The Force of Secrecy: Spoilers, Neo-Liberalism, and “The Force Awakens”

star-wars-force-awakens-spoilersIn his commentary on Euclid’s elements (roughly 320 CE), Pappus of Alexandria recounts the strange case of a Pythagorean who was drowned for what amounts to giving a spoiler. It was said that a wayward mathematician of the Pythagorean society shared the Pythagoreans’ most important and secret teaching – that there was such a thing as irrational numbers (like the square root of two) – and paid for the revelation of this confidence with his life.[i] Similarly, in Japan the punctuation used in the Confucian Classics was treated as a form of secret lore, and the Kiyohara and Nakahara noble families guarded closely their readings of the texts for hundreds of years. In so doing, they accrued a prestige nearly equivalent to being the descendants of Confucius. In 1599 Fujiwara Seika exposed this secret for the first time and freely taught his contemporaries the key to the texts. In his case the effect was almost the reverse of that of the unfortunate Pythagorean. Fujiwara wasn’t murdered, but by giving spoilers he effectively cheapened the original secret. After the secret of how to parse the sentences of The Analects was widely known, it became a matter of mere triviality, thereby dooming the formerly prestigious secret tradition to irrelevance and obscurity.[ii]

Nor are these the only examples of societies rooted in secrecy. One can think of numerous groups – from Scientologists to Freemasons to various criminal societies – that build their social cohesion around a shared secret and which have historically threatened punishment for those who disclose these secrets to the world at large.

Although by no means as serious, contemporary Anglophone culture seems to be somewhat united around a prohibition concerning spoilers to “The Force Awakens” (Star Wars Episode VII) with fans texting what are probably joke death threats to those who break this particular covenant without warning. I saw the movie on Friday, and these are my first impressions. They amount to trying my hand at assessing the film’s marketing campaign, and particular the contradictions of its anti-spoiler component.

Please follow me across the fold for some spoilers… more importantly, I’ll be using the sociologist Georg Simmel as a stepping off point to talk about the secrecy/spoilers in global marketing and to assess the film’s implicit politics. Again: WARNING, THERE ARE SPOILERS. Read only if you have been initiated into this secret society or if you think its holy secret is (blasphemy!) trivial.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 4–Racing against the Machine: from the Ends of Sleep to the Ends of Work

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Over the last couple of years, artificial intelligence has been depicted in a surprising number of films—including Autómata (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Big Hero 6 (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015, pictured above), キカイダー REBOOT (2014), Robocop (2014), Terminator Genisys [sic.] (2015), and Transcendence (2014).[i] Although not uniformly apocalyptic in tone, these movies collectively embody a broader current of disquiet about the ethical dilemmas and potential dangers of machine sentience. Nor are these anxieties confined to the typical movie-going public. July 28, 2015, Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and a host of other luminaries signed an open letter cautioning against a “global AI arms race” and calling for a ban on “autonomous weapons. In doing so they lent their weight to the idea that in some respects these cinematic fantasies might be well founded.

But for many social theorists, the graver contemporary threat is not killer robots, but worker robots stripping us of employment and purpose.

In this rather long post, I place contemporary robot-movies in dialogue with an essay by John Maynard Keynes (“Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“) in order to explore a particular contemporary capitalist nightmare—that the very technological innovation that has undergirded modern productivity might in fact be its undoing. More specifically, I want to see how dystopian readings of automation (in particular the automation of mind or machine sentience) contribute to fears of the loss of sleep and the loss of work. Technological optimists should fret not as in a later post I’ll look at acceleration as utopian liberation. But if you follow me across the fold I’ll examine acceleration as despair or we might say as the death drive of the robot apocalypse.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 3——Fissures in Paradise: First World Problems or Micro-dystopias, Bullshit Jobs, and the Seeds of Bourgeois Alienation

Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Fissure–Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Proponents of Neoliberalism have described access to free markets and free trade as a kind of global panacea.[i] It is often said that were the developing world willing to adopt a more laissez faire economic policy it would in short order achieve the quality of life associated with the bourgeois first-world. Restated, the embrace of global capitalism by less developed countries is supposed to provide access to the “American dream” and not merely in terms of Levi jeans and iPhones but resulting in a fundamentally better lifestyle.[ii] Basically, free markets are supposed to equate with freedom and “the good life.” But is that really true? Is the First-World lifestyle really all that? If we could get rid of the world’s poorest slums and produce a lifestyle equivalent to that in the metropol middle class would we all be living in paradise?

