic coercion than civil society in its current, more local permutations (see Hardt’s essay “The Withering of Civil Society”)? And lastly, in terms of the question of loyalty to a transcendent good beyond the particularities of these multiple identities, is not the deep loyalty to a state-like polity still preserved, only now globalized?

Perhaps it’s uncharitable of me to push these questions on a few marginal lines of Bellah’s talk. However, Bellah’s own concluding analysis demands such attention to the underlying presuppositions that are framing his thinking. Having laid out a critique of global capitalism and an appeal to global civil society, Bellah returned to the question of nationalism. Again his critique was impressive in its rhetorical power. That is until he gave his hand away at the end.

In the last several minutes of his talk, Bellah decided to exalt Obama in a cloud of “messianicity” (to borrow John Wright’s appropriate description of the event). For Bellah, Obama embodies the model of hope, unity, reconciliation, destiny. He represents this precisely in that he appeals to the genuine roots of American ideology and the spirit of the founders. Bellah went on to say,

“Yet in spite of all that [previous opposition], Americans by a 7.5 percent majority elected Barack Hussein Obama president of the United States on November 4, 2008. That provedthat Americans by a considerable majority could look beyond black and white, beyond even Christian and Muslim to see Obama as a singularly gifted human being capable of leading this country in a new direction. I think Obama can stand as a kind of metaphor for what we need now.”

And he continued.

It doesn’t take much to see such a strong appeal as this deeply ironic. On one hand, while Bellah is citing Obama for his multiculturalism and his transnational appeal, the reality is that the uninhibited praise is deeply nationalisticat precisely the same point! On the other, it again raises the deeper teleological question of loyalty. Loyalty to Obama in real terms means loyalty to the “toward the left” side of the Democratic party, which is to suggest nothing other than that it is still loyalty to (1) a national agenda, and (2) to one that still fundamentally necessitates the mutually formation of state, market, civil society. At best, Bellah seems to hold out the possibility of global governance, global capital, and global civil society. However, none of this seems to get at the question of how identities are sustained and which identities ought to be prioritized. Ultimately, the transcendent good guiding those decisions remains an opaque cipher. It is clear that what soon occupies this determinative space is exactly the same logic of violence and exclusion upon which so many aspects of these structures depend.

To sum up this unnecessarily long and winding reflection, the exchanges between Taylor and Bellah were deep, profound, and provoking. Widely speaking, Taylor’s approach opens numerous helpful avenues for further exploration. Bellah’s response, while very helpful at certain levels, ultimately exposes the very logic of civil religion, even in its liberal form; that is, a therapeutic buttress to the will of the state and the market. Unfortunately, such a state of things only binds the Church deeper to the implicit violence these structures require to legitimize their own existence.