Review: ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism’

Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:

A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader

Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.

This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.

Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:

This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.

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Latour and Deleuze’s Nietzsche

Latour frequently identifies the work of William James, Gabriel Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead and Étienne Souriau as the primary intellectual lineage of his ‘modes of existence’ project. However, by his own admission, his exposure to these thinkers came late in his career (see Terence’s blog for various tracings of this). At the time of his formulation of his irreductionist philosophy a different set of conceptual resources and philosophical milieu were available to him.

One key actor within this intellectual lineage (others would be Serres, Lyotard, Marc Auge) is Deleuze, or more particularly the Deleuzian Nietzsche. In his 1962 exposition, Deleuze argues that Nietzsche’s ontology is a monism of forces; it is the interaction of plural forces that forms the basis of the oneness of reality: ‘there is no quantity of reality, all reality is already a quantity of force’ (p.39, all references to the Tomlinson translation). In addition, these forces are affirmative, in the sense that each one expresses only itself, or, as Deleuze puts it, each one says ‘yes’ to itself. Rationality, then, is generated by the interaction of these forces: ‘we will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon)’, writes Deleuze, ‘if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it’ (ibid, p.3)—but only because each force furiously affirms its own value, its own being, in the moment of appropriation, exploitation, possession and expression. The polemical basis of Nietzsche’s work, for Deleuze, is directed at anything that would separate force from acting on its own basis, that is, from affirming itself (the primary culprit in this regard being Hegelian dialectic, which confuses this affirmation with a positivity of the real). Deleuze therefore argues that the many antagonistic metaphors in Nietzsche’s writing should be interpreted in light of his pluralist ontology, and not as indications of some sort of psychological aggressivity or inverted ressentiment.

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The Deleuzian Nietzsche permeates the pages of Latour’s Irréductions. Fourteen of its one hundred and ninety maxims refer to Nietzsche directly or indirectly. Early reviews immediately noted the resonance, one critic describing it as ‘Latour’s Nietzschean theory of the political nature of all social life’. (Knorr-Cetina, 1985, ‘Germ Warfare’, p.581). Moreover, in his preface to a new edition of the text, published in French in 2001, Latour reiterates the Deleuzian-Nietzschean inflection of his ontology by clarifying a difference between ‘force’ and ‘power’ that he believes has been misunderstood up to then:

Or, c’est à une autre opposition que je m’attache ici: celle entre la force—qui suppose une composition progressive des ressources—et la puissance qui dissimule entièrement les multitudes qui la rendent effective. Il s’agit donc de passer des vertiges de la puissance à la simple et banale positivité des forces. (Latour. 2001, 1984, Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes, suivi de Irréductions, from the Préface de la nouvelle edition, p.8)

Now, it’s a different opposition that I’m advancing here: one between ‘force’—which implies a progressive composition of resources—and ‘power’, which entirely obscures the multitudes that render it effective. Thus, it’s a matter of passing from the vertigo of power to the simple and banal positivity of forces. (my translation)

In fact, just as Latour’s ontology was first developed at the site of a neuroendocrinology laboratory, it is interesting to note that Nietzsche developed his theory of forces in conjunction with intensive dialogue with the life sciences of his own period (especially Wilhelm Roux’s developmental mechanics, with its idea of the struggle between body parts within an organism) and that Nietzsche himself functioned as an early ethnologist and philosophical visitor of the laboratory.

Latour’s thought is diplomatic, and even ‘ethical’, to the extent that it represents the agency of every one of these ‘forces’ in every event situation in the world. It is precisely this curious ‘ethics’ that he inherits from the Deleuzian Nietzsche. The connection with the mode of existence of [MOR] should be readily apparent.