‘Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular?’ Call for Papers

The next conference of The Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion takes place July 10-12 2015 at Liverpool Hope University, UK. We’d love to welcome more readers of this blog to our northwestern corner of a faded imperial power.

Keynote speakers are Saba Mahmood (Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject), Catherine Keller (The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming), Katharine Sarah Moody (Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist) and Richard Seymour (Against Austerity).

Conference Description
Political theology names a key site where contemporary philosophical engagement with religion takes place. Through notions such as sovereignty, messianism, apocalypse, hope and fidelity, a thinking of political grounds and transformations is never far from the theological. The nature of that relationship is, however, sharply contested.
Is the postsecular a way back to retrieving traditional sources for political sovereignty, or the opening of new possibilities for religion and politics to interact? Does it represent a further victory for Eurocentric understandings of religion and politics, or a way to undermine and move beyond them? As the possibility of revolutionary political change is confronted by the ‘capitalist realist’ sense of the impossibility of imagining how things could ever be radically otherwise, can political theology provide resources for creative advance, both theoretically and practically?
The conference will invite critical and constructive interventions in this debate. Relevant thinkers and traditions of enquiry will include, for example, Agamben, Zizek, Butler, Derrida, Pui-Lan, Schmitt, Taubes, Hardt and Negri, Spivak, Macintyre, Habermas, Mahmood, Foucault, Cone, postcolonialism, new materialism, radical orthodoxy, liberation theologies, feminist theology, queer theology and pragmatism.

Submission of Abstracts
Abstracts of 200-300 words to Steven Shakespeare: shakess@hope.ac.uk

28th February 2015

Special issue of Angelaki: ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’

You might be interested to know of a special issue of Angelaki just published entitled ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’. Co-edited by Patrice Haynes and Charlie Blake, it comprises papers from, and inspired by the theme of, the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion‘s 2009 conference ‘Towards a Philosophy of Life’.

The issue includes work by AUFS regulars Anthony Paul Smith [the first 50 of you can download my article for free using this token, but please only use if you don’t have library access – APS] and Joshua Ramey, plus a host of others, many of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog: John Ó Maoilearca, Jim Urpeth, Colby Heath Dickinson, Frank Ruda, Michael Burns [again, first 50 of you can download this using this token – APS], Alastair Morgan, Patrice Haynes and Benjamin Noys.

Metrics and the Humanities

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is conducting a consultation on the use of metrics to assess research quality. The current system in the UK is that, every five years, a time-consuming and expensive research assessment exercise is conducted. The last one was called the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (you can see where this is going). It involves dozens and dozens of academics reading through submissions from more or less every research-active university scholar in the country. At the end of this, an ever-dwindling pot of money is divided up between universities in order to promote further research and ‘reward excellence’ (i.e. concentrate money where there is already lots of it).

Naturally, the government would prefer the bean-counting to be done in a cheaper way, ideally not involving actual people (whether this constitutes an accelerationist moment, I will leave you to judge). As a result, they are keen to promote metrics-based assessment, hence this consultation.

The primary way of measuring the quality of a piece of work would be to count how many citations it attracted. This raises huge questions about the adequacy of the measure employed, and, of course, how the measure distorts what it is that is being measured, as people indulge in all sorts of game-playing to give and get citations. Meera Sabaratnam and Paul Kirby have written a response to the consultation, arguing against the proposal. You can add your name to it, if you wish to support it, though this applies principally to academics based in England. Others might wish to read the response anyway, and reflect upon the neoliberalisation of humanities research, and how it might be resisted.

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.

Are You Dead Yet? Reflections on a ‘Good Friday Faith’

I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Have you had enough? Are you dead yet?’ (Alexi Laiho, lead singer of Children of Bodom)

I recently came across this Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius, over at Faith and Theology. I felt a shudder of recognition. For this is just the kind of thing I would once have lapped up. Hell, it is just the kind of thing I once preached. So forgive a little post-Easter catharsis.

The sermon fits into a particular genre, soaked in the pathos of The Crucified God. And it deploys a certain tactic: what Anthony Paul Smith dubs ‘weaponized apophaticism’.

