Carter focuses on the work of Charles H. Long, a historian of religion in the school of Eliade and Corbin, but with a political bent towards the oppressed rather than directed to the probably racist kind of higher man you find in Eliade (and to a lesser extent Corbin). As in the preceding chapters the purpose of engaging with Long is not so much a commentary on Long’s work, but using the work of that figure as a test-case for some aspect of dealing with the problem that arises in theology concerning race. That is what is it that makes theology white. I’m not very familiar with Long’s work and so my remarks will focus on Carter’s casting of this test-case, rather than assessing his reading of Long as such, but that seems faithful to the methodology of the project anyhow.
Long provides a corrective for Carter to Tillich’s theology, for it challenges the dominance of theology over religion. This challenge is what both appears to attract Carter to Long’s theory and what he wants to ultimately reject. The difference between theology and religion is understood here to be analogous to the difference between language and act, such that theology is the language that expresses the meaning of religion. Where the religion is always more than this expression, being the experience, expression, motivations, intentions, behaviors, styles, and rhythms of a community. Like Eliade, Long values the myth and expression than symbolic expression more than the theology or structure of thought that attempts to organize more clearly that community’s beliefs. Carters problem with this ultimately will be that Long’s theory of religion cannot account for the other, signifying both God and other creatures for Carter, and instead the other is always just a way to gain self-knowledge. In other words, for Carter, Long isn’t Christological (i.e. Kenotic) enough.
If I’m reading Carter correctly his project seems to be concerned with somehow doing Christian theology, which requires a form of universality, without needing to denigrate and other or destroy a particularity. This problem for Christian theology plays out most clearly in the theology of supercessionism, as already discussed at length in the earlier chapters, but as a Christian the answer can’t simply be to convert to Judaism. Long’s work positions itself within this problem as well, but from a perspective that isn’t theological or necessarily Christian in the sense that Carter is. For Long the concrete expressions of particular religions is what expresses the universality of being, though that universality is not bound to religions themselves. This resists theories of religion, like Harnack’s and (though this isn’t mentioned) Hegel’s, which claim that Christianity is the religion par excellence and so every other religion must be considered through the prism of Christianity.
Long suggests that this theory of religion is endemic to Christian theology generally since it focuses on the importance of fullness and wealth. Carter, while accepting this criticism to a certain extent, appeals to what he thinks are counter-examples like Julian of Norwich and Bonaventure who produced theologies that read the poverty of Christ as expressive of the wealth of existence. This seems to me to miss the power of Long’s critique, which is that there is a symbolic element to Christian theology that overdetermines the practice of what we could term (I’m not sure Long agrees here) White Christianity. Thus the problem can’t be to tell a story that simply adds the invisible stories of the oppressed to history dominated by European symbols (as it was for Raboteau) or to invert the methodology so that black symbols dominate (as it was for Cone). The response, Long claims, must be more subtle and focus on the “true story” told by “myth” instead. This, I think, is the reason why Long calls this form of thinking dealing with the “opaque theologies” that are the expressions of various religious realities. The opaqueness of these theologies resists the power discourses of Christian theology, power discourses that connect the power of God with the specific forms of worldly power. And this is why Carter claims that they are then forms of negative theology (though I think negative theology can be a kind of imperial weaponized theology as well, and hence my attraction to Gnosticism).
Ultimately, though, Carter thinks that Long’s theory of religion runs into a problem in so far as it naturalizes the religious reality of communities, especially Black communities. Such that “black folks pray becuase they have to (225).” This is his point about the other raised in the introduction to this chapter. For if a community’s religious expression simply is what that community does, rather than the development of such an expression by way of something like theology, then it is a closed I that cannot be challenged or mutated by any other.
I had a number of remarks and questions raised for me in the course of reading this chapter, but I just want to focus in on one as I think it cuts to the heart of the book. Carter’s presentation of Long genuinely sparked my interest in reading his works directly, as he seems to be dealing with questions of universalism and particularity in a way that is genuinely interesting. He appears to avoid the imperialism of Christian White theology, but doesn’t fall into the problem that Ken Surin points out in his Theology and the Political essay regarding the blind alley of being a chosen people. It may be that Carter’s criticism of Long is correct, but it seems that Long’s problem is also Carter’s. For what option do we have to avoid supercessionism outside of a conversion to Judaism or a retelling of religions such that they are expressions of some foreclosed and anti-imperial universal?
12 thoughts on “Carter Book Event: Signifying Race: Charles H. Long and the Opacity of Blackness (Chapter 5)”
This is his point about the other raised in the introduction to this chapter. For if a community’s religious expression simply is what that community does, rather than the development of such an expression by way of something like theology, then it is a closed I that cannot be challenged or mutated by any other.
That this is very much both a possibility and a possibility that has been realized seems indisputable to me. That it must be the case seems much more doubtful. The “what-a-community-does” may well have an improvisational aspect to it as well, no? Meaning, it isn’t merely insulated from all that is without. Like an improvisational troupe, whether it be musical or acting, such a community becomes might be construed as successful when it is able successfully to read, react to, feed off, and even incorporate “outsiders” (observers, contextual backdrop, etc.). Success is measured, to an extent, by whether an identifiable “I” emerges from the improvisational freedom from a previously established “I.” The result is not always a reiteration of the latter. Sometimes (maybe even normally) it is; but even where this is the case, one could well argue that in the very act of improvisation itself something else occurs, and that this “something-else,” not the established preset “I,” is what might more helpfully motivate the repetitive nature of religious expression.
