“Liberating the New Materialism,” review of Crockett & Robbins new book

Liberating the New Materialism

by Mark Lewis Taylor

A Review Essay of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins,

Religion, Earth & Politics: The New Materialism

Forthcoming, in The Journal of Political Theology. Used by permission of the journal. This essay will be slightly edited for publication, scheduled as a journal release in 2014.

Presented originally at Union Theological Seminary in New York, for a colloquium, on the theme, “Being (a Brain) and the Challenge of Liberation.” The colloquium,  on February 11, 2013,  was focused on the new book by Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins, Religion, Politics and the Earth: A New Materialism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2013). In addition to my response, Cornel West also offered his response on the same occasion. In my response, below, all page numbers in parentheses are to the book by Crokett and Robbins, unless otherwise specified. _______________________________________________________________________________________

While engaging Crockett’s and Robbins’s book, I will also be pressing for positions expressive of what I elsewhere term a “political theology of liberation.” Not all political theologies are “of liberation.” Crucial to political theologies that do foreground liberation are intellectual projects that take antagonism seriously in human socio-cultural and natural life. Antagonism, and its correlate in much theory, agonism,[1] produces theories of oppositions and struggle, usually toward forms of liberation that create new, feasible structures that sustain life against patterns of oppression and exclusion.[2] Especially when considering the emergence of new developments in human practices, above all in politics wrestling with imposed social suffering, theorizing oppositions to, and amid, unfolding forms of emergence and development, is crucial to taking antagonism seriously.[3] I will suggest here that it is this sense of antagonism that is missing in Crockett’s and Robbins’ new jointly authored book, even as the book offers an impressive and illuminating manifesto of what they announce as “the new materialism.”

Religion, Politics and the Earth: A New Materialism is one of many published today on topics of a “new materialism.” The very particular crises that Crockett and Robbins helpfully analyze – in areas of ecology, energy, and money – partly account for the proliferation of literature in this area. New materialisms are frequently yoked to a rethinking of the political – a “political ecology of things.” [4] We cannot attribute all of this writing to current political or cultural crises. There are also the new vistas opening in scientific knowledge of many dynamics and forms, questioning what “the material” is. In philosophy, too, we do well perhaps to note the numerous returns to Spinoza “for our time,” as announced, for example, in a recent title by Antonio Negri.[5] Political theology has followed in this train, with Crockett’s and Robbins’s own individually authored books in 2011 being two examples of theologies mining the conjuncture of politics and new materialisms.[6]

Crucial to Crockett’s and Robbins’s new book is their claim that contemporary societies driven by oil technology and fossil-based energy are realizing new limits to their much-touted global capitalism. This is not only manifest in the areas of ecological, energy and monetary crisis and turbulence, but in other areas that are political, again, but aesthetic and philosophical as well. “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements are considered in this context. The ways the major claim about limits is developed by the authors I will consider throughout this essay’s engagement of their book, at key points below. Let it be noted here, however, that as radical as are the crises and challenges they examine, Crockett and Robbins are not cynical. They see emergence and development as opening out into shared senses of an integrated, material worldliness, with new knowledge and practices unfolding, especially in areas of energy research. One chapter is even co-written with physicist, Kevin Mequet, another with art theorist, Michael W. Wilson. In their book, readers are invited by the authors up a new energy staircase of development. This points the way to new practical philosophies that they advocate, and even new religious sensibilities that avoid not only the consumerism and commitments of global capitalism, but also counter the fundamentalisms and fanaticisms of religious devotees with new holist sense of the material world, of limits to production, and a vision that borrows at times from Hegel and other Continental philosophers, at other times, from Taoist traditions (only suggestively and briefly). More on these conceptual moves as I turn to my criticisms.

The criticisms I offer here are attempts to move by way of immanent critique of their work, but it will be clear that my questions will be shaped also by my own “political theology of liberation” and its agonistic politics. This I have detailed not only in The Theological and the Political, but in recent short articles,[7] as well as in discussions at my website concerning long-standing work I have undertaken that draws from both critical anthropology and recent decolonial theory for theological reflection.[8] And now to Crockett and Robbins “manifesto” in book.


