Sloterdijk’s Jesuits

I just picked up a copy of Peter Sloterdijk’s latest English release, a collection of essays entitled Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger. The collection, which was released in German in 2001, is part of a burgeoning translation industry that tries to get English readers up to speed with Sloterdijk’s prolific and ongoing career. The subtitle is somewhat misleading. It contains what is probably Sloterdijk’s most controversial essay, “Rules For the Human Park” (sometimes translated as “Rules For the Human Zoo”), which does deal signficantly with Heidegger, but the collection also takes up a variety of reflections on thinkers as diverse as Niklas Luhmann and Theodor Adorno. (I’ll get to the Jesuits, I promise.)

Leafing through, I was particularly struck by the essay “The Domestication of Being: The Clarification of the Clearing,” which I’ve been waiting to read since I read Sloterdijk refer to some of his theories about “homeotechnology” a while back in the interview collection Neither Sun Nor Death (published 2011 in English).  The essay aims to clarify and extend some of the theses made in “Rules For the Human Park,” specifically as they relate to Sloterdijk’s notion of “anthropotechnology,” the idea that the human is a creature that creates itself via technical practices as diverse as writing letters to mapping the human genome.

Though “Rules For the Human Park” launches off of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” and “The Domestication of Being” continues in the same spirit, I couldn’t help but notice a curious reference to Karl Rahner in the text, invoked almost as something like an ally in proving Sloterdijk’s point about the plasticity of human beings. The passage is worth quoting at length:

If the human being ‘is given,’ then that is so only because a technology has brought him forth from out of pre-humanity. Technology is that which genuinely gives the human or the plan upon which the statement ‘There are human beings’ can be true. Hence nothing alien is happening to human beings when they expose themselves to further production and manipulation. They do nothing perverse or contrary to their ‘nature’ when they alter themselves auto-technologically. …

Karl Rahner articulated this insight in Christian terms, when he emphasized that ‘the human being of contemporary autopraxis’ avails himself of a freedom of ‘categorical self-manipulation’ that originated in the Christian liberation from the numinous compulsion of nature. According to the testimony of the Jesuit Rahner it belongs to the ethos of the mature human being to be obliged to and to wish to shape himself in a self-manipulative fashion:

‘He must wish to be the operable human being even when the scope and the just mode of this self-manipulation are still largely obscure. … But it is true: the future of human self-manipulation has already begun.’

One can express the same insight in the diction of a radicalized historical anthropology by interpreting the human situation through its emergence from out of an autoplastic development of luxury…” (142-3)

By drawing Rahner into his cloud of witnesses, Sloterdijk intriguingly and subtlely establishes himself as a competitor to other progeny of Critical Theory, namely his arch-rival Jürgen Habermas (for what it’s worth, Jean-Pierre Couture provides a good overview of their rivalry in his introduction to Sloterdijk, which I reviewed here). Sloterdijk shares with other thinkers participating in and influenced by Critical Theory an intentional affinity with theological voices. Yet his use of theology is perhaps especially interesting insofar as it helps him distinguish himself in part from the use of theology by colleagues like Habermas.

To articulate the distance between Habermas and Sloterdijk, I like to point to the difference in dialogue partners the two take in published works, with Habermas dialoguing with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Sloterdijk dialoguing with Cardinal Walter Kasper. This is certainly not to suggest that Ratzinger and Kasper are fundamentally at odds, but rather that the way they are taken into the projects and personae of public intellectuals like Habermas and Sloterdijk exhibits a somewhat (though not primarily cynical) instrumental use. The attempt to dialogue with theological giants, especially Catholic ones, on the part of Sloterdijk is at least in one respect an attempt to establish a counter-theological moment in contemporary German philosophy, which regularly draws theologians into its orbit.

This counter-theology recurs throughout Sloterdijk’s career. As early as Critique of Cynical Reason we find a variety of references to Jewish thought and practice in particular (which exhibits a warranted anxiety about anti-Semitism among German thinkers, especially those, like Sloterdijk, influenced heavily by Nietzsche). Christian thought regularly appears in Sloterdijk’s later works, however, perhaps most notably in his famous Spheres trilogy, which takes up a creative and critical relationship to Christian metaphysics from medieval metaphysics to contemporary theological phenomena.

There’s a lot to be said about Sloterdijk’s use of theology, and Catholic theology at that. Rage and Time, for example, devotes some thought to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on hell, and contextualizes it in relation to Sloterdijk’s theory of “rage banking.” Sloterdijk also writes an entire book on religion, entitled You Must Change Your Life, which spans Christian figures from Barth to St. Francis.

Among the Catholic figures Sloterdijk fixates on throughout his career is St. Ignatius of Loyola, and his posterity, the Jesuits, who appear, especially, in You Must Change Your Life as well as In the World Interior of Capital (the latter text extends the insights of Globes, the second volume in Spheres). In In the World Interior of Capital, which deals with a theory of globalization, Sloterdijk suggests Jesuits were “the first subjects of the Modern Age in the precise sense of the word,” subjects who made “an explicit attempt at psychotechnical and medial modification… driven by the longing to understand the successes of the Protestants better than the Protestants themselves” (59). As Sloterdijk reads it, the Jesuits, inspired by Ignatius’s military training and program of spiritual exercises, created a regimen by which they made a plastic spirituality, or rather a spirituality of plasticity. “When a sequence of adverse events can be experienced as a passion, suffering is converted into ability,” writes Sloterdijk (60). He goes on to say that “Later generations of subjects naturally drew on more modern means than the Jesuits to organize their disinhibitions,” further suggesting the Jesuits are something like the origins of modern and, perhaps, postmodern subjects (61).

