The (Super)Naturalistic Turn in Contemporary Theory
Reviewing John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, George Santayana charged that the overarching goal of the treatise was incoherent on its face.1 Indeed, Santayana insisted that Dewey’s “naturalistic metaphysics”—the philosophical slogan of this particular work—was a flat contradiction in terms. Years later, Richard Rorty agreed with his hero’s interlocutor. In fact, Rorty extended Santayana’s critique, complaining of Dewey’s ambition to transform philosophy into a credibly modern, because natural science. For this ambition, holds Rorty, is predicated on a willful forgetting of what thoroughgoing naturalists don’t ever forget but emphatically deny. Specifically: “[N]othing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies in which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge.”2
One way of cashing out Rorty’s point here is to say that I might explain your affective state, say, your sadness, by reminding myself of the cruel remark that I made last week. Alternatively, I can cite the frequency and rate at which sound waves hit your eardrum, triggering a chain reaction that includes the passage of vibrations through a coiled tube in your ear, and the subsequent swaying of hair-like nerve endings or cilia, which are thought to be responsible for the transmission of messages from the auditory nerve to the brain. In the first case, I’m placing your affective experience in what’s commonly referred to as ‘the logical space of reasons’, a normative space constituted by reasons, beliefs, feelings, and desires of which I am or can become aware and possibly defend.3 In the second, I’m making your affective experience intelligible by giving an empirical description, by detailing the subpersonal processes that belong in ‘the logical space of causes’.4 Both spaces demarcate kinds of “human knowledge” and Rorty isn’t out to secure privileges for one explanatory space over and against the other. On the contrary, he’s exposing a temptation to think that there is such a thing as a privileged explanation, and that the natural sciences are uniquely equipped to furnish us with them. Acceding to these two premises, suspects Rorty, invites a third temptation, the fantasy of “a jargon that would apply equally to plants, nervous systems, and physicists” (81). But there is no single “jargon” that applies “equally” to the explanatory practices of physicists—which are irreducibly normative, given the interplay of beliefs with the relevant, theoretically laden, perceptual experience—and the evolutionary adaptations of an oxalis—which involve causal processes that can be captured by a non-normative vocabulary. Or, to make the same point in slightly different terms: whether or not you can derive a theoretical, or practical ‘ought’ (the metaphysical component in Dewey’s scheme) from an ‘is’ (the naturalistic component), you cannot reduce an ought to an is.
Leaving behind any further interpretive questions regarding Dewey’s susceptibility to an allegedly pervasive theoretical confusion, i.e., naturalistic metaphysics, confusions to which Rorty believed mainstream Anglophone philosophy’s scientific fantasies made them especially prone, what’s striking and, for us, most salient, is Rorty’s prognosis.5 Specifically, Rorty believed that the way for philosophy to overcome the dualisms inspiring this whole dialectic was not to appropriate “vocabularies” from the natural sciences but to achieve a critical orientation that reflected something like literary theory’s own.6 What Rorty has in mind, I think, is a form of criticism dedicated to giving normative explanations, and a willingness to leave, without shame or pride, strictly causal or naturalistic explanations to the adjacent scientific community. However, the briefest survey of ascendant trends in contemporary theory suggests that Rorty’s confidences and contrasts no longer apply. A new generation of prominent scholars is calling for exactly what Rorty couldn’t have imagined literary critics ever would or should. “[S]cience illiteracy,” insist Wai Chee Dimock and Priscilla Wald, is “no longer an option.”7 So whether or not Rorty was ever justified when imputing, favorably, an anti-naturalistic reflex to literary intellectuals, the current enthrallment to evolutionary aesthetics, neurobiology, cognitive science and animal studies suggests the somewhat belated arrival, in literary studies and aesthetic theory, of what the midcentury’s leading analytic philosopher, W.V. Quine, called “naturalized epistemology.”8 And even if Quine remains relatively unknown among literary critics, the naturalized epistemology of his post-doctoral student, Silvan Tomkins, has found a powerful application in affect theory.9
All of this begs an obvious question. Why, exactly, isn’t science illiteracy an option? One answer is that fewer and fewer literary scholars and cultural theorists seem to think that normative explanations are, in short, explanatory.10 For more and more scholars seem to believe that only a properly scientific investigation, that is, one oriented towards the space of causes, can capture the determinative processes which are ultimately responsible for literary contents and forms—or, in a slightly different context, the aesthetic experiences and responses of the reading, listening, viewing and purchasing publics under critical discussion. Guided by this presupposition what Ruth Leys calls “the turn to affect,” and what we might formulate, more broadly, as ‘the naturalistic turn’, follows as a matter of course.11 But even if, as Bill Brown seems to suspect, there is no good or theoretically principled answer to his question, “Why wouldn’t we want to know about the science behind consciousness?” there might be perfectly good and theoretically principled reasons to oppose the stronger claim underlying the aforementioned trends to which his remark, I take it, is meant to lend support.12 Which is: until we uncover what’s “behind consciousness,” we don’t have credible accounts of the aesthetic objects, experiences, interpretive decisions and ethical responses to those objects that help demarcate literary criticism’s explanatory domain. In fact, the stronger claim seems to mandate that, if the humanities want to produce what Rorty calls “human knowledge,” they simply have to run “together the vocabularies in which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge.” Critical procedures that don’t synthesize in this manner are regarded as inept. Scholars and disciplines that remain beholden to what we might think of as ‘folk interpretation’ are admonished to “come to terms with the forces of change,” lest they become obsolete.13 How uncanny to find the language of change, force, and progress surfacing in an intellectual domain whose defining critical gestures, for better or for worse, have involved critiques of those very terms as they operate in liberal discourse and other Enlightenment ideologies.
