In 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.
Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should we do with our brain? Trans
by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.
Original: Malabou, Catherine. 2004. Que faire de notre cerveau? Paris: Bayard.
The Rise of the New Ontologists
Recently, political theory has moved away from epistemology and toward ontology; in effect, swapping the obsessions of post-structuralism (the limits of knowledge and language) with a renewed emphasis on the ground of being as such. If the post-structuralists reduced everything to discourse, the “new ontologists” (as they are coming to be called) reduce everything to an issue of existence. In so doing, they privilege things over concepts, or, we might say, supplant idealism with materialism. Yet the new ontologists also double down on postmodernist anti-humanism by displacing the human as the center of political theory. In effect, they describe being in new ways in order to suggest the possibilities of reading agency into the non-human world.
Under the encouragement of a friend, I’ve spent the last six months reading a lot of Žižek. This has been simultaneously pleasurable and infuriating because while I love Žižek’s style (and even agree with him on many issues), I find the politics implied by his more recent turn to Lenin and praise of “divine violence” to be profoundly troubling. (I also radically disagree with Žižek’s analysis of religion, but I’ll save that for a later blog post). My interest was piqued when Žižek condemned the British born, New School-based, political philosopher Simon Critchley, stating that Critchley’s work was “an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed.” When I then heard that Critchley had made a recent foray into Religious Studies that was getting a lot of attention, I knew that I had to add Faith of the Faithless to my reading list. Having done so, and having cajoled friends and colleagues to read and discuss it with me, I am now in a position to report back some observations.
At the most basic level, Faith of the Faithless is premised on Carl Schmitt’s claim that all significant modern political concepts are really secularized theological concepts (103). In Schmitt’s day an older theory of secularization held sway and many scholars likely imagined that even these theological remainders would be purged over the course of modernity. But in today’s so-called “post-secular age” it appears that instead of increased differentiation, politics and religion are becoming even more deeply intertwined. As Critchley puts it:
“Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was post-metaphysical, to a new situation in which political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict.” (8)
In effect, Critchley considers all politics to be religious. He suggests that theological concepts are so heavily intertwined with political concepts that in order to have a functioning politics, politics must escape itself by articulating a relation to the transcendent. As a committed atheist, this puts Critchley in a bit of a bind, which he tries to solve by constructing a kind of atheistic political theology. Basically, Faith of the Faithless is an attempt to think about how to organize a new Left politics in the face of the Death of God (or the confrontation with relativistic nihilism). Interestingly Critchley tries to conjure this new political community not by drawing attention to society’s injustices (classic liberal guilt), but through appropriating an explicitly theological language.