I offer one major claim and then four supporting propositions. The major claim is that if the “new materialism” offered by Crockett and Robbins is to be liberating, pointing to a revolutionary future, which I agree is needed and which they seem to want, their materialism needs to be more deeply “dialectical” and more “materialist.” I do not think this book, in spite of all its strengths, its daring conceptuality, and its noteworthy erudition, adequately features these qualities.

By a “more deeply dialectical” project, I refer to a need for their project to theorize a deeper antagonism, in particular, a more multiform and inherent structure of violence in the Western project, in what Foucault called the “Western episteme” that was made possible by its encounter with the rest of the world in a colonizing project.[9] The very notion of “the West” and “Western” is problematic, especially as a mode of self-designation that celebrates a largely Eurocentric and Hellenocentric vision of world history.[10] I shall use the terms “the West” and “Western” sparingly, more so than I think Crockett and Robbins do. But when I do use it, I will be referencing those sectors of European, Continental thinking that both accept “the West” as an appropriate term for post-Enlightenment, European/U.S. led modernity, usually owned as virtuous however much seen as in crisis. The West is also usually a romanticized term, naming the culmination point of a process of intellectual and political development, moving “from the East to the West,” as in Hegel, and ignoring the contributions not only of Asia (“the East”) but also of Africa and Amerindia.

By a more “materialist” project, which I will be urging upon the authors, I will cite, as have many, Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” – particularly numbers I and VI. I think Crockett and Robbins’s project needs, more prominently, to insert into their respect for the powers of the earth and its multitude (which they admirably renew and do), what Marx termed the “ensemble of social relations” (Thesis VI). It is these that organize and structure “human sensuous activity, practice” (Thesis I). This ensemble of social relations has long been configuring, enforcing, enshrining a brutal Western project, which for all its ambiguities, its mixtures of goods and pleasures, remains a project built from and perpetuating what Marx saw clearly (although even he from an all-too-Eurocentric perspective) as the alienation and estrangement of workers – and eventually of all humanity and earth.[11] My claim, in short, is that only by embracing this complex emergence of social antagonism can Crockett and Robbins offer not just a “new materialism” but a “revolutionary one.”

Without this, Crockett and Robbins offer an admittedly inspiring and fascinating treatise on a new materialism, a radical theology. It is a discourse, though, that stays all too-much within the framework of what I will here term, “an earth-centric, cooperative developmentalism.” This is not, of course, the developmentalism of Neoliberal globalization, but it can easily be co-opted by that kind of developmentalism, as it seems to me. (On this developmentalism, see the still fine text by Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development.[12]) To lessen the likelihood of that co-optation, Crockett and Robbins need to insert into their thinking about the emergence of new earth and energy forms, more a theorization of social and political dynamics, especially those concerning antagonism and agonism experienced by those on the underside of, or excluded by, Neoliberal development. These populations, the mass of humanity, arguable, are “the part that has no part” (Rancière)[13] or what Hardt and Negri, borrowing a phrase from New Testament narratives, term in their first book of their empire trilogy, “the least of these.”[14]


How might I warrant my claim that this book needs a more dialectical and materialist turn? This is where my four propositions become important. To be sure, these will have a critical edge, but especially my third and fourth propositions, below, will also be constructive suggestions. I am very impressed, encouraged – and have learned much – from Crockett’s and Robbins’ book. I hope to make some arguments that strengthen an already fine publication. 

Proposition One: Questioning Crockett’s and Robbins’ Developmentalism

I begin with their two important chapters 6 and 7 (“Energy” and “A Radical Proposal for Nuclear Energy”), in which they write about our coming future, the “athermal age.” Crockett’s and Robbins’ two chapters on energy, which are co-written with the expertise of Kevin Mequet, and which portray eloquently an inspiring future of energy production for the renewal of earth, nevertheless display, in marked form, what I have already termed its “developmentalist” sensibility. The themes here are mighty and insightful, stressing repeatedly that our present problem is one of “excess heat” created by current modes of energy production (88). They lucidly show how Western-dominated humanity has now reached (indeed, in 2005/2006) the point of “peak oil” (89-90). They expose the Industrial Revolution’s unmindfulness of this, and the contemporary world’s unthinkability apart from its exploiting cheap oil from the earth (94-6). They call for an end to this era of Homo Carbonicus in a future that thinks “beyond heat,” replacing carbon and hydrocarbons with another mode of energy (95-7). They present these and similar themes on the way to a grand proposal of an “athermal technique using fertile and fissile nuclear elements to harvest electricity in a new way “(98). Thus, they beckon us to “cross the threshold beyond our adherence to a thermodynamic model” into a “new energy paradigm” where we learn to “model the earth” deriving energy in an athermal way, a carbon-free way. We are told of an “athermal nuclear electricity generator” that harnesses for humans a way of the earth, whereby “we” can tap into the earth’s “highly structured magneto-hydrodynamic fluid system” (106).