In the last entry I explored the exploitative heart of our current world-system. I showed how the underbelly of capitalism is so far removed from the ordinary experiences of average citizens in developed nations that aspects of life in some less developed nations can look downright post-apocalyptic. But I also argued that these seeming disruptions or interruptions of capitalism are the ordinary functioning of the system. In so doing, I was trying to represent real or “developing-world” problems both abroad and even inside the heartland of America. In this entry, I want to expose the dystopian aspects of the first world. I want to show the end product of all that global effort and demonstrate that even this putative utopia has fissures, which expose unsustainable facets of the current world-order. In particular, in this post I want to showcase some “First-World-Problems” or micro-dystopias and explore their amplification or extrapolations.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 2——-A Voyage to the Dark Heart of Capitalism or what can Joseph Conrad tell us about commodity fetishism?

Unicef -

Unicef – “Foto des Jahres” 2011 by Kai Löffelbein –

If you scoured the globe looking for a location to film a post-apocalyptic dystopia, you might on visual grounds alone choose Agbogbloshie, the toxic scrapyard in Ghana where computers go when they die. At this technological graveyard, one can find workers from northern Ghana and the Ivory Coast scavenging through discarded motherboards, damaged keyboards, cracked television monitors, smashed microwaves, and broken cellphones for resalable materials. Fires dot the landscape as piles of ruble are set ablaze in order to disclose the precious copper and aluminum. Pollution seeps into the water and air. Crime is rampant and many of these workers will end up sick from toxic fumes or plagued with later health problems.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Agbogbloshie as specifically post-apocalyptic science fiction. While it has long been a racist cliché to depict Africa as a place that time forgot, Agbogbloshie looks like the future that might appear after a disruption of our world-system. But this e-waste graveyard isn’t capitalism breaking down, instead it is the ordinary functioning of the current system. Indeed, few places showcase the impasses of the system better. This is what makes Agbogbloshie so important for my larger project (to get caught up see the initial prompt “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?” and Part I- “The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?”).

By way of explanation, the term “capitalism” is often tossed about as a vague and intimidating abstraction either celebrated as the essence of progress and wellspring of modern civilization or condemned as the cause of all the world’s ills. But almost nobody agrees on the definition of capitalism or when it first came into being (if ever).[a] Plus, because our current world-system is so vast and complicated, our current problems are maddeningly difficult to even begin to diagnose. So even if you feel a sense that things are wrong, the scale alone might seem to make improving the world neigh impossible.

You’ll get a more explicit definition (or two) of capitalism in a later post. But here I’d like to try to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system and figure out why precisely it is so hard to have sense of the objects in our world and their relationship to this system. To do that, if you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll explore what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 1——-The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?

inverted janus Is Walmart Utopia? Restated, might Walmart serve as a contemporary model for a post-capitalist future society? Both formulations of the question sounds equally absurd. Few people actively champion Walmart, and almost no one would depict it as their ideal place. Indeed, according to a recent survey it is “the most-hated retailer in America.”[i] This is not exactly a new sentiment, but nevertheless in Valences of the Dialectic, Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson looked to Walmart forthe shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist.”[ii]  Pressing into the power of the dialectic to reconcile with inherent contradiction, Jameson argued that it was possible to look past Walmart’s failings for the seeds of its utopian potential. If you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll discuss Jameson’s utopian recuperation of Walmart and look at its potential inversions. Taking Jameson’s Valences and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspirations, I’ll attempt to trace the crystalized phantasmagoria of post-Fordist capitalism. I’ll ask–what is our contemporary analogue to the Parisian shopping malls of the nineteenth century? Put differently, I’ll try and liberate the dreams of an escape from capitalism that can be found paradoxically imbedded in the heart of certain capitalist structures. But first we’ll look into the dystopian “mist” that clings to Walmart. Continue reading

