There exists a tendency for separation. Human thought is categorical. It likes to place things in categories in order to understand them. This is a necessary process. It is also misleading. The separation that exists in relation to the categories doesn’t mirror discrete separations in the world. This isn’t to say that there are no separations (“All is One”) but to suggest that separations are nebulous, that they are fuzzy or vague because they are indefinite. Reality is not One, but it is not-Two either.
It is typical to make strong separations between religion and politics. These are two big name categories that organise our ideas about different sets of practices. We sometimes talk about religion and politics together in the sense of Christian evangelicals and their influence on neo-cons. We sometimes talk about their relation as being ontogenic, one emerging out of the other, as when radical political movements are seen as outgrowths of millenarian and messianic movements. We sometimes talk about the religiosity of politics when we want to talk about people’s moral psychology and belief systems. We often want to counter-pose them, reducing one to an inferior status in order to demonstrate the other’s superiority (the logic of resentment). Thus people will call their political opponents fundamentalists or fanatics. They will decry an opposing ideology or political strategy as theological, a supposedly devastating accusation that stands in for any real argument. People will talk about political engagement and mystical disengagement. They will talk about religion as an occulted mode of political power, mind control of the masses under an aesthetic of disappearance. They will talk about all kinds of contingent conjunctions and temporary constellations of politics and religion as if they were eternal and necessary features. Therefore fascism is a religio-political movement and communism an atheistic one. The banalities pile up and it isn’t my intention to repeat them. To list them all would put everyone to sleep. Rather I intend to make an axiomatic assumption and stick to it.
Religion and politics are not two.
The non-duality of religion and politics means that we must always treat religion as political and that we must always treat religion as political. This itself may strike you as banal. The point of such an axiom isn’t to be edgy or to freak you the fuck out. It doesn’t want to be original. It just very quietly states that this conceptual duality isn’t an oppositional binary that can be overcome or obliterated, cannot be decided upon, but must continually be realised in our actual experience of both and either. This is to say that the accusation of the political being a kind of religion must be affirmed. It means the reverse is true too, that the religious is always a kind of politics. The two cannot be prised apart and kept separate from one another. Therefore the historical characterisation of fascism as religio-political must be emphatically asserted of communism, liberalism, individualism as well. Yes, communism is a religious movement just like John Gray has said it is. But, so is any and every political ideology or movement that would criticise it, including Gray’s own mystico-poetical conservatism. This is the assertion of the impossibility of atheism in relation to the political. This is to neutralise in advance any criticism that would take the form x is a theological position. All political statements are theological enunciations.
The non-duality of the asserts that we must consider all politics as religio-political. In making this our axiom we should be careful to stress the presence of the Foucaultian hyphen in our terminology. Non-duality can be understood to exhibit a similar conceptual structure in logical space that power-knowledge does in Foucault’s work. The crucial operation of the hyphen is to draw power and knowledge into their inseparable nexus without ever allowing them to collapse into one another. In Foucault power and knowledge do not become identical but they become nonetheless inseparable and mutually conditioning and contaminating. They never become One but they are not Two either.
How should we understand religion in our axiom? The answer to this lies in the work of Georges Bataille, who will be a guiding influence on the development of “my project.” Bataille will tell us that religion is something to do with intimacy:
Religion is this long effort and this anguished quest: It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the poverty of things, and of restoring the divine order. The animal or plant that man uses (as if they only had value for him and none for themselves) is restored to the truth of the intimate world; he receives a sacred communication form it, which restores him in turn to interior freedom//Bataille, 67.
The religious is the name for an “effort,” an “anguished quest,” to restore a lost intimacy with the world of animals and plants, the living world of animate sentient beings as opposed to the inert and dead world of insentient things. We should understand the intimate world in as “antithetical” to the real world in the same way that madness is opposed to reason and drunkenness to lucidity. Of course we could argue that madness happens to reason and cannot be understood outside of their couplet, the same holding for drunkness. We can therefore query the absoluteness of the distinction between the intimate world and the real world in conceptual terms. This same cannot be said for the experiential or phenomenologico-existential dimension that these “worlds” point to. The real world is the one that we live in. This is always what we mean by the real world. It is a way of drawing visionaries out of their reveries, condemning the imaginative child and the Utopian militant alike, shackling the imagination to the coordinates of the present circumstances, a straitjacket on the mind. All acts of political enunciation are open to the charge of being unworkable in the real world. This isn’t only true for revolutionary and reactionary politics but also for those technocratic or managerial discourses that seek to maintain the status quo. In the age of climactic and technical consequences there is nothing less realistic than the status quo. So it is that the dreamer is unrealistic, and the sober rationalist is unrealistic. When everyone is unrealistic, when everyone can point to the real world, we know we are undergoing processes of fragmentation of any commonality. There are now as many real worlds as there were once political fantasies. When there are that many real worlds there is no longer a real world at all. Nonetheless the real world continues to operate. It is the world that all our worlds share. It is the world of labour. It is the everyday world of work that each one of us is sunk down in. In Buddhism language, it is samsara.
