Conference report: “The Actuality of the Theologico-Political” at Birkbeck

I’ve just returned from London, where I was participating in the awkwardly named “Actuality of the Theologico-Political” conference at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Overall, it was the best conference experience I’ve ever had — and it was my first time in London outside of a few side-trips when I was studying at Oxford in undergrad. I reconnected with old colleagues and met some very valuable new colleagues as well (whom I hesitate to name, lest I forget anyone). Being part of such an impressive program gave me some serious imposter syndrome, but no one treated me like an imposter or outsider. I honestly started to worry that my imposter syndrome was itself an imposture!

The format was a bit rapid-fire — most sessions had three papers, nearly an hour each, all in a row followed by Q&A for the whole panel. It was very difficult to give every paper the attention it deserved, and I have to confess that there was one out of every group of three that I simply could not focus on, through no fault of the presenter or their content. As is typical in such conferences, white men were vastly overrepresented, but the participants who fell outside that demographic made a decisive impact on the conversation — in my view, it was a great illustration of the fact that inclusiveness is a substantive necessity and not the dread “political correctness” (a condition that was often over-diagnosed, even as Milbank totally got away with saying some ridiculous thing about how the West abolished slavery in the Middle Ages and then only adopted it again due to the influence of Islam and African society itself).

I invite anyone else from this general region of the blogosphere who attended the conference — and I know you’re out there — to share in greater detail and supplement my efforts here, hampered as they are by jetlag and various other afflictions associated with a wine reception and its aftermath.

9 thoughts on “Conference report: “The Actuality of the Theologico-Political” at Birkbeck

  1. Really glad it went well!

    But… “(a condition that was often over-diagnosed, even as Milbank totally got away with saying some ridiculous thing about how the West abolished slavery in the Middle Ages and then only adopted it again due to the influence of Islam and African society itself).” What the actual fuck?

  2. I had a wonderful time at this conference, but I had two main observations overall. Firstly, although – as you say – the sessions were long, I would have liked the concluding debate to have been longer. I think some valuable points were made in isolation during this session and I remember thinking that I would have liked a little more space for some of them to be expanded upon and responded to by you all. I would have also liked Tina Beattie to have been at this session (although I understand Tina’s schedule may not have allowed), which brings me to my second observation. Again, as you say, it was apparent early on that white men were over-represented. I felt this was also reflected in the demographic of the delegates as well. Some months ago, I excitedly presented the conference programme to my research supervisor who immediately said, “Angela, there is only one woman speaker listed”. I would, however, advocate your comment that “those who fell outside that [white male] demographic made a decisive impact on the conversation”. I completely agree.

    I was a little taken aback by your “imposter syndrome” as your paper was absolutely key for me and what you were saying was, I felt, a vital contribution to this theologico-political debate. The many notes I have from when you were speaking are enormously interesting for my research in feminist theology and you also made points and references to things that I need to go back and work on as well – which is, of course, very helpful to me.

    The comment that gave me the most peace throughout the two days was yours during the concluding debate on how Milbank had suggested to you that theologians need to identify as either ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’. Your comment was that this conference had proved how this is very much not the case. I particularly welcomed your statement, “We need more weirdos” – i.e. theologians who don’t necessarily personally identify with either Christianity or atheism. This is poignant for me, particularly as I find myself somewhere in between Christianity and atheism yet having recently concentrated on inter-religious dialogue between the church and ‘non-traditional’ religions and spiritual practices. It also took me back to Rowan Williams’ paper and his question, “What right do we have to represent another?” – again, key for me as I am working on Christian theology and disability without being either Christian or disabled. Therefore, I definitely feel I fit within that “weirdo” category, and your comment gave me greater acceptance and love for doing so.

    Perhaps somewhat related, I heard a couple of times “I am not a theologian” from Guardiola-Rivera and, I think, also Douzinas, yet there was some crucial, really fantastic theology in what they were saying. I feel this enforces your “weirdo” comment even further. Therefore, my overall feeling of the conference was that I was consistently fascinated by what I was hearing from each speaker and, during the concluding debate, I felt overwhelmingly that the future of political theology is both exciting and hopeful in the hands of the academics we had heard from.

    In Zizek’s words throughout the two days, “I have spoken for too long”. Thank you for a really wonderful paper, and here’s to the future of the theological weirdos.

  3. Partly because there were an unusually high number of good papers, I was left feeling a bit frustrated by the format. Why get so many good people together if you’re not really going to get them to talk to each other? It seemed rather a waste of an opportunity for what could have been really interesting encounters.

  4. (Milbank also made the argument that, whilst every society has had slaves, only Christendom has abolished slavery. Seriously).

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