I say to all this, “Let it be so!” – even though I must await scholars more trained in these areas, beyond the physicists our authors can marshal in their book, other thinkers who might assess these claims better than I, and their confidence in this future paradigm.

Here, let me register my first suspicion about what I see as the developmentalist sensibility. There is precious little sense of how alienated structures of power are related to the transition they urge, or how energy’s availability in a coming age of “athermal energy” will deal with exploitation of labor, of brutal division of humans and so on.  Indeed, Crockett and Robbins are aware of, and also name such imposed suffering: “genocidal epidemics, exploitation, and enslavement of native peoples” that characterized the Industrial Revolution (90), these driven by carbon man, Homo Carbonicus. But my question is this: Will Homo Nuclearus their name for humanity in the new athermal age – be able to shed being what Homo Carbonicus was, i.e. fundamentally also Homo Brutalis or what it so often became in an oppressive and exclusive way, Homo Hierarchicus? The kind of naïve developmentalism I sense here is a near giddy confidence in the project of scholars’ and researchers’ projects, long a problem of many thinkers in the history of Western thought (recall the ideology of “progress,” for example). This is apparent in particularly telling language, I think, where Crockett and Robbins portray their “radical proposal” as “merely the next step up the energy grand staircase (109).”  I guess my question could be especially sharpened here, “With the next step up the grand staircase, whose bodies might remain the stepped upon? Who does the stepping up? Who the stepping down? Or do they think it a naiveté to raise such questions, that these concern threats will no longer attend the promised land of their athermal age? Does everyone go up the stairs in the athermal age? But if so, how will social and political powers need to be transformed to make such a revolutionary future possible? A more dialectical, materialist sensibility asks, and would address, questions like these.

Proposition Two: The Need for an Agonistic Politics

Let me move back to chapter 3 now, on “Politics,” because here one might expect some addressing of the questions I have just posed, some attending to the politics of struggle that surely will be needed to secure a more just distribution of athermal energy and its benefits, once we’ve gone “up the energy grand staircase.” My proposition here is as follows. Crockett’s and Robbins’ notion of the political, which they rightly and carefully distinguish as “the politics of the people” not “politics as a state form” (44), tend to point in all too general a way to a “radical counter-power” of a multitude, whose working is characterized, perhaps again over-confidently, as a tapping of “the actual cooperative activity that already makes the world go round” (53). This is peoples’ politics as “immanent force,” which they develop from Antonio Negri and, behind him, Spinoza, as a revolutionary power of “potentia.” They see this force exemplified in the insurrectionist power of the Occupy movement’s reclaiming public space (45). I agree with their moves here toward Negri’s and Spinoza’s theories of the multitude, and away from Carl Schmitt’s political theory, which is the starting point for much Continental political theology today, a Schmittian move that underwrites much of neoconservative politics in this country. Especially their challenge to Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction as some necessary pivot point for thinking the political is rightly challenged by them as “perverse logic.” They underscore their point with Derrida’s argument that Schmitt’s political theory on this point is “a political crime against the political itself” (50).  I agree.

I want to ask, though, where is the force, the friction, the antagonism that the multitude will need to generate its politics? Is it adequate to turn away from Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction as requirement of political theory and theology, and then to affirm Derrida’s further point that “the enemy is oneself?” Is it not also a problem to buttress this seeing of oneself as enemy with their turn to Augustine’s Confessions, which they see as putting the self in question? All the while, of course, the authors are trusting to that Spinozistic multitude that taps into the immanent power of the people, the potentia, moving, again, in accord with “the world’s going ‘round?”

