God, Death & the Abortion of Time

Some of us are born with morbid imaginations. My mom tells a story about me, at the age of three: I wanted to know where we go when we die. The question consumed me, and she let me wonder. I apparently asked every adult I met and was unsatisfied with all of the answers I heard (heaven, six feet under; the great standards) Then she read me Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant” which ends (spoiler alert) when the selfish giant is spirited away [by a christlike child] to the garden of paradise. “That’s it,” I told her. “That’s where we go. Paradise.” Perhaps all I needed was some vegetation: the vision of a garden. Or perhaps all I needed was a poetic term: something that felt like candy, or fresh fruit, on the tongue.

Many years later I was passed through the mills of deconstruction, postmodern thought, continental philosophy, feminist critique. Paradise became – to me – a power play: the gleaming veneer over transcendence, just another evisceration of finitude. Philosophers hate death, Simone de Beauvoir argued, because it carries a kind of placental stench. To think death, to really think death, is to take in the stink, the funk, of mortality. Philosophers prefer the clean purity of the immortal, the infinite. And women, said Beauvoir, are blamed for death because it’s birth that gave us death, in the first place. Beauvoir’s words always felt very true to me, and and there was feminist inspiration in the long sojourn I made into creaturely life. In creatureliness I wanted to embrace a kind of pure mortality; to make peace with the body’s limits, to illuminate its vulnerabilities, to be in its suffering. Contemporary theory is a rich vineyard to pull from, if this is what you thirst for. But, lately, I’ve grown weary of death.

This is the fifth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class on death. Right now I call it “Being Mortal.” In five terms, the syllabus has undergone a significant shift. Once it was heavy with texts that encourage a focus on raw mortality, with subtle critiques of immortality (both the biological and the supernatural varieties). But increasingly it becomes riddled with visions of the sweet hereafter, in various flavors. I once believed that the most difficult intellectual task would be to challenge students to question a pious valorization of the afterlife, and to rend a new form of openness to the limits of mortality. But this, I discovered, was actually the easiest thing to do. It was also, quite frankly, the most boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that my students believed, deeply, in mortal decay. But their speculative imaginations were, more often than not, deadened by it. At most, they would weakly (albeit dogmatically) offer the vision of a soul that would somehow outlast this decay. But our conversations about strange places like heaven and hell get their fictive impulses churning. Death can really be a dead end.

Tonstad’s book is not only a book about the trinity but is also, as the title promises, a book about the transformation of finitude. It is a vision that refuses to subordinate us to the reality of death. Unlike the philosophers who (as Beauvoir believed) hate death, Tonstad doesn’t deal with death misogynistically . Instead, death (like other elements of the book) is inspected using the diagnostic tools of queer theory and radical feminism. Continue reading “God, Death & the Abortion of Time”

Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

Perhaps because it strives to traffic in such grand and generic universals, the scholarly discourse commonly referred to as the “religion-science dialogue” has faced criticism for the fact that it has historically been a highly particular conversation—a table around which the stakeholders’ faces are white and male, and whose hearts are Christian. Unsurprisingly, and probably not unrelated, it is also a discourse that is seldom discussed here at AUFS. This is not to say, of course, that AUFS readers and bloggers are uninterested in scientific matters such as (I’m pulling from the “Categories” list on the left hand side bar here) animals, audio files, darwinism, Dawkins, ecology, or the sci-fi stylings of Star Trek. But the specialized academic conversation that is Religion and Science does not get much play here. This may be, perhaps, why Catherine Keller—in her opening post for this book event—reflects on how Mary Jane Rubenstein’s efforts in Worlds Without End are aimed at garnering interest in multiple worlds among those who don’t care about this specialists’ dialogue. Keller may be smart enough to realize that too much talk about this specialized disciplinary terrain could fall on ears that may not hear, here. But, in my contribution to this book event, I’d like to play it a bit dumb. As someone with a persistent tendency to resist disciplinary structures, I have spent inordinate amounts of time contemplating them from the fringes—always with a messianic expectation that, at some point, they will begin to change form. The shape of a discipline is highly synthetic and would be infinitely flexible if not for institutional power, and the consensus borne of tradition. Thus, the shape of a discipline matters a lot: it influences public knowledge and public funds, as well as the most intimate habits of thought and the practices these inspire. With this in mind, I’d like to reflect on Rubenstein’s genealogy of multiple worlds against the backdrop of this discipline, and open questions about what her work might also be doing to reconstitute it. I think this could make visible some labors of this text that might otherwise go unannounced. Continue reading “Religion, Science, and the Multiplication of the Multiple in Worlds Without End

Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event

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. Continue reading “Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event”

Index for A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought Book Event

An index to the posts of our recent book event:

James Stanescu: “Meditations on Second Philosophies” (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

The author of this post is James Stanescu

What’s in a prefix? The non- of non-philosophy, as Anthony frequently reminds us, is the same as the non- of non-Euclidean geometry or the non- of non-standard physics. Indeed, Laruelle, it seems, has taken to referring to this as non-standard philosophy rather than simply non-philosophy. The non- is not, therefore, an anti- or an un-, it does not signify either an oppositional discourse, or a mark of being outside and other. In the same way that non-Euclidean geometry is still geometry, or that people working on non-standard physics still see themselves as physicists. What does the non- of non-Euclidean geometry and non-standard physics have in common? Well, both are moves that question the defining axioms of their respective fields. In both cases they argue that the axioms that geometry and physics use to describe the world are not always sufficient for the task. Furthermore, these non-s are not primarily critical projects. They simply indicate a field in which there exist several positive projects (such as hyperbolic geometry, or string theory and M-theory). The non-, then, is fundamentally a marker of an immanent relation. It does not come from outside as a master discourse to finally tell philosophy what it is, but rather comes from within philosophy (or physics, or geometry) in order to re-examine its fundamental axioms in order for its intellectual projects to continue. Or at least I think so. This is probably a good as time as any to point out that I don’t know anything about Laruelle (and I know roughly the same amount about theology), but here I am anyway. But, if non-standard philosophy wishes to change or adapt axioms or principles of philosophy, what axioms and principles are under consideration? Continue reading “James Stanescu: “Meditations on Second Philosophies” (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

