Total Commitment: Lecture Three

In this post I will first offer a summary of Kathryn Tanner’s third lecture, aiming to stay as close to her terms as possible. I will then open a critical line of inquiry on the discussion thread, asking how Tanner’s promised ‘Protestant anti-work ethic’ succeeds given its continuing (albeit ‘converted’) use of terms such as ‘project’ and ‘self-fashioning.’ So read the summary (as well as our live Twitter feed at #GiffordsEd) with a view to commenting on how well you think Tanner destabilises the total commitment required of us in a world of finance-dominated capitalism. The lecture video is also now available at this link.

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Kathryn Tanner begins by describing a corporation’s problem with securing ‘total commitment’ from its workers. A company’s controlling interest in maximising shareholder value means that each worker must provide constant, maximal intensity of effort in the pursuit of profit. It is so important to track, and motivate, such worker commitment that a company will even take on the costs of a surveillance system. Such monitoring can contribute to a worker’s motivation in that one fears for the security of one’s position or, alternately, hopes for an award of ‘recognition.’

These attempts fall short of engendering a worker’s entire commitment, however; ‘total’ compliance is required in order to maximise profit. Motivation through fear, or external reward, always leaves a space between the company’s demands and the worker’s commitment: one may prefer not to. The company could, then, try to ‘evacuate’ the will of the worker, creating machine-like responsiveness. Employees become a ‘blank interface,’ reacting only to the need of the moment (the call centre is a prime example of this). In such a scenario, the company pushes out ‘not just thought of anything else, but thought per se.’

The displacement of a worker’s will and capacity for thought is, astonishingly, still not enough; the most efficient method is to re-direct and animate the worker’s desire in alignment with the company. This has the benefit of saving on costs: surveillance is not required when employees become self-monitoring. It is beneficial, in other words, to form the ‘character’ of employees such that their work ethic involves pleasure in following the lead of others. Moreover, the company appears to grant worker autonomy, with the assurance that the company’s own ends are what the worker ‘freely’ desires. Needless to say, this suppresses dissent, for ‘how can one criticise what is the desire of one’s heart?’

This profit-maximising formation of character extends beyond company facilities to every sphere affected by finance-dominated capitalism. Whether at the store, online, or at home, one is similarly obliged to ‘make the most of what one has.’ The capitalist subject should constantly pursue more lucrative possibilities, maximising personal growth. In more financialised terms, Tanner states, one is to seek ‘an ever-increasing GDP in one’s person.’ Here she acknowledges the importance of Michel Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics, with its account of how ‘one’s self is what one works on, what one perfects.’ Tanner elaborates that ‘one takes up a peculiar sort of business relationship with oneself;’ whether cast in terms of sunk costs or entrepreneurial opportunity, one ever hopes to turn a profit.

Tanner then turns to show that the company does not ultimately control this process of subject formation; it is the market, in all its fluctuations, that ‘manages’ the corporation. This is why company managers likely do not feel that they are the agents disciplining employees, for they only act as those under authority. The corporation cannot, as a whole, ‘self-realise’ in its choice of employee dynamics or product lines, because it must follow the dictates of the market. This obviously affects the worker, who comes to feel that ‘the market seems to be extending its own life within me.’ The only arena of freedom that remains for an employee is the attitude one adopts towards work. This is difficult to ‘master,’ though, given the way in which one’s fear, love, and self-evacuation converge to induce compliance.

Christianity, Tanner argues, drives a wedge into this total commitment. It does so by demanding a commitment to God that parallels that of the market; one is asked to bring one’s life into alignment with God’s will in everything. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference: conversion involves ‘repudiating’ the sinner that I am but this need not translate into self-evacuation. It is not the displacement of my will but its reversal. In an account developed in Tanner’s other work, such as her book Christ the Key, the human and the divine are in a ‘non-competitive’ relationship, which entails not the evacuation of the self but its redirection. The language of orientation is not quite enough, however, for Tanner also talks about a new ‘malleability’ to the subject whose ‘end’ is union with God.

The God-directed focus of the converted subject pervades every activity. At the same time, this does not erase other identities, but ‘incorporates them instead in a relativising fashion.’ Although one’s identity is primarily ‘in Christ,’ this does not entail the collapse of difference between spheres as, for instance, in asset acquisition. Nor does any one social role ‘hold a monopoly’ on the turn towards God. As a result, the orientation to God is not ultimately dependent on the success or failure of a particular venture. In the effort to alleviate poverty, for instance, one’s failure would lead to lament but also the abiding belief that ‘God will make up the difference,’ that is, God can be trusted to nevertheless bring in a kingdom without poverty.