But if those are the claims motivating the naturalistic turn, then what began as a methodological revolution in literary studies has profoundly ontological implications and skeptical motivations. Not, however, as a necessary result of the entirely unobjectionable desire to understand the science of consciousness. For logically speaking, no amount of knowledge about that science, or any other, can produce the kind of skepticism under consideration. It’s only when the announced methodological innovation is propelled by a vaguely acknowledged skepticism concerning the ontological status of the items populating normative, explanatory frameworks; and a subtending conviction that we need strictly causal and ultimately subpersonal explanatory schemas to replace what are increasingly cast as outmoded analytics in the study of human behavior, that a subject’s putative reasons, beliefs, representations, and other acts of self-reflective consciousness are denied explanatory value.14 In the hands of reductive naturalists, the denial articulates as follows: putatively normative states can retain their causal efficacy, and so explanatory credentials, providing that a given state is successfully explicated in terms of our best physical theory, that is, providing that it can be reduced to natural states or causes in good, natural-scientific standing. But when norms and normative states, as such, are denied any and every mode of real existence, reductive (literary) naturalism becomes eliminative (literary) materialism, a project that renders cognitive content, linguistic meaning, agency, and, in its strongest versions, subjectivity itself, epiphenomenal. Indeed, at this level of analysis, literary critics gripped by the forces of change have extended not only Quine’s naturalized epistemology but have radically construed its most radical construal: “the replacement thesis.”15
Granted, such commitments are neither framed in these terms, nor are the radical entailments explicitly embraced. More often, scholars of this persuasion tend to fall victim to reductive naturalism or eliminative materialism while championing what they hope will be discipline-wide changes in theory choice, changes they aim to make compelling by exposing the distorting effects of the vocabularies in which literary scholars usually justify knowledge-claims. In Dimock’s “Deep Time: American Literature and World History,” for example, the target is nothing less than the very idea of a national literature, a concept that has organized a great deal of literary-critical knowledge.16
Having voiced doubts about the adequacy of a nation-centered hermeneutic in seminal Americanist texts—Dimock’s dissatisfaction ranges from F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) to Walter Benn Michaels’ Our America (1995)—to account for the international popularity of such figures as Richard Wright and William Faulkner, she asserts, “We don’t ask these questions because, for many of us, they are external to the territorial unit that we take to be a natural unit of analysis. But is this unit really so natural? Does it serve all our descriptive or explanatory needs?” (756). The virtue of this statement is that it directly raises the question of what “our explanatory needs” are. And even though Dimock’s language is perfectly colloquial, the repeat appearance of “natural” in these two sentences insinuates the need for a naturalistic orientation that can replace what many leading critics have, heretofore, been content to reconstruct: normatively intelligible correlations between geographical location, political economy and expressive cultural forms. But is Dimock’s answer plausible? Are explanations that remain within the confines of the space of reasons, somehow, unnatural, or unable to account for Wright’s international fame, as she implies? Why believe that we must expand both our “territorial units” and temporal frameworks for the purposes of explanation, expansions that require what are, essentially, causal antecedents not just to nationhood but to personhood, like “species” being (763)?
Aesthetic preferences and market trends are not the kinds of “historical phenomena” that require “large-scale” evolutionary analyses (758). Neither are the religious beliefs that should, we might think, play a prominent role in the social history of a religion, just as they do, and quite naturally, in mundane explanatory contexts. And while Dimock does, indeed, sketch a social history of Islam from the perspective of deep time to illustrate her theory—somewhat more intuitively, perhaps, for there’s no deep time like theological time—she doesn’t, tellingly, say much about religious beliefs. And what that tells us is that, even if Dimock once aspired to make “cognition a category for literary analysis,” she probably didn’t then, and certainly doesn’t now, support an Intentionalist theory of mind and language, which names a family of concepts that encapsulates the main thesis defended here.17 Saying it all at once: because our capacity for self-conscious reflection is mutually constitutive with the Intentionality, and so normativity, of thought and language—that is, the contents of our thinking, believing, preferring, describing and experiencing are about or directed to the world, and so can be can be assessed in terms of truth, satisfaction, or some other epistemic concept—to be committed to Intentionality is to affirm the necessity of normative explanations when explicating the relations between mind and world; experience and language; self and self-criticism; and art and art criticism. By contrast, being committed to deep time requires a specious relocation of irreducibly normative phenomena from the space of reasons to the space of merely naturalistic causes. And once relocated, deep time activates explanatory schemes that privilege ‘distal’ causes—which can’t possibly make a rational or normatively contentful contribution to our beliefs, preferences and reflections—instead of ‘proximal’ causes—which can.18 Indeed, the valorization of distal causes and subpersonal notions of cognitive and sensory experience is the hallmark, not only of deep time, but also of evolutionary ethics, evolutionary aesthetics, and Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics (2005), which has seized the imagination of Thing theory and the literary-critical branch of animal and science studies.19
Putting things back in Dimock’s own terms: to believe that explanations and descriptions of our preferences and beliefs require something like a “longue durée,” you’d have to believe, on the one hand, that the critical application of a “shorter time frame” in the determination of such preferences, along with other conceptually articulate and so communicable intentions and (religious) beliefs, “diminish[es] their claim to significance,” as Dimock does (758). You’d have to believe, in other words, that normative explanations, constituted by the space of reasons, aren’t really “significant,” that is, explanatory, which amounts to content epiphenomenalism.20 On the other hand, and at the same time, you’d have to believe that there’s a species-specific “significance” that persists through, in Dimock’s words, “hundreds, thousands, or even billions of years,” an antecedent significance that merely causally, not normatively, determines a given reader’s pleasures, pains, preferences and beliefs. In fact, Dimock’s explanatory scheme invites a theory of mental content that issues from a more comprehensive naturalistic theory of mind that can, if thought through to its logical conclusion, be applied to more than human readers’ preferences and beliefs.
Jane Thrailkill does think it through. Acknowledging a debt to Dimock and wearing her naturalism on her sleeve, Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism (2007) is admirably straightforward.21 “This book is a sustained argument in defense of the Affective Fallacy” (1). Against a critical tradition that includes theorists as diverse as Rene Descartes and Monroe Beardsley, a tradition distinguished by “more cognitivist views of subjectivity” than she thinks are defensible, Thrailkill appeals to the anti-dualist orientation of Charles Darwin, John Dewey, both William and Henry James, Antonio Damasio and Daniel Dennett, all of which are said to advance “ideas about the mindful corporeality of affective experience…” (7).22 This formulation makes clear that Thrailkill’s confidence in the “broader theoretical and practical salience” of the natural sciences isn’t motivated by a wholesale rejection of cognitivism (6). Indeed, she takes great pains to stress that she is not conflating but only aligning the hermeneutic orientation of cultural theorists with empirical modes of inquiry that distinguish natural scientists from their ever-interpreting brethren.23 Foregrounding the biological human body and its physiological processes might mean expanding awareness of human connectedness to members of nonhuman species that rightfully claim our ethical and intellectual attention. But it does not mean, Thrailkill assures us, jettisoning the significance of human mentality. Modestly put, then, her thesis is that a better account of, say, the neurobiological patterns of the human and nonhuman animal body should be taken up alongside folk theories of interpretation.
But even this weaker formulation of her thesis begs all the most important questions, the questions that Rorty, and Santayana before him, insisted we keep clear and distinct. Imagine that we want to put the “neurobiological and affective components of human experience”—Thrailkill is particularly interested in the human reading experience, but considers aesthetic, moral, political and religious experience as well—alongside the more generic “realist” concerns that Thrailkill characterizes as “mimesis, referentiality, and fixity” (9).24 How are these levels of description to be theorized together? What sort of premises are we going to need to establish the normative conclusions at which Thrailkill is aiming? If neuroscience progresses so that we do get satisfying maps of which synapses fire when a reader engages, for example, The Turn of the Screw, we might be able to see which causal processes do, in fact, influence a readers judgments. But why believe that these processes should have implications vis-à-vis a reader’s deliberations regarding the governess’s conduct? Do we imagine that the synapses are wrong if they fire when a reader believes that the narrator is a reliable Christian but right if a critic eschews such remedial concerns and attends to James’ psychosexual development? What would it even mean to think that synapses are assessable in these terms in the first place?