Not Weaving, Not Unweaving: Feminism, Fabrication & the Disruption of Intellectual Culture

When I learned that Helen Tartar, editor of Fordham University Press, had died in a tragic car accident, the first thing I thought of was the fact that my school’s (Drew University) annual Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium was only a matter of weeks away. I go to this conference every year, and I found it impossible for me to imagine the TTC without Helen in the audience, patiently knitting and listening while she sat through the extremely long and intense weekend conversation. I still remember the first time that I attended the TTC, as a new PhD student, in 2009. I saw this elegant woman in the crowd, quite obviously attuned to the intellectual discourse, yet simultaneously knitting this incredible and intricate lace garment. I found it oddly empowering. I was unsurprised to learn, over the course of time, what a subtle, elegant, and intricate critical imagination Helen had—as a thinker, and an editor. In a certain sense—though she was extremely kind, deeply unpretentious, and totally unassuming—you might say that she almost wore this on her sleeve. As an editor, she did so much to broadcast the kind of intellectual work that was being done at Drew. She started a series, to publish the annual proceedings of the TTC, and the kind of feminism that’s emerged from the ecosystem that is Drew University (deeply informed by thinkers like my advisor Catherine Keller, by Virginia Burrus, by Laurel Kearns, as well as former administrators like Maxine Beach and Anne Yardley) came through so well in powerfully simple things like the covers of these books. But over the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to articulate what it was that I found so oddly empowering when I saw Helen knitting in the midst of an academic conference.

On some levels, it’s obvious. I grew up in a family of women who sew. My great grandmother was skilled at making lace crochet. By the time I knew her, she had lost much of her hearing and much of her eyesight. But the home of my grandparents, and my own home, were graced with curtains she’d made decades earlier. The lace was thick, but the patterns she wove were large enough to filter the sun into speckled streams. My mother and I were both a little heartbroken when our crazy beagle, Teddy, chewed off the corner of one of these curtains so that he would have a small porthole to stick his head through, to stare out the window. I think either my mother or I might have cried. But who can really blame a dog for wanting a better view? My grandmother used to make these fantastic dresses for herself, and for her grandaughters. Living in an immigrant family (with seven children), who’d come to the U.S. after living in a displaced persons camp, my grandmother never had much money. But she worked as a seamstress and had enough to buy, periodically, some beautiful silky fabric for an elegant dress. And enough to keep a little bottle of Chanel No.5 on her vanity, for special occasions. She was glamorous, and I was in awe of her. One year, for Christmas, she made my cousins and I these velvety dresses in different shades of red. I felt like we were royalty. My mother went through a period in her hippy youth where she made all of her own clothes. And we still own some of the intricate and embroidered little garments that she made for me as a small child. I used her old sewing machine until I was in college, and I cried when it broke down. I did. I had to call her, thinking that I should ask for permission before I got a new one. She laughed, because it’s just a machine. But for me, there were histories bound up in the machine: ties to my past, to the women of my family who’d passed away and left me with their skills and sensibilities.

It’s weird, I know, for me to write about this at a place like AUFS. Even though I’ve written about things like Barbie before, I kind of feel like this is one of those places where I go to be a little bit more of a dude. But I’ve seen this blog billed as an “anomalous” space. So I’m just going to go ahead and anomalize a bit. Say what I want.

This past weekend, at the TTC, we ended up making a quilt for Helen. Continue reading “Not Weaving, Not Unweaving: Feminism, Fabrication & the Disruption of Intellectual Culture”

Katerina Kolozova: “Toward a non-Marxist radicalization of ‘nature’: Reading Marx in dialogue with François Laruelle and Anthony Paul Smith” (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

The author of this post is Katerina Kolozova.

The human aspect of nature exists only for social man; for only then does nature exist for him as a bond with man – as his existence for the other and the other’s existence for him – and as the life-element of human reality. Only then does nature exist as the foundation of his own human existence. Only here has what is to him his natural existence become his human existence, and nature become man for him. Thus society is the complete unity of man with nature – the true resurrection of nature – the consistent naturalism of man and the consistent humanism of nature.

(Karl Marx)

The materialistic stance of the capitalist subject – both wage laborer and the capitalist who owns it – is marked by an “anorexic” treatment of the physical. The modernist idea of the “material” is indeed what makes the capitalist subject happy. However, immersing into the material without control, allowing it to devour you through pleasure and pain renders the material meaningless, “mere matter.” Matter matters only when fetishized as money, as a sculpted instead of mere body, as sex which is not organs and fluids but representation, as a home which is not (just) a home but a procedure of stylization of one’s life.  If the material does not satisfy the fantasized fetishistic expectations, its immediate, unruly, “primitive” needs are treated as defect and their urgencies are (expected to be) subjected to control by the subject of self-mastery.

Continue reading “Katerina Kolozova: “Toward a non-Marxist radicalization of ‘nature’: Reading Marx in dialogue with François Laruelle and Anthony Paul Smith” (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)”