Tanner’s account of ‘self-reformation,’ carried out in Christ through the Spirit, frees the subject in a manner that cannot be envisioned by finance-dominated capitalism. The account seeks to release a person from the anxiety caused by ‘over-investment’ in daily tasks. Conversion is not, Tanner stresses, merely the start of a more intensive ‘juridical form of self-examination.’ Moreover, conversion allows a God-oriented detachment from the compliance demanded by a market-driven corporation; echoing the Apostle Paul, Tanner states that ‘one can act as an employee as if one weren’t.’

Tanner’s account of the ‘peculiar’ self-project offered in Christianity marks her departure from Foucault. Although she has followed his diagnosis of how capitalism determines one’s self-formation, she disagrees with his position (in her paraphrase) that ‘all projects of self-fashioning make the self the object of the practice.’ For Foucault, Stoicism promises mastery of the self in distinction to what he saw as the Christian claim to evacuate the self. For Tanner’s theological account, however, the ‘self is neither the ultimate object nor the motor for its attainment.’ Rather, ‘Christ and the Spirit provide the ever-available motor for making oneself over from sinner to saint.’

Having summarised Tanner’s impressive lecture, I now turn to our opportunity for reply. In this thread I will be joined by my colleague Joanna Leidenhag, a fellow postgraduate student at New College. After we’ve started the discussion, we hope to hear from you. If you need a review, see my post on how to comment.

16 thoughts on “Total Commitment: Lecture Three

  1. Thanks for the excellent summary, David.

    I want to start by thinking a bit more about the relationship between the total commitment demanded to us by our work places and the total commitment demanded by God, or Christianity. Tanner articulated the powerful similarities that enable Christianity to ‘drive a wedge’ between employee and company, but also the decisive differences – as Christian identity can be inclusive of other areas of one’s life and does not seek to evacuate the self.

    However, for many who have the church as their ‘company’ and Christ as their identity, this relationship or comparison does not seem so simple or binary. In what ways do church organisations not only mimic that of finance-dominated capitalism but educate secular companies? The language of ‘mission’, ‘vocation’, ‘service’ and a specific kind of ‘belonging’ have long ago moved from church-dialogue into the world of business and finance. The relationship of influence, in my opinion, is clearly one that can move in both directions. There is hope here then, not only for a wedge and a disruption but a reformation of finance-dominated capitalism and the potential for a change from within. But to do this, the church would need to further play the game of success, in order to be viewed as desirable for imitation by business, and this would perhaps be to the detriment of the cruciform character of our calling. What do you think?

    I will now push Tanner’s argument a bit further and explore some things that weren’t explicitly mentioned. The very same plasticity that Tanner sees as so important, as what lets us be made in the image of God and reformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit, seems to be the very same plasticity which allows for us to be formed by our companies. One of the most insightful parts of Tanner’s argument, to my ears, is the detailed unveiling of not only how companies produce, sell or buy real/imagined entities, but what else they need to do, what they need to become and what they demand from their workers in order to achieve maximum profit. In this way, it struck me that the advertising that companies spend so much on is particularly important. Not only do these messages dominate our lives and assault our senses, but they demand a total restricting of our value systems and sense of self.

    To list some of the most philosophical and powerful messages:
    Apple: “Think different”, “The power to be your best”, and “Think outside the box”
    Lexus: “The relentless pursuit of perfection”
    JP Morgan and Chase Bank: “The right relationship is everything”
    And most famously, L’Oreal: “Because I’m worth it”

    There is nothing inherently to do with the products or services sold here. These taglines suggest a new lifestyle, a different “you”, and it is one that is embodied by their employee as much as sold to their customers. Are these companies our new churches? These taglines our new gospels?

    There might be a non-competitive relationship between God’s desires and actions and (ideal) human desires and actions, but Tanner sets up a strong competition between godly desires (whether found in a human or in God) and the desires of ‘the market’, or finance-dominated capitalism. ‘The Market’, in Tanner’s analysis, takes on a spiritual and almost demonic quality here (my language, not Tanner’s). I think that this is refreshingly practical and powerful. This is a contemporary ‘demon’ that is about as real and linked to physical things as it gets, seeming to truly have a grip on human behaviour and identity in direct competition with the Kingdom of God.

