On fallen gods, human longing and infrastructures of affect control

This is a story of idols and icons, theology and an economy in the service of the Church. It is a story of power, control and the strategic management of affect. It is a story of madness, of states of being lost and of unanswered unanswerable questions…

Once upon a time idolaters ran wild and far and worshipped idols. In trees, animals and all sorts of creatures, objects and images there appeared to be a god, and gods numbered great in diversity, disposition and power. Ordinary men and women entered all sorts of affective relationships with these deities. No mediation required. No middleman could come between the worshipper and his tree and instruct her on this or that form of offering, worshipping, praying. It was a radical sort of freedom. Or so it appeared when viewed with that which came next. And what came next came fast and furious…

The middlemen enter the stage.

Some objected to this frolicking and buffet like worshipping and proclaimed that there existed only one true God and all other gods were false gods. Idols were empty and embodiment an illusion. God existed not in material but in a spiritual dimension. All else was superstition, child-like nonsense, pagan backwardness. And so was slowly born and bound the cult of Christianity which kicked off a secularizing reform, rejecting the pagan practices that conceived of divinity in the human image.

Secularizing fervor created uniformity and gods were killed, unmasked and ridiculed into nonexistence. Wandering the spiritual wasteland, the pagan was introduced to a new and improved belief system. From this glorious day forward, built on the bones of fallen gods, there would now arise a kingdom of God in Heaven. The separation of human and divine affairs began. Rightly, the pagan wondered and asked about this new sort of long-distance worship. No more close and personal relationship with one’s god. From now on, interaction and prayer had to span the distance from earth to heaven. How could this be conceived?

This was of course a topic of hot debate among the circles of the most powerful of Christian folks. To enshrine the mortals’ belief in God and God’s ability to govern the world and most importantly, to secure for the church a legitimate role as intermediating authority, this was the issue. And so was born the icon, the new and reformed idol; godhood removed, de-godded, an empty material piece of ‘anything and everything Church chosen for this purpose would do’ now sat center stage to be glorified by the new worshipper. The icon as a sign to mediate between heaven and earth was narrated to be a merely metaphorical device to help believers concentrate their minds on God. The icon, as a point of contact between mortal and the divine, hinted at a transcendent reality beyond all human measure and cast the human in insufficiency.

And so, through the icon, God animates and organizes the world; a logic of unification – icons all served the same purpose – and a multiplicity – anything could be an icon – emerged and icons dispensed and helped spread the sacred into churches and households far and wide; one imagines a centrifugal force, a moving and spreading from a unified center.

And on and on this went and grew and in its growth required control and so the Church invented the sort of system which one may usefully call and label “economy”; an organizational structure of God’s relation to earthly affairs. Economy etymologically of course deriving from the Greek oikos (household) and nomos (management or administration). Until the seventeenth century, so it is told, this ‘economy’ reflected a close entwinement of economic life with moral, political and religious structures; thinking economically meant thinking philosophical thoughts about morality, norms and theology.

Nomos was more than just a norm or a formal rule or law but “rather a wider set of practices that ensure the contextualized application of a principle”, rigorously transforming this formal principle into a “usable set of habits and customs that make the oikos governable and inhabitable…” enshrining a proper relationship between the whole and its parts, a well-constituted ordering of the cosmos. Moneymaking, at this earlier state in time was banished to a most unholy sphere of ‘chrematistics’, seen as “antithetical to the possibility of achieving economy”. And so, this early economy, moral and moneyless took hold and allowed the Church to avoid “attributing divine qualities to human institutions and reducing his [glorious] unity to a profane heterogenous multiplicity [get’cha gone pagan worshipper]” and to distinguish thusly between the “substance of God and his practical activity, between formal theology and economy”.

Power permeated and percolated within this new useful economy, as economy and its signs “allowed God [do I dare say the Church] to translate [to unwitting ordinary folks] His transcendent unity into practical control [and controlled they must be] over the complex associations of human affairs [gone is the freelance worship of gods, the diffuse power, the ‘middlemen absence’ and say hello to a singular hierarchical power structure seeing the pagan and paganess prostrate before the Church as gatekeeper and sole selector and guarantor of Icon(s)]. Behold the symbolic infrastructure that guaranteed “God’s ability to diffuse his [always a masculine dripping He!] authority.

And so, in this new world ordering, in this new spiritual wasteland where man and women strained under the ontological rift separating God and humanity, the icon serviced the practical issue of governance, because power loves governance. The pagan now faced a practical and administrative economy, a teller of tales, an allower of doings, a make-believer in that which people cannot see, an shrewd operation involving “the pragmatics of faith, the logistics of belief, [and] the constellation of metaphors and allusions”.

The work of drawing the gaze into a sphere beyond the visible, of bringing attention to something that remains beyond human comprehension, is work that is hard; hard work it is! Thusly and slowly emerged the weaving and spelling into existence of “an immense force field of affective power”. The icon could no longer be but an icon but had to be much more. It had to inspire an affective experience and once perceived, had to draw in the entirety of human experience, “setting in motion bodily embedded rituals of veneration”. The icon had to be symbolically fertile, generating effects and connections”. All in the name of power; Church power is the translation of its claim to communication with the divine into a secular authority; the middleman became the Middleman.

