During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a poetry workshop with Thylias Moss. I’ve only had a few teachers whose classes I anticipated—typically in secret—in a I want to learn to think like her kind of way. Back then, I was super practical and wanted to be a poet (I hadn’t even begun to dream about theology, yet). Moss was one of those teachers. Her work was powerful, formally formidable, elegant, and ultimately inimitable. On one level, of course, I knew I was never going to think just like her. Race is inextricably a part of her poetry, illuminating a world of things that I only understood from a different orientation. But—though not unrelated to this—her poems are also (to use a category I wouldn’t necessarily defend) “nature” poems. Her poems have birds, and dogs—and not just as filler. They also have exposed optic nerves. There is a nature there, but its proximity is at turns amicable, benign, and damning. People are animals, which is a problem (for both people and animals), yet also something incandescent. Her poetry used language to world the world in a particular way: it did things that I knew (in theory) a poem was supposed to do, but often (in many poems) failed to. Her poems had their own optic nerves that made these strange and pulsing sub-visual connections between things that were apparently alien to one another. I didn’t have expectations about what the course would be like. But I admit that I was surprised to get to the campus bookstore and find a short stack of texts—for her class—on fractals.
Fractal art—in the form of digital graphics, or macro photography—wasn’t entirely new at the time. But I don’t think anyone besides Thylias Moss was fractalizing their poetry. Ultimately, for her, this was taking her further outside of that poetic tradition of the page—one that she existed in a degree of tension with—and into something else (like this, “The Glory Prelude”). Looking at some of her newer work, I get the sense that she’s been reading up on entanglement, the multiverse. But, back then, what she brought to us were fractals: those fragile, yet still powerful, highly abstract, yet deeply embedded, infinite patterns within things. She would have inhabited the stuffy tradition of poetry-on-the-page with a difference, with or without fractals. That’s how she worked as a poet. But the fractals helped. Injecting a discussion about them into our conversations about language, about the way we were each using language, changed the way I think and write. There was a kind of sci-fi adventurousness to it that made poetics both far stranger, and far more accessible, than it had been before. I still wrote poems about the same boring things: content pulled mostly from the small world I knew how to access. But I used language in a totally new way, I learned how to make fire from new materials.
When I chose to study with Catherine Keller, for the PhD, there may have been some residual expectations on my part—that I would find a similar kind of sci-fi adventurousness in the study of theology. I was drawn to the chaosmos in Face of the Deep, the way it made theology both more alien and yet also more accessible. In some ways those hopes for sci-fi weirdness were foiled. I was doing a PhD, after all. The bureaucratic patterns of academic life don’t take well to sci-fi. And Catherine’s work, too, resists sci-fi. The most prominent literary interlocutor in Cloud of the Impossible is, after all, Walt Whitman. Catherine has worked very hard to absorb scientific literature on entanglement, and I sense that sci-fi may be too unserious for her. Perhaps sci-fi (to use a figure Marika roused in her recent response) is a little too witchy. Theology is also, of course, risky in ways that poetry is not. The establishment has a long history of violence. Its relationship to power and politics are more structurally intimate. I mention Thylias Moss in this discussion of Catherine’s work, however, because I do think that, over time, I’ve come to see certain resonances between the way they do poiesis—the ways they world the world into language. Studying with each of them, I do feel like I’ve been encouraged to find those sub-material optic nerves, and to experiment with arranging them in new ways, to create differently organized filters through which to view the world. I think both of them have granted full reality to the relations between things—pliable, but difficult to render representationally—and taught me to work with this raw material. And I think, in each of their cases, using tools that are emerging in interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities has helped to rupture the staid and stolid fields they work in. On a good day, this ruptured and ruffled sort of theology can almost be like the drag queen of the sciences. But only when it’s really put together. Something to aim for, at any rate.
Ultimately, my point is this: Catherine is a thinker of relation, of relations. Entanglement is the chief and primary metaphor for relation that she elaborates, ontologically, in Cloud of the Impossible. But there are others that are not quite the same (folds, for instance). I don’t want to suggest that entanglement is somehow ancillary to Catherine’s work on relations. But I want to set it to the side very briefly just to underscore the extent to which Catherine’s entire career—beyond this book—has been dedicated to speculatively exploring, with increasing nuance and complexity, the ontological possibilities for thinking relations. I’m describing her work, of course, using language that she doesn’t quite use to describe it herself (speculation, ontology, etc…) And it’s possible that she will resent me for doing so (though her fidelity to Whitehead—the metaphysician—really does make these connections more logical). But I think it’s important to stress the extent to which she is doing this kind of work—speculative work in relational ontology—because I think it’s important work that defies some of the theoretical trends that have been rising up from the deconstructive rubble* over the past several years. This is the adventure of ideas that Catherine’s work invites us to endeavor.
