Members of the radical left, French-centered writers known as The Invisible Committee published their third book with MIT Press’s semiotext(e) last month. Titled Now, the book makes its clearest articulation yet for the group, which is not to say it escapes all charges of romanticizing revolutionary movements or its own version of Eurocentric universalizing.
Nevertheless, they make some good points, and in this post, I want to put them into touch with conversations in political theology.
The Committee is avowedly communist, and many of its arguments have overlaps with what we have seen from Alain Badiou and Tiqqun – both of whom I wrote about last March. They ended their first book, The Coming Insurrection (2009 in English) crying, “All Power to the communes!” The publication of the book was also used in a French police investigation into and arrest of the Tarnac 9, claiming that the radical graduate students authored the book as a conspiracy to commit terrorism.
The translation and publication of The Coming Insurrection by the small academic press in the U.S. prompted Fox News’s Glenn Beck to censure it for advocating violence and then host a discussion of the book with rightwing authors in the context of the financial crisis in Greece. The New York Times published an article on how Beck’s coverage of the books actually increased its sales, briefly reaching number one on Amazon’s best seller’s list.
On the left, philosophers such as Simon Critchley, Giorgio Agamben, and Ward Blanton have addressed The Invisible Committee. The Guardian also published pieces criticizing the French police for conflating political dissent and terrorism. Pointing to Agamben, Blanton has characterized both Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee as Pauline and notes a tension between faith versus law. Blanton believes the Tarnac affair possibly discloses a contemporary Pauline moment.
In the recent book, however, The Invisible Committee attempts to distance itself from a mere triumphalist version of Christianity. They characterize communism not as a finality but as “transition entirely.” Rather than hierarchical Leninist “organization,” they embrace affective tendencies that critique the “apparent unity of the Self” (155). They go on to claim:
The myth of ‘organization’ owes everything to the depictions of the hierarchy of natural faculties that were handed down to us by ancient psychology and Christian Theology. We are no longer nihilistic enough to think that inside us there is something like a stable psychic organ – a will, let’s say – that directs our other faculties.
Free will is characterized as a “neat invention of the theologians,” serving both a political end to deliver the subject over to the Last Judgment and a theological end to create a wholly transcendent God, making “ethical realities illegible” (156). An “organ” was created aligning the fiction of the will with the fiction of a transcendent God:
By believing in such an organ for such a long time, by stimulating that imaginary muscle over and over again, one ends up in a fatal aboulia that seems nowadays to be afflicting the late offspring of the Christian Empire that we happen to be. In opposition to that, we propose paying careful attention to situations and to the forces that inhabit and traverse beings, in conjunction with an art of decisive assemblages.” (156-157)
Capitalism is another placeholder for “organizational hierarchy,” according to the Committee. In a time where the old vertical has become the new horizontal, where the transcendent has perhaps become the Immanent Frame, The Invisible Committee claims our only recourse to a “true” vertical is not in organizing the autonomy of others (as in mass protests) but in fidelity to the “intelligence of the situation” (158).
They claim that “a strategic verticality of this kind can only emerge from a constant, generous discussion, undertaken in good faith. In this epoch, the means of communication are the forms of good faith.”
There is at once something more sober than the collective calls in The Coming Insurrection and To Our Friends in these concluding words from Now; and at the same time, as the kairotic impulse of their title evidences, something that remains deeply Pauline, and even deeply Pentecostal in the sense of the Acts of the Apostles.
For in their claims that “the means of communication” are not ours and faulty, but nevertheless the means by which we might adhere to the situation, are they not awaiting the Holy Ghost’s infusion allowing them to speak in different tongues?
And so, perhaps in this new book, despite distancing themselves from a certain punitive tradition put in place by the early Church Fathers, The Invisible Committee’s neo-fundamentalism is in line with Ward Blanton’s characterization of their earlier work as Pauline. Certainly, some of this would overlap with what Blanton and others have written in their own Insurrectionist Manifesto.
But despite eloquent quips, and even my own political leanings, I cannot but be a bit suspicious of a lurking Euro-Christian triumphalism in this hermeneutic return to Saint Peter’s speech. At first I hear my friend and teacher Sarah Pessin perpetually asking, “What about the Jew?” And, of course, the fundamentalist impulse is an attempt to reach back to a time when there was much less distinction between Christian and Jew. And Daniel Boyarin’s work on the partition of Judaism and Christianity, among others, challenges any simple attempt to get back to fundamental Christianity.
The rather masked reliance on the Pentecostal moment in Now seems risks what Olivier Roy has termed Holy Ignorance, or as his subtitle suggests, “when religion and culture part ways.” And this is what seems unclear about any militant fidelity to the event, the situation, the insurrection, which Raschke points to as morphologically shared with resurrection. The impulse to passively wait for the situation or the event is at odds with The Invisible Committee’s characterization of communism as transition itself; that is, unless the waiting is not passive but passionate.