These insights are further explored in You Must Change Your Life, which deals explicitly with religion as “anthropotechnics,” a means by which humans work on themselves. Here, too, it is worth quoting Sloterdijk at length:

What makes Loyola ‘s place in the history of subject techniques so exceptionally significant i s that all earlier layers of autoplastic practice had successively been sedimented within it in complete clarity: what began with the drill of the Greek and Roman soldiers, and was continued by athletes and gladiators before Christian hermits and cenobites appropriated the ascetic secrets of these agonists – all this returned after 1521 in the existence of the failed soldier, lea ding to the strongest surge in newer psychotechnic exercises. This time, however – corresponding to the humanistic milieu with its neo-rhetorical rupture – it was in the form of a theatre of the imagination in which the practising person , following strict instructions, convinces themselves of their own worthlessness and immeasurable guilt before the saviour. In their time, the Jesuit exercises, this autogenic training in contrition over thirty hard days and nights of utmost concentration, obviously formed the newest layer in the stratigram of Old European practice cultures, whose older and most ancient layers lead back to the beginnings of heroism and athleticism. Recent neuro-rhetorical research, incidentally, shows that the ‘artificial’ affects produced in exercises are physio logically indistinguishable from natural ones.

The almost instrumental grab of the Jesuit technique for the trusting psyche, which itself turned meditation into a training camp, explicitly heralded the beginning of what would later be called the ‘Modern Age ‘. Its inhabitants developed into ‘modern people’ to the extent that they convinced themselves they had discovered the secret of self-determination in exchanging absolute dependence on God for human self-assertion. We will see that nothing could be further from the truth. (310-11)

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least Sloterdijk’s enigmatic assertion that with respect to the self-understanding of modern people, an inheritance or mutation of the Jesuits, “nothing could be further from the truth.” What I want to emphasize, however, is Sloterdijk’s assumption that the genius of St. Ignatius was to have intuited that the spiritual life is a practicing life, one that aims to train human beings otherwise, replacing old habits with new habits derived from imaginative exercises.

Here Sloterdijk’s comments on Rahner in “The Domestication of Being” should be totally unsurprising. It’s a small step from understanding humans as spiritually retrainable to understanding them as autoplastic creatures in themselves. Rahner’s towering stature in 20th century theology also reveals itself as being unsurprising given Sloterdijk’s history of human techniques, since the Jesuits are primary characters in the survival of Catholicism in modernity and, arguably, in postmodernity, owing largely to this fundamental insight, taken from a Saint who was once a soldier, that is, a disciplined, retrained creature.

Sloterdijk is not a Jesuit himself by any means but his own anthropology and, arguably, his late philosophy are impossible without the Jesuits–a point Sloterdijk seems to hint at in a variety of contexts. His attempt to name the Jesuits as a part of his genealogy of anthropotechnology helps to bring in the insights from media theory that distinguish Sloterdijk from both his rivals in Critical Theory and his colleagues in German media studies (e.g. Friedrich Kittler). By way of the Jesuits, Sloterdijk is able to find an autoplastic anthropology, one that locates a certain creative energy in human beings on human beings that eschews the trappings of Habermas’s conservative anthropology and the technological determinism of Kittlerian media theory.

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Can Mystical Landscapes Be Other-Wise?

Last week, I attended the exhibition Mystical Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario, followed by a talk by Charles Taylor exploring the spiritual dimensions of Romantic painting in relation to some of the work he has done on poetry and music. Curated by theologians and art historians, the exhibit explores the ways in which landscape painting, primarily in the 19th and early 20th centuries, signals not so much a shift away from spiritual themes in painting as a shifting of spiritual themes in painting. Those familiar with the work of Charles Taylor will already see a natural affinity. The exhibition challenges what Taylor calls the “subtraction narrative” of secularization, one that sees religion as something of an ornament or vestige of earlier times that gets outmoded and left behind in contemporary society.

Proponents of the subtraction narrative are easy to see in loud voices like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, who conceive of “religion” as a backward and dangerous way of lying to ourselves and others. Instead, they argue, we should catch up to the discoveries of science and put immature epistemological beliefs behind us. History on this view is a frustratingly slow but nonetheless discernibly linear process that moves from primitive spiritual explanations of the world around us to more “reasonable” and empirical explanations. The binary lines, which become battle lines, are clear: those who cling to religion cowardly hold on to a security blanket and impose it on others, while those who charge forward in scientific truth move through history without the weight of illusions.

Less polemically, however, the “subtraction narrative” of secularization is found among plenty of social scientists, anthropologists, etc., who see modernizing societies as leaving religion behind simply through social trends. Church attendance is down in Western societies, and those who are “spiritual but not religious” are more prevalent, evincing some kind of vestige, at best, of older institutions and habits, so the story goes. Fundamentalist sects seem more and more out of touch with the world around them, and all the while they continue to use new media and technologies that are transforming our relationships to ourselves, our neighbors, and our world, not to mention our traditions.

In terms of the arts, this subtraction narrative can be read back onto art history by noting the ways in which artistic themes and roles have changed in Western society. A common story suggests in high Christendom, the arts were primarily didactic, teaching laypeople, who were mostly illiterate, about the faith through images. In the shift to modernity, the arts began to separate themselves from their explicitly Christian functions and experiment with self-expression, articulating new ideas that might even fall outside the purview of “religion” altogether. The twentieth century witnessed the extreme and eventual collapse of art as expression, with Surrealism and Dadaism leading the charge. Religion, whatever we make of it, might show up in these artistic forms, but hardly in the same way and with the same necessity as it would have shown up in thickly medieval societies. This narrative is adopted both by religion’s cultured despisers, who hail the liberation of art from religion as a maturation of humanity, and by religion’s cultured defenders, who see the trend as a decline into decadence.

Wherever it appears, Taylor rejects the subtraction narrative altogether, not by saying nothing has changed but by tracking the complex series of changes that lead to our complicated reality today. In his book A Secular Age, Taylor tells what he calls a “zigzag” story about Western, Latin Christendom in North Atlantic societies, as distinct from the linear story of the subtraction narrative. In Taylor’s story, we see how Christianity in particular splits and fragments, mutates and transforms, suggesting there is more Christianity at the root of our allegedly “secular” mindsets than we might immediately see. Taylor can therefore say that the time and place we live in today is not the result of sheering off the excess of religion, but is rather a chimerical achievement built out of the fits and starts of a plurality of movements, goals, people, politics, etc.

