Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

Cloud of the ImpossibleIn Cloud of the Impossible Catherine Keller offers an impressive and engaging theological contribution to our contemporary moment. From the moment I first came across Keller’s work, the breadth and depth of her research and writing has been something to marvel at. It is no different here, as Keller takes us from process to Nicolas of Cusa, from Edouard Glissant to Judith Butler, from ecology to questions of coloniality – and with such an ease of writing and weaving together these entanglements. Her literary form here mirrors the aims of Cloud of the Impossible. There is a clarity and lyricism to her writing that is also overcast by a cloud. Shadowy questions emerge in the light of revelation these necessary entanglements bring forth. For this post, I will mainly focus on questions of coloniality and the kinds of entanglement that seems to characterize it while also questioning Keller’s reading of Glissant and the question of the possible in the face of the impossible.

Questioning Entanglement

Participation names, then, the mindful alternative to the old impositions: to conquest and crusade, to slave markets and “free” markets. In answer to the stranglehold of capitalist entanglement, this participatory entanglement offers a key to inverting the inversions of each ruse of our political unconscious. It lets us comb out some snarls of Western history without pretending to have cut loose. Participation, a metaphor at once of ontological interrelation and of democratic action, lets its agent at once face the contradiction and open the wall. For what is a part of us, repeating itself in us, we may iterate otherwise. The ambiguous entanglement is not severed but rewoven. The relational ontology of becoming exists to intensify that possibility: the “third repetition,” the fold into the new. (256)

This quotation captures so much of what equally compels me and makes me suspicious of Keller’s project here. There is a sense in which the inescapability of our relational entanglements is precisely the space, or the fold, that engenders otherwise possibilities. This is something I hold to in my own work. Yet I’m concerned of the use of participation, here – a term she gathers from Glissant – as somehow diverging into the otherwise. I wonder about the capture of this terminology within a theological work and the resonances it still holds. Indeed, in some ways, I’m brought back to the recent book (and the event on AUFS) on Gil Anidjar’s Blood which, in some ways, charts a similar course (though more critical of Christianity). The hemotology of Christian relationality is such that coloniality is, indeed, the imposition, not simply of conquest and crusade, slave and “free” markets, but of participation in such logics, in such markets, in such modes of life. That is, while for Keller participation is not a way of freeing us from Western history or coloniality but is a mode of thinking and doing and becoming otherwise, I wonder if, drawing on Anidjar, participation (just as conquest, crusade, and the markets) is the undergirding imposition of coloniality. We can say that it was not always the case that colonial subjects were the subjects of coloniality. What does it mean that coloniality is, in part, the imposition of participation in subjection and subjectivity within the Western mode of conception?

I hope this is not being read as a kind of petty or nitpicking attack on Keller’s contribution here. I simply wish to understand why, in promoting an apophatic and negative theology, Keller does not apply this logic to participation, reading non-participation as the site of the fold? Indeed, it seems colonial subjects have often contested the entanglement, the imposition of sovereignty, through non-participation, through work stoppages and slow-downs, through non-participation in the proper modes of linguistics, slowing, or speeding up, colonial speech. I’m concerned that participation is being separated from imposition in a way that doesn’t make sense of the participatory workings of coloniality. Further, I’m concerned that this move to participation is clouding our ability to recognize this move as a kind of racial reconciliation politics in disugise. Keller writes: “The nonseparable singularity in this nonsubstantial subsistence has wrapped itself in the radical poetics of Glissant’s cloud, from which it precipitates with fresh force. So here the singularity of difference has wrapped itself – in the strongest alternative to individualism – in our mindful participation in one another” (256). To put it crudely, how is this different from the arguments about making (white) people aware of racism? In what sense does this apophatic entanglement give way to the light of awareness or mindfulness by which the darkness of the negative becomes visible? In some sense, doesn’t this kind of participatory planetary entanglement, at least as considered here, work to suture the break (and the peformance of fugitivity that occurs in the break) that someone like Fred Moten theorizes?