My point, of course, is an anti-reductionist one. No amount of mapping of which synaptic vectors alight when can explain why I think that I should interpret a passage (or character, or author) one way rather than another. Nor can visual mapping, in and of itself, explain what I mean to do by interpreting a passage one way rather than another. And that’s because neither normative significance nor meaning is something that synapses, simply, have, and so normative significance and meaning aren’t things that we can, simply, see. Stating the position a bit more carefully: at least in the case of human perception—say, listening to a work of art or, more ordinarily, conversing with a familiar foe—there certainly are cases when normative significance and meaning can be seen and heard straightaway. Moreover, there are interpretive contexts when would-be explainers immediately perceive, and so can intelligibly claim to know, that a given subject is herself immediately perceiving the meaning of some object. But our best account of those instances proceeds by ‘triangulating’ them, Donald Davidson might say, with objects, acts, events and percepts that are conceptually, if not phenomenally related to something that the interpreting agent(s) or some other proximate socializing agency, had already charged, or recognized to be charged, with significance.25 That is, by placing those instances in the space of reasons.
The essential point I’m after, however, might be made simpler if we’re willing to acknowledge that normative significance, whether immediately perceived, self-considered, or asked about, is something that only human agents can defend. Granting, then, that a full discussion of the pertinence of cognitive ethnology for literary studies is beyond the scope of this essay, I happily concede that human and nonhuman animals are connected by an infinite number of shared, affective and causal relations, relations that make good sense of the ethical significance nonhuman animals might have in our lives. Furthermore, a clear entailment of that mutuality means that we share not just a repertoire of feelings and desires, but of perceptions with nonhuman animals. And because perception is, itself, a cognitive capacity, there are grounds for disagreeing with Descartes—and agreeing with Jane Thrailkill, Graham Harman and, say, Cary Wolfe—that many nonhuman animals enjoy other cognitive states, like beliefs, similar to ours. Some might even possess the conceptual capacities required to form and execute something like an intention. Nonetheless, nonhuman animals can’t step back, as it were, from their feelings, desires, beliefs and intentions, in order to weigh, recognize, and communicate the normative authority of reasons as such. That, I contend, is what makes our cognitive and affective lives different, in kind. Therefore, the recognition, construction, and exchange of reasons should, I think, be regarded not as the sine qua non of cognition but as a specific rational capacity which is constitutive of our uniquely, because (potentially) deliberative form of practical and theoretical agency.26
So let’s grant that literary critics and cultural theorists are justified in their search for ways to model the cultural and biological. Because Thrailkill, like Harman and Wolfe, rides roughshod over the constraints that the possession of self-consciousness, language and other forms of conceptual self-mastery place on would-be explainers, she can only obscure the differences between human mindedness and nonhuman animal cognition; between the naturalism and the metaphysics; between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.
These distances can be collapsed if, for example, “scientific knowledge of the body” (10) is combined with a profound confidence in the normative significance of causal relations as such, a confidence that credits the coherence of, in Rorty’s words again, “a jargon that would apply equally to plants, nervous systems, and physicists.” And Thrailkill sets out to do exactly that in her discussion of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elise Venner, which tasks an increasingly ambitious theory of evolution not with illuminating the idiosyncratic preferences of readers and market forces but, rather, with accounting for the aesthetic preferences resulting in marriage. Confident that the science of the nineteenth century has critical purchase on this canonical thematic, Thrailkill writes:
Even courtship, for the Professor, lends itself to such formulations: “Remember that Nature makes every man love all women, and trusts the trivial matter of choice to the commonest accident.” Romance thus becomes fodder for scientific scrutiny, for the “study of love is very much like that of meteorology.” Speaking as if to a starry-eyed belle, the Professor…dissects middle-class fashions and societal rituals to reveal their essential Darwinian functionality. (72)
From the incontrovertible fact, discussed in her second chapter, that bacterial infections are best approached naturalistically and represented statistically, Thrailkill moves to the much stronger claim that a person’s choice of partner can only be explained along evolutionary lines. Actually, the relevant lines begin with the inorganic objects of “meteorology,” and extends not just—backwards?—to organic life, but infinitely outwards. Anticipating the reader’s objections, Thrailkill admits how natural processes and the natural laws seem totally determinative:
The Professor’s analogy between maidens and mollusks would appear to entail the eradication of agency: you may think you’re dancing and enjoying yourself, he implies but actually this elaborate ritual was designed to display you in a process that sidesteps individual choice. Upon reflection, however, it becomes apparent that the Professor is actually engaged in the extension of agency: the ritual precisely was designed, or at least acts as if it were. This is what Charles Darwin discerned as “natural selection.” Dennett puts it this way: “Mother Nature, the process of natural selection, shows her appreciation of good reasons tacitly, by wordlessly and mindlessly permitting the best designs to prosper….We late-blooming theorists are the first to see the patterns and divine these reasons—the free-floating rationales of the designs that have been created over eons.” (72)
What’s necessary here is not a direct assessment of Dennett but an evaluation of Thrailkill’s appropriation of his conclusions. To begin, we should appreciate that for non-theistic naturalists, like Dennett, the language of design is a mere pretext, a bit of flourish when describing evolutionary processes. Indeed, for non-theistic naturalists, the attribution of agency to naturalistic processes is not a metaphysically serious utterance, and can’t be called upon to do the kind of metaphysically serious work. However, the more radical claim motivating these explanations, the claim that appears, finally, on the surface of Thrailkill’s appeal to Dennett, is that “the free-floating rationales of the designs that have been created over eons” are the real causes of events. But this implies that, while it’s perfectly decent to give normative explanations some discursive space of their own, it’s not until we have a naturalistic narrative depleted of normative items and even psychological predicates that we have the real explanation of a given behavior. Here, again, we have arrived at a view that can be described as content epiphenomenalism. Reasons, beliefs, mentation, as such, is explanatorily impotent.
So while this passage is deployed to illustrate an expansion of agency, what we have, instead, is its eradication. For persons, not processes, have the requisite capacities to exercise agency: only persons can articulate “good reasons,” to use Dennett’s words, in some sense, against him. Or, to put the point a bit more dialectically: either this is the eradication of agency because “nature” only looks “as if” it were agentic; or, the question of human agency is no longer what’s at stake. And, in fact, I want now to argue that for many theorists importing the explanatory vocabulary from the natural sciences into the humanities, the logic of the argument requires the introduction and defense of a nonhuman form of agency to accompany the nonconceptual notion of experience upon which, not just the naturalistic turn, but ‘the supernaturalistic turn’ in contemporary theory rests.
Now, in Jane Thrailkill’s case, the supernaturalistic turn doesn’t exactly rest on a reading of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). But it certainly begins there. However, what’s needed in our context is neither exegesis of that difficult work nor an appraisal of its literary-critical appropriations.27 To focus our analysis, we need only to condense the claims motivating the supernaturalistic turn as concisely as possible. The positive claim runs like this: religious experience triggers a set of sensory, physiological, emotional and affective reactions that show themselves to be, in some relevant sense, independent of beliefs and other mental contents. The negative claim runs: religious experiences either result from, or express a general type of cognitive failure—“wonder” is Jane Thrailkill’s and even Hubert Dreyfus’s preferred term for failure, or, less tendentiously, for what I’d characterize as a closely related, non- or precognitive state—which should be viewed as our primordial, epistemic situation.28 For some theorists, this situation is better illuminated, sometimes literally, using the audio-visual technologies made available by the best current science, than it is elucidated by humanistic explanatory methods and their subtending normative concepts. In any case, the fascination with religious experience obviously isn’t induced by a desire to contribute to a thoroughgoing natural, as opposed to revealed, religion. Typically, religious experience is ontologically and scientifically significant, so goes this line of thinking, because it substantiates, or simply leads to superior descriptions of what our lives as evolved, embodied, sensorily affected, and not merely intellectually active, reflective beings amounts to. A proper theory of religious experience, then, is an important step in getting a fully naturalized epistemology. Indeed, for many contemporary supernaturalistic theorists studying, and sometimes exacerbating the so-called “return of the theologico-political problem,” constructing a fully naturalized epistemology seems to be a necessary, if not sufficient condition, for developing a leftist politics that can challenge an allegedly hegemonic, secular regime.
