Unnatural Theology: Religion, Art and Media after the Death of God 9781350064690, 9781350064720, 9781350064683

The failure of secular modernity to deliver on its promise of progress and enlightenment leaves a void that religion is

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Unnatural Theology: Religion, Art and Media after the Death of God
 9781350064690, 9781350064720, 9781350064683

Table of contents :
1. An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene
2. The Silence of God
3. Corpus Mystical Anarchism
4. Ruskin’s Haunted Nature
5. Photography in the Time that Remains
6. Whore Text
7. Pop Eschatology
8. Looking Down from Ingleborough
9. The Incredible Shrinking Human
10. Of Clouds and the Cloud
11. Conclusion: God in Black and White

Citation preview

Unnatural Theology

Political Theologies Series edited by Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Arthur Bradley (Lancaster University), Michael Dillon (Lancaster University) and Yvonne Sherwood (University of Kent) This book series explores the past, present and future of political theology. Taking its cue from the ground-breaking work of such figures as Derrida, Agamben, Badiou and Zizek, it seeks to provide a forum for new research on the theologico-political nexus including cutting edge monographs, edited collections and translations of classic works. By privileging creative, interdisciplinary and experimental work that resists easy categorization, this series not only re-assets the timeliness of political theology in our epoch but seeks to extend political theological reflection into new territory: law, economics, finance, technology, media, film and art. In Bloomsbury Political Theologies, we seek to re-invent the ancient problem of political theology for the 21st century. International Advisory Board Agata Bielik-Robson (University of Nottingham) Howard Caygill (Kingston University) Simon Critchley (New School of Social Research) Roberto Esposito (Scuola Normale Superiore) Elettra Stimilli (University of Rome La Sapienza) Miguel Vatter (University of New South Wales) Titles in the series: The Withholding Power: An Essay on Political Theology, Massimo Cacciari The Weakness of Belief, Michel de Certeau Unnatural Theology, Charlie Gere Modernity and the Political Fix, Andrew Gibson Debt and Guilt, Elettra Stimilli Apocalyptic Political Theology, Thomas Lynch

Unnatural Theology Religion, Art and Media after the Death of God Charlie Gere

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2019 Paperback edition published 2020 Copyright © Charlie Gere, 2019 Charlie Gere has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on page viii constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover design: Irene Martinez-Costa Cover image © The first photograph of the Shroud, 1934 © Chronicle / Alamy All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3500-6469-0 PB: 978-1-3501-7139-8 ePDF: 978-1-3500-6468-3 eBook: 978-1-3500-6471-3 Series: Political Theologies Typeset by Deanta Global Publishing Services, Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com and sign up for our newsletters.

To my godchildren, Allegra, Barnaby, Charlie, Florence, and Luke, in lieu of any more useful spiritual guidance, and in recognition of the long friendships I have enjoyed with their parents, a constant reminder that being is always being-with. ‘Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.’ Walt Whitman

Contents Acknowledgements Introduction 1 An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene 2 The Silence of God 3 Corpus Mystical Anarchism 4 Ruskin’s Haunted Nature 5 Photography in the Time that Remains 6 Whore Text 7 Pop Eschatology 8 Looking Down from Ingleborough 9 The Incredible Shrinking Human 10 Of Clouds and the Cloud 11 Conclusion: God in Black and White Glossary Bibliography Index

viii 1 15 49 59 71 87 99 111 121 135 145 159 169 176 188

Acknowledgements Thanks first and foremost to Ward Blanton, Arthur Bradley, Mick Dillon and Yvonne Sherwood, editors of the Political Theology series of which this book is part, and to the other members of our weekly reading group, Antonio Cerella and Gavin Hyman. The conversations each week, often ranging far  beyond the actual reading, have greatly contributed to this book, though I take all the blame for any deficiencies. Thanks to the readers of the original proposal, Ward Blanton, Michael Corris and Dragan Kujundžić, for their encouraging and positive reactions. Thanks to the students at Lancaster University, especially those who have participated in the Fine Art theory workshops, which have been highly stimulating. Thanks also to all those who have allowed me to rehearse parts of this book, either live or in print. Early versions of some of the chapters were presented at Lancaster University itself, as well as at Birkbeck College, Cardiff University, Florida University, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Ontario College of Art and Design University, Southern Methodist University, and Westminster University. Earlier versions of some of the chapters have appeared in the following publications; Chapter 2, ‘The Silence of God’, in 30 Years after Les Immateriaux: Art, Science and Theory, edited by Andreas Broekmann and Yuk Hui (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015), Chapter 4, ‘Ruskin’s Haunted Nature’, in The Machine and the Ghost: Technology and spiritualism in nineteenth- to twenty-first-century art and culture, edited by Sas May and Neil Matheson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), Chapter 6, ‘Whore Text’, under the title ‘Pornography, Alterity, Divinity’, in Leonardo Electronic Almanac: Without Sin, Freedom and Taboo in Digital Media, edited by Lanfanco Aceti and Donna Leishman (vol. 19, no. 4), a longer version of Chapter 9, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Human’, in Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative: Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, edited by Paul Crosthwaite (London, New York: Routledge, 2014). Thanks to Liza Thompson and Bloomsbury for agreeing to publish this book. Finally, thanks, as always, to my wife and family for their endless tolerance and support.

Introduction I am sitting writing in my hut in the garden of the lodge house in which I live, in Cumbria. Outside the hut I can see the trees of the woods that now fill the space that was once the drive to the big house. I can see the trees move, and hear the wind that is moving them. I can also hear the stream that runs through a culvert under the house. Just beyond the hut an incinerator is burning up garden waste and papers, turning them into ash in minutes, while nearby a composter turns kitchen waste into something entirely other in a process that will take months. In opening this book with such a passage literary theorist Timothy Morton would likely say that I am guilty of ‘ecomimesis’, the term he has coined to describe attempts to convey with immediacy the physical experience of existence. In chapter two of his book Ecology Without Nature Morton starts with three parodic examples of such ecomimetic passages, before explaining that the more I try to evoke where I am – the ‘I’ who is writing this text – the more phrases and figures of speech I must employ. I must get involved in a process of writing, the very writing that I am not describing when I evoke the environment in which writing is taking place. The more convincingly I render my surroundings, the more figurative language I end up with. The more I try to show you what lies beyond this page, the more of a page I have. And the more of a fictional ‘I’ I have – splitting ‘me’ into the one who is writing and the one who is being written about – the less convincing I sound. (2009: 30)

This is what might be called the catastrophe of language. The problem of being human is perhaps a problem of language. That the human is the animal that has language is essentially catastrophic, inasmuch as it places us always in a disjunctive relation with ourselves, our fellow humans, our non-human and indeed non-living others, and our environment (and in fact makes possible the very notion of self and other that underlies these relations). There can be no


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subject/object divide outside of language, and it is this divide that determines our complex and problematic relation to the world in which we find ourselves. Indeed, even the idea that we find ourselves in a world is itself only possible in that we are already divided from that world and from ourselves, by language. Language is that which cracks the world open – divides it so that we can have the observer and the observed, the subject and the object – the cracking open provides the gap, the distance, that makes observing and being observed, subjectivity and objectivity, inside and outside possible. It is through distinguishing between the inside and the outside that we come to engage with abjection. It is also the gap through which time, history, death all come into our lives. Human language, in contradistinction to all the subtle and various forms of animal communication, is originary of the human itself, as part of our fundamental relation to technics. According to Giorgio Agamben, the human is regressive, neotenic, born premature, caught in an infantile, helpless state, while at the same able to reproduce (1995: 95–6). Agamben compares the human to the Mexican axolotl, a species of salamander, which also has these characteristics (ibid.). Thus the human is always indeterminate and incomplete and needs the apparatus of socialization, including education, tools, and preeminently language, to survive (97). Above all, for Agamben, language is what opens us out to death. In his book The Idea of Prose there is a short section entitled ‘The Idea of Death’, which goes as follows. The angel of death, who in some legends is called Samael and with whom it is said even Moses had to struggle, is language. Language announces death – what else does it do? But precisely this announcement makes it so difficult for us to die. From time immemorial, for the entire duration of man’s history, humanity has struggled with this angel, trying to wrench from him the secret he restricts himself to announcing. But from his childish hands one can wrench only the announcement he had in any case to bring. The angel is not at fault for this, and only those who understand the innocence of language likewise grasp the true sense of the announcement and may, in the event, learn to die. (128)

Thus, for Agamben, following Martin Heidegger, language is inescapably bound up with death and thus with the nihilism at the core of human existence. Agamben analyses this in relation to deixis, those words that require context



to be fully understood, such as the pronouns, as well as words such as ‘here’ and ‘there’. He looks at the use of deictic words diese (this) and da (there) in the work of Hegel and Heidegger as evincing a general absence and negativity at the heart of language (1991: 23–4). At the same time language has also given us a false sense of mastery over a world, also falsely conceived because of language itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche puts it in Human, All Too Human, with language mankind ‘set up in language a separate world beside the other world, a place it took to be so firmly set that standing upon it, it could lift the rest of the world off its hinges and make itself master of it’ ([1878] 1996: 16). Above all, the human started to ‘believe in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates … and he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world’ (ibid.). Furthermore ‘Logic too depends on presuppositions with which nothing in the real world corresponds, for example on the presupposition that there are identical things, that the same thing is identical at different points of time’ (ibid.). Because we name what we encounter, especially through the use of nouns, we imagine that they are somehow enduring, autonomous and stable things. However, in my hut, even if everything appears stable, and static, I know that electrons are continually passing through the light, the heater and my laptop. The bookshelves behind me, the desk I sit at, the walls, floor and ceiling of the hut, and even my own body are changing all the time. Everything is change, flux, a continual process of perishing and renewal. This brings to mind Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of Cleopatra’s Needle in London. He suggests that we do not, at first sight, think of it as an event, but goes on to point out that it is nevertheless transitory, did not and will not exist always. Therefore its ‘static timeless element’ is ‘pure illusion’. If we look at it in ‘a sufficiently abstract manner we can say it never changes’, but ‘a physicist who looks on that part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed’ (1964: 166–7). Whitehead’s philosophy offers a complex conception of time in terms of creativity that helps us understand our own situation in the world. In Whitehead’s cosmos there are no things, just processes, or, rather, things are processes, events. Whitehead described his thinking as a philosophy of organism. The difficulty of Whitehead’s ideas is compounded by his language,


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which involves novel phrases and neologisms. Put as simply as possible, Whitehead understands reality to be composed of nothing but novel entities he first called ‘events’ or what he later termed as ‘actual occasions’, or sometimes ‘actual entities’ or ‘occasions of experience’ (1978). Actual occasions are the result of a process of coming to be, or what Whitehead calls ‘concrescence’ (passim). In order to do so they take on previous actual occasions in the act of, in another of Whitehead’s neologisms, ‘prehension’, which is intended to denote an apprehension which may or may not be cognitive, and which therefore can be experienced by any body, human and non-human, living and non-living. Many different antecedent occasions can contribute to the concrescence of an occasion, either immediately, or mediately, inasmuch as they contributed to an occasion that, in its turn, contributed to another. This is what is called ‘positive prehension’. Previous occasions can also be excluded from the process of concrescence, thus being a process of ‘negative prehension’. Concrescence involves ‘enjoyment’ and perishing. Once an occasion is realized it perishes, and in doing so, becomes available to be prehended by future occasions. In effect every occasion is related to every other occasion either immediately or mediately, meaning that the cosmos is a vast web of interdependent relationality. This also allows Whitehead to make a claim for a certain kind of immortality, in that every occasion in a sense survives in its being taken up by successive occasions. What we perceive as material things, bodies, rocks and so on, are the enduring result of the ongoing aggregation of billions of actual occasions in what Whitehead names as ‘societies’ or ‘nexūs’. Their social organization as emerging and perishing societies allows for the endurance through time of things. Crucial to Whitehead’s cosmology is the notion that every occasion is the result of experience, of ‘feeling’, and that the universe is nothing other than the process of myriad, plural experiences concrescing as occasions which then perish. As he puts it, ‘the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjects’ (166). This is Whitehead’s ‘pan-experientalism’ (not, as some would have it, ‘pan-psychism’). At whatever level, whether that of an electron or of human consciousness, every feeling is a ‘vector feeling’, ‘that is to say, feeling from a beyond which is determinate and pointing to a beyond which is to be determined. But the feeling is subjectively rooted in the immediacy of the present occasion: it is what the occasion feels for itself,



as derived from the past, and as merging into the future’ (163). Even a rock’s enduring existence as a form of process involves experience of what has been before, and thus anticipation of what is to come, or, to put it more boldly, the apparent enduring is nothing but successive ‘drops’ of experience coming into being and perishing (18). Whitehead’s ideas bear some resemblance to what Timothy Morton calls the ‘Mesh’. In his book The Ecological Thought, Morton deconstructs traditional understandings of nature (or, rather, Nature) and proposes instead a Buddhistinflected notion of the environment as a shared engagement, offering a kind of anti-dualism, a refusal of the binaries of nature/culture, human/animal, art/non-art and so on (2010: 9). This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement, Morton contends, nor does ‘Nature’ exist as an entity separate from the uglier or more synthetic elements of life (123–4). This should not however be understood in a consolatory new-age fashion as some form of cosmic harmony. It is rather a connectivity made up of difference and singularity. Morton’s thinking is clearly informed by his practice as a Buddhist, and my sense of impermanence while in my hut is perhaps rather Buddhistic. An insistence that everything is impermanent (anicca), is, after all, one of the three central marks of existence of Buddhism, along with dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering), and anatta (non-selfhood). Though scientists and others may take issue with the concept of impermanence, and for many non-selfhood may be too mystical, there can be little doubt about the unsatisfactoriness of life. A list of what life has to offer to any human has to include suffering, loneliness, premature death, disease, old age, failure, disappointment with oneself, with one’s family and friends, the fading of relationships and so on. Add to this the problems particular to our time, including ecological catastrophe, permanent war, the threat of nuclear annihilation, pollution, immiseration, exploitation, poverty, consumerism, injustice, inequality, and the lot of the human being is not a very happy one. This is not to say that even with all this taken into consideration life is without possible consolations and pleasures. Nor is it to fall into the trap of regarding our current condition as particularly benighted and to yearn for some earlier more supposedly beneficent age. But there is an obvious aspect


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to our contemporary existence that does exacerbate our existential woes. Uniquely perhaps in the history of humanity the dominant modes of thinking, the intellectual framework in which we operate, appear to offer little space for either fundamental meaning or hope, the two main salves for our condition. This is not to say that we are deprived of meaning, especially through the hypercommunicativity that is a concomitant of our media-saturated culture, or what is sometimes called ‘semiocapitalism’, the condition in which the relation between capital and information-communication technologies reduce language to pure exchangeability. If anything the world has too much meaning. But it does not offer any real idea of why there is something rather than nothing. The obvious source for answers to this question is religion, but that has been rendered all but impossible as a solution by advances in scientific understanding of the world and the universe. Morton proposes an ecology without nature, or rather ‘Nature’, one in which the whole idea of nature is done away with in pursuit of a more fruitful and useful kind of ecological thinking. ‘God’, like ‘Nature’, is also a product of our status as the ‘animal that has language’. God is perhaps the name we give to the desire to heal the gap opened up by language between us and the world, but to be able to realize the desire and to heal the gap, would be to lose God, who can only exist as a desire, and also to lose language and thus ourselves. In his essay ‘The Idea of Language’ Agamben starts with a discussion of the Judeo-Christian notion of revelation. For Agamben revelation ‘conditions the very possibility of knowledge in general’. Thus the revelation of God is really a revelation of language, something that ‘Christian theologians express by saying that the sole content of revelation is Christ himself, that is, the Word of God, and that Jewish theologians affirm in stating that God’s revelation is his name’ (1999a: 39). Thus revelation is not about a supreme being, but ‘concerns language itself, the very fact that language (and therefore knowledge) exists’. Revelation means ‘that humans can reveal beings through language but cannot reveal language itself … humans see the world through language but do not see language’ (40). Agamben sees this in particular in the ‘construction of Trinitarian theology’ which in the opening words of Gospel of John, en arkhē ēn ho logos (In the beginning was the Word), ‘says nothing about worldly reality; it has no ontic content … but rather reveals that the world is, that language exists’ (40–1).



For Agamben it is the realization that ‘God is the name of the preexistence of language’ that allows the early nominalist thinker Roscelin to decide that ‘universal essences were only flatus vocis’ and that the ‘name of God, that is, the name that names language, is therefore a word without meaning’, which leads eventually to the consciousness of contemporary thought ‘that a final and absolute metalanguage does not exist and that every construction of a metalanguage is caught in an infinite regress’ (1999a: 42). He suggests that ‘contemporary thought has approached a limit beyond which a new epochalreligious unveiling of the word no longer seems possible’ and in which the ‘primordial character of the word is now completely revealed, and no new figure of the divine, no new historical destiny can lift itself out of language’. Thus if ‘God was the name of language, “God is dead” can only mean that there is no longer a name for language’, and the ‘fulfilled revelation of language is a word completely abandoned by God’. This means that ‘human beings are thrown into language without having a voice or a divine word to guarantee them a possibility of escape from the infinite play of meaningful propositions’. For Agamben the result is that ‘we finally find ourselves alone with our words; for the first time we are truly alone with language, abandoned without any final foundation’. He describes this as ‘the Copernican revolution that the thought of our time inherits from nihilism’: the realization that ‘we are the first human beings who have become completely conscious of language’. Thus ‘God, Being, spirit, unconscious’ are names for language (45–6). But, as long as there is language, God will continue to haunt us. Nietzsche famously remarked that ‘“Reason” in language  – oh what a deceitful old woman! I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar’ ([1889] 1990: 48), while Jacques Lacan suggested that ‘only theologians can be truly atheistic’ because God is the place of speech, and therefore ‘as long as things are said, the God hypothesis will persist’ (1982: 45). The latter quotation suggests an important point: that to properly overcome religion we need not an atheism or even an atheology, but a theology that preserves the name of God as the ultimate empty signifier, or signifier of nothing, occupying the space at the heart of the temple that might otherwise be occupied by some other abstraction, ‘Nature’, ‘Man’, ‘History’, ‘Progress’, ‘Evolution’, ‘The Market’, ‘Das Volk’ and so on. But this would be a theology that acknowledges its own necessary constructedness, its unnaturalness. Indeed we need this unnatural


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theology and religion in order that some apparently given or supposedly natural aspect of our lives does not come to occupy the space of religion. We must believe in God, even though or actually because He does not exist, in order that the religious impulse is kept within bounds, and not directed towards the problematic loci of belief. Later on in the book I will suggest that, contrary to some people’s belief that we live in a post-religious, secular society, ‘Capitalism’ has become the totalizing and absolute religion of our current condition. It is against this condition that we need to rethink our relation to religion. Rather than either embracing or opposing religion we need to go through it in order to liberate ourselves of its illusions, while acknowledging its continued capacity to reflect upon and sustain our broken lives. This is the point of what Slavoj Žižek calls the ‘perverse core of Christianity’. The death of Christ on the cross and his abandonment by his father reveals, for Žižek, the nonexistence of the big Other. When Christ dies, what dies with him is the secret hope discernible in ‘Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’: the hope that there is a father who has abandoned me. The ‘Holy Spirit’ is the community deprived of its support in the big Other. The point of Christianity as the religion of atheism is not the vulgar humanist one that the becoming-man-of-God reveals that man is the secret of God (Feuerbach et al.); rather it attacks the religious hard core that survives even in humanism, even up to Stalinism, with its belief in History as the ‘big Other’ that decides on the ‘objective meaning’ of our deeds. (2003: 171)

Žižek is an important figure for ‘Radical Theology’, the name for the various attempts to think through religion in purely immanent terms. Among others also so concerned are Thomas Altizer, Don Cupitt, Mark C. Taylor, John Caputo, and, among younger scholars, Clayton Crockett and Anthony Paul Smith. The most radical contribution to such a project is that of François Laruelle, especially in his recent books Future Christ (2011), and Christo-Fiction (2015). Unnatural Theology is a necessarily minor addition to this thinking. The first chapter, ‘An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene’, explores this possibility by proposing that the solution to our current nihilism, and to the sterile debate between theists and atheists, is to seek the point of the coincidence of opposites between faith and its opposite, which is found in both the most sophisticated theology, and in the most thoughtful atheism.



Through  the work of figures connected with negative theology, such as Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, as well as more recent thinkers, including Simon Critchley, Ray Brassier, Keiji Nishitani, Joanna Zylinska, Jean-Luc Nancy, Simone Weil and Giorgio Agamben, a theology in which only the name of God is preserved and then abandoned as inoperative is proposed. Chapter 2, ‘The Silence of God’, takes as its starting point Les Immatériaux, the 1985 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, curated by, among others, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Eight years after Les Immatériaux, Lyotard gave a paper at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris entitled ‘On a Hyphen’ about St Paul, thus anticipating the recent revival of interest in Paul by over half a decade. In it he gave a reading of St Paul, as exemplary of the hyphen between ‘Judeo’ and ‘Christian’. Among Lyotard’s concerns in this essay is the question of Voice. In the essay Lyotard contrasts the inaccessibility of God’s voice for the Jews against its manifestation in the incarnation of Christ. This can be understood in part at least as a means for Lyotard to work through some questions of language, in particular the Judaic paradigm of the absent letter and the Christian model of incarnated language. It is in this context that the discursive and audio experiments in Les Immatériaux can be understood as attempts to offer a model of language that returns to the ethics that Lyotard understands to be exemplary of Judaism. The third chapter, ‘Corpus Mystical Anarchism’, stages a confrontation between the political anarchism of Simon Critchley, and the Eucharistic politics of William Cavanaugh, by way of Marcus Pound’s KierkegaardianLacanian rethinking of transubstantiation, and through Cavanaugh’s accounts of Christological resistance to torture and disappearance in General Pinochet’s Chile. It is suggested that Cavanaugh’s presentation of the Eucharist as offering the real possibility of transformation is a better political strategy than Critchley’s demanding of the impossible, and his ‘mystical anarchism’ is countered by a ‘corpus-mystical anarchism’, taken in part from Frederick Bauerschmidt’s political – theological reading of Julian of Norwich, and her engagement with Christ’s abject, broken body. Chapter 4, ‘Ruskin’s Haunted Nature’, concerns the great Victorian art critic and thinker John Ruskin, possibly the last mainstream thinker to be able to proclaim the presence of God in nature. In his youth he experienced an


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epiphany in the Alps by which he was profoundly affected. In later life he found the experience of nature less straightforward, and became concerned with the effects of industrialization on the environment, which found expression in his famous lecture series, ‘The Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century’. In the first lecture he describes his sightings of what he calls a ‘plague-wind’, a set of disturbing meteorological phenomena which he claims as unprecedentedly new and foreboding. Ruskin describes this wind and these cloud phenomena as haunted by the souls of men. For Ruskin this meteorological crisis was particularly disturbing, given the importance for him of sky and air, as expressed in works such as ‘The Queen of the Air’. The end of the first lecture is replete with messianic, apocalyptic and eschatological rhetoric. Through the work of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida the chapter delineates Ruskin’s messianic ecological thinking. It shows how Ruskin’s anxiety about, and antipathy towards, the contingent and the event, connected to his ambivalent and largely hostile attitudes towards the work of Constable and to photography. For Derrida, technologies of mechanical reproduction such as photography are always ‘spectral’ and thus not just bound up with Derridean tropes of haunting and ghosts, but also messianic themes. The fifth chapter, ‘Photography in the Time that Remains’, looks at photography as exemplary of ‘the time that remains’, as Giorgio Agamben describes the messianic temporality that he sees as connecting St Paul and Walter Benjamin. Photography was invented at more or less the exact moment Hegel first proclaimed the ‘death of God’ in the third decade of the nineteenth century. The chapter suggests that the simultaneity of the Turin Shroud being photographed and Nietzsche’s declaration of the Death of God is more than coincidental and that photography is bound up with the end of onto-theology and the rise of a different conception of time and duration based on rupture rather than continuity. Chapter 6, ‘Whore Text’, starts with the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, beyond its understood confines, and suggests that the experience of looking at an image, any image, is always an experience of being confronted by the utterly other, one name for which might be ‘God’. This is clearly the underlying impetus behind the anxiety about images in the context of religion in many cultures. This is perhaps the reason the image, any image, is always also somehow obscene, in the very act of showing what is other. It shows



us what should not be shown, what should be obscaena (offstage). This is exemplified in God’s refusal to show his face to Moses in Exodus. The chapter argues that the female body has become, problematically, an image of the divine. Starting with the elevation of the ‘eternal feminine’ as divine in the late Middle Ages, and using the work of Jacques Lacan, the chapter looks at the rise of the female nude in art, the emergence of pornography at the same time, and then engages with Georges Bataille’s Madame Edwarda, in the book of the same name, who shows her genitals to the narrator while shouting ‘I am GOD’, and Duchamp’s late work, Étant Donnes. Pornography is the explicit demonstration of the implicit condition of the image, in which the obscene and the divine are closely related as things that should not and indeed cannot be looked at. This is then approached by way of Derrida’s deconstruction of the conflation of the feminine and truth, which offers another approach to both the image and woman as category. The seventh chapter, ‘Pop Eschatology’, starts with the suggestion that the work of the artist Richard Hamilton offers a surprising but powerful form of religious representation. Taking its cue from a late, computer-manipulated nude image and using the work of Bruno Latour it argues that Hamilton’s work does what Latour suggests is the role of religion, which is to bring us into contact with the immediate and the here-and-now. Hamilton’s interest in the abject and the excremental, or what he and other members of the Independent Group called ‘bunk’, is understood as thoroughly religious. This is further explored through the work of Agamben and Boris Groys Chapter 8, ‘Looking Down from Ingleborough’, brings together the ideas of John Ruskin with those of Jacques Derrida. Taking the landscape in the north-west of England as a starting point, in this chapter Ruskin’s interests in walking, drawing, and religion are connected with the work of Derrida, in particular his own considerations of writing and drawing. The chapter tracks both the differences and similarities between the two thinkers’ work in order to propose a new means of thinking through the relation between art and religion. This leads to a discussion of Vicky Kirby’s materialist rethinking of Derrida and of his claim that ‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’ (‘there is no outside text’). Kirby finds in Derrida’s claim the key to a rethinking of the nature/culture divide that does not sequester language on the side of culture.


Unnatural Theology

The ninth chapter, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Human’, proposes that we are still caught in a delusion of mastery in relation to the earth and its environment, which is exemplified by the cultural appropriation of images of the whole earth taken from space, or of the earth as shrinking globe. To find alternatives to such illusions of mastery the chapter engages with the work of Jean-Luc Nancy concerning our being in the world and Derrida’s deconstruction of our relation with other creatures, which he critiques as being reduced to the animal-word (l’animot). Finally the 1950s film The Incredible Shrinking Man is invoked as a model of a new thinking of our relation to other creatures and to the world, as without mastery or dominance. Chapter 10, ‘Of Clouds and the Cloud’, takes as its cue what John Durham Peters calls a ‘philosophy of elemental media’, as described in his book The Marvelous Clouds. Peters starts with the observation that ‘in light of both the possible irreversible threat to our habitat by climate change and the explosion of digital devices, of both carbon overload in the atmosphere and superabundant data in the “cloud” it is good to open the relation of media to nature’. To this end the chapter looks at the parallel histories of the representation of clouds in art, the development of man-made clouds in war, and what Peter Sloterdijk calls our ‘being-in-the-air’ through to the close relation between the development of the atomic weaponry, with its mushroom cloud, and the Arpanet, the ancestor of the Data Cloud, which is understood to embody what Derrida calls ‘archive fever’. It then follows Derrida’s nuclear criticism in showing how James Joyce’s notion of the ‘etym’, the smallest unit of language is bound with concerns about the atom and its destructive potential. Finally it engages with Michel Serres’ reading of Lucretius to show that, in a sense, all is cloud. ‘Conclusion: God in Black and White’, confronts the problem of religious violence, but sees it as a necessary expression of the energetic violence of the universe itself. ‘God’ is thus understood as a force of violence and pure potential, comparable to a nuclear explosion, or to a blank sheet or screen, which can be either black or white. This is the appearance of ‘imagelessness’ which, as Walter Benjamin, is the refuge of all images. All these chapters, which can read separately, can also be understood to aim at one thought, expressed with great clarity by the Marxist philosopher Mario Tronti in a recent interview.



To those who divide the world between believers and non-believers, I say that I am neither one nor the other. I am, so to speak, on a kind of border, like Simone Weil described it: do not cross it, but do not turn back. At the same time, I think that the ‘crooked timber’ of humanity, in order to survive, needs some form of faith. (Gnoli, 2012)

What form this faith might take is hard to say. Religion today, especially in its fundamentalist guise, is mostly fairly repulsive. However, a recent atrocity provoked an example of what faith might still offer. In June 2015 a young white supremacist, Dylann Roof, murdered nine black attendees of a Bible reading group in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in southern United States. This church was chosen by Roof for its considerable significance for African Americans. Founded in 1816, it is one of the oldest black churches in the United States, and intimately connected to resistance to slavery, especially in relation to its location in the deep South. After being captured Roof appeared in Charleston County Bond Court via videoconferencing at a bond hearing. In an example of grace beyond measure survivors of the attack and relatives of five of the victims spoke to him directly. All of them forgave him, and said they were ‘praying for his soul’. If there is anything to be found worth preserving in religion it might be seen in this example of overcoming the extraordinary, almost irresistible temptation to condemnation and revenge, and finding the means to forgive even as abject a person as Roof.


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In his recent book Saving God the analytical philosopher Mark Johnston offers a philosophically sophisticated panentheistic idea of an immanent processual God similar to that of Alfred North Whitehead, while also taking a few swipes at the ‘undergraduate’ ignorance of the neo-atheists. Much of the book is concerned with analysing what we might mean by the name ‘God’ and its various substitutes, and how all determinate organized religion is fundamentally idolatrous, but Johnston is also very concerned with the absence of justice that is a concomitant of our finitude and contingency, especially in light of ‘the large-scale structural defects of human life … suffering, corrosive aging, existential ignorance, isolation, corruptibility of what we cherish, untimely death’ (2009: 15). Johnston is not offering any consolatory vision of the afterlife, even for those who do good and die painful or ignominious deaths, but he is clear that salvation is necessary and possible. For Johnston ‘salvation is not making it all better; it is the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you’ (179–80). Elsewhere he puts it thus: Salvation, understood as the goal of religious or spiritual life, is a new orientation that authentically addresses the large-scale defects of human life, and thereby provides a reservoir of energy otherwise dissipated in denial of, and resistance to, necessary suffering. Salvation, so understood, is not the mere feeling or conviction that you are ‘saved’. It is a new form of life. (16)

The question, then, is how do we achieve salvation in the context of the nihilism in which we find ourselves. In his essay ‘Gnosticism, and Modern Nihilism’ Hans Jonas captures this context well. ‘More than two generations ago’, he writes, ‘Nietzsche said that nihilism, “this weirdest of all guests”, stands before the door’ (1952: 430). He continues that ‘meanwhile the guest has entered


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and is no longer a guest, and, as far as philosophy is concerned, existentialism is trying to live with him. Living in such company is living in a crisis. The beginnings of the crisis reach back into the seventeenth century, where the spiritual situation of modern man takes shape’ (ibid.). He describes the features of this situation, first faced by Blaise Pascal, as that of ‘man’s loneliness in the physical universe of modern cosmology’ and of the ‘indifference of this universe to human aspirations – the not-knowing of things human on the part of that within which all things human have preposterously to be enacted  – which constitutes the utter loneliness of man in the sum of things’. Thus: As a part of this sum, as an instance of nature, man is only a reed, liable to be crushed at any moment by the forces of an immense and blind universe in which his existence is but a particular blind accident, no less blind than would be the accident of his destruction. (ibid.)

For Jonas, as for Pascal, ‘this is the human condition. Gone is the cosmos with whose immanent logos my own can feel kinship, gone the order of the whole in which man has his place. That place appears now as a sheer and brute accident’ (431). It is not just the indifference of the universe that brings about this despair, but also that, with ‘the ejection of teleology from the system of natural causes’, nature has no reference to final causes. This produces a situation in which the self is ontologically unsupported and is thrown back onto itself in the search for meaning and value (ibid.). In his book Very Little… Almost Nothing philosopher Simon Critchley (who is, incidentally, holder of the Hans Jonas chair in philosophy at the New School in New York) suggests that philosophy starts with the experience of disappointment in both religion and politics, the former for its failure to offer an answer to the question of the meaning of life, and the latter because it fails to answer how justice might ‘become effective in a violently unjust world’ (2004: 2). Religious disappointment and thus philosophizing begins with the realization that the claim that the meaning of human life lies outside of life and outside humanity is literally incredible, and ‘the possibility of a belief in God … has decisively broken down’ (3). Critchley points out that the ‘proper name for this breakdown is modernity’ and philosophical modernity, best represented by Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, is ‘a thinking through of the death of God in terms of the problem of finitude’, or in other words ‘nihilism’ (ibid.).

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Critchley proposes five possible responses to the problem of nihilism: first, to refuse to see it as a problem at all and to continue to adhere to some form of metaphysical belief; secondly, to claim not to be bothered one way or another and to have no metaphysical commitments and not to be concerned by not having them, a position Critchley describes as ‘very English’; thirdly, a passive acceptance of the absurdity of existence in a kind of ‘European Buddhism’; fourthly, an active nihilism, a violent force of destruction that characterizes many of the revolutionary movements of the last two centuries from Russian Anarchism through to Situationism and beyond (11–13). To these four Critchley adds his own, derived from Heidegger and Adorno, and, via Adorno, from Beckett. This involves a demand for a kind of ‘impossible redemption’, following Adorno’s claim in Minima Moralia that ‘the only philosophy that can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption’ (14). From this Critchley suggests that the task of thinking is to keep open the ‘slightest difference between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be’ (ibid.). For Critchley it is perhaps Samuel Beckett who most cogently captures not just the state of nihilism in which we exist, but also the disparate and hopeless quest for some form of redemption. Perhaps another way forward would be to embrace the nihilism. This can be found in the most cogent challenge to any attempts to retrieve meaning in existence, found in the work of the philosopher Ray Brassier. For Brassier, in his book Nihil Unbound (2010), taking his cue from the heat death of the universe a trillion years hence, the situation revealed by rationality and science, that of a cosmos both doomed to destruction and completely indifferent to our existence, should be a cause of celebration. As he puts it, that the disenchantment of the world understood as a consequence of the process whereby ‘the Enlightenment shattered the “great chain of being” and defaced the “book of the world” is a necessary consequence of the coruscating potency of reason and hence an invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, rather than a calamitous diminishment’ (xi). Bracing though Brassier’s nihilist realism is, it does not offer much in the way of guides to living in our everyday situation. It also presumes that the present disenchantment caused by Science and Reason broke with previous beliefs in which the universe was seen as enchanted. This in turn presumes that previous cultures and times were somehow naïve


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about the fundamental condition of our existence. They may not have had any knowledge of the heat death of the universe, but they were surely fully aware of the fundamental deathliness and emptiness of existence. Had the evidence of their experience suggested otherwise there would have been no need of any form of religion. Brassier’s nihilistic vision is the very thing that makes religion necessary, if it also renders it impossible at the same time. Brassier’s work is light years away from that of the so-called neo-Atheists, Dawkins, Hitchens et al., in terms of its philosophical sophistication and its understanding of the real implications of a God-less universe. However it does remain caught in the oppositional logic of the supposed debate between atheism and faith. One problem with this debate is that each side sustains and necessitates the other through that opposition. As long as there are militant atheists there will be militant theists and vice versa, each defining their stance in relation to the other. A better way forward might be to push beyond this opposition to a kind of coincidentia oppositorum, in which it is recognized that the far reaches of nihilistic atheism and of religious belief are more or less indistinguishable. This requires pushing through and past both religious belief and its unbelieving other, and beyond the sterile and pointless debate between them. This is perhaps what Heidegger was thinking about in his short work Identity and Difference, when he discussed the Causa Sui as the name for God. This is the right name for the god of philosophy. Man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god. The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy, god as causa sui, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit. ([1957] 2002: 15)

Perhaps the greatest mistake made by both those attacking and defending religion is to imagine that we in West live in a post-religious society. To the contrary I suggest that our supposedly godless, nihilistic society is perhaps the most profoundly religious it has ever been. Our entire lives are dominated by an invisible deity, generous and ruthless in equal measure, to which we sometimes give the name ‘Capitalism’ (which in the end is nothing but the sum of all the actions, antagonisms and interrelations between humans, machines, capital and the material environment). As Martijn Konings points out in his recent book The Emotional Logic of Capitalism, far from being cold and disenchanting

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it is thoroughly enchanted and enchanting. As he puts, contra the view that sees the cash nexus as cold and inhuman, ‘morality, faith, power and emotion, the distinctive qualities of human association, are interiorized into the logic of the economy’ (2015: 2). The title of Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle’s book on the impossibility of picturing Capitalism, Cartographies of the Absolute (2015), is apt. Capitalism is both ubiquitous and invisible. It pervades all of our existence. As such it resembles a famous late-medieval formulation of God as a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. We can see in Capitalism, in its very nihilism, the most profound religious expression and possibilities. In the 1920s Walter Benjamin wrote about ‘capitalism as religion’. For Benjamin, capitalism is more than merely ‘a formation conditioned by religion’, as Weber believed, rather it has a religious structure. ‘Capitalism serves to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers’ (1996: 288). ‘Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans rȇve et sans merci [without dream or mercy]’, in which every day is a feast day, and commands the ‘utter fealty of the worshipper’ (ibid.). Above all it creates guilt and not atonement; ‘a vast sense of guilt that is unable to find relief seizes on the cult, not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal’ (ibid.). ‘Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction’ (289). For Benjamin, it is this expansion of despair that makes despair the religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation. Thus capitalism itself offers us the opportunity to dialectically transcend the opposition between theism and atheism and to embrace nihilism as a new form of religious thought, the roots of which can be found in religion itself (much as religion, chiasmatically, finds its roots in nihilism). The great Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani, in his book Religion and Nothingness, suggests something of the sort when he writes that ‘Christianity cannot, and must not, look on modern atheism merely as something to be eliminated. It must instead accept atheism as a mediation to a new development of Christianity itself ’ (1982: 36–7). He proposes that it is precisely the kind of existential nihilism described earlier that necessitates rather than supersedes religion. As he puts it. We become aware of religion as a need, as a must for life, only at the level of life at which everything else loses its necessity and its utility. Why do we exist


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at all? Is not our very existence and human life ultimately meaningless? Or, if there is a meaning and a significance to it all, where do we find it? When we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us. (3)

For Nishitani it is the supposed omnipresence of God that paradoxically brings us into this questioning. As he points out Christianity cleaves to an idea of ‘creatio ex nihilo’, and ‘all things have this nihilum as the ground of their being’ and are ‘absolutely distinct from their creator’ (37). Inasmuch as everything is created by God each thing is not God, and therefore ‘we do not encounter God anywhere in the world. Instead, we find everywhere, at the ground of everything that is, the nihility of the creatio ex nihilo’ (ibid.). Following this Nishitani proposes that we go beyond Western nihilism, and the kind of doubt found in the work of thinkers from Descartes through to Sartre, and embrace what he calls the ‘Great Doubt’ (18). This can only be done by relinquishing the world as understood in relation to the subject/object divide, and seeing it instead in terms of what Nishitani calls ‘nihility’ or, in Sanskrit, Śūnyatā, emptiness (not to be confused with Western notions of nothing and the void). It is when this nihility ‘that lies hidden as a reality at the ground of the self and all things makes itself present as a reality to the self in such a way that self-existence, together with the being of all things, turns into a single doubt’ (17–18). Perhaps this is at the heart of all religion. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it in his essay ‘A-atheism’, the ‘thesis of God has no philosophical consistency’. It is ‘only the nominal and embellished reverse of atheism, which is, at the same time, its real, logical and material truth, a cold and grey logic’, in fact, as is the world’s solitude in the middle of nothing’ (2014: 22). God ‘is not a question for thought’, and no philosopher, not even Aquinas nor Occam, has ever believed in God (23). However Nancy goes on to say that nevertheless, this does not mean that philosopher, and anyone else besides, can ignore the following: when it comes to the element in which no Subject, no Substance, no Foundation can present itself in any way – when, in other words, it comes to the element in which no Thing sustains or holds the indefinite multiplicity of things, in which no instance of unity other than a distributive and disseminative one (unity itself disseminated a priori) can sustain itself, then in this space of ‘nothing’ in the sense of no Thing

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(all things = no Thing, no-thing) thought discovers that it thinks beyond all possible thought. It thinks beyond any Object and therefore beyond any possible Subject of an object in general. (Ibid., emphasis in original)

God is thus ‘sign of nothing, as the address of nothing but the opening of the world to a meaning which is outside of itself ’ (ibid.). Thus we can be certain that no great mystic, or great spiritual leader, or true ‘believer’ ever believed in the existence of God. Instead ‘they have adored – which is to say addressed – an unnameable name, which in fact remains unnamed, as a sign of the opening through which meaning escapes and the truth announces itself ’ (24). This is what Nancy calls ‘A-atheism’, which is, he supposes, perhaps a kind of stammer, but one that might have seized St John of the Cross in ‘the presence of “god”’ (21). Or perhaps it is a ‘negation of a negation’, which is neither a dialectical sublation nor a simple invalidation of the original term. The adoration of this unnameable name is ‘the prayer of the a-atheists: repudiating god and nongod alike, and stammering, open-mouthed’ (24). This stammer is also perhaps close to the sigh Karl Marx writes about, in the sentences that precede his famous claim that religion is the opium of the people, and which are seldom quoted: ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’ ([1843]1977: 131). It is this that we may need to save out of the ruins of religion. It is perhaps in the country most effected by Marx’s ideas that we can see what this might look like, in the form of what Mikail Epstein calls ‘minimal theology’. Epstein goes back to Russian spirituality in the 1970s, which he sees as corresponding to the radical or atheistic theology of the death of God, by which we are entrained to ‘live in God’s absence and in a secular world’ (Epstein, Genis and Vladiv-Glover, 1999: 164). By contrast what he called ‘minimal religion’ goes beyond this by the resurrection of God, who is already dead, and is taking place in Russia, ‘the very country that was the first to crucify Him most relentlessly’ by its state-sponsored mass atheism. Such atheism is an extension of the Eastern Christian tradition of apophatic or negative theology, in which every definition of God is denied or disposed of. Apophasis is a term of art in rhetoric, from ‘apo’, and ‘phanai’, to speak, in which the speaker mentions something by denying that he or she will speak of it, as in


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‘I will not discuss X’s cruelty today’. This is of course a (deliberate) performative contradiction on the part of the speaker, which is more or less Derrida’s charge against apophatic thinking, that is, it remains essentialist, granting God an ontological essence, albeit in a hyperessentialist mode. This is at the heart of Derrida’s dispute with Jean-Luc Marion, in which the latter wishes to save the name of God while refusing God being (Caputo and Scanlon, 1999: 54–78). Apophasis as a theological strategy was most famously articulated by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who was writing at the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century AD). As articulated by Epstein, for PseudoDionysius ‘God can neither be represented in images nor designated by any name, because He is more profound than any definition’ (Epstein, Genis and Vladiv-Glover, 1999: 347). ‘Within the Christian tradition, issuing from the fullness of the incarnation of God, the development of the negative moment in the knowledge of the divine is at first directed towards the cleansing of faith from idolatry and pagan superstitions (355). However, it ends by falling outside the framework of the knowledge of Godman, and leads to atheism’ (ibid.). However, this does not lead to the conclusion that atheism, in developing apophaticism to extremes, completely annihilates the religious principle. The paradox lies in the very fact that while apophaticism contained the seeds of atheism, atheism retains the seed of apophaticism. That is, atheism retains its own unconscious theology. Apophaticism is a liminal phenomenon, through which faith crosses into atheism, while atheism itself reveals the unconscious of faith. Radically expelled from consciousness, the religious descends into the bowels of the unconscious, from whence it makes its presence felt by means of numerous clear or blurred signals. In the same manner repressed sexuality, according to Freud, can ‘betray itself ’ through either criminal deviations, attacks of sadism and masochism, psychic illness, – or the subtlest and loftiest artistic sublimations. (Ibid.)

