A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)

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.

Spoilers ahead

Continue reading “A precarious balance: Constantine (2005)”

New Article: “Not Persuasion, but Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”

The idea that college faculty and their allies have somehow failed to “make the case” for the value of their work is one of the hoariest clichés of higher ed commentary — our equivalent to the legendary “since the dawn of time”-style opening for undergraduate papers…. It is clear enough why academics would be drawn to a solution that draws on their particular skillsets of persuasion and argumentation, but the demand that we “make the case” is naïve and impotent.

Read the rest of my scathing indictment of the entire world here.

Help me plan a module on angels and demons in medieval theology

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.

Pandemocracy and the State of Exception

These reflections are not only the product of our current global crisis but also respond to the theoretical challenge of thinking otherwise about the nature of biopolitical governance, the challenge of discovering some resources within the biopolitical to support an insurgent form of life. Recently, Roberto Esposito in Two (2013) has made the attempt to discover in the globalization of sovereign debt the possibility of overcoming the sovereign splitting of the biopolitical decision, between “making live” and “letting die”: “The fact that all states, divided by a clear inequality of resources, are now indebted to an entity as elusive as global finance means that for the first time, perhaps, the world will experience a condition of shared suffering. It is as if splitting had become the general form of unity. We are joined by a debt that separates us even from ourselves, by suspending us from a model of development that produces loss. Since everyone is included in it, we are at the same time also all excluded. The point of arrival for economic-political theology is identity, with no remainders, between inside and outside, whole and part, One and Two.” (Two, 208) Esposito cautions us not to try to return to this condition of the “identity . . . between . . . One and Two” by resurrecting some new form of sovereignty. Instead, he suggests that we create what I am calling a “pandemocracy” out of our globalized condition of being unified by our experience of being split between our identity as owners and our identity as owers. He claims that what “flickers” in our commonality as Ow(n)ers is “the law of jubilee.” (209)

Esposito did not imagine the possibility that it would not be the collapse of the global finance markets that allowed the law of jubilee to flicker, but the global pandemic. Giorgio Agamben recently characterized the pandemic as inciting a sovereign autoimmune response that decides, as Foucault descbribes it, one population to make live and another to let die. But the pandemic does more than that. In the midst of this sovereign decision, those who are called upon to execute it demonstrate a sacrificial exorbitance that is the sign of those who renounce their ownership of secure life and livelihood in a demonstration of common owership. I am of course referring to the women and men who daily minister to the sick and dying. This is not unique to this pandemic. Thucydides speaks of such self-sacrificing care in his description of the plague that broke out in his besieged city of Athens.

In Athens and today, the common owership displayed by the health workers is understood to be grounded in a sacred bond, the Hippocratic Oath. Agamben has taught us about the intimate link between oaths and the sacred. I would suggest that Asclepius, god of healing, is the figuration of the other of the sovereign decision between making live and letting die. It is not surprising that Asclepius is himself put to death by Zeus and transformed into a constellation, Ophiuchus, the “snake holder.” The wisdom of the snake is self-regeneration, a.k.a resurrection. Besides the jubilee of our redemption from debt, resurrection is also what “flickers” on the horizon of our “shared suffering.” Marx, in his 1841 dissertation on Epicurus, said that the heavenly bodies (ta meteora) in the ancient world intimated the fulfillment of our species being as a single immortal life form, no longer divided between owners of bodies and owned bodies. Each constellation, Marx explained, was thought to be a god-species. Marx shows that Epicurus’s philosophy of atomism was the reflection of the dissolution of the social bond of ancient polis and the atomization of its citizens into abstract individualities. Epicurus, Marx argues, could not bear the contradiction between his dirempted self-consciousness and the intimation of the unified form of species life intimated by the constellations. He could not bear the flickering of another form of life for our human species being. He turned the constellations into long-lasting but mortal atomic configurations. Mortal gods. Marx later connected Epicurean atomism to Hobbesian materialism. The Hobbesian sovereign, the mortal god, has become the figure our constricted vision, our atomized selfhoods turning away from the flickering of another form of species being. I fear that Agamben himself may have blinded himself by staring at the sun’s sovereign glory. He seems to have lost sight of the constellations, and especially Asklepius, the snake holder.