I paraphrase: ‘Yes, the great critics of Christianity had a prophetic point. So much of what passes for Christian faith today is wish-fulfilment, a prosperity gospel worshipping a fantasy God. But beyond that, untouched by that complicity in capitalism, is the true God, the Good Friday God. A God who promises nothing, a God who, in the worlds of Rowan Williams “becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand”. Here, in the crucified Jesus, fantasy religion is overcome and we reach the real, beyond any concept.’

It is powerful. It has enough truth in it to be persuasive on some level.

But look at the supporting cast of characters. The Jew, chased out of Spain by the inquisition, who loses everything, then prays to God ‘You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You’; the resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto, who in the face of defeat and the Shoah declares undying faith in God.

Judaism comes to the aid of Christianity, on the very Good Friday when the traditional liturgy basks in condemnation of the Jews. Oh, yes, Christians were complicit in that too, but look at the crucified Jesus . . .

I doubt if I am alone in seeing such rhetorical moves – however well meant – as being the worst kind of appropriation. Not least because the very purpose of them is to indemnify ‘Good Friday Faith’: or, ‘Christianity as it was meant to be, as it always secretly was, despite all appearances’. Do Christians have the right to enlist inquisition or holocaust as witnesses to Christ? To feed on Judaism to keep the Cross safe?

Perhaps less obviously, though more fatally, what shines through this whole endeavour is the image of a monstrous God, one who is recognised only at the extremity where we are abandoned and even tortured by God. Faith is proved as our flesh is stretched over this impassable gulf between us and God. No accusation will ever stick against him. If he were to appear as the worst sadist, it would show his love all the more.

So, we are told, ‘we wait’. We wait, stretched over the rack. And that is the problem. This is a theology defined by its obsession with what will come. Are you dead yet? Not yet, not yet. A theology of hope, that keeps us always in suspense, always the living dead.

I’m not sure we really need this theology of the not yet, of saving death. I would rather we defied death and everything that pretends to justify it, including the hidden victim-torturer God beloved of contemporary theology

Are you dead yet? No. I have had enough.

‘Critical Theory Beyond Negativity: the Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics of Affirmation’ – intensive course offered by Rosi Braidotti

Readers of this blog may be interested in an intensive course being organised and delivered by Rosi Braidotti, among others. The course description states: ‘The intensive course “Critical Theory Beyond Negativity: the Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics of Affirmation” explores critical theory in the Continental philosophy tradition, with special reference to the work of Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Henri Bergson and Rosi Braidotti. The course offers an introduction to contemporary critical debates on the function of ‘the negative’ in the construction of subjects and of their epistemic and ethical values. Starting from an assumption that we are in the midst a ‘posthuman turn,’ it explores different aspects of posthuman subjectivity and stresses the productive potential of the posthuman condition, advocating for the politics of affirmation.’ Further details can be found here.

The nature and future of liberal theology

I’m one of a number of people asked to write 1000 words on ‘the nature and future of liberal theology’ for an upcoming issue of the journal Modern Believing. I’ve found this really difficult, partly because of the demands of brevity and not being able to qualify everything I say a million times, partly because of my ambivalence about liberal theology itself. For exactly the same reasons, it’s been a really stimulating process. At the risk of self-indulgence, I am reproducing my first draft here. If anyone has patience to read and comment, I’d appreciate it.


Theology is often a matter of images. In the case of liberal theology, two images stand out which define its classical form. Both need critical interrogation. Continue reading “The nature and future of liberal theology”

‘Against Heterosexuality’: An Object Lesson in Conservative Christian ‘Radicalism’

I recently had the misfortune to come across this article in the journal First Things. Written by Michael Hannon, it is entitled ‘Against Heterosexuality’ and subtitled ‘The Idea of Sexual Orientation is Artificial and Inhibits Christian Witness’. It is a symptomatic piece of ‘radical’ Christian writing for our time, in that it attempts to out-deconstruct the deconstructors in order to return us firmly to a teleological, hierarchical Christian order.

