Strategies of Critique 13: Superstition

Conference Presentation Abstracts

March 26 27 , 1 999

"Strategies of Critique" is a conference hosted by graduate students in the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University. The Superstition "Call for Papers" remains available.

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Revelation, Conversion and the Hegelian Dialectic of Consciousness: Religion and Modernism
Hegel's dialectic of consciousness is structurally analogous to moments of Christian revelation and conversion.  It could be argued that the analogy is only a superficial one, that the evolution of consciousness is intrinsically rational, whereas revelation (of a new truth) and conversion (to a mode of consciousness which takes that truth as its centre) depend upon mystical experiences that are outside of (beyond, beneath) the limits of reason.  Yet the complex relationship between religion and philosophy in Hegel's work puts pressure on this distinction.  This is especially –  if not exclusively – evident in his treatment of Christianity.  In this paper I shall argue that Hegel's interpretation of Christianity does not merely subordinate religion to philosophy, making it a ‘moment' to be overcome in a higher form of consciousness; rather, it suggests a reciprocal relationship between philosophical consciousness and religious consciousness, one which makes religion philosophical and philosophy religious.

The second part of the paper will explore some questions this dimension of Hegel's work raises about his relationship to the modern philosophical tradition. For example, are revelation and conversion, understood for my purposes as (Judeo)Christian experiences, antithetical to the rationalism of the modern period. Would revelation and conversion then become superstitious, and, if so, how would that impact on efforts to think philosophically about religion?  Taking the issue in another direction, is reason a form of superstition or a kind of myth?  Can either religion or philosophy be privileged over one another, or is there a merging of the two, a kind of dialectical transfiguration?
Chris Irwin Anderson, Social & Political Thought, York University

Between the Dream and the Dialectical: A Journey into Freudian Theory's Liberatory Space
In "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image," Leonard Shlain views the emergence of Freudian psychoanalytic theory as part of a broader societal shift from language to image.  Shlain's comment prompt a reflection on the role Freudian theory has played as a liberatory force for socially critical theorists.

This paper surveys the debates over Freud's theories; are they of scientific or cultural dimensions?  We engage Althusser's conception of the ideological basis of identity. Fanon emerges in discussions of the realm of therapy, wherein de-politicized examinations of the individual are privileged over societal analyses. Lacan will provide a window to the development of studies of the indeterminacy and malleability of gender and sexuality. Finally, we address Flieger, who points to the dis-ease with which conservatives approach the radical implications of Freud's legacy.
John Bracken, Annenberg School of Communication Studies, University of Pennsylvania

The Paranoid is Out There:  Scapegoats and Projectiles
In this paper, I will examine the discursive exile rituals performed upon conspiracy narratives.  Recent formulations of political rationality have concerned themselves with the "problem" of political paranoia.  According to these "problematizations" (in Foucault's sense) political paranoia's dangerous characteristic is that it exaggerates normal political skepticism.  Conspiracy theories are positioned as a threat from within: lurking within the nation, in the heartland, among the "people." Paranoia is thus an intolerable simulation (in Deleuze's sense of the "false pretender") that requires exiling in order to establish the tolerable limits of rational political skepticism.  This ceremony roots out and turns elements of "Us" into a simulation of "Us," into a "Them."  These scapegoating procedures are pre-emptive measures that establish the integrity of a regime.  How is political rationality predicated on this ritual of expulsion?  What is it about current state of politics that warrant "paranoia" becoming a problem, and require "making politics reasonable" again?
Jack Bratich, Institute of Communications Research, Univeristy of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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Theophobia: The Secular Fear of God

I plan to diagnose a particular dis-ease of modern and postmodern secular discourse.  This dis-ease, which I am calling theophobia, consists in secular discourse's own uncritical (superstitious) dismissal of theology as uncritical (superstitious).  The other strand of my argument, therefore, is that theology is a critical discourse (and, therefore, does not necessitate superstitious theism, denominational affiliation, religious practices, rituals, asceticism, etc.).  These two strands will raise the more general issue of what we mean by the designations "critical" and "superstitious.

I will frame this diagnosis within a critical distinction between superstition and religion as articulated by both Augustine and Spinoza.  I will further develop this framework through Spinoza's argument, in the Theologico-Political Treatise, that if either philosophy or theology suppress the other, neither philosophy or theology is acting philosophically or theologically.  From here I will attempt to demonstrate that when secular discourse rejects the phenomenon of the religious, it commits itself to superstition, for it maintains a belief about God without a critical engagement with the discourse of theology.  This rejection results in the secular's superstitious attempt to position itself after, beyond, or post, the death of God, thus reflecting a belief in a type of heavenism.
Mark Cauchi, Social and Political Thought, York University

Technological Prophet

"Mechanics became the new religion and it gave to the world a new messiah: the machine."
- Lewis Mumford

