“Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion” – comments on Maria Birnbaum’s thesis


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I just finished reading “Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion,” an outstanding doctoral thesis by Maria Birnbaum, who recently completed graduate work in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Birnbaum’s work will be of interest to anyone engaged in analysis and critique of religion as a category of public policy because:

  1. it advances theorizing about how religion becomes constructed in the discourse of international relations about the recognition of states and because
  2. it illustrates why such theorizing matters in the practical functioning of international statecraft.

I expect to cite Birnbaum in my work and will recommend her dissertation to graduate students and colleagues.

Before proceeding any further with a short summary of the thesis and a brief discussion of how it relates to my project, I want to indicate a significant lacuna in what Birnbaum has written: with the exception of works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, there is very little mention of current critiques of the depiction and use of religion in IR. Most notably, Birnbaum makes no reference to Timothy Fitzgerald’s 2011 benchmark book, Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum). This is unfortunate since Fitzgerald’s substantial interrogation of themes and authors Birnbaum engages in her text would enrich her own analysis considerably. I hope that she will remedy this omission as she proceeds with publication of her important work.

The thesis is a clear and concisely written argument for practicing what Birnbaum calls “genealogical sensitivity” in international relations theory (IR). She uncovers major flaws in the work of Daniel Philpott, Scott Thomas and Jurgen Habermas – three authorities in IR who argue for the recognition of religion in global politics. Birnbaum shows although religion is assumed to be an “already present and intelligible” phenomenon that is a powerful determinant of identity and agency, none of the three can identify what it is that ought to be recognized. Furthermore, she argues that the process of recognition they support works to create that which it purports to be acknowledging. She claims that, in general, IR theory tends to be unaware of the contingencies of history, economics and power relations that underlie what gets labeled and institutionalized as ‘religion.’ Thus, Philpott, Thomas and Habermas exemplify what Birnbaum sees as forgetfulness and naivete in IR – forgetfulness (her word) about the processes of history that have brought about social groupings and classifications and naivete (my word) about how the very rhetoric of difference and particularity functions to produce the groups that governments aspire to manage.

Birnbaum condenses a great deal of complex theory and analysis in her text. Philosophical and political discussions pertaining to “being and becoming” are summarized and evaluated. She favors an approach that would balance the necessity of stabilizing social and governmental entities – i. e. “being” – with attentiveness to constant change that requires flexibility of boundaries and group definition – i.e. “becoming.” She reviews debates and literature related to the foundation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland and Israel as a Jewish state to show how religion emerged during the twentieth century dissolution of the British Empire as a “taken-for-granted juridical, cultural and political category” that affected the lives and deaths of millions. Her moving conclusion restates her argument that religion ought not to be used as a stand-alone analytic category because such a practice represses and thus disguises what is at issue in the struggles for power and resources that continue to fuel global conflicts.

Presently, I am at work on developing theory about how the category of religion is used strategically in technologies of statecraft to at times support existing orders of authority and at other times to undermine them. I argue that ‘religion’ has emerged rather recently as a placeholder for conquered and marginalized groups that are allowed to exist with some degree of cohesion within the jurisdictions of dominant sovereignties. The dominated group is allowed a circumscribed degree of autonomy as a religion if it agrees to abide by certain limitations chiefly in regard to a renunciation of the forms of violence – i.e. police and military functions – that the ascendant state reserves for itself. Thus, I understand religions to operate as the weakened vestiges of former states within fully functioning states. However, the very fact that religions are accorded some degree of sovereignty within dominant governments gives them a platform on which to strive for increased power and recognition. Religions are always restive to some degree and therefore behave like once and future states. Likewise governments habitually aggrandize religions by invoking theistic traditions as honored predecessors in order to glorify authority wielded in the here and now with a mantle of mystified and ancient grandeur. Examples abound in the preambles of contemporary legal and quasi-legal documents that make vague reference to a divine power as the ultimate justification for the present governing order. Because such theistic antecedents are almost always male, such contrived practices of nostalgia result in the shoring up of patriarchal ruling structures that characterize current governing regimes.

The thrust of the theory I am proposing undermines difference between so-called secular and religious orders of governance. Instead, I posit the existence of two unequal registers of government that eye one another with alternating degrees of competition and collusion, that jockey each other for domains of influence and that make use of one another to maintain and increase power.

I am developing such arguments along with several colleagues in a series of essays, edited collections and a monograph in progress. Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, edited with Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, will to appear this year from Brill. My essay in the volume, titled “The Category of Religion in the Technology of Governance: An Argument for Understanding Religions as Vestigial States” is an overview of my position.)

By showing how theorists in international relations articulate ideology that first reifies religions under the guise of recognition and then works to create and solidify contemporary state apparatuses to manage what is imagined as already there, Birnbaum enhances understanding of how ‘religion’ is linked to processes of governmentality. She also documents a sinister side to the whole business by pointing out some of the ways in which reified religions have become carriers of rigid and policed identities that exacerbate inter-group tensions and undermine progressive politics. Her work contributes to a growing and urgently necessary body of theory that is unraveling confusions propagated in the narratives of government in which we are all enmeshed.

NB This blog was first published on the NAASR site, 11.5.15.

Experiencing Sanctuary in the UK


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A visual essay on human experience of architectural sanctuaries throughout the United Kingdom (seen here: Aberfeldy, Coventry, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Glasgow, Iona, Manchester, Salisbury, Tudeley).  Selected vertical reflections of light, water, movement, stillness, silence, perspectives, windows, glass, air, holiness, earthiness, ruins, reparation, limitations, and liminality.

All photos taken by Paige M. Medlock Johnson.

On ‘The Sacred Project of American Sociology’


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Professor Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology was published in August 2014 from Oxford University Press. This book attributes the norms and imperatives of sociology to the notions of ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’. It challenges the presumed idea of sociology as a secular, naturalistic, rationalistic, and scientific enterprise. From the critical religion perspective, this book can be read as a self-reflection by a sociologist about the apparent secularity of the discipline. It is disappointing, however, that the book’s critical thrust against sociology did not directly penetrate the discipline’s religion-secular distinction.