Of course, no of such theory of religion, science or politics can be found in Quine’s work. But something very much like it does surface in Silvan Tomkins’ treatment of religion. Prefacing the third of a four-volume series, Affect, Imagery, Consciousness (1991),Tomkins informs us that although he’s not a believer, affect theory was, from the very start, “substantially shaped and enriched” by “a truly Christian theologian.”29 However, when filling out his account of what he calls, tellingly, “the religious impulse” (and there are democratic, socialist, and totalitarian impulses as well) Tomkins characterizes Christian beliefs in the way that he characterizes all beliefs. Not theologically—not, in other words, as beliefs—which stand in both causal and epistemic relations to other beliefs and to the world, but rather, as essentially affective phenomena. Fleshing this out a bit: beliefs, epistemically understood, are ‘judgment sensitive’. That is, I’m always able to alter my belief, and even an emotion, if I judge that it’s unsupported by relevant reasons or I determine that it conflicts with another and better supported belief. This profoundly subjective but, nonetheless, objectifying process, secures the potentially normative status of my beliefs and emotions, not by endorsing a desiccated account of cognition, but by placing beliefs and emotions in the explanatory space of reasons. But when beliefs and emotions are understood as essentially affective and intrinsically normative—that is, when you don’t so much derive, but identify an ‘is’ with an ‘ought’, insofar as the mere having of a given belief of emotion isn’t just taken as reason giving but as settling all normative questions—they can, do and should operate independently of the mind, independently, more specifically, of a would-be deliberative subject’s capacities for reflection, objective representation, and effective cognitive action e.g., judgment. For beliefs, no less than emotions, are triggered, so goes the positive dimension of Tomkins’ account, by genetically based causal mechanisms, which are themselves triggered by the involuntary perceptual intake and “imaging” of a merely affective subject’s physical environment.
It’s hard to say which elements of this naturalistic story would have gone missing had it not been for the gracious intervention of Christian theology in Tomkins’ thinking. Perhaps the assumption is that religious beliefs (and emotions) are formed and defended by such obviously noncognitive means that even allusions to this peculiar domain help to illustrate, and secure normative authority for, the intuition motivating affect theory’s most basic, noncognitive commitments? It’s not clear. Clearer, perhaps, is that even if Tomkins’ research program has no necessary relation to theology or religious practice—many theologians and believers would emphatically reject the suggestion that their religious commitments and practices were the upshot of a material interaction that left no room for their deliberative, mental actions, for, in other words, their autonomy—it is entirely compatible with the basic, explanatory framework of midcentury behaviorism. Indeed, it’s appropriately regarded as yet another variety of behaviorism, where belief formation is theorized according to a stimulus-response model. Such models, past and present, isolate and then valorize beliefs that we, like all nonhuman animals, simply have or are caused to have—Tomkins’ own interest in nonhuman animal cognition indicates his appreciation of this point, to say nothing of his notion of ‘automata’—from beliefs that we, unlike nonhuman animals, actively and consciously deliberate about and decide to affirm, based on genuinely reason-giving considerations.
Refocusing religious belief to make the point: accepting behaviorist premises, we’d have to conclude, for instance, that my cognitive and emotive attitudes towards the doctrine of transubstantiation aren’t to be made intelligible by reciting what reasons I have or haven’t accepted in its favor. Any affect theory worthy of the name would have to begin, instead, by describing (potentially) conscious attitudes as non-epistemic, emotive states. So reduced, these nominally ‘mental’ states could only be explained by determining the spatio-temporal coordinates of my body in relation to the bearer of a relevant theological ‘script’, and then identifying what adaptive incentives are offered by the governing power to help condition and re-enforce what can only be described as my causal, even if doctrinal, reaction. If this rendering of Tomkins’ position sounds outlandish, it’s actually an understatement given the scale on which he believes his premises can be extended and coherently applied. For Tomkins goes so far as to explain and endorse the triumph of Christianity, and rejection of Judaism, as an “inevitable” outcome, due to what he regards as the plain facts of our biological constitution—or what he refers to as “the reality of the pluralism of the biological inheritance of potentialities for love and for hate, for life and for death, and for the potential for romantic love of the saint against the hate of the sinner” (405).
In Tomkins, interestingly enough, there are stretches of argumentation wherein the cognitive components of confessional Christianity are recognized and weighted. But strictly speaking, the cognitive dimensions of religious faith can’t account for religious emotions, affects, preferences, actions or any other ostensibly minded expression i.e., behavior. For the whole point of Tomkins’ stimulus-response-cum-evolutionary theory of religious consciousness is to identify a set of subpersonal, hardwired, bio-ontological facts about the human body—even stronger: about bodies—that are both explanatory and predictive of world-historical developments. This is a naturalistic metaphysics with a theologically inflected vengeance.
For a perspicuous view of how Tomkins’ supernaturalistic premises have been radicalized by critical theorists explicitly committed to the primacy of affect in politics, religion and religious studies, William Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999) is as good as it gets.30 Here, Connolly, who is no more religious than is Tomkins or, presumably, Thrailkill, makes an admirable plea for cultural critics to take religion but not, importantly, religious beliefs more seriously. After all, religious beliefs can only do what beliefs do: mediate (theological) knowledge, which is, like all knowledge, representational and so susceptible to error and refutation.31 In fact, it’s precisely because Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) takes religious beliefs seriously in just this way that Connolly takes Russell to task in the opening pages of his anti-secularist tract. For what Connolly most wants isn’t what Russell did when discussing religion, namely, the giving and taking of reasons for our religious beliefs and disbeliefs. Instead, Connolly campaigns for a scientific appreciation of religious affects. That is, Connolly holds that religious affects should be taken seriously, because like all genuine affects, but unlike “secular models of thinking, discourse, and ethics” (6), they can be theoretically assimilated into a larger class of subpersonal, and so nonrepresentational ‘events’ that have an immediate causal impact on cognitive processes heretofore mischaracterized in epistemological terms. Indeed, Connolly maintains that if we can come to understand the full reach of those causal impacts, beliefs will prove less recalcitrant to naturalistic treatments and we can produce a naturalized epistemology serviceable for a critical, post-secular politics.