    The value placed on a human life is economic, not merely defined numerically but in terms of potential, assets, and expected performance. This is in direct contrast to the unlimited value and unconditional love given to us by God. This seems to be a very important difference between the commitment demanded by companies and the commitment demanded by God, which wasn’t mentioned by Tanner. The commitment given in return defined in the question time as the difference between a contract and a unilateral covenant.

    This third lecture was, in my opinion, the best so far. So much more could have been said in this talk, and I will console myself that there are three more lectures to come! Looking forward to next week!

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    • Agree with most of what you say. Christ gave total commitment to God by sacrificing himself for our sins so we do not have to. One small point: you use a common phrase which I object to and that is “unconditional love”. If “love” has conditions attached to it then it is not love so the word “unconditional” is redundant. “Unfailing” love is a better phrase. Like you I have been impressed by the lectures and look forward to the remaining ones.

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      • Thanks for your comment jamieknight21. I am wondering about what you say. For example, faithfulness is often seen as a condition for human love, the ability to trust and respect one another. These are parts of love, but they might also be described as conditions for love in human relationships. God, however, loves us even without our faithfulness.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Very fascinating comment about the nature of God’s perception of us as infinitely valuable and unconditionally loved. While Tanner mentioned that we can have faith that God has our best interests at heart, that was a really interesting extension of her point!

      I agree with your conclusion that the same malleability that allows our conformity to Christ as God’s image is exploited in the capitalistic framework, especially through advertising as you mentioned.

      I am, however, hesitant to think the Church must first play by the rules in order to change the rules of the game. It’s not that we need to demonstrate the profitability of our own organization and strategies for self-management in ways that make them attractive to companies and corporations. I certainly agree that the relationship of influence goes both ways, but I’m not sure the means used by either need to align with how Capitalism functions. I sense there’s a possibility for more creative influence on the Church’s part to influence capitalism. I doubt you would disagree, I am just trying to consider alternative ways of influencing the current configuration.

      I loved this analysis and what you offered.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I absolutely agree. I am concerned that, potentially, the church would need to ‘play the success game’, which is often what I see happening. I am not simply referring to prosperity gospel churches, but widespread advertising practices and the professionalism of worship bands and events. It’s a tough balance between doing all things to the glory of God through doing our best and sacrificing too much to be ‘attractive’. My point boils down to this: whereas total commitment to God is not risky or wrong, total commitment to the church might not be so simple or unproblematic. And yet, is it possible to be totally committed to Jesus and not to his bride?

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      • It is possible to be a Christian and not belong to an established church. There is a new book out called The Invisible Church about the “unchurched” and the Church of Scotland has a new initiative headed by the Very Rev. Albert Bogle with an online church.

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      • I completely agree with what you say about the difficult boundary there. I think it’s further complicated by the appeal to individualism inherent in much advertising — the l’Oreal slogan you quote is a prime example. I see that individualism having also crept into many attitudes towards church — judging a church on how “good” the “worship” is (i.e., how well the worship band accords to my tastes), for example — but it is surely basically incompatible with community, with Body, or at best in profound tension with it. The question, then, is how fundamentally embedded in advertising that individualism is and whether it is possible to use the techniques without succumbing to it.

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  2. I am impressed by how Tanner’s third lecture acknowledges the importance of a ‘self-fashioning’ project, in order to resist market discipline, without merely settling for mastery of the self. Rather, Tanner’s account involves genuine ‘self-reformation’ alongside the claim to an identity held in Christ, animated by the Spirit; in short, a ‘God-project.’ The fact that this process of liberation from finance-dominated capitalism is carried out as union with God ensures that the self is not the ultimate object of one’s self-fashioning project, pace Foucault. So far, so good.