Professor Smith stresses that the academic discipline of sociology is essentially a modernist ‘project’, which is “a complex, purposive endeavor requiring concerted effort sustained over time to mobilize, coordinate, and deploy resources of different kinds to achieve a desired but challenging goal” (p.3). The collective enterprise of sociology “is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire” (pp.7-8, Italic original). The same is repeated in the Conclusion (p.189)

According to Professor Smith, these shared commitments of the sociological project are the sacred in the Durkheimian sense. Sacred matters are “reverenced, venerated, and defended as sacrosanct” and sacred objects are “hallowed, revered, and honoured as beyond questioning or disrespect” (p.1). In the same way, the sacred project of sociology has “particular power to motivate and direct human action” (p.2). The sociological sacred thus “compels sociology to work to expose, protest, and end through social movements and state regulations and programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, and constraint of, by, and over other humans” (p.189).

The project of sociology is also ‘spiritual’ in the sense that sociological concerns “speak and respond to what is most worth living for, what purposes merit our devotion, what goods are to be most prized, what ends are worth dedicating ourselves to realize” (p.2). The sacred project of sociology mobilises “sociologists in the struggle on behalf of the project’, and this “is a dedication of the human spirit to what is believed to be most worthy of one’s devotion, true goods to be cherished, and purposes justifying a life’s investment and dedication” (p.191). At issue are “concerns and ideals drawn from the deepest wellspring of people’s hearts” (p.191).

The project of sociology ought to be called ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ because “sociology’s project engages what is believed to be a noble moral cause of weighty human meaning, ultimate value, and world-historical consequence defining the ultimate horizons of vision, purpose, and devotion” (p.192). Importantly, the book begins by claiming that although sociology appears “on the surface” to be ‘secular’ (p.ix), at the deepest level it is actually a ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ project. Professor Smith further emphasises that sociology’s sacred and spiritual project closely “parallels that of (especially Protestant) Christianity in its structure of beliefs, interests, and expectation” (p.18) and repeatedly highlights the essential sameness between sociology and Christianity (pp.18-20).

In spite of qualitative resemblance between sociology and Christian ‘religion’, however, the book identifies sociology as ‘secular’. We can find the phrases such as: “sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and world view” (p.18) and “sociology’s sacred project is a secular salvation story” (p.20). The idea of sociology as modern and ‘secular’ is also embedded when Professor Smith states: “Sociology is an archetypically modern endeavour, and its deepest roots are sunk … in the modern project of reconstituting society on a rational, universal, secular basis” (p.119, emphasis added).

As the historical background of the emergence of sociology, the book explains, the so-called ‘wars of religion’ during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries made European thinkers “convinced of the need to ground social orders not on shared religious commitments (as in European Christendom) but on a more secular basis that would provide greater social stability and material prosperity” (p.120, emphasis added). From the critical religion perspective, this kind of historical understanding is a major drawback of the book’s critical thrust. For example, William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (which is actually referred to at this point of the book) stresses that the story of ‘wars of religion’ is rather “a creation myth for modernity”, or “a soteriology, a story of our salvation from mortal peril” (p.123). It has a crucial legitimating function for the idea of ‘secular’ state. In this light, we should argue that by telling the story of violent wars of ‘religion’, the project of modernity and sociology constructs its ‘secular’ self-identity to naturalise and authorise its domain as ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ against ‘irrational’ and ‘unscientific’ ‘religion’.

It is from this stand point that it is right to say: “As a project, sociology belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society” (p.122). Then it should be continued like this: “It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts” to authorise and naturalise its social order as ‘secular’, ‘rational’, and ‘scientific’ by categorising functionally and structurally parallel Christian social order as ‘religious’, ‘irrational’, and ‘unscientific’ (rather than “to create a secular, rational, scientific social order” as originally stated) (p.122).

Then, if we modify other statements from the book (p.121), we can continue like this. Once the project of modernity gained serious momentum in the early nineteenth century, sociology was invented and it provided the conceptual tools by which to understand, explain, control, and reconstruct human societies. The religion-secular distinction is part of this new constellation. The categorisation of the project of modernity and sociology as ‘secular’, as opposed to the ostensibly ‘religious’ project of Christendom, authorised and naturalised the modernist and sociological understanding of the world.

This way of framing the issue more fundamentally challenges the ‘secular’ self-identity of sociology as opposed to ‘religion’, highlighting sociology’s resemblance to what is generally identified as ‘religion’. It is not to say that sociology is a religion, but to indicate the arbitrariness of the religion-secular distinction which ideologically classifies sociology as nonreligious secular.

As the book implies, there is no essential difference between sociology and religion. But what is not highlighted in the book is that the demarcation between ‘secular’ sociology and religion is an ideological construction. Classifying sociology as ‘secular’ naturalises and authorises its ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ project above ‘religion’. Another important issue which has been noted but not discussed in the book is sociology’s intimate relationship with the historical development of the modern nation-state. The religion-secular distinction has been utilised by the state to establish its hegemony by naturalising and authorising its norms and imperatives, while domesticating and controlling others as ‘religion’. Sociology has successfully gained its ‘secular’ status for its service to the modern nation-state.

In order for sociologists to be fundamentally self-reflexive, I would argue, what they should question is the religion-secular distinction which sociology is part of. Sociology’s self-identity as ‘secular’ (as opposed to religion) is part of a fundamental constituent of modernity. When sociology implicitly or explicitly claims its non-religious secularity, from the critical religion point of view, it ultimately functions as, what Louis Althusser famously called, ‘ideological state apparatus’. What concerns me is that as long as sociological discourse is embedded in the religion-secular distinction and sociology locates itself on the ‘secular’ side of the binary, sociology essentially serves the very ideologies it tries to subvert.