Dystopia Revisited (Blogging Unblocked)

[Note: I imagined a weeklong gap between posts, but the work of chairing a department and writing a book got in the way. Sorry. Now that the academic year is over, I’m back at it. To get unblocked and back to blogging, I had to remind myself that I didn’t want these to be a series of articles, but more like a set of quick thoughts/unpolished first drafts. Also, I had originally planned a two-part blog-post about the persistence of utopia, but I was struck by responses to the last entry that challenged the idea that we would want to move beyond contemporary capitalism. So, I want to tarry in dystopian-darkness before returning to utopia.]

Photo Credit Robert Hruzek

A preview:

Where the last post left it: we seemed to be caught in the coils of a particular repetition compulsion — constantly (re)imagining the end of the world, but unable to imagine a possible future that doesn’t include capitalism. (PART I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism is here: it asked “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”).


My main objective in this series of posts is to overturn this line of argumentation by uncovering seeds of utopia and tracing alternatives to modern capitalism. But first I want to go in the opposite direction by painting a pessimistic picture of the contemporary capitalist world order. If you are already up on the case against global corporate capitalism you can wait a month or two for a later utopian post. But if you want to understand the contemporary allure of dystopia then read on.

Before settling down to business I want to mention the standard critiques of capitalism – corporate neo-feudalism and increasing wealth inequality; never-ending cutthroat competition; the violence of economic imperialism and oppression; capital’s ability to subvert democracy; money’s role in mediating and cheapening our most personal relationships; the alienation resulting from a life of repetitive specialized labor; the inherent psychological instability resulting from the inevitable boom and bust cycles of the marketplace; and so on. As descriptions of the current-world system these are all fair, but they won’t really connect for many readers and will instead appear to be nothing more than empty abstractions. In the posts that follow, I want to see if the horrors of the current capitalist world-system can be distilled into apprehensible images – like a world reflected in a dewdrop. Restated, I’m looking for concrete symbols by which we can begin to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system.

Over the next three posts (which starting June 16 I hope to post every other week on Mondays or Tuesdays )—I’ll confront the Janus face of contemporary global capitalism (including both corporate dystopia and the dreams of anti-capitalist utopia frozen in capitalist structures), I’ll explore technological junkyards, I’ll ask what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and I’ll excavate Post-Fordist nightmares about flexible labor, automation, unemployment, and the loss of sleep. Then I’ll return to the deferred issue of contemporary utopia.

The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Part I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism

One reoccurring charge against postmodernism and poststructuralism alike is that they are unable to think utopia.

At first Capitalist Realismpass, this certainly seems plausible, after all postmodernism in Lyotard’s famous formulation was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” For another example, in all of Derrida’s work on deconstruction, did he not (perhaps admirably) refuse to offer an alternative to logocentrism? To be sure, he privileged writing over speech and praised grammatology. But by and large Derrida resisted utopia’s allure. Plus, aren’t classic postmodern works like Naked Lunch, The Crying of Lot 49, or Blade Runner deeply pessimistic?

Indeed it is easy to paint that entire period of philosophy and art as the culmination of skepticism or cynical reason—or in other words as the withering of modernist utopianism or perhaps as nothing less than pure crystalized dystopia. As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, charged the protagonist

You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” To which he replied: “You know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”

But of course, even in France he couldn’t. As it would seem at least a hundred political theorist have observed—it is hard to organize a politics around cynicism and nihilism, people need something to believe in and work toward, and hence the inability to think utopia is supposed to be precisely why postmodern and poststructuralist theory have failed to transform into easily recognizable political projects. As Žižek has argued, totalitarian regimes maintain their hold by encouraging cynicism. All they need to forestall revolution is to convince the masses that every politician is a bastard and all politic is corrupt. The people think why bother? and they continue supporting, with ironic distance, the mechanisms of a state in which they no longer believe. The promotion of postmodern skepticism would therefore seem to disable politics and prevent its ability to mobilize against the exploitations of global capitalism.