Hannon embraces the way that theory post-Foucault has unearthed the genealogy and the arbitrariness behind the creation of fixed categories of sexual orientation. He does so, not in order to advocate what he refers to as the ‘postmodern nihilistic libertinism’ of queer theory, but in order to replace socially constructed identities with a Christian anthropology grounded in nature. Measured against nature, sex is procreative. That, so we are told, is its obvious goal. In contrast, the modern categories of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ float free of this mooring. The first ‘binds us to sin’ (since it encourages people to remain enslaved to unnatural sex) and the second ‘blinds us to sin’ because it implies we have no choice in the matter of what we desire. Heterosexuality is seen as especially pernicious, since it creates a normative identity, but one that is detached from procreation, and which legitimates all manner of deviancy.

Why bother drawing further attention to an article which is frankly nauseating to read? As I said, I believe the kind of argument deployed here is symptomatic of contemporary intellectual reassertions of Christian orthodoxy, even if it goes further than most in the joy it extracts from use of the term ‘sodomy’. The first move is (in a banal sense) deconstructive: expose the contingent origins of ideas and categories often taken to be natural. The second is to contrast these naturalised inventions with a true nature, with a law embedded in creation, and modelled by Christ. In a notable hyperbole, the article’s invocation of the catastrophic nihilism gnawing away beneath the feet of modernity means that the Christian tradition becomes ‘the only place left to stand’.

Of course, it would be easy to return the genealogical favour: to shine a light on the constructed nature of the ideals of chastity, family and procreation lauded by the article; to undermine its hermeneutic, so blithely assured that the traditions of the church and the scriptures are beyond historical contestation.

However, I think there is something deeper at work, to which we need to pay attention. The article is scathing about constructed ‘identities’, but it clearly advocates an alternative identity and orientation: a teleological ordering to the perfect identity disclosed in Christ, the path to which is the freedom won for us by Christ’s sacrifice. Here we have orientation, norm and model, written into the very power which sustains creation.

The orientations and identities of the 19th century may be inadequate (though they remain open to diverse deployments, and they have at least been the occasion for protesting against the persecution, torture and murder of people because of their sex life). What this article misses, though, is the likelihood that the pattern for these orientations and identities was provided by the very Christian orthodoxy that now turns on them. This pattern instrumentalises desire in the most extreme way, because it is grounded on the notion of body-as-sacrifice. Your identity is to take upon you the mind, the yoke, the cross of Christ and make children for his kingdom. It is a colonisation of body, a conversion of flesh, outside of which all is Sodom.

Hannon’s article may make you laugh, it may make you feel sick. But don’t underestimate the tendency which lies behind it, and its capacity to offer intellectual justification for biotheological imperialisms yet to come.

On Realism

In Reason, Truth and History, Hilary Putnam defines metaphysical realism as the belief that ‘the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects’ and that there is, in principle, one true complete description of that world. His critique of this position is that (a) there is no way for us to climb out of our systems of reference in order to check that they successfully refer to the world; (b) we cannot rule out the possibility that the world could be conceptually divided up by us in a number of incommensurable ways, all consistent with our experience.

Contemporary speculative realism comes in a variety of forms, including object-oriented ontology and the kind of transcendental realism practised by Meillassoux. Without wishing to collapse these together, I think it is fair to say that they share an absolutising of the real, in the etymological sense that reality/objects are absolved (i.e. severed from) any dependence upon epistemological structures. Our access to the world does not determine that world.

It seems that this contemporary realism is not committed to significant aspects of the position which Putnam critiques. It need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.

In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.

All of which is to suggest that Putnam’s critique is still worth a look. Access to the world, consisting of translation between objects or the translation of the absolute itself into order and sense, constitutes an irreducible part of that world. The world does not offer itself as one mind-independent order of things.

This is not meant as a dismissal of speculative realisms, but an appeal to move beyond their initial self-definition, as simply radically opposed to anything that smacks of deconstruction or phenomenology, for instance. It is simply not the case that deconstruction is about irony and the prison house of language whereas realism is about seriousness and the great outdoors, any more than it is the case that realism is a stupid scientism. Perhaps issues of access and translation could provide the means for the varieties of continental and post-continental philosophy to begin to talk with, rather than at, one another.