Thinking Out Loud, Episode 2

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

The second of two interviews with the legendary Alan Saunders in his radio show The Philosopher's Zone, which I did live in ABC studios in Sydney. Sadly Saunders died shortly thereafter. This pair of interviews were the last to be broadcast. Transcript below. For audio follow the link.

Alan Saunders


Joe Gelonesi: Hello, this is Joe Gelonesi. You may have heard the sad news of the passing of our colleague Alan Saunders on Friday. Alan fell ill during the production of the program we’re about to hear. One of his last wishes was that this program go ahead. Alan worked for the ABC for more than 25 years and made a substantial contribution to the intellectual life of the country. He worked on many programs, including The Food Program, Screen, The Comfort Zone, By Design and The Philosopher’s Zone. Alan was also an accomplished writer, critic and a true public intellectual. So let’s hear the final program in the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ series on philosophy and society presented by the University of Western Sydney in collaboration with the State Library of New South Wales, Fordham University Press and RN. The theme was secular criticism; how can religion be properly part of modern times? The speaker is Stathis Gourgouris, Professor of classics, English and comparative literature in society at Columbia University. Alan spoke with Stathis before the lecture about how it seemed to him that while the economy dominates politics social critique is missing.

Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, I’m making an argument which can itself be contested I guess, that political theology which has become a kind of buzzword or a kind of fashionable term...

Alan Saunders: Now, the term political theology really comes from the mid 20th century German thinker and, let’s be frank, Nazi, Carl Schmitt.

Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, but it belongs to the Christian theological tradition anyway, and going back to the Augustine, but yes, the Carl Schmitt book by that title, published in 1922, I believe, right in the middle of the Weimar situation, made first of all a kind of general argument that, as he says, all modern concepts of a state are secularised theological concepts, meaning there’s this kind of residual theology in all of the modern concepts we have in politics from the Enlightenment on down, which is actually hard to dispute; it’s a fact. But in any case this has become a kind of beacon—not Schmitt himself necessarily, because he’s a very complex thinker, and positions we take on him would take us into a great deal of discussion, but the term itself has come to’s a kind of buzzword for a certain kind of political thinking that embraces the theological, and the politics of that kind of thing can range from the right to the left. I’m raising a question rather than an argument really, why is it that the term political theology is fashionable in an era where political economy should be the term that we should be dealing with given how the economic is not just simply dominating, because it arguably has been doing so since capitalism was invented, but it’s actually engaged in governing, in making political decisions.

Alan Saunders: Can we talk about political theology in anything other than a context of some sort of monarchy?

Stathis Gourgouris: That’s a very good question. No, -- I mean, a simple answer would be no -- but yes, I think that we cannot talk about political theology in a democratic, in a really, really democratic mode of government.

Alan Saunders: You have long been fascinated by a couple of sentences by the French Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. ‘Every religion is idolatry, or is not socially effective religion. In religion words themselves, sacred words, function and can only function as idols.’ Why do these words hold your attention, and what have they got to say to us here?

Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, well, you know, Cornelius Castoriadis was, of course, an extraordinary thinker in the history of the second part of the 20th century. He’s a very important thinker for me. The reason why I find this phrase provocative is because he’s giving to the notion of idol something much broader and deeper a meaning than we usually tend to think of it, as some kind of representational item, let’s say, an object that represents divinity. And he’s making an argument that even sacred words or ways of thinking of divinity, like for instance the phrase ‘the word become flesh’, or something like that, or the sacred texts themselves, are actually idols, therefore opening the space to a non-representational understanding of the concept of idolatry.

Alan Saunders: This is curious, I mean, the common sense assumption would be that hubris, the sin of overwhelming pride, is committed when humans believe that they are or they act like gods, not when they invent or create gods, but Castoriadis wants to say that to imagine gods presiding over the universe is itself one of the most extraordinary acts of human creation.

