On Dionysius, Mystic Discourse, and Catastrophe: A Theology of Failure Book Event

Post by Alex Dubilet

            It is always fascinating to see a book finally appear, the first elements of which one encountered in much earlier forms. I remember hearing Marika Rose present her initial work on Dionysius the Areopagite years ago at conference in Liverpool (the occasion also of our first meeting, if I remember correctly). No less than Žižek, who appears in the subtitle of the book, it is Dionysius who structures the parameters of the theological problematics in A Theology of Failure. I will return below to ask after the stakes of commencing our theological reflections with Dionysius, but I want to begin with the book’s ending, because it is there, at least to my mind, that we find one of its most unexpected and original theoretical explorations. In the last chapter, Marika argues for a convergence between the logic of Dionysius’s Mystical Theology and Lacan’s theory of the four discourses. She convincingly demonstrates a parallel between the Dionysian stages of “naming, proliferation, denials, and then the collapse of denial itself” (154) and Lacan’s four discourses: the master’s discourse, the university discourse, the hysteric’s discourse, and the analyst’s discourse. The detailed parallels that she presents are illuminating and contribute to the tradition of thought that resists seeing psychoanalysis as a resolutely secular science, seeing it instead as articulating ways of speaking (but also ways of thinking) that harbor unexpected intimacies with the history of theology. This strand of thought – I am thinking of such works as Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasies: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History and Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam – has produced some of the most interesting writing and reflection on psychoanalysis and on mysticism in recent years.
Continue reading “On Dionysius, Mystic Discourse, and Catastrophe: A Theology of Failure Book Event”

Theology and The Failure of Order: A Theology of Failure Book Event

While I don’t typically anticipate theology books anymore, Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure, was one I was waiting on from the moment I heard about it. I’ve often said that Marika is the only person who could get me interested in Zizek’s work, and this book not only proves that, but forwards a genuinely compelling set of questions regarding the nature and task of theology and the possibility of practicing this mode of inquiry in a way that is unconcerned with the reproduction of confessional Christian norms of speech, creatively re-uses Christian theological material, and aims to actually attend to and become accountable for the devastation Christian theology has wrought in the Western world. In all, Marika presents a book which I’m very excited to be in conversation about, and I simply want to extend a set of reflections that followed me throughout the book.
Continue reading “Theology and The Failure of Order: A Theology of Failure Book Event”

Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption: The Prince of This World book event

pid_23793Let’s start at the end. The end of Adam Kotsko’s timely and compelling book and the end of my general exams. In fact, we might start at the beginning of the end of my exams when I finished a review of Kotsko’s book for the Anglican Theological Review the weekend before starting my exams. This could have been a tedious trainwreck of bad planning (and there was some extra stress due to my terribly bad planning), but I mostly found it helpful for thinking about some key questions that have emerged in my own graduate study—questions that shaped my examination papers and which I keep returning to as the shell of world continues to slowly collapse in on itself. These questions primarily center on the conclusions and the constructive push that Kotsko offers. In many ways it is a constructive turn that feel at odds with the very convincing story of the Devil’s rise and fall. This tension is not, I think, because the constructive piece is a bad one but because I wonder whether there is a more radical conclusion that would take more seriously. Having read Jared’s response to the book, I was even more struck by the notion that thinking seriously about race and coloniality in the Devil’s story may lead us to push further than the Devil’s redemption and think more about God’s responsibility for evil.

Continue reading “Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption: The Prince of This World book event”

Black Theology and the Dance of Death

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 12.39.10 PM
a still from Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me” Featuring Kendrick Lamar

[I wrote this about two years ago thinking maybe it would be part of my comments on an AAR Panel. I’m quite glad I didn’t end up doing that (perhaps it would have been to hard to follow aurally?), but I stumbled across it again and thought I’d put it out into the atmosphere and see what other folks think. I don’t know how much of this I still vibe with, but I do feel *some* vibrations when I reread it. *kanye shrug*]

What are movements made of? Variations on positions in space and time? Expansions and contractions of the musculature resulting in shifts of the flesh? An orbital cycling in and around thought?

