Tag Archive: pantheism


The Speculative Realist blogosphere has recently been alight with debates over the role of religion, God, theism versus nihilism, the secular and the “post-secular,” and other such things. Since these are topics I’m naturally interested, and somewhat invested, in, I ought to participate, but time constraints have made that all but impossible for me recently.

(One of those constraints is a trip this week to the Rachel Carson Center in Munich for “Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, and Ecocinema,” about which I intend to blog, and perhaps live-blog, while there. I leave tomorrow, so stay tuned for more on that.)

Adam’s post Knowledge Ecology provides a useful way into these discussions, but see also these posts at Footnotes to Plato (and this one), Plastic Bodies, Immanent Transcendence, Larval Subjects, and After Nature.

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Just as the Haitian earthquake was followed by a welter of religious interpretations (fundamentalist Christians blaming sinful Haitians for it, Vodoun practitioners weighing in on the events, etc.), so the Japanese quake-tsunami-meltdown trilogy is offering evidence of humanity’s interpretive propensities.

You may have already seen the YouTube troll video satirizing right-wing Christian responses, which scandalized so many viewers that the young videomaker has apparently gone into hiding. I won’t link to it, since it doesn’t really deserve all the hits, but it’s easy enough to find. The gist of it is that “God is soooo great — we prayed for him to smite his enemies and there he did, smashing those godless Japanese to smithereens.” A lot of viewers couldn’t seem to tell the difference between satire and the real thing, which apparently follows Poe’s Law: one can’t satirize fundamentalist religion without it being taken by some as the real thing, because there are enough instances in which the real thing is as bad as that (Glenn Beck being only the tip of the iceberg).

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spiritualizing science

or, Carl Sagan rides again, and again…

Prometheus Unbound raises questions about the atheist spirituality of Symphony of Science‘s star-scientist-studded videos (pun only slightly intended — they are mostly men, yes, but drumming on djembes (!), and it’s well worth waiting to see Jane Goodall tell us about the “wuzzy” line between humans and the rest of nature in the video below, starting at about the 2’30″ point).

Spirituality is, of course, in the eye, ear, and body of its beholder. What makes this spiritual is the way it mobilizes music, movement, and poetry in the service of spreading a message, in this case the gospel of science. The use of pitch-shifting and pitch-correction software to “musicalize” the spoken voices of scientists is analogous to the intended poeticization and spiritualization of science. Science in practice is, of course, dry, slow, laborious, and boring. But the results of science can be exciting. This parallels the natural process science itself describes: from the painstakingly slow and boring life of atoms, molecules, things responding to other things, what has built up over time is the world we know. Or, as Darwin famously put it:

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Palestinian activists go Na’vi

(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)

It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.

The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.

What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.

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Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books make for difficult reading, and if one is to make headway into them, it helps not only to know something about Bergsonian philosophy, Piercian semiotics, and (a lot about) the history of film, but also to have clips at hand of the films Deleuze discusses. Fortunately, Corry Shores has been very helpfully compiling such clips, accompanied by excerpts from the books, at his Deleuze Cinema Project 1 blog site.

The two books are books of philosophy centered on the moving image — a term that is somewhat redundant in a Deleuzian/Bergsonian framework, for which everything is (in) movement and becoming, and in which the image, which is both visual and auditory, is part of the very texture, or nature, of things. Deleuze, in other words, does not distinguish between a thing and its representation; rather, there are things, which are always in motion, in process, in becoming, and these things appear as “images,” which can be visual, auditory, etc., depending on the sensory equipment that is brought to them. Since the images are always in motion, it is cinema, the art of the moving image, that has best come to capture this quality of world-in-motion. The books are primarily dedicated to articulating Deleuze’s Bergsonian (and Piercian) schema and to setting out a fairly detailed typology of images. Its historical argument — that a shift after World War II allowed for the emergence of the “time-image”, which comes to supplement and ultimately supplant the “movement-image” — can be taken, albeit loosely, or left, but its ontological underpinnings are original, powerful, and I believe very useful for an emergent eco/geophilosophy.

Marcy Saude’s 5 or 6 minutes on cinematic time is a nice short video discussing Deleuze’s “time-image” concept over clips from Rosselini’s Umberto D, Bela Tarr’s Satantango and Gus van Sant’s Gerry:

As I see it, there are at least three reasons why Deleuzian film theory should be of interest to ecophilosophy. The first is the same reason why Deleuze is of interest more generally: because in providing one of the most coherent and self-consistent accounts of the world as process and change, his philosophy helps us understand the ways that things — i.e. relational systems from the molecular to the social to the ecological — come together and drift apart, territorialize and detteritorialize, with us, psycho-biological processes that we are, caught amidst them and acting from within them upon them (and upon ourselves).

The second reason is Deleuze’s Bergsonian and Piercian (and somewhat biosemiotic) focus on the image and its nature as carrier of affect. This brings imagination — the perception of things as not only a passive “reception” of what is “out there” but also an active reconception and engagement with the images and image-affects — to the center of cultural and environmental theory. Environmentalism needs a better understanding of how images do their work in the world; Deleuze can help with that.

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Bambi fights back

Kvond has a beautifully written post on James Cameron’s latest, Avatar: The Density of Being (you can tell he’s been reading Brian Massumi), to which I can only add my own quick thoughts after seeing the film this weekend.

1) New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has it partly right: with its tree/Goddess-worshipping, tribal-shamanic-indigenous-hunter-gatherer-Daoist-pagan New-Age all-is-One-ism, Avatar is an expression of the longstanding American tradition of pantheist nature spirituality. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.