I do not think this is sufficient. Yes, it is crucial to cite the multitude, its immanent power, and necessary also for a self-critical reflex to interrogate revolutionaries’ own projects. Again, though, how do we theorize the structures of enmity. I occasionally tell my students, when they construct easy fusions that join liberal notions of “progress” with Christian calls for “reconciliation,” that Jesus’ admonition to “love the enemy” assumes there are some. Without a phenomenal world where antagonism is recognized and theorized, as a key dimension of our being and work, the famous love command loses its force. So how do we think structural enmity? Is this notion of the “enemy as oneself,” and of the “immanent force” of the multitude, specific enough, say, for women who encounter the disguised and often blatant structures of hegemonic masculinism, one example of a hegemony generating agony and lines of antagonism. Do Crockett’s and Robbins’s formulations of the politics of multitude reference a resistance strong enough for people of color in the U.S. facing structures of whiteness – the “white racial” (Silva) – so destructive generation after generation (with today, for example, a new racialized regime of Jim/Jane Crow anchored by a runaway U.S. mass incarceration system)?[15] Then consider the decades of democratic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere in the global South, movements targeted as “enemies” to U.S. and transnational projects in global sovereignty and then brutally repressed. Recall, here, Mossadeq in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile – products of the forces of multitude, we might say, but who were then mercilessly, and calculatingly, made enemy, taken-down by U.S. military/transnational powers. I myself think that both Spinoza in his Ethics, and Negri in his book, (especially, The Savage Anomaly), better theorize this aspect of the political than do Crockett and Robbins.  Spinoza and Negri in their own distinctive ways give us tools for thinking group complexity,[16] but in such a way that the complexity includes a play of forms and forces that are teemingly multiple but inclusive also of agonisms and antagonisms of life. I fail to see where group complexity or antagonism – and thus a notion of struggle – are built into Crockett’s and Robbins’ “new materialism.” It would seem that our authors depend overmuch on a multitude’s “immanent force, where there is no authority, no power, no norm to which we can appeal beyond the self-governing rule that we are all in this together” (53). Even Hardt and Negri, as in their third co-authored volume, Commonwealth, give us reflection on the politics of love and the necessity of a “force of love, even providing criteriological marks to identify what that force looks like amidst social struggle. Something like that discourse on love’s “force,” needs inclusion in Crockett and Robbins text.

To be constructive, here, I would urge the authors to give more attention to “agonistic” and “antagonist” theories in politics, law and political philosophy. Again, many of these are referenced in my work, The Theological and the Political. Among them are Andrew Schapp’s Law and Agonistic Politics, Jacques Ranciére’s Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political, and her more recent book, Agonistics.[17] In Latin America, there is the already cited work of Enrique Dussel, his just-translated Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Gobalization and Exclusion. In Africa studies, the works of Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Valentin Y, Mudimbe, and Achille Mbembe can also sharpen up the group dynamics that are fraught with antagonism, a “necropolitics” (Mbembe),[18] all the while preserving complexity of analysis. In Asian and Asian-American discourses, consider Rey Chow’s The Age of the World Target or Vijay Prashad’s Darker Nations.[19]  In the U.S. Black Intellectual tradition, there are Cornel West’s and Angela Y. Davis’s works, more recently Joy James, Resisting State Violence[20] and before them all, the essential W. E. B. Du Bois.[21]

Proposition Three: Seeking Social Complexity in “Being (a Brain)

My third proposition engages most directly the part of the book that birthed the program title for session on their book at Union Theological Seminary: “Being (a Brain).” At the heart of Crockett’s and Robbins’s new materialism is their claim that the needed (and coming?) energy transformation also entails “becoming a brain.” Here I will treat of a matter I see extending across chapter 8, entitled “Being (a Brain)” and chapter 9, “Logic.”

Let me summarize my understanding of their phrase before I share my questions. “Being (a Brain)” is a kind of shorthand in the authors’ book that does not mean becoming that organ, literally, but rather human minds and bodies together entering into the unfolding and continual becoming of complex energy, thus fully “material” (111). They explain that their notion of brain as related to energy, is similar to how Heidegger related the notion of “a being” to “Being” in his Being and Time. Energy is to brain, as Being is to a being, they suggest. Further, being a brain is, for them, not only a concrete crystallization of being/energy, but also occurs as a certain “time-image,” a term they take from Deleuze and also liken to Heidegger’s view of Being as time, as mortal beings are thrown toward death, thus marked by “care” and the “question of being.”