For Epstein this minimal, post-atheist religion is ‘a theistic explication and assimilation of atheism, not just a return to a pre-atheist position’. ‘Minimal religion’ is ‘a “poor religion”. … It begins from zero and has apparently no tradition’ (164–5). As such it bears the same relation to traditional theology as the avant-garde does to traditional forms of artistic realism. It goes ‘beyond the limits of the representable, faith brings a crisis to the representation of a

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reality’. Following Lk. 24.31 in which the disciples recognize the resurrected Christ at the moment he disappears from sight, Epstein’s theology accepts the ‘disappearance’ of God as a ‘sign of His authenticity rather than evidence of His absence’ (165). ‘Atheism thus prepares a way for minimal religion, which addresses God in the poverty of His manifestation’ (ibid.). Epstein’s minimal religion has no possessions, only a relationship with God, in the here and now. He suggests that, in the way it emerges in an atheistic state, it is more like a ‘crooked, pitiful shoot pushing up like a blade of grass through concrete’ than a ‘prolific forest growth or an elegantly thriving garden’. Despite having ‘no concrete forms of expression, … it participates in almost everything, providing a meaningful tension to our weakened, ignominious lives’, justifying ‘the most elementary acts of existence’ (165–6). In his book The Coming Community Agamben proposes something similar when he quotes a story told by Scholem to Benjamin The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different. (1993: 53)

A phrase for this might be an ‘infra-thin’ theology, following Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the infra-thin (inframince), his term for imperceptible differences, such as the warmth of a seat (that had just been vacated), or two forms cast in the same mould, which ‘differ from each other by infra thin separable amount’, or the ‘condensation or moisture on polished surfaces (glass, copper)’ (1975: 194). The imperceptible difference between the fallen and the redeemed world is the infra-thin gap between seeing the world as without hope or meaning, and seeing it, in all its fallenness, as beautiful in itself, and that beauty not as some subjective epiphenomenon belonging to our private subjectivity, but as the meaning and telos of the world itself. The pathos that Epstein sees in religion is of course what Nietzsche most hated about Christianity – its exemplification of what he called ‘slave morality’ or ‘herd morality’, that issued from the ressentiment of the less fortunate in society. Here perhaps we need to follow Malcolm Bull’s lead and learn to refuse to become complicit with Nietzsche’s rhetorical brilliance, that makes us feel


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that reading him is itself a form of the mastery he espouses. Instead, according to Bull, we should read Nietzsche as the losers we undoubtedly really are, and not allow ourselves to be beguiled by his reactionary, aristocratic politics. As Bull puts it, ‘Through the act of reading, Nietzsche flatteringly offers identification with the masters to anyone, but not to everyone.’ This is what Nietzsche calls ‘reading for victory’ (2011: 34). By contrast in reading like a loser we respond very differently to the claims Nietzsche makes on behalf of himself and his readers. ‘Rather than reading for victory with Nietzsche, or even reading for victory against Nietzsche by identifying with the slave morality, we read for victory against ourselves, making ourselves the victims of the text’ (37). Thus, for Bull rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche’s extravagant claim, we will immediately think (as we might if someone said this to us in real life) that there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable. (37)

Thus when ‘we read that “Those who are from the outset victims, downtrodden, broken – they are the ones, the weakest are the ones who most undermine life” we will think primarily of ourselves’ (ibid.). But for Bull even this is not enough to truly find the anti-Nietzsche, which is instead found in the ‘subhuman’ which means divesting ourselves of all our assumptions about species superiority and imagining our experience of the human species to be that of a subhuman species. Consistently thinking about the human from the perspective of the subhuman is difficult, but in reading like a loser we have to give up the idea of becoming more than man and think only of becoming something less. (Bull, 2000: 15)

This is what Bull calls ‘a politics of failure’, ‘politics as species-changing practice’ (2011: 104). Perhaps what this might be like can be seen in J. M. Coetzee’s extraordinary novel Disgrace. It is the story of a middle-aged South African academic, David Lurie, who seduces one of his young students, though at some points this seduction is barely distinguishable from rape. Handsome and sexually attractive, though divorced and single, Lurie obviously considers himself superior and entitled to abuse his position of power in relation to his

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student. Indeed he thinks of himself and her in terms of the divine. In the tribunal set up after the student makes a complaint Lurie describes himself as one who was a ‘servant of Eros’ (2000: 89), whom ‘Eros entered’ (52). When trying to justify his behaviour to his ex-wife he claims, ‘My case rests on the rights of desire. … On the god who makes even the small birds quiver’ (89). As he puts it to himself ‘it was a god who acted through me’ (ibid.). After refusing to apologize or show any repentance for his actions he has to leave the university and goes to live with his daughter Lucy, who lives on a farm in the Bush and runs a boarding kennel. Lurie finds it hard to connect with Lucy, who is a lesbian and heavy set, and is not sympathetic to her work with, or empathy for, animals. He is also unsympathetic to Lucy’s friend Bev Shaw, who runs the Animal Welfare League, and has taken up the task of killing old or sick animals. He finds Shaw extremely unattractive, describing her as a ‘dumpy bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck’ (72). At one point Lucy says to him, ‘You don’t approve of friends like Bev and Bill Shaw because they are not going to lead me to a higher life.’ Ignoring his denials, she continues: But it is true. They are not going to lead me to a higher life, and the reason is, there is no higher life. There is the only life there is. Which we share with animals. That’s the example that people like Bev try to set. That’s the example I try to follow. To share some of our human privilege with the beasts. I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or a pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us. (74)

Despite his antipathy David does volunteer at the clinic, in order, partly, to have something to do. The climax of the novel is an explosive event in which David and Lucy are attacked by some strangers, and it is evident that Lucy has been raped, even though she refuses to bring that as a charge against the aggressors. The aggressors are black, and the novel is greatly concerned with post-Apartheid South Africa. The rest of the novel follows the collapse of Lucy and David’s own relationship as well as that between them and their neighbours. David has been disfigured in the attack, and thus has lost the looks of which he was proud, and which gave him his sense of entitlement. In perhaps the strangest twist in the novel David becomes increasingly close to Bev Shaw, on whom he relies to help heal his rift with Lucy, and they embark on an affair. But it is the final two and a bit pages in which the


Unnatural Theology

power of the novel really finds expression and, in my view, evinces what Bull calls ‘subhumanism’. By this point David, who had imagined that a god acted through him, has been thoroughly emptied of all divinity. In the final pages he is described as engaging in ‘one of their sessions of Lösung’, ‘solution’, the name they have given to practice of putting to death the animals, the ‘old, the blind, the halt, the crippled, the maimed, but also the young, the sound – all those whose term has come’. One by one Bev touches them, speaks to them, comforts them and puts them away, then stands back and watches while he seals up the remains in a black plastic shroud. … He and Bev do not speak. He has learnt by now, from her, to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love. (219)

At the end of the book David decides to bring one last dog to the zinc topped table on which the animals are killed. The dog is young, and David is tempted to save him for one last week. But a time must come, it cannot be evaded, when he will have to bring him to Bev Shaw in her operating room (perhaps he will carry him in his arms, perhaps he will do that for him) and caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly his legs buckle; and then, when the old soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up. It will be little enough, less than little: nothing. (219–20)

At the very end, as David brings the young dog to Bev, she asks, ‘Are you giving him up? David replies, ‘Yes, I am giving him up’, which are the last words of the book (220). This resonates with what Heidegger called ‘Gelassenheit’, or ‘releasement’, or ‘letting go’, a term he took from Meister Eckhart. Something of what this attention to the suffering of stray dogs might mean more generally can be found in Judith Butler’s response to the trauma of 9/11, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, in which she examines the role grief and mourning might play in a rethinking of politics in terms of an understanding of, and compassion towards, the vulnerability of others. She proposes to ‘consider a dimension of political life that has to do with our exposure to violence and our complicity in it, with our vulnerability to loss and the task

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions’ (2004: 19). For Butler it is when ‘we’ share ‘some notion of what it is to have lost somebody’ that we can even talk in terms of ‘we’. Each of us, she declares, is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our being socially constituted bodies, ‘attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure’ (20). ‘Let’s face it’, she proclaims, ‘we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something’ (23). Butler invokes Freud’s famous and problematic distinction between mourning and melancholia, and suggests that ‘the narcissistic preoccupation of melancholia can be moved in consideration of the vulnerability of others’ (30). For Butler, the United States, in its collective mourning, fear, anxiety and rage at the revelation of its vulnerability in the attacks on the World Trade Center, tried to disavow that very vulnerability that is a constituent part of loss, and to reinforce its sense of security through violent action. She also analyses the process by which certain deaths are regarded as grievable, and others simply not, within this disavowal. This can be seen in the different responses to the deaths in the Iraq War of Western servicemen and women, as against that to the deaths of Iraqis. It can also be seen within the United States in the differing response to white and black deaths, necessitating the campaign to point out that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Butler proposes instead that staying with grief and vulnerability, and of the ‘dislocation of First World safety’ need not be merely a cause of helplessness and passivity, but rather a return to ‘a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of others’, and to reveal ‘the radically inequitable ways that corporeal vulnerability is distributed globally’ (ibid.). As she puts it To foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way. (Ibid.)

In a paper given at a conference on the relation between her work and that of Alfred North Whitehead, Butler expands the range of those for whom one can and must grieve to include the non-human. She does this partly to offset the danger of using Whitehead’s emphasis on the connectivity of every thing


Unnatural Theology

becoming a denial of the loss of singular and particular forms of existence. She declares that we do not need to counter Whitehead with an existential account of finitude to insist that (a) the loss of any singular being cannot be recuperated through reference to wider networks of natural life and (b) that mourning – including its various permutations  – withdrawal, weeping, struggling to stay alive, and the vexations of memory, desire, and regret – are also part of the living structure of any human animal. … Such experiences are not the pathological effect of an anthropocentrism, since we may well be mourning the loss of nonhuman animals or whole environments and habitats (like the oil-soaked gulf or the spoiled fields of Iraq). When we apprehend a life as precarious we apprehend some sense of its value that arises from its singularity and non-substitutability – and we affirm in advance that there will be no redemptive solution for this loss. (Faber and Halewood, 2012: 14, emphasis in original)

Earlier in her talk she talks about how in war a variety of lives are destroyed or debilitated. ‘Environments are poisoned, local habitats destroyed, and this means that war destroys all manner of life, showing through a via negativa that those manners of life are interconnected, interdependent, and equally precarious’ (11). In another paper given at the same conference in response to Butler’s keynote process, theologian Catherine Keller picks up on this passage, and suggests that Butler ‘twists negative theology into a witness for the affirmative planetary entanglement. It is the extremity of these negations of life itself that has some chance of making our species mindful of what it would otherwise continue to ignore: that we are inextricably entangled in the animate life we have taken for granted.’ To become so mindful will require grief-work, because ‘too much has been lost already’ (55). One name for the cause of this loss is the ‘Anthropocene’, the term increasingly used to denote the period just beginning in which human action is the main force in environmental and geological change. The term is under serious consideration by the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London as being declared the successor to previous geological ages such as the Holocene, and the Pleistocene. With the dawning of the Anthropocene, however, those technological developments with which humans hoped to control the world proved themselves beyond human control, becoming a

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


second nature as threatening as the first. What the advent of the Anthropocene might offer is a sense of humility to counter human hubris, and to foreground the absolute necessity of relationality. For most of human history it would have been the ‘natural’ world that presented the greatest threat to human existence. The comparative weakness of human beings, and their limited resources and tools meant that ‘nature’, read ‘anything that lay beyond human control’, maintained the upper hand. This asymmetry obliged humans to know themselves as part of wider environment. The great delusion of modernity was to imagine that ‘nature’ was separate from the human, and could be subdued and brought to heel. This seemed to be the obvious result of the enormous advances in technology and science from the seventeenth century onwards. Perhaps more disturbingly, with the coming of capitalism, the very competitive violence that the ‘golden rule’ of the Axial Age, ‘do as you would be done by’, was intended to mitigate was turned into the dominant principle of existence, and indeed comes to threaten that very existence. Joanna Zylinska calls for a ‘minimal ethics for the Anthropocene’, one which is more than just an updated form of environmental ethics. Zylinska’s minimal ethics ‘concerns itself with dynamic relations between entities across various scales such as stem cells, flowers, dogs, humans, rivers, electricity pylons, computer networks, and planets, to name but a few. This is why the closest way of describing this kind of minimal ethics would be as an ethics of life, with life understood both philosophically and biologically’ (2014: 20). For Zylinska, despite the fact that we humans are making a difference to the world, we are neither the only nor the most important actors, nor can we ‘affect or control all occurrences within that world’. But what we can do is to ‘turn the making of such difference into an ethical task’ (21). While our ‘participation in the differentiation of matter is ongoing, frequently collective or distributed, and often unconscious, ethics names a situation when those processes of differentiation are accounted for  – when they occur as a cognitive-affective effort to rearrange the solidified moral strata, with a view to producing a better geo-moral landscape’ (2014: 20). She claims that a minimal injunction for our ethics of the Anthropocene would not therefore call on those of us who call ourselves human to protect ‘life’ at all cost but rather to recognize that life itself is a system constituted by a dynamic


Unnatural Theology

movement of forces, that time itself is movement, that we are just wayfarers in the world, and that microbes were there before us … and will no doubt survive us. (45)

She admits that such ethics ‘may seem terribly ineffective but, given the ineffectivity of … more grandiose sounding programs and undertakings’ but suggests that ‘perhaps a modest experiment in reimagining life  – and in thinking and living critically  – can actually be seen as a viable and vital alternative’ (ibid.). This presents us with ‘a task for us transient human animals to start figuring out ways of moving better, of dying better, and of becoming extinct better, while not losing sight of the fact that any notion of “goodness” with regard to life is always species-specific and hence inevitably antagonistic towards its other articulations and enactments across other scales’. Thus for Zylinska minimal ethics refers to ‘a set of actions we can undertake once we have intuitively grasped this constant movement of life, of which we are part  … which is perhaps primarily a story-telling faculty  – in order to tell better stories about life in the universe, and about life (and death) of the universe’ (45–6). Crucial to Zylinska’s new form of ethics for the Anthropocene is the need to learn to die, to address mortality and finitude. Much, if not all, of human culture might be thought of an ‘immortality project’, in Ernest Becker’s phrase, intended to disavow the fact of death (1973). Here it is helpful to turn to Kaja Silverman’s reading of Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, which she sees as a profound meditation on how we can, and how we might, face the fact of our fundamental finitude. Silverman takes her cue from Heidegger’s analysis of the meaning of nothing and nonbeing for Dasein. For Silverman the film is ‘not, as the popular reviewers of Malick’s third film imagine, the physical conflict that is convulsing Europe and the Pacific. It is rather the affective conflict that knowledge of mortality precipitates in every psyche.’ She suggests that we ‘must all choose whether we will be “for” or “against” death  – whether we will live “toward” our finitude or in denial of it’ and we must make this choice ‘over and over again, and each time in the face of powerful opposing impulses’. Above all we ‘must now decide whether we will make nothing out of the “nothing”, or whether we will progress from the “nothing” to Being itself ’ (Eng and Kazanjian, 2002: 336).

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


For Silverman, Malick plays out these choices and also that of refusing any consolation in the face of death. She describes one of the main characters, Wit, as he faces his death, surrounded by Japanese soldiers all pointing their guns at him, despite which he shows no fear, being engrossed in the landscape surrounding him. Malick cuts from the gunshot that kills him to ‘what he sees – sunlight streaming through the green leaves of the forest’ (334). According to Silverman, for Wit ‘death, however, now signifies not merely the nothingness into which all life disappears, but also the nothingness out of which it emerges. It consequently becomes the basis for conceptualizing everything that is as what might be called a “nontotalizable totality”.’ Thus ‘Wit is given a vision of solidarity that he recounts in a voice-over. “Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody’s part of. All faces of the same man – one big self.” But he also asks how we can kill each other if we are one big soul.’ Malick’s answer, according to Silverman, is that ‘we kill each other like this because we have not yet succeeded in apprehending in the indeterminateness of the “nothing” the indeterminateness of Being’ (337). After he has died Wit can be heard giving a monologue about his dead comrades, while the camera shows a single, lone figure looking at the ocean from the prow of the ship, and then just the sea itself. ‘Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.’ As Silverman puts it: With these final words, Wit returns us to the finite world. He reminds us that when we affirm Being, it is always through the phenomenal forms of the world; the ‘all’ could not be more earthly or more diverse. With his concluding words, Wit also teaches us another crucial lesson: although we can apprehend what we are only by thinking beyond our own being, we can affirm the world only through a very particular pair of eyes. (340)

A pre-echo of this can be found in the work of the medieval mystic Nicholas of Cusa. Cusa has recently been addressed in a number of contemporary works of postmodern theology or critical theory, including Thomas Carlson, Karsten Harries, Eugene Thacker and Catherine Keller. Writing in the 1980s, before the so-called ‘religious turn’ in continental philosophy, the Jesuit scholar and theorist Michel de Certeau wrote an extraordinary essay on Cusa, published posthumously in Diacritics, which arguably has not been bettered by anything written on Cusa since. Following an exegesis of Cusa’s career and ideas, de Certeau engages in a close reading of The Vision of God. Cusa’s treatise,


Unnatural Theology

written for the monks at a monastery in Tegernsee in Germany, starts with the invocation and description of a portrait of an all-seer, in which the eyes of the portrayed appear to follow the viewer wherever he or she may be in the room. Cusa promises that he will send a copy of the painting to the monks in order to facilitate their understanding. Writing at the moment in which mathematical perspective was being developed in the West, Cusa produces what de Certeau calls a ‘geometry of the gaze’, which de Certeau presents through a number of diagrams (1987: 13). These illustrate the text’s instructions to the monks in how to experience the portrait; first standing in a semi-circle around it, then circulating back and forth along the same semi-circle and finally sharing what they have experienced. The point around which this ‘mathematical liturgy’ is conducted is a ‘quasi-nothingness’, but it is ‘endowed with an infinite “fecundity”’ (14). For de Certeau that this configuration is only ‘frozen for an instant around this point for the purposes of an experiment’ exemplifies ‘the Cusan vision of a universe whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’ (15). It is in the sharing of the experience that allows the emergence of relationality and cooperation, because the style of that cooperation ‘supposes the irreducibility of each speaker with respect to another: for want of a common vision, the one has to believe the other. The protocol of a verbal agreement between them is made up of successive acts (but opposing and reciprocal ones), ordered in the production of a common sentence’ (19). Thus, as Thomas Carlson puts it, ‘de Certeau highlights the social character of this mystical theology, as well as the mystical character of the social more generally’ (2008: 96). For Johannes Hoff, Cusa offered a counter-perspective to that being developed at the same time by Alberti and others. Alberti’s ‘invisible eye point’ turned into Descartes’ ‘thinking I (cogito)’. Hoff suggests that Alberti’s ‘central perspective space became supplanted by the representative space of an “inextended” (dot-like) soul who … inhabits a nihilistic empty space behind its retina in order to construct an abstract picture of the world based on its disembodied power of cognition’ (2013: 58). Thus, for Hoff, the representational paradigm developed in artistic terms by Alberti, and in philosophical terms by Descartes, is what enables the emergence of what Heidegger called ‘the age of the world picture’ (Heidegger, 1977: 115–54). This leads, inexorably it might seem, to our contemporary nihilism.

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


Here it is possible to see a connection with Nishitani. In his essay ‘The Gaze in the Expanded Field’ Norman Bryson uses Nishitani’s understanding of the gaze as a counter to that of Lacan and Sartre. For the latter, for all their deconstruction of the subject, the experience of the visual field remains stuck in the logic of the modernist, Cartesian subject, and thus becomes an experience of threat. For Nishitani, Sartre’s je is capable of reaching a level of nihility that casts everything into doubt, except for the je which does the doubting. As Bryson explains: For Nishitani, Sartre's nihilism is halfhearted: Sartre places the universe around the self on the field of nihility. Yet the self gathers force there, and uses the blankness surrounding it as, so to speak, a springboard from which to launch its own authentic operations. This is to treat the field of nihility, Nishitani observes, as though it were something against which the self reacts – in this case by multiplying its efforts and solidifying its centeredness. What does not happen in Sartre’s work, as Nishitani sees it, is the placing of the je itself on the field of nihility or emptiness: the je reemerges from its encounter with nihility, reinforced in its position as the center of its experience. (Foster, 1988: 95)

By contrast in the field of Śūnyatā, there is no subject, as it too has been brought into doubt. Therefore, in terms of the visual field, instead of the apparatus of tunnel vision in which the viewer/subject sits on one side and the object on the other, the object opens out omnidirectionally on to the universal surround, against which it defines itself negatively and diacritically. The viewer who looks out at the object sees only one angle of the global field where the object resides, one single tangent of the 360 degrees of the circle, and of the 360 degrees in all directions of the radiating sphere of light spreading out from the object into the global envelopment. (100–1)

If this principle is extended beyond the human and even the living, it offers a radical understanding of the world as nothing but the concatenation of perspectives. Something of this sort can be seen in Whitehead. For Whitehead what is comes to be through a ‘process of prehensive unification’, a concept he developed to counter what he described as the ‘fallacy of simple location’ in which a ‘“bit of matter” exists “in a definite finite region of space, and throughout a definite finite duration of time, apart from any essential


Unnatural Theology

reference of that bit of matter to other regions of space and to other durations of time’ (Whitehead, 1967: 58). In Science and the Modern World Whitehead evokes Bishop Berkeley’s idealism. Whitehead quotes Berkeley’s dialogue from Alciphron, in which Euphranor and Alciphron discuss perception in relation to a castle, a planet and a cloud (68–70). For Berkeley the fact that these objects do not look the same at a distance as they do close up means they are not the same objects, and thus confirms Berkeley’s extreme idealism (ibid.). Whitehead uses this observation to develop a different argument, one that is congruent with Einsteinian relativity. Instead of everything existing as part of the unity of ideas in the mind of God, everything exists as ‘a gathering of things in the unity of a prehension’, and instead of Berkeley’s mind Whitehead substitutes ‘a process of prehensive unification’. Therefore the things which are grasped into a realised unity, here and now, are not the castle, the cloud, and the planet simply in themselves; but they are the castle, the cloud, and the planet from the standpoint, in space and time, of the prehensive unification. It is the perspective of the castle over there from the standpoint of the unification here. It is therefore, aspects of the castle, the cloud, and the planet which are grasped into unity here. (71)

For philosopher Steven David Ross, Whitehead’s thought can be expressed in Berkeley’s terms as ‘esse ist percipi’, ‘to be is to be in perspective’, or, more simply, ‘being as perspective’, or even ‘being is perspective’ (1983). It is here perhaps that Whitehead comes closest to Derrida and Nancy, and brings process into relation with difference. For example, the perspectivalism he proposes is close to Derrida’s notion that ‘Tout autre est tout autre’, or to Nancy’s Heideggerean ‘being with’. Nancy proposes the following: ‘Let us say we for all being, that is, for every being, for all being, one by one, each time in the singular of their essential plurality’ (2000: 3). For Nancy it is this that makes meaning. There is no meaning if meaning is not shared, and not because there would be an ultimate or first signification that all beings have in common, but because meaning is itself the sharing of Being. Meaning begins where presence is not pure presence but where presence comes apart … in order to be itself as such. This ‘as’ presupposes the distancing, spacing, and division of presence. (ibid.)

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


‘Everything, then, passes between us. … The “between” is the stretching out … and distance opened by the singular as such, as its spacing of meaning. That which does not maintain its distance from the “between” is only immanence collapsed in on itself and deprived of meaning’ (ibid.). In his book Adoration (2013) Nancy talks of ‘a being-in-the-world that, just like Heidegger’s in der Welt sein’ which is not a ‘being placed within’ something that would contain it, but a belonging, or better, an inherence, or still better, a mutual intrication or enveloping, such that ‘I’ am not ‘in’ the world, but rather that I am the world and the world is me, just as it is you and us, the wolf and the lamb, nitrogen, iron, optical fibers, black holes, lichen, fantastical imagery, thought, and the thrust of ‘things’ themselves.

Thus for Nancy the ‘things that are and make up the world are nothing other than the relations among all existents  – these relations that we constantly diversify, complicate, multiply, modify, model, and modulate’ (69). In his essay ‘In the Midst of the World’, part of his work on the ‘deconstruction of Christianity’, Nancy offers a potential passage beyond nihilism. As Nancy puts it, Christianity has always been in some ways an atheism. ‘“Christianity” is the posture of thought whereby “God” demands to be effaced or to efface himself ’ (29). For Nancy to dwell in the absence of God, in his infinite distance, but to affirm it ‘among us’. That is to say, he is ‘himself ’ the among: he is the with or the between of us, this with or between that we are insofar as we in the proximity that defines the world. The world = all the beings [étants] that near or neighbouring one another, that hereby relate to one another and nothing else. ‘God’ was a name for the relation among all being  – therefore, for the world in the strongest sense of the word. (30)

This is arguably very close to some of the thinking associated with negative theology in Christianity. In his essay ‘Dark Media’ Eugene Thacker invokes St Augustine, to discuss the question of how God, as ineffable, can be apprehended by the human senses. Augustine resorts to metaphors of light, which stand for the superlative communication of the divine. As Thacker puts it Augustine goes for an affirmative solution to this problem. However, a little later, Pseudo-Dionysius can only understand such communication in terms of negation and darkness.


Unnatural Theology

For Dionysius, the communication with, or mediation of, the divine can only take place through a practice of negation. If the human capacity of the senses, language, and ultimately thought are limited, and if the human is attempting this communication with that which is, by definition, beyond the human, then it would seem that any such communication or mediation would have to confront, or even embrace, the paradox of mediation  – mediating that which cannot be mediated. (Galloway, Thacker, Wark, 2013: 99)

This is not a question of negative propositions, as apophatic theology is often understood, but, as Denys Turner, quoted by Thacker, suggests, a negating of the propositional. As Pseudo-Dionysius himself puts it, The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. (Ibid.)

This produces a mediation that negates itself, leaving only the bare activity of mediation itself. Thacker finds further developments in this way of thinking in the work of Meister Eckhart, who uses the ‘Middle High German term niht and its cognates to describe the “nothing” or “nothingness” of both finite creatures and infinite divinity’ (105). It can also be found in the work of John Scottus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa and Angelus Silesius, in The Cloud of Unknowing, arguably having a considerable influence on later thinkers of negativity, including Jacob Böhme, G. W. F. Hegel, and onto Jean-Luc Nancy, and even Slavoj Žižek. This is perhaps a kind of nihilism, but one which is superlative, rather than privative. In which God does not exist because he is beyond existence, and thus, in Eriugena’s words, ‘nihil’. As Eriugena puts it: I should believe by that name is signified the ineffable and incomprehensible and inaccessible brilliance of the Divine Goodness which is unknown to all intellects whether human or angelic – for it is superessential and supernatural, which, while it is contemplated in itself neither is nor was nor shall be, for it is understood to be in none of the things that exist because it surpasses all things, but when, by a certain ineffable descent into the things that are, it is beheld by the mind’s eye, it alone is found in all things, and it is and was and shall be. Therefore so long as it is understood to be incomprehensible by reason of its transcendence it is not unreasonably called ‘Nothing’ but when

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


it begins to appear in its theophanies it is said to proceed, as it were, out of nothing into something, and that which is properly thought of as beyond all essence, and therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. (Eriugena, 1981: 167)

If God is nothing then how can we apprehend him at all. For Eriugena every creature is a ‘theophany’, an appearance of God. In Thomas Carlson’s words, for Eriugena ‘the cosmos offers an endless multiplicity of theophanies that can be read to show the invisible God from as many different angles as there are holy souls to desire God’s appearance’ (2008: 87). Thus, in this ‘theophanic play of the cosmos, where God’s self-manifestation is actually self-creation there is a fundamentally co-creative interplay between Creator and creature’. Carlson quotes Eriugena: ‘We ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from each other, but as one and the same. For the creature is in God; and God, by manifesting Himself, in a marvellous and ineffable manner creates Himself in the creature’ (ibid.). Carlson compares this to Hegel, but points out that Eriugena differs from Hegel in his ‘apophatic intention’ (ibid.). Thus, in the work of Eriugena, and also of Meister Eckhart ‘God sees himself, then, in being seen by the human, just as the human, insofar as it sees God, sees that it is seen by God’, or, as Eckhart puts it: ‘The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love’ (Eckhart, 1994: 179). Eriugena’s heir, Nicholas of Cusa, develops this line of thought in his 1453 treatise The Vision of God, discussed above. Carlson puts it: Just as for Eriugena the self-creative God is the placeless place of all places, the seeing Word who runs through all things and is contained in no one of them, so for Cusa, who develops a similar version of the immanencetranscendence dialectic, the creative power of the divine vision entails its placeless ubiquity – the inconceivable thought of which stands at the heart of a mystical theology that Cusa develops by means of countless names and images and objects. (Carlson, 2008: 95)

For Jean-Luc Nancy ‘God’ is just a name, but one we must keep. His online essay ‘God, Charlie, no one’, written in response to the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, starts with a quotation from a poem ‘Psalm’ by Paul Célan, which goes as follows, ‘Blessed be Thou,


Unnatural Theology

No One’. For Nancy this enunciates the deep truth shared by the monotheistic religions, and to some extent Buddhism, that God is not ‘someone’. Nancy proposes that when ‘one says “I am X” (for example, “Charlie”), one identifies with a name that refers to a specific person’, a ‘concrete existence, recognizable in the world, even if one cannot be reduced to any kind of pure and simple “identity”’ (2015). By contrast ‘God’ is no such identifier, because the God of the great monotheisms cannot be represented, not because such a representation is forbidden, but because it is impossible. One cannot therefore identify, let alone compare, this God to any other. One can only worship him, though this is not to be confused with adulation or idolatry. A distinguishing feature of the monotheisms is their rejection of idolatry, and making the effort to ‘abandon every identification with and every fixation on our subject, even at the level of language’ (ibid.). The great prophets, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, ‘speak for the one who does not speak because he is not a person. They speak for No One.’ It is impossible to give ‘only one meaning in our languages to the word of No One’ (ibid.). Thus, ‘if there are many languages and many possibilities of meaning in each of them, it’s because language points to something beyond it, towards an infinity of meaning and towards a truth that exceeds all signification and all naming’ (ibid.). It is not that one cannot name No One, as God for example, but it is important that the naming does not become an idol, a representation of a person or a being (ibid.). If this happens and all becomes prescribed, fixed and unchangeable, ‘divine infinity is denied’, and God becomes a false god or fetish, and an instrument of power and domination. The true God, or the truth of ‘god’, lies not in fetishism, that is to say, in the superstition of names, of figuration, and of various representations such as money, arms, verity, purity, salvation, and so on. It truly lies beyond these, in infinity, which is in another world but which opens itself here and now, each time, in the world where we live. … Infinity is neither enormous nor unattainable. It is simply this: not to get attached to something determinate, fixed, identified, named with a supposedly proper name. (Ibid.)

In his short essay ‘The Name God in Blanchot’, Nancy shows how Maurice Blanchot was concerned with the name of God, as part of his rejection of both atheism and theism. As Nancy points out ‘the atheism of the West … has thus far never pitted against or set in the place of God anything other than a different figure, instance, or Idea of the Supreme punctuation of a sense; an end, a good,

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


a parousia – that is, an accomplished presence, especially that of man’ (2011: 85–6). What Nancy sees in Blanchot is, rather, a ‘displacement of atheism in the direction of an absenting of sense’, which is to be found, for Blanchot, in writing (86). This is not the same as a ‘sense whose essence and truth is to be found in its absence’. That simply becomes another form of presence. It is rather something that ‘makes sense in its very absenting, in a way that, in sum, it never stops not “making sense”’ (ibid.). This is ‘neither nihilism nor the idolatry of a signified (and/or a signifier)’. It is instead an ‘“atheism” that owes itself to deny itself the position of the negation it offers, and the assurance of every sort of presence that could substitute for that of God  – that is the presence of the signifier of absolute signification or signifiability’ (ibid.). Thus, the name God is not that of an existent but the naming of that absenting. As Nancy puts it. God would be the name of that which – or of he or she who – in the name escapes nomination to the degree that nomination can always border on sense. In this hypothesis, this would de-name names in general, while persisting in naming, that is, in calling. That which is called, and that toward which it is called, is in no regard of another order than what Blanchot designates, on occasion, ‘the emptiness of the sky’. (89)

This motif of the emptiness of the sky can be found in a number of places in Blanchot’s work, including in The Writing of the Disaster, in which he describes what he calls a ‘primal scene’, involving a child of seven, or maybe eight years old (presumably Blanchot himself), standing by the window, and looking up at the ‘ordinary sky, with clouds, grey light – pallid daylight without depth’. What happens then: the sky, the same sky, suddenly open, absolutely black and absolutely empty, revealing (as though the pane had broken) such an absence that all has since always and forevermore been lost therein  – so lost that therein is affirmed and dissolved the vertiginous knowledge that nothing is what there is, and first of all nothing beyond. The unexpected aspect of this scene (its interminable feature) is the feeling of happiness that straightaway submerges the child, the ravaging joy to which he can witness only by tears, an endless flood of tears. (1995: 72)

The image of an empty sky finds its way into Blanchot’s essay on the work of Simone Weil, which also involves a consideration of God’s name. Blanchot quotes Weil:


Unnatural Theology

God has placed the skies between him and us in order to hide himself; he gave to us only one thing, his name. This name is truly given to us. We can do what we will with it. We can attach it like a label to any created thing. But in so doing we profane it, and it loses its virtue. It has virtue only when it is spoken without our imagining any representation of it. (1992: 110)

Blanchot compares Weil to Meister Eckhart, and suggests, much as Weil does, that the atheist is closer to God than the believer, inasmuch as not believing in any kind of God, he is not idolatrous, and yet believes in God absolutely without being aware of it, and ‘by the pure grace of his ignorance’. He continues that this is ‘not to believe in God. And to love in him only his absence so that this love, being a renouncing of God himself, may be a love that is absolutely pure and “the emptiness that is plenitude”’ (111). Blanchot recognizes in Weil’s work that there must be nothing: that the nothing exists is the true secret and the initial mystery, a mystery that begins painfully with God himself – through a sacrifice, a retraction, and a limitation, a mysterious consent to exile himself from the all that he is and to efface and absent himself, if not disappear. (It is as though the creation of the world, or its existence, would have evacuated God from himself, posed God as a lack of God and therefore had as its corollary a sort of ontological atheism that could only be abolished along with the world itself. Where there is a world there is, painfully, the lack of God.) A profound thought indeed. (117)

He quotes Weil to the effect that ‘the World, inasmuch as it is entirely empty of God, is God himself ’ (ibid.). The idea of God withdrawing in order to make the world possible is named by Weil as ‘Decreation’, and is central to her politicospiritual philosophy. It is a withdrawal which we should also attempt to imitate. ‘God renounces being everything. We should renounce being something. That is our only good’ (Weil, [1952] 2002: 33). It is what happens in the incarnation and the crucifixion in which God ‘emptied himself of his divinity’ (34). ‘To empty ourselves of the world. To take the form of a slave. To reduce ourselves to the point we occupy in space and time – that is to say, to nothing. To strip ourselves of the imaginary royalty of the world. Absolute solitude. Then we possess the truth of the world’ (12). Thus we ‘participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves’ (33). In the Catholic communion ‘God did not only make himself flesh for us once, every day he

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


makes himself matter in order to give himself to man and to be consumed by him. Reciprocally, by fatigue, affliction and death, man is made matter and is consumed by God’ (34). Weil asks how we can refuse this reciprocity. We too must empty ourselves of the ‘false divinity with which we were once born’. Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this that we suffer with resignation, it is for this that we act, it is for this that we pray. May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me. (Ibid.)

