Theology and Continental Philosophy at the AAR

As co-chair of the Theology and Continental Philosophy programming unit, I’m pleased to announce the sessions that we are running this year. A summary of the titles, days, and times follows, with full information “below the fold.”

“Bataille, Blackness, and the Tumultuous Sacred,” Saturday, 1:00 PM–3:00 PM
“The Devil and the Demons: Neoliberal Theology in the Work of Adam Kotsko,” Saturday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
“The Jew, the Christian, and the Ends of the World,” Monday, 3:30 PM–5:00 PM
“Mormon Theology and Continental Thought,” Monday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
“New Frontiers in Phenomenology of Religion,” Tuesday, 8:30 AM–10:00 AM

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Tarrying with Christ: A Theology of Failure Book Event

This is a guest post from Rajbir Singh Judge.

While reading Marika Rose’s brilliant book A Theology of Failure: Žižek against Christian Innocence, that nettlesome question surfaces: “What is Christianity?” And, from there, one is led to ask a different question: what was Christianity? Even though it is and has been a religion—which, we must recall, is “a term of its own making”—the answer is not so easily answered.[1] Asking about the past itself is double-edged in our age of historical recuperation. The past can signal the recovery of lost hope that has potential to liberate or it can refuse the premise of a contraction and reveal Christian genealogies that continue to suffocate. The latter question demands we consider the difference a Christian past introduced with respect to today. But, then, the question turns again, to the former possibility. Is there a different subaltern Christian repository for our ailing present? What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?[2]

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Reproduction Interrupted and the Legacies of Systematic Thought: A Theology of Failure Book Event

This is a guest post by Ben Fulford.

Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure speaks powerfully to a problem that has come increasingly to concern me as someone working in Christian theology, teaching systematic theology no less, and immersed in institutional structures like the Society for the Study of Theology that we’ve both been attending for several years now. That problem is what I take to be the central problem of the book: the challenge of faithfully betraying the intellectual and spiritual tradition in which one has been formed, as one comes to learn – and I am still learning – of the extent and depths of its complicities with manifold forms of violence, structural and directly corporeal, going back in different ways over many centuries, and still live today, and always linked intimately with various formations of Christian identity.
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Theology of Failure Book Event: Introduction

I am excited to announce that we are starting a book event on Marika Rose’s new book, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence, recently published by Fordham University Press. This remarkable study takes Žižek’s intervention into theology more seriously than any previous work — indeed, perhaps more seriously than Žižek himself takes it — by situating it in terms of a theologian who has been an important source for contemporary theological discourse and many other thinkers of the “religious turn,” though not for Žižek himself: Dionysius the Areopagite. This juxtaposition allows Rose to demonstrate the ways that Žižek’s thought, including those aspects that are not explicitly theological, responds to the inherent deadlocks of apophatic theology.

At the same time, the choice of Žižek as interlocutor allows her to escape the trap, common among those working at the intersection of philosophy and theology, of presenting the philosopher as some kind of moral authority who passes judgment on the failings of conventional theology. No one can mistake Žižek for a spiritual guru, and his problematic interventions on issues related to gender, immigration, and other political issues make him an unlikely candidate for a progressive exemplar, or perhaps even as a progressive ally. Rose is clear-eyed about Žižek’s failings, which make him an especially fruitful interlocutor for a tradition that has failed again and again to deliver the benefits — love, liberation, authentic community — that it claims sole proprietorship of. The result is a thorough-going critique of theology as a discipline that goes beyond the quest for a “good version” of Christianity, yet without giving up on the task of theology altogether.

Our tentative schedule is as follows. (After each author posts their contribution, a link will be added here to provide a handy reference.)

Wednesday, September 18: Amaryah Armstrong
Friday, September 20: Alex Dubilet

Monday, September 23: Ben Fulford
Wednesday, September 25: Tapji Garba
Friday, September 27: Rajbir Singh Judge

Monday, September 30: Eric Daryl Meyer
Wednesday, October 2: Anthony Paul Smith
Friday, October 4: Marika Rose (response)

The fantasy of high school

So many cultural tropes around high school are attempts to make our actions and experiences at that time make sense, when in reality we were all just flailing at random and mostly hated each other and ourselves most of the time. There is something humiliating about remembering — truly remembering — that we were once high schoolers. That’s why teenage dramas cast 20-something supermodels who move effortlessly within a clearly legible social hierarchy, to allow us to forget.

There’s a deep, but probably unfixable cruelty to the fact that our “choices” — if we can call them that — in high school shape our lives so profoundly. And there’s something in us that is so seduced by the fantasy of retrieving that moment and doing it right this time.

That’s the innovation of neoliberalism — it provides a clearly legible benchmark for what it means to do high school right. And parents are so eager to feed their children to that machine, because they wish so dearly that they had had that kind of clarity and purpose. The result is a generation who wasted their childhood — precisely by not “wasting” it, by treating childhood as a job. And maybe that means that they will be the first generation to grow up, to know for a fact that they did all they could in high school and it didn’t matter.

The right-wing reaction is part of the legacy of the fall of the Soviet Union

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).

In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.

The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.

(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)

If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)

Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”

I blame the Marvel universe: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Each week, Sarah Jaffe — a new Star Trek fan who came to the franchise through Discovery — and Adam Kotsko — a long-time obsessive who has spent way too much time thinking about Star Trek — have been chatting about their impressions of the newest episode. Since we fell behind yet again, this post covers both parts of “Such Sweet Sorrows.” A full archive can be found here.]

AK: Long time, no see. Unless we always already will have seen each other FROM THE FUTURE.

SJ: I just want to talk about things that aren’t time travel but these episodes, IDK
the time travel makes no sense let’s just stipulate that from the jump

AK: WHAT WERE THE SEVEN INITIAL SIGNALS?!?!?!

SJ: I have no idea

AK: Sorry, had to get that out of my system.
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