Theology and The Failure of Order

While I don’t typically anticipate theology books anymore, Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure, was one I was waiting on from the moment I heard about it. I’ve often said that Marika is the only person who could get me interested in Zizek’s work, and this book not only proves that, but forwards a genuinely compelling set of questions regarding the nature and task of theology and the possibility of practicing this mode of inquiry in a way that is unconcerned with the reproduction of confessional Christian norms of speech, creatively re-uses Christian theological material, and aims to actually attend to and become accountable for the devastation Christian theology has wrought in the Western world. In all, Marika presents a book which I’m very excited to be in conversation about, and I simply want to extend a set of reflections that followed me throughout the book.

My first reflection concerns the notion of economy in Marika’s book. While I’m quite familiar with the philosophical and theological genealogies of economy, Marika’s Dionysian, Lacanian, and Zizekian engagement with economy both illuminated contours of the concept which I wasn’t expecting from the book, and also raised questions for me about the relationship between her articulation of the economic problem and its figuration in works by Mondzain, Agamben, Leshem, Singh, and Kotsko, to name a few. In A Theology of Failure, economy seems to primarily articulate an order of relationality. Whether between God and the world, or the Subject and the Other, economy is “the circular figure of exchange, causation, return, identity, and completion.” One of the rich contributions of Marika’s book is casting the problem of economy in terms that is not solely reducible to questions of financial management and stewardship, but, as I take it, a question of order and belonging. Marika attends to both the structural arrangement and articulation of order and to the subjective formation and inhabitation of particularly ordered environments–existence under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, life in the world, life in the wake of Western Christendom, etc. (and if I’m missing any valences to it that are crucial for understanding Marika’s engagement, I would be glad to hear more of how the term is working for her). For me, Marika’s argument for a theology of failure helpfully repurposes Zizek’s account of drive to illuminate how liberal and orthodox articulations of Christianity both aim to recast Christian order–whether through the preservation of the Church or the preservation of the West–as what we all really needed all along. Indeed, Marika’s attention to Christianity’s history of oppression and domination involves thinking with marginalized knowledges that make explicit the failure of Christian order and the failure of theology as it attempts to renarrate what is out of place back into its hopeful story of salvation. To make meaning out of these tragedies by rearticulating them within the symbolic world generated by Christian redemption.

It is the usefulness of this sense of economy for thinking the relationship of theology to order that also illuminated the fittingness of Marika’s employment of Zizek, and thus Lacan, for the problematics she is trying to explore. Because of its mode of explicitly relating sexuality and trauma to failure and economy, A Theology of Failure is able to think about trauma and theology at the structural level of theological re/production. Reading with Zizek, Marika notes trauma’s relationship to the aneconomic function of revolutionary violence. Trauma is that which interrupts the ordinary course of things… it is not caught up in the economy of necessity … and … does not make sense–it cannot be integrated into the economy of the symbolic order, of meaning making. It cannot be explained or justified” (122). With this notion of trauma, Marika’s is able to give an account of how to think Christian identity that is not concerned with overcoming this trauma through nostalgia or romance. In many ways, I resonated with Marika’s argument that “Christ is the trauma that grounds Christian identity” and, thus, rather than the production of a harmonious or rational order–a Christian project of sense-making–theology here is an insistence on interrogating the the inextricable and traumatic interrelations of life and death, birth and abortion, beauty and ugliness at the center of the Christian economy: “A Zizekian understanding of trauma would pave the way for an understanding of the church itself as an economy brought into being around the constitutive antagonism that is Christ” (128).

