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.
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.
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.
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.
This spring, I did a series of posts on my course “Reading the Qur’an,” in which we studied the full text of the Qur’an, roughly in chronological order of revelation, paired with biblical parallels, classical commentaries, and a contemporary feminist interpretation. (You can find those posts here.) As I was finishing my class, I was also completing work on an Arabic textbook oriented specifically toward reading knowledge of the Qu’ran (link) and shifting toward the study of the Qur’an in Arabic. This whole process was helped greatly by sitting in on my colleague Esra Tasdalen’s Intro to Arabic class last fall, where I learned the intricacies of the alphabet and pronunciation in a way I literally never could have achieved through self-directed study. I wish I would have been able to do more with the Arabic in my class, but I am only one man.
Thanks to everyone who helped out with reading suggestions for this module. I’m currently somewhere between weeks 3 and 4 and so far it’s been really fun to teach. To recap, this course was designed as a medieval philosophy and theology module, in a department with a mixture of philosophy, theology and religious studies students. We didn’t have any existing modules that focused on the medieval period, so this is basically an attempt to cover some of the key bases of medieval philosophical theology but in a way that’s engaging for students who aren’t necessarily already invested in understanding what scholasticism is. I’ve tried to cover some of the key moments in medieval intellectual history: the arrival of Jewish and Islamic thought, the rise of scholasticism and then the emergence of nominalism and the beginnings of Enlightenment humanism and Renaissance science. I’m expecting to teach this course once every couple of years for the rest of my time at Winchester so it’s not too late to tell me about the brilliant book that I absolutely must read. Likewise, please feel free to borrow as much of this as you’d like, or drop me a line if you’d like to see any of my course materials.
One of the central functions of angels in films is to do the work of producing and reproducing the heteronormative family. I think this is to do with a mixture of the idea of the guardian angel and the increasing association of religion with the home, the private sphere, and social reproduction which follows on the emergence of capitalism and the seculaization of the west. Because angels work to make sure that people meet, fall in love, and have children, angel films often tell us a lot about contemporary anxieties around love, marriage, and the family. It’s also the case that a surprising number of angel films are remakes of earlier angel films; I’d guess partly because angel films are rarely pushing the boundaries of film, art, or culture. But that means we have a number of films where we can take a look at the way that the same story is told in two or even three different periods.
The thing I most feared during the process of completing this book was that no one would read it. That fear was followed closely by the worry that someone would read it. To have a group of people take the time (in a global pandemic no less) to engage, analyse and challenge my argument for an apocalyptic political theology has been incredibly thought provoking (at least for me!). There is something reassuring about readers both identifying what you are trying to do and pointing to the issues that haunted you as you submitted your manuscript. I am very grateful to everyone who has participated and to Anthony for organising the event.
There are a number of themes that run throughout the responses. First, there is the matter of defining the nature of political theology, its relation to philosophy and the question of secularism. Second, there is the challenge of thinking and living apocalyptically in an era where liberal political ideas remain dominant (even if that dominance is perhaps more visibly under threat than when I finished the book). Is it possible to disinvest from the world without lapsing into apathy on the one hand or a blanket endorsement of violence on the other? Finally, there is the question of whether or not it is actually possible to think apocalyptically. Can one avoid apathy without slipping back into liberalism (however bleak)? And is it possible to prevent apocalypticism from falling back into the comforts of messianism? Continue reading “How can you not hate the world? (even if it’s hard)–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event”→
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
An abolition(ist) university would be kinda like an abolition(ist) prison or an abolitionist plantation Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, ‘the university: last words’
We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution … We understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good. undercommoning, Undercommoning Within, Against and Beyond the University-as-Such
There is a pleasure in hierarchy. We begin with an education in our hierarchies. We begin with childhood and childhood begins with education. To be exact, education begins our childhood. We are called by race, by gender, by class, and so on. Our education cultivates our desire in the direction of our hierarchies.
Education and freedom are the same call, the same calling. Education requires abolition. Abolition requires education. Freedom is the only education. One can only be called to freedom … Education is dangerous to slavery, to the system of white-over-black. Anthony Farley, The Perfection of Slavery
Thomas Lynch’s book ends with a call for an immanent apocalypticism, a hope not in some positive future utopia but in the possibility of the end of the world: the end of nature, capital, gender and race. These death-dealing systems cannot be reformed, cannot be fixed by the demand that they be better versions of themselves; they can only be abolished.
This is a guest post from Ulrich Schmiedel, Lecturer in Theology, Politics, and Ethics, University of Edinburgh
Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology is an astute and acerbic critique of liberalism. No surprises here. Since Carl Schmitt combined the political with the theological, the Schmittian separation of political theology from liberalism (and liberalism from political theology) has determined much of the development of the field. ‘From Schmitt onwards’, Lynch points out, ‘political theology has accused the liberal narrative of denying the violence that marks’ it (11). Of course, this accusation is mutual – liberal theologians find political theologians violent and political theologians find liberal theologians violent – so there is lots of loathing to go around. What I find intriguing about Lynch’s political theology is that – if read, admittedly somewhat annoyingly, against the grain – Lynch both confirms and corrodes the Schmittian separation.
Lynch neither defines nor describes ‘liberalism’. Given that ‘liberalism’ is such a washed-out category by now, covering all sorts of lukewarm thinkers who appear to accommodate the status quo by opting for compromise over conflict, any attempt at defining and describing liberalism would be doomed from the get-go. The account of liberalism that runs through Lynch’s apocalyptic political theology shows that ‘liberalism’ is a label that is, somewhat strangely, slippery and sticky at the same time. (A bit like the unicorn poo my four-year old niece likes to play with.) For Lynch, both the defenders and the despisers of religion in politics can be liberals. He brings his ‘methodological political theology’ to bear on the worlds in which we live in order to show how these worlds manifest, manage or mask violence. Thus, Lynch’s methodological political theology tackles the ‘pervasive forms of injustice that persist in an era defined by at least nominal commitments to liberal ideas’ (13). Continue reading “Learning to Live with Liberalism — Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event”→