A theme that emerges if you watch enough angel films is that the presence of an angel in a film is usually an indicator that it’s not a good film. A New York Christmas Wedding is no exception – as Christina Cautericci writes, it’s a ‘wild, howlingly bad queer holiday movie for the ages‘. But what might seem at first like a bizarre and incoherent plot makes sense when we read the film as a Christmas angel film: that is, a film about family formation and love as the solution to social reproduction in crisis.
A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story, it’s the Christmas story (sorry baby Jesus), the one that brings us all together. Who can hate the heartwarming story of a lonely miser, moved to repentance, generosity, and kindness to his hard-worked employees? It’s tempting to read it as an inherently left wing story, except that it’s not just people on the left who love it; it’s everyone.
A central contradiction of capitalism is between the tendency, on the one hand, to erode people’s capacity to feed and house themselves, to take care of one another, to behave morally and believe in the morality of the system in order to maximise the extraction of profit and, on the other, the need to reproduce the system, to keep people alive in order that they may continue to be exploited, to keep people happy enough that they’ll keep doing what they’re expected, to maintain at least some kind of moral legitimacy so that we keep paying our bills and racking up debts. Capitalism wants to suck us dry and spit us out, but it also needs (some of) us to love our families, to feel hopeful about the future, to have children, to invest. This is the real meaning of Christmas, and of The Christmas Carol.
Thanks to everyone who helped out with reading suggestions for this module. I’m currently somewhere between weeks 3 and 4 and so far it’s been really fun to teach. To recap, this course was designed as a medieval philosophy and theology module, in a department with a mixture of philosophy, theology and religious studies students. We didn’t have any existing modules that focused on the medieval period, so this is basically an attempt to cover some of the key bases of medieval philosophical theology but in a way that’s engaging for students who aren’t necessarily already invested in understanding what scholasticism is. I’ve tried to cover some of the key moments in medieval intellectual history: the arrival of Jewish and Islamic thought, the rise of scholasticism and then the emergence of nominalism and the beginnings of Enlightenment humanism and Renaissance science. I’m expecting to teach this course once every couple of years for the rest of my time at Winchester so it’s not too late to tell me about the brilliant book that I absolutely must read. Likewise, please feel free to borrow as much of this as you’d like, or drop me a line if you’d like to see any of my course materials.
One of the central functions of angels in films is to do the work of producing and reproducing the heteronormative family. I think this is to do with a mixture of the idea of the guardian angel and the increasing association of religion with the home, the private sphere, and social reproduction which follows on the emergence of capitalism and the seculaization of the west. Because angels work to make sure that people meet, fall in love, and have children, angel films often tell us a lot about contemporary anxieties around love, marriage, and the family. It’s also the case that a surprising number of angel films are remakes of earlier angel films; I’d guess partly because angel films are rarely pushing the boundaries of film, art, or culture. But that means we have a number of films where we can take a look at the way that the same story is told in two or even three different periods.
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
An abolition(ist) university would be kinda like an abolition(ist) prison or an abolitionist plantation Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, ‘the university: last words’
We charge that the university-as-such is a criminal institution … We understand the university today as a key institution of an emerging form of global, racial capitalism, one that is a laboratory for new forms of oppression and exploitation, rather than an innocent institution for the common good. undercommoning, Undercommoning Within, Against and Beyond the University-as-Such
There is a pleasure in hierarchy. We begin with an education in our hierarchies. We begin with childhood and childhood begins with education. To be exact, education begins our childhood. We are called by race, by gender, by class, and so on. Our education cultivates our desire in the direction of our hierarchies.
Education and freedom are the same call, the same calling. Education requires abolition. Abolition requires education. Freedom is the only education. One can only be called to freedom … Education is dangerous to slavery, to the system of white-over-black. Anthony Farley, The Perfection of Slavery
Thomas Lynch’s book ends with a call for an immanent apocalypticism, a hope not in some positive future utopia but in the possibility of the end of the world: the end of nature, capital, gender and race. These death-dealing systems cannot be reformed, cannot be fixed by the demand that they be better versions of themselves; they can only be abolished.