I like to think of movements as being made up of displacements. Displacements of thought, Displacements of the flesh, Displacements of the social. These displacements suggest something about the doubled nature of movement. For those of us concerned with how one builds movements, whatever we might mean by this turn of phrase, this doubled sense of movement can be used to connote some kind of accumulation of force and flesh that is dispersed in a multiplicity of forms, seeping out of seemingly static spaces. Yet, at the same time, this potentiality of movement is precisely how we came to be here.

In the movement of a ship, multiplied by the infinitude of capital’s promise. In the stealthy movements of escape and fugitivity, practiced movements that calculate(d) the cost of capture. In the hold where each expansion and contraction of the musculature was a risk. In the movements of black power and black feminism as a critical shift in thought, the derailing of a train of thought that was bound for some white promised land. We move and are moved. We have been so moved as to be here.

What is it that movement offers other than displacement as an outworking of white desire and capitalist markets, since these are the sense in which displacement is first thought? What moves, having been made, bring us to the clearing where the displaced gather to love the flesh? What relations of force, accumulation, dispersion, and attraction are we able to produce as a common movement?

The question of blackness and its displacement is the question of this possibility of relations. Some common kinlessness. For how else do we traverse and navigate the dangerous field of the world built on the expulsion of black flesh without some critical energy, some movement to get us there?

A turn to displacement to conceive of movement allows us to consider what conceptual ambivalence or agnosticism can begin to account for the accidents of movement that structure our ability to think God in modernity.

If blackness can be thought as movement, as already destabilized and destabilizing, perhaps the role of black theology today, rather than moving on from blackness through a seemingly necessary expansion that attaches things which blackness also already names (queer, gendered, crip—as though blackness is always a narrowness to be asterisked and avoided, a limit to “inclusion”), is to practice a movement of thought that takes up this black energy that is found in the accumulation of fleshly relations in a mode other than capitalist accumulation.

Because blackness is, as Fred Moten notes, both a state of being exhausted and an exhaustation of sovereign impositions of subjectivity and the propertied relations that structure such subjects, it is concerned with what Frank Wilderson calls a dance of death. Dancing even as the socially dead, dancing because one is socially dead. Rather than attempting to stop the dance, then, black theology ought to embrace this exhaustation which is the place where the critical turn occurs. After death, the turn, we keep dancing. Giving another go at moving our feet and our flesh. The turn—which is, maybe like this image, the rounding of a cornered existence with such speed and velocity that new openings emerge.

Race, Property, Debt: A Symposium

For friends who are near the Madison, Wisconsin area and its neighboring cities (Chicago, I’m looking at you), there’s an upcoming symposium—Race, Property, Debt—that I co-organized with Vincent Lloyd at the University of Wisconsin, Madison on March 11 and 12. You can RSVP to the Facebook event here and the event website with the list of presenters and paper titles is here. I’ve reposted the longer event description below:

In the six years since the nadir of the Great Recession, debt has attracted wide scholarly attention. Debt names not only student loans, underwater mortgages, and consumer credit but also, more significantly, a form of life molded by debt: the everyday practices, desires, virtues, and vices of the indebted. Debt is not colorblind: in the United States, Blacks and Latinos are affected most severely.

Race and debt have long been connected, and together entwined with property. Classically, in The Merchant of Venice, it is the racial other, the Jew, who demanded repayment of debt in flesh when property was unavailable. Treating flesh as property was the principle animating the slave trade, a business sustained by debt secured by Black human “property.” Post-emancipation, Black sharecroppers remained tied down by debt and by lack of property ownership. The hyper-incarceration of poor Blacks today justifies itself by extracting a debt owed to society. Calls for reparations claim that society owes a debt to Blacks or to other communities that have suffered injustices.

This symposium brings together a dozen leading scholars of history, literature, anthropology, and law to reflect on the conjunction of race, property, and debt. Looking both at and beyond Black experience in the Great Recession, presenters will share their own research and place it in dialogue with the research of colleagues, clarifying the often elusive spider-web of concepts and practices that entangle, entrap, and ruin the lives of people of color in the US and beyond. All conference presentations will be free and open to the public.

Detailed schedule coming soon. Presenters will discuss pre-circulated papers on Friday (RSVP to vwlloyd@syr.edu or amaryah.armstrong@gmail.com to receive them in advance); community discussion to follow on Saturday.