But even if such treatments can be given so that our concept of belief starts to look a lot more like, at least, Connolly’s concept of affect, how can we know that a given nonrepresentational event—that is, an event that can’t be placed in the space of reasons—should bear on what we might regard as a paradigmatically representational activity, namely, politics? Connolly doesn’t answer that question. At least, he won’t answer it in those terms. In fact, he compounds the epistemological dilemma he’s generated with an indeterminate notion of causality, which he’s just as happy to leave a mystery or “inscrutable” (175).
The appeal to inscrutable mysteries should immediately signal that epistemological dilemmas aren’t Connolly’s dilemmas anymore than they are the theologians and theorists inspiring Why I Am Not a Secularist: John Caputo, Talal Asad and Gilles Deleuze. Connolly celebrates these three, in particular, and welcomes productive interplay between naturalistic explanations and nonconceptual conceptions of religious experience, in general, because they all reinforce his own desire to leave the entire modern epistemological problematic behind.32 In place of bygone methods reputed to explain, and to distinguish what it means to self-consciously endorse a candidate perception, belief, or ethico-political proposition from what it is to be in a mental state tout court, we are given what many of those advancing the supernaturalistic cause give us: a summary discussion of cognitive science’s way of naturalizing epistemology, which is meant not to justify—justification, remember, is the preeminent concern of modern epistemology—but to show, “literally,” as Connolly says when illustrating a related point, the sources of normativity (29). For it’s the fluid form of cognitive science’s experimental data that best enables us to visualize which ‘is’ causes which ‘ought’. In praise of Joseph LeDoux’s microscopic dimension, Connolly writes,
His study not only confounds behaviorist and computer models of thinking, it may expose insufficiencies in linguistic models of thought and discourse. Let us focus on the relation between the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain located at the base of the cortex, and the prefrontal cortex, the large brain developed more extensively in humans than in other animals. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex can receive messages from the same sources, but each registers them in a different way. When receiving, say, a sign it has stored as an indication of danger, the amygdala reacts quickly, relatively crudely and with intense energy….The prefrontal cortex receives its version more slowly, processing it through a linguistic network in a more refined way and forming a complex judgment. In a situation of stress, the amygdala also transmits its interpretation and much of its intensity to the prefrontal cortex. (28-29)
Above, Connolly indulges a strategic equivocation that occurs among many posthumanists. He begins by casting suspicion over attempts to model thinking and discourse on language, then identifies various organic sources of intense energy, only to end up sketching a picture of thinking that is, itself, despite his ambitions, modeled on language. But having noted a flat contradiction in Connolly’s presentation, I want to focus on a few obvious analytic points, whose force seems almost entirely lost on supernaturalistic theorists. Consider that, while the sort of “maps” in which LeDoux and Connolly trade are no doubt complex, that complexity—visual, systemic, causal, whatever—is different in kind from the complexity of a person’s judgments and interpretations. For unlike the imputed ‘judgments’ of the prefrontal cortex, or the ‘interpretations’ of an amygdala, the complexity of a person’s judgments and interpretations consists, in part, in the fact that a person, not a subpersonal process, or an almond-shaped brain, has judged them to be right or wrong. Indeed, it’s only because judgments are some person’s judgments that judgments have truth-values and every other variety of complexity with normative import. And what goes for a person’s judgments, which materialize, paradigmatically, in sentences and other speech acts, goes double for neurological “messages” and triple for religiously inflected, affective “signs”: they can be counted as messages with normative significance insofar as I, or the research community, or the faith community to which I belong, take them as such.
The point of stressing the normativity-affirming, and sometimes conferring, act of judgment, however, isn’t to reinforce, from the opposite side, so to speak, the wedge that Connolly erects between intense, affective experiences and linguistic judgments. On the contrary, I’m saying that, no matter how that wedge is conceived, once it’s firmly in place, neither our theological or, for that matter, our scientific speech acts, nor the normativity of experience, can be properly theorized. Now, if Rorty is right, we can’t confidently draw on the John Dewey of Experience and Nature to get a sense of what logical shape a proper theorization would have to take. But we can take a cue from Dewey’s A Common Faith (1933) and say something like he does in that synoptic work: it’s only if, when and because “climacteric experiences” are, to some extent, already meaningful, and so capable of generating more meanings and communicable language, that both our experiences, and our language about our experiences, accrues normative significance.33 Rejecting this, we can’t possibly do what Dewey tried to: place religious experience, language and practice squarely within the space of reasons.34
But even if we stress, as Dewey might, and Connolly does, that some of my affective experiences—some of my “intense” perceptual ‘is’s’, if you like—are immediately given by what can be partially described as a subpersonal process, and so not mediately and intentionally taken, we need to appreciate what Connolly, and those he depends on, don’t: a theory of perceptual experience may lead to the conclusion that a given visual (or audio) presentation can’t be right or wrong. But insofar as I take myself to be a competent judger, I know that my perceptually based beliefs and judgments must be.35 Acknowledging that necessity is just what it is to possess the interdependent concepts of objectivity, judgment, and Intentional perception. And the activation of judgment in perception seems just as inevitable, and perhaps constitutive of both human perception, and action, as such. But whether or not human perception is constituted exactly like that i.e., discursively, an amygdala’s deliverances are nothing like that. For unlike an amygdala’s deliverances, a competent judger is (or can always become) aware that her instantaneous belief-like deliverances e.g., ‘the shapes in the water are sharks’, are reliable, and upon further investigation, justifiable, to the extent that she already knows how to discriminate between, say, the reflection of a helicopter, and the look of a school of Blue Reefs; and believes, moreover, that her sensory deliverances are in good working order. That last, factual judgment is normative through and through. And recognizing it to be so helps clarify what Connolly either ‘explains’ through a bio-semantic, causal process, which is, by his stipulation, beyond rational influence, or is, in other moments, content to leave a brute, supernaturalistic mystery: how an ‘is’—in this case, a perceptual given about a watery environment—can lead to an ‘ought’—my belief, endorsed “for reasons we can share,” in Christine Korsgaard’s familiar, Kantian phrase.
So while an analytical description of perception might factor out mediated beliefs, immediate representations, interpretation, self-knowledge, linguistic articulation, and truth-value, I’m insisting that these all come (and go) together as a single package. Indeed, it’s the actual or potential operation of all these rational and causal, but never merely causal organic capacities, in perception, that links my automatic, visual perceptions and my self-conscious, epistemically structured, and so normative beliefs. And a full account of that link, I think, will always point up salient differences between the structure of human perception and our most charitable account of nonhuman animal affective reactions. But the critical point is less that we should insist on what Connolly and company take pains to ignore, i.e., the constraints that our conceptual capacities put on would-be explainers, than it is to stress that subpersonal reactors, as such, can’t be right or wrong. An amygdala just is. Its reactions just are.