What does ISIS want? Rethinking difficult questions


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Graham Wood recently published a widely-read article entitled “What ISIS really wants and how to stop it” and has received much praise for his insights. His article is not without its problems, however, and I highlighted some critiques in a short posting on my personal blog.

I want to engage a little more with some of the questions that are being asked by Wood and others, starting with a key pattern of discourse that I see repeatedly. A recent interview by Sky News’ Kay Burley with Cerie Bullivant of Cage UK exemplifies this:

Burley is not known for her nuanced and sensitive reporting. However, asking Bullivant whether he condemned the beheadings ascribed to Londoner Mohammed Emwazi in the way she did is simply a more boorish form of a demand to take responsibility for others’ crimes that is often made of Muslims but not others, as numerous commentators have repeatedly pointed out ever since the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, and indeed before that. This cartoon from The Muslim Show, referring to the killing of Americans Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Muhammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, outlines this in simple terms:

The Muslim Show

The Muslim Show

The thinking behind this kind of demand for condemnation implies that ‘Islam is somehow to blame’ and that ‘Muslims must condemn’ atrocities committed by other Muslims in order to justify their place in society to non-Muslims. It is a classic case of the No True Scotsman fallacy, as I described last year – ‘true’ Muslims would not do such things, so to prove one is a ‘true’ Muslim one must condemn such acts.

Burley was engaging in classic Islamophobia, as Bullivant noted, but he was trying to point to something more – that there are social and political factors that create particular responses. The post-Westphalian nation-states we have in Europe rest upon  offering security and stability to those who live in them in exchange for allowing a Weberian monopoly of force. But what happens when the monopoly of force is misused and the promised stability and order becomes uncertainty and threat?

Islamophobia is a long-standing problem in the UK (cf. the original 1997 Runnymede Trust report), and harassment of Muslims by government authorities and others is widespread, whether it be attempts to recruit Muslims to work for the security services (e.g. 2009 and 2013), the targeting of Muslim charities (2014), the impact of counter-terrorism measures on all areas of life (2011), or everyday street harassment (e.g. 2014 and follow-up); that is before I even begin to point to systemic hate speech from the Daily Mail and other elements of the right-wing and gutter press. All this is happening all the time in the UK, before we even begin looking further afield at the continued attacks on Muslim innocents by the UK and its close allies, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere.

Although Burley did not want to hear it, all this frames the lives of many Muslims in the UK. It can hardly come as a surprise that resentment against the nation-state – that supposedly promises stability and security – then grows.

“The Koran for Dummies”

Whilst growing up with state harassment might be the norm for those of our fellow citizens going to fight for ISIS, it seems a fair number have very little in-depth knowledge of the Islam that Burley and her ilk seem to assume is their motivation. That two British men wanting to fight in Syria had in part prepared themselves by buying The Koran for Dummies and similar titles highlights their ignorance of Islam, rather than their inspiration from it.

It is not, then, some diffuse conception of ‘religion’ that provides the motivation for jihad, but an understanding of profound injustice inflicted upon the individual and their family, friends and their ‘imagined community’ (pace Benedict Anderson) that leads to a disillusionment with the ideal of a nation-state governed by the monopoly of force guaranteeing stability and security. It is not a surprise that such injustice elicits a response – in fact, I would go so far as to say that wanting to respond to injustice is a natural reaction.

Of course, what that response might be is still a decision for the individual – murder is not a pre-determined outcome of outrage at injustice; I would hope for a different response. However, once the decision to go down that route has been made, self-justification becomes necessary, and that is where (mis-)understandings of a tradition can arise. None of this is new. For example, Prussian (predominantly Protestant) soldiers on the German side in World War I wore belt buckles that had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) stamped onto them, whilst British Anglican bishops spoke of a Christian “crusade” to kill Germans – both sides using the breakdown of political and social order to pursue war, and both sides then claiming (the same Protestant!) God to be on their side. The war was not a Christian war in any meaningful sense, but the (mis-)interpretation of Christian belief was used to motivate the poor soldiers who had to fight in it.

From the very beginning Wood’s article falls for the fallacy that ISIS is about ‘Islam': ‘It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs…’ or ‘The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.’  But such statements do not help understanding – do we measure ‘Islamicness’ on a scale of 1 to 10? Whilst certain aspects of his article offer pointers to appropriate geopolitical responses to ISIS (e.g. parts of section IV – always presuming ISIS is as predictable as he is suggesting), describing ISIS as ‘very’ Islamic is not very helpful.

Of course, doing something about the manifold injustices in our societies and the ways in which our governments lead and encourage the attacks on marginalised communities is much more difficult than claiming ‘their Islam’ needs to change – but in the longer-term the former is undoubtedly more effective. Instead of asking Muslims to condemn certain crimes, or arguing about ‘how Islamic’ a movement is, changing the way our society relates to Muslims who are an integral part of it, as well as those abroad, can create the spaces for responses that are more positive (and dare I say it, more hopeful) than the responses of the tiny minority joining ISIS just now. Deconstructing understandings of ‘religion’ in society is a part of that – but deconstructing our society’s self-understanding in order to address systemic injustices is a far more wide-reaching issue that emphasises our collective responsibilities in creating a more just world.

Pasolini: the happiness of Marxism and Christianity


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Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian writer, film director and philosopher, was killed in Rome in 1975. He had been run over with his own car, driven by 17-year-old male gigolo, Giuseppe Pelosi. It is for his religious purity and candour in portraying the alien and the excluded from our society, that he rightly deserves his reputation as one of the most enigmatic masters of contemporary European culture. In his whole oeuvre, Christian faith leads inevitably to a praxis that opposes unjust social and political structures. Pasolini’s Christianity can be described as an interpretation of Christian faith through the proletarians and their struggles, their hopes and dreams, and a socio-political critique of society, the Catholic faith and Christianity through their eyes.