Through the incarnation it is shown that God himself is weak, because ‘he is impartial’, who sends sunshine and rain to good and evil alike, and who changes nothing whatsoever (111). ‘Christ was killed out of anger because he was only God’ (ibid.). The process of becoming nothing must be done by the destruction of the ‘I’, through which ‘I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that in so far as something in me says “I”’ (41). Weil says that she must withdraw ‘so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless for me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends’ (ibid.). For Weil ‘religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification’ of the notion of God. Thus, ‘of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other’ (115). God ‘can only be present in creation under the form of absence’ and, furthermore this world ‘in so far as it is completely empty of God, is God himself ’ (109). ‘We have to believe in a God who is like the true God in everything, except that he does not exist, since we have not reached the point where God exists’ (115). In her essay ‘Implicit Forms of the Love of God’ Simone Weil devotes a section to the love of order and beauty of the world, which, for her, is the complement of the love of the neighbour. For Weil true love of beauty is only possible through a renunciation of each person’s imaginary position at the centre of the universe, an emptying out of our false divinity. In this way we might return to ‘the love of the beauty of the world’ which once had ‘a very important place in men’s thoughts and surrounded the whole of life with marvellous poetry’, but which has been lost in modernity. Weil asks us to submit to the blind necessity of the universe, much as matter does, which is


Unnatural Theology

‘entirely passive and in consequence entirely obedient to God’s will’ (1968: 43). She suggests that ‘the beauty of the world gives us an intimation of its claim to a place in our hearts’ (44). She asks, ‘What is more beautiful than the action of gravity on the fugitive folds of the sea waves, or on the almost eternal folds of the mountains?’ She continues: The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it. On the contrary this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience that constitutes the sea’s beauty. (43)

She excoriates those she believes responsible for the loss of beauty in the world. Today one might think that the white races had almost lost all feeling for the beauty of the world, and that they had taken upon them the task of making it disappear from all the continents where they have penetrated with their armies, their trade and their religion. (59)

Yet, for the ‘white races’ ‘the beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us’. ‘A sense of beauty, although mutilated, distorted, and soiled, remains rooted in the heart of man as a powerful incentive. It is present in all the preoccupations of secular life’ (ibid.). For Weil the existence of beauty and its hold on the soul was evidence of the telic nature of the universe. Thus, it is perhaps not God’s existence that is necessary, but his radical absence, leaving only a name, the name. It is because of this absence that we desire God, but, as Derrida puts it, ‘The desire of God, God as the other name of desire, deals in the desert with radical atheism’ (Derrida, 1995c: 80). In his discussion with John Caputo, Richard Kearney and Yvonne Sherwood, Jacques Derrida suggests that when I pray, if I say ‘God’, if I address God, I don’t know if am using or mentioning the word ‘God’. It is this limit of the pertinence of the distinction between mention and use which makes religion possible and which makes the reference to God possible. … What are we doing when we name God? What are the limits of this naming? Now we know that in many Abrahamic traditions God is nameless, beyond the name. In Jewish traditions, God is

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


the empty place, beyond the name. But we name the nameless. We name what is nameless. And when we name ‘what is not’, what is or is not nameless, what do we do? That’s why being a believer, even a mystic believer, and being an atheist is not necessarily a different state of affairs. (Sherwood and Hart, 2004: 37–8)

Thus, Derrida suggests that ‘even the most authentic believers know that they are very close to pure atheism’, and ‘between a skeptical person and the believer there is no real contradiction’ (38). Later he continues saying, I think we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If belief in God is not also a culture of atheism, if it does not go through a number of atheistic steps, one does not believe in God. … The belief in God must be exposed to absolute doubt. I know the great mystics experience this. They experience the death of God, the disappearance of God, the nonexistence, or God as being that is called Nonexistence. (46)

Perhaps even God must be an atheist. As Georges Bataille puts it God knows nothing and above all He knows nothing of himself. If he were to reveal himself to Himself, he would have to recognise himself as God, but he cannot even for an instant concede this. He only has knowledge of His Nothingness, that is why He is atheist, profoundly so. He would cease right away to be God (instead of his dreadful absence there would no longer be anything but an imbecilic, stupefied presence, if He saw himself as such). (1988: 108)

Simone Weil again: It is when from the innermost depths of our being we need a sound which does mean something – when we cry out for an answer and it is not given us – it is then that we touch the silence of God. ([1952] 2002: 112)

Giorgio Agamben wrote his doctoral dissertation on Weil, and, though he has not discussed her since, I believe her influence can be still be seen in his work. Hollis Phelps describes Agamben’s potential for theology, as ‘neither theology or an anti-theology, it is, rather, what I could call a non-non-theology or, if you will, a non-non-Christianity’, a ‘profane theology’ that would ‘constitute itself through ignorance and neglect’ and ‘treat God and God’s economy as a “disused object”, as essentially inoperative’ (2012). Phelps suggests that perhaps


Unnatural Theology

Agamben offers us another potential response to nihilism, in which it is put to new use by ‘realizing its redemptive potentiality’. This produces an ethics of a ‘fulfilled nihilism: the realization that the world is as it is, that therein lies its wonder, and that there is no vocation or pre-given destiny for the species, and hence no historical or political tasks for human beings to fulfill’. In his book on Agamben and theology, Colby Dickinson suggests that Agamben produces a ‘religious nihilism’, exemplified in the work of St Paul, which ‘would see all political representations ground to a halt, their dialectics brought to a standstill in time’. Dickinson compares this to ‘the curtain in the Temple that tore in half only to reveal that the sacred dwelling place of God was empty (Mt. 27.51) – an act of profanation if ever there was one’ in which the ‘only thing to be shown is the emptiness within, the fact that nothing was there except the words we had formed around the absent center in order to demarcate a “sacred space” in the first place’ (2011: 154). Dickinson suggests that at times Agamben detects a ‘movement of profanation’ with the Christian narrative that cannot be pushed aside. Indeed it is at the centre of its message, which is that ‘what was once so far away is now so close, and what was once unfamiliar is now familiar. The glorious divine presence and its joy unending are not something far away and unobtainable – they are right here, right now, if we could only see beyond the divisions we have arbitrarily created’ (81). In The Coming Community Agamben declares that God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the taking-place of the entities, their innermost exteriority. The being-worm of the worm, the being-stone of the stone, is divine. That the world is, that something can appear and have a face, that there is exteriority and non-latency as the determination and the limit of every thing: this is the good. Thus, precisely its being irreparably in the world is what transcends and exposes every worldly entity. Evil, on the other hand, is the reduction of the taking-place of things to a fact like others, the forgetting of the transcendence inherent in the very taking-place of things. With respect to these things, however, the good is not somewhere else; it is simply the point at which they grasp the taking-place proper to them, at which they touch their own non-transcendent matter. (1993: 15)

Agamben invokes one of the more obscure figures in the history of apophatic theology, Almaric of Bena, who interpreted the Apostle’s claim ‘as a radical

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


theological development of the Platonic doctrine of the chora’. For Almaric and his followers, many of whom were burnt at the stake, ‘God is in every thing as the place in which every thing is, or rather as the determination and the “topia” of every entity. The transcendent, therefore, is not a supreme entity above all things; rather, the pure transcendent is the taking-place of everything’ (14–15). In The Coming Community Agamben twice cites what he calls Indian logicians, to the effect that ‘between Nirvana and the world there is not the slightest difference’ (1993: 102). Stephen DeCaroli has taken these passing references to a tradition other than the Judeo-Christian one in which Agamben is steeped, to connect his work with Nagarjuna’s ‘Middle Way’ Buddhism. For DeCaroli this radical and intellectually highly developed form of Buddhist thinking anticipates that of Agamben, and also that of Benjamin. DeCaroli quotes Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’ in which Benjamin establishes the proximity between messianism and impermanence, ‘the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality. in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away’ (Benjamin, 2002: 306). DeCaroli glosses this to suggest that the ‘passing away of the world as a means of its salvation is a striking reversal of the trope of completion that commonly shapes the messianic order’. Instead of a world ‘wrapped up’ ‘we find a world undone, unhinged from any foundation or final judgment’. It is in impermanence that Benjamin finds ‘neither sorrow nor mourning, but happiness’. As Benjamin himself puts it ‘the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence is happiness’ (121). For DeCaroli the point where Nagarjuna and Agamben meet is where it is possible to find a solution to the groundlessness of the world after the death of God, no longer leading to nihilism, but to compassion (karuna). DeCaroli continues that this is achieved ‘by way of the cultivation of mindfulness and an abiding awareness of impermanence. Emptiness, as the loss of ground is the source out of which arises the unguarded openness through which compassion is channeled’ (138). He suggests that ‘the condition for the possibility of compassion is the relinquishing of the habit of clinging to permanence – both of the world and the self – along with the perceptual and linguistic reflexes that facilitate its phenomenal constitution’ (ibid.). Thus the ‘groundlessness that we


Unnatural Theology

are left with is a manner of abiding released from all notions of propriety and inclusion’ which directs us towards ‘a political community where distinctions remain but are rendered inoperative not through the command of law but by way of cultivating an awareness of life’s ungroundedness, which is to say, its profanity’ (ibid.). Here perhaps we can turn again to Nishitani and his use of the idea of Śūnyatā or emptiness. He compares this to the Christian idea of ekkenosis or ‘self emptying’, the move by which Christ took on the form of a servant (1982: 59). This in turn he relates to the Eastern idea of anatman or non-ego, which, from the standpoint of Buddhism is known as the Great Wisdom (maha-prajan) or the Great Compassion (maha-karuna). Nishitani invokes the biblical idea of there being no such things as selfish sunshine. ‘There is no selfishness in its shining. This lack of selfishness is what is meant by non-ego, or “emptiness” (sūnyatā)’ (60). As DeCaroli points out The Coming Community is not the only place in Agamben’s work in which there is an allusion to Nagarjuna. In the earlier The Idea of Prose, there is a section entitled ‘The Idea of Awakening’. This starts with a semi-fictional account of Nagarjuna’s despair at his notion of emptiness being misunderstood (1995: 131). Near the end of the essay Agamben puts what is supposedly a long quote from Nagarjuna, in which he rails against those ‘who profess the truth as a doctrine, as a representation of the truth, treat the void as if it were a thing, they make a representation of the emptiness of representation’. But Nagarjuna/Agamben points out, ‘Awareness of the emptiness of representation is not, in its turn, a representation: it is, simply, the end of representation.’ He criticizes those who want to use the void as a shelter against pain, asking how an emptiness could shelter them? ‘If the void doesn’t itself remain void, if you attribute being or non-being to it, this and only this is nihilism: to have seized one’s own nothingness as prey, as a shelter against emptiness.’ However the ‘sage’ dwells within pain without finding in it any shelter, any reason, and ‘remains in the emptiness of pain’. Nagarjuna/ Agamben compares those who fail to understand this to a customer who, when a merchant says, ‘I will give you no merchandise’, replies ‘Give me at least the merchandise called nothing’. Not to understand the nature of emptiness is to ‘fall into the heresy of the grammarians and the nihilists’ (by which Agamben surely means Derrida). The middle way involves dwelling patiently in the

An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene


emptiness of representation and to not make a representation of it. This ‘peace of representation’ is awakening (132–3). Agamben suggests that the greatest joy would be that of the perpetual lack of the vision of God, such as that which St Thomas suggests happens to unbaptized children in Limbo. Having no knowledge of what it is they are deprived of, ‘they persist without pain in divine abandonment’ (5). God has not forgotten them, but rather they have always already forgotten God; and in the face of their forgetfulness, God’s forgetting is impotent. Like letters with no addressee, these uprisen beings remain without a destination. Neither blessed like the elected, nor hopeless like the damned, they are infused with a joy with no outlet. (5–6)

Thus, the ‘truly unsavable life is the one in which there is nothing to save, and against this the powerful theological machine of Christian oiconomia runs aground’ (6). Thus, for Agamben revelation does not mean revelation of the sacredness of the world, but only revelation of its irreparably profane character. … Revelation consigns the world to profanation and thingness – and isn’t this precisely what has happened? The possibility of salvation begins only at this point; it is the salvation of the profanity of the world, of its being-thus. (90)

This is what Agamben describes as the Irreparable, ‘that things are just as they are, in this mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being’. Agamben then declares that ‘the world – insofar as it is absolutely, irreparably profane – is God’ (ibid.). ‘Adoration’ is the word Jean-Luc Nancy uses to denote how we might orient ourselves towards the world in which we find ourselves. He could ‘dare to affirm in all seriousness that adoration is what is necessary in the world today?’, before suggesting that it is not possible, even though if ‘we feel a certain necessity to do so’. Nevertheless for Nancy ‘adoration of what is not set up on any altar or throne, does not drape itself with glory, and whose setting up, if it takes place at all, is at most also a prostration, a deposition [deposition], an abandonment’ (2013: 11). Adoration is entirely bound up with language. It is a ‘prayer, invocation, address, appeal, plea, imploring, celebration, dedication, salutation’, and first of all a ‘simple hi’, ‘When Derrida writes, or rather cries out, with all his might, “salut! – a salutation without salvation,” he indicates the


Unnatural Theology

following: that the word addressed, the address that barely contains anything beyond itself, bears the recognition and affirmation of the existence of the other’ (17–18). Furthermore, Adoration is addressed to what exceeds address. Or rather: it is addressed without seeking to reach, without any intention at all. It can accept to not even be addressed: to be unable to aim, or designate, or recognize the outside to which it is dispatched. It can even be unable to identify it as an outside, since it takes place here, nowhere else, but here in the open. Nothing but an open mouth, or perhaps an eye, an ear: nothing but an open body. Bodies are adoration in all their openings. ‘Here in the open’: this is henceforth the world, our world. Open to nothing other than to itself. Transcendent in its own immanence. (29)

Thus, for Nancy, Adoration is the movement and the joy of recognizing ourselves as existents in the world. Not that this existence is not tough, thankless, shot through with grief. Yet this grief is not the price we pay in order to reach another world. It redeems nothing, but at least we can, insofar as we do not give up on living, salute and name some beings from time to time. To adore passes through naming, saluting the unnamable that the name hides within it and that is nothing other than the fortuitousness of the world. (62)


The Silence of God

In 1985 the Centre Pompidou in Paris held a vast exhibition looking at new forms of materiality made possible by advances in telecommunications and computing technologies. Entitled Les Immatériaux, it was co-curated by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. In this chapter I take as my starting point Natalie Heinich’s description of the use of headphones in Les Immatériaux. In the absence of a guided tour, visitors to Les Immatériaux had to wear earphones, through which they could hear human speech. The voices streaming through the earphones did not provide any direct ‘explanation’ of what the visitor had in sight, but rather unidentified fragments of discourse indirectly related to what they were supposed to comment on, without requiring the visitor to press a button in front of each exhibit. Most visitors did not make the connection between the voices and their own movement through the exhibition, which inevitably led to some colourful misunderstandings. (Heinich: 2009)

The fragments in question were excerpts from literary and philosophical works, by, among others, Maurice Blanchot and Samuel Beckett. The ‘earphones’ or headsets, which were wireless controlled and supplied by Philips, kept breaking down (unsurprisingly given that the technology they embodied was then highly experimental). That and the fact that the Pompidou both obliged visitors to use them and also charged for them made their inclusion in the exhibition highly controversial. Eight years after Les Immatériaux, Lyotard gave a paper at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris, entitled ‘On a Hyphen’ (Lyotard: 1999), about the apostle St Paul, thus anticipating the recent revival of interest in him by over half a decade. In it he gave a reading of Paul, as exemplary of the hyphen between the words ‘Judeo’ and ‘Christian’. Among Lyotard’s concerns in this essay is that of the Voice. Lyotard contrasts the inaccessibility of God’s


Unnatural Theology

voice for the Jews against its manifestation in the incarnation of Christ. This can be understood in part at least as a means for Lyotard to work through some questions of language, in particular the Judaic paradigm of the absent letter and the Christian model of incarnated language. It is in this context that the discursive and audio experiments in Les Immatériaux can be understood, in articulations of the relationship between Judaism, ethics and the text. In the paper Lyotard starts by saying that he will be ‘speaking of a white space or blank [blanc], the one that is crossed out by the trait or line uniting Jew and Christian in the expression “Judeo-Christian”’ (13). Then, describing the Jewish experience of God, he continues that the ‘Voice leaves its letters without vowels unvoiced on desert stone. It leaves them to be pronounced by a people so that this people may rejoice in having been picked out by it’ (ibid.). Thus the Voice, which is not temporal, obliges the people to ‘act these letters’. Lyotard understands this to be the basis upon which what Christians would call the Bible or Scripture is received. The Hebrew word for the Bible is Miqra, which means ‘convocation, reading, festive celebration’, and it is the ‘commandment to act by way of letters left by the Voice without history’ that ‘destines the people who accepts and receives this commandment to a historicity without precedent in human cultures’ (ibid.). In being destined thus, to a historicity that is both about what has happened, and about the temporal meaning and direction of that which has happened, the people find reality unfulfilled and therefore demand justice in everyday life (ibid.). Because the Voice is not in time, time is the time of death, the time of the withdrawal of the Voice, but it is also the time in which the people ‘are called together, called upon to voice, to raise their voices together, to read aloud, and to celebrate the letters of protection and of the promise’ (13–14). It is because Adam desired to speak the language of the Voice immediately, without suffering, complication or history, that he is expelled from Paradise, into historicity (14). This historicity is, however, also a call ‘to act the letter of the Voice’, inasmuch as the letters promise Paradise. In order to explain this Lyotard turns to what he calls a ‘traditional exegesis’, that finds in the Hebrew word for ‘orchard’, ‘pardes’, from which we derive our word Paradise, the model of the four ways in which the Torah, the first five books of the Miqra or Tanakh (or what Christians call the Old Testament) should be read: P stands for peshat, the literal meaning; R for remez, the allusive

The Silence of God


or allegorical meaning; D for drash, the meaning to be exacted, the moral meaning; and, finally, S for sod, the secret, hidden or inaccessible meaning. It is by means of the presence of this unattainable meaning in the tradition of reading that the Voice remains withdrawn, no longer as death in time but as the perpetually desired. (ibid.)

Lyotard suggests that Paradise is the fulfilment of the four meanings, but he also asks what it means to fulfil a meaning that is sod, posited as estranged (ibid.). It is at this point that he brings in St Paul, or, as he calls him ‘Shaoul the Pharisee from Tarsus, a Roman citizen who goes by the name Paulus’, and through him unpacks the meaning of the hyphen in ‘Judeo-Christian’ (14–15). In effect what Lyotard proposes is that ‘the mystery of the Cross’ proclaimed by Paul sublates ‘the position … that the reading of the letters by the people reserves for the Voice’ (15). Through Christ the Word is made flesh, and comes among us, and in doing so the ‘Voice voices itself by itself ’ and asks ‘not so much to be scrupulously examined, interpreted, understood, and acted, so as to make justice reign, but loved’. Thus the ‘Incarnation is a gesture of love (ibid.). The Voice that was in paradise banishes itself from this paradise and comes to live and die with the sons of Adam’. Therefore the hyphen between ‘Judeo’ and ‘Christian’ is the ‘mortification of the first by the dialectic of the second. The truth of the Jew is in the Christian’. ‘Christian breath’ reanimates the dead Jew, who is otherwise left to his letter (ibid.). The Incarnation ‘expressly disavows the flesh of letters’, and, because it is a mystery, it ‘exceeds the secret meaning, the sod, of the letter left by the invisible Voice, as it is the voiced Voice, the Voice made flesh’ (22). In the Miqra, the Voice can perform miracles, which act as signs for the people chosen by the Lord, who need signs. The Incarnation is not a miracle, but a mystery, which ‘destroys the regimen of every reading’ and ‘offers nothing to be understood or interpreted’ (ibid.). With Jesus the ‘Voice is no longer deposited in traces … no longer marks itself in absence … is no longer to be deciphered through signs’ (ibid.). ‘Reading is in vain’ because ‘presence is real’ in the Host, or in the experience of Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Christ’s wounds (ibid.). For Lyotard the dialectical sublation of the Jewish letter by the Christian Incarnation, in which the Voice voices, is ethically problematic. The Torah is not the Voice, but ‘its deposited letter’ and the ‘language of the Other is


Unnatural Theology

not dead but estranged or foreign’ (ibid.: 24). Thus ‘the grounds for ethics … has to do with respecting this foreignness’ (ibid.). The other is ‘always a letter that requires the risky and lengthy process of decipherment, vocalization, cantillation, setting to rhythm, translation, and interpretation’ (ibid.). These are not incarnations of the Voice, and are subject to the interdiction against figuration, which is also an interdiction against incarnation, and against making the Voice speak directly and visibly (ibid.). The Incarnation is the revocation of foreignness, whereas ethics is only possible if foreignness is preserved. By contrast with the Incarnation ‘it is enough to want what the Other wants to say, what the Other means, to desire what it desires, to live its loving me enough for me to lose the love of myself; it is enough to have this faith in order to be justified, before the letter of any reading’ (25). For Lyotard the Christian dialectical sublation of the gap between Judaism and the Christianity necessitates the repression and forgetting of the former by the latter. Thus, for Lyotard, the ‘jews’ (in lower case and plural) comes to represent the outsider, the ‘other’, who needs to be excised in order that the West can realize its dream of unbounded fulfilment and development. Thus the Pauline dialectical move is part of the Western disavowal of heterogeneity and difference that will lead to Auschwitz. It is with a discussion of Auschwitz that Lyotard begins his major work The Differend, which is also the book he had just completed when he started work on Les Immatériaux. Lyotard recounts Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s claim that the gas chambers did not exist on the grounds, that there were no witnesses to their use as an example of a differend inasmuch as the gas chambers’ existence cannot be judged according to the standards of historical proof demanded by Faurisson (1989: 3–4). There is a close connection between Lyotard’s understanding of the impossibility of witnessing Auschwitz, and that of Giorgio Agamben, especially in the latter’s book Remnants of Auschwitz, in which Agamben is also concerned with, among other things, the question of testimony (1999b). Remnants of Auschwitz is possibly Agamben’s most controversial book in that in it the camp is understood as a paradigm of the contemporary biopolitical apparatus of the state. Perhaps more troublingly, Agamben seems to ascribe a kind of Christ-like status to the figure of the Musselmann, the camp inmate who has given up any form of resistance and is thus marked for imminent death. Remnants of Auschwitz also involves

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a working through of Agamben’s antinomianism, inasmuch as he sees attempts to understand the ethical dimensions of Auschwitz in legal terms as misguided. This antinomianism will find further expression in Agamben’s own engagement with St Paul in The Time that Remains (2005). It is interesting to note the number of points at which Lyotard’s points of reference intersect with or parallel those of Agamben, including not just Auschwitz and Paul, but also the question of the Voice, and even the Talmudic exegesis of Paradise, or Pardes, discussed by Lyotard and described earlier. Indeed, it is with this analysis that Agamben begins his essay ‘Pardes: The Writing of Potentiality’. He recounts a story from the Talmudic treatise Hagigah, or ‘Offering’, which goes as follows: Four rabbis entered Pardes: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba says, ‘When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say “Water, Water!” For it has been said that he who what is false will not be placed before My eyes.’ Ben Azzai cast a glance and died. Of him Scripture says: precious to the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints. Ben Zoma looked and went mad. Of him Scripture says: have you found honey?: Eat as much as you can, other wise you will be full and you will vomit. Aher cut the branches. Rabbi Akiba left unharmed. (1999a: 205)

Agamben points out that ‘according to rabbinical tradition, Pardes … signifies supreme knowledge’, and in the Cabala, the Shechinah, the presence of God is called Pardes ha-torah, the paradise of the Torah, its fulfilled revelation, and the ‘entry of the four rabbis into Pardes is therefore a figure for access to supreme knowledge’ (206). In this understanding the cutting of the branches by Aher means the isolation of the Shechinah from the other sefiroth, and its comprehension as an autonomous power (ibid.). Inasmuch as the Shechinah is the last of the ten sefiroth, the attributes or words of God, by cutting the branches of the other sefiroth, Aher separates the knowledge and revelation of God from other aspects of divinity (ibid.). This is identified with the sin of Adam, who, rather than contemplating the totality of the sefiroth, preferred to contemplate only the last one, and in doing so, separated the tree of knowledge from the tree of life (ibid.). Agamben offers another interpretation, from Moses of Leon, author of the Zohar, the foundational work of the Kabbalah, which seems to be that also invoked by Lyotard in his essay on Paul. Moses suggests that the Aggadah is a


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parable of the exegesis of the sacred text, and it is he who proposes the reading of the word Pardes recounted above (207). Therefore Ben Azzai, who dies, is the literal meaning; Ben Zoma, who goes mad, is the Talmudic sense, to be extracted; Aher, who cuts the branches, is the allegorical sense; and Rabbi Akiba, who enters and leaves unharmed, is the mystical sense. From this perspective Aher’s sin involves ‘the moral risk implicit in every act of interpretation, in every confrontation with a text or discourse, whether human or divine’ (ibid.). The risk in question is that ‘speech, which is nothing other than the manifestation and unconcealment of something, may be separated from what is reveals and acquire an autonomous consistency’ (ibid.). Agamben continues that the cutting of the branches is, therefore, an experimentum linguae, an experience of language that consists in separating speech both from the voice and pronunciation from its reference. A pure word isolated in itself, with neither voice nor referent, with its semantic value indefinitely suspended: this the dwelling of Aher, the ‘Other’, in Paradise. This is why he can neither perish in Paradise by adhering to meaning, like Ben Zoma and Ben Azzai, nor leave unharmed, like Rabbi Akiba. He fully experiences the exile of the Shechinah, that is, human language. (Ibid.)

The essay then goes on to suggest that the story of Aher, the ‘Other’, is also a way of thinking about the work of Jacques Derrida (209). For Agamben, Derrida is Aher, the other, who cut the branches, and who remains still mired in metaphysics (and, by implication, Agamben himself is Rabbi Akiba). Jeffrey Librett suggests that Agamben sees Derrida as suffering from a ‘graphocentrism’ as problematic as the logocentrism with which Derrida charges other philosophers (2007: 12). For Agamben philosophy is always already fixated on the ‘gramma’, because the voice ‘even when it has been posited as origin, is always posited as lost, as an origin that has already been replaced by the letter’ (12). Librett sees Agamben’s ‘animus against the letter’ (ibid.) as ‘powerfully and explicitly overdetermined by Christian thinking, in the Pauline tradition, as the metaphysics that poses God qua logos by polemicizing, in favor of the living spirit (spirit as life), against the “dead letter” of the law’ (ibid.: 15). It is this that leads Agamben to criticize Deconstruction in his book on St Paul as a ‘thwarted messianism’ of ‘infinite deferment’ (Agamben, 2005: 103). Perhaps Agamben can be understood to be performing the very sublation and repression of the Jewish letter that Lyotard sees being undertaken by

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Paul. And perhaps Les Immatériaux can be understood as an attempt by Lyotard to resist this kind of sublation, in which the singular becomes a universal paradigm. Along with twenty-five or so other participants, including writers, philosophers and scientists, Derrida participated in an ‘experiment in collective, writings, interactive and at a distance, on microcomputers, equipped with word processing and communication software’ launched two months before the exhibition opened. Each participant was lent an Olivetti M20, connected to the PTT network, and was asked to respond to a list of fifty words given to them by Lyotard. The results were then collated, and made available to exhibition visitors on Olivetti M24 workstations, and also in the second of the two publications accompanying the exhibition, entitled Epreuves D’Ecriture. Derrida remarks upon his participation in Les Immatériaux in his piece written on the occasion of Lyotard’s death, ‘Lyotard and us’. As is sometimes the case with Derrida, the essay is also a meditation on a phrase, in this case ‘there will be no mourning’, which Derrida ‘extracted’ from a piece of writing by Lyotard entitled ‘Notes du Traducteur’, ‘Translator’s Notes’ (Derrida, 2000: 29). In this piece, written for a journal special issue dedicated to Derrida, Lyotard, in Derrida’s words, ‘plays at responding to texts which I had, upon his request, written in 1984, for the great exhibition “Les Immatériaux”’ (37). Declining the opportunity to say more about ‘the calculated randomness of this exhibition and the chance J.F.’s invitation opened for me, namely the perfect machinic occasion to learn, despite my previous reluctance, to use a word processing machine – thus setting on a dependence which lasts to this day’, Derrida chooses instead to discuss what he calls a ‘minor debt’ which at first ‘seems technical or machinic, but because of its techno-machinic effacement of singularity and thus of destinal unicity, you will see very soon its essential link with the sentence I had to begin with, the one which had already surrounded and taken over me, “there shall be no mourning”’ (ibid.). Though Derrida and Lyotard had always used the formal ‘vous’, in his text for the exhibition Derrida played with a ‘tu’ devoid of assignable addressee, taking away from the chance reader the possibility to decide whether that ‘tu’ singularly addressed the receiving or reading instance, that is, whoever, in the public space of publication, happened to read it, or instead, what is altogether different,


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altogether other, this or that particular private if not cryptic addressee – the point of all these both sophisticated and naive procedures being, among others, to upset, sometimes frighten, at the limit, the limit itself, all borders, for instance those between private and public, singular and general or universal, intimate or inner and outer, etc. (38)

The challenge to translate that Derrida throws down in his texts for Les Immatériaux is what Lyotard responds to in his ‘Notes du Traducteur’. As Derrida puts it Lyotard ‘seriously plays at imagining the notes of a virtual translator. He does so under four headings which I will only mention, leaving you to read these eight pages worth centuries of Talmudic commentary’ (38). In the phrase ‘the limit itself, all borders, for instance those between private and public, singular and general or universal, intimate or inner and outer’ I think it is possible to hear an echo of Agamben’s description of the camp in his essay ‘The Camp as the Nomos of the Modern’. ‘Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense’ (Agamben, 1998: 170). In his essay about Les Immatériaux from the Landmark Exhibitions issue of Tate Papers, Antony Hudek (who was co-translator of the recent English version of Lyotard’s Discours Figure) explicitly connects Les Immatériaux with Auschwitz. He quotes Lyotard’s response to Michel Cournot’s scathing critique in Le Monde, particularly of technology such as the headsets. Referring to the postmodern, a term Lyotard himself was responsible for propagating in his 1979 work The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard suggests that Mr Cournot wanted to revel in the jubilation offered by the new mastery promised by the ‘technologists’, by the prophets of a ‘postmodern’ break … . The exhibition denies it, and this is precisely its gambit, to not offer any reassurance, especially and above all by prophesising a new dawn. To make us look at what is ‘déjà vu’, as Duchamp did with the ready-mades, and to make us unlearn what is ‘familiar’ to us: these are instead the exhibition’s concerns. (Hudek: 2009)

Lyotard continues that the idea of progress bequeathed by, among others, the Enlightenment has faltered, and with it a triumphant humanism. Greatness of thought – Adorno’s for example (must I spell his name out?) – is to endure the fright

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derived from such a withdrawal of meaning, to bear witness to it, to attempt its anamnesis. (ibid.)

Following Lyotard’s analysis of painting, Hudek suggests that Les Immatériaux offers the chance of an anamnesic working through of the past, and offered him ‘the opportunity to work through the haunting of La Condition postmoderne  … providing him with a stage upon which to perform the transition from an epochal or modal postmodern into an allegorical or anamnesic one’ (ibid.). Hudek remarks that the subtitle for Les Immatériaux might have been ‘L’Esprit du Temps’, which echoes the name of the 1982 exhibition of painting Zeitgeist and suggests that Lyotard to ‘reclaim the postmodern from the version of the term’ made fashionable by such exhibitions (ibid.). As Hudek puts it: Lyotard’s own version of a postmodern Zeitgeist at the Centre Pompidou was an affective hovering between the ‘post’ he had imprudently prognosticated in 1979 and a lost modernism that could never again be brought back to life. This paradoxical temporal stasis would provide the clearest sign, not of the decline of the twentieth-century avant-garde as such, but of the end of the possibility of recuperating it to justify an increasingly complex and progressively dehumanised techno-scientific environment. For Lyotard, the historical break in the telling of twentieth-century history is marked – as it was for many before him, particularly Adorno – by the mass murder of the Jews during the Second World War. (Ibid.)

He goes on to quote Lyotard himself from the essay. Following Theodor Adorno, I have used the term ‘Auschwitz’ to indicate the extent to which the stuff [matière] of recent Western history appears inconsistent in light of the ‘modern’ project of emancipating humanity. What kind of reflection is capable of ‘lifting’, in the sense of aufheben, ‘Auschwitz’ by placing it in a general, empirical and even speculative process directed towards universal emancipation? There is a kind of sorrow [chagrin] in the Zeitgeist, which can express itself through reactive, even reactionary attitudes, or through utopias, but not through an orientation that would positively open a new perspective. (Ibid.)

Hudek singles out the word ‘sorrow’, ‘chagrin’, and suggests how striking it is that this element is overlooked in the literature of Les Immatériaux. He points out how it is a key term in the French experience of the ‘stalled remembrance’ of the Second World War, as evinced in works such as Marcel Ophuls’ Le Chagrin


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et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) (ibid.). Taking his cue from Le Differend, Hudek suggests that Les Immatériaux stages an experience of temporal indecision, of the ‘Arrive-t-il?’ (ibid.). In Hudek’s words ‘Les Immatériaux staged an experience of “sorrow” meant to give rise to a profoundly negative feeling – a feeling the visitor could not possibly have escaped as she or he wandered through the dark maze of the Centre Pompidou, confronted by the endless choices to determine a trajectory without any identifiable goal in sight’ (ibid.). Thus Les Immatériaux might be regarded as an unconscious pre-emptive response to Agamben’s form of Pauline messianic politics. In its very difficulty and confusion it refused the sublation of Auschwitz into a universal category of contemporary human experience. It is also perhaps worth thinking of Les Immatériaux as an alternative museological response to the Shoah to that of the Holocaust museums that were beginning to proliferate at that time, and which precisely risked (and continue to risk) the ‘museification’ of what they contain, and its making sacred and paradigmatic. This brings us back then to the earpieces or headphones and the texts they relayed to the visitors of Les Immatériaux. Among those texts were some by Samuel Beckett, the artist whose work Adorno had proclaimed as the most appropriate artistic response to Auschwitz, not least because it did not attempt to engage directly with the Shoah. But, perhaps even more apt, albeit unintentionally, was the fact that the headphones frequently malfunctioned, producing perhaps what André Neher, writing about Auschwitz, calls ‘the silence of God’ (Neher, 1981).


Corpus Mystical Anarchism

In his book Infinitely Demanding, continuing an argument he first broached in his earlier work Very Little... Almost Nothing, Simon Critchley sees the disappointment in religion and politics taking two forms, which mirror each other; a passive, quietist nihilism, or what Nietzsche calls a ‘European Buddhism’, and an active nihilism, best represented by al-Qaeda, which he sees as a descendent of the tradition of radical utopian revolution movements in the West. These are both responses to the ‘motivational deficit’ and indeed a moral deficit inherent in secular liberal democracy (2007: 7–8). Critchley sets himself the task of imagining how such deficits might be addressed, what an ethics would look like that would empower subjects to political action, without recourse to nihilism, fundamentalism or quietism. Nevertheless, in Infinitely Demanding he points out that ‘ethical and religious categories are rightly difficult to distinguish at times’ and that he will ‘have recourse to religious traditions’ (2). ‘In religious disappointment, that which is desired but lacking is an experience of faith ... faith in some transcendent god, god-equivalent, or, indeed, gods.’ He admits that ‘philosophy in the experience of religious disappointment is godless, but it is an uneasy godlessness with a religious memory and within a religious archive’ (ibid.). After working through Kant and his heirs and the notion of approval and demand which presupposes a model of ethical subjectivity, Critchley proposes his model is based on the idea that the ‘subject is the name for the way in which a self binds itself to some conception of the good, and shapes its subjectivity to that good’, whether that good is the ‘Torah, the resurrected Christ, the moral law, the community in which I live, suffering humanity, all God’s creatures, or whatever’ (10). Under the rubric of the term ‘dividuality’ he looks at three potential contemporary sources of such a conception of the good: Alain Badiou’s notion of the fidelity to the event, Knud Ejler Løgstrup’s concept


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of the utterly exorbitant ‘unfulfillable demand’, and Emmanuel Levinas’ idea that ethical responsibility is always traumatic and begins with the subject approving of a demand that it can never meet, again ‘a one-sided, radical and unfulfillable demand’, coming from the other, the neighbour. Critchley stages an encounter between the ‘odd bedfellows’ Levinas and Jacques Lacan, in order to understand this demand in terms of ‘das Ding’, ‘la Chose’, or ‘the Thing’, Lacan’s terms for that which stands in place of the real, that ‘which exceeds and resists the subject’s powers of conceptualization or the reach of its criteria’ (63–6). Critchley’s use of these three thinkers’ work is a good example of the presence of the ‘religious archive’ in this book. Levinas is of course a profoundly and explicitly religious thinker, albeit within the Jewish tradition. Badiou, though entirely atheist, has taken St Paul as the best example of his idea of fidelity to the event. Badiou may be an atheist, Critchley argues, but his account of the ethical subject is ‘structurally Christian’. Løgstrup is a Christian theologian, whose unfulfillable demand, Critchley suggests (though it is not cited in Løgstrup’s text), is that made by Christ at the Sermon on the Mount – that you should love your enemies – which is both ‘ridiculous’ and ‘asking for the impossible’. In the book Critchley makes a major statement of his understanding of radical politics, which, despite Critchley’s own atheism, is, in a certain sense, evidently religious, or perhaps shares the same fundamental concerns as that of religion. He holds that ‘at the heart of a radical politics there has to be a meta-political ethical moment’, which ‘is the ethical experience of infinite responsibility at the heart of subjectivity, a moment of   … hetero-affectivity prior to any auto-affection and disturbing any simple claim to autonomy’. He understands this ‘as a splitting at the heart of the self, a constitutive undoing and dispossessing of the self ’. He compares this to Judith Butler’s analysis of grief, and quotes her claim, ‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something’, which for Critchley ‘shows our essential interconnectedness and vulnerability to the other’s demand’. Thus, the politics Critchley wishes to advance starts with the undergoing of ‘an experience of affective self-dispossession or self undoing’ that provides ‘the motivational force to enter into a political sequence’. This is a politics that is based on ‘an ethical responsiveness to the sheer precariousness of the other’s face, of their injurability and our own’

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and which ‘flows from our own constitutive powerlessness in the face of the other’ (120). As a response to this ‘constitutive powerlessness in the face of the other’ Critchley develops the idea of an ‘anarchic metapolitics’ that demands the impossible, which he sees as the only means to resist the otherwise irresistible force of contemporary capitalism, with its protean ability to co-opt every form of response, resistance or supposed alternative. Taking his cue from the anti-globalization movement, he looks for a form of politics that opens up an internal distance in the inside of the state, ‘politics as interstitial distance within the state’ (92). Rejecting any recourse to violence as a radical response to injustice, Critchley proposes a ‘new language of civil disobedience’, using ‘carnivalesque humour deployed as a political strategy’ (93). He cites groups such as Ya Basta!, the Rebel Clown Army and the WOMBLES as exemplifying this approach (123–4). In The London Review of Books, Slavoj Žižek wrote a coruscating review of Infinitely Demanding. Quoting one of Critchley’s formulations about calling the state into question and the established order to account in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect, Žižek suggests that these words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethicopolitical agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles. (Žižek, 2007)

Žižek suggest that ‘today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who “resist” the state’ and finishes the review with a final attack on Critchley’s position, in which he suggests that the most subversive act is ‘not to insist on “infinite” demands we know those in power cannot fulfil’, given that that plays directly into their hands. Žižek mimes the response of those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately,


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we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ He proposes instead that the most effective demands are those that are precisely possible to fulfil (ibid.). There is, I suggest, a possible alternative, a middle way between Žižek’s advocacy of violence, and Critchley’s infinite demand, and it is to be found in a strategic political employment of the Catholic notion of Transubstantiation. In his book Theology, Psychoanalysis and Trauma, Catholic theologian Marcus Pound mounts a defence of Transubstantiation, which he describes as the most embarrassing aspect of Christian theology. Pound makes his argument through a reading of Lacan via Kierkegaard, and suggests that it is the latter rather than Freud to which Lacan’s work is a return. Pound sees the Eucharist in Lacanian terms, and, in particular, in the context of the trauma of the antagonistic and complex relation between language and the real. For Pound it is precisely Chalcedonian Christology, which declares that Christ is both entirely God and entirely man, and it is the Eucharist, in which this finds expression (2007: 99). Pound exploits Kierkegaard’s distinction between pagan time, in which time is understood in spatial terms and ‘the subject is left at the mercy of the instant and hence a slave to his own impulses’, and Christian time, which ‘construes the eternal as qualitatively different from time, and as such a traumatic intervention in time’ (ibid.). Thus, in that ‘Christ is the Eucharist one can qualify the relation of the divine and mundane in … the relation of eternity to time, or in Lacanese: the real to the symbolic. Christ’s body manifests as the traumatic kernel of the bread, immanent to time yet that which refuses to be fully integrated into it’ (154). He continues that one should assert that Christ’s body is the bread, distinct yet inextricably joined: Christ’s body is the traumatic kernel of the bread as his blood is of the wine. Moreover, given this, it is possible to argue that any attempt to avoid testifying to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, such as that of the Zwinglian reformers, or more recently the advocacy of the term ‘transignification’ … amounts to theological form of neurosis against the traumatic kernel of the real which is situated at the heart of the Eucharist: Christ’s real presence. (159–60)

But this should not be mistaken for thinking of the bread as a stand-in for Christ as an unattainable object. Rather it should be thought of in terms of the difference expressed by Žižek between the ‘real as impossible’, which points to

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a failure of representation, and the ‘impossible as real’, which means one can encounter the real (160). Pound suggests that this is the difference between viewing grace as a kind of supernatural supplement, secretly sustaining the world; or the very world itself in its mundane and material aspect as graced. In other words we encounter God not as a mysterious addition that somehow evades us like an invisible force; rather we encounter God in life’s very ordinariness. In a similar fashion, one can say that Christ is not God because of an extra addition to his humanity; he is God because he is the first human who is fully human. (160–1)

Pound goes on to propose that the Eucharist is the ‘privileged site of the Christian imagination’, offering an ‘alternative means to symbolically configure space, a different way of being with one another in the social sphere. Hence the Mass is political’ (170). Here he is invoking the work of one of the most persuasive defenders of the continued importance of Catholic Christianity and, in particular, the Eucharist, the theologian William T. Cavanaugh. In a number of works, and starting from an Augustinian conception of the opposition of the Kingdom of God to the secular world, Cavanaugh has developed what he calls an Eucharistic counter-politics, through which consumerism, globalization and political repression can be critiqued, exposed, resisted and opposed. In his short book Theopolitical Imagination Cavanaugh proposes, as the subtitle has it, the Christian liturgy as a ‘Political act in an Age of Global Consumerism’ (Cavanaugh, 2003). He starts with the statement that ‘politics is a practice of the imagination’, and cites Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ to suggest that the modern state comes out of a particular story, as an act of imagination (1). He contrasts this with the Christian story, as an alternative narrative. Both are ‘disciplined imaginations of time and space’. Each of the three chapters is framed as a critique of what he sees as the myths of modernity; the ‘myth of the state as saviour’; ‘the myth of civil society as free space’; and the ‘myth of globalisation of catholicity’. He traces the first from the work of Thomas Hobbes, and takes issue with the commonly held belief that the rise of liberalism was a response to the wars of religion that erupted in and after the Reformation. He points out that the very concept of religion as a separate category was itself a creation of modernity, strategically employed to facilitate the triumph of secular state power, and that the rise of state itself was the cause of, rather than the solution to, the wars


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of religion (22). For Cavanaugh, the state cannot save us, as it is predicated on the formally contracted binding together of pre-existing individuals for the purposes of self-interest under the ‘habitual discipline’ of violence, that is in turn the state’s ‘religio’ (in the sense of that which binds together), rather than by the providential will of God (46). By contrast Cavanaugh proposes a ‘eucharistic counter-politics’ in which the scattering of humanity is overcome through the Body of Christ, enacted in the Eucharist, rather than through contracts of exchange and self-interest (ibid.). Cavanaugh carefully analyses the distinction between theological catholicity and globalization, which he claims to be a parody of Christian universalism, bound up with the flattening of space that emerged in the early modern era, and which superseded the older temporal paradigms of the representation of space in terms of itineraries and pilgrimages (100). This enables the triumph of a global monoculture aided by the free flow of global capital, which in turn undermines family, church and local community. Furthermore, far from meaning the end of the nation state, as some have suggested, it has a valuable role in the neutralization of opposition to globalization, in that the potential benefits and problems it brings are always presented in national terms, for example, ‘Is NAFTA good for America?’, rather than is it good for some Americans, or indeed Mexicans (99). The melting of all that is solid in the global economy produces a subject who is ‘radically decentred, cast adrift in a sea of disjointed and unrelated images. If identity is forged by unifying the past, present and future into a coherent narrative sequence, the ephemerality and rapid change of images deconstructs this. The late capitalist subject becomes “schizophrenic” in Lacan’s terms, and experiences only “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time”’ (111). But, for Cavanaugh, this is not to be seen in the terms proposed by, for example, Jean-François Lyotard, as the end of metanarratives, but rather a new catholicity (ibid.). Again Cavanaugh returns to the Eucharist as a counter-narrative, which does not rely on the grid of a mapped global space, as in modernity, but on a different understanding of the word ‘catholic’, which he takes from de Lubac as meaning ‘an organic whole, a cohesion, of a firm synthesis, of a reality that is not scattered but, on the contrary, turned toward a center which assures its unity, whatever the expanse in area or the internal differentiation might be’ (113). Echoing a famous description of God, Balthasar states it thus:

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‘The Catholica is in fact a region whose middle point is everywhere (where the Eucharist is celebrated); and (structurally) she can theoretically be everywhere: geographically, her periphery extends to the “very ends of the earth” (Rev. 1.8), a periphery that in any case can never be very far from the midpoint’ (114). The important point here is that ‘Catholic space is not a simple, universal space, uniting individuals directly to a whole; the Eucharist refracts space in such a way that one becomes more united to the whole the more tied one becomes to the local’. Following the work of Michel de Certeau, Cavanaugh describes the Eucharist as a ‘spatial story’ (116). In his major work Torture and Eucharist Cavanaugh shows how this worked in relation to the torture practised by the Chilean Junta under the rule of General Pinochet. As Cavanaugh points out the terrifying ordeals of disappearance and torture meted upon the Junta’s opponents were not intended to gain information, but rather as a kind of liturgy or perhaps a perverse anti-liturgy, in which the bodies of those involved enacted a drama making real state power and constituting ‘an act of worship of that mysterious power’ (1998: 30). The main point was to make those tortured conform absolutely to the world view offered by those doing the torturing, to the torturer’s definition of real, of what is real. The experience of pain and of torture is incommunicable, and reduces its sufferer to a point of being unable to communicate. In doing what they did the regime also imposes an almost total silence through fear about what they are doing. They render their activities entirely invisible (48ff ). Against this Cavanaugh recounts the process by which the Catholic Church in Chile, slowly and reluctantly at first, abandoned its policy of leaving secular and political matters to the government and used excommunication and the Eucharist as means to counter the torture and the more general political abuse. Much of this exploited the earlier conception of the church (as opposed to the Host) as the mystical body of Christ, and also of the making visible of this body as a counter to the absence of the bodies of the tortured. Perhaps the most powerful descriptions in the book is that of an event which took place in 1983 in which seventy nuns, priests and laypersons suddenly appeared in front of one of the regime’s clandestine prisons in Santiago and unfurled a banner reading ‘A MAN IS BEING TORTURED HERE’ (273). The assembled protestors read out lists of regime abuses, and handed out leaflets signed Movement Against Torture. When the police came to arrest them they offered no resistance.