Presumably, Connolly isn’t claiming that his prefrontal cortex has the capacity for apperception, to put things in Kant’s terms. And wouldn’t Connolly concede that he sometimes vacillates between a recognizably intentionalist vocabulary—where notions like interpretation and judgment do some real explanatory work—and a physicalist vocabulary—where notions like “registers,” “triggers” and “reacts” do the heavy lifting and, when directed to answering “How” questions, as Connolly calls them, do just fine—but argue that his deeper point concerns the ontological “gap” between “prerepresentational sites of appraisal” (26) or “thought-imbued intensities” (27) and determinate representations? And couldn’t Connolly also say that those gaps are exactly what underwrite his overarching ambition to transform thinking, and so politics and religion, from an agent-theoretic enterprise, performed by what he calls, “nervous cultural unitarians” (176) to, in his later work, a full-blown evolutionary-theoretic enterprise?36 Once we put the point this way, we can see that everything turns on getting a more precise understanding of how Connolly understands his project. And we can achieve that precision by attending to the full articulation of the distinction alluded above: the distinction that Connolly makes between “How” questions and “Why” questions.
In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008),Connolly makes clear that his reformist vision of political theory has him focused on the former, not the latter.37 But “How” or “is” questions are, as the philosopher John McDowell puts it in Mind and World, “engineering” questions (21). They are questions that we can get answers to “from sideways on,” that is, from a third-person perspective, so that we literally don’t have to ask…anybody. For in order to answer “How” questions, engineering questions, we need only to map our object’s brains or power up some other audio-visual equipment. “Why” or “ought” questions are normative, that is, they ask after the implicit and explicit standards governing, and reasons for, action, not in deep time, but in a given historical, and even national context, pace Dimock. If the twain happen to meet, as they do in Connolly’s construction of what he calls, coincidentally, “deep pluralism,” (Secularist, 184) the proffered synthesis can only rationalize actions by retaining their normative character. Rationalizing an action through the rubrics of a normative explanatory scheme doesn’t, of course, mean re-instating Cartesian epistemology. Neither does it mean believing that every single intention is preformed and fully available for critical reflection in advance of action; nor denying that subpersonal causal processes are in effect in every action, as they are in perception. And it especially doesn’t mean denying that causal processes do, as a matter of empirical fact, influence our behavior. But if that’s all that Connolly is getting at, his argument is trivially true. No one doubts that subpersonal processes affect our judgment anymore than anyone feels shocked by his proclamations that normative commitments aren’t “contestable” (53).
But that’s not all he’s getting at. Connolly’s stronger methodological thesis is that the human sciences need the natural sciences because normative explanations don’t explain what motivates that contest or any other human behavior. And his stronger anti-epistemological but ontological and, indeed, theo-political thesis pushes him, as he says, to move “ ‘from is to ought’” (157) with the help of theologians and any other “a-theistic” thinker who believes what he does: that normative explanations are not sufficient (79).38 For either of the stronger theses to be even so much as plausible, however, he’s going to have to make several moves to close the gaps that his indeterminate notions of causality and (religious) affect have widened, if not opened. More minimally, he’d have to say that the thought behind the thought is, in some meaningful sense, thought, and so normative, which he sometimes does say, only to later deny it. Or, at the very least, he’ll have to say that the affective events in which he’s so invested—biological, perceptual, religious, whatever—aren’t constitutively “opaque” (135) but susceptible to linguistic articulation and made intelligible by a normative explanation. Then again, if he says that, he’s given up the game.
Instead of giving up the game or giving a clear exposition of how to perform the is-ought derivation motivating his positive theoretical task, Connolly makes a set of rhetorical moves that are representative of a whole argumentative genre. He denies that his embrace of a decidedly “non-Kantian transcendental field…of the infrasensible” (Secularist, 40) entails dispensing with the analytical categories of interpretive theory and hermeneutics. Indeed, he repeatedly insists that he’s only supplementing the categories of belief, desire, and reflective judgment—the categories that make up what Kant called “the human standpoint”—with the findings of “immanent naturalists” working in evolutionary biology, chemistry, neuroscience, and, in later work, wave science.39 But, as we’ve already seen, the former categories must be supplemented by the latter’s findings, on both sea and land, because they are constituted by the all-too-restrictive—because, he thinks, all-too-secular—vocabulary of interpreting and interpreted persons, specific, in other words, to the act of interpretation as such. Weary of such categories and secular standpoints; skeptical of the analytic nexus associated with the modern(ist) conception of interpretation and human personhood; but certain of the normative import of nonconceptual notions of sensory experience for the development of a properly pluralistic politics, Connolly makes various appeals to the evolutionary advantageous functions of the amygdala. It’s these nonconceptual, organic delivery systems that condition conceptually structured and so, on his account, “second-order” mental actions (Capitalism and Christianity 157). And even if second-order mental actions are adequately captured by what can only be, at least from Connolly’s scientistic perspective, second-order explanations, ‘the real’ causal source of “becoming” resides elsewhere: in organs, in the ocean, and beyond the strictures of what he, and Tomkins, and Thrailkill, all characterize as an exclusionary secular regime.
It turns out, however, that appealing to religion, opposing scientism and advocating for secularism can all fly under the banner of a single name: Slavoj Zizek. In fact, Zizek manages to embody both the positive and negative sides of the supernaturalistic turn. I want to conclude, then, by looking at Zizek as he looks to Christian theology in order to widen the scope of his long-standing attempt to reconceptualize experience as an irreducibly subjective activity. Indeed, Zizek’s On Belief (2001)40 aims to overcome deflationary accounts of subjectivity by stressing the act of believing, thereby approximating an agentic conception of belief, and helping us to locate, precisely, what’s motivating his more recent critique of the so-called New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (2009).41 There, Zizek opposes, not what Connolly would, namely, the New Atheist’s secularist ends, but their formal means to secularism, which Connolly’s work anticipates. More specifically, Zizek opposes the New Atheist’s exaltation of naturalistic methods e.g., neuroscience and evolutionary biology, through which they reduce not just religious experience but “subjective experience” as such to “objective brain processes” (109). Effecting the contrast between what he clearly regards as a reductive, because merely “scientific materialism” (93) and his own and very particular variety of Christian materialism, Zizek asserts the epistemic significance of Christ, which reads like a militant defense of mindedness in art, religion, and pace Connolly, in politics: “All that remains of reality without Christ is the Void of meaningless multiplicity of the Real. This monstrosity is the price we have to pay in order to render the Absolute in the medium of external re-presentation, which is the medium of religion” (80).
Whether or not the position that Zizek is staking out here, namely, a “reconciliation” between Christianity and Idealism, is so much as tenable (58), he presupposes a hotly contested, because fundamentally experiential, notion of Christianity, drawn not from William James, and certainly not John Dewey but, above all, from Alain Badiou’s decidedly unorthodox pneumatology. What’s contested isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the positive role of experience in a coherent presentation of a Christian’s beliefs and communal believing. The problems start when our interest in the varieties of religious experience becomes dissevered from our interest in—or, short of interest, our theoretical appreciation of—the role that experience plays in justification. Zizek is neither interested nor appreciative. For, not only does he, like Badiou, deny that Christian experience can ever be veridical, thus reinforcing what looks to many supernaturalistic theorists like an internal connection between noncognitivism and religious faith.42 Zizek denies that experience can even be so much as meaningful. That is, Zizek fixates on Jesus’ “Cry of Dereliction” in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” both because it captures the absence of religious truth but, more importantly, because Jesus’ cry dramatizes “the meaninglessness of it all” (57).43 What seem to be expressions of minimal sapience i.e., Jesus’ cries of pain, then, are—like all ostensibly minded expressions and mediums—hollow, (super)naturalistic products of merely animal sentience. This is content epiphenomenalism with an anti-theological vengeance.
