Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical

A few months ago, I declared that I was experiencing burnout and needed a break. I still need to work for a living, so that break took the form of a “sabbatical” from all writing for publication and concentrated research for a year. After completing my outstanding writing obligations, I would accept no invitations to write for special journal issues, to pitch op-ed pieces, to do peer review, etc., etc. If I needed an intellectual outlet, I would blog (or work on the short book on Star Trek that I had somewhat hypocritically agreed to do even amid this sabbatical).

So far, it has gone fairly well. My brain has gradually healed. Continue reading “Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical”

The Political Theology of COVID-19

There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.

Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?

And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19”

When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

Continue reading “When research leavens teaching”

…which begs the question: “What is political theology?”

I’ve been feeling lately that I am on the losing side of a terminological dispute. The term in question is one that has become absolutely central to my academic research: political theology. It is, admittedly, a somewhat ill-named field, and thus ill-defined. The juxtaposition of the two terms and the relation of noun and adjective makes one think initially of a politically-engaged theology (i.e., “political” is the determinate difference that distinguishes “political theology” as a species of the genus “theology”). If one had to venture a further guess, one might hit on the idea that it refers to treating politics as though it were theological: political theology as opposed to political theology. But surely no naive reader of the phrase would hit on precisely the definition that I prefer: namely, the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields. Instead, while maintaining some space “my” version, the field seems to be converging on the first, most obvious meaning as the guiding thread.

Why do I insist on the less intuitive definition? It’s not because it better reflects the origins of the field, though it does. Schmitt’s Political Theology mixes all three versions to some extent, but the third, counterintuitive version is the real innovation and contribution. Yet obviously Schmitt does not deserve our loyalty. Nor is it simply because I have written books using that paradigm and don’t want to have to scrap all that work — which I don’t have to do in any case, since “my” approach is certainly still seen as a valid part of the big tent of political theology.

My insistence comes, instead, from a belief that the third, counterintuitive definition provides the greatest chance of contributing something distinctive. Continue reading “…which begs the question: “What is political theology?””

Academic Publishing: An Odyssey

Over three years ago, I was invited to write a review of a handful of recent books by Giorgio Agamben. Since the books represented material from throughout his career, I used the opportunity to reflect on his intellectual development. After an unexpected round of editorial review, the text of my contribution was finalized and ready to go. That will have been approximately three years ago this fall.

Around the same time, I completed a translation of Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy, a reflection on the artwork that thematically overlapped with his first book, The Man Without Content. I hadn’t read the earlier book for a long time, so I decided to pick it up just to compare. It turned out to be very, very different, which piqued my interest in returning to Agamben’s earlier work. Gradually, this investigation evolved into an attempt to reread Agamben’s entire body of work in as close to chronological order as possible.

It became clear that this was my chance to make my definitive statement on Agamben’s work. As I finished my own read-through, I reviewed the relevant secondary literature. I began planning a book proposal and applied for (and received) institutional funding to travel to Italy to interview the man himself about his intellectual development. I gave papers on the topic in multiple venues. Then I wrote the book, got through the review process, and most recently, completed copyedits, proofs, and the index.

The book is coming out in September. I recently got an email that my book review has been scheduled for publication — in September. So in the time this journal has been sitting on a review that it solicited from me, I will have conducted a research program, obtained travel funding, then drafted and published a book on the same topic as that review. This has to mean something, but I can’t figure out what it is.

Status anxiety

From most perspectives, I’ve lived a charmed life. I live in a city I love, with an amazing partner. And miraculously, I’ve somehow managed to be employed full-time in academia since finishing my PhD, despite graduating into the Financial Crisis, and as a result, I am now much more materially secure than I could have imagined during the dark days of grad school. I’ve had a really unique and diverse teaching experience, and I’ve had enough time to do the writing and research I am interested in. My writing has opened up a lot of great opportunities, including international travel (to the point where I may eventually be able to “get” every inhabited continent).

In short, I am living the life I want to live and have always wanted to live. My main source of legitimate anxiety is whether I can make it last for the long term. And that ties into another, possibly less legitimate anxiety — over status. On the one hand, I currently have more job security than most professionals in most industries. On the other hand, I am working in the one industry that purports to offer a select few near-total job security, in the form of tenure. That job security is, in the ideology of academia, tied very closely to professional status and prestige. Hence it is difficult to keep those two elements separate: the desire for tenure as one of the few forms of genuine job security in the world and the desire for tenure as a kind of earned recognition of my personal value as a teacher and scholar.

Continue reading “Status anxiety”

Theology and Continental Philosophy at AAR

As some of you may know, Beatrice Marovich and I have been co-chairs of the Theology and Continental Philosophy Group at the American Academic of Religion, where we have tried to push our sessions beyond the conventional engagement with Christian themes. This year, we have sessions engaging mysticism, Islam, and witchcraft (and other subaltern practices), as well as a discussion of the relation between theology and religious studies. Details “below the fold” — we hope to see you there! We especially encourage you to attend the business meeting, where we will be discussing the direction of future programming. Last year’s was very well-attended and, strangely enough, kind of fun!

Continue reading “Theology and Continental Philosophy at AAR”

On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?