A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Read the rest of this entry »

My review of Living in the End Times

I have a review of the expanded paperback edition of Living in the End Times up at Emmy Manuel’s excellent Global Comment. It is a partial refutation of Zizek’s own review of the book as largely bullshit.

Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

[This review appeared in Symplokē 18.1-2 (2011): 419-421, and is copyrighted by that journal. It appears here with permission.]

In the two decades since he came to prominence in the English-speaking academy, Žižek has already generated a substantial body of secondary texts, ranging from general introductions to works on specific themes. Yet it seems safe to say that among readers of Žižek, Adrian Johnston’s book Žižek’s Ontology was the most eagerly anticipated. According to the narrative that has been solidifying over the last few years, the initial reception of Žižek did not reflect the full ambition of his work. Focusing on his theory of ideology and his usefulness for cultural analysis, interpreters had missed the true philosophical core motivating it all: the attempt to develop a new theory of subjectivity, grounded in a synthesis of the insights of German Idealism (above all Hegel) and the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. For those who hold this view of Žižek’s reception, Žižek’s Ontology would finally break through the shell of the “cultural studies” reception of Žižek as well as the image of Žižek as a kind of entertainer, revealing once and for all the rigor and depth of Žižek’s properly philosophical work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

William T. Cavanaugh is well known in certain political theology (or “theopolitical” as some Christian theologians like to refer to it) circles because of his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ. The book is a very interesting study of the Catholic Church in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and details the theological background to the political relationship between Church and State. At times, though I’m willing to hedge here, it isn’t clear in the book if Cavanaugh doesn’t secretly think that the Eucharist is a more revolutionary act than, say, workers organizing to provide for themselves and resist Pinochet’s Chicago School led neoliberalism. It certainly has been used in that way by some of Cavanaugh’s enthusiastic readers and even, dare I say, mis-used in that way by members of the Radical Orthodoxy/Red Tory movement. His mix of Foucault and Roman Catholic radicalism does give the impression of a strange conservative anti-Statist and anti-Capitalist form of thinking. Still, I would feel uncomfortable simply regulating Cavanaugh to this pit of vipers since his own work is overwhelmingly negative in its approach (I’ll explain the meaning of this more below) and his own attempts at positive proscriptive political statements often are undertaken with great care and a deep grounding in a tradition of non-violence.  Weirdly, if I can indulge in a bit of biography before moving on to the more substantive comments, reading Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist was the reason I decided not to convert to Roman Catholicism when at the age of 19 I decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene. Simply stated the book broke any romantic illusions I had about the Roman Church. It seemed to me as compromised and fucked up as anything American Evangelicalism had going for it. Regardless of the beauty of its liturgy or the depth of its intellectual tradition, I just couldn’t imagine ever converting. Perhaps if I grew up in a Roman Catholic culture I’d engage with it in some sense (and in fact I do), but why would I ask permission to be a part of something that had a hierarchy I’d struggle against for the rest of my life? And, worse yet, refused to acknowledge its awful crimes towards, not just others, but its own adherents? Perhaps not the outcome hoped for by Cavanaugh… Read the rest of this entry »

Book Giveaways and a Future Christ Review.

In the end we ended up with a good number of people submitting to the After the Postsecular and the Postmodern book give away. I wrote all the names on slips of paper and had our departmental administrator draw a name from out of a bag. Happy to say that Drew Jaegle was the winner. In related news there is going to be an AAR panel focused on the volume as well.

Also, as I’m preparing for my trip to New York that was graciously funded by the readers here, I wanted to let you know that I did the same thing with those who donated money for the travel costs. Quite a few of you gave, but Jeremy’s name was drawn from the bag and so he’ll be receiving the copy of the Future Christ signed by Laruelle. The book, along with Philosophies of Difference, was given a short review in the Times Literary Supplement. I can’t provide a link, because the review isn’t online, but look for the print copy.

Review: Democracy in What State?

Columbia University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Democracy in What State?, a work that I eagerly devoured, both because of its all-star contributors — Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaid, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, Kristin Ross, and Slavoj Žižek — and because of its accessible style (even Nancy writes relatively clearly here!).

This collection originated in the French publisher’s desire to imitate one of the organs of the surrealist movement, which asked major thinkers to answer a seemingly obvious or banal question — and in our present age, the seemingly unquestioned assent everyone gives to democracy makes it a fitting target. The answers are various, drawing on the etymology of the word itself, the history of democratic movements and particularly of the French revolution and its aftermath, contemporary French debates around the concept (with Ranciere and Badiou figuring especially prominently in the others’ responses), and the relationship between democracy and communism.