The Western quest for progress and eventual transcendence has found a new articulation in the cult of the computer.  Employing Durkheim's analytic categories of the 'sacred' and the 'profane' can reveal the computer's position as a sacred object.  More extensive examination leads one to explore the inter-relationships between the computer and the cultural narrative of the messianic machine.  While many have argued that the Western world has undergone a process of secularisation, it seems more accurate to suggest a shift in the focus of our religious behaviour from the Christian churches to the machine, and in particular, the computer.  As Mumford contends, we have discovered a new, technological prophet.
Marionne Cronin, Philosophy, York University

The Abject Junky: Death, Masochism, and the Desubjectified Body
Someone who not only lacks any fear of hypodermic needles but who also seeks out their use on her/his own body certainly could be considered masochistic.  Yet beyond the limits of pain and pleasure, both a junky's tracks and a masochist's scars signify a deeper meaning of transgression, the transgressing of taboos and the associated jouissance.  While this paper works on similarities between heroin use and masochism, the main focus centers on a parallel between, one: junky-body images of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch as images of the desubjectified body, "dead" in the eyes of the Symbolic Order, a body emptied of paternal symbolic relevance; and, two:  Julia Kristeva's discussion (Powers of Horror) of the dead body as abject-putrid, disgusting, and capable of evoking fear and horror.
Jeffrey Falla, Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota

The Dancing Men and the Question of Code

What does the notion of a "semiotic spell" suggest?

It is a formulation that admits of at least two constructions: on the one hand, it points to the potential instrumentalization of a theoretical discourse and the particular contingencies that revolve around a semiotics that might be used to conjure. On the other hand, however, the phrase suggests a particular kind of reading strategy, a semiotic witchdoctory that curatively guards against the misdirections of magic.

This paper elaborates the entanglement between the semiotic spell and the spell cast by semiotics through a reading of an early Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" alongside the critiques of semiotic methodology that are articulated in the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, Marc Angenot, and Wlad Godzich. The juxtaposition of these texts serves as the ground to argue that speculations about the possibility or impossibility of a generalized semiotic theory --as in Holmes's deductive, inductive, and reductive investigative procedures --produces a conception of semiotics that can maintain its theoretical integrity, paradoxically, by interrogating the concept of semiotics itself.
Steve Hayward, English, York University
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Dialectics and Idealism: Adorno's Critique of Hegel
Adorno always emphasizes that a radical transformation of social existence requires in the first place a radical form of social consciousness that has the power to see through the mystification of capitalist reality and to think the possibility of transcending this artificially imposed limit. Hegel's contribution is absolutely fundamental in this connection and hence his philosophy occupies a relatively privileged position in Adorno's thought. Like many Marxists, Adorno's relation to Hegel is equivocal. Although he is indebted to Hegel for articulating the negative and dialectical nature of experience, he is critical of the positive and undialectical character of Hegel's speculative idealism. The genuinely dialectical for Adorno always remains negative. My paper outlines the basic concepts of Hegel's description of experience and examines Adorno's critique. An argument is developed that defends the spirit of Adorno's Marxism while criticizing certain aspects of his claim that Hegel cuts dialectics short.
Mark Hiller, Philosophy, York University

Hobbes on Superstition and the English Civil War
Understanding the concept of superstition in Hobbes's political thought has traditionally been considered as secondary in relation to the task of ascertaining his religious views.  Instead, if we examine Hobbes's stance on superstition in its own right, we discover that he tends to equate superstition with uncivil religion, in large part to discredit some of the major antagonists in the English Civil War.  Two superstitious, and seditious, doctrines are focused upon: spirit and (false) prophecy.  The natural fear of ghostly spirits leads to the Papist distinction between temporal and spiritual dominion, designed to obscure temporal ambition.  Furthermore, his interpretation of the origins and scriptural account of prophecy exposes the threat prophecy may pose to the sovereign power, as manifested in Presbyterian claims to prophetic inspiration.  By debunking spirit and prophecy, Hobbes politicizes superstition, which thus signifies a shift in how superstition and religion are viewed in modern political thought.
Simon Kow, Political Science, University of Toronto

The Mystical Kernel within the Rational Shell: Althusser and the Magical Moment of Supersession in Overdetermined Contradiction
Whether we are speaking of theoretical physics, ecological theory, or social theory, there is a fundamental point where rationality transgresses into mysticism.  In theoretical physics, for instance, the collapse of rationality into mysticism is represented by the wave/particle debate in quantum mechanics, while in ecological theory the mystical element is revealed in the Gaia hypothesis.  Further examples abound from Hegel's absolute knowing and Jung's collective unconscious to, as I will demonstrate, Althusser's overdetermined contradiction.