The place I most want to press Marika’s argument is regarding her attempts to think from the position of Christianity’s others as a way to hold Christianity to account for its failure and to pose the question, “What might Christianity become if we begin to think theologically from the position of the heretic, the witch, the slave” (181)? My question here is whether concluding with this mode of interrogating Christianity is already a failure to think theologically from those positions? By this I mean, is not the question of what Christianity could be come precisely bound up in the production of some future possibility of Christianity that a theology of failure is trying to release? Throughout the book I had the sense that part of the difficulty of Marika’s task in this book is trying to give an account of Christian failure by refusing to evacuate the position of the Christian and the internal re/production of Christian identity. However, I wonder if perhaps alongside of a theology of failure, a theology of disinterest, disinvestment, and indifference to what Christianity might become is crucial to stopping failure from being reincorporated into an engine of Christian becoming. One final related question: I also was curious about Marika’s separation of the slave, the heretic, and the witch from each other throughout the analysis. I imagine this was for pedagogical and analytic reasons, but I wonder if it is actually adequate to the demand of these figures? In my mind, it seems like the blackness of the heathen as a figure in the post-1492 imagination suggests they can be articulated and interrogated together. The history of enslaved conjure women or figures like Tituba raise the question of how these are being articulated as different positions and whether that articulation still preserves a form of ordering that obfuscates the reproduction of a hereditary sense of heathenism that follows the position of the slave. That is, I wonder about this failure to think the three together and how this might be accounted for in terms of sexuality and economy–in terms of the reproduction of order. It seems to me that a crucial failure here, then, might be the failure to think the heretic and the witch as racial positions as well, and I wonder what difference it would make to Marika’s account of a theology of failure to do so.

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.

Adorno and the Origins of “Never Again”

Ever since then candidate Trump began calling for mass deportations and religious bans, comparisons to the Third Reich have consistently been made. While many of these comparisons fall short, it is not too difficult to see why and how they have been drawn. For decades, both of the political parties in America have laid the groundwork for a hard turn right, and now that a repugnant egotistical bigot is in office, many of our worst nightmares are coming true (see Trump’s latest tweet that ICE will soon begin said mass deportations). American fascism will look different than European fascism, but there are already enough similarities that many of the post-World War II sentiments have become common to invoke. In particular, the phrase “never again” has been heard consistently, with the added emphasis that “never again is now.” I believe that it is important to briefly account for the origins of “never again” to understand why it is more important than simply being a declarative catch phrase. 

It is Theodor Adorno who is commonly associated with coining “never again” and there are two places where he articulates precisely what he means. In his essay “Education after Auschwitz” Adorno states quite strongly that, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again…Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.”[1] After stating this claim, Adorno goes on to make two additional points in the essay: 1) the fundamental conditions of society that culminated in Auschwitz have mostly remained unchanged. This is particularly troublesome for Adorno because 2) the fact that Auschwitz occurred reveals a strong social tendency towards genocide. In other words, genocide is not an exception, but a norm of modernity. One is hard pressed to find much hope in Adorno’s work, but in the face of this tendency he insists that, “nevertheless the attempt must be made” to resist the pull towards barbarism.[2] Committing to “never again” potentially creates the possibility of negating creeping fascism, for Adorno.

Beyond simply a declaration, though, there is also an ethical dimension to “never again” that Adorno articulates in Negative Dialectics when he famously writes that “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[3] Without getting into the Kantian elements of this sentence, it is simple enough to make the obvious point that a categorical imperative is, in fact, an imperative. This imperative requires, as Adorno says, that both thoughts and actions undergo a transformation, or else Auschwitz will happen again. “Never again” is both the demand upon all education, and a categorical imperative that we all must heed.  

The average American deeply suppresses the fact that America is one of the most barbaric empires the world has ever known, and therefore lives with a general sense that we are a mostly good people. This means that calls for “never again” tend to ring hollow, and almost sound offensive, because we have convinced ourselves that “that” could never happen here. Adorno was aware of this, and he was not naive about the historical amnesia of the west. For Adorno, there is a strong indication that Auschwitz will certainly happen again, and the only way to possibly prevent that is when political instruction “devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities” to “never again.”[4] 

At the end of “Education After Auschwitz” Adorno recounts the time that Walter Benjamin asked him if there were really enough torturers in Germany to carry out the orders of the Nazis.[5] There were enough. And were President Trump to order that his own concentration camps become death camps, there would be enough Americans to carry out the order. We should not be naive about this reality. The catastrophe of American fascism is well underway, and there is no clear sign that it will slow down. In light of this, “never again” as a statement will not accomplish much in preventing the disaster. As an imperative, though, I think Adorno is correct that “never again” “can still manage a little something.”[6] 

[1]Theodor Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models, 191. 