As the Amazon page contains summaries of everyone’s contributions, I won’t duplicate that here, instead focusing on points that particularly grabbed my interest. Read the rest of this entry »

Two books I recently put down without finishing

Book reviewing has a bias in favor of books we’ve actually read, but sometimes it may also be revealing which books we start but don’t finish. Two that I’ve put aside this year:

  1. Rage and Time by Sloterdijk — it struck me that this was the same basic argument as Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man and that his analysis of resentment was not very likely to add significantly to Nietzsche.
  2. Benjamin’s -abilities by Sam Weber — I got about a third of the way through this one before I got really sick of being re-convinced of the importance of words ending in -ability for understanding Benjamin’s work. Undeniably a detailed and rigorous reading of Benjamin, this book winds up feeling plodding and repetitious, something that is perhaps understandable given that it is assembled out of forty years worth of Weber’s writings on Benjamin. I will likely return to it for insight on particular writings and themes in Benjamin, but reading it cover to cover was less than ideal.

What about you? Have you set any book aside recently?

“Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book…”

It’s good to see a book review that puts everything out front.

A suicide-inducing review

While browsing through Amazon looking for books relevant to my Global Christianity course, I came across Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, whose page includes one of the most horrifyingly negative reviews I’ve ever seen:

Where is the cradle of Christianity—Europe or Africa? After teaching historical and systematic theology, Oden is surprisingly just discovering what other scholars have argued for some time: that the earliest contours of Christianity can be easily traced to Africa. After all, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Plotinus and Augustine—to name only a few early Christian thinkers—were Africans. In this tiresome and repetitious book, Oden belabors the already well-established notion that Christianity’s roots can be found in Africa. He does draw helpfully on his work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series to demonstrate that the intellectual contours of Christianity—academics, exegesis, dogmatics, ecumenics, monasticism, philosophy, and dialectics—developed in Africa. However, Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo) and other writers have clearly recognized this contribution, and Oden’s naïve and hyperbolic book is more embarrassing than enlightening. Oden’s study is most suited to those who are entirely new to the debate and who will benefit from resources such as a time line of early African Christianity and a reading list for further investigation of the subject.

Note the reversal of the traditional “a couple token negative points in a basically positive review” — and how extremely faint the praise is even in that context (a timeline and a list of other books!). Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is a particularly artful choice of an example of a previous work that makes the same point, since it’s one of the most widely read scholarly works in theological studies — and more broadly, nearly every word is carefully calculated to belittle.

Also note that this is not some crank Amazon reviewer, but Publisher’s Weekly.

I’m usually inclined to be skeptical of over-the-top positive reviews, but this is definitely a time when I feel like Oden’s book can’t possibly be that bad and this reviewer must have it out for him for some reason.

UPDATE: I believe this clip my have served as something of a template for the reviewer:

Theology of Food, Monstrous Christ Again

Friend of the blog and the Nottingham colleague of Anthony and myself since the distant MA days Orion Edgar has a review of Angel F. Montoya’s excellent The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist in last months Modern Theology. The Theology of Food is perhaps the only academic book of all time to open with a recipe. Orion’s project concerns the theology and philosophy of food and the culinary as a window to wider issues of embodiment, politics and ecology, and hopes to fill some of the gaps he identifies in Montoya’s project.

This edition also contains a review by Cyril O’Regan on Žižek and Milbank’s The Monstrosity of Christ, which concurs with Adam’s interpretation that “it could be argued that Altizer’s theology represents the prototype for Žižek’s synthesis of genealogy and kenotic Christology”. For O’Regan, one of the central cruxes of the argument is the orthodoxy, or lack of, with regard to Meister Eckhart, something that other reviewers have noted in passing, but failed to highlight as particularly interesting. If Eckhart, as Milbank contends, is permitted to stand as a representative of medieval Catholic Christianity then Žižek’s ‘protestant’ narrative that follows from him, to Hegel, to the death of God, is undermined. Yet Milbank does so at the risk of admitting too much of Žižek’s narrative, and O’Regan thinks that although in general accounts tend to suggest Milbank is right on the historical reading of Eckhart, Žižek is more compelling rhetorically on this point, which opens the old cans of worms regarding an accurate versus an interesting reading of a figure that is commonly brought up with regard to both authors. Seasoned watchers of this blog and this debate will be interested that O’Regan suggests that the difference between Žižek and Milbank is something to do with the apocalyptic, which, as O’Regan notes, is a theme for Atizer. O’Regan states, rightly, that this might offer an intriguing platform of further discussion, which seems all the more to be the case given that Žižek’s lastest is called Living in the End Times.

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