Despite Althusser's attempt to differentiate between Hegel's simple contradiction and Marx's overdetermined contradiction, Althusser's interpretative account does not address the 'actual' mechanism responsible for supersession.  In this respect, Althusser's accusation that Hegel's dialectical system is magically transformed is itself mirrored in Althusser's own dialectical account of supersession.  Through a close reading of Althusser's overdetermined contradiction, I will argue that at the level of theoretical abstraction the mystical becomes the kernel encased in a rational shell.
Guy Kirby Letts, Sociology, York University

Adorno and the Muse of the Dialectic
Adorno describes Negative Dialectics as a philosophy 'in which all esthetic topics are shunned.'  He does not mean by this that philosophy has nothing to do with art, but that philosophy finds itself when it encounters and negates the aesthetic.  As Adorno describes this negation it does not keep the magic of art at bay, but involves the active purging of an aesthetic moment inherent to a philosophy that wishes simultaneously to be free of it. Philosophy is essentially schizophrenic;  or, it must at least proceed with a kind of double vision.  It must contain the stringency of science to make any claim on the world, to make its critique 'valid'.  Yet, at the same time, immanent critique arises out of an intuitive moment, 'a moment of immediacy...a bonus of subjective thought that looks beyond the dialectical structure.'  This experience of immediacy is offered to philosophy by art.  The strange thing is that philosophy is itself only when it accepts this offering, but only fully comes around to itself once this gift has been rejected.  It  needs the aesthetic as a catalyst to break through  immanence and must be autonomous of art lest it corrupts art's magic or reduces itself to ineffability.  This philosophy is one that intentionally thinks against its own intentions--and this conscious counter-point is intuitive, inspired.  Hence, there is a certain madness to Adorno's method.  As he says, 'philosophy is the most serious of things, but then again it is not all that serious.'  Adorno's dialectic is a-mused.
Chris McCutcheon, Social & Political Thought, York University

Socialism As Superstition
Marx is famous for his critiques of "utopian" socialism as rooted in "phantasy", as opposed to "science", and the resulting inadequacy of "utopian" claims in answering the central question of liberation from exploitative conditions.  But despite these powerful and withering critiques it could be argued that the emancipatory project of Marxism, including Marx's work itself, has increasingly relied upon "utopian" imagery to motivate and sustain its claims.  This (unconscious?) reliance on utopianism can, I believe, be usefully conceived of as socialism's version of superstition.

The question that I will address in my paper will be how this reliance on "socialist superstition" to anchor the liberatory claims of Marxism is both problematic and necessary given the current economic and cultural milieu of the late twentieth century.  I will briefly discuss the works of Marx, Gramsci, Marcuse, the Situationists and Balibar in this light, essentially arguing that memory and imagination are essential in creating "superstitious" beliefs in the possibilities of a socialist world.  These beliefs in turn motivate action toward attempts at realizing socialist claims such as equality, anti-racism, anti-sexism, internationalism etc. under current conditions in anticipation of the future return/creation of a socialist society.  In this way socialism uses superstition much more than "science" in sustaining its essential claim of formulating a project of emancipation.
J.J. McMurtry, Social & Political Thought, York University

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Crucifixation: Inevitable Possessions
In this presentation I will offer a reading of Augustine as he reads the Gospel of John.  It is this reading which is one of the formative sites with which the multiplicity of spirits proper to the early church is conflated into the unity of Spirit.  The understanding of spirit, as indwelling and possessing the body, emerging from Neo-Platonic exegesis is that which has been transformed into the "prison of the body" (Foucault).  The rhetoric of possession and exorcism as they have emerged in recent social theory (Cixous, Deleuze/Guattari, Foucault, Negri) is an exercise which has as its terminus the overcoming of the somnolent body.  The desire for a wakefulness of the body, I will suggest, is only figurable with the affirmation of an exegetical resistance to Augustine's reading and, through it, the body as a simulacrum of the Divine Body.
John L. Meeks, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Knowing on Film
The distinctions between low and high art, mythic and rational thought, superstition and knowledge, art house and popular movies, indicate a bifurcation in western traditions identified with a transition from orality to literacy.  Often it is assumed that the practices associated with oral culture are supplanted by literacy, but literacy in the west never supplanted the aesthetics associated with oral traditions, religion, and crafts (practices often associated with the feminine as this bifurcation is somewhat gendered).  Movie practices are, then, not a return to orality; the aesthetics associated with craft, myth, pop culture have been practiced and developed continuously.  We may be better able to acknowledge some knowledge that relates to the practices, deprecated as superstition, on film.  In this presentation I offer a few examples: some language practices and perception of time.
Roberta Morris, Philosophy, York University