Devin Fergus (African American Studies, Ohio State)
Cheryl Harris (Law, UCLA)
K-Sue Park (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid)
Jodi Melamed (English, Marquette)
Shana Redmond (American Studies and Ethnicity, USC)
Tayyab Mahmud (Law, Seattle)
Thomas Mitchell (Law, Wisconsin / Texas A&M)
Joanne Barker (American Indian Studies, San Francisco State)
Joshua Dubler (Religion, Rochester)
Anne-Maria Makhulu (Anthropology, Duke)
Lynn Itagaki (English, Ohio State)
Cedric Johnson (African American Studies, Illinois-Chicago)

Co-Sponsors: Institute for Research in the Humanities and Comparative U.S. Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison



On Marked and Unmarked Theologies

At times, I’m reminded of the problem people have with Black Theology being unapologetic about attaching Black to Theology. This is not an uncommon experience when one is developing black accounts of things (it is something we see often in the rejoinder “All Lives Matter!” ). “Why does it have to be a black theology,” the offended whine. Theology by itself names something universal that black disfigures with the problem of blackness–its particularity and historical contingency. In reality, we just need to recover better theology in general to confront the problem of whiteness in theology. Good theology is the antidote for bad theology (whether white theology or black theology). In response to this line of argument, I’ve been sketching some thoughts.

One cannot simply continue as though the name of theology, which has been white theology in practice, can simply be wrested back into a liberative mode without confronting and unsettling what is occluded by the appearance of universality given, without reserve, to this name (theology). The name Black theology thus marks theology (just as blackness marks existence) with the sign of excess or difference which cannot be assimilated into theology without theology becoming something different altogether–without theology experiencing an inoperativity or deconversion from its own whiteness. To simply announce theology by itself (whether it is true theology, or real theology, or better theology) as the answer to the problem of theology, is to leave theology unmarked as a problem for blackness (by which I mean existence) and untouched by the disfiguration blackness would effect upon theology. In my view, this marking or disfiguration of theology by blackness is precisely what keeps its speech theological. The repetition of arguments that claim to recover real theology are thus evasions of the problem an unmarked theology poses. Such evasion fails to take seriously both what theology names (our speech about God), what blackness names (a problem for the ontological whiteness that has made itself God), and the need to signal the radical incommensurability of the two yet, at the same time, their necessary confrontation.

Blackness and Value; Part 1: The Economics of Criminalization

This series is being crossposted from Women in Theology

“Money promises value. It does not specify the form that such value will take. Used for consumption, money promises pleasure. Used for investment, money promises more money. The value of money, or the value that is promised, has no exact or fixed measure. It is an indefinite potential.” (Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money, 107)

“How could anyone expect to profit from unpayable loans without debtors who were already marked by their racial/cultural difference ensuring that at least some among them would not be able to pay? This is precisely what makes “high-risk” securities profitable. The Black and Latino/a holders of subprime loans, like Dana, owe incomprehensible and unpayable monetary debts precisely because they are not constructed as referents of either the relationship between persons presumed in commerce (which Graeber states precedes all other economic circumstances) or the capacity that according to Karl Marx ultimately determines their value of exchange (the productivity which John Locke, David Ricardo, and Marx agreed elevated the human thing).” (Denise Ferreira Da Silva and Paula Chakravartty, Accumulation, Dispossession, and Debt, 367)

Money promises value, as Philip Goodchild announces in the quote above. The promise of value is also the production of more money. Because money promises value, for more value to be created, more money must be created. In Goodchild’s elaboration, this creation of money to satiate the value it promises is the creation of debt. That is, the promise of value requires the creation of debt in order to produce value. Continue reading “Blackness and Value; Part 1: The Economics of Criminalization”

Narrative and Conversion: Evangelical Hermeneutics and the Transcendence of Truth

Perhaps nothing so tangibly solidified the importance of Dan Barber’s work on conversion than my recent trip to hear an ex-gay speaker tell her conversion story.Part of the reason I went, in fact, was because I have a higher tolerance for evangelical spaces (probably due to having less trauma than many others who grew up queer and evangelical) and I figured it would be interesting to see how evangelicals are shifting their narrative a bit, but not really.