The de-godded icon was fertile symbolically precisely because it is a “mere symbol”. It is marked by an absence, a lack in the here and now, underlining the “very fact that the invisible dimension cannot be rendered visible”, engendering an affect of nothingness that dished up and out daily reminders of “insufficiency of human discourse and earthly life”. Rendered thusly insufficient and lost and eternally thirsty for a transcendent encounter which would not come for the distance to heaven was too great, the wandering godless pagan prostrated and venerated and internalized the rituals that the Church dished out from its lofty heights.

Where there is power there is jealousy that desires to devour, replace and tear down. The King and the Secular State watched the doings of this new Church and at first allied to the ecclesiastical economy and the powers that it commanded; the icon’s ability of inducing “a sublime, out of the ordinary experience” was a much-treasured capacity; and what was there to compete with the Icon in a world where anything not Icon was torn down by a most controlling church as blasphemous idol worship? Commerce, trade and money were with contempt cast to the margins; “charging interest on a loan was tantamount to magic” and magic and witches were burned as a matter of course. The Church well knew that “the spread of moneylending practices tended to erode its pastoral economy, its government through sacred signs and laws”. And yet, the world of money grew and commerce and trade expanded and the Church faced an existential crisis; it gave in more and more to the world of money and allowed it to flow through its veins.

A man they called Luther seized on this new face of the Church and spoke loudly, daring to accuse the Church itself of idolatry; “it was clear that the church [slowly beholden to money] worshipped profane objects”; welcome to the Reformation who accosted the Church for its usage of profane signs to organize the relation between God and believers. These zealous reformers, they were called Protestants, “rejected the idea that heaven and earth could be mediated by the symbolic infrastructure of the church”; no longer could the religious experience be poisoned by secular, chrematistic interests!

The state and the King looked upon this existential struggle and rethought their alliance with the ecclesiastical power and slowly developed what one now calls ‘political economy’ which “centered on the question of how the state might govern amidst the onslaught of all these chrematistical forces”, and the erosion of the Church’s moral authority. Reconciling the ruler’s need for an economy with the growth of commerce and moneylending became the new issue to be discussed and pondered.

Emerging thusly was a new symbolic infrastructure; the ‘invisible hand’ replaced the divine and the icon became the icon of money – money was to fulfill the role that is analogous to the role of the icon in Christian theology as a “human made sign that indexed [pointed to, indicated] an invisible dimension regulating human life in unseen ways”. This new trickery, this money magic went not uncritiqued and the man they called Weber shone a light on this new secularized economy and the performative capacity of money percolating at the heart of a new alliance forged between capitalism and Protestantism.

Money became a truly powerful and fertile sign and believers could prove their devotion by displaying the correct approach to money. The faithful pagan was now called upon to approach the new money icon in a spirit of austerity – “not engaging in irrational, superstitious worship or hoping for magic but assuming personal responsibility for the proper operation of the economy”. Money somehow came to represent the “earthly life given by God, and its frivolous consumption or inefficient deployment was sinful”.

The pagan and the paganess now dedicated their life to the glorification of God through an ascetic of self-discipline, hard work and a “cultivation of a proper relation to money”, as a spiritual calling. Again, money became symbolically fertile because it was able to “indicate absence, to signify nothing”. The pagan now looked upon money and longed for transcendence that would not come, becoming more and more engrossed and captivated. Money in capitalist society offered redemption to the wandering godless pagan, not as a final transcendence but as a threshold to renewal. Sinners or those gone astray could always begin anew through the magic that is money in that an internalized logic linking the human to the unobservable divine through money permitted redemption through self-sacrifice and the performance of austere, ascetic existence.

Affective charges link new norms and habits, promises and obligations, roles and affinities and chains of association to this most powerful icon. Whoever controls this chain of association, this affective charge as hegemonic is a most powerful being and this being, no longer God, no longer Church, is now what?

Who in a densely, interconnected society benefits from influencing by association, from the logic of emotional investment, from scripting performance, from inscribing the logic behind role-taking? Thus wonders the pagan and the paganess and all become increasingly anxious. Absent meaningful relationships with gods on earth, this “absence of positive symbolic identities infuses [their] imaginary identifications with a degree of anxiety that leads [them] to seek out the security offered by hubs of imaginary connections, to connect their [fragile, empty and questioning] selves to tried-and-tested patterns of association”; eternally existing at the limit of symbolic force, never quite not anxious, living an ever-present vulnerability, the pagan re-trenches and doubles down on that which is known and captivating, and that which has some semblance of symbolic meaning in a meaningless, godless, de-godded, disenchanted world – the money icon, the new God…

and all turns and churns around this new empty and affectively fertile Sovereign, and none escapes the gyre…

and all fear and tremble as organized and compelled under a Sovereign doling out life and belonging and loss and alienation – a volatile back and forth between disillusionment and hopeful anticipation…

and who can stand up to the harsh grating wind of trauma, the threating of coherence, the insidious betrayal of trust, the “threat to our background of intuitively plausible meanings”…

and how can this most powerful grip into the furthest reaches of the human soul be loosened, this inescapable dread that each and every one of our roles are fake, inauthentic and pretentious – we have failed to actualize and stand naked and trembling as insufficient and small…

and how can we compose ourselves and pin down the problem and prevent its mushrooming to existential proportions…

and who will dive deep down into the dark dusty and distant crevices of our emotional underworld and release the pressure, undo the shackles, and embrace the tensions…

and what or who and when will deliver redemption and renewal from this infrastructure of libidinal madness…

and so the pagan and the paganess, well aged and tempered, howl and dance and sing and wander and wander and wander… in this wild, vast and turbulent world.


This story and the quotes therein are flowing from a selective reading of the book by Martin Konings, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism.


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