Robert Yelle has recently published a wonderful book, Sovereignty and the Sacred (2019) that beautifully complements Esposito’s Two. Yelle also draws out attention to the law of jubilee. In a philologically rigorous and historically informed study of the intimate relationship between the myths and rituals associated with sovereign investiture and the sphere of the sacred in general, Yelle demonstrates the doubled and split nature of our political conjunctions, whether in ancient city-states, medieval kingdoms, or modern liberal states. His book traces political theology (Yelle prefers “spiritual economy”) not only to its Greek and Roman antecedents, but to the Indic precursors of both traditions in Sanskrit myth and ritual. Esposito’s and Yelle’s books are sober accounts of the violence that continually (re)founds our polities and invests sovereignty with the lightning flash of the sacred, the brilliance of the heavens carving a murderous path to the earth. But Yelle and Esposito have not allowed themselves to be blinded by Zeus’s glorious weapon, the lightning of sovereignty. Like the early Marx, they teach us that the heavens also intimate our common life of owership, the pandemocracy that is no less sacred than Hobbes’s mortal god who demands obedience as the price of our claim to live more than “short and brutish” lives. That bargain is revealed today to be a sham. We may, as Agamben has suggested, allow ourselves to be duped again by this mortal god’s offer of security. Or we may, as Esposito and Yelle suggest, find another god flickering in the darkness, the god who promulgates the law of jubilee and raises our hope that the snake’s wisdom has not been utterly forgotten.

Syllabus Help Request

I am teaching a newly designed course, Rhetoric & Dialogue in Religion & Theology (REL 300), which is part of a new sequence of courses running from our introductory course (100) to a new theories and methods course (200) and ends with our capstone (400). This is the course description:

This course builds on the knowledge and application of theories and methods developed in REL 200. It introduces students to the skills of rhetoric and dialogue in religion and theology through close examination and evaluation of the writing and public discourse of contemporary scholars. Students will work with their peers to develop their own rhetorical styles and apply them both to a form of written communication fitting their post-graduate plans and to an oral presentation for an appropriate public, whether in or beyond the department. This course is required for Religion and Theology majors and meets the Effective Expression requirement for majors.

When we attempt to understand religion or we attempt to think through our theology we are presented with real human life, with the pain and joys of everyday life and the scope of human history. Writing and engaging theory is about much more than a piece of paper at the end of four years or the class significations that paper brings. It is about the ideas that live and die on leaves of paper bound and carried throughout time. So, in this course we will join together to study and improve our theoretical and dialogical skills, but we will also consider how those skills fit within the broader scope of the lives we live together.

The course will begin with an intensive working together on our writing skills before moving on to reading an eclectic mix of different pieces of writing on a variety of topics in religion and theology from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives. The course will end with a series of workshops honing our own writing, developing a piece of writing for a popular audience and one for an academic audience. We will end with a student conference where you present your ideas in an academic presentation for members of the Department of Religion & Theology with a question and answer session to follow. 

As part of the course I had students surface their own interests for topics that our reading would cover, since content isn’t the point of the course. I’m now trying to find a number of academic essays and popular writing on a variety of topics and am struggling a bit with the popular writings. If any readers have suggestions for the topics I am very open to hearing them. I am really interested to hear about work that you’ve found works well in the classroom.

Topics

  • Biblical Studies and the Use and Abuse of Scriptures
  • Meaning of Muhammad as the seal of the prophets
  • Origins and History of Cults/New Religious Movements
  • Chinese Anti-Muslim laws and actions
  • Religious Authority
  • Science and Religion debates, especially regarding evolution
  • Music and Religion
  • Gender and Religion, especially with regard to Islam

Spring Syllabi Posted

I have updated my sample syllabi page to include my courses for the Spring Term:

This semester is a milestone for me. I have long hoped to teach in all three major areas of the Shimer Great Books curriculum (humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), and I finally get to teach a natural sciences course with “What is Matter?” — a study of the history of chemistry through important primary sources and reenactments of key experiments (a version of which I took as a student as part of my training). Not only that, but I get to teach in all three areas simultaneously! It should be exciting and challenging.

Surprisingly disappointed: thoughts on the UK election

Yesterday was my first opportunity to vote as a UK citizen. As someone coming from the United States, I am well versed in electoral disappointment. Yet, just as the election of Trump felt different than previous political events, so too does the ascension of Boris Johnson seem to indicate something more significant that the triumph of one political party over the others.