    However, does the pervasive language of ‘project’ and ‘fashioning’ fulfil Tanner’s introductory promise of an ‘anti-work ethic’? Obviously this opening provocation does not mean that Tanner is against work, for that would contradict her close attention to a labourer’s conditions. Needless to say, she is also not against an ethics of work, for her theological attention to conversion and repentance is intended to re-shape subjectivity not only in a manner that leads to praxis but that is itself practical action. Instead, Tanner’s rhetoric of an ‘anti-work ethic’ is a punchy rendition of her critique of a peculiar ‘work ethic,’ namely, the subjectivity disciplined by finance-dominated capitalism in such a way that one’s entire life becomes an exercise in profitability. She therefore attends to the subject-forming effects of capitalist markets in a manner analogous to how Weber traced the psychological conditioning of Puritan Calvinist beliefs.

    Tanner is right to spend most of her time on the processes of labour and formation, but does she therefore risk subsuming an entire life under the notion of ‘fashioning,’ God-oriented though it may be? I wonder whether Tanner’s language of a God-‘project,’ with little mention of God-contemplation, and her focus on mundane ‘tasks,’ without the punctuation of Sabbath rest, can effectively disrupt a powerful Puritan legacy. For all the sophistication of her theological account of the subject, one seems to remain mostly at work.

    Tanner’s broadly Protestant depiction (she does not delve, in Weberian fashion, into its different strands) of a subject’s ‘God-project’ involves moments of diversion from task. She speaks of ‘occasion to rejoice in God’s beneficence,’ for instance, or even of that most unproductive of postures, lament. Moreover, Tanner clearly avoids the language of cultivating virtue, memorably stating in the second lecture that ‘Christian character is a character-destroying character; it both expects and promotes its deepest revision.’

    While Tanner does not offer a ‘virtue ethic,’ she seems to be giving an account of work by the converted subject rather than an ‘anti-work ethic.’ The description of the Spirit’s role as a ‘motor for making oneself over’ clearly tends towards activist spirituality. This ‘counter-force’ is effective in freeing a subject from the dominance of any one task or social role before God, particularly the way in which the ‘market extends itself within me.’ The resulting multiplicity of roles could imply worship, rest, or even Weber’s reference to ‘spontaneous enjoyment.’

    Still, it is not just about adding the task of Sabbath or a social role of ‘spontaneity’ to one’s overarching God-project. A Puritan can become a Sabbatarian without that ‘practice’ disrupting a project of self-fashioning, for worship and rest can be undertaken merely to feed into productivity. Such expressions should instead call into question the dominant category of ‘life as a task’ that Weber claims to have been unthinkable to medieval (and Lutheran) Christians.

    In Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber’s project that Tanner seeks to ‘reverse,’ he contrasts the pre-Reformation goal of contemplation with a later emphasis on daily life as a calling to task. Weber illustrates this most clearly in noting the difference between the human ‘ends’ envisioned by two poets: the Medieval ‘Catholic’ Dante and the Puritan Milton. In the conclusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Weber observes, the poet ‘stands speechless in passive contemplation of the secrets of God.’ This is compared with Paradise Lost (Weber calls it the Divine Comedy of Puritanism), in which Adam and Eve are counselled to ‘deeds’ and the cultivation of virtue that can lead to a ‘paradise within thee, happier far.’ Weber remarks that ‘One feels at once that this powerful expression of the Puritan’s serious attention to this world, his acceptance of his life in the world as a task, could not possibly have come from the pen of a medieval writer.’ He continues that such focus would be just as ‘uncongenial’ to Lutheranism.

    Returning to Tanner, I appreciate the liberating potential in her depiction of self-fashioning as a ‘God project,’ but I question whether its particular Protestant cast construes union with God primarily as a task. I grant that we are only midway through the lecture series, and in light of Tanner’s thorough and deliberate approach, as shown in her attention to ‘subjectivities’ before turning to a fashionable communitarian ethic, I expect she will address some of these questions.

    Still, the challenge is this: Tanner gives a compelling account of how God frees the subject from any dominant social role or task, especially ‘profiting.’ But does her pervasive depiction of life as a ‘project’ mark the return of a Puritan spirit?