The Superstitions of Modern Art
This paper intends to problematize modern artistic expression in terms of its radical ambivalence to itself, an uncertainty which finds its most indecisive moment in the advent of what has been termed pure abstraction'. The discussion will begin with a brief discussion of certain prominent avant-garde movements at the turn of the century in terms of their efforts to break with institutional tradition, proceeding to question some of the inherently antinomic positions which exist within modern artistic practices as these deny more traditional aesthetic concerns. The presentation will conclude with an examination of the implications of such discourses of hybridizations and dislocations as they inform postmodern deconstructive critiques of art and generate an aesthetic which situates the artist, her work and their engagements and encounters with the life-world at the disappearing confluence of unknowable acts of radical uncertainty.
Pierre Ouellet, Social & Political Thought, York University

Mondex, Gambling, and the Price of Money

Even as the most rationalized medium of exchange, money has never been able to divest itself of its connection to irrational superstition.  Drawing principally upon Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marx, I will argue that this peculiar character of money persists in two contemporary phenomena: the Mondex project, or the effort by banks around the globe to develop a replacement for cash in the form of electronically loadable credit chips, and in the proliferation in Canada of state-sponsored gambling as the manna, or perhaps mantra, of economic salvation.  Both phenomena will be read as attempts to alleviate anxiety in the face of contingency and unpredictability through the control and manipulation of money understood as sacrificial exchange.  While Mondex represents the intensification of the abstract character of money and extends possibilities for the digital control of individuals, gambling expresses the individual's longing for an epiphanic deliverance from the ubiquitousness of social domination.  Like Horkheimer's and Adorno's thesis that an irrationality that was never wholly purged has returned to possess the rational, the effort to control and manipulate exchange - concretized in money - has vengefully emerged as the monetary control of individuals.
Michael Palamarek, Social & Political Thought, York University

On Repetition and the Spectre of Gender
Freud's 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a speculative investigation of the repetition compulsion and death drive.  In his reading, Derrida (1987) asks: "How can we gain access to the restance [or the undecidable excess] of Beyond...?"  One approach might be to focus on three mythic moments within Freud's text:  Little Ernst's game of fort-da; the battle between Tancred and Clorinda (from Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered); and the division of the fantastical double-men (from Plato's Symposium).  By reading/misreading across these moments, we begin to catch sight of an unarticulated spectre:  the half-forming/still-forming gendered subject.  This ghost, Butler (1997) tells us, is the melancholic ego - constituted through refused identifications and lost loves.  What does it mean to be a haunted text?  And what does this haunting add to our appreciation or understanding of Beyond...?
Andrew Paravantes, Sociology, York University

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Superstition and Uncertainty: An Epistemology of Community
Superstition and Uncertainty: an Epistemology of Community What is at stake in superstition are the grounds and rituals of the epistemological relation: the economy of the access to knowledge. Through Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, the superstitious' can be read as a question of access or relation to knowledge: of communal rituals - and thus politics. This question displaces a focus on contents,' objects,' and foundations' as the topoi and terms of epistemological legitimacy. The space of certainty and legitimacy is essentially - and perhaps mythically - grounded in the metaphysically trademarked subject: an ominous superstar,' which both underwrites and is the product of this epistemological superstore. The questions I seek to articulate, through Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community, relate to the intersection of epistemological access and community. Who is produced and legitimated in epistemological economies? How do the communal rituals of superstition relate to the space of the political? What relations between subjectivity, history, and community are articulated in the production of knowledge? What are the political possibilities of an uncertain relation to knowledge? The (perhaps Heideggerian) danger in this terrain, is a mythologization of uncertainty' itself...
Joseph Rosen, Social & Political Thought, York University

Enlightened Superstition? Althusser's Imaginary Relation
While the classical Enlightenment conceived the development of reason as the fairly straightforward linear process of liberating humanity from age-old errors, the advances of reason strikes later theorists, Frederic Jameson notes, as "an infernal machine, bent on extirpating all traces of transcendence (including critique and negativity itself)".  Perhaps the most radical recent attempt to rescue Enlightenment from its own devices has been Althusser's structural Marxism, which attempts to rescue Marxist critique from empirico-positivism by establishing a radical break between ideology (as modern superstition and error), and science as theoretical production.  But in examining Althusser's project, it becomes apparent that the value of science is thwarted by its own conditions of existence.  It is for this reason that I propose to read Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment beside and against Althusser, offering the suggestion that while Enlightenment in its various forms would like to disregard its own pre-history as myth, it in fact contains what Enlightenment most needs to prevent the futile oscillation into its self-declared opposite: superstition.
Jon Short, Social & Political Thought, York University

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Go to the Conference Programme and Schedule page.

Review the previous three Strategies' conference programmes:

Strategies of Critique X: The New Right (1996) with abstracts.
Strategies of Critique XI: Ends of Knowledge or the Knowledge of Ends (1997)
Strategies of Critique xii: (in)justiced subjects (1998)

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