As an artistic exhibit, Mystical Landscapes follows a similar path. The rise of landscape painting did not signal the rejection of religion per se, the exhibition shows, but rather a transformation in the religious dimension of art. Attendees are taken through a journey of paintings that try to show a variety of ways in which this transformation occurs. We see, for example, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees (left) in the same space as Gaugin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives (right), putting on display how the Protestant and Catholic disagreement over images manifests in this new phase for painting.

The exhibit also pulls us through the mystical journey itself. Communicating the ineffable is, by definition, impossible—and yet we see painters trying to do exactly that. We encounter the blurred lines, literally, between rational and irrational articulations of faith. We even go through the “Dark Night of the Soul” by exploring mostly WWI paintings, like Frederick Valery’s Gas Chamber at Seaford, juxtaposing the swirling visions of Romanticism with the technical horrors of a countryside in conflict.


In its attempt to challenge the subtraction story by tracing how spirituality gets moved around, rather than disappears, in modern art, the exhibit succeeds. It really does provide a kind of artistic compliment to Taylor’s theoretical work, and also to Taylor’s contributions to the spiritual transformations involved in Romantic poetry and music in particular. The Western tradition of painting, with the rise of landscape painting, is hardly a simple erasure of religious ornamentation or even hegemony, but entails a variety of spiritual experiments, gestures, mutations, etc.

Linking Taylor and the Mystical Landscapes exhibit is mutually illuminating, as Taylor noted in his talk at the AGO. The paintings help fill in a picture in Taylor’s account of secularity, which in A Secular Age largely dealt with poetry and music, and Taylor’s work provides some conceptual handles for looking at the existential feelings behind the exhibit’s paintings. Precisely by being so representative of Taylor’s view, however, the exhibit falls victim to some of the same significant problems present in Taylor’s approach to secularization. A look at those problems would help to improve exhibitions like Mystical Landscapes, exhibitions that deserve to be experimented with more widely.

Among Taylor’s critics, Saba Mahmood stands out as one of his closest readers, especially evident in her essay “Can Secularism Be Other-Wise?” Mahmood first takes issue with Taylor’s framing of his narrative as dealing with the legacy of “Latin Christendom,” which she grants might seem necessary for a study that takes the last 500 years as its timeline. This demarcation, however, both ignores the complicated heterogeneity of Latin Christendom itself (even while Taylor tries to address this very point) and, more importantly, omits the ways in which what/who is outside Latin Christendom both structure and transform Latin Christendom through its interaction with its others. “Omission of this story,” says Mahmood, “is akin to the omission of the history of slavery and colonialism from accounts of post-Enlightenment modernity—an omission that enables both a progressivist notion of history and normative claims about who is qualified to be ‘modern’ or ‘civilized’” (286). I’ll return to how this relates to Mystical Landscapes in a moment.

Mahmood’s remarks might come as a surprise to readers of A Secular Age, since Taylor regularly indicts a “progressivist notion of history” and takes “civilization” as a disciplinary project, occasionally but intentionally invoking Michel Foucault and Ivan Illich. What Mahmood shows, however, is that Taylor unconsciously takes on board the very tendencies he critiques in name by failing to recognize the integral importance of colonialism especially for the construction and maintenance of Latin Christendom itself. Indeed, even to speak of “religion” is to speak of a concept and self-understanding won only by taking the other as an instrument of self-knowledge. As Mahmood explains, “Not only did the discovery of and subsequent knowledge produced on other religious traditions serve as the mirror against which European Christianity fashioned itself, but the very concept of ‘religion’—its conceptual contours, its classificatory system and attendant calculus of inferior and superior civilizations—was crafted within the crucible of this encounter” (286).

Taylor’s account neglects a variety of integrally important points of analysis viz. the relationship between Latin Christendom and its others. Missionary efforts, for example, are essential to Western history, and Mahmood notes that Taylor’s telling of that history reflects a common scholarly failure to account for the cross-transformations between modern colonial powers and those they encountered on their imperial adventures, often specifically mediated through the Western notion of religion. Yet Mahmood is clear that her objections are not intended to modify Taylor’s narrative in order to make it arbitrarily more inclusive, adding neglected narratives into Taylor’s larger narrative. Rather, Mahmood aims “to question if indeed Taylor misidentifies the very object of which he speaks” (289), that is, the geospatial and geopolitical environment summarized variously as “Latin Christendom,” “North Atlantic” society, etc.

And here we encounter the troubling crux of Mahmood’s argument: by failing to critically account for the expansionist practices that necessarily come along with the West’s claims to universality and exceptionality, Taylor not only renders the Western narrative “more palatable to a postimperial audience” but even continues to “write from within its concepts and ambitions—one might say even to further its aims and strengthen its presuppositions” (290). Mahmood is quick to note that Taylor’s own political vision is not simply a recapitulation of modern colonialism, and that there are certainly critical moments within A Secular Age, but Taylor’s delimitation of his object of inquiry to Western, North Atlantic, Latin Christendom without any attempt to consider the necessity of colonialism for the construction of that object serves to commit the same solipsistic error that made that colonialism possible.

In other words, Taylor accepts the discursive frame that both produces and is produced by colonialism–Western, North Atlantic, Latin Christendom–and its creation of “religion,” in such a way that ironically short-circuits Taylor’s ultimate desire to articulate a space in which members of a plural and “cross-pressured” society might meet and talk with one another. “How would one imagine embarking on a dialogue when the other is not even acknowledged in political, existential, or epistemological terms?” Mahmood wonders (299). Without any attention to what anthropologists and philosophers of religion call “political secularism,” that is, the way in which secularism is itself a constructive political project and not merely a migration of epistemological categories or beliefs, Taylor is unable to identify the very problem he wants to solve—how to account for our secular age, and thereby offer an articulated ground where inhabitants of that age might find new ways of living together and attending to their spiritual yearnings.