In all, I’m left scratching my head about what work the kind of diversity Keller advocates at the end of chapter 8 can actually do. It is vaguely reminiscent of what white people already tend to lean towards with regard to thinking about race, religion, and capitalism. There’s some kind of desire to see a vaguely otherwise, inclusive and diverse, participatory and coalitional. I don’t find this vision of apophatic entanglement in its cosmopolitical tenor a particularly compelling vision of an otherwise coalitional becoming, though. There’s little engagement with actual Islamic and postcolonial voices. Instead Keller chooses to mainly discuss Cusa, Cavanaugh, Connolly, Whitehead, with a sprinkling of Glissant and Ibn Arabi at the end. My question, then, is why does this entanglement look the same as the situation we’re already in? A kind of endless mode of making the main argument with white, predominately male thinkers and utilizing the “Othered” voices as a supplement? I wonder how this book and this chapter would have looked differently if Keller had relied more heavily on these others.

My question about the apophatic entanglements Keller elaborates upon here is really one about whether it enables us to speak more truthfully and incisively to the kinds of crusading Christian colonial imagination that, in this neoliberal moment, increasingly desires our participation in an inclusive and diverse coalitional affirmation of Christianized capitalistic logic. In some sense, Keller leaves the ambiguity of this vision so understated that it doesn’t really forcefully end up opposed to or critiquing the problematic. Rather, it seems to leave good liberal (white) people with a fancy way of doing theology in the same kind of way they’ve already been doing it, particularly around interreligiosity and race and coloniality, which is a nicer form of what we’ve already had.

4 Responses to “Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

  1. Matthew McCracken Says:

    Main disclaimer: I haven’t read the book (I can’t get it in China, which is disappointing), so I can’t engage the ideas in the most informed manner.

    However, the main substance of what I want to say is that I find the sort of bleed and ambiguity you note between (ontological) participation and (colonial) imposition to be very compelling. I’ve been trying myself to really think, mostly in my own reflections on a number pop culture trends been trying to distinguish where and how we might see “non-participation as be the site of the fold”.

    Comparing a blockbuster such as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY to another movie such as SNOWPIERCER draws out these resonances on a cultural level. In GUARDIANS we see a band of maligned sociopaths come to recognise their relations to, well, the galaxy and its dominant imperial hub (Xandar), and participate in protecting it from a radical unwilling to recognise the reigning erasure of Xandarian imperial violence. Any fold in GUARDIANS is, ultimately, while new, one that extends certain forms of acceptable violence; that is what is hidden in the participation won by Star-Lord and the gang.

    In SNOWPIERCER participation, again, is shown to be a means for the extension—even while certainly an adaptation—of the reigning and embedded terms of domination. It’s precisely non-participation—that is presented, perhaps, as either a passive-being-open-to or an active-becoming-an-agent-of something like an apocalyptic in-breaking of the world—that sees the emergence of a fold that offers the contours of a dramatically new situation. It’s interesting that this non-participation is able to properly recognise participation as an imposition, and rightly recognises and wills to keep open a break in the world.

    All that to say, the issues you raise, Amaryah, are visible in some of the most prevalent forms of art. So, thank you for your thoughts, and I’m sorry that my comment was rather roundabout and not especially engaged in directly extending any discussion of Cloud or Keller.

  2. Tim Says:

    Amaryah, thanks for this.

    I’m afraid I haven’t gotten far enough into Cloud of the Impossible to comment directly on your reading of chapter eight. I’m hovering over section two at the moment. Nevertheless, I think you’ve pinpointed an important issue with the language of participation, especially when you contrast Keller’s vision with Moten’s notion of fugitivity (with which I am, also and unfortunately, much too unfamiliar).

    This raises some important theoretical questions: can a fold ever be considered a break? Is the fold opposed to the break? Is Keller’s invocation of “‘the third repetition,’ the fold into the new” (almost certainly a reference to Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition) really capable of establishing or opening a space of freedom? Or is, as you said, the participatory metaphysics of Keller’s fold just another way for liberal white theologians to theologize? I think that, in general, her language of participation works well to paint a picture of an entangled cosmos in which each of us play irreducible ‘parts,’ and I’m sympathetic to her in this regard, but it’s interesting to see that when faced with the ethical and political deadlocks of neoliberal capitalism, especially the racial and colonial legacy of the latter, the language of participation begins to break down.