One of the things I’ve found encouraging about this conversation on Cloud of the Impossible, as it’s played out over the course of a couple of weeks here at AUFS, is that even when the approaches to the text were critical, they were always oriented around the relational. That is to say, they were attentive to the ways in which this exploration of entanglement was or wasn’t facilitating productive forms of relatedness. And, often, they explored different patterns or shapes for articulating forms of relatedness. Carolyn and Austin both seemed to use the occasion of the blog post to unravel some aspect of their own relatedness to world (or to God), filtering it through the entanglement that Catherine illuminates. Karen’s post folded Catherine’s entanglement back in on itself—working to read this form of entanglement somewhat against itself. But this against itself is still an engagement, and remains deeply relational. Catherine Tomas posed questions about the extent to which the abstract figuration of entanglement challenges or shifts real forms of lived relatedness. And Amaryah posed questions about the extent to which entanglement itself might become coercive in problematic ways, exploring whether it leaves room for relations of non-participation. In some of the comments, she also raised questions about whether this entangled relation that breaches the non-human carries a vision of solidarity that might be potentially at odds with a more robustly liberationist solidarity. I found myself especially engaged with the conversation about these potentially competing visions of solidarity and, for my part, would love to see this fleshed out a bit more. Abstractly. That is: I’d love to see these visions of solidarity speculatively elaborated, to see what they might look like, ontologically.
I realize that it sounds a little trite to say that these readings of this relational ontology were—themselves—*all relational.* What, at the end of the day, isn’t relational? I suppose, on some level, I am making a backhanded reference to some of these post-deconstructive versions of speculative thought that have emerged over the past half decade or so—many of which seem to want to pull ontology away from the relational. My own introduction to these new forms of speculative thought (“speculative realism” as it’s more frequently called) was at a 2010 conference, at Claremont, which ended up turning into a kind of objects vs. processes philosophical death match. I exaggerate. But, really, I left the conference struck by the extent to which many of the thinkers who were defending process thought were also, in part, defending the ontological value of relations (primarily, their potential irreducibility). Quentin Meillasoux’s critique of correlationism seemed—on some level—to make the relational itself problematic in new ways. The Object Oriented Ontologists (perhaps primarily Graham Harman) defended the object’s withdrawal, and process thought did seem to take on a kind of coercive cast or character, in its blatant denial of this negation of relation as such. Despite a kind of intuitive mistrust I had for the notion of withdrawal (I suppose, on some level, it sounded a bit too much like a philosophical pull-out method) I found all of this intriguing, and spent way too much time in the months after this conference following blog posts that rehashed this debate between objects and relations. I think the take away, for me, came from a comment in a blog post (and I wish I could remember where I read it!) that basically took a semi-conciliatory position between objects and relations. The gist, as I recall it, was something like this: relations aren’t inherently bad or problematic, but process thought does have the tendency to simplify relationality by an often hasty reduction of everything down to relations as such. My agreement morphed into a kind of semi-formulated position of its own: if relational thought has the capacity to make constructive interventions into developing forms of speculative thought, then relational ontology has to become more complex, nuanced, specific. It’s possible that speculation is already over, and no one wants to do it anymore. But anyone who’s interested in advancing a philosophical position is always already speculating. I’d like to see what would happen if relational ontology became a thing that people actually admitted that they did. But maybe that’s just the sci-fi adventure priorities taking over again.
I do think that Cloud of the Impossible is many things. It is a complex book. But one of its projects, as I see it, is ontological. It does work to make relational ontology more complex, nuanced, specific. Catherine is exploding (or perhaps imploding) the staid metaphysics of the God-World relation. What she illuminates is a relation that refuses to validate one single thread of this relation, or refuses to let this relation be confined to one thread. Rather, she’s insisting on illuminating the web of relations that build what was once simply a God-World connection. This is a web that is so complex, it doesn’t even look like a web. It looks much cloudier. But it’s not intangible, it’s not without matter or substance. She’s describing this relation under the sign of entanglement. And I think the questions about the suitability of entanglement to this descriptive task can be productive. But I hope that this text can serve as an injunction into similarly nuanced and intricately wrought reflections on forms, shapes, and patterns of connection, rather than a point of recoil or withdrawal.
*I love deconstruction! This is just a figure of thought, not an attempt to claim that it is any less viable an intellectual project than it ever was. It will never end, and we will infinitely return to it, etc…