Stathis Gourgouris: Yes, it’s a glorious act. I mean, that it is an act of extraordinary imagination, that human beings find immensely complex ways to create systems of ordering their universe, to account for the way their universe is in fact created and the way it operates and so on and so forth. This comment, of course, pertains specifically to the fact that the hubris resides not so much in the act of the imagination because there is something sublime about the capacity to imagine divinity. All human societies in the history of the world have some form of that imagination, but the hubris exists in or resides in the fact that this act of creative imagination is actually shielded, it’s occluded, and not acknowledged as such, and what is presented is the object of this act, the imagined thing, as if that is the agent of creation, and that’s what he identifies as hubris.

Alan Saunders: You want to say that a desacralised universe would be a universe that is theatrical at the core. I find this an attractive idea because I’m a Londoner and I think Londoners are by character theatrical, but why do you think this is the case?

Stathis Gourgouris: Well, this is a part I didn’t develop in the lecture, but it’s something that needs to be developed further. I’m thinking of the theatre as something that of course emerges out of ritual which is, one might say, again, conventionally speaking, linked to religious practices, but the theatre, whether we think of it in a kind of narrow sense in the way that we understand it to have emerged in ancient Greece, or we can think of it in a broader sense, to think of theatricality—theatricality exists again in all societies—is a kind of human social and historical activity of creating modes of presenting otherness as something that in fact can, by being performed, be both something that becomes more tangible and something that can be overcome. So for me theatricality would be a very important element in desacralisation, even though one might argue that ritual, as I said that is linked to a certain kind of sacred practice, is at the core of the invention of the theatre.

Joe Gelonesi: Alan Saunders with Professor Stathis Gourgouris. Now, let’s hear an excerpt from the third lecture ‘Thinking Out Loud’.

Stathis Gourgouris: Now for years I’ve been fascinated by a couple of sentences in the essay by Cornelius Castoriadis called ‘Institution of society and religion’. The essay was published in 1980, and I quote: ‘Every religion is idolatry, or is not socially effective religion. In religion, words themselves, sacred words, function and can only function as idols.’ So I want to think about this sentence. The unequivocal phrase ‘every religion is idolatry’ comes with an explicit qualification, ‘or it is not socially effective religion’, thereby underscoring religion as a societal—indeed we can easily say political issue—rather than as a theological problem.

In this sense the mysticism that might produce an abyssal language in which no idols can remain standing can never be by definition socially effective, can never be a social binding force. Mystical practice configures instead a social unbinding, a rejection of society and aims at its most extreme at the incapacity of worldly assembly. This isn’t to say that the unintelligibility of mystical language is not socially readable, it is to say that however society might be able to read this unintelligibility, it nonetheless cannot but turn it into an idol, thereby turn against it; read it as another language and by another language. I’m reading from Castoriadis’s quotation: ‘The mystical relation to the abyss, whether it be an authentic or hallucinatory phenomenon, does not matter here. There never was and there never will be mystical religion or a religion of mystics. The lives of mystics themselves function as instituted simulacra of the abyss.’ That’s the end of quotation. So how often, socially effective, religion, so-called, has turned mysticism into dangerous idolatry, even while bestowing sanctification to specific practitioners, is one of the key indications of how far it goes to deny its own idolatrous investment.

Religion, then, is instituted in order to counter the abyssal terrain of being, the fact that there is nothing in human existence that presupposes it or exceeds it, that human existence is at the limit, groundless and all established meaning fails it. This abyssal condition is of course unrepresentable, unlocalisable and meaningless; it may be perhaps intelligible, in let’s say the desacralised language of psychoanalysis that speculates, because it can never really know and Freud said that explicitly, that speculates on the abyssal constitution of the psyche, but even there the object is at the core (the object, the psyche) unrepresentable, unlocalisable and meaningless.