From the start, the introduction of labor into the world replaced intimacy, the depth of desire and its free outbreaks, with rational progression, where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent result of operations//Bataille, 67.
The realm of work replaces the intimacy that we previously enjoyed. The processes of rationalisation, commodification and modernisation integral to the development and ongoing operation of the work oriented society continually displaces intimacy whilst simultaneously attempting to substitute for it. The individualist anarchist Federico Campagna issues a complaint against London from the perspective of his “radical atheism.” His complaint is pertinent to us because in it he writes of his disappointment with discovering a new religiosity in the metropolis that cradled so many atheistic minds and movements. Having escaped the Vatican City and Pope of his native Italy, Campagna looked forward to living in a secular society with ‘Charles Darwin’s face on banknotes.’
Yet I realised quickly that something wasn’t right. Somehow, the smell of religion still lingered in the air, as sickening as always. I found it on the trains coming back home from the office, filled with exhausted workers. I smelt it on the benches on a Monday afternoon, covered with the beer cans of the unemployed. Most of all, I felt it surrounding me when I walked into the office every morning, finding my colleagues already there, frantically typing on their keyboards as if fiddling with digital rosaries. I had walked in perfectly on time, why was everybody there already? Why did they look so satisfied when they greeted me from their desks? They were working hard, harder than they were expected to. And in the evening, when the darkness of Northern Europe enveloped the office blocks and young professionals’ houses, they were still at their desks, typing as fast as greyhounds race. Looking at me packing up, as if I had been a weak opponent abandoning the match before time. Why did they keep working late, when no pay or praise was ever to be awarded to them by anybody? What did they find in their silent, tragic sacrifice?
Religion had never left. I had never managed to escape it. Its name had changed, but its believers remained the same. They were just a little more honest, a little more self-sacrificing than, the old Catholics back at home. Possibly, a little more fanatical.
Religion had never left. Religion has never left. We are all familiar with the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic. The criticism should go further. It is not just work, not just the grim image of office workers in their cubicles like monks in their cells, that takes shape in Bataille’s allusion to the transition from the intimate to the real world. The real world is the world of mature adult activity in the post-enlightenment world. It is the world of the self-possessed individual in and after modernity as such. It is the world of goal-oriented, purposeful action driven by an instrumental rationality towards its self-selected ends. If I may extend myself a little, it is the world of obedience and voluntary servitude described by La Boétie. In his Theory of Religion Bataille would make it clear that the lost world of intimacy is one of total ‘continuity’ that he describes (using a Zen turn of phrase) as being like water in water. He discusses this condition as an animality that humanity will come to exile itself from in the invention of the tool and thus the entire progressive development of rational society. The animal’s world is one of ‘immanence and immediacy’ wherein there is no experience of fundamental separation between among beings. In a stunning and visceral image Bataille will insist on the immanence of the Eater and the Eaten. In this image there is neither master nor slave, neither predator nor prey, neither killer nor victim, there is only the flesh of the world swallowing the flesh of the world, one wave in the great ocean enfolding another, gathering it into itself; we see the non-dual in this figure of immanence where there is a Two – the Eater and the Eaten are separate animals undergoing very definitely distinct experiences – that is not Two by virtue of their ontological consistency with one another.
Separation appears in the invention of the tool that are objects of experience developed and encountered ‘with an end in view//27.’ The result is separation because the tool introduces ‘interruptions in the indistinct continuity’ of primordial immanence by virtue of its existing as a means between the subject of formative activity and the object that it labours. The tool conjures work and in doing so allows for the cognitive separation of the one who works from the thing worked upon. Now there is a polarity to experience that renders the continuous discontinuous and allows the worker to stand above the object with the tools standing as ‘middle terms’ that mediate the former’s transcendence of the latter. It is interesting to note that the invention of tools is simultaneously the invention of media. In inventing media a gap is created in the ontological continuity, a cut is made into the fabric of the real, and man stands apart from animals, plants and inert matter. In this we can see that the emergence of the tool is also the focal point of the emergence of industrial civilisation and instrumental rationality. The religion of work displaces the religious or sacred existence of intimacy.
For Bataille the religious is fundamentally opposed to the real world of the industrious and the purposeful – the idealism of the subject – and the double movement of this displacement is crucial to understanding the axiom that makes an ambivalent equivalence between religion and politics.
