Monday, 2 July 2012

Post-Absolute Reflections

Some disjointed thoughts on the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion Conference, June 29th–July 1st, titled Thinking the Absolute: Speculation, Philosophy and the End of Religion.  This was, as the name suggests, centered on the recent speculative turn in philosophy and anything that might relate to ‘Thinking the Absolute’.  In practice this meant that there was a main course of Meillassoux and Hegel, mixed through with some good servings of Malabou, Laruelle and Schelling and a rich spicing of such diverse elements as Lucretius, Luhmann, mysticism and Black Metal.  Overall, there were thirty or so papers, four plenary sessions (with Levi Bryant, Ray Brassier, Francois Laruelle and Scott Wilson) and a pretty nice vibe to the event.  Congrats to Steven Shakespeare, Patrice Haynes, Katherine Moody and everyone else who helped organize, run and make the conference such a great experience.  In what follows I won’t try and give a comprehensive review of the conference, just a few notes that I jotted down on the train back from the event.

I’m Getting Old
I had a strong sense of getting old at this conference.  Twelve years earlier I had attended a Continental Philosophy of Religion conference at Lancaster (I think), organized by Philip Goodchild.  I was then at the end of the funded part of my PhD, prior to it dragging on for another couple of years part-time, self-funded, and it was a strange sensation to see my younger self well-represented at this conference.  Back then I was one of those asking the incisive (or not) questions at the panels and sessions, fired up by my reading and immersion in doctoral research; twelve years on, though, and the mental cogs were turning rather more slowly. 

It was a very great pleasure to see so many excellent independent scholars at the conference.  With the Humanities and Higher Education generally under assault in the UK (and, increasingly, internationally too), I have a real hope that good scholarly work can be preserved and flourish outside the academy.  Fortunately, the quality of thought produced by the likes of Paul Ennis, Richard Fitch, Michael O’Rourke and others gives me a sense of considerable optimism.  And hope and optimism aren’t words that I use very often these days (except in order to give them a good kicking). I wonder how many of those currently in academic positions at universities could, or else would, continue to deliver the scholarly goods in very different economic circumstances.

There were many great papers and panels, but some personal favourites were: Jessie Hock’s piece on Lucretius, Anthony Paul Smith’s paper on Taqiyya, Robert Jackson’s on Undecidability and Francis Halsall’s on an occult reading of Luhmann.

I also met some really nice people and enjoyed some excellent conversations.  It was great to finally cross paths with Levi Bryant, who has been very generous in the past, and particularly good fun to put him in the uncomfortable position of talking about his work in my paper.

Typically, that I hadn’t read X, Y and Z.  This isn’t anything new, just the usual academic regret: ‘Why didn’t I read Hegel when I was an undergraduate?’  ‘Why didn’t I read Schelling last summer?’ ‘I must get around to reading …”  A similar regret would be that I’m not multi-lingual.  At this point fantasies of one’s consciousness going back in time enter the picture, paying more attention in French and German lessons at school, and making a whole series of different life decisions based on what one knows now.

I was a little worn down by the end of the conference by the pervasive Judaeo-Christian theological narrative.  Yes, I know the reasons for this.  If one is talking about Hegel, Meillassoux, Schelling, Spinoza etc. it is difficult, per impossible, to avoid Judaeo-Christian concepts and theology. Yes, I was also expecting it. But, nonetheless, all the talk of the Messianic, the Incarnation and ‘good old God’ still dragged me down a little by the end.  The last part of the title of the conference was ‘the end of religion’ and I did leave with the feeling that, while not the end of Christianity, certainly much else of the religious was under effective erasure.

The Black Mass for Quentin Meillassoux
The final plenary session of the conference was by Scott Wilson with Edia Connole (MOUTH), entitled The Number and the Beast: A Black Mass for Quentin Meillassoux.  This was an engaging multi-media presentation and culinary event that drew together a number of themes from the conference, most notably Meillassoux’s hyper-chaos and The Number and the Siren, and combined these with such other elements as a meditation on mouths and orality, capitalism, the economic crisis, the philosophies of Reza Negarestani and Nick Land, Black Swans, Black Metal and Black Sabbath, and concluding with the culinary climax of the stylized Black Mass for Quentin Meillassoux.  It would be a little difficult to try and summarize this, aside from listing the aforementioned materials, especially as my participation only went so far.  But why only so far?  This was the question posed by Charlie Gere to those of the audience who didn’t go forwards and accept the food and mass.  It was also the main impetus for putting pen to paper on the train, in order to try and lay down my thoughts about the conference. 

Why didn’t I go forwards?  There are several reasons that I can articulate (obviously there may be others, and I may ultimately be misleading myself here, but we can skip the psychoanalysis and other hermeneutics of suspicion).  First, there was a certain boredom with such rituals.  I’m no stranger to participation in pagan, pseudo and real occult, and many other religious rites and performances, and, to go with the culinary metaphor, I’m a little overstuffed with such activities.  To risk an obvious conceit, some of what was novel for many in the room, elicited the ‘yawn’ of the talk for myself. The food, admittedly, looked glorious; but I would not want to separate it from the rite/performance as a whole. Second, I seem to be getting rather anarchic in my aforementioned old age;  rather awkwardly, if the social onus is on participation, I will increasingly make an effort not to do so these days. Thirdly, there was a malformed theological reason shuffling around in my mind too. As mentioned above, the Judaeo-Christian focus was getting me down a little by this point in the proceedings and I decided that I was unwilling to actively engage with a performance that was parasitic on those traditions.  While I’ve practiced more than my fair share of epoche in ethnographic work and participant observation in the past, at that particular point in time it meant more not to make that effort.  I tend to avoid Christian ceremony, except in the context of teaching Religious Studies, so the ritual mass for God-Meillassoux-Satan was one that I didn’t want to engage with.  Like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, just one more bit(e), particularly in wafer thin form, might have caused me to explode. 

But, hey, I may be hungry for some in the future.


Anonymous said...

you list a few people there as independent scholars, but out of the 3 my google-fu says 2 are actually employed in academia. So I'm a little confused there. I only ask because I'm on the look out for independent scholars who are doing it and doing it well. I'm trying to pursue this myself, but have no one to really get tips from or any support of any kind, so I'm interested in making case studies of those who do it successfully in an attempt to learn something from them. Especially those in similar/related fields to mine.

Paul Reid-Bowen said...

Of the three independent scholars I mention, I was confident at the time that their employment within academia was either non-existent or marginal (i.e. part-time hours at best); moreover, their means of income/living were certainly not tied to academia/university work. I would simply recommend contacting them, as I am fairly certain they would be happy to say something about the life of the para-academic or independent scholar.