2) It is James Cameron: with its rollercoaster-ride, shoot-em-up, special-FX thrills and chills (cf. Terminator, Aliens), it’s probably the most exorbitant and expensive such film in history. There’s cheesy dialogue (JC needs a scriptwriter) and gratuitous violence, with the never-say-die eternally recurrent monster, Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” in the form of the Dr. Strangelove-ish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). All put to the service of a fairy tale storyline (cf. Titanic, Terminator) of good guys and bad guys and class tension, with the white-boy hero as an intermediary caught between the two and becoming-heroic by siding with — and leading — the underdog. The broken-bodied (war-victimized) and misunderstood marine with a “good heart” is given a (genetically engineered) new body and falls in love with the dark girl — Pocahontas replayed for the millionth time. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests. It is, after all, that Messiah story too (cf. Terminator 2, just no virgin in this version). (Cameron’s initials aren’t JC for nothing: the king of Hollywood born in a manger in Kapuskasing, Ontario.)

3) The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it): They are beautiful — as all the reviews say, there are scenes that are among the most beautiful ever put to screen. Cutting-edge CGI in the service of animating and re-enchanting nature, the movie is a cine-kinetic fusion of Bambi, Terminator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and much else; see kvond).

There are strong resonances with Ursula LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” (a Vietnam war-like attack on a beautiful planet and its indigenous inhabitants) and her utopian ethnographic-poetic-musical epic novel Always Coming Home, its future-primitive Pacific Coastal ‘Kesh’ people being a kind of west coast precursor to the Na’vi. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.

4) Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot. Are we really supposed to believe that this guy will save the universe and that Na’vi wouldn’t all choke to death laughing at the whole idea? There are resonant images here, but also an underlying subtext: what’s the balance between the two? (This repeats a friendly spat I’ve been having with Pat Brereton over his book Hollywood Utopia.)

Yes, it’s entertainment, and ideology, and religion, and politics… Happy Solstice to all.

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Before Ken Burns’ 6-part, 12-hour series on the national parks was aired, a perceptive article by the LA Times’ Scott Timberg warned that it might be greeted by “sharp knives.” Ten years in the making, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, finally came to our television screens last week, and so far no sharp knives seem to have been drawn. But there have been blunt forks poking into the meat and leaving large parts of the six-course meal undigested on the plate, its servings a bit too super-sized for easy consumption. (There are, of course, the stealth knives and box-cutters of right-wing bloggers, who criticize the series for its NPR liberalism, communism, paganism, and whatever else, but so far the jabs have been mostly off the mark, and few and far between.)

The US national park system would seem to make for an ideal subject for the Burns treatment — a treatment Apple has captured, at least in part, on its iPhoto program as the “Ken Burns Effect.” Timberg describes the Burns style as a “combination of a deep, authoritative male voice, pan-and-zoom camera work over sepia-toned photographs, period music and extravagant claims about American exceptionalism.” The Washington Post’s Tim Page has less charitably called Burns’ style an “unreflected populist Hallmark-ese,” a “strange mixture of New Deal and New Age.” The latter was said in reference to Burns’ “Jazz” series, with its idea that improvisation was an integral element of the American spirit, but it could easily also be said about National Parks.

But there’s something to Burns’ claim about improvisation: one finds that improvisational spirit in the pragmatism of the country’s best philosophers (John Dewey, William James, et al) and in the poetry of Whitman, the Beats, and the nature romanticism of Thoreau and Muir. All of which is another way of saying that progressivism, the very backbone of the American conservation movement (the national parks being one wing of that, the national forests being another), is very American, and those who forget that — like today’s rabid Republican right — are not nearly as American as they would like to think.

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I know it’s just that they’ve touched my inner goth, but these graveyard photographs really do express something of what I find most appealing about the idea of immanence — that death is in the midst of life, the two entwined like the dying branches encircling the face of living stone in Onkel Wart’s photograph:

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or Stuck in Customs’ tree overtaking a Chinese gravestone:

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or E3000′s Sub Specie Aeternitatis:

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or moss covering the angelic human spirit rising above its nature-laden grave in Roberto Catalano’s The City of Falling Angels:

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Materiality, cyclicality, the rising and the passing away, the return of life to earth, earth covering earth covering stone covering flesh covering memory. The best of ecological art, it seems to me, reminds us of our embeddedness within cycles of emergence, submergence, and re-emergence in new forms, all causally intertwined in dependent origination converging to and from this moment in which we act, the consequences of our acts rippling outwards through eternity. (No, neither Nietzsche nor Buddha preached a closed universe of fated predetermination, as each moment opens possibilities of new connections to be made. But for both there is an ethic of responsibility to those connections, and a solidarity underpinning them.)

Individually these photos are nothing special – we probably have dozens of our own like them in our photo albums. Their impact is more cumulative, so go to the site itself to see all forty.

Thanks to Integral Options for sharing these (and Neil Gaiman for inspiring the collection).

On the surface, “immanence” would appear to favor certain religiosities (paganisms, pantheisms, animisms, earth spiritualities) over others (transcendentalist monotheisms, rigid dualisms, Buddhist “extinctionism,” et al). But its resonance works within traditions as well: towards panentheistic strains of Christianity, where the Christ is seen as in-dwelling, where Easter is the rebirth of nature and life as well as of social relations after the long hard winter, where Mary is the cosmos; or toward a boddhisattvic liberationist Buddhism that cherishes life rather than seeking to flee from it.

Immanentism redirects our attention to what is going on in the moment-to-moment shaping of the world, to our experience and ability to shift things in one direction or another, to karmic conditions as open-ended rather than fixed. When we grasp something (the self, political power, the object of our desire), we lose it. Immanentism redirects us to the between: the grasping, the finding and losing, the power-to and power-with, the swelling current that pushes for change (e.g., in the build-up to the last US election) rather than the icon of change it gives rise to (Obama) though that icon be instrumental to the change.

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