Alongside a bigger project about angels, I’ve been working on an article about angels and film, and by ‘working on’ I mean I’ve been watching a lot of films with angels in, taking the Wikipedia page on “Films about angels” as my guide. The page title is a bit misleading, actually; it’s more properly a list of films with angels in, often in fairly marginal roles. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, for example, features angels only very briefly, in the form of pastel-clad flight attendants checking people’s tickets as they arrive in heaven (air travel being a frequent association with angels going at least as far back as 1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan, in which grey-suited angels check people onto planes presumably transporting people to heaven). Anyway, point is I’ve watched a lot of angel films at this point, and thought it might be worth trying to jot down some thoughts about them here as I go, so consider this your welcome to a new occasional blog series from me about films with angels in.
I recently went on the Faith and Capital podcast to talk about my book. We chatted about the limits of the liberal politics of inclusion, different ways of thinking about and evaluating political violence, and a bunch of other things! You can listen to the podcast here.
I’m due to teach a new course in September, which sets out to use angelology and demonology as a way into medieval theology and philosophy. We don’t currently have any modules that focus specifically on the medieval period, though my students read a little of Augustine on the fall of the angels in their first year, and we touch on a few medieval thinkers in some of the other modules I teach.
Here’s the catalogue summary for the module:
Belief in angels and demons has come to seem eccentric and disconnected from real life, in talking about these spiritual beings, medieval theologians explored many of the issues which were, to them, of central concern. By studying the work of medieval angelologists and demonologists, we can come to understand crucial debates about the nature of reality, matter and time; what it means to be human; and how society should be organised. This module will explore key questions of medieval philosophy and theology through an examination of debates about angels and demons.
I’ll be planning the course over the summer; currently my key points of reference are Adam’s The Prince of This World; David Keck’s Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages; Hoffman’s A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy; Lenz and Iribarren’s Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry; and Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. I think I’ll probably include Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy because it’s so foundational for 13th century thinkers, and I’m tempted to edge into the early modern period and look at angels in John Dee. I think I’m going to try for a mix of primary and secondary texts, so any suggestions for good translations would be much appreciated, as would any other ideas or suggestions about key – and undergraduate friendly – readings, scholarship, etc.
I’m making some tweaks to my Introduction to Political Philosophy syllabus this year, so thought I’d post an updated handbook here. The two key changes are that I’m dropping Robert Nozick (who’s basically just Mill on steroids anyway) and replacing him with Carl Schmitt, whose discussion of politics as fundamentally concerned with the distinction between friends and enemies offers a more meaningful contrast with mainstream liberalism; and I’m getting rid of the free choice week I used to have in week 12 in order to introduce some anarchism via Errico Malatesta. I kept finding that I wanted to articulate something like the anarchist emphasis on our mutual dependency and the centrality of mutual aid to human survival as a contrast with the more individualist and sovereign visions of the human person that we were reading in Locke and Mill, and Malatesta’s Anarchy does a good job of articulating that in terms that make sense in the context of the tradition as I’ve constructed it here. So I’m hoping these switches will make for a slightly more rounded sense of the different alternatives at play within modern Western political philosophy. As ever, if you’d like to see any of my teaching materials, I’m very happy to share them – drop me a line on email@example.com
You can see from the weekly overview the way I’ve structured the module. The class has one two-hour teaching session per week, so I use the second half of one class to introduce a key concept and the thinker whose discussion of the concept we’re going to be reading; then the students go away and do the reading; then the first half of the next class we spend discussing the set text via a mixture of general questions and detailed analysis of extracts from the text. The module as a whole is still pretty indebted to Robin James’ Social and Political Philosophy syllabus.
In my book, I argue that for Žižek there is a difference between love according to desire, which is ‘to believe in a false vision of purity and perfection’, suppressing and disavowing the inconsistencies and imperfections of the one beloved; and love according to drive which confronts ‘imperfection and incompleteness in all of their grotesque materiality’ (139). I am so grateful for the close attention that the respondents to my book have paid to what I have written; for the probing questions which push at the incompleteness and inconsistencies what I have written. But, as I also write, ‘real love may resemble cruelty’; reading these responses has opened new questions for me and reopened questions I thought I had settled; has had me teetering on the edge of exhilaration and despair; has me sat, now, trying to do justice to the careful attention which has been given to me.