It is in this antagonistic encounter, between a desire to expose bourgeois outrage through his art and the need to recover the heart of the Christian experience, that Pasolini showed his subversive religiosity Already in his early collection of poems, L’Usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, 1958), death originated in the struggle with the senses and with sex, but the endless love of God, through forgiveness, brings humans into the sphere of ”a motionless God’’. According to Pasolini, the passion of Jesus Christ would indeed be in vain if the Divine was not devoted to humans, their sins and mistakes “an eternal day of compassion”.

In his poem ‘’A un Papa’’ (“To a Pope”, 1958), taken from his collection of poems La Religione del Mio Tempo (Religion of My Time), he vehemently attacked the Pope for having done nothing to improve the economic and social conditions of the lower classes in Rome, who were still living in slums, where they had been transferred by Benito Mussolini before the war in an effort to create the new Imperial Rome.

Although the poem talks expressly about Marxism, its inspiration is Christian, even if archaic and unconventional. Here Pasolini becomes the new Girolamo Savonarola challenging the Pope’s authority and challenging him about the Vatican’s corruption and the immense misery which still surrounded the Palace. In addition, in the last few lines of this work, Pasolini portrays the Pope as a greater and corrupted sinner forgetting to help the underclass and therefore failing to perform religious and Christian good actions.

Needless to say, Pasolini was harshly criticised for his heretical attitude and continuous critique of the Pope, but it was not just from the religious authorities that he would come under severe attack, but also from the court authorities and from far right organisations.

On September 22, 1962 during the Roman premiere of his movie Mamma Roma, the story of an ex-prostitute trying to start a new life, Pasolini was verbally and physically attacked by a group of members of far right organisations. Apart from these continued violent attacks by the Fascists, he was also put on trial for ‘contempt of religion of the state’ following the release of the film Rogopag. The film’s title contains the names of the four authors who contributed to it: Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and Gregoretti. Pasolini directed an episode: ‘La Ricotta’ (Goat Cheese) and it was for this episode that he was put on trial. Pasolini filmed ‘La Ricotta’ in the autumn of 1962; the episode discussed the Crucifixion by using profound political references: the proletarians were finally part of the Christian history.

‘Get those crucified characters out of there’; ‘bring up the crosses’, the actress Magdalen who dances the cha-cha-cha, shouts in front of the crosses; and Stracci (which means “rags” in English), the proletarian extra playing one of the crucified thieves, who eats so much goat cheese during the break that he gets severe indigestion and eventually dies, tied to the cross under the torrid sun. The movie is a complex metaphor (a postmodern parable) of the parasitic links existing between capitalism and religion. ‘Ricotta’ is a work in which Pasolini’s cultural, religious and political thoughtfulness achieves a stunning power of expression. However, in 1964 the Marxist Pasolini expressed himself on Christianity again, and this time in the most astonishing and unexpected fashion in his Gospel According to Matthew.

Filming of the Gospel began in spring of 1964. The choice of one character was highly suggestive: that of Pier Paolo’s mother Susanna to play the Madonna, exhausted by grief on Golgotha under the cross bearing her much-loved son. A remarkable prophetic picture of his own final sacrifice and death in 1975.

The film was cited by the OCIC, the International Catholic Cinema Office and warmly accepted by the Vatican. The citation explained: ‘The author… has given proof in his choice of texts … of respect and delicacy. He has made a fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression’. Yet his representation of Jesus in The Gospel According to Matthew is of an exemplary revolutionary leader: Jesus appears inflexible with a complete intolerance of any compromise.

Although later works by Pasolini would also contain clear references to religion, such as in ‘Teorema’, it was in The Gospel that Pasolini‘s heretic Marxism and Christian subversive passion reached their apex in their simplicity and precision.

The Marxist Pasolini expressed himself on religion in an effort to go back to the roots of Christianity, to the first Christian communities in Palestine. In doing this, Pasolini hoped he would destroy–through his works–the parasitic link that had been made between capitalism and religion, and thus help in recovering the critical potentialities of Christianity. What is a stake in Pasolini’s oeuvre is not a question of believing or not-believing in a pre-figured deity; rather, Christianity becomes a limitless poetic possibility of confrontation, for individual and collective existence, with the difficult and challenging truths that only the sacred figures and the sacred texts can show us and express, as they can subvert the power of the day.

Mystification and A Critical Reading of Mythologies


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It is not uncommon in public discourse to refer to mythologies as pertaining to the divine and the ‘supernatural’, and hence categorise them within the problematically constructed ‘religious’ sphere. Within the public sphere and academia in the West in general, these questions are dealt with as a certain kind of mystification. Such mystification takes two different courses: a) it is used as a talking point for the ‘secularists’ and ‘atheists’ to argue against the ‘evils of religion’ by seeing the supposed lack of rationality in these mythologies; b) it is used as a justification by many faith-based conservative groups to argue for an unquestioning mystified construction of understanding of various faiths. In fact, Richard King has, rather eloquently, argued that the latter has led to the construction of the ‘mystic East’ by Orientalists.

Whilst these two courses of narratives can possibly be seen as polar opposites, as many have argued on this website, the ideology that underpins these is the same: the reification of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ binaries. What is needed, then, is a more nuanced understanding of mythologies that does not fall into either trap, for which we need more than just a deconstruction of the ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ categories, but rather a ‘middle ground’ to negotiate two primary issues pertaining to mythologies: a) that they are often a part of oral traditions as a result of which embellishment of the stories is common, thereby questioning the meaning of what is ‘original’; b) how can they be presented and understood in the current milieu of ever increasing importance to empirical evidence and quantification.

