For Our Sins

I have a chapter in a new book out now: Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford and Michael Neu (eds), Exploring Complicity: Concepts, Cases and Critiques (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). My chapter is called ‘For Our Sins: Christianity, Complicity and the Racialized Construction of Innocence’. The whole book is worth a read, but you can also get hold of my chapter here.

Books I read in 2016

Following on a suggestion from APS, for the past couple of years I’ve been keeping a note of all the books I finish. It’s been helpful to have a record, although occasionally difficult to resist turning it into a measure of productivity and consequently a source of anxiety. This year my fiction reading – mostly scifi – has been much less eclectic than my non-fiction reading which has, looking back, been kind of all over the place. The books I read this year that I enjoyed most, that stayed with me the longest, or that most shaped my thinking were, in roughly chronological order:

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (eds), Sisters of the Revolution

Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

The Mud Flower Collective, God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education

Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television

Nalo Hopkinson, Skin Folk

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic

Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of Finitude

W G Sebald, Austerlitz

George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Joan Sloncezwski, A Door Into Ocean

Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

 

Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on political philosphy to a mixture of first year students taking courses in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This is the rubric I’ve inherited:

This module introduces themes, theoretical perspectives and concepts in the study of politics and political philosophy and aims to develop an understanding of how political institutions operate and of how they are underpinned by adherence to a variety of political philosophies, or ideologies that act, globally, to order the global environment. The concepts and institutions studies are from a western perspective in order to, first, ground students in a knowledge of these themes per se but, second, to provide a framework for comparative study of non-western polities analysed in greater depth in Levels 5 and 6, such as those in the Middle East and China, in order to gauge the extent that western concepts of politics have been adapted, accepted or rejected in different environments. This is achieved by a pattern of lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

Set texts look at key political thinkers from classical times through the Enlightenment to the present day (for instance Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Marx & Engels, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hayek and Habermas) in order to examine such issues as power, justice, order, war, legitimacy, accountability, sovereignty and other issues of concern to the practice of politics and government at country specific, regional and local levels.

It’s essentially an introduction to modern Western political philosophy, then, and I’m grappling with the question of how to “teach the canon” whilst also trying to remake or decolonise it. I have eleven weeks, and this is the sketch I’ve got so far: I’d really appreciate any critiques, suggestions about how I could organise it better or differently, and recommendations of good primary or secondary reading either for myself or my students:

1 Introduction: what is political philosophy (with some selections from Nancy Fraser or Michael Freedon)
2 Hobbes
3 Locke
4 Rousseau and Louverture
5 Marx (with some space in the lecture for talking about Adam Smith and Marxisms-after-Marx)
6 J S Mill (perhaps paired with Wollstonecraft?)
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Foucault on disciplinary societies
9 Judith Butler on grievable lives, Agamben on homo sacer
10 Neoliberalism (Hayek)
11 Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

Continue reading “Žižek and ‘the Left’”

Help me plan a course about Jesus

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on ‘The Many Faces of Jesus’ that I’ve inherited from a predecessor. This is the module description and indicative course outline I’m working with: I’ve got some freedom to work within these constraints but what I teach has to broadly fit this framework, which has been officially approved by the department (in case any pedagogy nerds are interested in the different constraints at play in UK teaching):

This module engages critically with some of the key ways in which the Christian tradition has understood Jesus and his saving significance. The module begins with a study of key New Testament texts concerning Jesus. Then crucial debates in the patristic era will be looked at in detail, including the critical decisions reached at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Contemporary discussions surrounding the historical Jesus and Christ of faith will also be evaluated, as well as contemporary theological understandings of Jesus. The module will also examine non-Christian understandings of Jesus, especially in Judaism and Islam.

Indicative Outline Content
a.i.1. Who did Paul think Jesus was?
a.i.2. Who did John think Jesus was?
a.i.3. Who did Jesus think Jesus was?
a.i.4. How on earth did Jesus become a God? The Arian Crisis
a.i.5. Was Jesus truly human? The Nestorian controversy
a.i.6. The Chalcedonian Definition… and its Aftermath
a.i.7. The Birth of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.8. The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.9. The Resurrection of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.10. The Quests for the Historical Jesus
a.i.11. Jewish and Islamic perspectives on Jesus
a.i.12. Can a male saviour save women?

It’s obviously going to be a bit of a whistlestop tour of Christology through the centuries, and I’m struggling to work out how best to manage things – I’d like to give a bit more space to non-Western Christologies in the second half of the model, and I’d really appreciate any recommendations for good primary and secondary readings to assign my students. Is there anything important missing from this outline? Are there any books I really have to read as I get planning? I’m definitely going to go back to Virginia Burrus’ Begotten Not Made, Boyarin’s Border Lines, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to squeeze in Du Bois’ Jesus Christ in Texas.

On ‘identity politics’

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?