And where meaningful expression goes, so too must belief. And go it does, by way of what Zizek persists in calling the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, the Holy Spirit can’t possibly be for dogmatic Christians what it is, exactly, for Zizek, namely, the animating projection of a comprehensive secularism, forever working through the full implications of what Hegel called “the Death of God,” and Weber “disenchantment.”44 Indeed, Zizek suspects that our enthrallment to vaguely theological forms of postmodernism has made us irresolute, inclined to project some dimly perceived significance onto some ‘Other’ or another. About this, I mostly agree. But in response, he appropriates the third person of the Trinity in a provocative figuration of the absolute indifference of ‘reality’s’ “virtuality” (41), appealing, eventually, to the explanatory significance of Heisenberg’s indeterminacy thesis to dramatize a thoroughgoing nihilistic outlook, an outlook that Zizek finds haunting what he thinks is best conceptualized as a noncognitive or objectless notion of Christian experience (89). About this, I disagree.
And I needn’t reproduce the details of Zizek’s concept of virtuality to say what’s problematic about the use that he makes of it. Moreover, my account of the problem shouldn’t be taken as tantamount to a rejection of any petition made by or on behalf of natural scientists for recognition of an independent, explanatory space—a space that is not opposed to but is, nonetheless, logically distinct from the normative structure found in the human sciences—as they grapple with the implications of indeterminacy. “The world,” as Hilary Putnam says, “has many levels of form,” and those forms, which include morally and religiously significant actions and perceptions, “can’t be reduced,” continues Putnam, “to the level of physics…”.45 But reduce is exactly what Zizek is attempting to do. So just as I doubt that Dimock’s longue durée can explain the experiences and beliefs that help to identify just what is and isn’t Islamic about Islamic believers and history, my point here is: once Zizek has embraced “meaninglessness” and granted virtuality and indeterminacy explanatory sway in his account of human experience, religious and otherwise, he can’t possibly execute the task he assigns himself in The Monstrosity of Christ or in On Belief. He can’t explain the meaning of a Christian’s subjective experiences, beliefs, deliberations, or actions. Saying this a bit differently: even if Zizek begins with the assertion that Jesus embodies “external re-presentation,” and so counts as something like the objective correlative of Intentionality, he ends by championing the formlessness of experience and “ ‘unbelief,’ the pure form of belief deprived of its substantialization…” (101). But by depriving beliefs of substance—of objects, meanings, and justifications—Zizek hasn’t naturalized them. Much less has he explained them. He’s eliminated them.
Furthermore, to the extent that Zizek’s deprivations obscure the logical and epistemological status of even our empirical perceptions, that is, our experience, it’s not at all clear how he can account for the experience—of God, of the illusion of God, of the illusion of meaning in pain, or the meaningfulness of any affective state—that he takes as raw data for his dialectical procedures in the first place. Whatever Hegel might have meant to convey when speaking of God’s death and Christ’s monstrousness, once Zizek negates meaning, and belief becomes unbelief, what’s monstrous about Zizek’s medium of choice in this particular dialectical exercise, i.e., Jesus’ crucified body, is exactly what’s monstrous about the body in affect theory and every other variety of reductive naturalism that theorizes experience as a trauma, shock, or subpersonal ‘event’ that we suffer, instead of a “re-presentation” that expands as it expresses our form of cognition, our human standpoint. For expressive, according to Zizek, is what experience can’t ever be. And insofar as experience doesn’t name an epistemically significant transaction, nor requires a normative explanation, it reduces to a brute, if not brutal “encounter” (53) with the “constitutive” (274) Void. Indeed, because Zizek’s Void is constitutive, he can only leave us with a dissociated and restrictive picture of subjectivity, a picture in which being a subject just is to be shut out from the possibility of self-consciously forming and justifying true beliefs i.e., knowledge. And that brings Zizek’s position even closer to the eliminative materialism of the New Atheists, while making incoherent the theological materialism he’s aiming to defend.
Continuing to focus, then, not on Zizek’s Christian materialism, but Zizek’s materialism, we can also measure the distance between his philosophy of mind and the view of human mindedness offered by what he refers to, dismissively, as “the so-called Pittsburgh Hegelians (Brandom and McDowell)” (26).46 But measuring it will not establish that Zizek’s theologico-political beliefs are obviously false. In fact, the truth or falsity of Zizek’s politics is a totally independent question. What’s at stake here is showing that, given Zizek’s premises, it’s not at all obvious how his beliefs, in particular, or a concept of belief, in general, can even so much as coalesce. For if Zizek, following his Hegel, assigns the monstrosity of Christ a mediatory role in clarifying our epistemic and existential situation, that’s only because Christ’s suffering and death dramatizes that our “incessant activity” (73) is “groundless” (98). And what makes our sense-making or explanatory practices—that is, the exchanges that make up our ordinary language, as well as our artistic, religious and scientific criticism—groundless, incessant and ultimately indeterminate or Void, is that there isn’t a reality with which we can ever make epistemic contact, and so no experience of reality that provides sufficient grounds for us to so much as believe anything. Lacking such grounds, “thinking in action”—the title of the series in which On Belief appears—can’t amount to anything more than a celebration of what the Pittsburgh Hegelians are trying to overcome. More directly: insofar as Zizek’s version of Idealism proceeds like his version Christianity, that is, by insisting on “the meaninglessness of it all,” his notion of language, knowledge, thinking and, for that matter, affect, reduces to a mere “frictionless spinning in a void” (McDowell’s terms). For nothing in Zizek’s presentation of mind stands in a cognitive, much less justificatory relation to a subject’s thinking in the way that the world does in the thoroughgoing conceptual account of minded perception that we find in John McDowell and, for whatever it’s worth, in McDowell’s Hegel. Insofar as Zizek lacks a normative account of the mind-world relation, and so the meaningfulness of language, it’s not even clear what entitles him to regard the ‘beliefs’ that he has as beliefs. What Zizek has are supernaturalistic affects/effects, which fall squarely within the jurisdiction of engineering issues and “How” questions.
Why ‘only’ affects? Because in order for a perceptual state to count as a cognitive state, it must be susceptible to the kind of treatment normative explanations aspire to give of intentions, actions, representations, and, paradigmatically, beliefs. And for a belief to be a belief, it must involve, as Zizek himself says, an existential and collective commitment; and, as Walter Benn Michaels stresses, because Zizek fails to, truth-value. What I’m emphasizing here, however, against Zizek, with the Pittsburgh Hegelians, and deepening Michaels’ critique, is that beliefs can only generate meaningful commitments, truth-values, reasons to which an agent can be responsive, and a normative explanation of that response, because they have truth-conditions. And beliefs only have truth-conditions in virtue of having ‘aboutness’; by being what all beliefs necessarily are: objective. Here, the relevant sense of objective is not ‘certain’. Beliefs are objective because they have objective purport; they, at least, seem to refer, some rightly, and some wrongly. Summarily put: beliefs are Intentional.