My problem with this does not lie in their call toward being/becoming material. Instead, I would articulate my criticism this way, and here is my third proposition. Crockett’s and Robbins’ notion of becoming complexity (becoming “a Brain”) insufficiently builds into its complexity of energy the complex formation of socio-cultural emergence, and hence again, of the political structural powers that repress, and that must be countered with socio-political movement structures. Most of the theoretical language is heavy into the developing notion of evolution, or time’s evolving, and of matter and being unfolding in time. The brain that is “being,” in this way, is marked by “plasticity” (Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain? is cited often on this theme), and this way of understanding brain, and becoming brain is, for Crockett and Robbins, “history, that is, freedom.” This is too easy. It is not only a trust to evolutionary unfolding that is problematic, but the discourse of “self-emergent complexity” stressed here. Perhaps, to read this charitably – as I am prone to do – the “self-emergent complexity” here is meant to include not just socialized selves, but also, as I would wish to emphasize more, the socio-cultural and political groupings, structures, solidarities that are usually complex interactions of both repressive and liberating forces. But I do not see many grounds in their text for my more charitable reading.

If I could make a suggestion here it would be this. Crockett and Robbins might insert some “social emergence theory” into their understanding of the unfolding material energy of earth, perhaps as summarized in R. Keith Sawyer’s Social Emergence.[22] They might also consider philosopher Theodore Schatzki’s work,[23] which situates “social sites” in the ever unfolding mesh of natural orders and systems. Or yet again, they might take note of Jane Bennett’s suggestion, following Felix Guattari, that Foucault’s “disciplinary components” for organizing bodily energies could be included among the registers of a vigorously material ecology.[24]

Maybe our authors presuppose this social emergence, and thus they see these as already at work in their process of “Becoming (a Brain).” After all, their non-dualism, they stress, has “breaks,” “cuts” and “thresholds” within it, even if “there is no absolute opposition” (118). Could it be that, for Crockett and Robbins, we can find social emergence and its entities as constituted in various “loops,” as claimed by their cited theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, and that these “define space itself which evolves in time (116)?” Or, maybe social emergence and socially-constructed emergent entities, within the oneness of complex material energy (and – please understand – I’m not trying to step “outside” of this “oneness”) – maybe, I suggest, the social and political is at work in what they treat as a “brane,” i.e. “a kind of slice, or boundary” force in being? But then, they quickly speak of this only in relation to forces like gravity and strong and weak nuclear forces. Where, I ask, are the social and the political constellation of antagonisms at work in our “Becoming (a Brain)?”

Without being clear about this, Crockett’s and Robbins’ critique of Alain Badiou’s split “between thinking and being” or the “atomism” of his mathematical ontology (148-9) remains somewhat suspect. Could it be that Crockett and Robbins are strongly conditioned to view reflection on antagonism and on oppositions as so alien to the unity of being they seek, that they cannot see both as operative together in Badiou? Granted, as others like Peter Hallward (in his Badiou: Subject to Truth) have pointed out, Badiou neglects, even “refuses, relation.”[25] This charge has to be considered carefully, and perhaps with a new attentiveness, in light of Badiou’s recent works on love and in Logics of Worlds. But even if the charge against Badiou stands, at least Badiou’s thought has the virtue of sharpening antagonism and the theorization of group social and political difference. Without theorizing socio-political emergence and socio-political complexity within the complex materiality of being (a brain), Crockett and Robbins fall short of becoming what they hope, namely “more dialectically Hegelian than Hegel” and they seem not really to have avoided what they call “the teleological overlay that is generally attached to Hegel’s philosophy” (118).

Without this, moreover, there seems little hope of attending to the class alienation that Marx and Engels addressed, or that many others feel and think amid diverse modes of exploitation, often “included” but as always-potential “excludables,” as Agamben might put it. True, the authors give us neither a “crude materiality” nor an “embrace of mystical new age spirituality” – which they want to avoid (140) – but they hardly have clarified how it is that that they provide us a materiality that works a liberating or revolutionary future, or dreams of such. Even if it is true, as Jane Bennett observes that the social and political have received the lion’s share of attention by materialist scholars, to the exclusion of matter’s own physical vibrancy, it will not do to simply neglect the social, which is crucial for analysis and practice by and for “the part that has no part” (Rancière, again). How is this “part” to be understood in relation to the emergent complexity to which Crockett and Robbins trust?