Castoriadis concludes, (I quote again) ‘Religion covers the abyss, the chaos, the groundlessness that society itself is for itself. Religion negates society’s radical imaginary and puts in its place a particular imaginary creation. It veils the enigma of the exiguousy for meaning, which makes society...which makes society as much as it is made by society, insofar as it imputes to society a meaning that would come to it from elsewhere.’ End of quotation.

In this respect, to put it bluntly, I quote again, ‘Society creates itself, and to begin with creates itself as a heteronymous society.’ This utterly paradoxical condition is not open to simple explanation, which is why all pseudo-sociological or pseudo-psychological theories about some sort of structural or hardwire propensity in human beings towards heteronomy are utter nonsense. Surely such theories never seem to wonder about the epistemological position from which their investigations or explanations are promulgated; they don’t seek to explain how can they conduct and achieve a self-understanding, that it comes from elsewhere, and doing so as conscious self-understanding, simultaneously obliterate this knowledge.

Theologians, certainly in the monotheistic traditions, have been performing these sorts of contortions for centuries. The inordinate genius for self-occultation that characterises some of the most glorious and most brilliant manifestations of the theological mind, over time, testifies to the fact, and I quote again from Castoriadis, ‘The enigma of heteronymous society, and the enigma of religion are in large part one and the same enigma.’

Now, one may raise the counterargument that this essentially ontological signification of religion, because it pertains to general anthropology, we’re talking about the human being as such, remains silent about the social, historical emergence of the very concept or name religion. This name, the counterargument would go, might be said to be inscribed with the secularisation claim and all its politics, namely the geopolitical establishment of Christianity as the world’s dominant religion, which claims to go beyond religion so as to emancipate itself from that constraint while relegating every other such mode to it. For those who make the latter argument, the question of secularisation is in a sense false or deceptive, a ruse by which Christianity erases itself as religion in order to establish the realm of religion for all others.

Well, I think this argument does have merit, and in fact a great deal of historical accuracy. It is ultimately short-sighted and indeed compromised by its unwillingness to consider the essential animating force of what has been called secularisation, namely the desire of human beings to relieve themselves of their own self-imposed constraints and confront the consequences of encountering the cosmological abyss without safeguards. Whether or how far this desire has been realised is actually not the issue. Secularisation, I’ve been arguing for some years, is unfinishable by definition; the cosmological abyss cannot be encountered once and for all, we cannot be done with it. So although one could gain...although one could again raise the counterargument that all kinds of other safeguards were indeed put into place as a result of secularisation (constitutions, nations, ideologies, scientific truths or utopian dreams) the fact remains that all those new delusions ushered by secularisation were acknowledged to be human creations, for better or worse, thereby shifting the knowledge framework so as to enable the thought that religion too may be understood as a human creation.

Even if secularisation can be disputed as having accord at all, this shifting in the framework of knowledge cannot be disputed. Regardless of the persistence of the faithful, the world around, some number among the world’s population, indeed it’s impossible to measure precisely, understands that religion is one glorious, if sometimes perilous human creation among many. But in the end, what one thinks of secularisation is secondary; religious practices under different names seem to have existed in all societies and in all history, even if their exact domain of significance is both enormously varied and inordinately contested. Religion as one separate category of social formation among many, which would be a notion that would be enabled by secularisation, is at this point, an epistemological domain in itself: we have religion studies, we have history of religion and so on and so forth. This is to say, it is religion as categorical or perhaps cognitive framework that enables the recognition and naming of a certain typology of practices that we call religious, and if this distinction is itself a symptom of the secularisation process it doesn’t matter. Or rather, it is a matter of historical understanding, of an emergent horizon of perception that enables the recognition of religion as a human creation, and it is this latter aspect that concerns me here.

As human creation, religion is a social practice of encountering and concealing the abyss of existence. What Castoriadis calls socially effective religion, which for him is the only meaning of religion as we saw, is the outcome of creating a name, a representation or a locus for this abyss of interminable self-created otherness. Though such creations are oftentimes concrete material objects (icons, statues, totems, sacred texts) they’re equally likely—and offer more powerfully—to be abstract and immaterial. The word become flesh, the unpronounceable name of God, the 99 names of God, the transcendental absolute, the Goddess Reason and so on. Yet in all cases, such social imaginary creations that constitute the space of the sacred are idols, reified simulacra of the abyss they represent by concealing. This is the sense of the polemical statement, ‘every religion is idolatry.’