Unnatural Theology

Later, they renamed themselves the Sebastián Acevedo Movement against Torture, after a construction worker who, having failed to find his disappeared son, doused himself with petrol in front of the Concepción Cathedral and burnt himself to death (ibid.). In the following months the movement developed a strategy whereby members, sometimes as many as 150, would suddenly appear at a site such as a court, government building, media centre or place of torture, and block traffic while reciting litanies of torture and abuse, then disperse. As Cavanaugh puts it ‘this type of street liturgy precisely reverses the anti-liturgy of torture in that it irrupts into and radically reconfigures the public spaces of the city which the regime has so carefully policed’ (275). This is highly Christian, and even Christological, in that the movement continually referred the suffering of the tortured to that of Christ on the cross. In this way the movement was able to overcome the manner in which torture plays on the incommunicability of pain in order to isolate its victim, by sharing the pain. Through such Eucharistic means it was possible to resist the state’s ability to define what is real. In his book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston invokes the sheer injustice of a world that can countenance the ‘professional torturer’ dying ‘calmly in his sleep at a ripe old age, surrounding family’ as well as ‘the nurse who cared her whole life for the dying, only to herself to die young and alone from a horribly painful and degrading illness’ (2009: 181). In the end no amount of scientific knowledge or technological know-how will save us from what Johnston describes as the ‘large-scale structural defects in human life’, which include arbitrary and meaningless suffering, the decay of ageing, untimely death, our profound ignorance of our condition, the destructiveness produced by our tendency to demand premium treatment for ourselves, and the vulnerability of everything we cherish to chance and to the massed power of states and other institutions. A truly religious or redeemed life is one in which these large-scale defects are somehow finally healed or addressed or overcome or rendered irrelevant. (124)

Though Johnston’s project is based on denying individual religions any monopoly on religious truth, he nevertheless evinces a Christian sensibility and uses Christian references throughout the book (unsurprising for someone who was a Catholic missionary before becoming a philosopher). He is clearly

Corpus Mystical Anarchism


deeply engaged in the implications of the Christian story, and it is those sections of the book (rather than those on, for example, panentheism) that are most engaging. In particular his reading of the meaning of the Crucifixion, in which he takes issue with René Girard’s ideas, is forceful. He points out that, controversial as it is, Christ is ‘asking for it’. He is deliberately provoking the ‘guardians of righteousness, the defenders of the common conception that offers “the right way to live”’ who accordingly punish him (171). This is not, Johnston remarks, the narrative of the scapegoat, such as Girard proclaims, but that of the antinomian getting what he asked for (ibid.). It is thus absurd for Christianity to call him the ‘Son of God, the most perfect manifestation of the Highest One’. Absurd, Johnston suggests, because how can we then put our faith in any commonly held conception of how to live (171–2). Rather than offer ‘a new form of ready-to-wear righteousness’ Christ offers only impossible commands out of the blue, in particular that ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these’ (172). As Johnston points out this requires that either you ‘make the safe bet, the one for which you cannot be blamed, because all the others are doing; take upon yourself some form of reader-to-wear righteousness. … Or radically abandon yourself to the will of God’ (ibid.). Thus, rather than the Crucifixion in Girardian terms being an exposing of the scapegoating mechanism, it ‘exposes the mechanisms at the heart of false righteousness, this secret love of self-love trying at all costs to put down the anxiety about how to live, even to the point of murder’ (173). The failure, according to the Gospel of Luke, of the Crucifixion to produce the expected cathartic release, filling the spectators with shame instead, is how Christ ‘destroys the Kingdom of self-love and false righteousness – that is to say, the central elements of the characteristically human form of life – no longer make up a defensible realm’ (ibid.). This is in contrast to Socrates whose nobility in accepting his death sentence ‘secretly valorizes the false righteousness of Athenian respectability’ (173–4). There is nothing noble or ‘humanly redeeming’ about (the Crucifixion), beginning as it does with (Christ’s) desperation in the Garden and ending


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with his despair on the Cross. It is not a cathartic tragedy. It leaves us at a total loss. We can return to human ways of going on only if we forget what happened. If we do not forget, we need to find a way to live that is not some form of self-love and false righteousness. And if we do not forget, we know that we cannot find this in ourselves. Then, and only then, are we prepared to take the two commandments, the salvation from without, seriously. (174)

Johnston sees any supernaturalism in the example of Christ, such as the promise of the afterlife proclaimed by St Paul, as an ‘idolatrous conceit’ and as ‘the real despoliation of Christ’, and even as ‘resistance to Christ’, in as much as it bound up with self-love and self-interest (175–6). He also castigates the idea that one can invest a non-supernatural significance in the Christian through an appeal to an existentialist notion of living a meaningful life, which he sees as ‘an inflated form of acquisitive desire and an ultimate reservation about how far you would go in modeling yourself on the kenotic self-abandonment that is God’ (179). It is only by abandoning self-love in exchange for what he calls agape/anatta that we can hope for salvation, and as he argues in his companion volume, Surviving Death, transcend even death. In Signifying God, her book about the York Corpus Christi plays, Sarah Beckwith writes about the meaning of the representation of Christ in these plays by an actor. Someone stands in for someone else. Call it a structure of representation, a practice of substitution, a process of authorization or sacrifice – in all events the standing in is doubly descriptive. It describes at once the very economy of Christian redemption, that Christ is a body for us, that he stands in for both God and humanity – in God’s place and on behalf of humanity, making possible the founding atonement. And it describes the seminal action of theatre in which someone stands in for, represents someone else. (2003: 70)

Beckwith describes this substitution as ‘paradigmatically theatrical’ and compares it to Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘neo-Franciscan Poor Theatre’, in which, in Bert States’ words quoted by Beckwith, an actor stands ‘roughly in the relation of Christ to man in the Passion’. Describing the scene in which Christ is pinned to the Cross, Beckwith says: Here, Christ’s body is the sign that looks back, the real presence that exceeds the parameters of representational space and confronts the audience’s

Corpus Mystical Anarchism


detachment with the familiar, deeply reproachful spectacle of a suffering caused by that detachment. (66)

Beckwith also points out that in such performances, ‘no physical markers separate a specific “theatrical” space from everyday life: there is no inherent, independent stage for acting’ (xvi). Hostility towards Catholic notions of the sacramental and the Eucharist in England led to the end of what Beckwith calls ‘sacramental theatre’, which involved an entire city and community, as in the case of the York Corpus Christi plays, and to the emergence of theatre as a professional activity, confined to the theatrical space, or what Beckwith calls a ‘theatre of disguises’ as opposed to a ‘theatre of signs’ (121ff ). In Faith of the Faithless Simon Critchley writes about what he calls ‘mystical anarchism’, which he finds in the late medieval chiliasts, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and in particular in the work of one of their number, Marguerite Porete ( 2012: 122–42). Figures such as Porete abounded in the later Middle Ages, and may be seen as part of the emergence of mysticism, or what Michel de Certeau calls la mystique (mystics), as a response to the shifts in the understanding of the mystical body of Christ. In The Mystic Fable, his book on the emergence of mysticism in the Early Modern period, Michel de Certeau took his cue from Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum, in which he argued that until the twelfth century the expression corpus mysticum had designated the Eucharistic body of Christ, but then, in the West at least, came to designate the church, the Eucharistic body being called corpus verum. De Certeau suggested that this meant that the sacramental body became understood as ‘the visible indicator of the proliferation of secret effects (of grace, of salvation) that make up the real life of the Church’ (1992: 84). The Eucharist ceased to be the communal celebration in which the church is realized, and became an operation producing a miraculous sign that pointed to mystical effects within the church. From this was born the experimental ‘science’ that became known as ‘mysticism’. To some extent the Brethren of the Free Spirit can be seen as precursors of the Protestant Revolution, especially inasmuch as they refuted the need for the mediation of worship by the Catholic Church. They can also be seen as one of the many manifestations of a persistent Gnosticism in the history of Christianity, bound up in this case with the emergence of Nominalism in the late Middle Ages.


Unnatural Theology

I would like to counter Critchley’s ‘mystical anarchism’ with a ‘corpus mystical anarchism’, or what William Cavanaugh calls an ‘eucharistic anarchism’, that thus avoids what I see as the dangers of Gnosticism and Nominalism in Critchley’s approach. And I would counter his invocation of Porete with another mystic of the same period, Julian of Norwich. In his book on Julian, Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt shows how her mystical concentration on the suffering body of Christ produces a distinct theological politics that is neither that of Scholastic feudalism nor that of Nominalist modernity (2008: 14). Bauerschmidt compares Julian’s visions of Christ’s body to Bakhtin’s notion of a ‘grotesque body’. For Julian, Christ’s body is ‘constantly in a state of transgression, a body that cannot control its boundaries, a body whose “interior” has become a surface, a body that renders itself passive to forces acting upon it, and thus a passionate body dispossessed of any defence against its enemies, except the ultimate power of God’s weakness’ (69–73). Julian’s audacity is stunning. Her descriptions of Christ’s body present us with a God who stakes the salvation of the cosmos on something as abject and humiliated as a crucified body. She can only be seen as presenting a message of simple ‘Christian optimism’ if one ignores the vivid reality of the tortured body that is the content of her visions. She will not pretend that pain is not pain or that our sin is not the cause of Christ’s pain. Any ‘optimism’ on her part takes the form of believing that she can read in this failed body the power of God to choose ‘what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are’. (106)

Thus, Julian rejects the ‘nominalist God of formal omnipotence’ for the crucified God of Jesus Christ. This means that, like the body of Christ, the community of Christ’s lovers ‘remain forever pierced and wounded. This is not an invisible community of the elect, but a community that takes shape through visible acts of compassion’ (122).


Ruskin’s Haunted Nature

On the 26 April 1986 the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded, sending a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and radiocaesium deposited onto the ground. The radiocaesium spread across Europe and extended as far as North West England, Scotland and North Wales. The soil in these areas is mostly peat-based, with a high organic and a low mineral content, which in turn does not bind the caesium, making it more present in the grass, and thus endangering the health of livestock on the hills. Cumbria was one of the worst hit areas in the United Kingdom and, in 2010, farmers were still having their livestock tested for the effects of radiation and still receiving compensation. The most disturbing aspect of this radiation is that it works invisibly, leaving no physical mark or visual evidence of its presence. Thus, the Lake District which occupies most of Cumbria, remains one of the most beautiful landscapes in England and perhaps even in the world, while being in a sense haunted by the aftermath of what was probably one of the twentieth century’s most ecologically destructive events. The use of the word ‘haunting’ in this context is more than merely a metaphor, and it is its implications that I pursue in this chapter. The method for measuring radiation in sheep in Cumbria is a handheld spectroscopic device that measures radioactive isotopes. The term ‘spectroscopy’ is related to ‘spectre’, which brings out some of the implicit connections between haunting and ecological catastrophe. This chapter acts perhaps as a kind of spectroscope, or perhaps ‘spectre-scope’, detecting various spectral emanations moving across space and time and across different discourses. The Lake District’s beauty famously attracted visitors and residents such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and, a little later, the great nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, who was, of course, one of the great advocates of the importance of looking and the visual, especially with his advocacy of the


Unnatural Theology

‘innocent eye’. But, since Ruskin’s day, art is no longer capable of celebrating nature as an innocent domain opposed to culture, and the great tradition of painting and drawing the natural landscape which he did much to promote is perhaps no longer practised, not least because of our increasing awareness of the complexity of the rural landscape, which make an innocent or naïve engagement more or less impossible. But this does not mean that art has abandoned engagement with the environment. Since the late 1960s artists have been dealing with the environment, especially with so-called ‘Land Art’ or ‘Environmental Art’. Here artists such as James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long may be cited. Much of this work still tended to emphasize experiences of the ‘natural’ world, rather than the complex imbrication of the human and the environment, and as such tends to repeat romantic conceptions of nature as a privileged domain separate from human activities. This sometimes remains true of contemporary practices such as ‘eco-art’, which often seems more concerned with fostering awareness of ecological issues of a fairly narrow and predictable sort than producing art of any great complexity or interest. As such much of it avoids any critical engagement with the more complex questions that phenomena such as pollution and global warming invoke. An egregious example of this, with particular relevance to the Lake District, is Andy Goldsworthy’s Sheep Fold Series of site-specific works. Funded and supported by Cumbria University, this was a project that ran for six years, from 1996 to 2003, at which point forty-six derelict sheepfolds had been repaired and enhanced by Goldsworthy’s ‘sculptural response’. The website for the projects claims that this enabled Goldsworthy to ‘connect directly with the farming tradition and history of Cumbria’. This suggests a somewhat romantic notion that the sight of grazing sheep on the hillside might appear to be a throwback to an earlier more innocent age. But, as Karl Marx points out in Capital, writing about the unpopulated hills given over to livestock are a result of the rural clearances that were a prelude to the Industrial Revolution: ‘The labourers are first driven from the land, then come the sheep’ ([1867] 1968: 556). Thus, such landscapes are haunted by the memory of those labourers whose coerced move to the cities made the Industrial Revolution, and their emptiness and quiet, far from being opposed to industrialization, is one of its direct results.

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


There are however exceptions to this, particularly among artists involved in the use of new technologies and new media. Such work often deals with the social and political implications of environmental issues. For example, the art partnership HeHe, based in Paris and comprising of Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen, is particularly interested in making work that looks at questions of energy consumption. In 2008 they realized the first version of their Nuage Vert project, part of Pollstream, a larger series of works dealing with these questions in relation to atmospheric emissions. HeHe describe Pollstream as ‘a collection of ideas, forms and images that explore man-made clouds’. They declare that they are ‘fascinated by clouds because of their movement, and because of their natural undefined form – which makes them difficult to be fixed in time’ and that in their projects ‘clouds are used as a visual metaphor to aestheticise emissions and chemical toxins’. Following the various meanings attached in popular culture from the nineteenth century to now, Pollstream ‘offers alternative meanings for today’s man-made clouds, which, hopefully, challenge the ideologies of our times’ (HeHe, 2008). The Nuage Vert project involved the vapour emissions from the Salmisaari coal-burning power plant in Finland being illuminated with a high-powered green laser animation every night for a week in February 2008. ‘The laser drew an outline of the moving cloud onto the cloud itself, colouring it green, turning it into a city scale neon sign, which grows bigger as local residents take control and consume less electricity.’ This event was supported by other activities, including presentations to schoolchildren and engagements with the local community. One of the results was that the power consumption by local residences dropped significantly over the week. This had no appreciable effect on the amount of energy produced by the plant, but did highlight the question of energy consumption in a visible and interesting way. But, that said, the project avoided any simplistic polemical point-scoring about such phenomena. ‘As a transmitting architecture, Nuage Vert conveys multiple ideas: could this green cloud be a toxic cloud or an emblem for the collective effort of the local community? The meaning is left open for each and all to decide, and will depend upon the level of engagement’ (ibid.). It is perhaps unlikely that Ruskin would have recognized this as art, let alone art that has anything to do with the environment. Nevertheless, not


Unnatural Theology

only does some of Ruskin’s later work prefigure HeHe’s preoccupation with ‘man-made clouds’, but the issues their work invokes also haunt our current reading of Ruskin, like the revenant that, in Derrida’s words, returns from the future (Derrida, 1994: 99). Clouds are also in themselves quasi-spectral phenomena, that are appropriate objects through which to think about questions of haunting, especially in relation to the environment, as Ruskin himself was well aware. It is through the work of Ruskin that I explore some of the relations between haunting and ecological catastrophe. It is my view that Ruskin articulates a prescient understanding of that relation in some of his later texts, notably ‘The Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century’, in which he anticipates some of the apocalyptic, messianic and spectral themes of Derrida and Walter Benjamin. It is possible to say that the Cumbria, and the North West more generally, is haunted by the spirit of Ruskin. His house Brantwood, now a museum dedicated to his memory, is in the Lake District, while his grave is in Coniston, on the other side of the lake by which the house is sited. Ruskin’s work in turn is haunted by the spirit of Ruskin’s inamorata Rose La Touche, whose memory is invoked in cryptic forms in many of the letters. Nor is the invocation of haunting merely metaphorical. Ruskin was profoundly affected by the tragic early death of La Touche, the girl he first met when she was ten, and whom he was determined eventually to make his wife, against her parents’ better judgment. As Philip Hoare shows in his book England’s Lost Eden, it was his grief about Rose that led Ruskin to dabble in spiritualism, and to believe that she had indeed been contacted during a séance at his friends’ house (2006: 272–6). As a (sometimes reluctant) heir to Romanticism, Ruskin imbued the natural world with a spectral trace of divine presence. For Ruskin, when young at least, the visual experience of natural beauty was a form of theophany, in which nature was haunted by the divine and the sacred. In a passage from Modern Painters, which is quoted in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Ruskin described his early moments of what Otto would later describe as ‘numinous’ experience (a word he derived from the Latin ‘numen’, meaning ‘spirit of the place’). Ruskin describes ‘an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit’ and, later in the passage, how ‘the joy in nature seemed to me to come

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


of a sort of heart-hunger, satisfied with the presence of a Great and Holy Spirit’ (1907, vol. V: 367–8). Passages such as this demonstrate how Ruskin was concerned to assert the capacity of art to reflect the glory of God as manifested in nature. But, as Peter Fuller pointed out in his book Theoria, this natural theology became increasingly untenable as the nineteenth century wore on, and developments such as Darwin’s theory of natural selection seemed to bring such religious thinking into doubt (Fuller, 1988). Ruskin felt the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the Sea of Faith that Matthew Arnold described in his poem Dover Beach. In midlife he abandoned his parents’ evangelism and became, in his words, a ‘pagan’, before developing in old age, an idiosyncratic and personal version of Catholicism (Hilton, 2003: 829–31). A more materialistic and less joyful vision of a landscape being haunted by the dead can be found for example in Ruskin’s description, also from the third volume of Modern Painters, of the Roman Campagna at dusk, written as part of a polemic against what he saw as the fundamental lack of truth of neoclassical, Claudean landscape painting. Having described in satirical terms a painting by Claude, Il Mulino, he then gives the reader a vivid word-painting of the actual campagna in which he describes the earth yielding and crumbling beneath the foot ‘for its substance is white, hollow, and carious, like the dusty wreck of the bones of men’, the long knotted grass waving and tossing ‘feebly’ in the sun and ‘hillocks of mouldering earth heave around him, as if the dead beneath were struggling in their sleep’ and finally ‘the shattered aqueducts, pier beyond pier’, melting ‘into the darkness, like shadowy and countless troops of funeral mourners, passing from a nation’s grave’ (1907, vol. III: 42–3). Ruskin’s point here is to show that the idealized classical landscape painted by Claude, and beloved of critics of Turner, is a travesty of the actuality and also an attempt to keep alive a classical world that is firmly and thoroughly gone. What is interesting here is that the landscape is no longer haunted by a divine presence but by the traces of dead men, and the joyful experience of landscape Ruskin remembers from his earlier years is replaced by something far darker. That this takes place as part of an argument about the need for realism in art is also noteworthy, and suggests something disturbing about that realism and its relation to death and spectrality. Here it is perhaps worthwhile to bring in Ruskin’s relation to photography. Ruskin, though he did not believe


Unnatural Theology

that photography could be an art, used and advocated the use of photographs as an aid. Perhaps, moreover, his close attention to the singular details in nature made both Ruskin’s drawings and paintings and his verbal description photographic in ways with which he was perhaps not comfortable. In Fors Clavigera he attacks photography in a manner that anticipates his ecological concerns in his great polemical lecture, ‘The Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century’. You think it a great triumph to make the sun draw brown landscapes for you. That was also a discovery and may some day be useful. But the sun had drawn landscapes before for you, not in brown, but green and blue, and all imaginable colours, here in England. Not one of you ever looked at them then, not one of you cares for the loss of them now when you have shut the sun out with smoke, so that he can draw nothing more, except brown blots through a hole in a box. (1907, vol. XXVII: 86)

Ruskin intuited something in photography, that we may now think of as being true of all media and of all discourse, that it always involves spectrality, death, the dead, and that it is not possible, as Ruskin so fervently wished, to oppose life to death. As such photography, as has been remarked many times before, also invokes haunting and ghosts. As Jacques Derrida points out, there is a close relation between contemporary technologies of reproduction such as photography and film, and the spectral. In an interview Derrida declared that ‘spectrality is at work everywhere, and more than ever, in an original way, in the reproducible virtuality of photography or cinema’ (2005a: 158). Perhaps Ruskin’s antipathy to painting of this sort and to photography is related to an anxiety about contingency and time. This antipathy towards photography may be compared to his hostility to other examples of representation, including seventeenth-century Dutch art and the work of John Constable. The former he regarded as largely concerned with the mechanical reproduction of reality and the latter as barely even second or third rate. Both may also be considered forms of ‘proto-photography’, in that they anticipate the kind of representation made possible by photography. In Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, Peter Galassi’s essay for the catalogue of his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, he argues that, against the normal historical conception, in which photography is understood to have been developed out of artistic practice and aids to

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painting and drawing such as the camera obscura, and then, once invented as a technology to have influenced painting, photography is ‘a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition’. But it is developed out of the use of perspective not to produce, for example, the ‘timeless perfection of the imaginary townscape’ found in a work of Piero della Francesca, but to convey the sense, found in pictures such as Emmanuel de Witte’s Protestant Gothic Church of 1669, that ‘we are participants in the contingent experience of everyday life’ (1981: 14). This is also conveyed in similar works such as Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s The Grote Kerk, Haarlem of 1636–7, which exhibits a ‘wilfully fragmentary and internally discontinuous view’ that was not a common option for painters until the late nineteenth century. By the nineteenth century also, landscape painting, hitherto regarded as low in the hierarchy of art in which history painting was the highest class, had become far more respected. By the 1830s John Constable could declare in a letter that the ‘sound of water escaping from Mill dams, … willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts & brickwork – I love such things. … These scenes made a painter (& I am grateful).’ For Galassi such thinking is represented in pictures that ‘take forthrightly as their subject a single, namable thing: the trunk of a tree … a cloud … a humble gate’ (ibid., 25). Constable also asserted a new vision of painting, writing in 1836 that ‘painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, should not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments.’ Such thinking led to a ‘new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms. It is the syntax of an art devoted to the singular and contingent rather than the universal and stable. It is also the syntax of photography.’ In support of his point about photography and the landscape sketch, Galassi discusses and illustrates two sketches by Constable, both of which are not just dated but have actual times of composition in the titles, namely A View of Salisbury, from the Library of Archdeacon Fisher’s House, 4.00 p.m., July 12, 1829, and The Close, Salisbury, 11.00 a.m.–Noon, July 15, 1829. Here we might invoke Derrida’s idea of the ‘enigma of the date’, which he discusses in his essay on Paul Célan’s poems (2005c: 5). For Derrida the date presents an ‘enigma’ in that it must be both unique in that it signifies a unique time and repeatable, in order to be readable (2). At the same time ‘it is necessary that in the date the


Unnatural Theology

unrepeatable … repeat itself, effacing in itself the irreducible singularity that it denotes. It is necessary that, in a certain manner, the unrepeatable divide itself in repeating itself, and in the same stroke encipher or encrypt itself ’ (15). He continues that ‘the date must conceal within itself some stigma of singularity if it is to last longer than that which it commemorates. … And so what must be commemorated, at once gathered and repeated, is therefore, at the same time, the date’s annihilation, a kind of nothing, or ash. … Ash awaits us’ (20). Dating is made possible by ‘coded signs’ and ‘“objective” systems of notation and spatiotemporal plottings’ such as the calendar and the clock, which ‘mark only insofar as their readability announces the possibility of return’ (18). Citing Célan’s mention of 13 February in his poem ‘In Eins’, Derrida points out that at every date ‘what one commemorates will be the date of that which could never come back’, including the ‘multiplicity of events, in dispersed places’ that ‘may have come together at the heart of the same anniversary’ (ibid.). On the 13 February 1962 Celan was in Paris, which was also the date and location of the funeral of the victims of the massacre of anti-OAS demonstrators in the Charonne metro station some five days earlier, which was attended by hundreds and thousands of mourners (32). Derrida also discusses Celan’s poem ‘Huhediblu’ in which the phrase ‘Nimmermenschtags im September’(Nevermansday in September) occurs, in which he points out that Célan has named and ciphered an event that he alone, or alone with but a few others, is able to commemorate (36), and, inasmuch as those who commemorate are mortal, this event is destined one day ‘to no longer signify at all for the survivors’, that is to say the poem’s readers. There is ‘mourning in the reading itself ’. Or, alternatively, nothing is lost or encrypted. September comes around again. This is madness of dates, that they are both singular and repetitious. ‘There is a holocaust for every date, and somewhere in the world at every hour. Every hour counts its holocaust. Every hour is unique, whether it recurs’ (46). It is impossible, for me at least, to read these passages or the poem to which it refers without thinking of the events of 11 September 2001, which may be widely commemorated, but also can and may well be forgotten in the future. The familiar pictures of the smoke clouds billowing from the towers of the World Trade Center echo Ruskin’s most apocalyptic vision of haunting, that of the ‘Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century’, the name of the lecture he

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


gave in 1875, which is bound up with the dates of his various observations of the phenomena he describes. Ruskin was fascinated by clouds and other phenomena as is evinced by his many studies of clouds as well as in his study The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm (1869). One of the points he is making in the storm-cloud lecture, and perhaps the reason for emphasizing the use of dates, is that these phenomena are new and unprecedented, a point he attempts to demonstrate in the lecture by reference to earlier descriptions of clouds in literature. While recovering from the mental stress of his relationship with Rose La Touche at Matlock Spa in Derbyshire, Ruskin made one of these observations, which he first mentions in the July 1871 issue of Fors Clavigera. (Here it is important to note the specificity of the date in this and the next quotation). Though it is midsummer in mid-England, Ruskin declares that it is ‘the first of July, and I sit down to write by the dismalest light that ever yet I wrote by’. He continues with an apocalyptic description of the ‘sky is covered with … a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce; partly diffused in mist, feeble mist, enough to make distant objects unintelligible, yet without any substance, or wreathing, or color of its own’. This is accompanied by the fitful shaking of the leaves of the trees because of ‘a strange, bitter, blighting wind’. Ruskin declares that this experience of weather is both new and dreadful for him after fifty years of gleaning the best hours of his life in spring and summer mornings. He claims not to care what science might be able to tell him about the moon and stars but ‘I would care much and give much, if I could be told where this bitter wind comes from, and what it is made of ’. It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men’s souls – such of them as are not gone yet where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them. … You know, if there are such things as souls, and if ever any of them haunt places where they have been hurt, there must be many about us, just now, displeased enough! (1907, vol. XXVII: 132–3)

The mad brilliance of Ruskin’s observations of the storm clouds is evident in his conflation of environmental observation and tropes of haunting; in


Unnatural Theology

particular the image of the clouds appearing to be made of dead men’s souls. In the lecture itself Ruskin quotes from his diary to describe a recent experience of the modern plague-cloud, including the place and date of the entry, ‘Bolton Abbey, 4th July, 1875’. He describes the shaking of the leaves at his window which turns into a continuous trembling, falling and returning in ‘fits of various forces’. Ruskin claims that ‘this wind is the plague-wind of the eighth decade of years in the nineteenth century; a period which will assuredly be recognized in future meteorological history as one of phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature, and characterized pre-eminently by the almost ceaseless action of this calamitous wind’ (1907, vol. XXXIV: 30–1). Ruskin treats the meteorological phenomena he describes as the actions of an unknowable God and at the end of the lecture becomes positively apocalyptic: Blanched Sun  – blighted grass  – blinded man. If, in conclusion, you ask me for any conceivable cause or meaning of these things  – I can tell you none, according to your modern beliefs; but I can tell you what meaning it would have borne to the men of old time. Remember, for the last twenty years, England, and all foreign nations, either tempting her, or following her, have blasphemed the name of God deliberately and openly; and have done iniquity by proclamation, every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it is in his power to do. Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom, saying, ‘The light shall be darkened in the heavens thereof, and the stars shall withdraw their shining.’ All Greek, all Christian, all Jewish prophecy insists on the same truth through a thousand myths; but of all the chief, to former thought, was the fable of the Jewish warrior and prophet, for whom the sun hasted not to go down, with which I leave you to compare at leisure the physical result of your own wars and prophecies, as declared by your own elect journal not fourteen days ago – that the Empire of England, on which formerly the sun never set, has become one on which he never rises. What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty. You may not be able to say to the winds, ‘Peace; be still’, but you can cease from the insolence of your own lips, and the troubling of your own passions. And all that it would be extremely well to do, even though the day were coming when the sun should be as darkness,

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


and the moon as blood. But, the paths of rectitude and piety once regained, who shall say that the promise of old time would not be found to hold for us also? ‘Bring ye all the tithes into my storehouse, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord God, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.’ (1907, vol. XXXIV: 40–1)

A Victorian audience would have had no problems in recognizing the biblical allusions in these passages, not least the reference to ‘The light shall be darkened in the heavens thereof, and the stars shall withdraw their shining’, a motif that occurs a number of times in the Old Testament, as a sign of God’s displeasure, as does the day when the sun should be as darkness, and the moon as blood, which, apart from describing a phenomenon associated with lunar eclipses, signifies the day of the coming of the Lord, as in Joel 2:31. Perhaps more interestingly the passage from Joel is quoted in Acts 2:20, in relation to Jesus’ return. The final quotation is from Mal. 3:10, one of the Old Testament books intended to bring the Israelites back to their righteous ways, with the warning that come the eschaton the difference between those who served God faithfully and those who did not would be obvious. Thus, unsurprisingly perhaps, Ruskin’s proto-ecological polemic is cast in eschatological, apocalyptic and messianic terms, and his apocalyptic proclamations are also thoroughly ecological. In his short address, The Mystery of Life and its Arts, Ruskin presents an apocalyptic view of our relation to time in terms of judgement which also invokes cloud-like and spectral images, especially of our lives as a vapour liable to vanish away. He talks of the ‘enthusiasm’ with which he was able to ‘dwell on the beauty of the physical clouds’ but he is now endeavouring to ‘trace the form and beauty of another kind of cloud than those; the bright cloud of which it is written – “what is your life? It is even as a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away”’ (1907, vol. XVIII: 146). Is there but one day of judgment? Why, for us every day is a day of judgment – every day is a Dies Irae, and writes its irrevocable verdict in the flame of its West. Think you that judgment waits till the doors of the grave are opened? It waits at the doors of your houses – it waits at the corners of your streets; we are in the midst of judgment – the insects that we crush are our judges – the moments we fret away are our judges – the elements that feed us, judge,


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as they minister – and the pleasures that deceive us, judge, as they indulge. Let us, for our lives, do the work of Men while we bear the form of them, if indeed those lives are NOT as a vapour, and do NOT vanish away. (180)

This rhetoric of judgment being possible at any moment, Ruskin’s messianism in general might be considered as evincing a connection to one of his less obvious heirs, Walter Benjamin, who also uses storm imagery as a means of indicating apocalyptic themes. In his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ Benjamin famously invokes the Angel of History as being propelled into the future by a storm blowing from Paradise, while the pile of debris we call progress ‘grows skyward’ (1973: 259–60). In the same essay he also writes in terms that echo Ruskin’s notion of every day and indeed every moment as a day of judgment, in particular for the Jews, prohibited from investigating the future, but for whom nevertheless ‘every second of time was the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter’(266). In a sense Benjamin is a mirror image of Ruskin. Against Ruskin’s attempts to save art for God Benjamin proclaims the end of the aura of the work of art, an end bound up with technical reproducibility. It is perhaps simply that Benjamin celebrates what Ruskin has intuited, that mechanical reproduction techniques have a close relationship with the Death of God, and the triumph of nihilism, not least because they engage with contingency and time (Ruskin, though some twenty-five years older than Nietzsche, died in the same year, 1900. Both also had succumbed to mental illness almost completely by 1889). At the same time Ruskin also perhaps intuited something else; that the Death of the nineteenth-century God of ontotheology opens up another space, for a spectral messianism that can be glimpsed in his storm-cloud lecture. In The Arcades Project Benjamin describes lightning flash of the ‘dialectical image’, which must ‘be held fast as it flashes its lightning image in the Now of recognizability’ (Smith, 1989: 64). The lightning flash echoes Ruskin’s storm-cloud imagery but also invokes the camera flash, which captures the contingent instance before it disappears. In his ‘Theological-Political Fragment’ Benjamin suggests that the Messiah himself consummates all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the Messianic. For this reason nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic. Therefore the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic: it

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


cannot be set as a goal. From the standpoint of history it is not the goal but the end. Therefore the order of the profane cannot be built up on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and therefore theocracy has no political, but only a religious meaning. (quoted in Taubes, 2004: 71–2)

Jacob Taubes compares Benjamin’s messianism directly to St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he talks about the ‘groaning of creation’. This is not, Taubes points out, any kind of ecological concern. Paul is not interested in ecology or the glory of nature. ‘He has never seen a tree in his life’ as Taubes puts it. But, for Paul, nature is a very important category, an eschatological category. ‘It groans, it sighs under the burden of decay and futility’ (73). Taubes sees Benjamin, in the ‘Fragment’, as the exegete of nature as decay in Romans 8 (74). Following Benjamin, Derrida writes about what he calls ‘the messianic without messianism’, which ‘is the very place of spectrality’(Derrida, 1994: 65). It is in relation to his engagement with the messianic and the spectral that, in his book Specters of Marx, Derrida coins his neologism ‘hauntology’, which suggests and deconstructs the supposed stability of ontology, and invokes both Marx and Engels spectre of communism haunting Europe and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hauntology is Derrida’s name for the way in which the present is constitutively haunted not just by the past, but also by the future. Ruskin’s death-haunted storm-cloud prefigures the spectral messianisms of Benjamin and Derrida. In place of his youthful theophany a darker vision of nature emerges as the site of singularity and event, and of the unprecedented and unexpected arrivant. Even Ruskin was haunted by the spectre of communism. Not long after the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital in 1867, and inspired by the Paris Commune, in the seventh letter of Fors Clavigera he claimed that ‘I myself am a Communist of the old school – reddest of the red’ (1907, vol. XVII: 116). Though perhaps ironic and certainly short-lived Ruskin’s claims to be a communist are perhaps of a piece with his incipient messianism, that looks with both trepidation and hope towards what the future might bring. In turn our present, which would have been the future Ruskin feared and trembled before, is haunted by Marx’s Spectre, particularly perhaps because Ruskin, unlike Marx, was haunted by the spectre of future ecological catastrophe, which makes him perhaps more prescient than Marx.


Unnatural Theology

Ruskin is one of the figures invoked by those concerned with ecology and sustainability. But rather than see Ruskin’s man-made clouds as a deadly intrusion into a previously pristine living nature it may be more pointful to suggest that that nature is already constitutively haunted by death and decay and environmental threat. Perhaps Ruskin hints at something like Derrida’s concept of ‘autoimmunity’, which he increasingly engaged with towards the end of his life. Derrida used this term to indicate the way in which that which enables life and growth also presupposes death or, in Martin Hägglund’s useful gloss, ‘everything is threatened from within itself, since the possibility of living is inseparable from the peril of dying’ (Hägglund, 2008: 9). Geoffrey Bennington makes a similar point in his discussion of growth in his (anonymous) essay ‘Personal Growth’ in which he remarks that ‘growth grows always towards death. Growth is exposure to a mortal and mortified outside. The plant produces bark and dead wood as part of its living and dying. This production is part of the dying that is an intrinsic moment of living, the dead material residue that is part of the life of life’ (Bennington, 2001: 145). Bennington criticizes the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ which, he points out, is an oxymoron, ‘as if growth could be growth without outgrowing itself, without outgrowth, self-contained, without relation to the other’ (151). This is perhaps why those artists, such as HeHe, who use new media and technologies are best suited to engage with ecological issues. Ruskin’s anxiety and despair about the effects of pollution runs parallel to his antipathy to the spectral mechanical reproduction techniques of photography. Both are haunted by the dead and death that Ruskin was so determined to resist. But of course, as any reader of Derrida will know, deathly mechanical repetition is at the heart of life itself. But, as Richard Beardsworth puts it ‘the absolute future of technical determination, the “messianic” promise that trembles in every technical invention, delivers the latter over to contingency, a contingency that marks, precisely the finitude of all organisations, thereby giving human organisation its chance’ (1996: 150). ‘Subordinated to the passage of time, technics is … finite and the future contingent’ (149). We can perhaps find an example of how Ruskin’s insights find artistic expression in an arts organization based in the heart of the Lake District itself. Grizedale Arts is to be found in a farmhouse in a house once owned by Ruskin directly above Brantwood, Ruskin’s house on the edge of Coniston Water.

Ruskin’s Haunted Nature


(Full disclosure: I am currently chair of the Board of Trustees.) Grizedale Arts (GA) is the successor of the Grizedale Sculpture Trust, which was well known for siting sculptures by, among others, Andy Goldsworthy, in Grizedale Forest. GA follows a very different remit in terms of responding to the arts in a rural context and in relation to the environment. According to its website, GA ‘has neither studios nor exhibition space, but rather provides artists with the opportunity to realise projects using the social, cultural and economic networks of the area’ and the programme actively engages with the complexities of the rural situation. … Aiming to create a finished art product we place an emphasis on process and the dissemination of ideas to a wider audience. We work alongside the local community to develop and realise the work with artists, and consequently the projects often challenge the artists as much as the local (participatory) audience and beyond. (Grizedale Arts)

Among their aims is a ‘project of evolving projects that aims to rethink the work of ’ Ruskin ‘in a contemporary context’, building ‘particularly on his later writings and actions that move away from conventional aesthetics towards a complex of radical and moral activity that incorporated performance, lectures, activism, politics, sociology, agriculture and art’ and reintroducing Ruskin as ‘a key figure in the formation of contemporary culture and society’ (ibid.). Among the smaller projects GA has undertaken was a commission from London Transport to design an Oyster Card holder which would promote the arts. In a typically provocative move GA director Adam Sutherland produced a design showing a view of the beautiful Langdale Valley, near GA’s base, which happens to feature the farmhouse which was allegedly the training base for the terrorists who bombed or tried to bomb the London Underground on 7 July 2005. Here again we encounter a date that now names a catastrophic event, especially in its telegrammatic form, 7/7. As mentioned above, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously described communism as a spectre haunting Europe. Terrorism, climate change, environmental catastrophe, are some at least of the spectres that haunt not just twenty-firstcentury Europe, but the world. Sutherland’s gesture is to show how they haunt even the most apparently idyllic of landscapes, a point perhaps first intuited by Ruskin in his storm-cloud lecture. As with the fallout from Chernobyl with


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which this essay starts, this haunting remains largely invisible, spectral, like the storm-cloud of dead men’s souls Ruskin believed he could sense. But we must greet such spectres as we would Derrida’s ‘monstrous arrivant’, that is ‘absolutely foreign or strange’ but must be welcomed and accorded hospitality, in order to be open to the future, as that which arrives (l’à venir/l’avenir), beyond what we can know, expect or programme for (Derrida, 1995b: 387). ‘A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow’ (387). This includes the very possibility of catastrophe, ecological or otherwise, as necessary for there being a future.


Photography in the Time that Remains

In Demeure, Athènes (translated as Athens, Still Remains), his set of short ‘snapshots’ written in response to Jean-François Bonhomme’s photographs, Derrida claims to be haunted by a phrase, untranslatable, the meaning of which he cannot fully grasp. ‘Nous nous devons à la mort’, ‘we owe ourselves to death’ (2010: 4–5). The photograph signs the verdict and ‘confirms and seals its ineluctable authority’: ‘this will have to die’. But there is delay. In Demeure, Athènes, Derrida engages in the relation between photography and delay. Writing about how his experience of Greece has come late in life he suggests that a delay … is something I always love as what gives me the most to think, more than the present moment, more than the future and more than eternity, a delay before time itself. To think the at-present of the now (present, past or to come), to rethink instantaneity on the basis of the delay and not the other way around. (17)

But, Derrida suggests, ‘delay’ is not the right word, as it does not exist, it never will be, neither a subject nor an object, ‘strictly speaking’. What he prefers to cultivate is ‘a permanently delayed action, the chrono-dyssemetrical process of the moratorium, the delay that carves out its calculations in the incalculable’, which he associates with the photographer and in particular the ‘photographic experience of an “image hunter”’ (ibid.). Before the moment in which the photographer ‘freezes for near eternity what is naively called an image, there would thus be this delayed action’ (18). Derrida compares this to the Greek conception of the aion which he defines as ‘the interval full with duration, an incessant space of time, and this is sometimes called eternity’. He proclaims his ‘passion for delay, and for the delay’ within delay and everything that


Unnatural Theology

‘organised within photographic invention … by the technique that goes under the name of the delay mechanism’ (19). Everything is going to be in place in just a moment, at any moment now, presently or at present, so that, a few moments from now, sometimes a lot later or even a very long time from now, another present to come will be taken by surprise by the click and will be forever fixed, reproducible, archivable, saved or lost for this present time. One does not yet know what the image will give or show, but the interval must be objectively calculable, a certain technology is required, and this is perhaps the origin or essence of technology. (Ibid.)