The speaker, Rosaria Butterfield, has gained prominence in evangelical circles because she is a prime candidate to tell the story reformed evangelicals want to tell. For, not only was she a Lesbian, but she was a lesbian secular atheist feminist and former English professor. I can see evangelicals drooling over the fact that someone with her credentials, with her story, has become a reformed evangelical pastor’s wife.

The work of the narrative in telling someone like Butterfield’s story is very important. For one, the narrative is important to hiding the gaps in an evangelical hermeneutic. For instance, Butterfield, when she is still secular atheist, is doing research on the religious right and ends up being befriended by some reformed evangelicals who “don’t try to convert” her. It was friendship, she says, and “not friendship evangelism.” Having solidified trust with them, though, she’s more likely to consider their position. She understands that evangelicals aren’t aliens even though their beliefs are supernatural, but it is Butterfield’s need to think the supernatural as a transcendent outside to the fallen word that already reveals the where the slight of hand occurs. After accepting that God must be god in this particular mode of evangelical transcendence it follows that she would begin to suspect the bible as possibly having a claim on her in the way evangelicals narrate that claim–which is through the ideas of infallibility and the Spirit’s inspiration, such that any touch of fallen human’s being responsible for the words can’t even be a question. If a perfect and eternally good God reveals God’s self through the bible, why wouldn’t it be true in this extremely absolutist understanding of truth?

That is, the work of the conversion narrative, in part, is to make the work of conversion invisible. To make the transcendence which secures evangelical authority invisible. The thing about narratives, especially evangelical conversion narratives, is they want you to forget the author has written or compiled the narrative in a particular way so that it appears to be God God’s self who orchestrated and authorized the whole conversion.

This is why competing narratives have to be discredited (and I take this to be the case of anyone who debates truth with secular or ‘biblical’ apologetics). For Butterfield, not only is secular atheism debunked in her conversion narrative, but also gay Christian narratives like Matthew Vines which rely on biblical apologetics to come to a LGB affirming stance. It was funny to me that she called these LGB affirming biblical apologetics bad readers because that is precisely what I (and numerous biblical scholars) think of evangelical hermeneutics. It was also funny, then, that Butterfield’s conversion narrative was kind a lot like mine but in reverse and I didn’t end up a secular atheist, though I am feminist lesbian anticapitalist so 3 out of 4 isn’t so bad. But, my point is, her narration doesn’t have room for me. Evangelical narratives such as hers can’t really converse with someone like Eugene Rogers or radical Queer Christian biblical scholars, or any kind of approach to the bible that isn’t ahistoricist. And to me, that is the gap that goes unspoken in evangelical conversion narratives. The truth always appears out of nowhere knocking people upside the head. The truth is always available if you just open your bible and read it. But the reading already has an assumption that isn’t from outside the world, that isn’t ahistorical, but gets narrated as if it is.

Anyways, I don’t want to belabor the point, I just found it kind of humorous and sad how evangelicals keep trying to find ways to make everyone else seem like bad readers when they are, in my mind, the worst kinds of readers which is those who don’t think of themselves as reading in history because the book just transcends all of time.

Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

Cloud of the ImpossibleIn 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.

Questioning Entanglement

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. Continue reading “Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

Liquidating Blackness – Blood Book Event

In The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt attends to the fact that the sea was always located outside of territorial, juridical regulations, defined as a space that enabled and, indeed, linked the very two “practices” that Kant and Schumpeter saw as distinct and even opposite, namely, we saw, war and commerce. In the naval space … only war and commerce take place. And all that is solid melts into blood. Both the dissolution of space … and the liquefaction of money—its circulation as blood money, under the figure of unification in the blood of Christ—partake of the same logic and of the same transformation. 1

The lawlessness of the sea, its openness and outsideness is the space of transformation and magic. Solids melt into blood, money becomes liquid, and circulates as blood money. I don’t know that there is any clearer example of this magic than the transatlantic slave trade. The dissolution of bodies into blood—differentiated blood—and into blood money. The transformation of black people into property occurs under the banner of the blood of Christ. Continue reading “Liquidating Blackness – Blood Book Event”