How does Mahmood’s critique bear on the AGO’s Mystical Landscapes? Geographically and chronologically, the exhibit takes the same, albeit condensed, frame as Taylor, with Europe, Scandanavia, and North America as its geographical limits and 1880-1930 as its chronological limits. Again, we might find this frame understandable in its limitation, given the expansive category of the exhibit’s subject matter. But the exhibit suffers from similar unconsciously internalized pretensions to Western exceptionalism. Not only is there not a single painting from a non-Western artist in the whole of the exhibit, but even the mystical journey is filtered through Western history. Conveniently, the exhibit maps roughly onto what historian Eric Hobsbawm identifies as the “Age of Empire,” from 1875 to 1914. Both narratives, Hobsbawm’s and the exhibits, see 1914 as a profound transformative moment, a crushing of nineteenth-century optimism that ends the relatively comfortable relations between the West’s great powers and starts the accelerated process of integrating the world into the West’s ensuing age of massacre. The dark night of the soul coincides with the dark night of the First World War, where the impressionist celebration of life grapples with unprecedented technical death machines. The comparison works, and it says a lot about both history and mysticism, noting the genuinely exceptional mark left on the globe by WWI. It begs the question, however: what might the Dark Night of the Soul be like elsewhere?

Mystical Landscapes inquires into how Western artists begin to experiment with their own perceptions of their world, their traditions, and themselves, but it never looks at the ways in which those perceptions are constructed by a legacy of exclusion and subjugation. The impressionist image of “the savage” makes its way into the exhibit without nuance beyond some gestures toward spiritual experimentation (arguably an instrumentalization of the “other” outside and therefore constitutive of European identities). Commentaries on categories like “religion” and “the spiritual” are as fuzzy as the swirling strokes on the canvasses they accompany, partly on purpose, expressing the confusion involved in a Western world gearing up for, and living through, an apocalypse.

What might it look like to juxtapose these paintings, all from Christian and post-Christian artists, alongside artwork made outside of its geographical context? What happens to whatever we mean by “the spiritual” in other traditions, or even in other regions participating in the same tradition (Latin American impressionism, for example)? Delimiting the scope of the exhibit in the way Mystical Landscapes does threatens to recapitulate Taylor’s error by taking the European narrative as exceptional, even universal, to the exclusion of its others.

To be sure, this is not to discount the creativity involved in curating Mystical Landscapes, which goes a long way in rightly critiquing a certain “subtraction narrative” in art and cultural history, and the exhibit presents a unique gloss on Western experience. The connections are apt and provocative, illuminating and helpful, just like much of Taylor’s articulation of what happens internal to Latin Christendom. Going through the exhibit myself, I was struck especially by the explorations of color, darkness, light, and the cataclysm of the First World War as they mapped onto the mystical journey. The exhibition has affective power, and I suspect it helps its audience come to terms with parts of themselves and their histories. It did for me, as a practicing Roman Catholic (just as, for what it’s worth, Taylor’s work has helped me in my own life of faith, despite and because of its limitations).

Still, the connections with Taylor illuminate not only the very thoughtful moments of the exhibit but also its internalized problems. Dealing with those problems in the context of an art exhibit is more difficult, it seems to me, than in a historical narrative like Taylor’s. The trouble of colonialism in the arts and curation is well documented, and, to continue thinking with Mahmood, the exhibition’s problems would not be solved by the simple inclusion of other paintings or artists for the sake of liberal values of inclusion. There may, however, be ways of including challenging spiritual landscapes that speak both with and against those presented in North Atlantic societies. What might we learn about the spiritual journey, for example, by seeing the landscapes of Diego Rivera set next to the landscapes of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida? Would the spiritual experience transcend political oppression? Would it reflect it? Are there mystical landscapes in non-Western traditions?

Perhaps the greatest strength of Mystical Landscapes is to have opened up a conversational space for thoughtful curators and theologians involved in aesthetics. “The religious” need not be the suspicious category it so often is for a society that is the achievement of political secularism. These criticisms, though sharp, are not intended to disparage the exhibit in its entirety, nor to cast it off as one more arbitrary example of thoughtless curatorial colonialism. On the contrary, because the exhibit is worth exploring, it deserves to be criticized, commented on, and explored, just as the exhibit attempts to do the same to those who travel through it. Attention to “the spiritual” in art might help pluralist societies encounter one another and reckon with their own histories in an affective way. But the exhibit’s colonial blindspots might undermine that very project, as Mahmood notes with respect to Taylor’s: “It seems that by delineating an account of Christian secularism that remains blind to the normative assumptions and power of Western Christianity, Taylor’s invitation to interreligious dialogue sidesteps the greatest challenge of our time” (299). Beautiful, haunting, moving as it is, Mystical Landscapes does the same. It begs what seems to me to be an open question, worth exploring in future curations–can mystical landscapes be other-wise?

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From Topology to Dromology: A Brief Sketch of Paul Virilio

virilio graffiti.jpg

Virilio portrait, via thierry ehrmann

Paul Virilio, born in 1932, spent his early life on the northern coast of France. His childhood, growing up alongside the Second World War, was marked by routine bombings, as Nantes became a Nazi occupied port. Like many other postmodern theorists, the French experience of the war and subsequent French political problems, like the Algerian war for independence (into which Virilio was conscripted), would form a lasting impression, existentially and theoretically. The biographical information, then, is not simply an introduction concerned with “the facts” but with articulating the backdrop that haunts Virilio’s work. Michel Serres, a contemporary of Virilio, puts the situation in perspective:

My contemporaries will recognize themselves in what 1 have to say first. Here is the vital environment of those who were born, like me, around 1930: at age six, the war of 1936 in Spain; at age nine, the blitzkrieg of 1939, defeat and debacle; at age twelve, the split between the Resistance and the collaborators, the tragedy of the concentration camps and deportations; at age fourteen, Liberation and the settling of scores it brought with it in France; at age fifteen. Hiroshima. In short, from age nine to seventeen, when the body and sensitivity are being formed, it was the reign of hunger and rationing, death and bombings, a thousand crimes. We continued immediately with the colonial wars, in Indochina and then in Algeria. Between birth and age twenty-five (the age of military service and of war again, since then it was North Africa, followed by the Suez expedition) around me, for me—for us, around us—there was nothing but battles War, a1ways war. Thus, I was six for my first dead bodies, twenty-six for the last ones. Have I answered you sufficiently about what has made my contemporaries “gun-shy”‘?1

Given a formative milieu of violence, war becomes the perennial problem for all of Virilio’s work, no matter the turns his theoretical interest takes. But there is another existential influence that needs to be mentioned up front, as another constitutive current in Virilio’s work. At 18, inspired by French worker-priests (priests dressing in plain clothes, subsisting by means of full time labor in working-class jobs), Virilio converted to Catholicism, the faith of his mother. Virilio’s Catholicism appears in his work by way of intervention and juxtaposition, sometimes critical of his own faith tradition and other times appearing to be the only way he musters the resolve to face the frightening insights he uncovers through his analyses. These two concerns, war and faith, remain constants in Virilio’s winding career.

Though he is known today for his examination of speed and accidents, Virilio was not always a theorist. After the war, as a young man in Paris he worked with Henri Matisse making stained-glass windows for churches. Contact with the arts allowed him to interpret his experience in WWII aesthetically, and in 1958 he undertook a project exploring the now-defunct bunkers of the North Atlantic Wall with an understanding of architecture, on the one hand, and phenomenology by way of lectures he attended by Merleau-Ponty, on the other. Virilio’s interest in architecture, and specifically military architecture, led him in the early 1960s to collaborate with Claude Parent (successful in his own right but also the teacher of renowned architect Jean Nouvel), and the two formed an ambitious collective known as Architecture Principe.

The intersections of these early interests of Virilio—war, Catholicism, and architecture—are summarized in the construction of a church designed by Virilio and Parent, the Church Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, France (the site of the apparition of Mary at Lourdes). Colloquially known as the “bunker church,” the building asserts itself as a massive concrete monolith inspired not only by Virilio’s early explorations of bunkers but also the proliferating air raid shelters popping up around the world in an age of nuclear terror. “At the time I said that, in the present day, a church could only refer to the eventuality of total destruction,” Virilio reports in an interview.2 Completed in 1966, the church is a political and theological statement, expressing a growing Catholic anti-nuclear sentiment. It is also notable, however, for its deployment of what Parent called the “function of the oblique,” a theory of diagonal planes developed by Architecture Principe that utopically imagined the possibility of a total revolution in spatial awareness, one eschewing the sedentary lines of horizontal and vertical space in favor of a more kinetic and energetic series of planes that would, it was hoped, destabilize ideas of hierarchy and direction and allow for more habitable circulation. The oblique would provide a motor for creativity instead of the rote repetition of up/down, left/right.

Two years after the completion of the bunker church, in 1968, Paris would be the site of revolutionary energies so fervent that the year virtually controls the discourse of French philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century (and, in cases like Alain Badiou, still today). It marked a break between Virilio and Parent, with Virilio joining those squatting the Odeon Theatre in Paris and Parent going on to design nuclear power plants. Virilio was so admired by revolutionary students that they nominated him to a professorial position at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, where he began a career as a theorist interrogating speed and military innovation.

After working with architecture students, Virilio gave up on the architectural revolution of the function of the oblique, but not on revolutionary politics as such. Virilio’s work shifts here from topology to “dromology,” the logic of speed, as marked in his seminal study Speed and Politics. The book interrogates the relation between the terms of its title by presenting a theory of social movements, urbanism, and military history as bound up with technical and strategic innovations that augment mobility. War remains an important influence, as Virilio considers the close affinity between military invention and the increasingly hegemonic momentum of the speed thereby produced. Deleuze and Guattari summarize this move in A Thousand Plateaus (which makes significant use of Virilio): “It is yet another contribution of Paul Virilio to have stressed this weapon-speed complementarity: the weapon invents speed, or the discovery of speed invents the weapon (the projective character of weapons is the result). The war machine releases a vector of speed so specific to it that it needs a special name; it is not only the power of destruction, but ‘dromocracy’ (=nomos).”3

By focusing on speed and military power as drivers of history, Virilio shows his commitment to a certain form of anarchism, as opposed to Marxism (even though his father was an Italian communist). Where Marxism classically considers the history of all of society as a history of class struggle, Virilio sees history as proceeding “at the speed of its weapons systems,”4 which leads also to an alternative understanding of revolutionary activity and organization. “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production,” Virilio explains in an indirect critique of Marx, “but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed.”5 In Speed and Politics, we find the theoretical reflection on Virilio’s ’68 experience along with a profound apparatus for leftist understandings of the state, resistance, and geopolitics. It also further displays Virilio’s rejection of the life of war he experienced so intimately and his commitment to peace, earlier shown in the warning of the bunker church.

As Virilio’s work progresses, he interrogates other dimensions of human experience and society along the lines of his dromocratic revelations—perception (The Aesthetics of Disappearance), cinema (War and Cinema), information technologies (The Information Bomb), surveillance (Open Sky), and more. In addition to his work on dromology, however, Virilio is known for considering another logic, the logic of the accident. “According to Aristotle, ‘the accident reveals the substance,’” Virilio explains. “If so, then the invention of the ‘substance’ is equally the invention of the ‘accident’. The shipwreck is consequently the ‘futurist’ invention of the ship, and the air crash the invention of the supersonic airliner, just as the Chernobyl meltdown is the invention of the nuclear power station.”6 Developing a logic of the accident (and thereby breaking with Aristotle, who said there can be no logic of the accident but only substance), Virilio does not stop at discrete technological objects. In The University of Disaster, he explores the accident of knowledge itself.