Elsewhere in the book he asks, When, exactly, does a shot take place? When, exactly, is it taken? And thus where? Given the workings of a delay mechanism, given the ‘time lag’ or ‘time difference’, … is the photograph taken when the photographer takes the thing in view and focuses on it, when he adjusts the diaphragm and sets the timing mechanism, or else when the click signals the capture and the impression? Or later still, at the moment of development? (25)

But for Derrida, of course, this delay is on the way to our singular, unknowable, unimaginable death. ‘There is only a delay, the time to photograph, though when it comes to death no one even dreams of escaping it – or dreams that anything will be spared’ (29). For Derrida death is an unknowable limit. That we cannot know our own death makes it aporetic as a limit. There is no path – a poros. This is a critique of Heidegger’s notion of being-towards-death, the possibility of an impossibility the prospect of which enables dasein to achieve an authentic understanding of its life. In his critique of Heidegger’s understanding of death, Derrida is influenced by Maurice Blanchot, especially in texts such as ‘Le Pas au Dela’ (the step/not beyond), in which death, for Blanchot, rather than being the ‘possibility of the impossible’, is the ‘impossibility of the possible’  – the impossibility of death for us (1992). Among Blanchot’s oeuvre is a small ‘récit’, ‘L’Instant de ma Mort’, translated in English as ‘The Instant of My Death’ (Blanchot and Derrida, 2000). In this short story of little more than a thousand words, Blanchot describes an incident which may or may not be autobiographical (and which resembles a famous episode in Dostoyevsky’s life) in which a young man hiding in a chateau during the Second World War narrowly escapes being executed.

Photography in the Time that Remains


In  the English language edition Blanchot’s text is accompanied by a longer essay by Derrida entitled, tellingly, ‘Demeure’, in which he analyses questions of fiction and testimony. In Blanchot’s story the narrator describes the feeling of lightness of the young man after his near execution, involving neither happiness nor unhappiness, nor the absence of fear, but ‘as if the death outside him could only collide with the death in him’. The story’s last words, now in the first person, are: ‘The instance of my death, henceforth always in abeyance’ (11). In English of course the word ‘shot’ is used to denote a photographic image and, as Susan Sontag famously pointed out, photography was developed at the same time as modern ballistic technology and the act of taking images is described in terms of shooting and photoshoots (1977: 14). As far as I can tell this metaphor does not operate in French except inasmuch as a word used in French for a photographic shot is, presumably in Franglais, ‘le shot’, so I am hesitant to make the connection between Blanchot’s récit, Derrida’s response, ‘Demeure’, and his later set of considerations on photography, Athènes, Demeure. But perhaps there is something to be drawn out of this concerning photography and Blanchot’s little parable of a messianic relation to life and death revealed by his experience of nearly being shot. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot recounts a ‘Jewish messianic thought’ about ‘the relation between the event and its nonoccurence’ (1995: 141). The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, incognito, among the beggars and lepers, but is recognized. Despite his actually being there, the one who recognizes him asks, ‘When will you come?’ (Ibid.). Like death the Jewish messiah described by Blanchot does not come at the end of history, but interrupts it in order to redeem it. Photography’s invention can be dated to the 1820s and 1830s, from Nicéphore Niépce’s first successful fixing of an image onto paper in 1825 (or maybe 1822) to his collaboration with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre from 1829 onwards to improve the process, and on to William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the negative to make multiple copies of a single image possible in the 1840s. The period in which photography was first made possible was also the decade in which Hegel gave the lectures, posthumously published as Lectures on the Philosophies of Religion, and in which he continued to work through the implications of the ‘death of God’ (Hegel 1984: 242–3). As has been pointed out a number of times it is Hegel, rather than Nietzsche, who first


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uses this term in philosophical discourse. Hegel’s understanding of the ‘death of God’ is, to say the least, complex. For Hegel the ‘death of God’ means that God dies in his abstract transcendence and becomes immanent within time to enter the world and history. At the same time human finitude is overcome, sublated, in the infinitude of the absolute, thus effecting the death of death itself. God dies so that death can be overcome. Derrida famously wrote that all Hegel’s work could be ‘reread as a meditation on writing’ and inasmuch as Hegel, as a ‘thinker of irreducible difference’, ‘introduced the essential necessity of a written trace in a philosophical – that is to say Socratic – discourse’ is the ‘the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing’ (1976: 26). As Mark C. Taylor analysed in Erring, his early book of Derridean a/theology, the end of the book and the beginning of writing are ineluctably bound up with the ‘death of God’ (1984: 7–8). It might be pertinent to paraphrase Derrida and suggest that Hegel is also the first thinker of technics (an epithet Derrida actual bestows on Marx). What is certain is that Hegel’s philosophy emerges at the very beginning of our current epoch of new media. As John Durham Peters puts it, Hegel offers an account of communication apt for an age of transformed conditions of human contact. Meaning, for Hegel, can dwell in things as well as in people, in matter as well as minds. The nineteenth century would become increasingly familiar with expressions of the human spirit separated in time and space from the bodies of their makers – photographic images, telegraph signals, voices from the phonograph, telephone, and wireless, and moving images. (1999: 116–17)

Confronted with the implications of photography for art after the successful development of the daguerreotype in 1839, the painter Paul Delaroche is supposed to have declared that ‘from today painting is dead’. This can perhaps be understood in the same way that Derrida chose to interpret Hegel’s declaration that ‘Art is a thing of the past’, by which Hegel meant that Art had been superseded by Philosophy. Derrida, glossing the work of Paul de Man, suggests that if art is a thing of the past, this comes from its link, through writing, the sign, tekhne, with that thinking memory, that memory without memory, with that power of Gedächtnis without Errinerung. This power, we now know, is pre-occupied by a past which has never been present and will never allow itself to be reanimated in the interiority of consciousness. (1990: 65)

Photography in the Time that Remains


Similarly, the advent of photography, as ‘graphie’, reveals painting to be always already dead, as zoography, and as pharmakon Here painting – zoography – betrays being and speech, words and things themselves because it freezes them. Its offshoots seem to be living things but when one questions them, they no longer respond. Zoography has brought death. The same goes for writing. No one, and certainly not the father, is there when one questions. Rousseau would approve without reservations. Writing carries death. One could play on this: writing as zoography as that painting of the living which stabilizes animality, is, according to Rousseau, the writing of the savages. … Writing would indeed be the pictorial representations of the hunted beast: magical capture and murder. (Derrida 1976, 292)

Yet it is also possible to suggest that Hegel’s totalizing understanding of time is antithetical to the temporal operations of photography, particularly as it is manifested in the Christological elements of his thought. This can be contrasted with the understanding of temporality of Søren Kierkegaard, another philosopher whose life more or less coincided with the beginnings of photography. Among Kierkegaard’s many contributions to thought was his consideration of the ‘instant’, or in Danish, Øieblikkett (sometimes mistranslated as ‘blink’). In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard cites ‘Ingeborg gazing out over the sea to descry Frithiof ’, an image taken from an Icelandic saga ([1844] 1957: 78). As George Pattison glosses this passage, what Ingeborg looks at is a ‘vanishing object, something in the process of vanishing from her field of vision’. She also knows that while Frithiof is away she will be forced by her brothers to marry someone else, thus the separation described in this passage of the saga is ‘final and irrevocable’ (2002: 17). The instant Ingeborg expresses her feelings by, in this case, sighing and thus entering into the temporality of articulation, and by extension, language, the moment of vision, the instant, which is the ‘unqualified, because unarticulated, apprehension of the eternal, is past’ (18). As Pattison puts it, ‘What the image of Ingeborg’s glance gives us is precisely that which cannot come to expression within the image we are given: the eternal separation of the lovers’ (ibid.). Kierkegaard defines the instant as ‘not properly an atom of time, but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first effort to bring time to a stop’ ([1844] 1957: 79). In a footnote to the paragraph in which this definition appears, he cites a ‘poetical paraphrase of the instant in St Paul’s


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claim that the world will pass away in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye’ (ibid.). He then recounts an anecdote about two actors in Copenhagen who in the middle of a ‘pantomime representation of some passionate conflict   … suddenly came to a stop and remained motionless, as though they were petrified in the pantomimic expression of the instant’ (ibid.). Kierkegaard suggests this produces a ‘most comical effect, because the instant becomes accidentally commensurable with the eternal’. The instant and the eternal in Kierkegaard are eschatological. In Pattison’s words the Kierkegaardian eternal is not the ‘subject of a particular kind of experience … a special sort of moment within a concatenation of moments’. It is rather Christological, ‘“the fullness of time”, the “kairos” of the New Testament, the “moment” that yields a vision of the meaning of life as lived before the face of the eternal’ (2002: 18). In particular for Kierkegaard it is the ‘“moment” of the incarnation, in which the eternal comes into time, and makes time meaningful’ (ibid.). (Many years after the death of Kierkegaard, the French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson will describe his ability to capture a particularity as ‘the decisive moment’, a phrase he adopted from the writings of the seventeenth-century Cardinal de Retz, who declared that ‘there is nothing in this world that does not have its decisive moment’.) Thus, here we have something like a photographic version of the kairological moment of the incarnation. In God without Being theological philosopher Jean-Luc Marion describes the Gospels thus: The evangelical texts fix literally the effects of meaning and of memory on the witnesses of an unimaginable, unheard of, unforeseeable, and in a sense invisible eruption. The Christic event left its traces on some texts, as a nuclear explosion leaves burns and shadows on the walls: an unbearable radiation. (1991: 145)

Marion compares this to the veil of Veronica, the cloth which traditionally bears the imprint of Christ’s face, though he is clearly referring to both the images of objects fixed on walls and floors by the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also of course the Turin Shroud, the cloth with the image of a corpse some believe to be the burial shroud of Christ (and which some explain as caused by a form of radiation). In 1898, Italian photographer Secondo Pia took the first photographs of the Shroud. The negative of the shroud that Pia took looked far more realistic

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than the cloth itself. Putting aside the issue of the shroud’s authenticity, what is interesting here is that this object should apparently prefigure photography, the medium both most bound up with faith in that it commands belief in the existence and veracity of what it shows, and which most directly re-presents, makes present, that which is absent, or, in other words, a trace. (In passing, South African art historian Nicholas Allen believes the Shroud is actually a photograph, and dates from the medieval period when, he claims, the understanding of optics was sufficiently sophisticated to make the development of photography possible. See Allen (1993).) That the Shroud resembles a photograph was, of course, only perceptible in the era in which photography existed. At another level the revelation that the Shroud seems to be a kind of photograph produces its own dislocating temporality, in which, in the first century of the common era, God, Christ or Christianity will have already invented photography, before Niépce, Daguerre or Fox Talbot actually developed the technology which now bears that name. Or perhaps Christianity initiates a certain temporality that develops to culminate in photography. The idea that photography is messianic is implicit in the work of Walter Benjamin. As Eduardo Cadava has pointed out in his book Words of Light, Benjamin’s weak messianism is photographic, and his understanding of photography is correspondingly messianic (1998: xx and passim). Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of Paul in his book The Time That Remains engages directly with what he understands as the nature of Pauline messianic time, understood through the work of Benjamin. He takes his cue from what he takes to be a mistranslation of a fragment in The Arcades Project by Benjamin. It reads ‘a line divided according to the cut of Apollo … that perceives its own division as beyond itself ’ (2005: 49–50). Agamben claims that there is no record in classical mythology of the ‘cut of Apollo’ and that the passage actually refers to ‘the cut of Apelles’ (50). Pliny recounts the tale of the rivalry between the painters Apelles and Protogenes, in which the latter draws a line so fine that it seems not to have been drawn by human hand, whereupon Apelles draws an even finer line that divides that of Protogenes in half lengthwise (ibid.). Agamben uses this figure of a line divided thus as a means of characterizing Paul’s argument for the inclusion of non-Jews in the early, then entirely Jewish, church. According to Paul some Jews are not Jews and some non-Jews are not


Unnatural Theology

non-Jews. The partition of the law into Jew and non-Jew is itself divided, so that both Jew and non-Jew are divided into Jew or non-Jew according to or without Law, making a remnant or remainder to be non-non-Jews, and thus within the messianic law (51). This remnant is also the remnant between every people and itself, or the impossibility of the Jew or Greek to coincide with himself entirely, engendering a tension that makes every Jew a non-Jew and every Greek a non-Greek, without providing another identity (ibid.). Agamben proffers this explanation of the Pauline mission against Alain Badiou’s conception of Paul’s supposed transcendental universalism and toleration of difference, which Agamben claims makes no sense in relation to Paul (53). A similar structure can be seen in messianic time. According to Agamben, the Jewish apocalyptic tradition recognized a distinction between two times or worlds, the ‘olam hazzeh, the duration of the world from its creation to its end, and the ‘olam habba, the world to come, the ‘atemporal eternity that comes after the end of the world’ (62). But for Paul, living in expectation of the end and the coming of the messiah, messianic time is neither. It is rather a division of time that is itself divided by a ‘messianic caesura’ or ‘Apelles’ cut’. Thus messianic time puts into question the very division between the two ‘olamin (ibid.). If the Pauline conception of time is to be represented as a line, then it might consist of a starting point, that of creation, A, then B, the ‘time of the now’ initiated by the resurrection of Jesus, followed by C, the parousia, the full presence of the Messiah, the Day of Wrath and the end of time, the point where time explodes or implodes into the other eon, eternity (63–4). Agamben suggests that messianic time is best understood as a caesura in which the division between the two times is itself divided, introducing a remnant that exceeds the division, and, like the caesura in the division between Jew and non-Jew, produces a tension and an impossibility of time coinciding with itself. In order to grasp this complex idea Agamben turns to the linguistics of Gustave Guillaume, and his concept of ‘operational time’ (65). Time can be represented as an infinite line with the past and the future intersected by the present. Such a representation is representable but unthinkable, whereas our actual experience of time is thinkable but unrepresentable (64). What it does not show is time in ‘the act of being constructed in thought’ (ibid.). Thus, for Agamben, in ‘every representation we make of time and in every

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discourse by means of which we define and represent time, another time is implied that is not entirely consumed by representation’. Thus we produce ‘an additional time with regard to chronological time’, because we are prevented from coinciding with the time out of which we could make images and representations. This ulterior time ‘is something like a time within time  – not ulterior but interior’ which ‘allows for the possibility of my achieving and taking hold of it’ (67). Agamben proposes a definition of messianic time, arising out of this concept of operational time as ‘the time that time takes to come to an end … the time we take to bring to an end, to achieve our representation of time’ (68). This is neither the unthinkable line of chronological time, nor a segment cut out of time, but the time that is left to us, the time in which we take hold of and achieve our representations of time, the time that we ourselves are, the only real time, the only time we have. At the end of The Time That Remains Agamben claims to find traces of Pauline messianism in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Agamben quotes Benjamin’s intention to ‘develop the art of citing without citation marks’ (138). In the original manuscript of the ‘Theses’ the word ‘weak’ in the sentence, ‘Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak power’ is typed with a space between each letter. Agamben claims that this is an example of sperren, spacing, sometimes used in German typography instead of italicization, and intended to emphasize the word and make it, in Agamben’s words, ‘hyperread’. Agamben claims that this is a form of citation without marks and refers to the Pauline text, the Second Letter to the Corinthians 12: 9–10, in which Paul proclaims, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. … Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (139–40)

Agamben understands this in relation to the Benjaminian concept of ‘image’, ‘bild’. In the fifth ‘Thesis’ Benjamin writes, ‘The true image of the past flees by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at an instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again. … For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens


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to disappear irretrievably’ (141). For Benjamin the image, which can be all objects, works of art, texts, records or documents, is the point where the past and the present are united in a ‘flash with the now to form a constellation’, rather than the past shedding light on the present or vice versa, much as, for Paul, events in the past are typologically related to the messianic now . In The Arcades Project Benjamin famously wrote: The dialectical image is a lightning flash. The Then must be held fast as it flashes its lightning image in the Now of recognizability. The rescue that is thus – and only thus – effected, can only take place for that which, in the next moment, is already lost. (2002: 462)

It is tempting to compare this lightning flash to that of a camera flashbulb. In the same ‘konvolut’ Benjamin describes his ‘modest methodological proposal for the cultural-historical dialectic’. He describes the way in which oppositions are established in the understanding of any historical epoch, between its productive, forward looking, lively and positive part, and what is regarded as abortive, retrograde and obsolescent. The positive element in this opposition emerges only in relation to its negation, which acts solely in the background. What Benjamin proposes is a continual shift of the angle of vision on each epoch, so that new oppositions appear in which that which was previously regarded as negative is seen as positive, and that this process should take place until everything is redeemed, or, as he puts it in The Arcades Project ‘until the entire past is brought into the present in a historical apocatastasis’ (1999: 459). This last word is the name given in theology for the belief in universal salvation for all creatures. In an essay in his collection Profanations, Agamben proposes that what he loves about photography is that it ‘in some way captures the Last Judgment; it represents the world as it appears on the last day, the Day of Wrath’ (2007: 23). He does not of course mean in terms of content, but rather in the fact that photography can capture ‘everything that happens’. He takes as his most paradigmatic example of this in Daguerre’s famous early image of the Boulevard du Temple. Owing to the long exposure needed to take the image the street appears deserted as all the passing traffic was going too fast to be caught on the photographic plate, all that is except the man in the bottom left corner who is having his shoes shined (23–4). Agamben claims he could not ‘have invented a more adequate image of the Last Judgment’ because in the invisible crowd ‘all

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of humanity – is present’, but cannot be seen, ‘because the judgment concerns a single person, a single life: precisely this one and no other’ (24). For Agamben ‘the subject shown in the photo demands something from us’. Even if every aspect has been erased ‘they demand not to be forgotten’(25). Agamben cites Origen’s solution to the vexed questions concerning the resurrection of the flesh at the end of time. In response to those theologians who were worried whether ‘the body would be resuscitated in the condition it happened to be in at the moment of death (perhaps old, bald, missing a leg) or in the integrity of its youth’ Origen proposed that it was the ‘form’ of the body, its ‘eidos’, that would be resurrected at Judgment Day. Thus, for Agamben, photography ‘is, in this sense, a prophecy of the glorious body (27). Photography demands that we remember all this, and photographs testify to all those lost names, like a Book of Life that the new angel of the apocalypse – the angel of photography holds in his hands at the end of all days, that is, every day. (Ibid.)


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Since the 1950s there has been a massive proliferation and increasing legitimization of pornographic imagery, not least because of the internet. This extends beyond the boundaries of what might be recognizable as pornography, and has entered into the mainstream of culture. In the 1980s Susanne Kappeler described and wrote about what she called ‘the pornography of representation’, the idea that images that offend are not limited to some special domain called pornography, but rather that our everyday culture is saturated with pornographic imagery (Kappeler, 1986). Without losing the specific critique of contemporary capitalist culture in Kappeler’s thesis, I would like to look at this in a slightly different way than is normal. Perhaps it is useful to think of the offense given by these images as something more like ‘blasphemy’, in the sense of profane talk of something supposed to be sacred. I use this term deliberately to suggest that the issue involved in the offensiveness is, in subtle ways, bound up with the traces of religion. There is a sense in which all images are obscene. In the very act of showing they reveal something that ought otherwise to be concealed, that should happen ‘obscaena’, offstage, out of sight of the audience. This is perhaps because they show that what is represented is always absolutely other. Or, to put it another way, the image exposes the otherness of what it shows. In particular, it exposes the gap between the viewer and what he or she views, a gap that is ultimately always that of a radical alterity. Anything that is available to me as a representation is entirely separate from me (including my own image). If this is so then the image of human nakedness, of what should be concealed in shame, becomes the paradigm of the image more generally. As Derrida points out in The Animal That Therefore I Am, in a sense only a human can be naked, because the human is the only animal which chooses


Unnatural Theology

to clothe itself. Animals are not naked, do not exist in nakedness, do not feel themselves to be naked, whereas humans are. Clothes and therefore nakedness are both proper to man, and as such derived from technicity, along with shame, evil, history and work (2008: 5). Thus, the image of the naked human always involves a shameful exposure to the gaze of the other. This encompasses a spectrum from the high art nude to pornography, and makes the supposed distinctions between different forms of nude image problematic. But the ultimate example of what cannot, must not, be seen is God, who is also the ultimate instance of radical alterity. The Bible often proclaims that it is not possible to see God and live. In Exodus Moses asks to see the glory of God, and is refused, and shown God’s back instead. The Commandments given to Moses to God are also listed in Exodus (among other places). The fourth Commandment states, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ This, of course, constitutes an important part of a longer history of interdiction of the image, which includes also Byzantine and later Reformation iconoclasm, as well as Islamic forbidding of figural representation, and even modernist negation of the representational in the visual arts. That the fourth Commandment forbids all forms of representation suggests that the radical alterity, of which God is the ultimate example, applies to all things in creation, a prefiguring of Derrida’s famous declaration that ‘tout autre est tout autre’ (every other is completely other) (1995b: 82). But there is also, arguably, a sense in which the notion of the female body as obscene is a specific phenomenon. In Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan looked at the late medieval phenomenon of courtly love, a theme he returned to in Seminar XX: Encore. In the latter he suggests that ‘God’ persists in the form of the sexed Other (1982: 141). This is enabled in particular by the ‘jouissance’ of woman. Courtly love thus elevates woman to the absolute real Other, inaccessible and also devoid of specificity, and empty of all signification. This can be glimpsed in the long history of images of idealized femininity, from Dante’s Beatrice, to Goethe’s ‘eternal feminine’ and onto Breton’s fugitive objects of mad love. It is in the context of courtly love, as Denis de Rougemont pointed out in Love in the Western World (1956), that the phenomenon of romantic love emerged. This kind of love emphasizes

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the transporting effects of erotic desire, over the more mundane demands of marital life, to the detriment of the latter. As Michel de Certeau proposes, this eroticism emerged at the same time as what he calls ‘a certain mystics’, and both are a response to the ‘progressive decline of God as One, the object of love’. The missing One is replaced by ‘an indefinite series of ephemeral productions’ and around ‘something missing’, which leads Don Juan to pursue his ‘mille e tre’ conquests in repetitive pursuit of the absent unique, inaccessible ‘woman’ (1992: 4). Thus, the religious demythification that has taken place since the thirteenth century has seen a concomitant rise in a progressive mythfication of love, in which the One is no longer God, but the other, and in a masculine literature, woman (whose adored body is no less elusive than the vanished God) . For Lacan, Woman is one of the ‘names-of-the-father’. In Seminar XXIII Lacan declares simply, ‘The absolute necessity for the human species being that there should be Another of the Other. This is the one generally called God, but which analysis unveils as being quite simply The Woman.’ It is in this context that Lacan also declared that ‘Woman is a symptom of man’ ([1975] n.d.: 159). It is perhaps as a result of the occupation by ‘Woman’ in the place of God, as the latter absconds or disappears from view, that the artistic genre of the female nude emerges in the Renaissance. The female nude is the subject, not merely of erotic desire, but that desire as aimed at the radical alterity of the other, one of whose names is God. The naked woman, especially when reclining, becomes the maddening enigma whose alterity the male artist seeks to breech in a hopeless quest for wholeness. That wholeness itself is represented by the absence of the hole by which it might be breeched, or in other words, the vagina. It is only through his ability to fill this hole that the man is given the illusion that the alterity of the other can be overcome, an illusion doomed to be followed by the traumatic realization of the impossibility of the sexual relation. That impossibility itself reveals that there is no hope of wholeness, of healing in our relations with the other, whether the other sex, or God as the other, but only an experience of trauma. This is the trauma of the possibility of castration. Freud famously remarks ‘Probably no male human is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals’ (1977: 354). For Freud this threat of castration


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is disavowed through the process of fetishism, in which something stands in for the absence of the penis in the female human. The image of the female nude, in its apparent wholeness, and in the disavowal of the female genitals as a lack arising out of castration, is itself a kind of Freudian fetish, as perhaps is the particular fascination with female beauty. It was at around the same time as the emergence of the nude as one of the main subjects of Western art that pornography also began. As Lynn Hunt and others have pointed out, pornography, as opposed to eroticism, is an invention of modernity, which began to emerge in the sixteenth century, before being named and defined in the nineteenth century (Hunt, 1993). Its emergence thus coincides with the paradigmatically modern gaze, the scopic regime of modernity, named by Martin Jay as Cartesian perspectivalism (Foster, 1988: 3–27). This is a form of looking which involves vision projecting out from the autonomous subject to a world from which it is separate. It seeks to penetrate what it looks at. Thus, it is phallic, and as such also vulnerable to castration, as what is looked at holds the viewer in its medusan gaze, the gaze that denies him recognition of his possession of the phallus. Pornography thus emerges as the other of the modern phallic fetish nude of high art, which itself is intended to disavow the castrating gaze of the other. This then may be the important difference between art and pornography in terms of the nude. The former offers the promise of wholeness by concealing the site of trauma, while the latter reveals it traumatically. Pornography exists only in relation to, and in distinction from, the fine art nude, as its other. Pornography, as obscene, would not have emerged without the kind of nude representation in which the genitals were disavowed, and those representations in turn themselves emerged in relation to the divinization of the female body as radically other. In a sense pornography offers the revelation of the truth of the image as obscene, and thus also concerned with the radically other, one word for which might be God. The revelation is also that the relation with the radically other, God, woman, or whatever, is always traumatic, and involves the undoing of the integrity of the self. The distinction between art and pornography turns possibly on pubic hair, which in turn is metonymic of the female genitals. The history of the portrayal of pubic hair in art, and especially Western art, is an interesting topic in itself. Though there are earlier examples of the representation of pubic hair in

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Western art, especially in print making, the first major work of art to explicitly make such a representation was possibly Francisco Goya’s The Naked Maja. This was regarded by many at the time as pornographic, as later would be a painting it greatly influenced, Manet’s Olympia, which, though it does not feature pubic hair, was scandalous in being a portrait of a courtesan rather than an idealized female figure of myth. The scandalousness of The Naked Maja does bring into doubt one of the presumptions of studies of pornographic images; that the image of the nude woman only became scandalous with the invention of the photography. Painted at the end of the eighteenth century, Goya’s picture predates the invention of photography by several decades. On the other hand, photography does greatly facilitate both the production and distribution of images, thus depriving them of the legitimation by artistic skill, and by being situated in museums and other respectable institutions. Above all, photography allows images to circulate freely and out of control of the authorities. In this regard photographs are similar to prostitutes, and there is a link between pornography, which means literally writing about prostitutes, and photography. Thus, the emergence of the scandalousness of the female nude is largely in the context of a culture in which photography has been developed. The painting that manifests this most overtly is of course Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. This notorious painting shows nothing less than what would now be called a ‘beaver shot’, or in other words an explicit and detailed rendition of female genitalia, complete with copious pubic hair. To add to the image’s transgressive and pornographic air, the model is covered by a sheet above the breasts. It is believed that the model for the image may have been Joanna Heffernan, who was painted by Courbet a number of times. She was James McNeill Whistler’s mistress at the time, and the subject of Symphony in White no. 1: The White Girl, a far more idealized portrayal of femininity. Courbet and Whistler are both artists who eschewed the narrative and thus the moralizing functions of art, and instead practised forms of realism that aimed to paint the world as it is, as is manifested in L’Origine du Monde. The title of the painting, while alluding to the role of female genitalia in procreation and birth, also seems to hint at a theological element: God is the origin of the world, the prime mover. If, as I suggested, God is the ultimate example of what must not be looked at, what is obscene, then the female genitals are in some way an


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image of God (not least also because they are regarded often as a lack or an absence). Originally commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat named Khalil Bey, the painting was eventually bought by none other than Jacques Lacan, who was then married to Georges Bataille’s ex-wife Sylvia. Lacan commissioned his friend André Masson to decorate a sliding door with a stylized drawing of the painting, in order to conceal it if necessary. The painting remains obscene enough to cause problems when used as book covers as recently as the last decade, and even now on Facebook where posts in which it features are removed by moderators. The obvious, and indeed family, connection here is with Georges Bataille’s story ‘Madame Edwarda’. This extraordinary story, written under the pseudonym Pierre Angelique (‘angelic peter’, or ‘angelic stone’, with a clear reference to St Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor), involves the narrator’s description of a delirious trip through Paris, stopping at a brothel where he encounters the eponymous Edwarda, a prostitute. After ejaculating (‘bursting, like a pane of glass shattering’) he suddenly freezes. ‘It was as though I were borne aloft in a flight of headless and unbodied angels shaped from the broad swooping of wings, but it was simpler than that. I became unhappy and felt painfully forsaken, as one is when in the presence of GOD’ ([1941] 1995: 149). Later, Edwarda disappears and then reappears and speaks to the narrator. Madame Edwarda’s thin voice, like her slender body, was obscene: ‘I guess what you want is to see the old rag and ruin,’ she said. Hanging on to the tabletop with both hands, I twisted around toward her. She was seated, she held one leg stuck up in the air, to open her crack yet wider she used fingers to draw the folds of skin apart. And so Madame Edwarda’s ‘old rag and ruin’ loured at me, hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid. ‘Why,’ I stammered in a subdued tone, ‘why are you doing that?’ ‘You can see for yourself,’ she said, ‘I’m GOD.’ ‘I’m going crazy –’ ‘Oh, no you don’t, you’ve got to see, look. … ’ Her harsh, scraping voice mellowed, she became almost childlike in order to say, with a lassitude, with the infinite smile of abandon: ‘Oh, listen, fellow! The fun I’ve had.’ (150)

They leave the brothel and go into the streets of Paris. At that hour of the night the street was deserted. Suddenly gone wild, mute, Edwarda raced on alone. The Porte Saint-Denis loomed before her, she

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stopped. I stopped too, she waited for me underneath the arch – unmoving, exactly under the arch. She was entirely black, simply there, as distressing as an emptiness, a hole. I realized she wasn’t frolicking, wasn’t joking, and indeed that, beneath the garment enfolding her, she was mindless: rapt, absent. Then all the drunken exhilaration drained out of me, then I knew that She had not lied, that She was GOD. Her presence had about it the unintelligible out-and-out simplicity of a stone right in the middle of the city I had the feeling of being in the mountains at night time, lost in a lifeless, hollow solitude. (152)

Maurice Blanchot invokes Madame Edwarda in his short essay ‘The Community of Lovers’. Taking his cue from Marguerite Duras’ short récit ‘The Malady of Death’ he connects love with death and writes ‘of that malady of death which at times would designate love prevented and at other times the pure movement of loving, of calling to the abyss, to the black night discovered by the vertiginous emptiness “of the spread legs” (how not to think here of Madame Edwarda)’ (2006: 41). The story by Duras describes an encounter between a man and a beautiful woman he hires in order to understand the enigma of love. For Blanchot the woman represents the enigmatic Other that the man cannot ever fully grasp. Always in action in front of this body he looks upon in unhappiness, because he cannot see all of it, its impossible totality, all its aspects; though she be a closed form only in as much as she escapes the summons, she escapes what would turn her into a graspable whole, a sum that would integrate the infinite and thus reduce it to an integrable finite. (39)

Blanchot, Bataille and Duras may help us understand Marcel Duchamp’s last work, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage, which he worked on in secret for the last couple of decades of his life. It was only shown posthumously, and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work consists of a wooden door, in which there are two small peepholes. Looking through the holes one sees a tableau of a young woman’s body in a kind of undergrowth. She appears to be holding a gas lamp in her upraised left hand. Her head is not visible, and her hairless genitals are directly facing the viewer. Among other things this is Duchamp’s ironic homage to Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. Étant donnés is susceptible to endless interpretation, the enabling of which was, of course, one of Duchamp’s artistic strategies. At a fairly straightforward


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level the work’s mise en scène suggests an engagement with the obscenity of the nude representation. Behind the heavy wooden door it is literally obscene, ‘offscene’. And of course the obligation to peer into the peepholes casts the viewer into the role of explicit voyeur. Perhaps Duchamp is casting the female body as a kind of ready-made. In this context it is worth remembering that Duchamp described his work, ironically perhaps, as ‘transubstantiation’, the process in which the ordinary materials of bread and wine are transformed into the body of God. The period in which he worked on Étant donnés in secret is also the time in which pornography became sanitized and legitimized for public consumption, through publications such as Playboy, founded in 1953. Playboy was one of the harbingers of the so-called sexual revolution which would be a key component of the upheavals of the 1960s. Against expectations Bataille condemned this liberation or liberalization, remarking, ‘In my view, sexual disorder is accursed. In this respect and in spite of appearances, I am opposed to the tendency which seems today to be sweeping it away. I am not among those who see the neglect of sexual interdictions as a solution. I even think that human potential depends on these interdictions: we could not imagine this potential without these interdictions’ (Surya, 2002: 451). The enigma of woman continues to perturb artists, both male and female, from Richard Hamilton’s late nudes, to Jenny Savile’s fleshy paintings, and onto Damien Hirst’s ludicrous sculpture ‘Verity’. The last, which is an eleven-foothigh representation of a pregnant woman, whose womb has been partially exposed, and who holds a sword aloft, does rather simple-mindedly engage with the trope of woman as truth. Bataille famously compared the unveiling of truth to a young girl undressing. This is also the trope examined in Derrida’s famous engagement with Nietzsche. In the late 1880s Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil, which starts with the question ‘Supposing truth to be a woman – what?’ (2003: 31). This question becomes the starting point for Derrida’s examination of Nietzsche’s style in Eperons/Spurs, as well as Nietzsche’s conflation of ‘Woman’ with ‘Truth’ (Derrida, 1978a). In his essay ‘Le Facteur de la Verite’ Derrida analyses the process of psychoanalytic reading as an unveiling, ‘aletheia’, to use the term taken from the Greek by Heidegger to indicate truth as ‘un-concealing’. Writing about Lacan’s seminar on Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’, he suggests that Lacan’s supposed

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restitution of the truth of the story is governed by the ‘notion of veiling/ unveiling’ that ‘attunes the entire Seminar to the Heideggerian discourse on the truth’ (1987a: 439) Writing about the place of the eponymous letter in the story he continues: This proper place … is the place of castration: woman as the unveiled site of a lack of a penis, as the truth of the phallus, that is, of castration. … Veiling/ unveiling here concerns a hole, a non-being: the Truth of Being as nonbeing. The truth is ‘woman’ as veiled/unveiled castration. This is where the signifier (its inadequation with the signified) gets underway, this is the site of the signifier. But this is also where the trial begins, the promise of reappropriation, of return: ‘the search for and restitution of the object’. … The singular unity of the letter is the site of the contract of the truth with itself. This is why the letter comes back to, amounts to [revient à] woman  … this is why, as Lacan says elsewhere, the letter amounts to, comes back to Being … that is to the nothing that would be opening itself as the hole between woman’s legs. (Ibid.)

But that castration is the site of truth does not mean ‘truth as essential dislocation and irreducible fragmentation’. Castration-truth contracts itself to bring the ‘phallus, the signifier, the letter, or the fetish back into their oikos, their familiar dwelling, their proper place’. In this it is the opposite to, or an antidote for fragmentation, inasmuch as what is missing has a fixed place, free from all substitution. ‘Something is missing from its place, but the lack is never missing from it’ (ibid.). This is why for Lacan, according to Derrida, there is a link between Femininity and Truth, and why Lacan capitalizes the word Woman, a practice he normally reserves for Truth. Castration-truth is contrasted with ‘dissemination’, Derrida’s term for the ‘always already divided generation of meaning’, which makes it impossible to return to a unity of meaning, and which ‘spills in advance’. As Derrida puts it in an interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta, republished in Positions: Dissemination ‘is’ this angle of the play of castration which does not signify, which permits itself to be constituted neither as a signified, nor a signifier, no more presents that represents itself, no more shows than hides itself. Therefore in and of itself it is neither truth (adequation or unveiling) nor veil. It is what I have called the graphic of the hymen, which can no longer be measured by the opposition veil/nonveil. (2002: 71)


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In Rogues Derrida suggests: For wherever the name of God would allow us to think something else, for example a vulnerable nonsovereignty, one that suffers and is divisible, one that is mortal even, capable of contradicting itself or of repenting (a thought that is neither impossible nor without example), it would be a completely different story, perhaps even the story of a God who deconstructs himself in his ipseity. (2005b: 157)

Perhaps what is needed is a deconstruction of Woman as the privileged site of lack and as maddening enigma, as a substitute for God. Against that structuring which insists on privileging the binary opposition between man and woman, one might imagine a differential structure composed of singularities, each of which is other to the other. Perhaps the work of feminist artists such as Nan Goldin or Cindy Sherman hint at this in different ways. Derrida tries to imagine such a possibility in his interview with feminist theorist Christie McDonald in the journal Diacritics in which he proposes ‘a relationship to the other where the code of sexual marks would no longer be discriminating … . The relationship would not be a-sexual, far from it, but would be sexual otherwise: beyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine, beyond bi-sexuality as well, beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality which come to the same thing’ (McDonald and Derrida, 1982: 76). Perhaps Derrida’s suggestion offers us an idea of what sexuality itself could become, especially in relation to what might be possible online. In among the more conventional and more conventionally transgressive representations of sexuality it is possible that other more complex ways of being can be found, that confound the normative binaries of gendered sexuality. This returns us to Kappeler’s analysis of the pornography of representation. What might such a vision of a postbinary sexuality mean for pornography? For the future of pornography? And for its relation to sexual violence and domination? Perhaps, in keeping with Derrida’s antiocularcentrism, and suspicion of the role of light and vision in metaphysics, from Plato, through the Enlightenment, and onto Phenomenology, we need to practice a kind of iconoclasm, a deliberate refusal of, or blindness in front of, the image. It is of course impossible to escape the image and representation, as the history of iconoclasm shows. Failing this we need perhaps to complicate our response and relation to the image by refusing its referential claims, as Derrida does in Right of Inspection.

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In this polylogue, a commentary on a series of photographs, some erotic and maybe even pornographic, by Marie-Francoise Plissart, Derrida deliberately refuses any overarching interpretation. The point here is not to reveal the truth underneath the image, even if that truth is one of exploitation and abuse, but rather to refuse the image the right to truth. Perhaps Giorgio Agamben has the answer, or maybe at least, an answer. Without ever denying the issues of power, subjugation and subjection that are part of the pornographic industry, he also sees something of the process of inoperativity in the class markers that pornographic performers display through clothing, but which have no importance any more. Pornography offers a glimpse, behind the technologized spectacle of bodies, of a utopic society without class, and with an immediate potential for activity, fulfilment and pleasure. This is a prefiguring of the ‘coming community’ that is his vision of a future society beyond property and commodification. As he puts it in The Coming Community, ‘Advertising and pornography, which escort the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the knowing midwives of this new body of humanity’ (1993: 50). As Sergei Prozorov suggests, for Agamben, pornography is paradigmatic site of the constitution of the unprofanable, the epitome of the late capitalist ‘society of the spectacle’ and thus the primary target of profanatory criticism, and of profanation understood as the overcoming of all social separations and the return of objects of social praxis to free use (2011).