I recently acquired a copy of Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik (Penguin India, 2011), which is a relevant example here. To interpret or retell Mahabharata, a collection of many stories that forms a central narrative and one of the two major Sanskrit epic poems (the other being Ramayana) is not new. In addition to regional interpretations of these epics within India, there are varied retelling available from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. In addition, whilst these epics are generally seen as ‘Hindu’ epics, different interpretations are available within Jainism. Many of these retellings have adhered to the original story of the Bharatha Dynasty. There are slight variations to the stories but the core is retained. For instance, whilst according to the Indian telling of a character, Karna, as being born to Kunti and Surya (the Sun-God), Indonesian telling retains this narrative whilst adding that Karna was born out of Kunti’s ear and hence the name (Karna: lit. ear in Sanskrit) (p. 70).

What is interesting about Pattanaik’s retelling is how he points to alternative understandings of particular details of the stories to emphasise the crucial aspect: that these are ‘re-tellings’ of stories passed on through centuries. For instance, pertaining to the role of women in these contexts, using specific stories, Pattanaik points to the ‘gradual deterioration in the status of women in Vedic [sic] society’ (p. 38). He approaches the characters as embodied beings thereby not glossing over the questions of eroticism, sexuality, etc. He also points to an important historical development surrounding constructions and understandings of ‘Hinduism’ as a modern category: stories in Mahabharata referred more commonly to the Vedic deities of elements of nature – water, earth, air, fire and space. That Vedic rituals focussed entirely on the divine representation of these elements is well highlighted in this book, whilst the modern focus on deities such as Shiva or Vishnu were later developments during the first two decades of the first millennium, which saw a rise in Vedanta philosophy. Both Nicholas Dirks and Richard King have made similar arguments in their respective texts. Pattanaik also astutely observes that whilst all the stories within Mahabharata surround rituals (within the context of war between different groups and communities), they also point to a time when ‘State’ and ‘Religion’ were not separate (p 89). Of course, there are problems in Pattanaik’s retelling too: some of the categories he uses, for instance moral/immoral, masculinity/femininity, are not deconstructed or problematised.

However, this is a refreshingly new interpretation of the epic poem and points to the need for critical study of mythologies behind Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are so easily mystified and categorised as ‘religious’ texts. By critical study I do not mean the ‘de-mystification’ of these stories. The question here is not whether or not these mythologies ‘really took place’ or whether we can prove that Karna was really born out of Kunti’s ear. Equally, the alternative is also not to leave them untouched because of their constructed ‘sacrality’. Instead what we need are more texts like Pattanaik’s that deal with mythologies for what they are: stories embellished through centuries that point to the complexity of the contexts within which they were and are being told or re-told.

Mythologies thus must be understood not as accurate accounts of history or ‘objective’ retelling of past events, but as contextualised understandings of our pasts. Works that point to alternative re-tellings of mythologies must not be stifled, an issue that has risen often in India with the Hindutva groups as the main actors—Wendy Doniger’s work being a good example. In doing so, we might be able to subvert the dominant narratives of ‘rationalists’/‘secularists’ and groups such as the Hindutva and establish a more nuanced understandings.

The slippery and solipsistic nature of categories


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In mid-December a friend and I took a brief trip to London. During various activities we took in two very different events at two museums. On 11.12.14 we went to the Annual Science Lecture at the Natural History Museum. This was delivered by Sir Paul Nurse and was entitled “Science as Revolution”. In the hour or so that he spoke, he outlined various scientific advances that revolutionised how we understand the world – the discovery of a heliocentric world, the theory of evolution, the application of atomic energy, and others. Following his lecture there was a 45 minute question and answer section in which topics ranged from science specific issues on GM crops (his current research) to the existence of alien life, to the frustrations of science education in the UK.

However throughout he repeatedly used a taxonomy that was frustrating, uncritical and increasingly asinine. This was in regards to his use of categories, as though science, religion, politics and economy were singular, definable entities that exist a priori. Furthermore, science was to be protected – indeed, in responding to one of the questions he all but argued that it should be protected and not questioned or critiqued – from the interferences of the others as they were unmoveable bulwarks to progress, scientific discovery and revolution.

Throughout his lecture (and answers) religion was only every described as “religion” and when pushed for details he focused on those groups whom the media would describe as “fundamentalists”. There was no awareness, it seemed, that some scientists could have an agenda – and not necessarily a benign one at that, or even that some scientists are not exclusively non-religious or atheist. Politics was limited to the personal agendas of politicians or the militarisation of weapons. Science was equally poorly nuanced but was, unsurprisingly, seen as the only way forward, the only means of progress and revolution.

Yet the entirety of the lecture proved otherwise, as the scientific revolutions he lauded were abstracted from their context and thus stripped of their revolutionary potentiality. Revolutions are a confluence of events, never a singular happening (see for example Lenin’s four conditions for revolution in his The State and Revolution, London: Penguin, 2009 edition). Within any revolution there are scientific, religious, cultural, political, economic upheavals and advances (consider, for example, the importance of the French Revolution on science through the work of Jean-Baptise Lamarck and Georges Cuvier). There was no acknowledgement of other factors as leading motivators and flash points spurring a revolution in the lecture by Nurse, indeed if one was unfamiliar with European history one could get the impression that revolution depended upon science for cause, means and outcome.

Categories are slippery, hard to define and impossible to separate out. This is for a simple reason – they do not exist because they exist, they are not tangible coherent entities as Nurse wanted to present. Rather they are constructs that we create and use for various purposes. Like all constructs they are contingent upon their creators not for definition, but for existence. With their creators they share the qualities of being multi-faceted, duplicitous, and interdependent.

The second event we undertook was an exhibition entitled Disobedient Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was a visual display on how everyday objects have been used as objects of protest, civil disobedience and social change or revolution. There was quite a small array on display – most related to areas of extreme poverty or civil war. It was a fascinating exhibition (and one I highly recommend) and at times shocking. One particular object is being focused on here and this is the use of an art form known as arpilleras in Chile as a means for women to tell their own story. One caught my attention.