The dromocratic revolution has taken place, says Virilio, and the logic of speed dictates, as if by its own will (velocity), the trajectory of science. Alienated from local and historical life through the speed of globalization, science, or more properly to use Virilio’s specific phrase “BIG SCIENCE,” is less and less concerned with the earthly consequences of its work and projects and more obsessed with finding a place to live somewhere else. But the problem is not so much the possibility of space travel (which, given Virilio’s comments on technology generally, is not necessarily a problem at all) as the effect the alienation of acceleration has on the ability to understand and produce knowledge, where the “life sciences” turn their back on life itself. Inside the car of big science, all that exists outside it is only a motion blur.

Exhibiting a characteristically postmodern observation, Virilio explores the potential for and already existing examples of disaster emitting from “the age of exploded theories,”7 a situation of fragmented knowledge where accidents (and the possibility of an “integral accident”) cannot be dealt with since they cannot even be recognized and met with a valued judgment. As a solution, Virilio suggests a radical reformation of the university itself, one where the university becomes the site of profound apology on the part of science heretofore, “an indispensible MEA CULPA now essential to the credibility of a knowledge in the throes of becoming completely suicidal.”8 The model for this, Virilio playfully but seriously suggests, is the apologies issued from Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century, repenting of its universalism.9 The proposal is so ambitious as to be laughable, but Virilio makes the book-length recommendation with a straight-face.

As he continues to articulate a theory of the accident, Virilio’s work takes on a tone that a shallow reading might consider fatalist and depressive. The revolutionary fervor at the heart of Speed and Politics is harder to parse out, and Virilio begins to describe himself as a “disappointed man of the left,”10 not unlike many of his fellow ’68ers (his political project at the time of that self-description was working on housing projects, mostly with Christian associations, for homeless people in Paris). He also considers his later work the work of a “revelationary” rather than a “revolutionary,”11 as he tries to reveal the logic at work in what often reads like a disturbingly pervasive and inescapable collapse of space and time in human perception.

Here the risk of comparing Virilio to his friend and colleague Jean Baudrillard sounds appealing, but Virilio wards off the possibility that we are in an ultimate or endless simulacra in a way that is helpful also in order to offset what might be seen as a totalizing worry about technology (the kind of thing one finds in Virilio’s Protestant contemporary Christian anarchist, also an interrogator of technological problems, Jacques Ellul). Whereas Baudrillard was concerned with simulation, Virilio is concerned with substitution. “I chose substitution,” he explains, “in saying that there were periods of the real like there were periods of history and that simulation, via a proverb or literature, whether it is literal or not, the perspective announced by the renaissance, etc., leaves the place for a new real.”12 In other words, the real is culturally relative, never given, and as such is not able to be “lost” or “found” but only substituted by new understandings of the real. There is a significant moment of hope, here, as Virilio, despite being incredibly critical of screens, cars, etc. is not categorically against any of these innovations. Rather, when questioned about what we ought to do with technologies, Virilio appeals to a paraphrase of St. Augustine’s maxim: “Do whatever you want, but do it with love.”13 As a self-described “Christian anarchist,” Virilio deflects both optimism and pessimism, instead holding the present open for other possibilities, and though it takes a considerable degree of patience to refuse the temptation to see Virilio’s admonitions as a sign of resignation, it is important to take Virilio at his word insofar as it avoids all-too-easy misreadings.

Virilio is clearly a product of his time, of a bruised century, an age of extremes, belonging to the collective “us” Serres invokes above. For that very reason we are fortunate, blessed, to have Virilio’s continued work as we move through the twenty-first century, which threatens at once both to return to the abuses of the previous century and continue along its dromological path. Each week it seems some entrepreneur announces a new plan to colonize space all the while ignoring the material plight of those on earth. The integral accident continues to loom as companies like Facebook make it a part of their charitable mission to expand communications technologies across the globe. The relation between speed and politics keeps presenting itself as a problem, e.g. when Black Lives Matter activists hold the streets and make their stand against a violent and racist state. Meanwhile, the xenophobia surrounding Muslims and the cultural force of figures like Pope Francis or the evangelical voting block in the US make plain that issues of faith are still on the table, though their political fate is far from clear.

As we look to understand what is really going on, we would do well to hear from this revelationary, at one time (and indeed still) a revolutionary, such that we might find better ways to strategize, to witness to love in the midst of war, and to offer the mea culpas so long overdue from Western society.

1Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, 2.

2Virilio, Virilio Live, 175.

3Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 395.

4Virilio, Speed and Politics, 90.

5Virilio, Speed and Politics, 29.

6Virilio, Grey Ecology, 5.

7Virilio, The University of Disaster, 10.

8Virilio, The University of Disaster, 119.

9Virilio, The University of Disaster, 118.

10Virilio, Virilio Live, 29.

11Virilio, Grey Ecology, 49-50.

12Virilio, Grey Ecology, 78.

13Virilio, Grey Ecology, 80.

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A Secular Church? McLuhan, Catholicism, and the War of Identity

I’ve been tracking McLuhan’s relationship to his Catholic faith for the last several weeks, specifically going through The Medium and the Light, a collection of interviews, addresses, outlines, etc. centering on religion. True to form, McLuhan’s thoughts are a mixture of what feel like off-the-cuff statements and long-percolated and crystallized observations.

Reading all these documents alongside each other, spanning from letters written in graduate school to reflections at the end of McLuhan’s life, makes for a complicated Gestalt. At times McLuhan reflects a conservative convert’s zeal, at other times he presents a challenging progressive critique of the Church. The gaps between lead to some curious connections and juxtapositions.