There are many reasons for this sense of political frustration: the absurd behavior of a politician hiding in a fridge or snatching a reporter’s phone; the obvious and well tracked effort of political parties to lie to or mislead the public; the vacuity of debates in which many sounds are made but very little said; and the failure of long-standing media institutions to comment on this state of affairs from a variety of critical perspectives. Nothing new, of course, just a little salt in wound that never quite heals.

Fortunately, I long ago abandoned hope that any political party in either my country of birth or my adopted home has the capacity to enact meaningful political change. I am a pessimist. I (like most people who read this blog) don’t think the major problems confronting the UK or the rest of the world—staggering inequality, climate change and the inability for people to peacefully coexist despite a wide range of differences—are a matter of who is in power. The problem is the systems of power themselves. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between the parties. I’d much rather live in a country that is strengthening the social safety net rather than severing its last remaining strands. I just don’t think anyone is bringing answers or solutions.

So, I find my remnants of hope surprising. Last night, I waited for the exit poll results with a small, but nonetheless existent hope that somehow Labour would do ok. I went to bed shortly after the exit polls were announced, still hoping that they would be wrong. I don’t know where this hope comes from, but it is an unwelcome guest. It is a reminder that my effort to disinvest from the world (as Taubes might say) is incomplete.

I think that this hope is not really a hope that one party will win over the other, but a hope in other people (maybe the most dangerous). A hope that confronted with the images of children on hospital floors, a lifetime of racist statements and Donald fucking Trump’s endorsement, people might be persuaded to think twice. It’s a hope that a nation of people who have suffered through years of austerity, watching as public institutions crumble under increased pressure, might look at the blustering embodiment of every form of privilege and be repulsed. That they are not means I must confront the fact that there may be nothing I can do to persuade these people that a more equal, kind and caring society is better than what we have now.

Already people are calling for unity. We must respect each other as British citizens and be careful not to let hate slip in along with the disappointment. Rage is unproductive. I’m not so sure (not that productivity has to be the criteria for judging our feelings). These pleas for the nation to come together are rooted in a conviction that we Britons are all (or mostly), deep down, decent people. We may differ about who should lead the country, tax policy or membership in the EU, but at the end of the day we can all have a pint together down at the local pub. The desire to reunite post-election continues to invest in the hope that if we look at the facts carefully and discuss them politely, we’ll eventually arrive at a better society.

I see little historical evidence that this is a rational hope. The ability to overlook differences in views about immigration or inequality is an indication of how important those issues are to you in the first place. If leaving the EU is enough of a reason to vote for someone whose racism has been on full display for decades, that is another way of saying that racism doesn’t matter that much to you. If you find that you can’t overlook those issues, either in voting or in conversation, then you are beginning to acknowledge a deeper form of division. There are some people I have no interest in meeting down at the pub.

I’ve spent much of the last year reflecting on Schmitt’s theory of the enemy. I don’t think Schmitt gives us a sufficient understanding of enmity, but he’s a natural enough place to start for someone working on political theology. What Schmitt helps us start to think is that there are real differences that matter. There are lines that must be drawn. There is no deep-down common humanity that unites us as a nation or a species. As long as we continue to invest in that cruel hope, we will be distracted from the real political work of refusing to accept injustice in the name of unity.

Updated Introduction to Political Philosophy Syllabus

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 marika.rose@gmail.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.

The full module handbook is as follows:

Continue reading “Updated Introduction to Political Philosophy Syllabus”

The fantasy of high school

So many cultural tropes around high school are attempts to make our actions and experiences at that time make sense, when in reality we were all just flailing at random and mostly hated each other and ourselves most of the time. There is something humiliating about remembering — truly remembering — that we were once high schoolers. That’s why teenage dramas cast 20-something supermodels who move effortlessly within a clearly legible social hierarchy, to allow us to forget.

There’s a deep, but probably unfixable cruelty to the fact that our “choices” — if we can call them that — in high school shape our lives so profoundly. And there’s something in us that is so seduced by the fantasy of retrieving that moment and doing it right this time.

That’s the innovation of neoliberalism — it provides a clearly legible benchmark for what it means to do high school right. And parents are so eager to feed their children to that machine, because they wish so dearly that they had had that kind of clarity and purpose. The result is a generation who wasted their childhood — precisely by not “wasting” it, by treating childhood as a job. And maybe that means that they will be the first generation to grow up, to know for a fact that they did all they could in high school and it didn’t matter.