    This is why your suggested alternative of conceiving of NON-participation as the site of the fold strikes me as being a very fruitful avenue for thinking. I mentioned Deleuze earlier; in D&R, it’s precisely the (non-) that marks the site of difference and novelty, the break, the fold, etc. Keller is certainly dependent on Deleuze throughout Cloud, and I know she’s read D&R, so I wonder what ontological or epistemological commitments kept her from seeing the pitfalls of insisting on participation entanglement vis-a-vis colonialism/capitalism, rather than a radical refusal of participation.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    I have yet to make it to Chapter 8 of the book (hoping to in the next few hours if I get some other work done first). Any engagement with your post is going to be incomplete until I’ve done the same work you have here, but wanted to say thank you for the connection you’ve surfaced for us between participation and colonial logic. At the same time perhaps Keller brings out a problem that still requires analysis and that hasn’t been fully traced out in the stuff I’ve read yet. Entanglement is real in a number of various ways. The way ecological science bore this out for me was what disabused me of the fantasy of ethical purity early in my own research. So, event though I’m a vegetarian, I know I’ve not removed myself from the cycle of suffering or ecological abuse of nonhuman animals and other living organisms. Something isomorphic is at play at the political level with regard to poverty and race and sexism, such that in many ways the only form of intellectual engagement available for people working out of a social justice paradigm is riddled with questions about bad faith. When we move to the question of political and social entanglement we move to a racialized relation. Bad faith threatens here too because of various anti-essentialist forms of thinking that make getting a grasp on race difficult, especially when entanglement is taken seriously there. I think getting away from coalition and diversity thinking can be helpful to avoid this bad faith, but do you have a sense of what a project of thinking through this entanglement looks like that might avoid these traps? Obviously that’s too huge a question for a discussion and even more imposing in a blog setting, it’s probably too big for a single book or lifetime, but if you have anything on that you feel like putting out there I would be interested since I feel pretty stuck on it myself and it has struck me as important (though maybe I’m wrong about that too).

    Thank you again. I’m still trying to figure out how to think through this stuff without falling into traps set by white supremacy that remain latent in my own thinking. So, I apologize if my formulations are less than clear. They come from a place of both thinking this is a really serious problem for analysis and an attempt on my part to exercise caution, perhaps to a fault.

  4. amaryahshaye Says:

    Thanks you all for the comments, sorry I’ve taken so long in responding. I think I’ll roll all my responses into one, though, since I think the comments kind of fold (heh) into one another.

    So, I don’t want to make the concept of fugitivity posed over and against participation as much as I felt too little was said about participation and how Keller saw that doing work in her interrelational ethics and apophatic entanglements. Perhaps the apophatic part means less explanation, but I would have liked more weight given to that given her engagement with Glissant is so sparse.

    I don’t know that participation and fugitivity *have* to be opposed as much as I would’ve liked to see some elaboration of how she thinks Glissant’s notion of participation opens up the otherwise. That is, rather than assuming we get how his notion of participation functions I think it needed more clarity, otherwise it’s too ambiguous. I too think the non- is interesting in Keller’s work which is why I was confused that she didn’t go there given the negative theology she is constructing. Again, I don’t think participation necessarily means complicity in coloniality, but as it’s given, it does. Would’ve liked to see maybe something about non-participation as participation.

    This brings me to Anthony’s comment. I think you’re right about bringing the ecological to bear on our thought, which Keller also does. I hope my post doesn’t read as a quest for ethical purity, because I don’t believe in that either. Rather, I think it needs to be laid out more clearly why this mode of participation is distinct from a colonial capitalistic one. I dislike the idea of diversity more than coalition, but I think it’s hard to make those move, if you will. The idea of organizing ourselves together is really interesting to me, but I haven’t gone too far there. I also think there’s a way of talking about race that (to draw on Dan Barber, for instance) recognizes it as an improper naming which is always kind of exceeded by the performance of the things. To me, that’s been helpful for thinking about something like how Moten wants to make a distinction between blackness and black people even while maintaining the relation between the two but not limiting it to that relation.

    Thanks for the comments! Look forward to more engagement.

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