But Zizek’s beliefs can’t be Intentional because his beliefs’ referents, and so truth-values, “exist only insofar as subjects act as if it [truth] exists,” only insofar as “the community,” or a virtual “transsubjective ‘it,’” he says, “believe in it” (76). Baptizing beliefs as communal, however, doesn’t itself make them any more credible. Speaking more positively, Zizek recapitulates one half of the problematic framing long-standing debates in the analysis of religious language. For what religious language, specifically, and language, generally, expresses, on Zizek’s account, cannot be an empirically contentful, conceptually guided, and so epistemically vulnerable ‘belief that’, as in “I” or “We believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Rather, Zizek’s believer merely ‘believes in’, a formulation devoid of content, and for that reason, full of supernaturalistic affect. And to whatever extent content does remain in the less-obviously propositional of the two locutions, Zizek is without the theoretical resources to explain how so. He has surrendered the constitutive norms of everything but engineering questions into the Void.
What Zizek can give with the Void in tow, however, he does. Indeed, in On Belief, Zizek indicates how we should approach “the ‘big’ ontological questions (are humans really a subspecies of animals? is Darwinism true?) the question of God or nature” that the Pittsburgh Hegelians, he says, in The Monstrosity of Christ, ignore (26). Zizek prods us to “risk…the philosophical potential,” that is, the normative authority, of “modern physics” when explaining human behavior, whose “results seem to point to a gap/opening discernible already in the pre-ontological nature itself” (10). Here, the typically disenchanted Zizek isn’t stuck between naturalism and religion, as Jurgen Habermas might say. Zizek is re-enchanting the world by way of quantum mechanics and particle physics, two of the most naturalistic of all the natural sciences. But however much frictionless spinning there is in those voids, explanations of our life with norms cannot come.
Of course, Zizek can take the above criticisms in stride. His version of cultural criticism isn’t Rorty’s; his Christ isn’t Orthodox; his Hegel isn’t Pittsburgh’s; and he’s certainly never marketed himself as an “Intentionality All-Star”.47 But what’s emerged here is the implication that Zizek’s commitments require him to reject any discursive regime—secular liberal, dialectical materialist or religiously orthodox—that privileges belief and believing in a theory of experience or in a given explanatory structure. And that suggests associations that Zizek wouldn’t welcome and doesn’t seem to anticipate. Specifically, insofar as Zizek forfeits the explanatory significance of cognitive content in favor of subpersonal explanatory schemes, we might ask what makes Zizek’s variety of “postsecular” nonconceptual experience, “evental processuality” (39) substantially different from Derrida’s differance or Levinas’ Other, both of which he critiques, in part, because of their flirtation with nominalist, death-of-god theologies (94). After all, Zizek’s positivistic anti-theology seem to have the same practical consequences as postmodern negativity, following, as it does, the trajectory that I outlined in the previous sections. He begins by writing On Belief, but in accepting supernaturalistic premises, ends by endorsing On Creaturely Life (Eric Santner’s title.)48 Here, Zizek is nothing if not consistent. For the only remaining constructive theoretical tasks befitting a cultural critic after jettisoning normative explanations are the engineering questions for which naturalized epistemologies are made. And while engineering questions have little or nothing to do with the meaninglessness embraced by theorists in the 80s and 90s, they have everything to do with what isn’t openly embraced but is, evidently, becoming increasingly popular: the meaninglessness of strict naturalism—and, at the limit, of eliminative materialism.
But my point isn’t to safeguard (or to attack) a thoroughgoing doctrinal theology against Zizek’s sublations. Neither do I endorse what Dimock rightly campaigns against, “science illiteracy,” nor support the suspicion, “Perhaps there is no such thing as a natural science…”.49 Moreover, I am not, here, defending, or even characterizing what Michael Warner dismissively calls, “secular rationality.”50 I’ve been arguing, rather, that engineering questions can only be answered in engineering terms. Conversely, I’ve tracked the infelicities attending the importation of the explanatory vocabulary of the natural sciences into human sciences to demonstrate why engineering explanations can’t work as explanations to normative questions. Thinking they can is one way of committing, not the Intentional, but the Naturalistic Fallacy in (literary) epistemology and in the philosophy of mind that subtends most attempts to make cognition a category for literary and cultural analysis. Focusing on what one commentator has rightfully characterized as a renewed interest in religion and theology among critical theorists, specifically, and in the humanities, in general, we have found other ways.51 But perhaps we should follow G.E. Moore, who, in 1903, first coined the Naturalistic Fallacy, and say that we have found, if not exactly a fallacy, then the same mistake playing out across several domains.52 For while Moore’s version of the Naturalistic Fallacy addressed issues in metaethics, his critique anticipates the strategies of the supernaturalistic turn—if, that is, we construe his argument as trying to show why our traffic with moral terms or, more broadly, with evaluative concepts, can’t be explained by going below conscious meanings and into the subpersonal processes that comprise the investigatory domain of the natural sciences; or by searching above the human standpoint.53
Of course, neither Moore nor more recent developers of the Naturalistic Fallacy’s scope double down on the human standpoint in the hope of stifling inquiry. They invoke the Naturalistic Fallacy to steady it, to bring inquiry back from whatever deep depth it’s submerged and see what we get.
Following Zizek et al as they subsume “the vocabulary we use to justify our knowledge claims” into “the vocabulary we use to describe the causal antecedents of knowledge,” hoping, thereby, to develop “a jargon that would apply equally to plants, nervous systems, and physicists”—adding “religious believers” to Rorty’s otherwise exhaustive list as they go—what we get, or have, I think, is the beginnings of a more comprehensive historicization and critique of reductive varieties of naturalism. And if uncovering shared premises between strictly naturalistic conceptions of affect with nonconceptual notions of religious experience now abroad means offering a different diagnosis of affect theory’s noncognitive predilections than those currently on offer, it also means tracking how the competing, critical intuitions regarding linguistic meaning and interpretation that generated “Against Theory” have relocated to the issue of perceptual experience. Or, to put this in slightly different terms: by shifting attention to the Intentional Fallacy’s logically prior relation, I’m not claiming that affective experience lacks theoretical significance. I’m insisting that the explanatory power of affect, religious or otherwise, can be defended only on the condition that affective experience is viewed as cognitive; and cognitive because, at some level of description, continuous with the Intentionality of experience, just as human experience, at least, is susceptible to the intentional and so normatively governed operations of human judgment. And it’s only by appreciating those continuities that we can develop a more positive account of subjective experience than some might find in, say, Walter Benn Michaels’ The Shape of the Signifier; lend credibility to Jane Thrailkill’s notion of “aesthetic entailments” (17); or develop a coherent version of what Dorothy Hale finds among, not the New Atheists, but in “The New Ethics” inspiring literary theory: an “epistemology of the body.”54 When persuaded of those continuities, the Affective Fallacy has no more force than the Intentional fallacy—the Pathetic Fallacy might go the same way—for you can see why neither affect or intention nor even creaturely life develops out of some allegedly primordial nonconceptual experience that can only be explained in strictly naturalistic, much less in (super)naturalistic terms.