To say that politics is religious and that religion is politics is to assert that each is fundamentally trying to attain to some lost intimacy. The political is no less a mode of attempting to come back to the world of intimacy. I cannot caution enough that this world of intimacy has nothing to do with any historicity. It is not like some pre-Lapsarian state that we can return too. Rather, it exists in fundamental continuity with the present. If there is a fundamental distinction to be introduced between mysticism and religion in relation to the political it could be that the former knows that intimacy exists in the present, whereas the latter mistakes it for something found only in the past. Mysticism is therefore adaptive to conditions of dissolution and deregulation, preferring the mutative to the settled, and is entirely at home in a post-traditional aesthetic experimentalism that organised religions abhor.
Despite the claims to secularisation our society remains thoroughly religious. Insofar as the yearning for intimacy continuous to operate in our hearts there is no way to keep ourselves inoculated against the religious and its mythopoetic forms and aesthetics. The criticism of mysticism as an ascetic turning away from the world begins to look more like the enactment of a kind of exit from politics as commonly understood. One question that emerges from all this is whether it is possible to imagine a consciously religio-political formation that is adequate to the demands of the present. This is an open question and one that I intend to pursue as part of “my project.” It also demands the analysis of society with the tools that would analyse religious movements. This too is part of “my project” on the website.
Thus part of this project is to read the phenomena it lands upon as religious phenomena. This is to say as political phenomena. This is to say as phenomena. In the anxiomatic of the non-dual inseparability of politics and religion we assert the continued intimacy in the non-intimate and the ambivalent and ambiguous exchangeability and reversibillty of the conceptual demarcations. In so doing we posit and/or demand a breakdown that renders inoperable without obliterating the very cognitive process that generates this demarcation. Entering into a zone of indistinction that is a making indistinct we can suggest the emptiness of the very names of the political and the religious. The indecision that suspends the cleavage of the not Two into Two reveals their fundamental terminological redundancy. In simple terms, whenever we talk about politics or the political we are also talking about religion and the religious, and visa versa. This leaves us the possibility and the temptation to ask the question that Foucault once asked in relation to the Iranian revolution. Where Foucault talked about the place of habitation as Iran, we can generalise the sense of the question to the real world:
What meaning, for the men who inhabit it to seek at the price even of their life this thing whose very possibility we—we others—have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crises of Christianity: a political spirituality.
In seeking a political spirituality we will be forced to speak in terms that continue to separate politics and religion. This is the failure that remains immanent to language. This failure of language is what assures that we never finish speaking. The intimacy of the Real can never be reduced to the descriptive manipulations of the language of the real world. What is politics in its secular expression but whatever pertains to the question of our collective coping? Isn’t that already a religious question or a question posed by religion? And today, in these catastrophic conditions wherein the Real threatens to wreck its revenge, what is mysticism but a means to rediscover the Real? The Real is an inexhaustible superabundance. Isn’t a mystical political spirituality therefore the only politics capable of meeting the Real? As the accelerators of instability and the multipliers of complexity become ever more entangled, isn’t a political spirituality precisely what is required? A political spirituality, what is this? Is it a politics or a spirituality? It doesn’t recognise the question.
From now on, if you call our politics theological we will only bow deeply and congratulate you on being a step closer to seeing through your false atheism. The examination of religion and mysticism is political and engaging in politics is an expression of mystical and/or religious path. It is time to have done with the poverty of thought that cannot understand that the Bodhisattva can’t and won’t ever cut the red thread. It is the Bodhisattva who can’t turn her back to the world. The criticism of mysticism as escapism has never heard the Bodhisattva’s wisdom that there is no escape.
I don’t have a plan for this blog. I haven’t got any intention to write a lot of posts on the question of politics. I don’t plan to follow up on this political spirituality. If I do I do, if I don’t I don’t. If there is any orienting problem it isn’t mysticism, religion or politics. It is just coping. The opening post of this blog sets the closest thing I have to an intention here: I am for whatever gets you through the night. In the end this is what I am interested in. My interest in religion and mysticism comes from my suspicion that these modes of coping can exceed the limits of coping. Ultimately I am only interested in how to get through the night, alone and together.
We are for exit
in all its forms.
We take refuge
In the Red Thread.
We take refuge
in the intimacy
of what there is
W O R K S C I T E D
b a t a i l l e , t h e o r y o f r e l i g i o n , o n l i n e
b a t a i l l e , ” e x p e n d i t u r e a n d s a c r a f i c e ” i n : e s s e n t i a l w r i t i n g s ( R i c h a r d s o n , e d )
c a m p a g n a , t h e l a s t n i g h t : a n t i – w o r k , a t h e i s m, a d v e n t u r e , o n l i n e
f o u c a u l t , ” w h a t a r e t h e i r a n i a n s d r e a m i n g a b o u t ? ” o n l i n e