Anthony, I haven’t been able to read Carter’s book yet, but I appreciate both the book event and also the interest of you and Carter in Long’s work. Charles H. Long is a huge but sometimes under-appreciated figure in the Chicago School of the History of Religions, and he is an unbelievable teacher. He has not written many books, mostly essays, and his collection Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Study of Religion, is a classic text. He was strongly influenced by Eliade, but also offers a more nuanced approach to the specificities of religion and the workings of power and oppression in religion.
I used Long’s work in relation to Lacan as well as a novella by Melville (Benito Cereno) to reflect on some of the psychoanalytic issues of race in a chapter in Interstices of the Sublime. And I’m working on a paper for AAR (technically a panel for NAASR) that brings Long into conversation with Deleuze and Nancy on some of the biopolitical issues of flesh and body.
It sounds like Clayton could really contribute a substantive comment if he were to read this chapter.
I have to get a copy of the book first….
But I take the aporia of supercession as significant for Carter, as many of you have indicated. And I think Long deals with a similar issue in terms of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. What I like about Long’s work is that he is interested in the third that emerges from the contact situation (he takes this from Peirce) rather than a simple battle between two pre-given identities where one subsumes the other. And at the same time, he does not ignore the real power relationships and inequalities at work in any situation of cultural-political contact.
So if Judaism for instance has a pre-given identity that is then taken up in Christianity that’s one example of supercession, but if Judaism is already a repetition of difference, to put it in Deleuze’s terms, we can see Christianity as another repetition of Judaism in such a way and under such and such conditions as to compose a distinct series that we can then relate back to the series of Judaism. So here is an opening for a black or opaque or a non-white theology, because you can consider and compose different series-effects (or distinct significations) among the arrangements of these “histories” of religions. So supercession is mainly a problem if you hold to a more identity-driven understanding of what a religion is.
Do you deal with any related questions in your own scholarship?
Not specifically in terms of supercession, but I’m struggling to think about the stakes Hegel (supercession, sublation, dialectics) vs. Deleuze (repetition of difference) in more general terms. I take Hegel as read through Zizek and Malabou is not the stereotypical totalizing Hegel, but then the question is whether Hegelian dialectic requires identity and is therefore incompatible with Deleuze. Malabou told me that Hegelian identity is posited and abstract, so even though she is skeptical, I think I can try to think Hegel and Deleuze together. I’m interested in pursuing a kind of ecology, a thinking of earth that is counter to contemporary globalization, and I like the idea of Earth as substance becoming subject, but thought more in the Deleuzian mode of The Geology of Morals chapter in A Thousand Plateaus.
A kind of liberation of earth is connected with what Deleuze calls minorities, and Long says that we treat blacks and other minorities as natural resources, which is connected to our exploitation of earth.
That’s interesting that you should mention liberation, because I’m going to be presenting a paper at the AAR this year on Gutierrez and Negri’s respective books on Job.
I apologize for hijacking this thread with my sarcastic comments.
Back to the topic of Chapter 5, close to the conclusion, Carter brings up Long’s understanding of the opaque encounter with the powerful SOMEWHAT as being kinda problematic, but he said he did not have enough room to delve deep into that critique. I was wondering if Jay would be willing to flesh that out a little bit more; I am referring here to the first full paragraph on page 222.
I’d be interested hearing your own thoughts and intuitions regarding the critique. My hunch is that the longer version would entail a further engagement with the “oppositional” formation of human existence, particularly in the oppugnancy of the “Somewhat.” E.g., on 218, Carter summarizes Long’s critique of iconic theologies, as they “do not see existence as oppositionally structured through power.” The other’s otherness, so to speak, is doubly absent: they are encountered only in and as generic oppositional force and this “encounter” only produces self-knowledge (knowledge of oneself as also opaque). The opaqueness of the other becomes the “cipher” or symbolic register of the universal religiosity–opaqueness–of human existence, which misses (and this is his second critique) what is concretely, historically, and existentially at stake in the prayerful lives of the ex-slaves. Perhaps another gloss would be: Long frees black existence from the mastery of the white gaze by critiquing the aesthetics of visibility but unfortunately imprisons blackness as the limiting point to the white master’s vision. Black subjectivity and religious life “can only be deconstructive” (218), which is uncomfortably close to Sartre’s rendering of Negritude as the negative moment in a dialectic (which ushers in Fanon’s famous critique of this unlivable and hence inhuman situation: I needed not to know). It is also descriptively problematic if offered as an account of the “lived experience” of these praying persons: God is not the site/moment internal to human consciousness whereby the subject “sees” her own opacity.
Thoughts, different ideas?
Damn it. RoD. That’s the second time I’ve done that.
I think you have gotten to the heart of Carter’s argument. Black religious existence, even understood in deconstructionist terms, is determined, even perhaps over-determined to what Black religion is not, a negative religious experience in light of white oppression. The blackness that whiteness created is still imprisoned in the confines on white supersessionism (in Long’s work), i.e., the religion that justifies the building up of the nation-state, and a dialectical (oppositional, non-participatory) Something that works outside the womb of Mary, as Carter says, outside the narrative of Israel and therefore creation.
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