This problem seems only exacerbated when the authors top off their book’s final chapter – before the conclusion – with two brief discussions of Daoism and the Christian notion of incarnation and crucifixion. They cite the word Dao as marking their affirmed underlying unity of all things, an “ultimately harmonious rhythm between and among opposites and oppositions.” There is little acknowledgement that Daoism also has ways to recognize overwhelming force, and sometimes an interest in subverting it, though by using opposing force against itself, going with it, as some in martial arts would put it. The Vietnamese insurgents had their greatest successes in opposition to overwhelming U.S. military forces by deploying and finding ways to exploit resources of Taoism and related approaches.[26] Where is the theorization of such force and subversive powers in this book’s affirmation of underlying unity of all things (142). Harmonious rhythm in a unity of all things need not exclude oppositional resistance.

Similarly, their way of citing the crucifixion, at the end of their “Logic” chapter, in order to illustrate the principle of being/becoming, also leads – unintentionally, I think – to yet another abstracting from worlds of political antagonism. They make a very orthodox and classical doctrinal move, and like that tradition, their move is problematic. The crucifixion of Jesus – again briefly mentioned (143-4) – is for them a marking being with with negativity, showing brokenness as intrinsic to “the logos” of being/becoming. This, they continue, “reunites the opposites of life and death in an extreme and spectacular fashion and demonstrates the disharmony, pain and suffering that marks logic, whose wounds it continues to bear” (144). The problem is that their concern here is largely with a principle of logic – one always broken and dispossessed, they say, but absent reference to what a crucifixion was in Rome, what it meant, politically and physically, to the crucified bodies subject to hanging, breakage and torture, often abandonment to the dogs and birds of prey. The cross becomes a philosophical principle rather than a material site of State execution, extra-judicial execution and torture, as I argued in The Executed God.[27] In still more appropriate terms, perhaps, the materiality of the cross is a kind of “lynching tree,” as James Cone has argued in his newest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.[28] For the materiality they seek to become sufficiently prominent in Crockett’s and Robbins’s book, a stronger notion of the social – the socio-cultural and the socio-political – needs to be inscribed in their notions of emergence.

Proposition Four: Interrogating “the We” Who Now Know Limits

I think much clarification would be gained with some change of rhetorical style, but my observations here on style are not simply a matter of ornamentation. They point again to a problem of conceptual substance. Thus, my final proposition. Crockett and Robbins would do well to entertain a more “reflexive theory,” articulating their own social location as writers of their text. I am not calling for the rhetoric of pure exposure of authors’ lives, “reflexivity as porn,” as Rey Chow has criticized this.[29] I mean reflexivity as called for earlier by Pierre Bourdieu who urged it of Homo academicus. This is not a call simply to theorize the Kantian “conditions for the possibility” of objects as phenomena, but, as Bourdieu writes, a call to examine “the social conditions of possibility of the ‘subject’ and of his [or her] work of constructing the object. . . and so to bring to light the social limits of [the] act of objectification.”[30]

The authors might begin such reflexive work by interrogating their own use of the pronominal plural “We,” especially as they sketch the backdrop of problems and limits that their manifesto addresses and from which it arises. In the “Politics” chapter, the trust in the immanent force of the multitude carries the phrase, “we are all in this together, and . . . this togetherness is the basis of politics per se” (53).  Who is the “we” here? And yes, we are all in this together, but often from very different vantage points and political positions of empowerment and disempowerment, ones that often leave us working at cross-purposes with one another – perhaps often, again, antagonistically?

In the discussions of “Energy” in chapter 6, the we-language proliferates and gave me special pause: “. . . we have exceeded the capacity of the natural resources of the earth to sustain so many billion people at the levels of consumption that we have reached…;” or “. . . we are reaching the limits of human ability to expand and manipulate our environment, even as we desperately search for new technological breakthroughs that would allow us to continue doing so” (89, emphasis added). Other examples of this could be given. I couldn’t help thinking, as I believe many throughout the global South have long asked – and I myself have heard thinkers ask it particularly in Latin America, but also in the U.S. – just who is this “We,” who here now – just now!? – is reaching a sense of limits, an awareness of exceeding them, and so beginning to lament Western expansion and exploitation of the earth? Especially communities long subject to colonialism, the machinations of slavery and the militarized neoliberalism of today – well, it should be observed that they deploy a different rhetoric of the “We.”