Deborah Stockdale, "Shannonwatch"

Deborah Stockdale, “Shannonwatch”

It was designed by Deborah Stockdale, an American textile artist living in Donegal in Ireland and was entitled “Shannonwatch”. It was accompanied by the following explanation:

“Donegal Ireland, 2011

The arpilleras made in Chile have inspired women around the world to use the technique to tell their own stories of survival and resistance. This recent arpilleras was made by an America textile artist living in Ireland. It depicts the activities of Shannonwatch, who are monitoring the use of Shannon Airport by the American military. The protestors wear white burkas in support of Afghani women caught up in the ‘War on Terror’. Deborah Stockdale”

Shannon Watch is a protest group, and their purpose is to stop or at least highlight the use of Shannon Airport by the US military (it is also worth noting that Shannon Airport – close to Limerick, is over 174 miles from Stockdale’s home in Donegal). However Stockdale has misused, in my opinion, their protest in her artwork. There is no record of any of the group having worn burqas of any colour or made any comment or protest about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Their sole concern is the improper use of the airport by another military force. Therefore her artwork does not depict the actions of the protest group, instead she has hijacked them to make her own personal statement.

Shannon Watch are an important protest group and their cause a worthy one but they are not oppressed minorities – nor are they all, or even majority, women. Using this form of material and protest to highlight one’s own ideas demonstrates the solipsistic nature of categories. The protest at the airport is about the use of Irish airspace, not about the oppression of Afghani women. The presence of the burqa as the dominant image immediately brings it into the misinformed and heavily biased discussion of the burqa as a means of religious oppression of women (see, for example, here and here).

Furthermore, these forms of artwork are typically used by women in areas of oppression to express themselves when other means are not available to them. Stockdale can make no such claim, she is a citizen of one of the most powerful nations in the world today, she is able to make a living as an artist in the country she chooses to live in and her voice and ideas are heard in other countries. In other words, this relates to the question of ‘white privilege’ and indeed further feeds into that privilege because the voice of the dominant, normative, educated is being placed over the voices of those without said privilege. Stockdale is what Peggy McIntosh describes as “a participant, an unfairly advantaged person, in a damaged culture.” There are of course nuances needed within the ‘white privilege question’ as oppression is really more about intersectionality, as Gina Crosley-Corcoan notes. Often white privilege is gained, not through the colour of skin, but through education status, employment, economic stability, and familial circumstances. One form of oppression is no less important, or impacting, than the other

Choosing to have your work displayed alongside those who are oppressed and whose voice is not heard by the dominant, smothers or drowns what they are saying for the purposes of having someone else speak who already has a voice and a platform. These arpilleras, once a means for the subaltern to speak, have now become a means for them to be spoken over once again, and indeed to be spoken for. The subaltern has a voice, we need to stop speaking over them and instead listen.

Both Nurse and Stockdale have misused categories and have in different ways demonstrated the dominance of the religious – secular – political – Western categories still in existence and use. In so doing they have not only indicated how far we still have to travel but that oppression can still sink its teeth in when users refuse to acknowledge the slippery and solipsistic nature of these categories.

The “No true Scotsman” fallacy and the problem of identity


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The philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) famously described a fallacy that has become known as the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy.  It was even published in the (real!) Scotsman newspaper obituary:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

This analogy is often used uncritically in thinking about the way in which identity informs understandings of religion. For example, after the 11.9.2001 attacks on New York and Washington many argued that although the aircraft used to crash into the buildings were being flown by Muslims, ‘True Islam is a peaceful religion’ and the perpetrators were therefore not true Muslims. True Muslims would not kill thousands of people in an attack like that – and, of course, the vast majority of Muslims around the world condemned these attacks.  Maybe, therefore, even though they described themselves as Muslims, the attackers were not true Muslims?

In a Christian context, we can see something similar happening. Most Christians would argue that, according to their Scriptures, killing others is prohibited. And yet there are plenty of instances in which Christians kill other people. We don’t even need to look into distant history for that: George Bush and Tony Blair both professed themselves to be Christians, and yet they presided over devastating attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being killed.  But if true Christians do not kill, perhaps neither Bush nor Blair are true Christians?

This way of thinking, as Flew wanted to show, leads us nowhere.  Can we comment on whether someone is a true Scotsman (or Muslim/Christian etc.)?  Perhaps the problem here is the reification of a position into an identity marker.  Hamish McDonald might have a certain idea of what a true Scotsman is, but this idea centres around an abstract imaginary of the concept ‘Scotsman’ (and the Aberdeen sex offender clearly didn’t fit that image).  Using that kind of fixed notion, we will never find agreement on what a true Muslim/Christian (or even Scotsman!) might do.  We clearly need to find other tools.

Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, cited by Sara Ahmed (p12), discuss the difference between ‘location’ as a fixed point and ‘position’ as a relative concept, and perhaps this offers us a helpful way forward: ‘”In geographical terms, ‘location’ fixes a point in space, usually by reference to some abstract co-ordinate systems…” while “‘Position,’ by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporates a sense of perspective on other places.”‘

If we understand self-descriptions of individuals in terms of positions, rather than fixed locations or identities, we might find it easier to comprehend the 11.9.2001 attackers or the Bush and Blair warriors.  After all, a statement such as ‘I am a Muslim/Christian’ (etc.) is usually made in relation to others: most obviously, perhaps, affirming commonality or marking difference.  It is, to use Smith and Katz, an implied location in relation to other locations, with a sense of perspective on other places.  This kind of positioning changes all the time, relative to our context.  We can perhaps understand this relative positioning better by thinking about Judith Butler’s ‘turning’ when a police officer calls out, ‘hey you!’  We change our position in response to the call: we turn to see if we are the one the police officer is addressing, and our position relative to everyone and everything else around us – not just the police officer – therefore changes as a result of that address, even if the call is not really meant for us.  Our location might not have changed, but our position has.