Pop Eschatology

In his book Theoria, Peter Fuller examined the condition of ‘art, in the absence of grace’, that he felt characterized much of modern and postmodern art, meaning in the absence of a belief in God and the divinely ordained natural order. Theoria is a conscious attempt on the part of Fuller to take on John Ruskin’s mantle, an aim which was made even more explicit in the title of the art magazine Fuller founded, Modern Painters, which was also, of course, the name of Ruskin’s early magnum opus. The magazine was a highly controversial publication, representing an apparently conservative shift in the thinking of a critic previously regarded as being on the left and even a Marxist. Fuller’s aim is to make a strong case for the kinds of art that he felt was able to reflect the grace and sublimity of nature, even in a world without God, against the meaningless aestheticism of modern and, far worse, postmodern art (1988: 213–14). Fuller found pockets of resistance among the British landscape artists from Turner in the early nineteenth century to the neo-romantics of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as Henry Moore and others, and was also greatly taken by post-war Australian landscape painting. Nevertheless, he conceded a general sense of the absence of God from the world, which was most cogently expressed in religious terms by theologian Karl Barth and in artistic terms by Modernism and modern design (168–75). Theoria is undoubtedly an angry book, intent on attacking what Fuller clearly saw as the shibboleths of a corrupt art establishment. Among Fuller’s targets were John Berger (whom he compares unfavourably to Kenneth Clark, an astonishing move at the time for a supposedly radical art critic), the Tate Gallery, as it known then, the Turner Prize, Pop Art and ‘artists’ (Fuller’s scare quotes) Gilbert and George and Julian Schnabel. It was also, unsurprisingly, controversial and probably did Fuller’s career or reputation little good. And while it is still good to see John Berger’s priggish Marxist pieties criticized or


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George and Gilbert’s meretricious work damned, the book does now appear dated. Much of the work he approves of is weak, some of the work he damns is better than he gives credit for, and the fractal geometry, which he sees as a potential source for a new sublime vision of nature, now appears much less interesting than it might have in the 1980s (229–32). Yet, for all its reactionary attitudes and anachronism reading Theoria is salutary, in that it suggests that, against the Thatcherite thinking so egregiously adopted by New Labour, there is an alternative to how things are, whether in relation to art or to late capitalism more generally. Among the artists whose work Fuller did not like was Richard Hamilton. After earlier enthusiasm, he came to regard him as the epitome of everything he hated in art, and the main culprit in the trajectory that led eventually to Damien Hirst. Hamilton’s antipathy tended at worst to generate crude, ad hominem attacks, such as in his notorious diatribe in Aspects in 1980. After Fuller’s early death in a car crash in 1990, aged forty-two, the attack on Hamilton was continued by critics such as David Cohen in Modern Painters. Fuller’s antipathy to Hamilton was part of his progress from an art criticism using Marxism and psychoanalysis to a kind of thwarted spirituality and desire for a return to an art that endowed the universe with meaning and celebrated its beauty, much as medieval religious art had, and as his beloved Ruskin wished art to continue to do. Hamilton’s art for Fuller represents a nihilistic celebration of the radically disenchanted and debased culture of consumerism. But I suggest that Hamilton was actually a profoundly religious artist, which in turn suggests that religion is always, in the end, unavoidable, especially in relation to the image, and that Hamilton’s work is no exception. What is more interesting is what kind of religious meanings one might find in Hamilton’s work. Late in his career Hamilton produced an edition of sixty digital prints showing what appeared to be an interior wall of a ‘white cube’ gallery within which there is an image of a nude woman seated in a domestic interior talking on, or perhaps more accurately listening to a cordless telephone. Despite looking, in the words of a collector of Hamilton’s work who refused to buy this work, like ‘nothing more than’ a photograph, the image is in fact a highly complex construction involving the use of sophisticated image manipulation and creation software. Thus, the image, which appears to be simply a photographic

Pop Eschatology


record of something that already exists, a simple matter of fact, is in fact a highly constructed representation. The difference between things that are constructed and things that are matters of fact is, for philosopher of science Bruno Latour, the key to the opposition between science and religion. This opposition can be traced back to the moment when what Latour calls, ‘the modern constitution’ emerged, based on a series of negotiated distinctions between nature, which becomes the concern of science, and society, which is the preserve of politics (Latour, 1993). He locates this negotiation in the disputes between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle about the respective boundaries of science and politics. Crucial to this division is the simultaneous removal of God from both realms, with nature no longer needing any divine presence, nor society a divine origin. God is rendered sufficiently transcendent not to disturb either the free play of nature or society, but accessible enough to be open to appeal in case of conflict between the laws of nature and those of society. In his book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods Latour continues to unpack the implications of this settlement for questions of belief. He proposes that ‘the Moderns’ are trammelled by a belief in belief, which they ascribe to other cultures (2011: 2–7). He describes the encounter between Portuguese Catholic explorers and the inhabitants of Guinea in West Africa in the early modern period. Despite being covered with amulets of the saints and the Virgin themselves the Portuguese accuse the Guineans of worshipping idols, because the objects they revere are clearly of human origin. The Portuguese demand that they acknowledge these objects are made; to have made in Portuguese is feito, from which the adjective feitiço is derived, which in turn gives us the word ‘fetish’ (3–4). Thus, the Portuguese stage the modern distinction between things that are true and natural, and things that are made (and, of course, they do not regard the Christian objects they wear as fetishes, as they supposedly allude to a transcendent truth). Latour points out that, firstly, this distinction is false, inasmuch as a fact (fait) is also always made (fait). From this he coins the neologism ‘factish’, to indicate how a fact is also something constructed (ix). Scientific facts, for example, are not self-evident and autonomous things out there, but constructed laboriously in laboratories (16–21). He also points out that the supposedly primitive cultures apparently languishing in superstitious belief in fetishes and idols, to which they ascribe mysterious powers, are


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actually perfectly aware that these things are made by humans, which does not in any degree lessen their efficacy. The belief in belief is a Modern Western phenomenon, projected by the Moderns onto other cultures, as part of the process of dividing the determinism of nature from the freedom of politics, and thus setting up a false distinction between facts as autonomous and as constructed. Perhaps the most vivid example of the power and meaning of a factish in Latour’s book is taken from a contemporary Indian novel, in which a modernizing Brahmin attempts to get the untouchable serfs employed by his family to touch the shaligram, the black stone worshipped as a manifestation of Vishnu (25). His increasingly furious attempts to get the serfs to touch the stone does not liberate them from false belief, but in fact deprives them and the Brahmin of their humanity (25–6). The horrified shouts of the priests and his aunt at his actions are not a shock at a liberating blasphemy, but rather shame at his actions. They already know well what he thinks he has revealed, that the stone is merely a construct (26–7). But they also know that it is, in Latour’s terminology, a ‘factish’, an example of such ‘off-center beings that allow us to live, that is, to continually pass from construction to autonomy without ever believing in either. Thanks to factishes, construction and truth remain synonymous. Once broken, they become antonyms. We can no longer pass. We can no longer create. We can no longer live. Then we have to set up factishes all over again’ (28). In a recent paper, ‘“Thou Shalt Not Freeze Frame the Image”, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate’, Latour critiques the normative presumption in which science is about the immediate and the immanent, and religion about the distant and transcendence. Latour compares religious discourse to love talk, which does not carry information that can be confirmed as fact, but rather is aimed at transforming the interlocutor in the here and now. He suggests that religion does not try to reach to ‘anything beyond, but to represent the presence of that which is called in a certain technical and ritual idiom the “Word incarnate” – that is to say again that it is here, alive, and not dead over there far away’ (Proctor, 2005: 35). By contrast, science is not about all the things we might presume it does concern, the visible, direct, immediate, tangible, matters of fact. In fact, it is about the opposite, building, as it does ‘extraordinarily long, complicated, mediated, indirect, sophisticated

Pop Eschatology


paths so as to reach the worlds … that are invisible because they are too small, too far, too powerful, too big, too odd, too surprising, too counterintuitive, through concatenations of layered instruments, calculations, models’. Thus, Latour reverses how the difference between science and religion is normally understood, in claiming that ‘it is of science that one should say that it reaches the invisible world of beyond, that she is spiritual, miraculous, soul-fulfilling, uplifting. And it is religion that should be qualified as being local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy’ (ibid.). This bring us back to the question of the religious image and what he sees it as trying to achieve. What imageries have tried to achieve through countless feats of art is exactly the opposite of turning the spectator’s eyes to the model far away: on the contrary, incredible pain has been taken to break the habitual gaze of the viewer so as to attract his or her attention to the present state, the only one which can be said to offer salvation. Everything happens as if painters, carvers, patrons of the works of art had tried to break the images inside so as to render them unfit for normal informative consumption; as if they wanted to begin, to rehearse, to start a rhythm, a movement of conversion that is understood only when the viewer – the pious viewer – takes upon herself to repeat the same tune in the same rhythm and tempo. (39)

The image by Hamilton described above has an explicitly religious title, The Annunciation, thus alluding to the moment in the New Testament in which the angel of the Lord reveals to Mary that the child she will conceive will be the son of God. Hamilton produced a number of images of the Annunciation. Though this particular version of Hamilton’s series of Annunciations does not look much like traditional representations of this event, his starting point was Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Annunciation in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. At around the same time he did produce a far more direct response to the fresco, entitled The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin. This is more or less a transcript, using photographs of women posed as the angel and the virgin. In ‘“Thou Shalt Not Freeze Frame”, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate’ Latour discusses another painting in the same cycle, followed by an analysis of a different annunciation, this time by Piero della Francesca. Latour suggests that if you make a virtual reconstruction of the picture via a computer, ‘you realize that the angel actually remains invisible to the Virgin!


Unnatural Theology

He – or she? – is hidden by the pillar! And with such an artist this cannot be just an oversight’. Thus Piero has used perspective to ‘recode his interpretation of what an invisible angel is, so as to render impossible the banal, usual, trivial view that this is a normal messenger meeting the Virgin in the normal space of daily interactions’. The ‘aim is not to add an invisible world to the visible one, but to distort, to render the visible world opaque enough, so that one is not led to misunderstand the scriptures but to reenact them truthfully’ (Proctor, 2005: 40). A religious image is not offered as a fact similar to that of science, to which we might accede in what Latour describes as ‘double click communication’, which ‘wants us to believe that it is feasible to transport without any deformation whatsoever of some accurate information about states of affairs which are not presently here’, or what people mean when they ask whether something is true, or corresponds to a state of affairs. But ‘to disappoint the drive toward doubleclick, to divert it, to break it, to subvert it, to render it impossible, is just what religious talk is after’. It is above all intended ‘to make sure that even the most absentminded, the most distant gazers, are brought back to attention so that they don’t waste their time ignoring the call to conversion’ (32). The eschatological demand, a call to pay attention to the here and now, and to conversion, seems to me to be almost literally thematized in Hamilton’s Annunciation. The nude woman is even attending to a (phone) call from an interlocutor who is invisible to her, at least. Thus, the normative space of the domestic interior (which is already made more complex by being an image within an image of an art gallery) is made opaque by the implication of an unrepresented element, that of the speaker at the other end of the phone line. Hamilton’s complex, constructed and multi-layered updating of the imagery of the Annunciation shows that is not something that can be submitted to some truth tribunal, as an aspect of what Latour calls the belief in belief. It is rather a fable. Latour again, this time from a paper entitled ‘“Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain” – being a sort of sermon on the hesitations of religious speech’. ‘I am the servant of the Lord’, says the Virgin (or is said to have said in Luke’s invention of this episode) and the acceptance of the presence of presence transforms her in someone who harbours the presence of God, not metaphorically, but really, since she is made pregnant, and not of a God of beyond, but of a God now in the human flesh. There exists now in this

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world not in the next, in this local place, in this humble bosom, a reserve of definitive and final presence. (1999: 34)

He continues that by inventing the Annunciation tale somewhere in the 1st century, the author of Luke’s Gospel did something to his audience that made them understand anew what they were meaning by ‘God incarnated’, which made them re-understand what was meant by ‘Times are accomplished, the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived’. (37)

Contrary to the shallow conception of Pop Art as a celebration of consumer culture, many of Hamilton’s images in the 1960s and 1970s are images of victims of one sort or another, as, for example, Swingeing London or Kent State. This leads to another one of Hamilton’s images, this time from the early 1980s, The Citizen of 1981. This highly controversial and powerful work depicts the IRA hunger striker Hugh Rooney in his cell, with the walls covered with shit, as part of his ‘dirty protest’. The Citizen was the first of a trilogy of paintings, with the other two depicting, respectively, a member of the Orange Order (The Subject, 1988–9) and a British soldier on the streets of Northern Ireland (The State, 1993). There is no question that Rooney is explicitly represented as Christ, to a degree that might be characterized as kitsch. In this context what is interesting is the role played by the shit in the image. It was Hamilton’s ‘shittiness’, his emphasis on excrementality that particularly exercised Fuller, as in images such as The Citizen. In his book on Derrida’s famous essay on the two sources of religion, Michael Naas quoted Don Delillo’s Underworld, ‘waste is a religious thing’ (Naas, 2011: 104). Here, one might recall Simone Weil’s notion, from her notebooks, about the world of ‘dead’ matter as the active incarnation of God, as it represents the ‘supreme integrity of divine self-effacement as the only way in which divine love can be received by use without idolatry and distortion’. God empties himself of his divinity by becoming man, then of His humanity, by becoming a corpse, becoming bread and wine, becoming matter. Or, as Steven Shakespeare puts it in his gloss on Derrida’s essay on Artaud, ‘La Parole Soufflée’, ‘God is not where we would expect God to be. Therefore God is even associated with excrement, the abject leftover of life separated from me. An image of betrayal, death and impurity’ (2009: 76). (A comparison could be made here with André Serrano’s Piss Christ of 1989.)


Unnatural Theology

In the image of the hunger striker, like the many subtle games played by painters representing Christ, the shit is clearly an image. In particular what is worth noting is how Hamilton divides the picture into two panels, though the panel on the left appears, at first glance, to be merely a continuation of the swirls of shit on the cell wall also visible in the right-hand panel, it also sits on the surface of the image, like a parody of an abstract expressionist painting, while at the same time almost rubbing the viewer’s nose in the abject substance it represents. It repudiates any attempt at re-presenting what has been past in a literal sense, but forces the viewer to engage with the image in the here and now. As Latour puts it, describing the kind of response required by a painting of Christ by Philippe de Champaigne, ‘Beware! Beware! To see the face of Christ is not to look for an original, for a true referential copy that would transport you back to the past, back to Jerusalem, but a mere surface of cracking pigment a millimeter thick that begins to indicate how you yourself, now, in this Port Royal institution, should look at your Savior’ (Latour, 2011: 119). Hamilton was greatly influenced by Marcel Duchamp. In his recent book Introduction to Antiphilosophy, Boris Groys suggests that, for Kierkegaard, Christ is a kind of proto-readymade, in that he is thoroughly ordinary and entirely contingent (2012: xii). In his online essay ‘Marcel Duchamp’s Absolute Art’, Groys declares that Kierkegaard called Christianity the ‘absolute religion’ because it was not based on any objectively provable difference between Christ and any other human being. In the same sense, one can see Duchamp as opening a way for the ‘absolute art’ that valorizes the profane and devalorizes the traditionally valuable at the same time – without abolishing either of them. (2008)

He writes that ‘we can say that Duchamp’s Fountain is a kind of Christ among things, and the art practice of the readymade a kind of Christianity in art’ (2008: 29–30). In another recent essay entitled ‘Weak Universalism’, Groys, following Agamben’s work, suggests that ‘the avant-garde artist is a secularized apostle, a messenger of time who brings to the world the message that time is contracting, that there is a scarcity of time, even a lack of time’. Following Agamben, and also Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘weak messianism’, Groys proposes that contracting time impoverishes, empties all our cultural signs and activities – turning them into zero signs or, rather, as Agamben calls them, weak signs.

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Such weak signs are the signs of the coming end of time being weakened by this coming, already manifesting the lack of time that would be needed to produce and to contemplate strong, rich signs. However, at the end of time, these messianic weak signs triumph over the strong signs of our world  – strong signs of authority, tradition, and power, but also strong signs of revolt, desire, heroism, or shock. (2010)

In Hamilton’s famous early work, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, we can perhaps see the disjecta membra, the ‘bunk’ of a disenchanted culture redeemed and re-enchanted. (‘Bunk’ was the word used by Hamilton’s friend Eduardo Paolozzi to describe the detritus of consumer culture which he incorporated into his early collages.) It is staged as a return to Eden at the other side of technological modernity, rather than a return to a time before the Fall, with the couple as a contemporary Adam and Eve. As such it is, in a sense, a contemporary icon, with all the religious connotations that term implies (and here one might think of Malevich’s co-option of the icon form for his black square), as well as the meaning it takes from John McHale with his idea of the ‘expendable icon’. The latter concept, with its ephemerality and immediacy is perhaps closer to the religious icon than might at first be obvious, particularly if one follows the distinction made by Jean-Luc Marion between the icon and the idol, in which the former enables the viewer to look beyond the image. But this does not mean we read the image as a celebration of technologized, consumer capitalism, but rather as an eschatological demand for redemption here and now in the context of technological modernity. This is perhaps close to Walter Benjamin’s weak messianism, which interrupts the empty, homogenous time of the secular with its radical demands. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, in his book The Time that Remains Giorgio Agamben traces the debt he sees that Benjamin owes to St Paul and to his notion of the ‘groaning of creation awaiting redemption’. Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is usually understood as being part of the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and organized in part by the Independent Group, of which Hamilton was a member. It was not, of course, actually displayed in This is Tomorrow, but was visible only in reproduction in the catalogue, thus, arguably, doubling its weakness as a sign, by denying it the opportunity to be fully


Unnatural Theology

present. The title This is Tomorrow itself suggests a contraction of time, not ‘this will be tomorrow’, but ‘this is tomorrow, now’. In a later version of Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? there is an image of Imagevirus, the Canadian art group General Idea’s brilliant reconfiguring of Robert Indiana’s word-image painting LOVE of 1966, using the word AIDS instead, which could stand as a paradigmatic example of Groys’ weak image as well as of Hamilton’s legacy.


Looking Down from Ingleborough

Early on in my time at Lancaster a colleague took me up Ingleborough, one of the famous ‘three peaks’ of the Yorkshire Dales, along with Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside. At 2,373 feet above sea level Ingleborough dominates the surrounding landscape, particularly with its curious flat profile. This results from its specific geological structure consisting of a cap of millstone grit sitting on a broader plateau of carboniferous limestone. This geological combination makes possible the curious phenomenon whereby streams that run off the millstone disappear underground through potholes in the limestone, travel through, and indeed help carve out the intricate system of caves that lie under the hill, and then reappear at the point where the limestone meets nonpermeable rock. That Ingleborough is, in fact, honeycombed by caves and fissures is belied by the appearance of its obdurate mass. To say that it sits above the surrounding landscape is appropriate as it resembles an animal, lying elongated in tense, alert repose. At the same time different conditions and weathers change its appearance. Sometimes, in low cloud, fog or mist it disappears altogether. At other times, in bad weather, it can appear lowering and threatening. Often the very top is covered in cloud that makes it look as if it is being dissolved. Against the light it becomes flattened, almost as if it was a shape cut out and placed against the sky, and coloured a uniform dark, almost purple blue, suggesting both distance and substance. When the light hits it, it can appear benign, with its contours picked out and illuminated. In days of diffused light brought about by thin cloud, it looks oddly weightless. Sometimes, in days of mixed cloud and sun, the light picks out small patches, or the clouds create the appearance of non-existent shapes and contours by casting arbitrary shadows. Recently, in a day of rain and sun so characteristic of the summer up here, it seemed to be the base for a perfect rainbow, which arched up and over the landscape, and


Unnatural Theology

into a gold and grey sky. In winter it can be delicately veined with snow for days or even weeks, which makes it look, from a distance, like marble. J. M. W. Turner was fascinated by Ingleborough, and drew it many times from various locations nearby. Ingleborough changes as it is seen from different parts of the surrounding countryside, somewhat like the great Japanese printmaker Hokusai’s images of different views of Mount Fuji. This experience of Ingleborough involves a kind of shifting parallax view, in which different spatial locations offer different configurations of the elements making up the landscape. It is similar to the experience of seeing the steeples of the churches in Martinville described by the narrator of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He describes the pleasure he experiences when catching sight of the steeples at a bend in the road, and at the continual shifting of their relations with each other as the carriage changes position. For the narrator this experience is as frustrating as pleasurable. In noticing and registering the shape of their spires, their shifting lines, the sunny warmth of their surfaces, I felt that I was not penetrating to the core of my impression, that something more lay behind that mobility, that luminosity, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal. ([1919] 1981: 196)

In this passage Proust captures a truth not just about the experience of looking at a moving landscape, but about experience tout court; that is, we are embodied, that we can only ever see something from a particular perspective and that we can never fully encompass the whole. There is always something beyond that we cannot fully grasp. At best, we can triangulate different views in a kind of cognitive mapping that allows us to make some sense of this ungraspable whole. The most intimate way to get to know Ingleborough in all its variations and moods is to walk up it. There are numerous different paths and routes up to the top, each of which suits different needs and timescales. From the village of Clapham it is possible to walk up past one of the entrances to the cave system which honeycombs the hill, which is next to one of the points at which a hidden river emerges, through a deep gorge at Trow Gill, past Gaping Gill, which is one of the most dramatic of the potholes for which the area is famous, and on slowly up to the summit. This route is good for a long and

Looking Down from Ingleborough


meditative walk, but for a faster, more dramatic ascent, I prefer the route from the old roman road between Chapel-le-Dale and Ribblehead. From the road Ingleborough can be seen on its longest side and sweeps up from the valley below. The route starts as an easy ramble through a series of fields divided by dry-stone walls and dotted with large rocks and outcrops. After a couple of miles, past an extraordinary limestone ‘pavement’ of softly rounded, flattopped rock, it crosses more marshy land, crossed by duckboards and paving stones. At this point the land begins to rise steeply. After the sharp climb up the cliff stairs and another couple of steep upward ascents one arrives on the summit of Ingleborough, though summit is probably too grand a word for what confronts one there. The top is a large, flat expanse of millstone grit and grass, dotted with cairns, a beacon and an open, drystone shelter. Usually, there are other walkers up there as well, some of whom have clearly achieved the final ascent in the ‘three peaks challenge’ to climb Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in a single day, including walking between each peak. The top of Ingleborough is stark, and can seem forbidding in bad weather. Even in good weather it can feel disappointing to have made such an effort to see this unrewarding landscape. All the more remarkable then that traces of habitation have been found there, which suggests that it might have been used as a fort in prehistoric times. Yet the reward is to be found, if the weather is good enough, in the extraordinary views that Ingleborough’s height affords. From the top it is possible to see all around, from the Dales and the other peaks to the north, west and east and down to the Lune Valley, the Forest of Bowland and Morecambe Bay to the south and west. This sense of being able to see clearly the landscape below, and to grasp it in its entirety, is one of the great pleasures of hill walking. It feels like the reward for the labour expended; a small taste, however illusory, of transcendence and of what it would be like to have an angelic, or even godseye view of the world. This is perhaps the inverse of the experience of looking at Ingleborough in different conditions and from different positions described above. Ruskin, who was, of course, a great walker in the Lakes and Dales (as well as a skilled draftsman and advocate of drawing, to pick up a theme that will be developed later in this chapter), gave the name ‘Looking Down from Ingleborough’ to the first issue of Fors Clavigera, the series of letters addressed to ‘the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’, which also was intended to


Unnatural Theology

support the work of the Guild of St George, the utopian society Ruskin, then fifty years old, founded at the same time. As this might indicate, the impulse behind these publications was partly driven by a wish to produce works that would have redeeming and educative social value. The title of the first letter also suggests the panoptic ambitions of Ruskin’s rhetoric evident in the letter. He ranges over what he sees as the many ills that afflicted Britain and the world at the time. Mountains were important for Ruskin, bound up with his religious yearnings. In a description intended for, though never published in, his great work Modern Painters, he describes lying on a dark, still July evening beside a fountain midway between Chamouni and Les Tines under a sky ‘dark not with night, but with storm. The precipice above me lost itself in the air within fifty feet of my head – not in cloud – but in the dark, motionless atmosphere.’ As he lay beneath a sky which was like a ‘roof ’ or ‘one level veil, as of God’s Holy Place’. Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dome du Gouter a crash – of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning. The vapour parted before its fall, pierced by the whirlwind of its motion; the gap widened, the dark shade melted away on either side; and, like a risen spirit casting off its garments of corruption, and flushed with eternity of life, the Aiguilles of the south broke through the black foam of the storm clouds. One by one, pyramid above pyramid, the mighty range of its companions shot off their shrouds, and took to themselves their glory – all fire – no shade – no dimness. Spire of ice – dome of snow – wedge of rock – all fire in the light of the sunset, sank into the hollows of the crags – and pierced through the prisms of the glaciers, and dwelt within them – as it does in clouds. The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly – in the very heart of the high heaven – a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold – filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned – what till then I had not known – the real meaning of the word Beautiful. With all that I had ever seen before – there had come mingled the associations of humanity – the exertion of human power – the action of human mind. The image of self had not been effaced in that of God … it was then that I understood that all which is the type of God’s attributes … can turn the human soul from gazing upon itself

Looking Down from Ingleborough


… and fix the spirit … on the types of that which is to be its food for eternity; – this and this only is in the pure and right sense of the word BEAUTIFUL. (1907, vol. IV: 364)

This passage is quoted in Rudolf Otto’s ‘The Idea of the Holy’, as an example of what Otto would describe as an experience of the Mysterium Tremendum (overwhelming mystery), a term he coined to describe our experience of the Wholly Other. In The Gift of Death Jacques Derrida describes this as a ‘frightful mystery, a secret to make you tremble’ (1995b: 53). He goes on to point out that the word tremendous is a gerundive derived from tremo, ‘that which makes one tremble, something frightening, distressing, terrifying’ (54–5). Trembling, unlike quivering, for example, takes place after an event that has already happened, such as an earthquake, with its tremors, even if it continues to threaten us: We tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeable, unpredictable; approached as unapproachable. … We tremble because we don’t know which direction the shock came from … and we tremble from not knowing, in the form of a double secret, whether it is going to continue, start again, insist, be repeated. (54)

He suggests that ‘One doesn’t know why one trembles’, much as one doesn’t know why one weeps. The mysterium tremendum, that which makes us tremble perhaps or weep is ‘the gift of infinite love, the dyssymetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn’t see what is looking at me; it is the gift and endurance of death that exists in the irreplaceable, the disproportion between the infinite gift and my finitude’. Much as the disciples work towards their salvation in fear and trembling, because their salvation lies in God, ‘whom we don’t see and whose will we cannot know … without knowing from whence the thing comes and what awaits us, we are given over to absolute solitude’. This is because ‘God is himself absent, hidden and silent, separate and secret at the moment he has to be obeyed’. He doesn’t have to give reasons, or share motivations or anything with us. If he did, he would not be God and ‘we would not be dealing with God as wholly other’ (55–7).


Unnatural Theology

This emphasis on our blindness with regard to the (non)experience of God is in contrast with Ruskin’s theophanic vision. It brings to mind Michel de Certeau’s famous description of seeing Manhattan from the 107th floor of the World Trade Center and his speculations on the ‘erotics of knowledge’ and the ‘pleasure of seeing such a world … “as a whole”, the pleasure of looking down upon, of totalizing this vastest of human texts’ (1984: 91). The viewer becomes a ‘solar Eye, a god’s regard’, with the ‘exaltation of a scopic or a gnostic drive’ (92). For de Certeau, looking down from the World Trade Center, it is down below, where visibility ends, that ‘the city’s common practitioners dwell’. These are the walkers, Wandersmänner, the ‘raw material of this experiment’, whose bodies write an urban text without reading, employing spaces that are not self-aware; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of one body for another, beloved, body. The paths that interconnect in this network, strange poems of which each body is an element down by and among many others, elude being read. Everything happens as though some blindness were the hallmark of the processes by which the inhabited city is organized. The networks of these forward-moving, intercrossed writings form a multiple history, are without creator or spectator, made up of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: with regard to representations, it remains daily, indefinitely, something other. (92–3)

This connection between walking and blindness connects to other developments in French thinking. In French the word for ‘not’ and for ‘step’ are the same, ‘pas’. This dual meaning is taken advantage of, firstly, by Maurice Blanchot, in his essay ‘Le Pas au Dela’ (the step/not beyond) (Blanchot, 1992), and then by Derrida in a number of his works from the 1980s, particularly in relation to his engagement with negative theology. In his preface to Derrida’s collected essays on religion, Acts of Religion, the editor, Gil Amidjar puts it thus: It is therefore by way of a different step, an other ‘step not beyond’, nonmimetic or other than mimetic, that Derrida has been following and pursuing paths, roads, and sites that cannot be arrested or frozen into any kind of essence, any simple, recognizable, resemblance or ‘identity’. (Derrida, 2001: 35)

At the risk of turning walking into some kind of arrested metaphor, it is worth quoting Derrida about the word ‘aporia’. In Greek the word for way or path is ‘poros’ and the lack of a path is ‘aporos’. From this comes a word originally

Looking Down from Ingleborough


used in Greek philosophy, ‘aporia’, meaning a seemingly unsolvable aspect of some philosophical inquiry. Derrida writes that ‘the aporia or the nonway is the condition of walking; if there was no aporia we wouldn’t walk, we wouldn’t find our way; path-breaking implies aporia. This impossibility to find one’s way is the condition of ethics’ (1999: 73). Thus, walking can become a way of thinking about the leap into non-knowledge that is necessary in any ethical response. It also offers a way of thinking about drawing, and therefore an ethical approach to drawing. Derrida used the term to suggest those points in which there is no obvious pre-programmed way forward, and which therefore require the making of a decision and a commitment beyond the programmatic and pre-ordained and in the void. Sometimes writing, especially writing or drawing of this sort, which is open-ended, feels like the process of walking where there are no paths, and where the way has to be made. The white space of the sheet, even in its virtual, simulacral form on the computer, is like a space that is, as yet, unexplored, and through which we need to make paths, which in turn means making decisions at each point about where to go. There is a similar sense in drawing and painting, where the paper or canvas is like an unexplored territory, which is perhaps why Paul Klee famously described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. Of course, it is possible to interpret the act of ‘looking down from Ingleborough’ differently. Perhaps it can refer to the act of looking at what is being drawn and then down at the drawing surface, that determines the structural blindness inherent in drawing, as Derrida points out in his major work on drawing. Between October 1990 and January 1991 the Louvre in Paris held an exhibition in the Napoléon Hall entitled Memoirs of the Blind. The first of their Parti Pris series selected by guest curators, it was organized by Derrida and featured a series of drawings from the Department of Graphic Arts of the blind. In the accompanying book of the same name, Derrida engages in a brilliant series of analyses and considerations of the drawings that, unsurprisingly, go way beyond the normal connoisseurial concerns, all around the theme of blindness. In Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida writes that ‘the operation of drawing would have something to do with blindness’ (1993b: 2). He describes the act of writing or drawing while driving with one’s eyes on the road. ‘What happens when one draws without seeing? A hand of the blind ventures forth alone or disconnected, in a poorly delimited space; it feels its


Unnatural Theology

way, it gropes, it caresses as much as it inscribes, trusting in the memory of signs and supplementing sight’ (3). Derrida compares the act of drawing or writing to the progress of the blind through space, who ‘must advance, advance or commit themselves, that is, expose themselves, run through a space as if running a risk’ (5). Similarly Derrida suggests that when the point at the point of the hand … moves forward upon making contact with the surface, the inscription of the inscribable is not seen. … Even if drawing is, as they say, mimetic, that is, reproductive, figurative, representative, even if the model is presently facing the artist, the trait must proceed in the night. It escapes the field of vision. (Ibid., 45)

Perhaps this is something like what Ruskin is attempting in Fors. Having written a number of vast, all-encompassing, self-contained works, including Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, Ruskin felt impelled to write in a different way that was far more open-ended and experimental. Fors has the sense of a path being made across uncharted territory, rather than following a pre-ordained road. The style is personal, fragmentary, discursive, hesitant. It resembles later works of artistic modernism, such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos or T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, as much as it does contemporaneous works, though it has also been compared to St Paul’s epistles, and, more recently, to blogs. (James K. A. Smith, an American theologian with an interest in Derrida as well as Ruskin, has a blog called Fors Clavigera in tribute to Ruskin and in recognition of the similarity between Ruskin’s epistolary style and that of the blog.) In the early 1870s, at the time he started writing Fors, Ruskin had recently been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University. In 1874, his disgust at the intellectual complacency of the students led him to initiate a project in which a number of undergraduates, including Oscar Wilde and Arnold Toynbee, built a road from the village of North Hinksey to South Hinksey across the swamp between the two. Like many of Ruskin’s utopian ideas the project failed, at least in practical terms, but it did demonstrate an ideal of public engagement and commitment that was unusual for the times. I think of Derrida’s early work on Freud, in his essay ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’. In order to understand the process of memory Freud hypothesizes about ‘contact barriers’ and ‘breaching’, which in German is Bahnung, literally ‘pathbreaking’ (1979: 252). As Derrida puts it ‘Breaching, the opening of a

Looking Down from Ingleborough


trail, opens up a conducting path. Which presupposes a certain violence and a certain resistance to effraction. The path is broken, cracked, fracta, breached’ (ibid.). Later in the essay, Derrida writes about the opening up of its own space, effraction, breaking of a path against resistances, rupture and irruption becoming a route (rupta, via rupta), violent inscription of a form, tracing a difference in a nature or a matter which are conceivable only in their opposition to writing. The route is opened in nature or matter, forest or wood (hyle), and in it acquires a reversibility of time and space. (208–9)

Derrida points out how the metaphor or pathbreaking in Freud is always connected with ‘the theme of supplementary delay and with the reconstitution of meaning through deferral, after a mole-like progression, after the subterranean toil of an impression. This impression has left behind a laborious trace which has never been perceived, whose meaning has never been lived in the present, i.e. has never been lived consciously’ (269). Perhaps the supplementary delay inherent in the making of paths is at the heart of the making of marks. Ruskin laid down firm ‘laws’ (his word) of drawing in his book The Elements of Drawing (1857). For Ruskin, drawing is a discipline bound by such rules or laws. In many ways Ruskin and Derrida are far apart, the former believing firmly in the primacy of pure vision, the ‘innocent eye’ and looking as a means of accessing nature in all its glory, the latter emphasizing blindness and the impossibility of such a pure vision. Yet one might also compare Ruskin’s close attention to detail in his drawings to Derrida’s close readings of texts, and his related understanding of justice and law. For Derrida, the law means the structures of the legal system, the written laws, the courts, the judges and juries. Justice, on the other hand, is what the law strives to achieve, and can never succeed in doing so. It can never do so, because each instance of justice is singular, and exceeds the law’s capacity to anticipate and be fully prepared for it. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that Ruskin’s desire for fidelity to the particularity of what he saw, to do justice to it, meant that his drawing had to go beyond the laws he advocated in pursuit of that justice. The laws of drawing are necessary but inadequate in the face of the singularity of what is being drawn. Ruskin’s concern with the laws of art was perhaps bound up with his desire to assert the capacity of art to reflect the glory of God as manifested in


Unnatural Theology

nature. This natural theology became increasingly untenable as the nineteenth century wore on, and developments such as Darwin’s theory of natural selection seemed to bring such religious thinking into doubt. Yet, at the same time, Ruskin’s thinking is closer to that of Darwin than it might appear at first. Jonathan Smith points out that ‘like Darwin and so many other Victorians Ruskin was a patient, careful, amazingly keen-sighted observer of the natural world. The sections of Modern Painters devoted to depictions of light and colour, trees, water, atmospheric effects, and mountains often read more like disquisitions on optics, botany, meteorology, and geology than on art’ (2006: 26). In her book on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alison Sulloway suggests that Ruskin and Hopkins saw in nature evidence of two ‘doctrines’, that of ‘generic plenitude’ and that of ‘specific creation’ (1972: 72). The former is ‘an ancient commonplace implicit in both Plato’s Timaeus and the first book of Genesis. It suggests nature’s infinite variety according to types. God was generous to man in providing him with an infinite profusion of animal and vegetable types, all meant for his joy and use’ (73). The latter doctrine, which Hopkins also found in the work of Duns Scotus, ‘teaches that God created each living thing with its own specific peculiarities that would never be exactly recapitulated in another created thing’ (ibid.). Gillian Beer suggests that Ruskin, Hopkins and Darwin experience ‘the thisness of things, which signals both their full presence and their impenetrability, their free play’ (1983: 56–7). The Derrideanism implicit in the use of words and phrases such as ‘presence’ and ‘free play’ are earlier made explicit by Beer in her declaration that Darwin’s ‘insistence on interactions and environment, and his resistance to absolute origins … places him and his work equivocally within the debate between “freeplay and history” described by Derrida’, in which, in Derrida’s own words, quoted by Beer, ‘Freeplay tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name that being who … throughout the history of all his history – has dreamt of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game’ (56). Here, it is instructive to compare the passage from Ruskin quoted above with Darwin’s famous conclusion to The Origin of Species, in which he invokes the ‘Creator’s’ role in the formation of the variety of living things, as evinced through the example of the ‘tangled bank’, which can be read, perhaps, as an epiphany, or even a theophany of the particular, that which we see close up.

Looking Down from Ingleborough


It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. (1859: 489–90)

It is perhaps unsurprising that Ruskin’s drawings got more hesitant, scribbly, tentative, fragmented and experimental as he got older, and both more confident, more himself and also more aware of the impossibility of the task of drawing, the impossibility that makes it possible. Perhaps we can think of Ruskin as a surprising forerunner of Duchamp. The more he tried to capture the singularity of nature, the more fragmented his drawings became, which meant that he ended up with singular things, things he had found, and chosen to represent, or, in other words, ‘readymades’. He complained to a friend that ‘I can do nothing that I haven’t before me; I cannot change, or arrange, or modify in the least, and that amounts to a veto on producing a great picture’ (1907, vol. XXXVI: 64). Perhaps Ruskin intuited that nature itself is a kind of scribbling, a writing, an idea that can be found in Derrida’s work, and in more recent materialist thinking. In her recent book, Quantum Anthropologies, Vicky Kirby aims to rescue Derrida’s insights from their capture and domestication within the domain of human language and culture, and to take seriously the full implications of his famous dictum, ‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’ (there is no outside text). Kirby turns to the famous conference in 1966 at Johns Hopkins


Unnatural Theology

University at which Derrida gave his paper entitled ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. In the discussion after his presentation, Jean Hyppolite describes the emergence of the human as an ‘error of transmission or of malformation’ which ‘created a being which is always malformed, whose adaptation is a perpetual aberration’ (2011: 18). Kirby glosses this as describing man as the ‘accidental scribblings of Nature, accidental because they are authorless and unintended’. Hyppolite asks Derrida if this is what he is getting at (ibid.). In reply Derrida says, ‘I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point that I do not know any longer where I am going’ (ibid.). Kirby remarks that ‘we now know that Derrida’s way has not been a complacent meandering, or simple loss of direction, but something to which, perhaps, his trust was already given’ (19). Hent de Vries writes of Derrida’s work in terms of a pas d’ecriture, meaning both a ‘decisive step of writing, of not writing, of a step away from writing’ (1999: 92). This he compares to the ‘à dieu/adieu, which is a pas de Dieu, a step of God, toward God, given by God, but also off in another direction, walking with and without God, walking on two feet, as it were, stepping in the footprints of God and of whatever it is that comes in His wake, without being preoccupied with His existence, essential properties, or proper name’ (93). As John Caputo puts it, ‘We need to make our way, take risks, grope in the dark, and that is the nocturnal work of faith, which is always through a glass darkly. To have faith is to consent in advance, to say yes, to our blindness, which is the condition of saying yes to faith, which is also to say viens!’ (1997: 314). The last presentation Derrida gave, just before his death, in the face of that death, drew together many of his concerns, including drawing itself, was called ‘Comment ne pas trembler’ (How not to tremble). The title itself clearly evokes his earlier essay on negative theology, ‘Comment ne pas parler’, and there is a definite, if negative, theological dimension to his final thoughts. In this immensely moving piece Derrida, then unable to write as a result of chemotherapy, improvises a series of thoughts on the concomitant trembling. He suggests that trembling makes the autonomy of the self tremble, reinstates it under the law of the other, heterologically … all trembling, literal or metonymic, is a trembling before God … or again, God is the name which names that

Looking Down from Ingleborough


before which one trembles, whether you know it or not. Or again God is the name of ultimately other, who, like any other and as any other, is completely other, makes one tremble. … The necessary trembling of the artist’s hand who nonetheless has the habit and experience of his art. (quoted in Wilson, 2010: 202)

(That last sentence refers to an aged and invalid Matisse, writing to Aragon to describe a respite from his illnesses that enabled him to draw.) I think of Ruskin finishing what would turn out to be his last piece of writing, the ending of Praeterita, his autobiography. By this time his hand shook too much for him to be able to write, so he dictated the last parts of the book to his cousin Joan Severn.