On this matter, my scribbles couldn’t help but fill up the margins in chapter 3 of the book, registering my wonder that “we” had not felt and thought before with urgency this sense of “limit.” Why was it not a “limit” when the Belgian Congo’s millions were wasted for colonialists’ extraction of natural resources and geopolitical agendas,[31] or when hundreds of thousands throughout the Indonesias[32] and Chiles[33] of the world were sacrificed to the geopolitical interests of powers from the global North. Wasn’t this a limit that “we” should have felt? Why were these ruptures worked by ongoing exploitation not felt before as a limit to modernity’s Homo Carbonicus?

Without interrogating their own pronominal “we,” Crockett’s and Robbins’ inspiring manifesto is vulnerable to the dismissal that often holds today’s environmental crisis-language as belonging mainly to worlds of Westernized whites or other elites, who long have had access protection from exploitation, but who now, are starting to face the negative effects of their living on their own turf. They experience what Aime Césaire (and Frantz Fanon following him) termed the “boomerang” of colonizers’ repressive ways coming back onto and into their own worlds and peoples.[34] Long before “the limits” became felt or lamentable by the colonizer, it was long a most brutal limit for the colonized. The environmental crisis is too serious to conceptualize mainly as a contemporary problem of “facing limits today.”

Thus, the problem of “our” reaching and lamenting limits is actually worse than I think Crockett and Robbins recognize. The problem is not just that “we” in “the first world,” as they say, have based ourselves on “a lie, which is the fantasy of indefinite if not infinite growth” (89). No, the problem, if we really problematize this “we” discourse, is that an exploitative growth has long been rationalized, entailing an acceptability of sacrificing those marked as disposable peoples. Enrique Dussel has argued that this penchant for selective human sacrifice constitutes the mythic heart of modernity.[35] Modernity was always, in Walter Mignolo’s terms, been “modernity/coloniality,” reflecting with this term points made by Peruvian social thinker Anibal Quijano.[36] The fantasy of infinite growth of modernity, took off from an already existent exploitative growth launched in the 16th century, which placed real limits on the bodies, lives and communities of the colonized. In particular, the beliefs about material life and bodily energy of colonized peoples –held by indigenous peoples,[37] but by others, too – were routinely spurned by the colonizing West and often are still so today. Modern societies’ members inured themselves to the sacrifice they demanded of “others,” particularly of the indigenous of the Americas and the Caribbean, largely through the routinized ethos sustained by race. Race is “the ultimate version of the difference axiom,” writes colonialism theorist and historian, Jürgen Osterhammel.[38] For all these reasons we have seen a necessary change of rhetoric when discussing the “Occupy” movement in the U.S. to a nomenclature that stresses actions to “Decolonize.”[39]

To fully explore this dimension of modern and contemporary living, this mythos and ethos of sacrificing the non-modern “other,” requires both reflexive critique of our own social locations as thinkers and of our “we” discourses. It then also requires a sustained theoretical engagement with, and openness to, as well as critique from, thinkers of the global South, and even in the repressed interstices of the North, who long have been naming the problem and analyzing the structure of Western nations’ power and growth.

To expose and analyze the frameworks that blind “us” to modernity’s mythic fantasy structure, and I suggest this, in closing, we need to integrate the various complex theorizations of race that might challenge and enrich our philosophical and scientific reflections. As just one of many examples of the genre I term “critical race philosophy,” see especially Denise Ferreira da Silva.[40] There are others, too. Please – and I direct this plea to myself, again, as a senior scholar, as well as to younger theorists and theologians – let us white theorists not go into the future with a political theology, especially in this country, forged in silence concerning the white supremacy and racism that are ever at work in, and so haunting, “Western” discussions about limits and futures. Political theology, and any truly “new materialism” will have to be more than the next phase of a Continental philosophy (Europe’s and its descendants’ philosophy). A “new materialism” does better to emerge through a learning from the bodies that have survived and thrived by their harnessing of earthen powers of intersubjective community and bodily energy, as taught by traditions (African, Asian, Amerindian) across the colonized tricontinental South and southern seas, and also among marginalized peoples of the colonizing North. I sense that Crockett’s and Robbins’ new materialism is headed for the new venture of engaging such traditions as these – or so it may be hoped.


[1] Andrew Schaap, Law and Agonistic Politics.  (London: Ashgate, 2013).