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    • Tanner, in response to a question sent in by e-mail at the end of lecture one, was rather dismissive of Weberian ideas and preferred to be questioned on her own thoughts and words. It is interesting that it is impossible to have an “anti-work ethic”, as shown by the amount of effort made to bring us these thought-provoking lectures and the stress on her vocal chords in delivering them.
      P.S. Is Puritanism good or bad?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Puritans could be construed as ‘bad,’ I’ll assume, just insofar as their own ‘Christian project’ could be argued to have analogies with a Sartrean ‘project of bad faith.’ As a worker might conform her whole disposition (dress, manner, gesture, etc) to the demands of her task and conceive herself as hewing to the greater will of her employer, effectively ignoring the step she made in choosing to conform her will to the will-as-demand/expectation of her employer (‘purifying’ herself of existential involvement in her own life), so (in unfortunately broad strokes) the Puritan tendency to spend life seeking after God’s will in this or that event and to conform to this or that interpreted ‘given’ as a ‘command’ or ‘instruction’ could suggest a notion of ‘purification’ as equally a secession from the reality of one’s own will (certainly visible enough in Puritan theology) and with this, a renunciation of responsibility for having a self and a denial of the complicity shared by that self regarding whatever is broken/toxic/whatever in the structures that this self inhabits.

        I haven’t yet watched the lecture following this one, but I look forward to thinking more about the nature of Professor Tanner’s ‘Christian project,’ in any case. The usually non-teleological sense of ‘project’ being put into play with a strong ‘Kingdom’ dynamic (but in such a sense that one’s specific failures don’t ‘not pay off’ in a sense that compromises the fruition of the Kingdom) is a particularly interesting tension to think about, especially coming on the heels of her discussion of the relation of ‘debt’ to futurity.

        I hope people are bringing her tea after her lectures!

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    • I think you raised a very, very good point. I think one may possibly reply by emphasizing God’s agency in the Christian life. Tanner does talk quite a bit in the lectures about the Christian’s own duties and responsibilities, their ‘project.’ Perhaps pointing to the Christian’s ability to cast their failures upon God, and God’s ever-ready willingness to forgive, and indeed make up for the believer’s failings, turn the Christian “project” into one with much less anxiety compared with the traditional Puritan spirit. It is always God’s grace that enables the furthering of the Christian life, not immediately one’s own efforts. One knows that their growth toward conformity to God will not be a seamless transition, as Tanner put it, so one need not worry about every possible step of failure or be self-managing on one’s own to an unhealthy degree. The Christian life is one in dependence primarily on God, one could argue, rather than the efforts of oneself to try to complete the project.

      I do agree with your analysis, and I think that Tanner’s account is still one permeated with the language of work, project, and effort, but it certainly has a different character than other projects. I sense that I would be weary of any Christian accounts of life that are devoid of goals and aims to work toward.

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      • As for your references to “furthering of Christian life” and “conformity to God’s will:” I surmise that you think these are opposed to “finance-dominated capitalism.” How far do we withdraw from the secular/worldly economic system to achieve God’s kingdom here on earth? Can we really defeat the” progress” of history and change the future?

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    • Those are really good questions and critical thoughts, David. It strikes me that part of what Tanner is doing is achieved through the essential simple structure of her lecture: present the situation under finance-dominated capitalism and then present the similar but opposed situation under God in Christ. This structure perhaps partly gives rise to the deficiencies you identify. However, one thing I appreciated about it is that it underscored for me the idolatrous (my word, not hers) nature of the capitalist project.

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  3. “Is Puritanism good or bad?” If I’m following this blog along correctly, this question was posed by Jamie Knight and it is deceptively simple!

    I’ve had to think, and think back to some of the historical events and forces that gave rise to it and understand it to have come about through attempts at a clearer devotion to Christ devoid of interfering clericalism. Also, it generally arose as an energetic reaction to (and this is very simplified!) grace easily purchased by the languorously wealthy class before the Reformation.
    As a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation, it isn’t so bad.

    But this 21st c. student of the Bible wonders how the Deuteronomic formulas of blessing and curse (blessings if God favors you for doing good, cursed if you are neither favored nor good) came so powerfully to circumvent either the folky-wisdom offered in the Book of Job (that unhinges good behavior from either blessing or curse), much of the warnings of the prophets to care for the poor and marginalized (who certainly don’t appear very blessed!), and ultimately to totally ignore the life, death, teaching and example of Jesus Christ. There is zero evidence that I can discern in what happened to Jesus to support the Deuteronomic formula. Indeed, it is my belief that the formula and misinformation about what it says about life together and with God is a large part of why God became incarnate–lived and died as one of us, not the best of us either–and died outside the city gates as an accursed-by-God criminal—-only to be vindicated gloriously in the Resurrection. (Forgive my hubris in apparently thinking I can know the mind and heart of God’s action in the Incarnation, by the way!)

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