A plea for anti-anti-wokeness

The online debate about “wokeness” torments me, because it is so amazingly stupid and uninformative. But it also torments me because I am torn between two thoughts.

The first is that there has to be room to discuss the potential pitfalls of the various lingustic formulations that one used to group together as “political correctness” and now designates as “wokeness” (I can see literally no difference between the two categories). Those pitfalls might, in any particular case, include a tendency to alienate the very groups they’re meant to serve, an inaesthetic clunkiness, or even the simple fact that they periodically seem to arise suddenly from who knows where, like neoliberal “best practices” that become instant unconditional requirements.

The second is that no white male leftist who takes a blanket anti-PC or anti-woke stance — especially in mainstream media contexts — can expect to be trusted, because they are objectively treating their white male perspective as the point of neutrality from which they can hand down judgment of what activists and theorists of other groups should say and focus on.

How does one reconcile these two thoughts? The first step is to recognize that the second thought is more important, both ethically and strategically. Even if individual “woke” speech expectations are short-sighted or self-undermining, the blanket anti-woke screed objectively, performatively reinstates the power hierarchies that all leftists should be seeking to unravel. Especially given how often the anti-woke white male leftist has access to bigger platforms than the activists they’re critiquing, it is a clear example of punching down — when we presumably don’t want to punch our allies in any direction. Strategically speaking, it is more likely to give aid and comfort to our enemies than to somehow make leftist ideas more persuasive or leftist organizing more attractive.

It may well be the case that PC or woke language is holding back the left in this country, but I would humbly suggest that white men who want to be part of that strategic conversation should adopt the rule of first shutting the fuck up and listening. Learn to process your defensiveness and gut-level objections into sincere questions. If you get frustrated and need to vent, save it for the DMs. With time, you will realize that no one is mandating that you have to adapt your speech unconditionally to whatever the latest rando on Twitter demands. Doubtless we will all stumble as we seek to practice this spiritual discipline, but hopefully we will train ourselves to resist the urge to pitch op-eds to publications that are eager for anti-leftist content and would never consider publishing the perspectives of actual activists or organizers.

Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.

Self-regulation

I am a very self-disciplined and routine-oriented person. This has been true of me from a very young age, and my experience of college and grad school actually reinforced it. In college, I had a very generous but very stringent scholarship that I could lose irrevocably if I fell below a 3.8 GPA. Hence the typical startegies of cramming and all-nighters felt too high-risk to me. After choosing a PhD program with inadequate funding — and then getting the rare opportunity to write a book before my dissertation — I felt pressure to build some kind of routine to grapple with the great looming maw of unstructured free time, so that I could actually finish.

These experiences have led me to view monastic routine with a kind of nostalgia, as a way to achieve a great deal without ever becoming overwhelmed by excessive demands. I have proven to myself over and over that slow and steady work, even work that feels phoned-in much of the time, can lead to great results. Doing a 45 minutes or an hour of language work for several months can give you a baseline comfort and familiarity with a foreign language to the point where you can easily dip into the original text to check translations, for instance. More dramatically, write a page or two a day, and before long you have a chapter and then a whole book. Real life doesn’t allow such neat and tidy sequences, of course, even during summer vacation. Yet I often think of my life as asymptotically approaching that ideal state, even if the progress is continually interrupted.

In many ways, this idealization of routine is strange, because the times when I had the steadiest routine were among the most miserable of my life.

Continue reading “Self-regulation”

…which begs the question: “What is political theology?”

I’ve been feeling lately that I am on the losing side of a terminological dispute. The term in question is one that has become absolutely central to my academic research: political theology. It is, admittedly, a somewhat ill-named field, and thus ill-defined. The juxtaposition of the two terms and the relation of noun and adjective makes one think initially of a politically-engaged theology (i.e., “political” is the determinate difference that distinguishes “political theology” as a species of the genus “theology”). If one had to venture a further guess, one might hit on the idea that it refers to treating politics as though it were theological: political theology as opposed to political theology. But surely no naive reader of the phrase would hit on precisely the definition that I prefer: namely, the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields. Instead, while maintaining some space “my” version, the field seems to be converging on the first, most obvious meaning as the guiding thread.

Why do I insist on the less intuitive definition? It’s not because it better reflects the origins of the field, though it does. Schmitt’s Political Theology mixes all three versions to some extent, but the third, counterintuitive version is the real innovation and contribution. Yet obviously Schmitt does not deserve our loyalty. Nor is it simply because I have written books using that paradigm and don’t want to have to scrap all that work — which I don’t have to do in any case, since “my” approach is certainly still seen as a valid part of the big tent of political theology.

My insistence comes, instead, from a belief that the third, counterintuitive definition provides the greatest chance of contributing something distinctive. Continue reading “…which begs the question: “What is political theology?””

Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion Seminars

The Association is pleased to announce a series of online seminars between February and April 2021, featuring speakers who will be well known to readers of this blog. To attend, please email Steven Shakespeare on shakess@hope.ac.uk for a link.

All seminars run from 4pm – 5.30pm, GMT. 

