In Cloud of the Impossible Catherine Keller offers an impressive and engaging theological contribution to our contemporary moment. From the moment I first came across Keller’s work, the breadth and depth of her research and writing has been something to marvel at. It is no different here, as Keller takes us from process to Nicolas of Cusa, from Edouard Glissant to Judith Butler, from ecology to questions of coloniality – and with such an ease of writing and weaving together these entanglements. Her literary form here mirrors the aims of Cloud of the Impossible. There is a clarity and lyricism to her writing that is also overcast by a cloud. Shadowy questions emerge in the light of revelation these necessary entanglements bring forth. For this post, I will mainly focus on questions of coloniality and the kinds of entanglement that seems to characterize it while also questioning Keller’s reading of Glissant and the question of the possible in the face of the impossible.
Participation names, then, the mindful alternative to the old impositions: to conquest and crusade, to slave markets and “free” markets. In answer to the stranglehold of capitalist entanglement, this participatory entanglement offers a key to inverting the inversions of each ruse of our political unconscious. It lets us comb out some snarls of Western history without pretending to have cut loose. Participation, a metaphor at once of ontological interrelation and of democratic action, lets its agent at once face the contradiction and open the wall. For what is a part of us, repeating itself in us, we may iterate otherwise. The ambiguous entanglement is not severed but rewoven. The relational ontology of becoming exists to intensify that possibility: the “third repetition,” the fold into the new. (256)
This quotation captures so much of what equally compels me and makes me suspicious of Keller’s project here. There is a sense in which the inescapability of our relational entanglements is precisely the space, or the fold, that engenders otherwise possibilities. This is something I hold to in my own work. Yet I’m concerned of the use of participation, here – a term she gathers from Glissant – as somehow diverging into the otherwise. I wonder about the capture of this terminology within a theological work and the resonances it still holds. Indeed, in some ways, I’m brought back to the recent book (and the event on AUFS) on Gil Anidjar’s Blood which, in some ways, charts a similar course (though more critical of Christianity). The hemotology of Christian relationality is such that coloniality is, indeed, the imposition, not simply of conquest and crusade, slave and “free” markets, but of participation in such logics, in such markets, in such modes of life. That is, while for Keller participation is not a way of freeing us from Western history or coloniality but is a mode of thinking and doing and becoming otherwise, I wonder if, drawing on Anidjar, participation (just as conquest, crusade, and the markets) is the undergirding imposition of coloniality. We can say that it was not always the case that colonial subjects were the subjects of coloniality. What does it mean that coloniality is, in part, the imposition of participation in subjection and subjectivity within the Western mode of conception?
I hope this is not being read as a kind of petty or nitpicking attack on Keller’s contribution here. I simply wish to understand why, in promoting an apophatic and negative theology, Keller does not apply this logic to participation, reading non-participation as the site of the fold? Indeed, it seems colonial subjects have often contested the entanglement, the imposition of sovereignty, through non-participation, through work stoppages and slow-downs, through non-participation in the proper modes of linguistics, slowing, or speeding up, colonial speech. I’m concerned that participation is being separated from imposition in a way that doesn’t make sense of the participatory workings of coloniality. Further, I’m concerned that this move to participation is clouding our ability to recognize this move as a kind of racial reconciliation politics in disugise. Keller writes: “The nonseparable singularity in this nonsubstantial subsistence has wrapped itself in the radical poetics of Glissant’s cloud, from which it precipitates with fresh force. So here the singularity of difference has wrapped itself – in the strongest alternative to individualism – in our mindful participation in one another” (256). To put it crudely, how is this different from the arguments about making (white) people aware of racism? In what sense does this apophatic entanglement give way to the light of awareness or mindfulness by which the darkness of the negative becomes visible? In some sense, doesn’t this kind of participatory planetary entanglement, at least as considered here, work to suture the break (and the peformance of fugitivity that occurs in the break) that someone like Fred Moten theorizes?
In all, I’m left scratching my head about what work the kind of diversity Keller advocates at the end of chapter 8 can actually do. It is vaguely reminiscent of what white people already tend to lean towards with regard to thinking about race, religion, and capitalism. There’s some kind of desire to see a vaguely otherwise, inclusive and diverse, participatory and coalitional. I don’t find this vision of apophatic entanglement in its cosmopolitical tenor a particularly compelling vision of an otherwise coalitional becoming, though. There’s little engagement with actual Islamic and postcolonial voices. Instead Keller chooses to mainly discuss Cusa, Cavanaugh, Connolly, Whitehead, with a sprinkling of Glissant and Ibn Arabi at the end. My question, then, is why does this entanglement look the same as the situation we’re already in? A kind of endless mode of making the main argument with white, predominately male thinkers and utilizing the “Othered” voices as a supplement? I wonder how this book and this chapter would have looked differently if Keller had relied more heavily on these others.
My question about the apophatic entanglements Keller elaborates upon here is really one about whether it enables us to speak more truthfully and incisively to the kinds of crusading Christian colonial imagination that, in this neoliberal moment, increasingly desires our participation in an inclusive and diverse coalitional affirmation of Christianized capitalistic logic. In some sense, Keller leaves the ambiguity of this vision so understated that it doesn’t really forcefully end up opposed to or critiquing the problematic. Rather, it seems to leave good liberal (white) people with a fancy way of doing theology in the same kind of way they’ve already been doing it, particularly around interreligiosity and race and coloniality, which is a nicer form of what we’ve already had.