Here, the passion of such communist fidelity reveals its enculturation within Euro-Christianity. In their critique of the punitive tradition of Christian subjectivation, The Invisible Committee echoes Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity with their characterization of the “organ” that copulates between will and transcendent God. In their commitment to communism, it seems to me they do not go far enough into Marx’s famous critique of Feuerbach.
In his fifth thesis, Marx writes, “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.” Then in the ninth: “The highest point attained by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals in society.”
As we saw above, The Invisible Committee embraces an affective critique of mobilizing autonomous individuals and overcoming the “aboulia” established by the mythical organ or “muscle” of the will. One can hear their defensive claim against my assertion that they have not heeded Marx’s critique of Feuerbach: “But, Roger, the passionate communism we aspire to is sensuous practical activity and therefore in Marx’s sense exactly what he deems necessary for the revolution!”
But let me return to Marx’s most famous eleventh thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” And so, my question is: Can a mere hermeneutic return to one’s contemporary perception of the Pentecost call down the baptism of the Holy Ghost, or is such a move – in Feuerbach’s sense and Marx’s critique – a mere internalization and projection of a dialectic?
While I think The Invisible Committee remain caught in a hermeneutic circle that reinforces Euro-Christian culture more than changing it (or the world), this does not mean I wholeheartedly reject their call for attention or presence of mind. I would say, however, that there is an unexamined universalizing impulse in situationism and fidelity to the event, one that remains Christian and not secular.
In claiming this I am not adhering to some ongoing presence of theological impulses within secular activities (laws specifically) in Carl Schmitt’s sense. I am, rather, reading Euro-Christianity as a social movement, a movement that does not go away despite overt disavowals, claims to non-belief, or endless Protestant schisms.
The Invisible Committee sees hope in vigilance, albeit a strange vigilance without a will. We have seen historically how the idea of Providential union between the will of humans and the will of God perpetuates the worst forms of violence. It is difficult to see how an affective impulse that tries to avoid two thousand years of subjectivation accomplishes this task, which again, is not to say it is an unworthy task. Even Deleueze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis, present in underwriting Now, holds out a kind of hope against advanced capitalism.
Donavan O. Schaeffer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power has recently attempted to introduce affect theory to religious studies, arguing that “affect theory enables new ways of thinking postsecularism by moving past the imperative to think religion as a set of linguistic propositions that need straightening out. Secularization is a hypothesis of which animal religion has no need” (216).
More compelling work has been done by anthropologists such as Elizabeth Povinelli and her indigenous collaborator, which she calls “Geontologies.” These are critiques that move beyond notions of nature and culture by focusing on the intersections of biography and geography in the context of late liberalism.
Povinelli argues that immanent ontologies existing in the Anthropocene make endurance an ethical and political concern. In this, I see a heightened ethical concern for life planet-wide, but as she argues, not life that is a mere biological reproduction or a carbon-based imaginary.
Like The Invisible Committee, Povinelli frames her work within the concept of the event, noting that the idea of the Anthropocene is an event. I do not present her work as opposing, but richer than what The Invisible Committee offers, and one of my main reasons for doing so is because she collaborates with non-Christians. Yet she also notes the critical turn toward ascesis, which of course also invokes Foucault and the history of Christian asceticism. She does not discount a necessary vigilance.
Povinelli contrasts an Anthropocene as a social imaginary in which for one thing to emerge another must be extinguished from a liberal imaginary in which ever emerging forms of pluralism proceed as if they had infinite space to do so. She asks: how do you endure if you are the monster in this context? Rather than a binary of bios and bare life, in the Anthropocene imaginary, Geos intrudes. This is a non-biological and certainly non-anthropocentric notion of life.
Povinelli’s work, to me, more adequately addresses Marx’s call for sensuous practical activity as opposed to the hermeneutic return to the Pentecost recounted in Acts. It is just one of many ways of claiming that despite The Invisible Committee’s call for vigilance, such remains encultured within a Euro-Christian biopolitical frame more reliant on liberalism than it wants to admit.
Povinelli’s work, in contrast, asks that we think in terms of the social imaginary of the Anthropocene, and this indeed might be part of the transitional space that characterizes contemporary rehabilitations of the notion of communism. Both Povinelli and The Invisible Committee offer intriguing paths for thinking of political theology beyond liberal notions of modernist subjectivity, and with that heighten the demand for rethinking ethics without earthly sovereignty.
Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado. His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles. In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn. He is also a performing musician and a composer.