The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Introduction- 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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The Invention of Religion in Japan- Won Distinguished Book Award

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been overwhelmed in trying to simultaneously  finish a manuscript (Dialectic of Darkness) and with the business of chairing a Department for the first time (more work than you’d think). Still I did want to make a quick post because my first monograph The Invention of Religion in Japan has won a major book award “The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: 2013 Distinguished Book Award.” 


I’m honored that my book has achieved this kind of recognition and from such an august academic society. A million thanks are due to my wonderful friends and colleagues whose suggestions and critical comments helped make it a better work! Also, don’t worry:  I haven’t forgotten about this blog, but I seem to post most when I’m in the early phases of a project and still casting about for ideas….Still, I hope to free up some time this Spring for some more reviews.

Neuronal Politics: A Review of Malabou

Catherine Malabou in Blue

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.

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Faith of the Faithless

Faith of the FaithlessCritchley, Simon. 2012. The Faith of the Faithless: experiments in political theology. London: Verso Books.

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.

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Why Hegel -1

Hegel in Blue

The title of this blog (which is also the title of my book in progress) is meant to evoke a quote from Hegel “[Spirit] obtains its truth only when, in its absolute disruption (absoluten Zerrissenheit), it finds itself.” This may inspire the questions:


Why Hegel? Why now? Žižek has proclaimed this the “age of Hegel,” but then Žižek is also known for milking provocative claims for all they are worth. So that alone doesn’t get us very far.

Evoking Hegel at this moment might seem particularly anachronistic; indeed many would describe him as the ultimate dead white male. If that weren’t enough, Hegel has the potential to represent everything that Postmodernists criticize about modernity—Western triumphalism, a totalizing system, the rationalizations of colonialism and Orientalism. On top of which, the Phänomenologie des Geistes is a baffling text about which there is much disagreement. This would all seem to make a Hegelian revival even less plausible. So why is such a revival currently ongoing?

                                                                        ALL ROADS LEAD TO HEGEL:

Part of the renewed interest in Hegel has to do with the end of Marx. When Soviet Communism collapsed, Marx became less threatening. In the 1990s, he was spoken of as dead and it was in this same period that class seemingly vanished as a popular category in the U.S. and elsewhere. The 2000s have led to a limited resurgence of Marx in a kind of declawed, less political, less empirical, and less economic guise. Once class and economic specifics are stripped from Marx he starts to look more and more like Hegel. What is more,  with capital run rampant today beyond the worst fears of Das Kapital, Marx runs the risk of seeming dated. While I am not alone in thinking that some version of Marx is still relevant to the current economy, the case now has to be made; and for many, the Marx that seems most appealing is the philosophical Marx of Die Deutsche Ideologie and the Theses on Feuerbach, etc. This is a Marx vigorously engaged with Hegel. For these reasons, a whole crowd of scholars who otherwise define themselves as various kinds of Marxists (Žižek, Jameson, etc) have spent the last decade reaching back behind Marx to recover the Left-Hegel.

Although I think the status of Marx is the biggest reason for the Hegel resurgence, it isn’t the only one.

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After the End/Before the Beginning [Test Post]

The basic intuition that inspired this blog is that we are in the process of moving past postmodernism. I mean this in two senses: first, economic and cultural forms have shifted from the highpoint of postmodernism as they were understood in 1960s-1980s, and second, and even more importantly, the weird American academic field called “French Theory” or “Post-structuralism” that is so often identified with Postmodernity is on the way out.

None of this is to say that the “new thing” has begun yet. Nor would I claim any prophetic knowledge of the future.

This blog is intended to play host to my struggle with what is appearing on our intellectual horizon now that we are begin to move beyond postmodernism.

I intend to post short semi-review pieces about the things I am reading. Basically everything from classical/contemporary religious studies to new trends in radical philosophy and critical theory.

Also, I’m going to stop myself from over-editing everything. So I apologize in advance if posts here are rough.

Let the fun begin.