Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Author: James Walters
“In the end, the only voyage is the one made in relation to the Other, be it an individual or a culture.” (Baudrillard, 2008, p.78)
Understanding the nature of religion and its significance in both contemporary intellectual life and wider society is beyond the scope of any one discipline. Theology can be inclined toward an idealist and internal reading of faith traditions, often blind to the external forces that shape it. Religious studies (whether sociological, anthropological or psychological) can be too reductionist, attempting to contain the phenomena of spirituality and religious belonging within limited systems of thought and interpretation. Philosophy can find itself asking questions with which the vast majority of religious people are themselves rarely concerned. And many other disciplines (international relations, economics, history) are playing catchup, having underestimated the significance of religion for many decades, frequently assuming it would soon be consigned to irrelevance.
But today these questions about the nature and role of religion are urgent. Religion presents itself as a major force in many areas of politics and society from the fusion of religious ideas with populist political ideologies (e.g. Christian Zionism in American Evangelicalism, Salafi Jihadist Islamism in groups such as Islamic State and Hindu Nationalism in India) to the significant challenges of interreligious cohesion in communities reshaped by mass migration. Theological considerations have also been prominent in strands of philosophy for some time (notably Badiou, Derrida and, more recently, Meillassoux) as tools to break through certain kinds of epistemological impasses. None of this need constitute, as Watkin argues in his interview, anything as simplistic as a straightforward turn from the secular to the religious. But today we are compelled to address the complex questions of what constitutes a religious moment, a religious impulse, a religious movement or a religious identity, and perhaps to recognise that our failure to do so has, hitherto, impaired our understanding of so much.
Why draw Jean Baudrillard into all this? For one thing, he is certainly not constrained within the tram tracks of conventional disciplinary thinking and so proves an effective dialogue partner for many different approaches. This quality of “standing outside” (not just academic disciplines but, ultimately, academia altogether), combined with his famous opacity, had led many to predict that his intellectual influence would soon fade after his death in 2007. Yet, as Harman notes in his interview, the opposite has been the case. The need to understand “fake news”, automation, the manipulation of elections via social media, and so much else, is casting his work more and more in a prophetic light. And his willingness to embrace the non-rational, symbolic, poetic, even mystical dimensions of the way we live now opens up multiple avenues for fruitfully addressing these religious and theological concerns. There is an urgent need for fresh thinking on the role of religion and spirituality in the public sphere, the meaning of secularism and atheism, the role that ritual plays in our lives and the means by which we address questions of ultimate meaning. The contributions to this special edition confirm what many who have journeyed intellectually with Baudrillard know: that his writings can be an exceptionally rich resource for this task.
Broadly speaking, the essays in this volume fall within one of two approaches. A religious or theological perspective can be adopted to shed light on Baudrillard’s insights and seek ways of developing or critiquing them. Alternatively, the Baudrillardian socio-cultural analysis can help us interpret the religious and spiritual phenomena of late modernity. It is noticeable that the four contributions within the first category seek to draw Baudrillard into dialogue with some form of “religious other”. Baudrillard the “outsider” (or to use Baldwin’s term “heretic”) finds synergies with some “theological other” that unsettles conventional thinking. In two cases this is an “Eastern” religious other. Iliopoulos brings insights from the Eastern tradition of the Christian Church, recognising that Baudrillard (along with most Western intellectuals) usually dialogued with Christianity in its Latin or Reformed varieties. In fact, Iliopoulos sees Baudrillard as espousing many archetypal themes of Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly (as I have also sought to argue (Walters, 2012)) within the apophatic mystical tradition. For Iliopoulos, Baudrillard’s claim that “the real is not something we must consent to” is a spiritual one reminiscent of the desert fathers. He further suggests that two of Baudrillard’s criticisms of Christianity are also those that Orthodoxy would level at the Western Church. The first is the disempowering account of atonement theory (Christ’s payment of an impossible gift) that Baudrillard sets out in Impossible Exchange. Iliopoulos sees the Orthodox understanding of Jesus’s death and resurrection as involving more reciprocity and participation. The second is the Western tradition’s dualism of soul over body. Here Iliopoulos sees Orthodoxy as more aligned to Baudrillard’s theme of metamorphosis in its belief in the deification of the human. The socio-political implications of this are found in the role that sin and guilt have played in Western logics of political economy, notably Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. King is not convinced that such Christian mystical approaches respond adequately to the scale of Baudrillard’s deconstruction. So for him, the religious other is found even further east in Zen Buddhism. The end of linear history presupposed in Baudrillard’s hyperreality has undermined the possibility of any belief system built on a narrative of salvation history and so we are left only with “a faith of the quotidian”, the kind of spiritual practice of mindful attention found in Eastern religions and exhibited in Baudrillard’s photography.