This critique of utopias absence has be sharpened recently by the British philosopher and blogger Mark Fisher. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (2009) was inspired by the insight (attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson) that

it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

This too certainly seems plausible and if you’ll follow me over the fold, I’ll layout both Fisher’s case AND in the next blog-post I’ll argue against this thesis by looking at a few seeds of anti-capitalist utopia

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Japanese Studies

Are you abandoning Japan?”  This is a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.

Crow in Yanaka Cemetery, Photo by Jason Josephson rights reserved

Crow in Yanaka Cemetery, Photo by Jason Josephson rights reserved

I tend to hear it right after I explain that my second book–The Myth of Disenchantment–is basically European intellectual history (for a taste) and that the project following that– Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism–is an attempt to articulate new research models for Religious Studies in the wake of the collapse of poststructuralism as a guiding ethos in the Humanities.

At the moment, I’m probably best known for a monograph – The Invention of Religion in Japan – and a series of articles that explore the history of Japanese religions, science, and politics (my professional page). So it makes sense that often when I’m chatting with colleagues about work-in-progress I’m greeted with an expression of surprise. Scholars of Asian Studies in particular often tend to put it in the most intense terms and ask me if I am “deserting Japanese studies?”

So in this very short blog-post I want to provide an answer: in a word “No!”

Extended explanation below the fold for those who are curious.

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Theory After Postmodernism Workshop May 16-17, 2014

Readers of the blog might be interested to know that I’ve organized a small workshop on Theory After Postmodernism here at Williams College on May 16-17, 2014.


Theory After Postmodernism May 16-17

It is free and open to the public. More details can be found here:



Reflexive Religious Studies: A Note

I’ve been lecturing about and, even calling for, what I term “Reflexive Religious Studies” for some time. My comments about it will be appearing in print in the near(ish) future in greater detail, but I thought a small note about the idea here might prove useful.


As I have been arguing for a long time, the category “religion” is transformative. [i] Various entities become “religions.” I want to emphasize that this is not a teleological or transhistorical process, but one that came out of a particular logic at a particular moment in Western Christendom, and its globalization was necessarily selective and to some extent arbitrary. It should also be noted that this was a modern process, articulated in various stages, but in essence coinciding with the formation of globalization or transnational modernity.

This process is always incomplete. Christianity, Buddhism, and so on always retain remainders that are not fully brought under the category. Moreover, this process of becoming a religion is still ongoing. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be seen as having permeated the whole intellectual stratum of modernity. Even in modernity, “religion” cannot be taken as a self-evident category. Religious Studies must therefore be the discipline that suspends its primary object of inquiry, never taking for granted religion’s meaning.

To put it in different terms and to indicate this non-universal category, one might say that: things become religions. At the risk of skirting typographical silliness, I want to use the strike through here (evocative of the Lacanian barred subject) in order to indicate religion as an impossible object, something like a term “under erasure” (Sous rature) in the Heidegger/Derrida sense, which for our purposes we might identify with a de-essentialized process. By this I mean more than the reification of an abstraction. Irrespective of any “essential” nature, to designate something a religion is to place it into a series of relations with other “religions.” Various entities become religions by being linked up to the world-system in a way that transforms them. Here I mean to gesture toward the insights of both Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (as well as those articulated more recently by Peter Beyer). According to a synthesis of these accounts, our current world-system came into effect along with the formation of a system exchange of knowledge and capital, which began to encircle the globe over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so doing, it produced global systems of self-reinforcing discourse.

Once this insight has been granted, it provides an opening for a new vantage in Religious Studies that would study these processes of becoming, a way to study the term “under erasure.” Not as a universal or essential part of human nature but in its transformative effects.

What I have in mind is what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that you have to have different kinds of sociological techniques to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence.[ii] You need a new “reflexive sociology” to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. Put differently, there is a place for a higher order sociology that recons with the fact that academic sociology is in a sense porous and tends to seep into the societies that it purports to study.

I want to extend this move to Religious Studies. Reflexive Religious Studies would examine those societies in which religion and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions.

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