The Incredible Shrinking Human

In 1966 Stewart Brand, then best known as an acid pioneer associated with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and an artist working with the avant-garde multimedia art collective USCO, had an epiphany. Having dropped some LSD on a roof in San Francisco he looked down from ‘300 feet and 200 micrograms up’ and realized that from there he could see that the earth was curved. ‘I had the idea that the higher you go the more you can see the earth as round.’ Brand realized that despite ten years of space exploration there had, as yet, been no public photographs of the whole earth. His first reaction was to print up a batch of badges with the legend ‘Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?’ (Turner, 2006: 69). In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, orbiting the moon, took the famous ‘earthrise’ picture, and, in 1972, the Apollo 17 mission produced the equally well-known ‘blue marble’ picture of the whole earth. Brand’s next, more far-reaching response was to found a combination of magazine and mail order catalogue, known as the Whole Earth Catalog, promising ‘access to tools’ to help produce alternative forms of being and living (71). The catalogue was crucial for the extraordinary coming together of acid and silicon in Northern California that would result in the personal computer revolution and lay the ground for our current hyper-technologized society. The 1969 edition starts with the words ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it’. In 2005, nearly forty years after Brand had his LSD epiphany, Google released Google Earth, a program enabling the user to view satellite images of almost any part of the earth. The default view when the program is started shows an image of the earth suspended in space that is similar to the photograph of the earth taken from the moon used by Brand for the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogs. These pictures of the whole earth is credited with


Unnatural Theology

helping kickstart the ecological movement, by presenting an irresistible image of Earth as a fragile, beautiful planet. In his essay ‘Globes and Spheres’, Tim Ingold analyses the significance of the image of the globe, particularly as it used as a characterization of the environment, as in phrases such as ‘global environmental change’ (2000: 209). He finds such usage paradoxical, suggesting that an environment is ‘that which surrounds, and can exist, therefore, only in relation to what is surrounded’. He points out that it would be fairer to propose that the figure of the globe suggests that it is we who have surrounded the environment, rather than vice versa, and that the ‘global outlook’ makes certain the environment is no longer the ambience of our dwelling, and that we are expelled from it altogether (209). He goes so far as to claim that ‘the notion of the global environment, far from marking humanity’s reintegration into the world, signals the culmination of a process of separation’. Ingold also points out that we are taught what the earth looks like from a point of view that only a few of us have ever seen in reality, those few being, of course, astronauts who have viewed the earth from outer space. Later in the essay he suggests that once the world is conceived as a globe, it can become an object of appropriation for a collective humanity. In this discourse, we do not belong to the world, neither partaking of its essence nor resonating to its cycles and rhythms. Rather, since our very humanity is seen to consist, in essence, in the transcendence of physical nature, it is the world that belongs to us. Images of property abound. We have inherited the earth, it is said, and so are responsible for handing it on to our successors in reasonably good condition. But, like the prodigal heir, we are inclined to squander this precious inheritance for the sake of immediate gratification. Much of the current concern with the global environment has to do with how are we to ‘manage’ this planet of ours. (214)

Accompanying this concept of ‘managing the Earth’ is a discourse of intervention, implying that humans not only can choose whether or not to intervene, but also may do so from a kind of platform above the world, ‘as though they could live on or off the environment, but are not destined to live within it’. Ingold alludes to the title of the book Man’s Role in the Changing Face of the Earth, edited by William L. Thomas and published in 1956. He points out that

The Incredible Shrinking Human


the title presents the earth as a face, that is presented to humanity (215). If it is, then it is arguably a female face, and as such it might well be that of James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’. The name Gaia was suggested to Lovelock by his neighbour William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. Despite its new age co-option Gaia, as Golding would well have known, was not benign at all in Greek myth. Despite this, and perhaps indicating an ignorance of Greek myth, Gaia has been co-opted as a kind of secular Madonna, an idealized figure of feminine, maternal care and nurture, which is being abused by masculine science and exploitation. Putting aside the more general set of issues around the use of metaphor, ‘Gaia’ is particularly problematic, not the use of metaphor in itself, as all language is metaphorical, but the very phenomenon that makes ‘life’ possible is metaphorized in terms of an exemplar of the kind of life it supports. Thus, it threatens to deconstruct itself in terms of the complex relations between what it supposedly is, what it makes possible, and the figure by which this is expressed. What Ingold does not discuss, but what would add a further dimension to his argument, is the fact that once the earth becomes a globe it also becomes susceptible to being shrunk, at least as far as its representations are concerned. There is a history of the representation of the earth as a shrinking globe. To some degree this is literally prefigured in the production of globes as objects in the seventeenth century and after. David Harvey traces the development of this kind of representation from the Renaissance onwards, as a transformation of time and space in the service of power. He claims that the Renaissance revolution in concepts of space and time laid the conceptual foundations in many respects for the Enlightenment project. What many now look upon as the first great surge of modernist thinking, took the domination of nature as a necessary condition of human emancipation. Since space is a ‘fact’ of nature, this meant that the conquest and rational ordering of space became an integral part of the modernizing project. The difference this time was that space and time had to be organized not to reflect the glory of God, but to celebrate and facilitate the liberation of ‘Man’ as a free and active individual, endowed with consciousness and will. (1989: 239)

Among the illustrations in the chapter in question are two diagrams, one from a well-known text book on globalization, showing ‘the shrinking


Unnatural Theology

map of the world through innovations in transport which ‘annihilate space through time’, and another of a 1987 advertisement for the telecommunications company, Alcatel, with the strapline ‘this is the year the world got smaller’ (241–2). In each case the image consists of a series of representations of the globe, getting smaller down the page. This idea of the globe diminishing in size may also be seen in the book Cosmic View (1957), written by Kees Boeke, a Dutch Quaker and educationalist, which starts with an image of a girl sitting holding a cat, followed by a series of images of the same image at ever greater scale, pulling out from earth into space, and back down to the molecular level. Cosmic View inspired the 1968 Film Board of Canada film Cosmic Zoom and Charles and Ray Eames’ 1972 film Powers of Ten. In his book The Creation of the World, Or, Globalization, Jean-Luc Nancy asks, ‘How are we to conceive of, precisely, a world where we find only a globe, an astral universe, or an earth without sky?’. He suggests that a world ‘viewed’, a represented world, is a world dependent on the gaze of a subject of the world. … A subject of the world … cannot itself be in the world. … Even without a religious representation, such a subject, implicit, or explicit, perpetuates the position of the creating, organizing, and addressing God … of the world. (2007: 40)

Yet, as Nancy points out, even within the most classical representations of God and especially within the ‘great transcendent accounts of rationalism’, such as those of Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche or Leibniz, are nothing else than accounts of the immanent relation of the world to itself, and which deconstruct ontotheology from within. For Nancy a ‘world is never in front of me, or else it is not my world. … As soon as a world appears to me as a world, I already share something of it: I share part of its inner resonance.’ He continues that ‘it follows from this that a world is a world only for those who inhabit it’. Thus, ‘the meaning of the world does not occur as a reference to something external to the world’ and the experience of the world consists in traversing ‘from one edge to the other and nothing else’. There can no longer be an observer of the world, a point Heidegger realized, in analysing the end of the age of the world picture. ‘A world outside of representation is above all a world without God capable of being the subject of its representation’ (40). Nancy suggests that the world is, thus, neither ‘the representation of a universe (cosmos) nor that of

The Incredible Shrinking Human


a here below (a humiliated world, if not condemned by Christianity), but the excess … of a stance by which the world stands by itself, configures itself, and exposes itself in itself, relates to itself without referring to any given principle or to any determined end’ (47). He compares this to ‘the rose grows without reason’ of the mystic Angelus Silesius. There is however a capitalist version of the ‘without reason’, which ‘establishes the general equivalent of all forms of meaning in an infinite uniformity’. The ‘without reason’ is that which makes modernity an enigma in that it can take the form both of ‘capital and of the mystic’s rose’ (ibid.). Nancy thus proposes a fragile hypothesis involving an inversion in which the ‘production of value’ becomes the ‘creation of meaning’ (49). Nancy is well aware that the term ‘creation’ is charged with theological meaning and implications, and must be grasped ‘outside of its theological context’. It is the exact opposite of ‘any form of production in the sense of a fabrication that supposes a given, a project, and a producer’ (51). As ‘mystics of three monotheisms but also the complex systems of all great metaphysics’ have elaborated, creation is ‘ex nihilo’, meaning not that it is ‘fabricated with nothing by a particularly ingenious producer’ but that it is ‘created from nothing’, nothing grows to become something, the ‘genuine formulation of a radical materialism, that is to say, precisely, without roots’ (ibid.). As Nancy hinted earlier, this is not contrary to monotheism but in fact its outcome and the outcome in particular of the ‘deconstruction of monotheism’ (which produces not an atheism or a theism but an ‘absentheism’). Indeed Nancy alludes to the Lurianic kabala in which ‘God annihilates itself … as a “self ” or as distinct being in order to “withdraw” in its act – which makes an opening of the world’ (70). The nothing from which creation grows is the ‘without reason’ of the world. Nancy declares that ‘our task today is nothing less than the talk of creating or forming a symbolisation of the world’. To create the world means: immediately, without delay, reopening each possible struggle for a world, that is, for what must form the contrary of a global injustice against the background of general equivalence. But this means to conduct this struggle precisely in the name of the fact that this world is coming out of nothing, that there is nothing before it and that it is without models, without principle and without given end, and that it is precisely what forms the justice and the meaning of a world. (54)


Unnatural Theology

Thus, following Nancy, rather than ‘Gaia’ a better metaphor for our environmental condition might be Khora in Plato’s Timaeus, discussed by Derrida in his essay ‘Khora’. Derrida took the concept of Khora from Plato’s Timaeus to describe ‘the spacing that is the condition for everything to take place, for everything to be inscribed’ (Derrida and Kipnis, 1997: 3). Elsewhere, he suggests that it ‘is a matrix, womb, or receptacle that is never offered up in the form of presence, or in the presence of form’ (1981: 160). The conjunction of ‘matrix’ and ‘womb’ is a reminder of the derivation of the former from ‘mater’, meaning ‘mother’. In ‘Faith and Knowledge’ Derrida describes Khora as ‘nothing (no being, nothing present)’. It is ‘desert in the desert’ (2001: 59), ‘there where one neither can nor should see coming what ought or could – perhaps – be yet to come. What is still left to come’ (47). This desert is the ‘most anarchic and anarchivable place possible’ and ‘makes possible, opens, hollows, infinitizes the other. Ecstasy or existence of the most extreme abstraction.’ The ‘abstraction’ or ‘desertification’ of this ‘desert without pathway and without interior … can … open the way to everything from which it withdraws’ and ‘render possible precisely what it appears to threaten’ (47). Derrida connects the desert not just to Khora, but also to his conception of the ‘messianic, or messianicity without messianism’, meaning the opening to the future or to the coming of the other as the advent of justice, but without horizon of expectation and without prophetic prefiguration. The coming of the other can only emerge as a singular event when no anticipation sees it coming, when the other and death – and radical evil – can come as a surprise at any moment. (56)

Derrida describes Plato’s understanding of Khora as an ‘abyssal chasm’, or ‘mise en abyme’, ‘the opening of a place “in” which everything would, at the same time, come to take place and be reflected’. Derrida warns against thinking of Khora as emptiness, and above all to avoid ‘hurling it into the anthropomorphic form and the pathos of fright. Not in order to install in its place a security of foundation, the “exact counterpart of what Gaia represents for any creature, since her appearance, at the origin of the world: a stable foundation, sure for all eternity, opposed to the gaping and bottomless opening of Chaos”’(1995c: 103). Khora offers a world of singular others. As soon as one enters into a relation with the other, one is obliged to sacrifice all the ‘infinite number’ of others, the other others, to whom one should be bound by the same responsibility. In The

The Incredible Shrinking Human


Gift of Death, his engagement with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Derrida even asks, ‘How would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the world to the cat you feed at home every morning for years, whereas other cats die of hunger at every instant? Not to mention other people?’ (1995b: 71). In The Animal That Therefore I Am, he writes of his experience of his cat (the same cat as in The Gift of Death?) embarrassing and shaming him by gazing at his nakedness. Derrida is at pains to point out that the cat that looks at him naked is ‘a real cat … a little cat’. It isn’t the figure of a cat, that furthermore responds to him and it does so, not ‘as the exemplar of a species called cat, even less of an animal genus or realm’ (2008: 6). Before it is even identified as either a male or female cat, Derrida sees it ‘as this irreplaceable living being that one day enters my space, enters this space where it can encounter me, see me, even see me naked. Nothing can ever take away from me the certainty that what we have here is an existence that refuses to be conceptualised’ (2008: 9). The ‘bottomless gaze’ of this unique, irreplaceable cat, demonstrates ‘quite simply the naked truth of every gaze, given that that truth allows me to see and be seen through the eyes of the other, in the seeing and not just seen eyes of the other’ (12). ‘The gaze called animal offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself ’ (ibid.). Against the long tradition of thinking, from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Descartes to Kant to Levinas and to Lacan, that would distinguish Man from Animal on the grounds that animals do not have speech or reason, Derrida follows Hume in asking ‘do they suffer’, to which the answer is that ‘no one can deny the suffering, fear or panic, the terror or fright that humans witness in certain animals’ even if ‘some will still try … to contest the right to call that suffering or anguish, words or concepts they would still reserve for man and for the Dasein in the freedom of its being towards death’ (28). The gaze of the animal brings Derrida to ‘the edge of the so-called human’ and its supposed bordering with, or opposition to, ‘the animal’, ‘a name [humans] have given themselves the right and authority to give to another living creature’ (23). ‘Men would be first and foremost those living creatures who have given themselves the word that enables them to speak of the animal


Unnatural Theology

with a single voice and to designate it as the single being’ (32). But to question this limit is not to question the ‘limit between Man with a capital M and Animal with a capital A’ (29). It would not be to question the differences and ruptures between men and other living creatures. Nor would it be to assert by contrast some kind of geneticist biologistic continuum between linking together men and animals (ibid.). Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than ‘the Animal’ or ‘Animal Life’ there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living, or more precisely … a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead, relations of organization or lack of organization among the realms that are more and more difficult to disassociate by means of the figures of the organic and inorganic, of life and/or death. These relations are at once close and abyssal, and they can never be totally objectified. They do not leave room for any simple exteriority of term with respect to another. It follows from that that one will never have the right to take animals to be a species of a kind that would be named the Animal or animal in general. (31)

Derrida suggests that confined within this catch-all concept [of the Animal], within this vast encampment of the animal, in this general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article (“the Animal” and not “animals”), as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognise as his fellows, his neighbours or his brothers. And that is so in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna. (34)

He continues that he would like to have the plural of animals heard in the singular. There is no Animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of ‘living creatures’ whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity without ignoring or effacing everything that separates humankind from the other animals to create a single great, fundamentally homogeneous and continuous family tree. (47; emphasis in original)

The Incredible Shrinking Human


In the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero Scott Carey also confronts his cat in circumstances somewhat different to Derrida’s various encounters with his cat (or cats), but also in such a manner as to reveal the cat’s otherness and singularity. The film recounts the story of Carey, a handsome young man, who is unwittingly affected by a mysterious cloud of radioactive substance while on a yacht with his wife. After a while he notices he is getting smaller. As the film progresses he shrinks, first to the size of a child, then to that of a doll. While at this stage of his progressive diminution he lives in a doll’s house, and when venturing out is attacked by his cat. Thus, the animal he previously regarded as his pet becomes a threat and also part of a complex world of different entities and organisms no longer reducible to the singular term, ‘the animal’. As Scott gets even smaller he falls down the stairs to the cellar in his house, and can no longer attract the attention of his wife. In the cellar he confronts new dangers, including a spider which is now larger than he is (actually a black widow spider, which is not native to the United States). He defeats the spider and makes an epic trip up to a shelf where some food left earlier helps sustain him. Even so he realizes that he is continuing to shrink and there seems to be no solution. The Incredible Shrinking Man is elevated from a mere B movie by the denouement, which, instead of producing a ‘deus ex machina’ to save the hero from his dilemma at the last moment, allows him to accept his fate with a curiously moving final voice-over, which runs while he looks out of an air vent at the top of cellar walls out onto the backyard of his house. In his final speech he reflects on the fact that he is still shrinking and questions what he is becoming, the ‘infinitesimal’ perhaps, and whether he is still a human being or something else, a ‘man of the future’. He speculates on the possibility of other human beings also being subject to bursts of radiation, and following him into this ‘vast new world’. Finally, he understands that, even in his radically altered state he still meant something, he still existed, and that his conception of what he might be was limited by his human frame of reference. What is striking is Carey’s acceptance of his own monstrosity, his otherness, and his failure to coincide with himself. In The Incredible Shrinking Man ‘Man’ is no longer lord and master of earth or globe, surveying it from a transcendental platform, separate from ‘the animal’, but an ineluctable part


Unnatural Theology

of the world, a world which is, furthermore, necessarily open to an unknown, monstrous future. Thus, against the supposedly shrinking globe which we are supposed to manage, it is ‘man’ who should and will shrink to acknowledge ‘his’ own singular monstrosity as a necessary concomitant of there being a future at all.


Of Clouds and the Cloud

In his masterwork Process and Reality, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes how he understands speculative thinking to work: The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of a particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it lands again for renewed observation, rendered acute by rational interpretation. ([1926] 1978: 5)

Let us take Whitehead literally, but look at a particular observation that can be made while actually in flight. Before the advent of mass air travel the experience of being above the clouds would have been comparatively rare, limited to those able and willing to climb high enough to get above the cloud layer, or, latterly, to early pioneers of balloon and air flight. For much of human existence the clouds may have been regarded as the home of the gods, of God, or of the angelic hosts. Now, anyone who has flown for business or pleasure, has been able to look down on the cloud canopy. What once would have been regarded as sublime is now commonplace. But the experience of flying up to, through, and then above clouds, also helps us to think about one of the most vexing problems in philosophy, that of the one and the many. Brian Wetherson suggests that as anyone who has flown out of a cloud knows, the boundaries of a cloud are a lot less sharp up close than they can appear on the ground. Even when it seems clearly true that there is one, sharply bounded, cloud up there, really there are thousands of water droplets that are neither determinately part of the cloud, nor determinately outside it.

Thus, considering any object as ‘the core of the cloud’, plus ‘an arbitrary selection of these droplets … will look like a cloud, and circumstances permitting rain like a cloud, and generally has as good a claim to be a cloud as any other object


Unnatural Theology

in that part of the sky’ (Wetherson, 2014). But Wetherson suggests that if we say every such object is a cloud, there would be millions of clouds where it seemed like there was one. He goes on to propose that what holds for clouds is also true for anything ‘whose boundaries look less clear the closer you look at it’, which is ‘just about every kind of object we normally think about, including humans’ (ibid.). Clouds, as normally understood, are understood to be condensed masses of watery vapour, usually, though not always, to be found above the ground. That the place where much of our data is stored, is called the ‘Cloud’ may seem, at first glance, of little relevance. The Cloud is defined by the US National Institute of Science and Technology thus: Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. (NIST, 2011)

The use of the word ‘cloud’ as the name for the ubiquitous online network for storing and accessing data appears to be merely a convenient metaphor. The ‘Cloud’ is not actually a cloud, as some tabloid papers recently and usefully explained when the term was in the news. The cloud is far from vaporous, and is in fact based on energy-intensive server farms (though the widespread use of Wi-Fi and other wireless forms of access does tend to reinforce the cloudy feel of using the Cloud). Nevertheless, the two kinds of cloud are perhaps less far apart than one might think. Perhaps those of us involved in thinking and writing about media, new or otherwise, need what John Durham Peters calls a ‘philosophy of elemental media’, as described in his book The Marvelous Clouds. Peters starts with the observation that ‘in light of both the possible irreversible threat to our habitat by climate change and the explosion of digital devices, of both carbon overload in the atmosphere and superabundant data in the “cloud” it is good to open the relation of media to nature’ (2015: 1). We must abandon what Bruno Latour calls the modern constitution that separates politics and Nature, and perhaps instead develop a general meteorology, which involves the weather as traditionally understood, as well as the operations of language, media and culture.

Of Clouds and the Cloud


For Hubert Damisch, in his book Theory of /Cloud/, clouds in the paintings of artists such as Correggio act as a counterpoint to the operations of linear perspective, and thus signify alterity. He places the word ‘cloud’ between two forward slashes to denote that, when a cloud is found in this kind of painting, it is a semiotic operator, rather than a straightforward representation (2002: 326). For Damisch, Western artists failed to find a means to represent clouds properly, largely because they were not amenable to representation through the means of linear perspective. As Damisch puts it, ‘in the West cloud marks the limitations of a representation that is governed by the finite nature of linearity’ (202). The beginnings of our modern understanding of clouds start with the work of amateur meteorologist Luke Howard. It is from Howard’s work at the beginning of the nineteenth century that we get most of the names for clouds with which we are familiar, such as cumulus, cirrus and so on. Here again we find the operations of metaphor in relation to clouds, as each of these terms refers to something to which the shape can be compared; cirrus from the Latin for fibre or hair; cumulus from heap or pile; and stratus from layer or sheet. Goethe wrote a poem for Howard about clouds. The greater understanding of clouds offered by Howard’s work seemed to resonate with the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, and, in particular, with its desire to suture together art and science. Wordsworth’s poems contain much cloud imagery, while Shelley wrote an entire poem based on Howard’s cloud classification. Influenced directly or indirectly by Howard, artists such as Constable and Turner undertook numerous studies of the clouds and of weather more generally. Clouds could, however, suggest something more sinister than the beauty of the natural environment. This is by Alfred Tennyson, from his great poem In Memoriam A. H. H., written in response to his close friend Arthur Hallam, but also reflecting uneasily on the crisis of faith brought about by new scientific discoveries and speculations. The hills are shadows, and they flow From form to form, and nothing stands; They melt like mist, the solid lands, Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

Tennyson completed In Memoriam in 1849. A year earlier Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published The Communist Manifesto, which famously


Unnatural Theology

proclaimed that, with the emergence of capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. What both Tennyson and Marx and Engels perhaps recognized was the dematerialization, the becoming stochastic or becoming cloud of the world. A little later, in his book Pragmatism, William James invokes clouds to express his despair at the implications of scientific materialism That is the sting of it, that in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, tho many a jeweled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it be dissolved – even as our world now lingers, for our joy – yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely NOTHING remains, or represent those particular qualities, those elements of preciousness which they may have enshrined. Dead and gone are they, gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on aught that may come after, to make it care for similar ideals. This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. (quoted in Peters, 2015: 384)

According to Michel Serres, this had also been recognized at about the same time by J. M. W. Turner, perhaps the greatest painter England has ever produced. Turner was working at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and at the point where increasingly efficient forms of steam power would not only make that revolution possible, but also lead to the extraordinary range of scientific discoveries about energy, thermodynamics and entropy. The origins of many of those discoveries can be found in the work of the French engineer Sadi Carnot, who, in the 1820s, sought to produce a set of theories about the operations of steam power, or, as the title of his book puts it, the ‘Motive Power of Fire’. In his essay ‘Turner Translates Carnot’ Serres shows how Turner understood the transformative and revolutionary implications of steam power. Serres starts his essay by describing a painting of a brewery warehouse by George Garrard (1983: 54). This is a representation, a diagram, of the ordered world of industry before the advent of steam power. It is full of the means by which mechanical force is employed and exploited, ‘levers, scales, winches, hoisting derricks, pulleys, ropes, weights, tackle’. But this is a moment which is at an end, and ‘here comes Turner’ (55–6). Even Wright of Derby’s painting The Forge, an image of energy, remains bound up with the mechanical

Of Clouds and the Cloud


elements, and with matter dominated by form. But ‘Turner no longer looks from the outside, he enters into Wright’s ingot, he enters into the boiler, the furnace, the firebox. He sees matter transformed by fire.’ For Serres, Turner is not a precursor of the Impressionists, as is often claimed (56–7). He is a proper realist. He not only translates Carnot, but anticipates or prefigures the work of James Clerk Maxwell who undertook the scientific research into electromagnetic phenomena that led to the discovery of radio waves, and of Ludwig Boltzmann, who developed statistical mechanics. In Serres’ words, Matter is no longer left in the prison of diagram. Fire dissolves it, makes it vibrate, tremble, oscillate, makes it explode into clouds. From Garrard to Turner, or from the fibrous network to the hazardous cloud. No one can draw the edge of a cloud, the borderline of the aleatory where particles waver and melt, at least to our eyes. There a new time is being fired in the oven. On these totally new edges, which geometry and the art of drawing have abandoned, a new world will soon discover dissolution, atomic and molecular dissemination. The boiler's fire atomizes matter and gives it over to chance, which has always been its master. Boltzmann will soon understand it, but Turner, in his own domain, understood it before him. (58)

From this Serres draws out his theorem: ‘Beneath the forms of matter, stochastic order reigns supreme.’ Serres finishes the essay with the final, gnomic thought. ‘Turner painted only cosmic copulations, so obviously that no one saw them: the love-making of fire and water, materially drawn with precision. Turner or the old-style riddle: cherchez La femme’ (62). The idea of Turner painting cosmic copulations would not have pleased John Ruskin, his greatest admirer and defender. Ruskin was also perhaps the greatest analyst of clouds in painting in the nineteenth century. For Ruskin modern landscape painting was characterized by its ‘cloudiness’. Out of perfect light and motionless air, we find ourselves on a sudden brought under sombre skies, and into drifting wind; and, with fickle sunbeams flashing in our face, or utterly drenched with sweep of rain, we are reduced to track the changes of the shadows on the grass, or watch the rents of twilight through angry cloud. And we find that whereas all the pleasure of the mediæval was in stability, definiteness, and luminousness, we are expected to rejoice in darkness, and triumph in mutability; to lay the foundation of happiness in things which momentarily change or fade; and


Unnatural Theology

to expect the utmost satisfaction and instruction from what it is impossible to arrest, and difficult to comprehend. (1907, vol III: 317)

As Ruskin puts it, ‘if a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than “the service of clouds”’ (318). Ruskin went as far as to try to depict cloud-forms in linear perspective, despite the fact that, as Damisch points out, clouds cannot be represented within the confines of such a perspectival rendering. But, as Damisch puts it, for Ruskin the modern spectator was ‘invited to take pleasure in obscurity, the ephemeral, change, and to derive the greatest satisfaction and instruction from that which was the hardest to fix and understand: wind, light, cloud shadows and so on’ (2002: 187). Thomas Ford suggests that what Ruskin understands is the idea of the atmosphere as a medium of communication and perception, or indeed as the first modern medium, an understanding that implies the absolute interrelatedness of humans and their environment. Indeed, it is the idea of the atmosphere as medium, that makes the concept of the media possible. ‘Only once atmosphere is understood as a medium, do other media (text and image) become visible as media themselves.’ Thus, with modernity weather becomes a theme for art, which in turn brings attention to the medium itself, and to the idea of the atmosphere as a medium of communication, enveloping both subject and object (2011: 293). Almost immediately after clouds were scientifically described as natural objects, other kinds of cloud-like phenomena started to appear, as a result of the Industrial Revolution and war. Ruskin reflected upon some of these phenomena in his storm-cloud lecture, discussed in Chapter 4. In the fifth letter of Fors Clavigera, from May 1871, having declared that there are three ‘material things … essential to life’, pure air, water, earth, he again castigates the combatants of the Franco-Prussian campaign. You can vitiate the air by your manner of life, and of death, to any extent. You might easily vitiate it so as to bring such a pestilence on the globe as would end all of you. You, or your fellows, German and French, are at present busy in vitiating it to the best of your power in every direction; chiefly at this moment with corpses, and animal and vegetable ruin in war: changing men, horses, and garden-stuff into noxious gas. But everywhere, and all day long, you are vitiating it with foul chemical exhalations; and the horrible nests,

Of Clouds and the Cloud


which you call towns, are little more than laboratories for the distillation into heaven of venomous smokes and smells, mixed with effluvia from decaying animal matter, and infectious miasmata from purulent disease. (1907. Vol XXVII: 91)

Ford suggests that, for Ruskin, ‘the climate has been changed by a violent breakdown in human communication’ as evinced by the Franco-Prussian War, and which ‘would be incarnated again in the trenches of the Western Front, “moats flooded with the waters of death”, that Ruskin so accurately fore-tells’ (2011: 287–8). This can be seen as evidence of Ruskin’s extraordinary prescience. He is, in effect, the first thinker of what Peter Sloterdijk calls ‘being-in-the-air’ (2009: 40). For Sloterdijk the twentieth century dawned ‘in a spectacular revelation’ on the 22 April 1915, when a German ‘gas regiment’ staged a surprise attack against French-Canadian troops in Ypres, involving the use of thousands of gas cylinders full of chlorine. Opened to a prevailing northnortheast wind these cylinders discharged a gas cloud nearly 6 kilometres wide and 600 to 900 metres deep (10). The effect of this cloud was horrifying, involving soldiers  desperately gasping for air. In this manner the ‘20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body but the enemy’s environment’ (6). Despite being an explicit violation of Article  23 of the 1907 Hague Convention forbidding the use of poison or suffering-enhancing weapons against the enemy, the use of gas was widespread on both sides of the conflict. As the war progressed the effects of more sophisticated forms of gas became more pronounced, including ‘blindness and catastrophic nervous dysfunction’ (13). Among those blinded thus temporarily in this period was Adolf Hitler. But, for Sloterdijk, the consequences of gas warfare go far beyond its military implications. With the invention of the gas mask, in particular, he sees the ‘first step towards the principle of air conditioning, whose basic idea consists in disconnecting a defined volume of space from the surrounding air’ (12). With the phenomenon of gas warfare, the fact of the living organism's immersion in a breathable milieu arrives at the level of formal representation, bringing the climatic and atmospheric conditions pertaining to human life to a new level of explication. (15)


Unnatural Theology

Above all it brings into question the ‘intactness’ or otherwise of the ‘very air that groups breathe’(17). ‘Air and atmosphere – the primary media for life, in both the physical and metaphorical sense – only become an object of explicit consideration and monitoring in domains such as aero-technics, medicine, law, politics, aesthetics and cultural theory in response to their terrorist deprivation’ (ibid.). Thus, the moment of the Ypres Attack is when ‘a hand jumped on the clock of ages, marking the end of the vitalistic late-Romantic modernist phase and the beginning of atmoterrorist objectivity’. Sloterdijk claims that ‘no caesura of equal profundity’ has occurred since (22). The loss of the war and the terms of the Versailles treaty did not prevent German scientists from continuing to develop gas agents, though now with the aim of pest control. At the Dahlem Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, where much of the original gas warfare research was undertaken, Professor Ferdinand Flury developed a number of variants of hydrogen cyanide gas for use as an insecticide. One variant involved the addition of methyl chloroformate to the hydrogen cyanide, with the express purpose of making the imperceptible gas perceptible to the human user, thus offering what Sloterdijk calls a ‘rephenomenalization of the aphenomenal’ (24). The name of this particular product was Zyklon A. Another company, Tesch and Stabenow, further developed this to produce its version, known as Zyklon B, which as Sloterdijk drily puts it, ‘would soon become a household name’. As Sloterdijk points out the use of such technics for vermin and disease control, and thus as a form of ‘self-defence’, led to its use against human subjects in the Final Solution (34). As he puts it this was made possible on a ‘semantic level’ by the characterization of Jews as pest and vermin, which in turn made the use of pest-control technologies acceptable and even sensible (28). This is exemplified by statements such as that by Goebbels that the ‘Jews are the lice of civilized humanity’ (36). If the gas attacks of the First World War jump us shockingly into the era of atmoterrorist objectivity, it is the air itself that will be the source of the next war’s manifestations. From the German air attacks in Guernica in 1937 through to the bombing of Coventry in 1940, and Dresden in 1945, and, finally of course, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the same year, it is the air forces of the opposing blocs that threatened the very atmosphere (43). This continued beyond the war to now with, inter alia, the

Of Clouds and the Cloud


‘carpet bombing’ of Serbia in the Kosovo conflict or the use of bombs such as the so-called ‘Daisy Cutter’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Coventry and Dresden represented the extreme form of ‘thermoterrorism’, Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a shift to ‘radioterrorism’. For Sloterdijk, it is important to see that the mushroom clouds ‘accomplished a “revolutionary” re-orientation of “environmental” consciousness, turning it toward the invisible milieu of radiation and waves’ and thereby ‘making radioactivity explicit’(49). This ‘made explicit is the fact that human existence is situated in a complex atmosphere of waves and radiation, a reality witnessable only as the appearance of certain indirect effects, but that is not immediately perceivable’ (50). The radiation first revealed in the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and at the various atomic and nuclear tests afterwards, is part of another, broader story, that of the ‘invisible milieu of radiation and waves’, which includes not just the radiation that results from atomic and nuclear processes, but also the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Following the work of James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, the existence of electromagnetic phenomena beyond the spectrum of visible light had been discovered and exploited, not least with the invention of radio. Radio and television are explicitly atmospheric phenomena, as is revealed in relation to being ‘on air’. Of course, one of the early terms for radio was wireless, to denote the lack of physical connection between source and receiver. The sounds are in the air, part of the atmosphere. In the late 1950s it was realized that the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear explosion could potentially destroy most communications networks, in particular the telephone system. Engineer Paul Baran, from the Cold War thinktank RAND, set out to solve this problem. He knew that AM radio networks would not be susceptible to the EMP blast. What Baran famously devised was a distributed network of communication devices (in the first instances AM radios) that were multiply connected with each other. He proved that such a network could still work even if up to 70 per cent of it was destroyed. This, along with ‘packet switching’, the idea of breaking up messages into small packets to make their own way to their destination to be reassembled, developed by Donald Davies of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, were fundamental elements of the first computer network, Arpanet, built by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the United States.


Unnatural Theology

The Arpanet was, of course, the precursor to the internet, and the internet is now a matter of the Cloud. Thus, the Cloud is intimately bound up with a history of the potential destruction of not just systems of communication, but of culture tout court. As such, it exemplifies what Jacques Derrida calls ‘Archive Fever’ (Mal d’Archive): If there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction. Consequence: right on what permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than what exposes to destruction, in truth what menaces with destruction introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument itself. The archive always works, and a priori, against itself. (1995a: 11–12)

Implicit in the Cloud’s relation to nuclear war is the fragility of the archive. In his essay of ‘nuclear criticism’, ‘No Apocalypse: Not Now’, Derrida points to the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies – which are also the technologies of delivery, sending, dispatching, of the missile in general, of mission, missive, emission, and transmission, and declares that Nuclear War would threaten ‘the possibility of an irreversible destruction, leaving no traces, of the juridico-literary archive – that is, total destruction of the basis of literature and criticism’ (24). Thus, in its paradoxical capacity to keep the peace, as well as threaten destruction, nuclear weaponry is a kind of pharmakon. And so is the Cloud, in its fragility, its susceptibility to ‘outage’, or to sabotage, or to the collapse of the networks which sustain it. He goes on to propose that literature has always belonged to the nuclear epoch, even if it does not talk ‘seriously’ about it. And in truth I believe that the nuclear epoch is dealt with more ‘seriously’ in texts by Mallarmé, or Kafka, or Joyce, for example, than in present-day novels that would offer direct and realistic descriptions of a ‘real’ nuclear catastrophe. (27–8)

In his paper ‘From Lucretian Atomic Theory to Joycean Etymic Theory’, Sean Braune links together the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius’ ideas with the emergence of ‘potential literature’, as manifested in the work of Alfred Jarry, for whose ‘pataphysics the Lucretian clinamen was an important idea, Oulipo,

Of Clouds and the Cloud


and James Joyce, in particular in Finnegans Wake’ (2010). Central to Braune’s argument is the connection Joyce makes between the atom, the potential splitting of which was already causing anxieties, and what Joyce calls the ‘etym’, the atomic component of the word which he was also busy splitting in the Wake. Braune quotes from the third part of the Wake. The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons skaping with mulicules while coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira. (170)

Braune suggests that the Wake is a work that practises its own ‘abnihilisation of the etym’, which he explains, with reference to Donald and Joan Theall’s work on Joyce, a bringing together the etym, ‘Joyce’s imaginary unit for the true source of a word in historic terms, and the atom, as the basic unit of matter until 1931 when the possibility of atom smashing arose, are based on a conception of assemblages of different bits’ (171). Braune quotes Michel Serres: ‘There are the laws of putting together letters-atoms to produce a text. The alphabetical proto-cloud is without law and the letters are scattered at random, always there as a set in space, as language; but as soon as a text or speech appears, the laws of good formulation, combination, and conjugation also appear’ (169). Serres was one of a number of contemporary thinkers to address questions of chaos and turbulence. Others include Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers, Cornelius Castoriadis and Vilem Flusser. In his book The Birth of Physics, Serres goes back to Lucretius and his poem On the Nature of Things to offer an alternative history and lineage of physics, based on Lucretius’ atomism, which in turn came from Democritus and Epicurus. Against the normal presumption that Lucretius’ philosophy is an archaic dead end, Serres claims that it is an anticipation of contemporary ideas about complex systems and dissipative structures (2000). For Lucretius, the universe is an eternal void composed of atoms streaming down as in a kind of cataract. Only when atoms make slight deviations or


Unnatural Theology

swerves, ‘clinamen’, which happens ‘incerto temporis … incerti locis’, at an uncertain time or place, they are able to combine to produce stuff such as worlds, bodies and so on. As Derrida puts it in his essay, ‘My Chance/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with some Epicurean Stereophonies’, ‘In the course of their fall in the void, atoms are pulled along by a supplementary deviation, by the parenklisis or clinamen that exacerbates an initial gap and produces the concentration of material (systrophe) that gives birth to the worlds and the things they contain’ (2007: 347). Thus, our world is produced not only by chance, randomly, but also by bringing disorder out of order. The random collision of atoms is called a ‘chaos-cloud’ by Serres, and images of clouds, and other turbulent systems abound in his account (2000: 27). Serres sees the truth of Lucretius’ atomism, not just at the cosmological level, but at the social and even individual level. Thus, in a sense, ‘cloud’, as a name for a dissipative, complex, chaotic structure, becomes a way of thinking about and describing anything and everything. This is more or less what Serres does in The Birth of Physics. He asks, ‘Who am I?’, and replies, ‘A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone’ (37). He points out that ‘turbo’, the Latin word used by Lucretius, which is translated as ‘vortex’ is ‘quite close to turba, the crowd, disorder, number and great number, the throng, chaos and agitation (81). History is random, aleatory and stochastic. It is cloud and noise. Huge populations, a parametric multitude exceeding all measure. History is ergodic. … History is the formation of syrrheses, of systems, orders out of ceaseless cloud. (164)

Throughout The Birth of Physics, Serres emphasizes one of Lucretius’ key ideas, that atoms are letters. As he puts it, ‘Atoms are letters, they are combined into sentences, and join to form volumes’ (22) or ‘Atoms are letters, their ensemble an alphabet. Their conjunction is interconnection, combination. Here are words, sentences, their filtering. A signal and a meaning emerge from the noise’ (135). He claims the fact that ‘atoms are letters is not an arbitrary theory or a decision or a metaphor. It is a necessity of what Lucretius and his predecessors called nature’ (147). The world, objects, bodies, my very soul are, at the moment of their birth, in decline. This means, in the everyday sense, that they are mortal and bound for destruction. It also means that they form and arise. Nature declines and this is its act of birth. And its stability. Atoms join together, conjunction

Of Clouds and the Cloud


is the strength of things, through declination. This signifies the whole of time. The past, the present, the future, the dawn of appearance and death, tenacious illusions, are only the declinations of matter. They decline and are declined like the tenses of a verb, a word made up of atom-letters. (34)

Clouds reveal that we are always already an integral part of an environment, an atmosphere, upon which we rely for our survival. The physicist Henry Stapp, who is greatly influenced by Whitehead, understands our relation to quantum reality in terms of a ‘cloud of possibilities’. The particles of classical physics lose their fundamental status: they dissolve into diffuse clouds of possibilities. At each stage of the unfolding of nature the complete cloud of possibilities acts like the potentiality for the occurrence of a next increment in knowledge, whose occurrence can radically change the cloud of possibilities/potentialities for the still-later increments in knowledge. (1979: 1)

In his book The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters reminds us that Dante finishes each section of The Divine Comedy with the word ‘stelle’ (stars); he suggests that this denotes Dante and Virgil’s return to terra firma (2015: 386). Despite our disenchantment from our cosmos, that which the sky and stars symbolize in The Comedy, ‘we moderns have not lost touch with the sky but have simply shifted from the constants to the variables, from the stars to the clouds’. Like the character in Baudelaire’s poem, which Peters quotes and uses for his book’s title, the homeless stranger, who hates people, God, and gold, however loves the clouds. ‘J'aime les nuages … les nuages qui passent … là-bas … là-bas … les merveilleux nuages!’ (I love the clouds … the clouds that pass by … over there … over there … the marvelous clouds) (387). Peters finds in this love of clouds a consolatory image to set against our own mortality and our perilous relation to our environment in the context of the Anthropocene. After the shipwreck of our species, which is as inevitable as our own deaths, everything in James’s human cloud bank will go, but this blessed earth will live on, and the clouds and sun will continue to radiate for a season, and the beauty that pulses in our senses will continue to pulse to other senses or just to itself, and that will be enough. (Ibid.)

The knowledge that this beauty will persist gives Peters comfort, and also the knowledge that though there may be ‘long periods of anoxic oceans and arid


Unnatural Theology

wastelands … something will happen and eventually wildflowers might sprout in the ash we left behind’ (ibid.). Thus, for Peters the end of the human species is not tragic but comic, given that comedy involves the regeneration of life. He quotes Melville: ‘Yet there is hope. Time and tide flow wide’, and suggests that some other species may evolve after millions of years and do a better job (ibid.).


Conclusion: God in Black and White

In his highly personal account of his experience of severe illness, Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living, Mark C. Taylor makes the following observation. There is no freedom without terror. To spread freedom is therefore to increase terror. In the instant of freedom, the power of creativity appears as ‘the fury of destruction, which knows no limit’. What makes freedom so terrifying is that it reveals an unfathomable abyss ‘within’ that exposes as groundless every ground believed to be secure. This unfathomable abyss is the whiteness of the whale – the ‘never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction’. It is the nothingness that haunts being as its impossible conclusion. (2014: 173)

He continues that there is nothing ‘comforting or reassuring about freedom’. Rather to ‘accept responsibility for freedom, which is never our own but nonetheless lets us be what we become, is to embrace not just the possibility but also the necessity of a terror we can never avoid’ (175). The immediate context of these reflections is an account of a visit Taylor and his son made to ‘Ground Zero’, the site of the events of 9/11, soon after it happened. His son, Aaron, had been in the American Express building opposite the Twin Towers during the attack, and Taylor felt that he should be with him when he first went back to the area. He describes what he calls ‘a strange religious atmosphere’ that pervaded Ground Zero. As he points out ‘there had been much talk of about the role of religion in this conflict, but very little understanding of what religion really involves’ (176). Though he concedes that religion does give people a ‘sense of meaning and purpose’, it also carries ‘people to the edge of life’ (ibid.). Thus, the religious atmosphere at Ground Zero emerged from the ‘few brief moments’ on 9/11, when ‘the veneer of security was torn to reveal a primordial vulnerability that neither defence departments nor advanced technologies can overcome’ (ibid.).


Unnatural Theology

This might stand as a powerful riposte to those who claim either that religion is innately violent, and therefore to rid us of it would somehow also rid us of religious violence, and perhaps all violence, and to those who claim that religion is in fact not violent at all, and is entirely concerned with the peaceful mitigation of violence. Religion, if such a thing can be said to exist, is of course extremely violent, even, or perhaps especially, in those cases when it is concerned with resisting violence or with forms of non-violence. Nor is Christianity, the religion of love, an exception to this. ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword’ (Mt. 10.34). Getting rid of religion would not, as some naïve militant atheists believe, do anything to mitigate either the violence of our existence, or the human forms of violence with which we respond to that existence. But nor would a return to religious forms of life signal the advent of a more peaceable existence. Religion is violent, and unavoidably because it reflects and mediates the truth about our existence, that underneath the veneer of civilization our lives are violently and terrifyingly contingent, and we are always vulnerable. This is a violence that is both profoundly destructive and creative (which is perhaps the reason that ‘capitalism’ in its embrace of creative destruction is the purest form of religion ever known). In her essay ‘Passion-binding-passion’, Yvonne Sherwood quotes Carl Jung’s definition of God from an interview in (of all places) Good Housekeeping. To this day, God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse. (Burrus and Keller, 2006: 174)

Sherwood employs a term from Michael Roemer and his theory of the paradigmatic story, ‘depotentiation’, to think about this idea of God, and, in particular, the story of Christ. For Roemer ‘the task of story is to perform the depotentiation of mankind. Stories perform, in a exacerbated way, the sense of human subjection and unknowing’ (172). She quotes Roemer to the effect that ‘much of the time we don’t even know what is going on, or growing, in our own bodies’ (ibid.). Stories are, by definition, a ‘performance of the limitations of the subject … the hero encounters his limitation in relation to the intractability of a past that has started without him and a future that is shaped by more than his desire’ (ibid.). Thus, the story of Christ and his crucifixion can be understood as a ‘hyperstory’ in which ‘even God is not sheltered’ (173, emphasis in original).