Take, for example, the following line of thinking McLuhan advances, in a letter, on the difference between what he identifies as Christian and secular approaches to identity:

“In Christian terms, the components of Mars, or the rest of the systems of the cosmos, can reveal nothing comparable to the dimensions of experience available to the most grovelling Christian. Christians, however, have a peculiar war to fight which concerns their identity. The Christian feels the downward mania of the earth and its treasures, and is just as inclined to conform his sensibilities to man-made environments as anyone else. When the secular man senses a new technology is offering a threat to his hard-won human image of self-identity, he struggles to escape from his new pressure. When a community is threatened in its image of itself by rivals or neighbours, it goes to war. Any technology that weakens a conventional identity image creates a response of panic and rage which we call ‘war.’ Heinrich Hertz, the inventor of radio, put the matter very briefly: ‘The consequence of the image will be the image of the consequences.’

When the identity image which we enjoy is shattered by new technological environments or by invaders of our lives who possess new weaponry, we lash back first by acquiring their weaponry and then by using it. What we ignore is that in acquiring the enemy’s weaponry, we also destroy our former identity. That is, we create new sensory environments which ‘scrub’ our old images of ourselves. Thus war is not only education but also a means of accelerated social evolution. It is these changes that only the Christian can afford to laugh at. People who take them seriously are prepared to wipe out one another in order to impose them as ideals. Today there is no past. All technologies, and all cultures, ancient and modern, are part of our immediate expanse. There is hope in this diversity since it creates vast new possibilities of detachment and amusement at human gullibility and self-deception.

There is no harm in reminding ourselves from time to time that the ‘Prince of this World’ is a great P.R. man, a great salesman of new hardware and software, a great electrical engineer, and a great master of the media. It is his master stroke to be not only environmental but invisible, for the environment is invincibly persuasive when ignored.”

(“A Peculiar War to Fight”: Letter to Robert J. Leuver, C.M. F., 92-3)

There’s a lot that is unsaid and unclarified here, but we might say something like McLuhan wants to argue that Christian identity is inherently unstable, by virtue of its negation of the “downward mania” of the world, which wards off the fear of new identities that congeal around media that will inevitably be outmoded. A Christian is tempted like anyone else by the treasures of worldly media, but at bottom the Christian’s war is a meta-war, against the world itself, not immanent to the preservation of worldly identities. The Christian occupies an outside and fluctuating position of continual transformation (elsewhere in a letter, McLuhan says Christianity is “awareness of process”), while the secular operates on a plane of immanence that is constantly bringing identities into being and erasing them without any discernible reason apart from the march of media.

At the same time, however, McLuhan’s relationship to Catholicism as an institution is anything but comfortable. Throughout the collection, he regularly indicts the Church for failing to understand media, a problem already at the heart of the institution by virtue of its emergence in a Greco-Roman, literate culture, which, McLuhan says, privileges stable permanence over change (change being the demand made by the Church). As literate media is displaced by electric media, the Church begins to feel the threat of irrelevance–and threats often lead to temptations. This is perhaps no better expressed than in McLuhan’s short essay in the collection on the liturgy and the microphone. In adopting the microphone and speakers, McLuhan suggests the liturgy is utterly transformed.

The Latin Mass is the product of a variety of media, namely visual media, that are losing their hegemonic status. As new media emerge, like the microphone, the Church feels the pressure of new identities (the microphone eliminates distance between speaker and audience, or clergy and congregation, while the ritual muttering of specialized Latin keeps that distance intact). Confronted with the shift from visual to audial media, the Church struggles to maintain its identity as Roman Catholicism. First the Church acquires the weaponry of the identity that threatens it–the microphone–but, as McLuhan explains, this only serves to scrub the old image of itself, the Latinate, literate image.

“Many people will lament the disappearance of the Latin Mass from the Catholic Church without realizing that it was a victim of the microphone on the altar,” McLuhan writes (“Liturgy and the Microphone,” 112). McLuhan doesn’t come across as one who opines for the Latin Mass himself here (in fact he suggests the Church will and already is in the process of “de-Romanizing,” as a result of the speed of electric media), but rather aims to criticize the somnambulist posture of the Church, which gets broiled in controversies about figures (doctrinal or dogmatic disputes) rather than the ground (medial changes).

From such a perspective, is the Church not engaged in exactly the kind of immanent war of identity McLuhan chastises in his letter to Leuver? One that is contingent on the maintenance of a particular media form–the war the Christian is supposed to laugh at?  Throughout his writings, McLuhan clearly doesn’t think the Church needs to remain tied so closely to its literate heritage, and even suggests that it simply can’t and won’t–the electric age is already here (“It would be a good time to be Russian Orthodox,” McLuhan quips on p60). But what to do with this juxtaposition (one McLuhan does not make himself, but that the collection suggests), at least in figuring out McLuhan’s position viz. his own Catholicism? Would we say the Church has its own “secular” wars, a victory of the “Prince of the World” who is so invisible that even those entrusted with the possibility of transcendence are ultimately bound to the determinative logic of medial backgrounds?

It may be unfair to draw the disparate remarks McLuhan makes in this collection so closely together. But such an interpretive attempt is foisted on the reader by virtue of encountering them all at once. It seems to me the best we could say is that McLuhan thinks the Church is certainly not immune from the struggles media pose for stable identity, and that perhaps the Church is itself caught in a secular war that aims to preserve an older media in the face of a new one. Untangling the Church from its medial fetishism is a task McLuhan seems to keep trying, frustratedly (because no one seems to be all that interested), throughout the volume.

Incidentally, I think McLuhan plays much too fast with terms like the “secular” and even Christian identity. Nevertheless, as McLuhan himself affirms, the devil’s in the details.

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Pope Francis, Software Pope

“To come back to our comparison, the choice between two forms of authority makes me think of the difference between hardware and software. The written or printed paper is hardware; the spoken or recorded word is software. Pontifical documents were hardware, as stable and solid as matter. The new form is software, as malleable as electric information. The hardware document remains outer and we reject it as such. I think today we have to say that it’s the Pope’s spoken word that counts, the word that he utters, not the encyclical. In the electric age, live speech comes back into its own: it no longer needs to be hardened into documents.”

–Marshall McLuhan, “Tomorrow’s Church: Fourth Conversation with Pierre Babin,” in The Medium and the Light, 206.