This kind of imagery can help us in thinking through some of the language used to describe positions.  We can understand the Muslim or Christian attackers and their statements of belief as positions taken in relation to others, rather than as fixed locators or identities.  This does away with the need to understand the true Scotsman problem in contexts such as those described above: we don’t then need to explain that true Muslims or true Christians would never kill others even if these particular Muslims or Christians did so.  Rather, we can look at how others who position themselves as Muslims or Christians (etc.) understand these contexts, and construct an understanding on the totality of these representations, intelligently assessed.

This also helps us to understand the adoption of certain kinds of language in contexts that at first appear to be misplaced; in this sense it is very easy to see how some of the ideas underpinning Critical Religion could lend themselves to a simplistic racism and Orientalism.  For example, it is important to think about how we understand an imam in Timbuktu who says that ‘Since the beginning of time Timbuktu has been secular.  Timbuktu’s scholars have always accepted the other monotheistic religions.  After all, we all believe in the one God, each in our own way.’*  The CR scholar might protest: aren’t terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ (as opposed to ‘religion’, maybe) concepts that originate in a Western context, with little meaning in Islam?  And yet: essentialising Islam in such a way, as if Islam in Timbuktu were the same as in Mecca, Beirut, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Detroit, is a failure to understand the positionality of the imam.

We need to take his statement seriously: he knows what he means with this language, and whilst we might understand the interview with the Western journalist as framing his comments, we also need to understand the Butlerian turn here: he is not (just, or even at all) necessarily moulding his language to suit her, the journalist, but is seeking to articulate a position, and in the articulation itself there is also a movement.  Seeking to pursue a constructivist position as far as we can possibly take it enables us to hear the imam and understand his reworking of the terms that we thought we understood – he is repositioning these terms and this language in adopting it and making it his own.  Whilst it might be of historical interest that terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ originate in the West, understanding the re-positioning and re-use of these terms should enable us to begin to better understand those who might appear to be the Other, leaving the No true Scotsman fallacy and our essentialist historical notions behind.

* “Seit Anbeginn der Zeit war Timbuktu säkular. Die Gelehrten von Timbuktu haben die übrigen monotheistischen Religionen immer schon akzeptiert. Wir glauben schließlich alle an den einen Gott, jeder auf seine Weise.”

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Hegel’s Return


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Stubbornly, Hegel keeps returning. Just when we think this notorious philosopher, or any of the numerous Hegelianisms spawned in his name, have had their day, Hegel keeps coming back. And today he is back with a renaissance as considerable as any. Why is this case?

One might argue it is because Marx keeps coming back. And every time Marx returns, Hegel is always lurking in the shadow, or lurking precisely as the shadow, the negative inverse of what Marx had championed in the name of a dialectical materialism, that is, a direct challenge to capitalism’s political economy by means of a confrontational critique of its ideology and a revolutionary reaction on the ground. Certainly, one need not go far to find a Marxist resurgence somewhere in motion. But Hegel is not Marx. Nor is Hegel always an inverted Marx, or perhaps we should better say, nor is Marx always an inverted Hegel. If Marx keeps returning as some form of a critique, directed against a hegemonic power or against the injustices of an economic system, Hegel is far less outspoken, far less confrontational. In fact, he is still often perceived, politically, as Marx’s very antithesis, a champion of the right and the conservative, or at least of an ideal form of political thinking that favours the establishment.

And yet despite this gross misreading, Hegel keeps returning. One way to think about this insistence of Hegel, before or beyond Marx, is to think about the very driving force behind Hegel’s thought. For many, this has been called the “dialectic”, a kind of triadic movement by which two opposing forces collide with each other to produce a third force, one that keeps elements of the original two oppositions, but raises them to a higher and more productive level, thereby preserving and negating them at the same time, in a new reality that is wholly unique, but also one that fully comprehends what it has just accomplished.

Yet recent thinkers, especially from Continental Europe, have begun, over the last decades, to ask a more fundamental question: what drives this process itself, the process of the dialectic? And here they alight upon something that was previously considered as only one side of the dialectic, or just one of the original oppositions: negation. But how could negation be seen as the driving force of the process in which it is one of the elements? How could it stand both within and without that process simultaneously? Is not this a bit like saying that what makes chess work as a game are the black pieces? They are necessary, to be sure, but not, as the philosophers say, sufficient. Or perhaps less crudely, is it not like contending that the process of pollination for certain plants is driven by bees? The bees are certainly crucial for the process to work, but they hardly impel and determine by themselves the overall process. That role, we say, is taken by “mother nature”, working to unite both sides.

This problem of contradiction (both within and without) gets to the very nub of why Hegel remains such a potent figure for the modernity in which we presently live. If Hegel really taught that negation was a prime motivating force, and that nothing moves or has life without this force – and this is what he is really saying, with all its paradoxical implications – then what does this say about the modernity we have inherited not only from Hegel but from his modern forebears?

The problem is inherent to modernity itself. If we characterise this modernity as a fundamental shift in our understanding about the nature of origin, and origination, then we might better grasp our dilemma. Now why has modernity has been so obsessed with rethinking origin – everyone from Darwin to those working on the Hadron Collider? The pre-modern understanding of origination was grounded upon a Creator God, who brings all things into being, at their origin, and who is thus Origin itself, as eternal origination. This meant that we looked back for the ground and authority of our being. But the origins of modernity are based upon a break from this way of thinking, in an attempt – religiously by the Lutheran reforms and philosophically by Descartes’ revolution – to free us from the abuse or uncertainty such authority was deemed to have institutionalised. This break called us to look forward to the ever new, rather than to the established. (Hence the term “modern”, based on the Latin “modo” – “just now”.)

But in order to free our being to the ever new, a new ground was needed – a ground of freedom. This modernity found in consciousness, and more specifically, in self-consciousness. And here we need to see consciousness not merely as matter of awareness (as it is most generally understood), but also as a matter of origination, originating the very individuality of our selves through the freedom of self-determination.