Conclusion: God in Black and White


Perhaps ‘God’ is nothing more than a word for the creative/destructive process by which the universe comes into and out of existence. Taylor implies something of the sort in Field Notes, when he suggests that theologians have had it wrong for centuries – God is not the creator, creativity is God. Rather than a person, God is the infinite process in and through which everything arises and passes away. The good news is that creativity is embodied, even incarnate, whenever the new erupts. Never limited to the human imagination, creativity is at work in the entire cosmos – from the lowest to the highest, from the inanimate to the animate. Human creativity is always surrounded by a creativity infinitely greater than itself. (2014: 78)

Though Taylor does mention him this passage clearly invokes the work of Alfred North Whitehead, not least because the latter coined the term ‘creativity’. In Process and Reality Whitehead claims that creativity is the principle of novelty. An actual occasion is a novel entity diverse from any entity in the ‘many’ which it unifies. Thus ‘creativity’ introduces novelty into the content of the many, which are the universe disjunctively. The ‘creative advance’ is the application of this ultimate principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates. ([1926] 1978: 21)

Similarly, as part of his attempt to reject all forms of determinism, the political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis developed an idea of what he called ‘Creation ex nihilo’ (though he was at pains to distance this from any Judeo-Christian notion of Creation). This is bound up with his critique of what he sees as a misunderstanding about the meaning of the term ‘chaos’. He is particularly critical of any attempt to construct universal mathematical models of phenomena via, for example, set theory (n.d.: 386). Above all, he attacks the use of the word ‘chaos’ in the then-fashionable chaos theory arising originally from the work of people such as Edward Lorenz. Against the presumption that chaos means ‘disorder’, Castoriadis derives chaos from the Greek verb chainō or chaskō, which connects it to the void. He compares this to Plato’s notion of Khora, ‘place’. ‘It’s not an amorphous mixture of confused elements; it’s pure and absolute becoming as such, that is to say total indetermination’ (387). He continues that chaos is the ground of being. It’s even the groundlessness of being. It’s the abyss that is behind every existent thing. And as a matter of fact, this


Unnatural Theology

determination that the creation of forms is ensures that chaos will always be present itself as cosmos, that is to say, as organized world in the broadest sense of the term, as order. Only, we’re constantly discovering that the organization and ultimate order of this cosmos escapes us. (389)

For Castoriadis, it escapes us because the various ways that being presents itself to us, the biological, the physicochemical, the social-historical or the psychical, are all fundamentally irreducible to more elementary strata. For example, the continued existence of a star is fundamentally different to the self-preservation of a biological entity, which entails a meaning-for-itself. He singles out the human psyche as having a particular relation to the ‘creation of a cosmos – that is to say, of a groundlessness, of an abyss that is at the same time formative potential, vis formandi’ (389). For Castoriadis, the meaning that the human psyche creates, the meaning for-itself, is defunctionalized. It is not bound by the ‘preservation of the individual or by the reproduction of the species’ (390). This means that the ‘functionality of what was the animal psyche has been shattered by the emergence of something that is constitutive of the human psyche, that is to say the radical imagination as perpetual flux of representations, affects, and desires’ (ibid.). This is chaotic as Castoriadis defines the term. It is ‘perpetual creation; it is a permanent surging forth that exits from the abyss or from a sort of groundlessness but that can be only in giving itself, or in taking a form’ (ibid.). We see here something like the basis for a conception of ‘God’ as chaos, or chaos as ‘God’. That this might indeed be the basis of such a theology can be found in a remark by the philosopher of ‘hyperchaos’, Quentin Meillassoux. In an interview with Graham Harman he discusses his intellectual relation with his wife, Gwenaëlle Aubry, who is, among other things, a scholar of ancient philosophy, in particular that of Plotinus. In her work Meillassoux finds the basis of much of his thinking. Christian theology, or at least an essential portion of it, is based on the idea that it is blasphemous to say God is good. For to say this would amount to saying that God is subordinated to an order of value that he is powerless to overturn (and above all unjustified in overturning). The essence of the Christian God, which makes him the opposite of Aristotle’s God, is the power freely to create or de-create the standards of good or evil, not being devoted to some eternal good independent of his own power. (Harman, 2011: 161–2)

Conclusion: God in Black and White


Perhaps this offers us an idea of a god for god-less thinking, one before which we can, in Heidegger’s words, pray, sacrifice, fall to our knees, play music and dance, one to which god-less thinking can be open. But how might such a god be experienced or represented? In his book Holy Terror, Terry Eagleton remarks that ‘for Judeo-Christian thought, God is flaming fire who is terrible to look on’ (2005: 27). The idea of God as fire is central to Byzantine theology as this quotation from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy suggests: For the fire lays hold of and streams through all things without adulteration, distinguishes itself from all things, is entirely light and yet impenetrable at one and the same time. … It can neither be checked, nor prevailed against, nor conceived. It renews all things with its naked flame. It can neither be held fast nor dissipated. It has the power to dissolve and cannot itself be changed. (Quoted in Sheppard, 1999: 290)

The most famous example of this trope is of course Moses’ encounter with God, in which ‘the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed’. A couple of verses later it reads ‘“I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.’ This last verse is alluded to in Pascal’s famous memorial for what has become known as his ‘night of fire’. On 23 November 1654, he experienced a mystical vision, about which he told nobody, but sowed his account of it into his coat, where it was found after his death. It begins ‘Fire/God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars./Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.’ Jacques Derrida dropped the entire of Pascal’s memorial into the last seminar he gave before he died, without discussing it in any great length (2010: 213–4). Michael Naas suggests that Derrida, in a sense, sews the prayer into what would be his final seminar, much as Pascal sews it into his coat (Naas, 2014: 122). Immediately after his citation of the Pascal prayer Derrida invokes Heidegger’s suggestion that one does not pray to the God of ontotheology (2010: 207–8). In the memorial the word ‘Fire’ is in a line on its own. Derrida glosses on this in the seminar. ‘This word “fire” is, then, isolated, alone, insularized on a single line, and I am not sure I can interpret it in a decidable way, between the fire of glory and the fire that reduces to ashes or


Unnatural Theology

that still smoulders under the ashes of some cremation (Aschenglorie)’ (2010: 298). (The last word here being a reference of Célan poem of the same name.) In her book Encounters with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich describes a terrifying experience. As a teenage she found herself in an empty street in a small town, where she came across something that required leaving ‘the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words such as “ineffable” and “transcendent”’. But there is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the ‘burning bush’. At some point in my pre-dawn walk – not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time – the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the all’, as promised by the eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. (2014: 115–16)

Ehrenreich has perhaps experienced something of what the world is like when unfiltered by the human sensorium, which tends otherwise to limit what we experience, given that to experience the totality of what is happening. Other kinds of mystical experiences as well as those involving hallucinogens may also involve a similar loss of filtering capacity. Evelyn Underhill defines the mystical experience as nothing more or less than the experience of union with reality. But what that reality may be is another question. What is certain is that our existence is predicated on an unimaginable force of energy. Whether the universe is a singular creation ex nihilo, one of a potentially infinite number of universes within a larger multiverse, or the latest in an infinite succession of universes, one following after the other, what does seem apparent is that this universe has expanded from an unimaginably small beginning to its current size, and will continue to expand until it ceases to exist. It is therefore plausible to compare this universe to a nuclear explosion in which a chain reaction from almost nothing creates a devastating explosion, except this explosion last billions of years and is the size of the universe. Thus, in a theological

Conclusion: God in Black and White


register, it is possible to see the existence of the universe as nothing but an endless, explosive process of differentiation and difference, or even différance, through which God creates and is created out of nothing: atoms splitting, cells splitting, metastasis, the explosive production of neuronal connections. It does not take place in time, but is time itself, as difference, to which creatures have access according to their complexity. Our relation to this catastrophic event is so vanishingly small and local and of such a short duration that we can mistake a small pocket of stability and temporary order as proof of the fundamental laws of nature. The Japanese artist Ryoichi Kurokawa captured this in his extraordinary work unfold, an immersive video installation, which I saw at FACT in Liverpool, and which aimed to show ‘the birth and evolution of stars offering viewers an artistic, yet scientific, representation of how the solar system was born, and how our galaxy might evolve’. In contrast to most representations of cosmic evolution, which tend to emphasize a kind of serene grandeur, Kurokawa’s installation was violently loud, disjunctive, and involved floor sensors that made the ground vibrate and rumble. The nuclear metaphor is especially apt as it indicates the absolute impossibility of knowing or even properly imagining this event. We can only describe what we imagine a nuclear explosion might be like in barely adequate metaphors, ‘the light of a thousand suns’, for example. Much like a nuclear explosion, an encounter with God, as a kind of experience of overwhelming light and heat, would necessarily destroy us (a mushroom cloud of unknowing, perhaps). The abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning expressed this in the most extraordinary way in a lecture given in 1951 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’. Today, some people think that the light of the atom bomb will change the concept of painting once and for all. The eyes that actually saw the light melted out of sheer ecstasy. For one instant, everybody was the same color. It made angels out of everybody. A truly Christian light, painful but forgiving. (1951: 7)

In his short essay ‘White Ecstasy’, Michel de Certeau describes an encounter between Simone the Monk and a visitor from the land of Panoptie. The visitor explains that the vision of God coincides with the disappearance of things seen. Against the presumption that the more vision there is, the more things are seen, the visitor explains that the opposite is actually true. A ‘great dazzling


Unnatural Theology

blindness is created: the extinction of things seen’ (Ward, 1998: 156). He claims that ‘to see God is, in the end, to see nothing; it is to see nothing in particular; it is to participate in a universal visibility that no longer is comprised of the cutting out of the individual, multiple, fragmentary, and mobile scenes which make up our perceptions’. Inasmuch as ‘seeing is devouring’, the things we see are the limits of its expansion, the ‘fragile sides’ of a skiff that protects us, temporarily, against ‘vision’s oceanic inundation’ (155–6). Painters know the danger. They play with this fire. You must know artists where you come from who draw a luminous line around certain opaque objects, in the same way that the whiteness of a wave limits the solar omnipotence of the sea at the shore. There are those who combat clarity by throwing down shadows. Yet among painters there are also captives of the passion of seeing; they hand things over to light and lose them there, shipwrecked in visibility. Ultimately, we are all painters, even if we do not construct theaters where this struggle between seeing and things unfolds. Some resist this voracious fascination; others yield to it only for a moment, seized by a vision that no longer knows what it perceives; many hasten – unconsciously? – toward the ecstasy that will be the end of their world. (156)

Thus, one cannot see God without dying. Ultimately, this is a ‘white eschatology’, in which an ‘ultimate obliteration of all things in the “universal and confused” light of vision’, is contrasted to the initial ‘tohu-bohu’ of Genesis that proceeded all distinction, Here is what a final bedazzlement would be: an absorption of objects and subjects in the act of seeing. No violence, only the unfolding of presence. Neither fold nor hole. Nothing hidden and thus nothing visible. A light without limits, without difference, neuter, in a sense, and continuous. It is only possible to speak of it in relation to our cherished activities, which are utterly annihilated there. There is no more reading where signs no longer are removed from and deprived of what they indicate. There is no more interpretation if no secret sustains and summons it. There are no more words if no absence founds the waiting they articulate. Our works are gently engulfed in this silent ecstasy. Without disaster and without noise, simply having become futile, our world – the immense apparatus born of our obscurities – ends. (Ibid.)

This is similar to the metaphor David Bentley Hart employs to help us understand ‘God’s infinite actuality’ and his simplicity, which he compares

Conclusion: God in Black and White


to ‘a pure white light, which contains the full visible spectrum in its simple unity’, and in which the ‘finite essences of creatures’ are like prisms, ‘which can capture that light only by way of their “faceted” finitude, thus diminishing it and refracting it into multiplicity’ (2014: 132–3). (Hart is careful to point out that this is a deficient metaphor, inasmuch as prisms exist apart from the light they refract, whereas finite beings are dependent on the light that is God.) Hart also compares God to an infinite ocean, in which creatures are finite vessels ‘containing existence only in limited measure’, echoing de Certeau’s image of a skiff of ‘fragile sides’ which protect us against vision’s oceanic inundation. The whiteness of this vision of God as an engulfing by a light that effaces all, invokes the blank white sheet that confronts the writer or the artist as the figure of pure potentiality before any creation. It invokes Robert Rauschenberg’s experiments in white paintings in the 1950s, which inspired John Cage and encouraged him to compose 4’ 33”, the so-called ‘silent piece’. Cage saw Rauschenberg’s white paintings as spaces of potential, places where events could take place, or as he put it ‘mirrors of the air … landing sites for dust particles’. Think also of Rauschenberg’s notorious ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’, which, as the name suggests was nothing but the nearly blank remains of a drawing by Willem de Kooning. What the threat of nuclear annihilation reveals is the absolute contingency and lack of necessity of the universe. Hart invokes ‘the terms of one’s own existence’, which is never that of ‘self existence’. Instead one is dependent on an incalculable number of ever greater and ever smaller finite conditions … all of which themselves are dependent on yet further conditions’ right down to ‘the atomic level, which is itself a realm of contingently subsistent realities that flicker in and out of actuality, that have no ontological ground in themselves, and that are all embraced within a quantum field that contains no more of an essential rationale for its own existence than does any other physical reality.

He points out that one of part of a wider world of dependencies, including ‘the whole contingent history of our quite unnecessary universe’ (2014: 105). Perhaps here we can entertain the idea that ‘God’ is just another name for potentiality. This can be found in different ways in the work of Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Whitehead and Deleuze. It can also be found in Nicholas de


Unnatural Theology

Cusa’s notion of God as Posse (Can), or Possest, (Can-Is). In his late treatise On the Summit of Contemplation (De apice theoriae), Cusa expresses it thus: Possibility itself [posse ipsum] is called Light by some saints – not perceptible light or rational light or intelligible light but the Light of all things that can give light – since nothing can possibly be brighter or clearer or more beautiful than Possibility. (Hopkins, 2001: 1426)

Thus, the image of God as pure light invokes that of the blank sheet of white paper, or perhaps what Jacques Derrida, writing about Antonin Artaud, calls the ‘subjectile’, which elsewhere he compares to Plato’s Khora (2000: 132) . Or it could be compared to a blank screen. In his essay ‘Difference and Repetition: On the Films of Guy Debord’, Giorgio Agamben quotes Debord’s remark that ‘I have shown that cinema can be reduced to this white screen then this black screen’ (McDonough, 2004). According to Eugene Thacker, for Meister Eckhart mediation is always breaking down into the darkness of God or the equally incomprehensible luminosity of divine self-abnegation. One is confronted with the numinous, absolute opacity of the divine, or one is engulfed in the prodigious flux of divinity; one either confronts the black, viscous void of divine discontinuity, or one is set ablaze in the sparkling brilliancy of divine continuity. Complete difference or complete indifference – these are the poles of divine nothingness. (2015: 81)

Glossary Aletheia: The ancient Greek word for truth or disclosure, revived by Martin Heidegger to embody his idea of truth as unconcealing, and as the negation of lethe (oblivion). Heidegger opposes this understanding of truth to that of adequation (adequatio) which he sees as exemplary of modernity. Anatman: The idea found in Buddhism that there is no essential or stable self, in contradistinction to the notion of atman or eternal self, more commonly found in Hindu thought. Anthropocene: A proposed epoch of geological time in which human activity is the main driver of change in the climate and environment. Other geological periods include the Pleistocene, otherwise known as the Ice Age, from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, and the Holocene, from the end of the Pleistocene to now. Antinomianism: The idea that there is no necessity to obey norms, rules or laws, whether religious or civil. Apocatastasis: The belief in the restoration of, or return to, a primordial condition, in which all creatures, including devils and lost souls, shall share in the grace of salvation. Apophasis: From the Greek apo, meaning ‘off ’ or ‘away from’, and phanai to ‘say’; a rhetorical term to mean to talk about something by mentioning as something not to be talked about. In theology, it refers to the inability to say anything that defines God, or even to say anything at all about God. Aporia: From the Greek poros (path), and ‘a’, ‘not’ or ‘no’, thus literally no path, but in philosophy referring to an irresolvable contradiction in an argument, or at least the rhetorical expression of having encountered such. Aufheben: Often translated as ‘sublate’ in English, and meaning variously to abolish, preserve, transcend, suspend and cancel, it is the term used by Hegel to denote what happens to the elements in the thesis and antithesis when they interact to produce the synthesis within the dialectic. Auto-affectivity: The intuition of sense of presence of the self to the self. Axial Age: Karl Jasper’s term for the period between the eighth and third centuries BCE, in which the major developments in human spirituality all emerged more or less concurrently, without any necessary connections between them. These developments include Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Platonism. Among other things, these movements shared a



concern with human ethics and flourishing, manifested in the simultaneous development of what is sometimes called the ‘golden rule’, one version of which, from the Gospel of St Matthew, is ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’. Biopolitical: Originally coined by Michel Foucault, and taken up by Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, the name for the way in which regimes of power regulate and manage issues concerning the body and life. Brethren of the Free Spirit: A radical and antinomian Christian sect that flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and was declared heretical by the Pope and suppressed. Causa sui: The self-caused or uncaused cause, something that is not the result of prior causes, one name for which might be God. Chalcedonian Christianity: Any Christian denomination that adheres to the declarations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451CE, particularly in relation to the dual nature of Christ’s human and divine nature. Chiliasts: The term, from the Greek khilias (a thousand), for those who believe that Christ will reign for a thousand years prior to the Last Judgement. Millennialist is the exact Latinate equivalent. Clinamen: From clinare (to incline), the term used by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura to describe the idea he derived from the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus that the things of nature are produced by the swerve of atoms colliding into each other, which would otherwise fall through the void Cogito: The idea, formulated by René Descartes, that the self can be assured of its own existence through being able to think about itself; ‘I think, therefore I am’ (cogito, ergo sum). Coincidentia oppositorum: The coincidence of opposites, a term devised by Nicholas of Cusa to express the Neoplatonic idea of the interdependence of apparently opposing phenomena. Creatio ex nihilo: Creation out of nothing, the idea that God’s creation of the universe is not preceded by anything or any prior cause. Dasein: Da-sein or ‘Being-there’ is Martin Heidegger’s term for the human, through which he tries to avoid any metaphysical understanding of identity prior to the individual’s existential thrownness into existence. Death of God: The idea, most famously connected with Friedrich Nietzsche, that the universe is fundamentally meaningless, symbolized by the fact that God, the source of any meaning, is dead. Dialectics: The philosophical process by which the opposition between antithetical ideas is worked through. It can be traced back to Plato and the Socratic dialogue, but is perhaps most closely associated with the work of Hegel and Marx, the latter in the form of Dialectical Materialism.



Diffé rance: Jacques Derrida’s neologism, combining the French words for difference and deferral, to indicate that all meaning is bound up in a web of difference in which any term is defined in relation to others, particularly in binary oppositions, and also that the final and definitive meaning of any enunciation is always and forever deferred. In French diffé rance sounds the same when spoken as difference, which offers a performative demonstration of the degree to which speech, usually regarded as more immediate and present than writing, is always already structured differentially, and through deferral. Differend: Jean-François Lyotard’s term for that within disputes or arguments between different parties is absolutely irreconcilable owing to the radically different ‘language games’ or ‘phrase regimes’ within which each party operates. Dividuality: The dividual is Gilles Deleuze’s term for the modern, embodied subject, who is also endlessly divisible and susceptible to representations as data in modern technologies of control. It is in contradistinction to and a critique of the notion of the individual. Ecotechnics: Jean-Luc Nancy’s term for the way in which the environment or the ecology is increasingly determined and framed by technics and technologies. Ekkenosis: From the Greek kenoo (to empty out), referring to Jesus’s emptying out of his own will, to become entirely receptive to God’s will. Eschatology: The branch of theology concerned with the Eschaton, or end of the world, and the last judgement. Existentialism: The philosophical movement, going back to the work of nineteenthcentury Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which posits that the world is fundamentally meaningless and that value and meaning can only emerge out of our free human engagement with our plight. Later existentialist philosophers include Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Experimentum linguae: Giorgio Agamben’s term for his notion that what we experience is always language itself as pure referent, rather than anything outside of language. Finitude: Martin Heidegger’s term for our existential limits, or the fact that we have limits of various sorts, including, pre-eminently, the fact that we die. Gelassenheit: A term Martin Heidegger took from the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, meaning, literally, ‘releasement’, and referring to the act, when thinking, of letting things be in their mystery and uncertainty. Gnosticism: A form of religious thinking, that emerges in different forms at various times, that posits a dualistic universe of good and evil, or one that is entirely evil or at least fundamentally flawed and conducive to suffering, and the need to find salvation within.



Hassidim: An orthodox Jewish sect that arose in Ukraine and spread to other parts of Eastern Europe. It involves a pietism, a strict adherence to Mosaic law, a rejection of the study of the Torah, and a belief in the immanence of God in the everyday. It can be thought of as an example of a Kabbalistic movement. Hetero-affectivity: The idea, in contrast with auto-affectivity, that the intuition of my self is as a result of an encounter with an other. Holocene: See Anthropocene. Hyperchaos: For Quentin Meillassoux this term indicates a state of contingency so radically contingent that it can even destroy any form of randomness or chaos, so that nothing is impossible, even the unthinkable. Iconoclasm: The destruction of religious images, usually on the grounds that any representation of the divine is blasphemous. Immanence: The theological notion that God either is present in the material world and in time, or, more strongly, is the world, as in Pantheism, or is the world but surpasses it as well, as in Panentheism. Inoperativity: The term used by Giorgio Agamben to denote the essential groundlessness and lack of purpose in human existence. Against the long tradition of religious and political definitions of human purpose Agamben proposes that human beings have no proper ergon or work. Jacobinism: Derived from the French revolutionary Jacobin Club, now generally applied to radical left-wing political thought. Junta: A Spanish/Portuguese term, which, when used in English, usually denotes an authoritarian government, often dominated by the military, which usually came to power by coercive means. Many Juntas took power in South America in the twentieth century. Kabbalah: An esoteric and mystical form of Judaic thought, that first emerged in the Middle Ages in Europe, with various later developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the Hassidim. Kenosis: See Ekkenosis. Khora: A Greek term used by Plato to denote a receptacle, a space or spacing or an interval, which is neither being nor non-being. This has been discussed by Jacques Derrida as bearing some relation to his concept of Diffé rance. Konvolut: German for envelope, used by Walter Benjamin to denote the sheaves of paper on which he collected the notes for his unfinished Arcades Project, looking at Paris in the nineteenth century. Limbo: In Catholic theology a space at the edge (limbus) of Hell, in which those who died in original sin, for example, those born before Christ’s coming, reside, without being in the Hell of the Damned. The Limbo of Infants is for unbaptised children.



Logocentrism: As used by Jacques Derrida in particular this term refers to the assumption of some truth prior to and independent of its expression in linguistic or other signs. See Logos. Logos: In philosophy the idea of a governing structure or logic to any system, or that any such system is identical to its logical description. In Christian theology the Logos is the divine structure governing the world, and, according to the Gospel of St John, Christ is the Logos, sometimes translated as the ‘Word’. Messianism: The idea that the world will be redeemed by the advent of a divinely chosen figure, such as in Christianity. More recently it has been used to denote a way of thinking about history as determined by some redemptive telos or at least the prospect of restoration and redemption. Midrash: The name for a commentary on the Torah. Miqra: See Tanakh. Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans: Rudolf Otto’s term for an experience of the holy, a mystery before which one trembles and is fascinated. NAFTA: The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States, created a free-trade bloc between the three countries. Negative Theology: Similar to apophatic theology, and posits that God can only be spoken of or described in negative terms, as what He is not. New Atheism: A movement whose best-known members are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A. C. Grayling and Sam Harris, which proclaims the evident superiority of scientific thought and entirely condemns all forms of religious thinking, superstition and so on. Nihilism: The idea that existence has no purpose, meaning or value. Friedrich Nietzsche diagnosed the emergence of nihilism as the result of the Death of God. Nirvana: The name in Buddhism from the liberation from the cycles of rebirth or samsā ra, and from its concomitant suffering. Oikonomia: A word cognate with the modern term ‘economy’, with both derived from oikos (hearth) and nomos (law), it is used by Giorgio Agamben to denote the Christian idea of government as the management of people and things that leads, for Agamben, to the biopolitics of the modern era. See Biopolitical. Operativity: See Inoperativity. Oulipo: The Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was a group of poets, writers and mathematicians, mostly French, who developed and practised systems of constraint and rule-following in the production of literary texts. It was founded by mathematician François de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau. Among its best-known members was Georges Perec, whose novel La Disparition did not contain a single letter ‘e’. This was heroically replicated in Gilbert Adair’s English translation, A Void.



Panentheism: In theology the idea that God both is the universe and more than the universe. Panexperiemtalism: The notion that all matter, living and otherwise, is capable of experience. Panpsychism: The notion that all matter, living or otherwise, is, to some extent, conscious. Pantheism: The theological idea, most famously connected with Baruch Spinoza, that God and the universe are identical. Parousia: The coming or presence of Christ, in particular his second coming at the End of Time. ‘pataphysics: A branch of philosophy and/or literature devised by Alfred Jarry, and concerned with imaginary phenomena and imaginary solutions. Pleistocene: See Anthropocene. Potentiality: For Giorgio Agamben, following Aristotle, the potential to do something is also the potential not to do it, to be inoperative. See Inoperativity. Rebel Clown Army: A nonviolent protest group, the full name of which is the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. Founded in the UK in 2003 it uses clowning and other nonviolent tactics to protest against corporate globalism and other issues. Sefiroth: In the Kabbalah the ten attributes or emanations, or channels of divine energy through which the infinite (Ein Soth) reveals itself in the finite. Semiocapitalism: The concept originally developed by Jean Baudrillard, and taken up by Francesco ‘Bifo’ Berard, that capitalism has subsumed all systems of signification and is now identical with those systems. Shechinah: The dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God. Situationism: The Situationist International was a group of radical writers, artists and theorists, founded by Guy Debord and others in 1957. Based on an antiauthoritarian and antinomian engagement with Marxism and the artistic avantgarde, it advocated the setting up of environments and situations that would counter the imbecilization of the populace that was a concomitant of capitalism and what Debord called ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. The SI’s ideas found concrete expression in the events of May 1968 in Paris. It was dissolved in 1972, but it remains highly influential on contemporary anti-capitalist movements. Sublation: See Aufheben. Ś ū nyatā : A key concept in Buddhism, often translated into English as emptiness or voidness, that can lead to misunderstanding, and an essentializing of Ś ū nyatā as nothing or void in a nihilistic sense. For the great Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna, Ś ū nyatā means the dependent arising and ceasing of all phenomena. Tanakh: The collection of canonical Jewish religious texts, which is also the source for what Christians call the Old Testament.



Theophany: Term derived from the Greek for the appearance or experience of a god or God. The Thing/La Chose/Das Ding: In his theorizing of Freudian psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan distinguishes between two ways of thinking about things, as representations in language and consciousness which in German is denoted by die Sache and as things beyond any symbolic representation, in their ‘dumb reality’ (das Ding), which is something like the Kantian notion of the ‘thing-in-itself ’. Lacan uses the German das ding and the French La Chose interchangeably for this meaning of ‘the thing’. Torah: Usually used to refer to the first five books of the twenty-four books of the Tanakh, known in English as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Transcendence: The state of being beyond all mundane and temporal conditions, independent of the material universe and its laws, such as enjoyed by God in most Judeo-Christian theology. Transignification: The name for a complex and controversial attempt by some Roman Catholic theologians to understand what happens to the bread and wine in the Eucharist that does not violate contemporary understandings of physics. In this understanding the signification of the bread and wine is changed at the moment of consecration, without there being any physical change to them. It was condemned by Pope Paul VI as denying transubstantiation. Transubstantiation: The idea central to Roman Catholicism and some other Christian denominations, that, in the Eucharist, at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ, while their appearance or ‘accidents’ do not. Trinity: A central tenet of Christianity is that God is three persons, God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit. What they are is one single essence, substance or nature. Who they are is three distinct persons. They are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire. Via negativa: See Negative Theology. Voice: For Giorgio Agamben language and speech require that we lose access to voice (with a lower case ‘v’) in order to turn sounds into phonemes and give them meaning. Thus, there is a void in language, that of voice, that is replaced by the Voice (with a capital ‘V’) as the taking place of language over that void. WOMBLES: The White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles, a loose anarchist federation, based in London and founded in the early twentyfirst century, whose torturous acronymic name is based on books and animated television series concerning the eponymous Wombles, furry creatures who devoted themselves to cleaning up Wimbledon Common. Ya Basta!: A network of Italian anti-capitalist groups founded in the 1990s in Italy.

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Index A-atheism 20, 21 Absentheism 139 Adair, Gilbert 173 Adorno, Theodor 17, 56, 57, 58 Agamben, Giorgio 2, 6, 7, 9–11, 23, 43–7, 52–4, 56, 93–7, 109, 118, 119, 168, 170, 171, 172, 173, 174, 175 Alberti, Leon Battista 32 Allen, Nicholas 93 Almaric of Bena 44, 45 Altizer, Thomas 8 Amidjar, Gil 126 Anderson, Benedict 63 André, Carl 117 Angelico Fra 115 Anthropocene 8, 15, 28–30, 157, 169, 172, 174 Antinomianism 53, 67, 169, 170, 174 Apelles 93, 94 Apocalypse 10, 74, 78–82, 94, 97, 154 Apocatastasis 96, 169 Apollo 93 Apollo Space Program 135 Apophasis 21, 22, 36, 37, 44, 169, 173 Aporia 88, 126, 127, 169 Aquinas, Thomas 20, 104 Aristotle 141, 162, 174 Arpanet 12, 153, 154 Artaud, Antonin 117, 168 Atheism 7, 8, 18–23, 35, 38–43, 60, 139, 160, 173 Atheology 7 Atmoterrorism 152 Atom/atomic 12, 91–2, 149, 152–5, 157, 165, 167, 170 Attridge, Derek 179 Aubry, Gwenaëlle 162 Augustine 35, 63 Auschwitz 52, 53, 56–8, 176 Badiou Alain 59, 60, 94 Bakhtin, Mikhail 70

Balthasar, Hans Urs von 64 Barad, Karen 176 Baran, Paul 153 Barth, Karl 111 Bataille, Georges 11, 43, 104, 105, 106 Baudelaire, Charles 157 Baudrillard, Jean 174 Bauerschmidt, Frederick 9, 70 Beardsworth, Richard 84 Becker, Ernest 30 Beckett, Samuel 17, 49, 58 Beckwith, Sarah 68, 69 Beer, Gillian 130 Benjamin, Walter 10, 12, 19, 23, 45, 74, 82, 83, 93, 95, 96, 118, 119, 172 Bennington, Geoffrey 84 Berard, Francesco ‘Bifo’ 174 Berger, John 111 Berkeley, George 34 Bey, Khalil 104 Biopolitics 52, 170, 173 Blanchot, Maurice 38–40, 49, 88, 89, 105, 126 Blindness 16, 108, 126, 127–9, 132, 165–6 Boeke, Kees 138 Böhme, Jacob 36 Boltzmann, Ludwig 149 Brand, Karen 135 Brand, Stewart 135, 187 Brassier, Ray 9, 17, 18, 177 Braune, Sean 154, 155, 178 Breton, André 100 Buddhism 5, 17, 38, 45, 46, 59, 169, 173, 174 Bull, Malcolm 23, 24, 26 Butler, Judith 26, 27, 28, 60 Cabala. See Kabbalah Cadava, Edmund 93 Cage, John 167

Index Capitalism 6, 8, 18, 19, 29, 61, 64, 99, 109, 112, 119, 139, 148, 160, 174, 175 Caputo, John 8, 22, 42, 132 Carlson, Thomas 31, 32 Carnot, Sadi 148, 149 Cartier-Bresson, Henri 92 Castoriadis, Cornelius 155, 161, 162 Catholicism 40, 62–5, 69, 75, 113, 172, 175 Cavanaugh, William 9, 63–6, 70 Célan, Paul 37, 77, 78, 164 Centre Pompidou 9, 49, 57, 58 Chalcedon, Council of 170 Champaigne, Philippe de 118 Chaos 140, 155, 156, 161, 162, 172 Charlie Hebdo 37, 38 Chernobyl 71, 85 Chiliasm 69, 170 Chora. See Khora Cleopatra’s Needle 3 Clinamen 154, 156, 170 Cloud 10, 12, 34, 36, 39, 73, 74, 76, 78, 77, 79, 80–4, 121, 124, 143, 145–51, 153–7, 165 Cloud, The 146, 154 Coetzee, J. M. 24 Cohen, David 112 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 71 College Internationale de Philosophie 9, 49 Constable, John 10, 76, 77, 147 Correggio 147 Courbet, Gustave 103, 105 Cournot, Michel 56 Critchley, Simon 9, 16, 17, 59–62, 69, 70 Crockett, Clayton 8 Crucifixion 21, 40, 67–8, 70, 160 Cupitt, Donald 8 Cusa, Nicholas of 9, 31, 32, 36, 37, 168, 170 Dada 186 Daguerre, Louis-Jacques-Mande 89, 90, 93, 96 Dahlem Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry 152 Damisch, Hubert 147, 150 Dante degli Alighieri 100, 157


Darwin, Charles 75,130, Davies, Donald 153 Dawkins, Richard 18, 173 de Certeau, Michel 31, 32, 65, 69, 101, 126, 165, 167 de Kooning, Willem 165, 167 de Lubac, Henri 64, 69 de Rougemont, Denis 100 Debord, Guy 168 DeCaroli 45, 46 Decreation 40, 162 Delaroche, Paul 90 Deleuze, Gilles 167, 171 Delillo, Don 117 Della Francesca, Piero 77, 115, 116 Derrida, Jacques 10–12, 22, 34, 42, 43, 46, 47, 54–6, 74, 76–8, 83, 84, 86–91, 99, 100, 106–9, 117, 125–30, 132, 140–3, 154, 156, 163, 168, 171–2, 173 Descartes, René 20, 32, 33, 102, 138, 141, 170 Dickinson, Colby 44 Dostoyevsky, Fyodor 88 Duchamp, Marcel 11, 23, 56, 105, 106, 118, 131 Duras, Marguerite 105 Eagleton, Terry 163 Eames, Charles and Ray 138 Eckhart, Meister 9, 26, 36, 37, 40, 168, 171 Ecomimesis 1 Ecotechnics 171 Ehrenreich, Barbara 164 Einstein, Albert 34 Ekkenosis 46, 171, 172 Eliot, T. S. 128 Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church 13 Engels, Friedrich 83, 85, 147, 148 Epicurus 155, 156, 170 Epstein, Mikhail 21–3 Eriugena, John Scottus 36, 37 Esposito, Roberto 170 Eucharist 9, 62–6, 69, 70 Excrement 11, 117, 118 Existentialism 6, 15, 16, 19, 28, 68, 170, 171

190 Facebook 104 Faurisson, Robert 52 Feuerbach, Ludwig von 8 Flusser, Vilem 155 Ford, Thomas 150, 151 Foucault, Michel 170 Fox Talbot, Henry 89, 93 Freud, Sigmund 22, 27, 62, 101, 102, 128, 129, 154, 175 Fuller, Peter 75, 111, 112, 117 Gaia 137, 140 Galassi, Peter 76, 77 Garrard, George 148, 149 Girard, René 67 Gnosticism 15, 69, 70, 126 Goebbels, Joseph 152 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 100, 147 Goldin, Nan 108 Golding, William 137 Goldsworthy, Andy 72, 85 Good Housekeeping 160 Google 135 Goya, Francisco 103 Grizedale Arts 84, 85 Grotowski, Jerzi 68 Groys, Boris 11, 118 Guillaume, Gustave 94 Hägglund, Martin 84, 181 Hamilton, Richard 11, 112, 115–19, 120 Hamlet 83 Harman, Graham 162 Harries, Karsten 31 Hart, David Bentley 166 Hassidim 23, 172 Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich 3, 10, 16, 36, 37, 89, 90, 91, 169, 170 HeHe 73, 74, 84, 182 Heidegger, Martin 2, 3, 16–18, 26, 32, 34, 35, 88, 106, 107, 138, 141, 163, 169, 170, 171 Hertz, Heinrich 153 Hiroshima 92, 152, 153 Hirst, Damien 106, 112 Hitchens, Christopher 18, 173 Hitler, Adolf 151 Hoare, Philip 74 Hobbes, Thomas 63, 113

Index Hoff, Johannes 32 Hokusai, Katsushika 122 Holocaust. See Shoah Holocene 28, 169, 172 Hopkins, Gerard Manley 130, 131, 168 Houbedine, Jean-Louis 107 Howard, Luke 147 Hudek, Anthony 56–8 Imagevirus 120 Immatériaux, Les 9, 49, 50, 52, 55–8 Incredible Shrinking Man, The 143–4 Ingold, Tim 136, 137 IRA (Irish Republican Army) 117 Jacobinism 172 Jainism 169 Jerusalem 118, 183 Johnston, Mark 15, 66–8 Jonas, Hans 15, 16 Joyce, James 12, 154, 155 Julian of Norwich 9, 70, 111 Kabbalah 53, 139, 172, 174 Kafka, Franz 154 Kant, Immanuel 59, 141, 175 Kappeler, Susan 99, 108 Kearney, Richard 42 Keller, Catherine 28, 31, 160 Kenosis 68, 171, 172 Kesey, Ken 135 Khora 45, 140, 161, 168, 172 Kierkegaard, Søren 62, 91, 92, 118, 141, 167, 171 Kinkle, Jeff 19 Kirby, Vicky 11, 131, 132 Konings, Martijn 18 Kurokawa, Ryoichi 165 La Touche, Rose 74, 79 Lacan, Jacques 7, 11, 33, 60, 62, 64, 100, 101, 104, 106, 107, 141, 175 Laruelle, François 8 Latour, Bruno 11, 113–16, 118, 146 Leibniz, Gottfried 138 Levinas, Immanuel 60, 141 Librett, Jeffrey 54, 183 Lionnais, François 173 Løgstrup, Knud Ejler 60

Index Lorenz, Edward 161 Lorrain, Claude 75 Louvre, The 127 Lovelock, James 137 Lucretius 12, 154–6, 170 Luke, Saint 67 Lyotard Jean-François 9, 49–57, 64, 171 Malebranche, Nicolas 138 Malevich, Kazimir 119 Malick, Terrence 31 Mallarmé, Stephane 154 Manet, Edouard 103 Manhattan 126 Marguerite of Porete 69, 70 Marion, Jean-Luc 22, 92, 119 Marx, Karl 12, 21, 72, 83, 85, 90, 111, 112, 147, 148, 170, 174 Masson, André 104 Matisse, Henri 133 Maxwell, James Clerk 149, 153 McHale, John 119 Meillassoux, Quentin 162, 172 Melville, Herman 158 Merry Pranksters, The 135 Millennialism 170 Morton, Timothy 1, 5–6 Moses of Leon 53 NAFTA 64, 173 Nagarjuna 45, 46, 174 Nagasaki 92, 152, 153 Nancy, Jean-Luc 9, 12, 20, 21, 34–9, 47, 48, 138–40, 171 Niépce, Joseph Nicéphore 89, 93 Nietzsche, Friedrich 3, 7, 10, 15, 16, 23, 24, 59, 82, 89, 106, 170, 171, 173 Nishitani, Keiji 9, 19, 20, 33, 46 Nominalism 7, 69, 70, 182 Obscenity 10, 11, 99, 100, 102–4, 106 Occam, William of 20 Ophuls, Marcel 57 Origen 97 Otto, Rudolf 74, 125, 173 Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) 154, 173 Panentheism 15, 67, 172, 174


Panexperiemtalism 4, 174 Panpsychism 4,174 Pantheism 172, 174 Paolozzi, Eduardo 119 Pascal, Blaise 16, 163 ‘pataphysics 154 Pattison, George 91, 92 Paul, Saint 37, 44, 49, 51–5, 58, 60, 68, 83, 91, 93–6, 119, 128 Perec, Georges 173 Peters, John Durham 12, 90, 146, 148, 157, 158 Pinochet, Auguste 9, 65 Plato 45, 108, 130, 140, 161, 168, 169, 170, 172 Playboy 106 Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus) 93 Plissart, Marie-Francoise 109, 127 Plotinus 162 Poe, Edgar Allen 106 Pornography 10, 11, 99, 100, 102, 103, 106, 108, 109 Pound, Ezra 128 Pound, Marcus 9, 62, 63 Pragmatism 148 Prigogine, Ilya 155 Proust, Marcel 122 Prozorov, Sergei 109 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite 9, 22, 35, 36, 163 Psychoanalysis 62, 100, 106, 112, 175 Radioterrorism 153 Rauschenberg, Robert 167 Rebel Clown Army, The 61 Reformation, The 63, 100 Roemer, Michael 160 Ronnell, Avital 179 Roof, Dylann 13 Rooney, Hugh 117 Roscelin of Compiègne 7 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 91 Ruskin, John 9–11, 71, 73–6, 78–86, 111, 112, 123, 124, 128–31, 133, 149–51 Sartre, Jean-Paul 20, 33, 171 Savile, Jenny 106 Scarpetta, Guy 107



Schnabel, Julian 111 Scotus, Duns 130 Sebastián Acevedo Movement against Terrorism 66 Serrano, André 117 Serres, Michel 12, 148, 149, 155, 156 Shakespeare, William 117 Shelley, Percy Bysshe 147 Sherman, Cindy 108 Sherwood, Yvonne 42, 43, 160 Shit, shittiness. See excrement Shoah 52, 58, 78 Silesius, Angelus 36, 139 Silverman, Kaja 30, 31 Situationism 17, 174 Sloterdijk, Peter 12, 151–3 Socrates 67, 90, 170 Sontag, Susan 89 Spinoza, Benedict 138, 167, 174 Sulloway, Alison 130, 186 Śūnyatā 20, 33, 46, 174 Sutherland, Adam 85

Theall, Joan 155 Theophany 37, 74, 83, 126, 130 Thermoterrorism 153 Toscano, Alberto 19 Toynbee, Arnold 128 Transignification 62, 175 Transubstantiation 9, 62, 106, 175

Taubes, Jacob 83 Tennyson, Alfred Lord 147, 148 Thacker, Eugene 31, 35, 36, 168 Theall, Donald 155

Zoroastrianism 169 Zwinglianism 62 Zyklon 152 Zylinska, Joanna 9, 29, 30

USCO (Us Company)


Weil, Simone 9, 13, 39–43, 117, 165 Whistler, James McNeill 103 Whitehead, Alfred North 3–5, 4, 15, 27, 28, 33, 34, 145, 157, 161, 167 Wilde, Oscar 128 WOMBLES (White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles) 61 Wordsworth, William 71, 147 Ya Basta 61, 175