Wednesday 17th February

Tommy Lynch, ‘Beyond Sovereign Subjects: Knowledge and Vulnerability’ Ferreira da Silva identifies a ‘transparent I’ as a key feature of modern racialised subjectivity. This paper examines the epistemic dimension of the transparent I and its role in constructing a vision of the sovereign subject. This sovereign subject’s agency is predicated on an ability to know self and world. Drawing on work in social epistemology (Tuana and Alcoff) and political philosophy (Mills), I argue that this knowledge and the resultant sovereign vision contain an essential ignorance. In contrast to this sovereign subject, I argue in favour of a politics of epistemic vulnerability.

Tuesday 9th March

Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet, ‘Immanence, Genealogy, Delegitimation: On German Idealism and Political Theology’. This paper will in part be a presentation of Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet (eds) Nothing Absolute: German Idealism and the Question of Political Theology (Fordham University press, 2021).

Tuesday 23rd March

Danielle Sands, ‘Religious Experience, Political Responsibility and the Muteness of the Animal’ In ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,’ Derrida explores silence, via negative theology, as a “modality of speech.” Returning to the question of silence in The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida considers the apparent muteness of the nonhuman animal, opening the possibility “of acceding to a thinking […] that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, and as something other than a privation.” At first glance, Derrida’s focus on nonhuman animals’ disconnection from human language might feel misplaced in a context where increased knowledge of animal communication has begun to inform, as Eva Meijer outlines, “a theory of political animal voices.” Tracing Derrida’s understanding of the complexity of silence and its transformative potential to his earlier engagement with negative theology, in this paper, I shall consider whether Derrida’s revaluation of silence might complement rather than conflict with the work of Meijer and others.

Wednesday April 21st

Marika Rose, ‘A Political Theology of Disenchantment’ In this paper I will suggest that the invention of the secular and the modern takes place as and alongside the invention of sovereignty, private property, and a political, theological, and disciplinary concern for propriety. Rather than escaping the binary poles of the Christian and secular, then, in this paper I will explore the theme of magic, which is improper to both; and narratives of enchantment and disenchantment which have been important to the struggle between the Christian and the secular, as the secular has sought to escape the clutches of the Christian and the religious, and the Christian has sought to re-establish its sovereign power. If, on the one hand, disenchantment marks the break between medieval Christendom and secular modernity, then magic exists at the border of both, not so much lost in the transition as transposed from being Christendom’s rejected other to being modernity’s rejected other. It is this transposition which, I want to suggest, make both magic and enchantment proper – or, rather, improper – subjects for political theological enquiry, taking us not quite beyond but rather to the borders of and between the Christian and the secular

We Wish You A Merry Dead Gay Baby Angel Christmas

A theme that emerges if you watch enough angel films is that the presence of an angel in a film is usually an indicator that it’s not a good film. A New York Christmas Wedding is no exception – as Christina Cautericci writes, it’s a ‘wild, howlingly bad queer holiday movie for the ages‘. But what might seem at first like a bizarre and incoherent plot makes sense when we read the film as a Christmas angel film: that is, a film about family formation and love as the solution to social reproduction in crisis.

[spoilers ahead]

Continue reading “We Wish You A Merry Dead Gay Baby Angel Christmas”

God bless us, every one

A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story, it’s the Christmas story (sorry baby Jesus), the one that brings us all together. Who can hate the heartwarming story of a lonely miser, moved to repentance, generosity, and kindness to his hard-worked employees? It’s tempting to read it as an inherently left wing story, except that it’s not just people on the left who love it; it’s everyone.

A central contradiction of capitalism is between the tendency, on the one hand, to erode people’s capacity to feed and house themselves, to take care of one another, to behave morally and believe in the morality of the system in order to maximise the extraction of profit and, on the other, the need to reproduce the system, to keep people alive in order that they may continue to be exploited, to keep people happy enough that they’ll keep doing what they’re expected, to maintain at least some kind of moral legitimacy so that we keep paying our bills and racking up debts. Capitalism wants to suck us dry and spit us out, but it also needs (some of) us to love our families, to feel hopeful about the future, to have children, to invest. This is the real meaning of Christmas, and of The Christmas Carol.

Continue reading “God bless us, every one”

Adam’s Year in Review

It goes without saying that this was a strange year. Covid-19 affected me less than most — I thankfully didn’t lose anyone to covid, I don’t have childcare to contend with, and both My Esteemed Partner and I were able to continue our jobs working from home — but even in the best case, a combination of sheltering-in-place, nationwide protest punctuated by a brief quasi-military occupation of Chicago, and the mounting horror of a botched pandemic response produced a low- (and often high-) level background anxiety that colored everything. I also lost my mentor and friend Ted Jennings in March (to complications from a stroke), which still often feels like a fresh wound — particularly as the pandemic prevented a normal funeral or any of the usual ways of sharing grief with friends and chosen family.

Nevertheless, there were some good things that happened this year. Continue reading “Adam’s Year in Review”

What was blogging?

Yesterday I got into a fight on Twitter with the official WordPress account. My complaint was that they had imposed a new, inscrutable editor on us — not just a different interface, but a different paradigm for composing our posts — when it would cost them nothing to let us choose the old editor (which can be found with some effort; I am writing this post in “classic” mode right now). I was feeling some profound emotions about this situation, far out of proportion to the objective gravity of my complaints. I could after all just learn the new system, or I could content myself with workarounds, or I could change hosting services. Yet the very fact that I needed to take such extraordinary actions just to maintain the status quo made it feel like blogging was being stolen out from under me.

Blogging has been dead for a long time, of course. Continue reading “What was blogging?”