But in making this move, we instigate an internal split. For self-consciousness requires that we be both subject and object to ourselves at the same time. What I am conscious of, as a subject, is myself, now as an object. If in this process consciousness brings the self into existence through its own internal freedom – no other higher Origin necessitates my being; it is my own freedom that allows me to be who I am, even if I later choose to embrace that higher Origin – then at the heart of this consciousness is a contradiction: I am who I am (subjectively) only by negating myself (turning myself into subject’s opposite – an object). We can see this very phenomenon in a common experience of romance: “I didn’t realise I loved her until she left me!” The realisation is predicated upon its very absence.

Now Hegel, I contend, was the first philosopher to properly seize upon, not this internal contradiction per se, but its most potent solution. Negation must not be seen as a force that, first and foremost, eradicates or takes away (one side of a dialectic). Negation must be seen as a primordial force that brings into existence. And what it brings into existence (just like the new modern self) is, first and foremost, itself!

As long, therefore, as modernity is beholden to a notion of consciousness as freedom and of freedom as consciousness – and this continues to be confirmed to us in virtually every sphere of our contemporary experience, whether political, aesthetic, judicial, relational, etc. – then Hegel will keep returning, because Hegel challenges us to embrace a negation at the very core of our modern self-understanding and self-identity, and, in effect, to negate it, by turning it into something productive. But we can only do that, ironically, through negation.

Negativity is everywhere in our globalised world today. We don’t have to work hard to find it, nor to justify its existence. Modern media incessantly shows us the rampant ills of our present state. But if we want to convert that negativity into something positive, or, dare I say, into something positively negative, then we need to appeal to Hegel. And this is why Hegel returns. But such an appeal is not to invent a new Hegelianism. On the contrary, it is actually to outstrip Hegel, and any system that might be built in his name, by being most consistent to his thought. Paradoxically, we are truest to Hegel when we go beyond him in his own name. This is what keeps Hegel original – and I mean this in the most original sense of the term “original”. The origins of Hegel and his thought are in his own negation, which, Hegel taught, we must now make our own.

Religious education or indoctrination: an evening of lively discussion


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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, the contribution by Sarah Clark, and the first comment piece by Russell Hunter, Tim Fitzgerald here offers our final piece on this specific event.  We hope you have found all of these contributions helpful in thinking about the wider debate on RE in schools, and not just in the Scottish context. – Michael Marten, Editor]

The organisers should be thanked and praised as far as the idea of the forum is concerned. Clearly it was a legitimate forum for local teachers, parents, theology professors and Liberal Christian ministers to express their feelings and ideas about the goods and the bads of RE in school. The forum rightly included a representative of secular humanism. The problem for me is that secular humanists talk the binary reverse of what the religionists talk, and thus challenge nothing, because the circularity of the discourse is maintained. This binary discourse centred around ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ ensures the circular rehashing of the same persistent, un-deconstructed discourse whose deadening ubiquity stops us all thinking new thoughts.

Our very own Sarah Clark had something powerful and original to say, but the chair and the other speakers failed to pick it up. Sarah referred to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ she experienced between teaching RE in school and studying critical religion at Stirling University. This led her to make a career change. This significant content seemed to be of no interest to the chairperson or to any of the other speakers, despite the lavish praise and the mutual love-in and prize-winning ceremony at the end.

True, I am more on the academic side of the topic of ‘religion’, but, as a result of the urging of others, I imagined that this might be a forum where I could learn something and perhaps also make some useful connections between what we do in critical religion at Stirling and ideas about how RE in schools might be rethought to give it critical relevance.  However I cannot in all honesty say that anything at all was advanced by this event – from my own perspective at least – and indeed it may have done some damage. I feel disappointed at the way this debate was staged and conducted.

Sarah received loud applause when she went to the podium to speak, yet none of the organisers or other speakers seemed alerted by this that a sizeable number of undergraduates, and several postgraduates and lecturers were present, or that we might have anything worthy to contribute. Two lecturers in particular – Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, have published interesting contributions to the topic of RE, but these do not seem to have been mentioned.

You cannot have everyone on a panel, and the organisers have the right to choose who they want to be there. Yet neither Alison nor John were acknowledged from the platform and nor were the rest of us from the Stirling religion subject area. The many religion students and lecturers in the audience seemed to be invisible and inaudible to those up on the platform and to those of the organisers who were sitting in the front row. I felt that I was intruding into someone else’s private assembly, and I began to wonder why my wife and I were there, and why I had urged my students and postgraduates to attend – some coming from as far away as St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Some people may now want to organise a counter-debate, preferable led by a combination of current RE teachers in schools and critical religion students at Stirling, especially those who, like Sarah, intend – or intended – to teach RE in school. Yes, we need all the constituencies to participate. It seems potentially more creative to try to bring the academic subject area and the school curriculum into some kind of direct, creative tension. After all, that is exactly what Sarah Clark was talking about: the dissonance between the two.

I believe and hope that what we do successfully in the religion subject area at Stirling is to deconstruct the empty and confused rhetoric around religion and secularity, and show how it serves wider power agendas that tend to remain half-hidden in the background.  But I recognise the need for caution. I suspect that many teachers and parents, whose legitimate concerns are with the actualities of the school curriculum, will be puzzled by how we proceed, and slow to recognise the relevance of deconstructing discourses on religion. It would be unhelpful if the ‘lively discussion’ split into a false assumed dichotomy of realists and idealists – the idealists being those supposedly privileged academics like myself who live and teach abstractions that have no bearing on the supposed realities, and the realists being the teachers who do the immensely difficult job working within the externally imposed realities of the curriculum.  This is, I believe, yet another of those either-or binaries that keep us stupefied and ensure that nothing new can be thought. I would not go cold into that forum. It needs to be prepared. A space could be made for what we do at Stirling, even if it is only trying to clear the conceptual rubble so evident that evening.


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