[2]Ibid., 192. 

[3]Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365.

[5]Ibid., 204. 

[4]Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz”, 191.  


You’re On God’s Time Now

The following is the text of a presentation I gave last summer in Berlin. While some of the ideas and problematics articulated here are ones I wouldn’t frame in quite the same way now–that’s the nature of a research project that’s still very much active!–I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve provided any kind of update on the direction my research on time and usury is taking, and thought it might be of interest for some readers here.

1.0 In his review of Deleuze’s The Fold, Alain Badiou positions his own philosophy against Deleuze’s by placing the two of them on opposite sides of one and the same basic decision or divide. The choice, he claims, is between “mathematic” and “organicist” paradigms of multiplicity. Or—as we run through the sequence of opposing terms that reiterates this point throughout the review—a choice between “number” and “animal,” “Plato” and “Aristotle,” “quantity” and “quality,” and, finally—and to my mind, most decisively—“extensive” and “intensive” multiplicities.[1]

Badiou’s—and his admirers’—polemics against Deleuze, have centered in large part on the question of novelty; of what it means for something truly new to come about. This is an issue of both politics and ontology, but this emphasis on novelty also makes it an issue of time—of the time of the new; of how we should think of time in order to think what’s new about the new. The new is, after all, novel because it differs from what comes before it; novelty is a temporal idea. I don’t want to rehash, here, the long and exhaustive debate that’s played out between partisans of these two philosophers over the last several decades—entering a new volley in the repeating fire across the trenches simply isn’t something I’m interested in.

What I want to do instead is take the fact of this division—between extensive and intensive temporal multiplicities—as a kind of index. In particular, I want to take the fact of this division to index a certain operation of division. When I say “operation of division,” I’m recalling especially of Daniel Colucciello Barber’s work on Spinoza, and his chapter “Metarelation and Nonrelation” in Serial Killing, echoes of which you may hear throughout this piece. If we’re being asked to divide time in two for the sake of a decision in favor of novelty—in whatever form that might take—then what is this operation of division that’s being asked of us? What are its stakes and what is its impetus? I’m doing this, for reasons that might become clearer over the course of what I’m saying here, in order to speak in favor of a certain kind of refusal of this division, which is also to say a refusal to decide on the form of the new. I want to apologize a bit for how schematic many of these comments will be, and how much they’ll jump back and forth in both time and disciplinary space. Hopefully you’ll be able to follow the resonances here, and I’m of course happy to talk more about why I’m connecting certain texts and ideas. Continue reading “You’re On God’s Time Now”

Materialist enchantments

I was recently asked to respond to Paul Cloke, Christopher Baker, Callum Sutherland and Andrew Williams’ really interesting new book, Geographies of Postsecularity: Re-Envisaging Politics, Subjectivity and Ethics as part of the launch event for the book. Here is the text of my response, which explores narratives of (dis-)enchantment and questions about social reproduction in relation to Christianity and political activism.

I wanted to pick up on theme of enchantment in the book because it’s where the authors engage my work, partly because I’m not sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing, and partly because I’ve been developing my thinking on what we’re actually talking about when we talk about disenchantment in ways that might be productive for ongoing conversations about the books’ arguments.

The idea of disenchantment emerges as a narrative which suggests that some sense of the world as spiritual is lost with the advent of modernity, that our connection to one another is damaged and that what we need, then, is a restoration of that sense of magic and wonder. The book advocates re-enchantment as one of the characteristics of the ethics of postsecularity that the authors want to advocate for, and suggest that religion can help us restore ‘a sense of mystery and wonder … a greater acknowledgement of the possibility of the sacred, and a dissatisfaction with neoliberalised secularity’.

Continue reading “Materialist enchantments”