[2] Enrique Dussel, The Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion. Trans. Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillos, Yolanda Angulo, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres. Edited by Alejandro A. Vallega (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. My own review of Dussel’s book is forthcoming in Radical Philosophy Review, currently available, by permission here as “The Cry of Victims and Dussel’s Theory of Liberation: Philosophy Beyond Habermas and Levinas,” http://marklewistaylor.net/blog/the-cry-of-victims-and-dussels-philosophy-liberation-beyond-habermas-and-levinas/  

[3] I have developed this point at greater length as commentary on the “agonistic political,” in Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 97-111.

[4] The phrase is the subtitle from Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).  In addition to Crockett’s and Robbins’s book, see, among many other examples, these works in the “new materialism:” Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors, The New Materialism: Ontology, Agency and Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Barbara Bolt, Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013).

[5] Antonio Negri, Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity. French 2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). The new book cannot replace Negri’s still valuable and rich, detailed study written while imprisoned, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[6] Clayton Crockett, Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics after Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), and Jeffrey W. Robbins, Radical Democracy and Political Theology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[7] Mark Lewis Taylor, “Political Theology: Reflecting on the Arts of a Liberating Politics,” in Theological Perspectives for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Public Intellectuals for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ada María Isazi-Díaz, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, and Rosemary P. Carbine. (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), 156-79 check pages.

[9] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. Vintage Press, 1994. 373-85.

[10] Dussel, 259-60.

[11] Karl Marx, “The Economic and Philosophical Mss of 1844,” in Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton, 1978. 70-81.

[12] Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: On the Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, 2011.

[13] Jacque Ranciѐre, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 77.

[14] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 311-12.

[15] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Globality of Race (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). On imprisonment, see Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

[16] For Spinoza, the affects of “hate, anger, envy and the like” (Ethics III, Preface), are treated forthrightly amid his unfolding of complexity, showing the world that “requires a great many bodies by which it is, as it were, continually regenerated” (The Ethics, II. P19). On the multiple contexts in which human bodies are, and this as a resource for thinking a notion of “antagonism” within a non-dualistic ontology, see Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 112-13.

[17] Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (New York: Verso, 2013).

[18] Among these, see especially Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, volume 15, number 1 (2003):11-40.

[19] Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory and Comparative Work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), and Vijay Prashad, Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: The New Press, 2009).

[20] Joy James, Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Race and Gender in U.S. Culture. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[21] On this African-American tradition, see Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude, African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology. WJKP, 2003.

[22] R. Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[23] Theodore R. Schatzki, The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. Pennsylvania University Press, 2002.

[24] Bennett, 113-14.

[25] Badiou: Subject to Truth. University of MN Press, 2003. Pages 270-76.

[26] Frances Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), especially the sections on the Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s “Politics of the Earth” and “Rebellion,” pages14, 130-33, 222. Compare further discussion on this “Taoist” resistance in William V. Spanos, America’s Shadow: An Anatomy of Empire (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 255-56.

[27] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis: . Fortress Press, 2001). The best description of the historical-material practice of crucifixion is still Martin Hengel, Crucifixion. In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

[28] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree  (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).

[29] Rey Chow, Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 13-30.

[30] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, Trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997), 119.

[31] The most measured analysis of the Belgian Congo’s “millions lost” is in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in colonial Africa. Seventh edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 225-234.

[32] Benedict R. O’G Anderson. Violence and the State in Indonesia. Southeast Asia Studies, 30 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); and Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (New York: New Press, 2004).

[33] Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (New York: New Press, 2004.

[34] See especially Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. 1955. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New Introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley. Monthly Review Press, 2000, 36.

[35] Enrique Dussel, The Invention of the Americas: The Eclipse of “the Other” in the Myth of Modernity. Trans. Michael D. Barber  (New York: Continuum, 1995), 64-6.

[36] Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 93-4.

[37] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edition (New York: Zed Books, 2012; Donald Fixico, The American Indian Mind in a Linear World: American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge  (New York: Routledge, 2003. José Carlos Mariátegui’s exploration of the extremely complex indigenous materialism of the land should also be examined. See Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1988).

[38] Jürgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. 2nd edition (New Brunswick, NJ: Markus-Weiner Pub. 2007), 108.

[39] Miranda J. Brady and Derek Antoine, “Decolonize Wall Street: Situating Indigenous Critiques of the Occupy Wall Street Movement,” American Communication Journal, 2013 Special Issue. Volume 15, No. 1.

[40] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.






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