To the extent that religion is not merely the representation of society’s desire to ritualise its existence and not is restricted to an individual’s mystical claim to merge with the abyss, but is instead the institution that occludes the groundlessness of existence as such and thus builds an imaginary institutional scaffolding on which society may find rest, then the workings of religion are essentially psychic, which is not quite psychological, and indeed not unlike those of sublimation where all invested representations are categorically objectified. This is why, for Castoriadis, even in those cases, when religion emerges from the foundational monotheistic injunction, the Bilderverbot, the prohibition of images, idolatry is fully at work.

Now, in order to succeed, the exercise of Bilderverbot, the prohibition of images, which conventionally may have had Hebraic origins but remains the core principle in all monotheistic imaginaries, even if performed on extreme occasions—think of early Christian Monophysites, Byzantine iconoclasm, Franciscan or Calvinist asceticism, strict Islamism or Protestant fundamentalism—must involve a rather narrow construct of image in its most literal sense. Bild, German, essentially comes to define the object of representation as such, as an object that must be identified, known and forbidden by virtue of representation, as a representation. Nominally, the prohibition is against images that dare to represent God, if only because then they will be endowed with divine properties in themselves and be worshipped as such as divine objects, idols. But underneath this nominal logic, what is really prohibited is the very act, the very conception of representation, the daring to give God a form, since in the monotheistic imaginary only God forms, or better yet God is form, and the only agency of form, of which humans are thereby the exemplary by-product.

This is expressly denoted in the extraordinary notion of humans being formed in God’s image and God’s likeness. The Greek words translating the Hebrew of Genesis are eikona, image, icon, and homoiosis, sameness, likeness, which may be thought of insofar as it it has always been invoked polemically against paganism, the explicit rollback of anthropomorphic divinities by nonetheless absorbing the principle of icon and likeness and thereby perhaps maybe in a Hegelian sense preserving it by altering the core principle. Namely, if God is form, then the project of human formation is theomorphic, humans are the form of God in image and in likeness, yet the human being cannot ultimately tolerate itself as God or godlike, thereby projecting backwards an anthropomorphic notion to the category of God, who may not necessarily look like the statue of the Zeus, as you would have been sculpted by Praxiteles or Phidias, but is nonetheless imagined, since the monotheistic imaginary is and can only be a patriarchical imaginary, as the almighty father, in however abstract or concrete manifestation as specific social imaginary can handle.

There’s much to say here in light of this sketch about the validity of Castoriadis’s provocative assertion that the institution of religion is, and I quote, ‘the supreme hubris of human existence.’ It’s provocative because the commonsensical assumption is that hubris is committed when humans believe they are or act like gods, not when they invent or create gods. But indeed, to imagine gods presiding over the universe is one of the most extraordinary acts of human creation, an ordering of the universe by an agency that hereby becomes conspicuously and conveniently absent. It is hubris precisely in the denial of accountability for this act of radical creation, which as radical creation is always an act of destruction. Now, to imagine moreover a single god, moreover a single god who creates humans in image and in likeness is an even more formidable ontological hubris if it is at all semantically possible to produce a quantitative figure of the ontologist. Thank you.

Joe Gelonesi: Professor Stathis Gourgouris, delivering the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ lecture at the State Library of New South Wales.

We’ll pay tribute to Alan Saunders on RN over the coming weeks, details soon on the RN website. As Alan’s editor at RN over many years, I’d like to say it was a complete privilege to witness his extraordinary mind, vast intellect and his wonderful wit. We’ll all miss you, Alan. I’m Joe Gelonesi, good bye.