Pope Francis to my knowledge doesn’t quote Marshall McLuhan, but he certainly shows the continued relevance of McLuhan’s media insights. Even his encyclicals are pastiches of other documents, other bishops’ or councils’ statements, fragments of speeches, etc. Look through the footnotes of his papal documents and you’ll find a rhizomatic network of other collaborative documents. Francis writes ecumenical, electric encyclicals, no longer present at the back of a church but sped around the blogosphere and news outlets the moment they appear in vernacular translation on the internet. It’s no accident that Francis is a news darling, given his propensity to act, to comment, and to summarize punchy points through action and symbol. His synods, to the frustration of many Church members who prefer the message of print media to the electric message of ecumenism, are dialogical encounters between participants, vaguely formalized into loose and hedged statements. Whatever people make of his papacy, Francis is a software pope.

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Paul Virilio and the Bunker Church to St. Bernadette

Lately I’ve been reading up on Paul Virilio, French philosopher of technology, who started as a stained-glass artist and now practices as an architect designing public housing for the poor in Paris. A truly model Catholic philosopher. In particular, I’ve been mulling over a church he designed with Claude Parent, dedicated to St. Bernadette in Nevers, modeled after Virilio’s work on the the architecture of bunkers and Parent’s work on the function of the oblique. It’s an incredible building, poignant and beautiful, ugly and alienating, in its own way.
Attached here are some photos of the church, including a floor plan, the exterior, and the interior:
In Virilio’s earlier work “Bunker Archaeology,” resulting from his personal explorations of bunkers rendered useless after WWII, he writes “In this survival apparatus, life is not neutral. It takes an effort to become more subtle, more essential.” The Church of St. Bernadette is like that; the church is an Ark, a bunker for a world where “mutually assured destruction” was a live possibility, at least in the popular imagination. St. Bernadette herself is most famous for seeing Marian apparitions at Lourdes, France (there’s a beautiful Jesuit church called “Our Lady of Lourdes” here in Toronto, coincidentally). In other words, St. Bernadette is a symbol of healing and miracle in the odd world that is the 19th century, leading up to the horrors of the early 20th century. Virilio and Parent’s bunker church is not escapist or paranoid, but a monument to the persistence of life in a particular time, intended for active masses, for receiving the body of God in a sacred space that calls to mind both annihilation and redemption. I’m reminded, rightly or wrongly, of a phrase from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that has always stuck with me: “If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground!”
Here are some reflections by Virilio on the design of that church, from his book CREPUSCULAR DAWN:
As it happened, in Dusseldorf some neighborhoods still were in ruins, and a Luftchutstraum had been turned into a church. I went to mass in a bunker that is called the Church of the Holy sacrament. Seeing a place like that Christianized, a place of terror, haunted by fear, that’s what interested me. And so when I came back, I realized that in reality, nuclear terror had only just begun. Those were the days of the Atomic Cafe. Everyone was building bomb shelters. And I decided that the grotto at Lourdes was today’s bomb shelter. It is the place of horrors, the place of great fear, the end of the world. So I drew inspiration from the bunker to do the job. I chose the shape of a heart, the double ventricles, split in two, cut down the middle, broken. One of them is the choir for communion, and the other the choir for confession, where one says: “I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.” What I admit, what you admit. You don’t say: “I’m wonderful, I’m pure.” Then, on the other hand, as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity. Anyway, this was my interpretation. And, of course, the chapel is an absolute monstrosity. It scares everyone. There were two projects that signed for the competition, and they asked Monseignor Vial to decide: “The other project being considered,” he told me, “is a small chapel with little angels, but there is so much hatred for your project, this pile of concrete, that I am going to choose it.” And since we were the winners, we were going to have to build this thing. Of course, there were immediate protests, articles in the local paper: “They have no right to build the chapel of God as a bunker…” Now just for you to know: Sainte-Bernadette’s chapel of Nevers is now classified as a historical monument.
Links to more on the churches (and where I got the images):
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I’ve been meaning to dust off this old corner of the internet for quite a while. Since my writing here thinned and eventually stopped altogether, I completed my MA at the Institute for Christian Studies (writing a thesis on Peter Sloterdijk’s analysis of cynicism and his later work on religion), entered the PhD program at ICS (where my research focuses on the intersections of media studies, Critical Theory, and philosophy of religion), and reverted/converted to Roman Catholicism (the tradition in which I was raised, though not without an endless string of qualifiers, footnotes, parentheses, etc.). Back when I was blogging regularly, it was a pleasure to work out some thoughts in-process here and, especially, to get feedback and make connections with other folks. Naturally I have a lot more to process now, so I figure I’ll jump back in.

Over the last year or so I’ve been conflicted about what to do with my past posts, the moments in-process, on this blog. Somehow the blog still gets hits despite being wholly inert. At one point I went through many of my old posts and made them private, a process that was somewhat arbitrary but mostly an attempt to get rid of especially embarrassing lines of thought–some of those remain, but instead of making them private (and rendering public some of the posts that on second thought I don’t think are so bad) I’ve decided to simply move on. Thus I humbly ask readers not to go digging too far; or, rather, if you do go digging I hope you can sift what gems remain and forgive me for the dirt.

At the beginning of Foucault’s “Discourse on Language,” he confesses “I wish I could have slipped imperceptibly” into his lecture, and that he “would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings.” “A good many people, I imagine,” says Foucault, “harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devillish features.” If I’m honest, despite my interest in “beginnings,” a good Kierkegaardian theme, I fall into this good many people Foucault imagines who want to simply get going, or rather want to find themselves already moving without having to do the hard work of beginning well.

It would be nice to have some profound insight to open up with, but I quote Foucault here as a means of basically licensing myself to not worry to much about this “first post,” one that doesn’t really have any parameters or promises apart from saying “hey, I intend to use this space now and again.” That’s not a very compelling way of (re)gaining a readership, but if I don’t start now I’ll be stuck deferring the beginning for so long that I’ll never get back into this thing at all. Looking forward to meeting you all again!

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