As a theological concept, total depravity is a Calvinistic doctrine that humans are innately and irrevocably flawed. Because of Original Sin, humans are always imperfect. Along with predestination, unconditional election, and other Calvinistic tenets, folks like the Puritans were in a pickle as far as encouraging good behavior. If it was all up to God, then we humans could do nothing about it. Beyond that, even if we tried, we would find some way to fuck it all up.
This seems pretty strange for a theology, but Puritanical ideas still show their imprint and reconceptions in our modern society. Alexis de Tocqueville thought as much in 1837 and we can see 21st century versions of it in things like the Prosperity Gospel. Trish Roberts-Miller examined the rhetoric of early Puritans in her book, Voices in the Wilderness (1999), describing rhetorical tactics in their preaching and testimony. As she shows, eminent ministers like John Cotton were able to twist logic around and make their own actions seemingly justified because, well, to oversimplify things, God. In essence, if God wills even the most heinous thing, who are we to stop it? (This is, of course, far more nuanced, so see Roberts p. 75 and around there for more on this).
We can see this even more in the policies and arguments of conservative politicians; indeed, today’s Republican conservatives and President-elect Trump are heirs in a direct intellectual lineage of John Cotton and other Puritans who were not just believers in human depravity but, because they were blind to their epistemological contradictions (or just didn’t care), actually practiced a form of total depravity. The depravity continues as a major strand of American thinking and political formation.
Debates about contraception, insurance, social responsibility, and the like are not just matters of secular policy. To the religious conservative, these are matters of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and rendering unto God the things that are God’s” by leaving a clear space for God to perform his work. After all, any attempt at social engineering is bound to fail. But if a woman gets raped and impregnated, that is God’s will even if He is displeased at the license given to Satan. There is always a higher purpose. It may suck, but we were not there when God laid the foundations of the earth. Who are we to question?
This is, of course, all specious nonsense. The “higher purpose” is given as cover for the total depravity of the Puritanically inclined who might have looked the other way at an uncle’s lasciviousness, laughed and told sexually inappropriate jokes, sheltered thoughts of female wantonness, or perhaps just didn’t give a damn about sexual predators receiving light sentences. Roberts-Miller does a good job describing the forms of these early arguments, tracing antecedents and practitioners of total depravity. Buy her book! My concern here isn’t to re-examine this (I plead depravity in the face of the excellence to which I could add anything). Rather, I am interested in how this resonates with various new materialisms like agential realism (Barad 2009), vibrant materiality (Bennett 2010), ambient rhetorics (Rickert 2013), and others. Briefly, if we understand our own observations, (ap)prehensions, sensoria, and understanding of the world as necessarily emplaced, limited, and resultant from the apparata of material things like bodies, eyeballs, or scanning electron microscopes — that is, if we do not see the world purely, but only in a way that is “depraved” according to theology — then what are we to do as a political matter of knowledge?
Of course, folks have many different solutions to this and there is no clear answer. Latour says we must trace the actants, and so on. But is this inquiring into the space of God? If so, perhaps Žižek’s critique of OOO is really just a Puritanical critique from the Lacanian apparatus. After all, is God much different from teh unconscious? Indigenous folks have very different solutions than Latour, Bennett, or Barad. And this is where the concern gets really interesting for me. One thing I do not see in my reading of indigenous works, traditional or contemporary, is a Puritanical “total depravity” except for the wasichu. Sure, humans are weak and often ineffective, even downright foolish. Of all the animals, in many indigenous tales, humans were given gifts for survival last, after all the “good” gifts were given. Yet humans are not cast from the natural order. They are, instead, given place within it. Humans could no more be totally depraved than the clouds or the grashoppers. We inquire because we are human. And we may do so in a manner pleasing to Wakan Tanka, but also in manners unpleasing, but only because they disrupt the relations between things.
We might seenatura naturals (nature doing its nature thing) against human progress — torrential downpours that cause floods or swarms of locusts devastating crops. Yet, within our orientation lies evidence of our grace. Do we see the flood or locust swarm as a natural phenomenon with clouds and locust simply doing what they do? Or do we intimate some negative divine providence, a sign to which we are helpless to respond? Do we adjust our position to allow clouds and locusts their activity alongside our own, or do we adjust only to allow God’s, no matter how we might try to refuse our own complicity? In the end what rhetorical possibilities lie between allowing room for God as a practice of total depravity and allowing room for things as equally, though differently, depraved?