Two further essays locate the religious other of their dialogue with Baudrillard within the Bible itself. Semiotic readings of scripture have grown in popularity through the influence of literary theory, sometimes reawakening an interest in premodern biblical hermeneutics. Grimshaw in particular finds Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra a useful tool in navigating the subversions of reality evident in the complex theology of St Paul. Many of the texts Grimshaw selects mirror Iliopoulos’s theme of the death of the “real” self and the birth of the Christian into a new hyperreality in which their subjective agency is fused with the object of their faith, Jesus Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith…” (Galatians 2.20). It is unlikely that Baudrillard himself would have embraced this kind of appropriation of his terminology, but his radicalism helps to de-domesticate Paul’s own revolutionary language within the Christian imagination. Sutermeister selects the more obvious “religious other” in the biblical canon, the Book of Revelation, a text heavy with symbolic imagery, apocalyptic urgency and an underlying discourse of power. It is these themes of empire and control that he most fruitfully explores in relation to Baudrillard’s account of the integral reality of simulation. This is so interesting, in part because the Book of Revelation is itself written in the context of a totalising empire that is inflicting such violence and suffering on the early Church, but also because it raises further questions of Christianity’s own collusion in totality and empire, not just in its institutional structures but in its eschatologically-driven theology: “Is the Kingdom of God an integral reality?”, asks Sutermeister. “Is it possible to avoid complicity with evil in how this kingdom is being ushered into the world and brought to fulfilment?” It is only, perhaps, the image of the slain lamb at the centre of the vision in the Fifth Chapter of Revelation that provides the singularity that shatters the totality.
The four remaining essays take the second approach of exploring Baudrillard’s contribution to our understanding of religious and spiritual concerns in the digital/virtual era. This focuses on the dynamically evolving forms of hyperreal religiosity which Adam Possamai has made the focus of his work in recent years. His interview discusses the rapid evolution of this field from the New Age movements of the 1990s to the quasi-gnostic cults of today’s online hyperreality. But two essays apply the theory of hyperreal religion in less obvious contexts. Trubody unpacks the hyperreality that constitutes the opposing claims of Scientism and religious fundamentalism, illustrating the classic Baudrillardian theme of reversibility. The hubristic claims of the likes of Richard Dawkins about the scientific method’s limitless capacity to explain turns science into a simulation of the Real along the lines first proposed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Conversely, for the religious fundamentalist (Trubody focuses on the Christian variety), “in wanting to simulate the scientism that says how reality really is, [they] degrade everything that is valuable about religion.” He assumes the priority of the ethical in religion and takes as read that true religion makes no attempt to describe reality in such a way as might conflict with science. This perhaps leaves too neat a binary that even many mainstream religions do not conform to, but he illustrates well the inherent dangers of believers thinking as scientists and scientists thinking as religious believers.
Schwarzenbacher and Kottas present a fascinating exploration of the colonialist creation of Voodoo religion. They argue that Voodoo in popular imagination is not a true representation of Haitian Vodou religion at all, but a hyperreal religion brought into being through the White gaze of the Hollywood cinemagoer. This is an important contribution to understanding the almost diabolical connotations attached to Haiti in the North American imagination, stemming back to its disruption of colonial order in the slave revolt of 1791 and reflected in President Trump’s reference to Haiti as one of a number of “shithole countries” in 2018. Perhaps sitting less well with their reading of Haitian religion is the devout Roman Catholicism of the black revolt leader himself, Toussaint L’Ouverture, who had obviously embraced the colonialists’ religion and discouraged Vodou when ruler of Saint-Domingue. But that certainly does not rule out the association of Vodou ritual with the origins of the revolt that they imply, nor less still the colonialists’ reasons for distorting and demonising the religion.
The more convention fields of enquiry for hyperreal religion are the forms of lived religiosity that have been shaped or created by the technological and communications revolution of the last thirty years: digital religion. This is the subject of Baldwin’s sophisticated survey, which begins by noting the ways in which technology has always shaped religion through history. He cites the examples of the big codex that enabled the compilation of the biblical canon and the printing press that disseminated the revolutionary ideas of the sixteenth century reformers. But perhaps most interestingly he reflects an underexamined way in which, conversely, religion has shaped technology, specifically the influence of Tim Berners-Lee’s Unitarian beliefs on his creation of the internet. The heart of Baldwin’s essay is an impassioned plea for heresy. He draws on Sloterdijk’s work to rightly show how dissent and challenge are the lifeblood of healthy religious life. The disruption of religious orthodoxy enables its renewal. What else was Jesus doing when he overturned the tables of the money changers who made possible the sacrificial rights of the temple cult? But Unitarianism permits for no heresy, not through oppressive imposition of orthodoxy but through the legitimising of every possible dissent. So too the internet connects all things and neutralises all things within what Baudrillard calls digitality’s “logic of equivalence”. He develops this further with an exploration of Dataism, the new religion that Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari sees as emanating from the tech companies of Silicon Valley. It fully realises Baudrillard’s post-human dystopia as human beings become mere instruments of the deified Internet-Of-All-Things. Baldwin cites one of Baudrillard’s last essays to stress the mendacity of this largely unwitting conformity: “from the perspective of global power (as fundamentalist in its beliefs as any religious orthodoxy), any mood of difference and singularity is heresy” (Baudrillard, 2002).
Lending some theoretical framework to these discussions, Tremlett situates Baudrillard within the different strands of thought in the sociology of religion. He makes some important observations about the dominance of Weberian ideas in this field and in understandings of the secularisation thesis. For Weber, decline in religion was linked to the advance of rationality and the disenchantment it heralds. But Tremlett places Baudrillard within a more Durkheimian tradition in which religion is conceived in far more social terms. Thus, the question of secularisation or religious decline is linked to a far wider set of questions about the sustainability of the social itself. He insightfully remarks, “What is perhaps only just becoming clear is that the error of the secularization thesis lies not in having predicted that religious populations and identifications would collapse, but that it failed to recognize that this was but one element of a wider process of exhaustion.” If religion is in crisis, that is because the social itself is in crisis.
To bring us back to the question of the “return of religion”, Tremlett’s comment seems to illuminate a central aspect of the post-secular which is that religion has reappeared (often as a simulacra) in spaces where modernity’s account of sociality has run its course. Since Baudrillard’s death we have seen in the Arab Spring, in Putin’s Russia, in Erdoğan’s Turkey and in Modi’s India a repetition of what he saw thirty years ago in the Iranian Revolution: “the negation of all Western values – of progress, rationality, political ethics, democracy, and so on. By rejecting the universal consensus on all these Good Things, Khomeini became the recipient of the energy of Evil, the Satanic energy of the rejected, the glamour of the accursed share” (Baudrillard, 1993, p.82). Just as in Iran, religion is a prominent feature of all these subsequent political rejections of Western hegemony, with their leaders commanding similar spiritual power among large sections of their populations. With the advent of President Trump it seems that even the West itself has rejected its own values on a rising tide of hyperreal evangelical religiosity.
This is too easily dismissed in the bandied about phrase “religious fundamentalism”. Most certainly there are the “reality fundamentalists” (as Trubody discusses) whose ignorant sentimentality for a mythical golden age is an attractive escapism from the disorder and ‘pollution’ (in many senses) of our times. The famous example of a European recruit to Islamic State ordering a copy of Islam for Dummies on Amazon perfectly illustrates this hyperreal religious revival. But there is also the very genuine renewal of spiritual identity and powerful symbolic meaning, which Baudrillard maintained could never be fully eradicated by digitality and simulation. The symbolic inevitably reasserts itself over codification and abstract reason. For many today, religion is a strategy of seduction, a resistance to a worldview that is relentlessly positivist, acquisitive, virtual and, in Baudrillard’s ironic use of the word, “Good”. In Seduction, he draws an interesting contrast between rules and laws, suggesting that a social grouping bound by rules (often uncodified, even secret) is more intense and cohesive than one bound by law. As we become more and more litigious societies where rights and responsibilities are increasingly set down, Baudrillard raises the uncomfortable proposition that rules of social convention (the “rules of the game”) will always be more attractive. So perhaps this helps us understand the growing religious rejection of an imposed system of universal human rights or a seemingly arbitrary system of international law, while paradoxically the same people appear willing to embrace often arduous, non-mandated religious regulation. The furious debates about Shariah Courts in Britain are not just technical ones about the compatibility of legal systems or the protection of women’s rights. Rather they signify an uncomprehending outrage that people (including women) would submit to theocratic rules at all rather than a universal legal system designed to protect their liberal freedoms.
So a major part of Baudrillard’s contribution to contemporary thought is the way in which he helps us to explore and understand post-rational motivations. Indeed that begins with his exposing of the irrationality of the Real, something which the climate emergency’s exposure of the nihilism of our culture has made evident to any serious-thinking person. Climate denial is one irrational response, but other non-rational responses to our current predicament will have within them the seeds of hope. Fatal strategies, singularities, seduction, symbolic exchange, “heresy” (as Baldwin suggests) are all needed to challenge our conformity to a system in self-destruct. The common element in all these strategies will be the theme that runs throughout Baudrillard’s extensive corpus, and that is the need for deep connection or interrelatedness. In a world of generalised exchange we need to know that the other (human and non-human) is not a mere object for our control or domination but a “strange attractor” to draw us into relationship and communion. The endurance of religion is in its power to initiate that, a power used for good and for ill. So religion lives on, Baudrillard lives on and the voyage into the Other calls us with ever pressing urgency.
About the Author:
James Walters is from the London School of Economics.
Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, (London: Verso, 1993)
Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990)
Jean Baudrillard, The Violence of the Global, with The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002)
Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume, Radical Alterity (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008)
James Walters, Baudrillard and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)