Cloud Precipitates – Response from Catherine Keller

Cloud of the ImpossibleFor An und Für Sich

Sunday 2.8.15
Cloud Precipitates

Let me announce, not without celebration, that this is my first time to participate in this sort of virtual book conversation. Thank you Stephen, for initiating this exchange on if not in the Cloud—and Amaryah, Carolyn, Kate, Austin, Karen, Marika and Beatrice for offering such serious responses. I’m glad for the chance to offer a brief response—somehow—to all of you, all at once. I’ll riff a bit on my general sense of the joint challenge your responses offer, the trouble you together make, and perhaps offer a few more specific elucidations.

The most recurrent concern that comes across—in very different ways—is not surprisingly that of my commitment to relationality as the site of theological thinking. Relationality an und für sich! And worse—I seem to lay out an ontological interconnectivity as the site of anything that is. No getting around it: I admit it, I don’t think there is any salvation from a boundlessly entangled universe, or from the supreme entanglement we sometimes awkwardly nickname God. S/he/it doesn’t escape either. Though my language may be peculiar, that thought is hardly original, as Cloud is at pains to show along a (really long) western lineage. But it has been and remains a marginal thought, rarely tolerated among academic and cultural elites.

I occasionally need to remind us of this, those of us at home in certain fragile theological centers where some rhizomatic discourses may have developed such resonance as to appear established. Process, ecological and feminist relationalisms continue to belong to subcultures that have evinced great generativity even as they irritate the power centers of learning. Academic power has its preferred styles of “radicality,” “critique” and “difference” that serve well to keep the intelligentsia properly divided against itself, into disciplines, methodologies, indeed into the hierarchies of separable units of identity that distribute the substance (originally ousia, “property”) of western civilization. It is endlessly versatile and adaptable, but it keeps the multitudes out of the center and out of the dominant subjects of that center. Those subjects may now vary in sexes and colors, but they tow the lines of competitive separativity. We academic progressives on the whole cause more trouble to each other than we ever do to the systems of epistemic and economic power against which we bravely posture.

Given the force of the presupposition of separable identities, if not of forthright individualism, I feel no impatience in iterating what I perhaps fail to make clear enough in the book. (1) This relationality that I never abandon has nothing to do with uniformity, homogeneity, totality. It does not stand over against difference. It makes difference possible. Difference is not anything but a relation. (2) Relation, like difference, may work for good or ill. But the difference remains a work of shifting and constituent entanglements, partly chosen, partly imposed. Do I romanticize relationality? No doubt, if read from the vantage point of an unselfconscious individualism, a presumption of ontic separability. I do not claim that entanglement saves us—except perhaps in a supreme self-implicature in which it becomes apophatically indistinguishable from love. But to be honest perhaps I do not think of entangled difference as ever merely indifferent, neutral. Perhaps, in a broken echo of Augustine, I would say that evil is not absence of relationship, but relationship deformed. As being is good for Augustine, perhaps relationality an und für sich can be dubbed “good” in the amoral way that the creation itself, which is constituted of relations, is for heirs of the biblical tradition tov. So it is relationships turned toxic, not simple absence of relationship, which is our problem. Relations may drive us into isolation. That is not a state without relations, but one haunted by failed and desired ones—and still staunchly supported by the myriad nonhuman connections that compose us. Augustine, still: evil is a deformed love, not an independent ill will.

Why harp on relationship then, if it won’t save us? From capitalism, for starters? Capitalism deforms interdependence into a globe tuned to the illusion of the free and independent 1%, to which all others hopelessly aspire. But of course while the 99% are kept variously dependent, the egos at the top are no less dependent on the labor and the torment of the multitude. The critiques of capitalism I favored (Connolly, Glissant) in the Cloud attend to the way it manipulates our planetary entanglements; and they answer not with the illusion of separation (the game of the 1%) but with the radicalizing attention to the indeterminate potentialities of an ineradicable entanglement, indeed the “poetics of relation.” They do not pretend to know the outcome. In other words if we are able to rescue a viable future for the earth and its human and nonhuman populations, it will be through collective transformation, not transcendence, of the relations now deformed by neoliberal capitalism.

Amaryah, you ask an excellent question “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…”

The apophatic entanglement I propose certainly can place a “non” before any of its affirmative practices: so if participation expresses the democratic dynamism of a relational ontology, actions of non-participation in those systems that deform relationship through colonization are important. But the non-participation is itself a form of participation; and any notion that the colonial subjects have actually ontologically separated from the colonialism which has massively shaped them is a self-defeating delusion (as postcolonial theory has long demonstrated.) One may bring down an entire system through withdrawing energy from it, but that will have been its own effective way of relating to it. (Hence Connolly’s reprise of the notion of the general strike in Fragility of Things.) And my point is just that the modes of non-participation compose their own forms of participation—that is the creation of solidarities that draw upon the wider nexus of relationships within which the colonial system has aggressively imposed itself.   A strike, a resistance movement, a demonstration—these remain brave and transient gestures, easy to isolate and annihilate. Unless their participants are attending and intensifying their sense of participation—in the social fields by which they resist. Only so will the potentialities for a widening and strengthening solidarity develop. And these wider alliances we need only form across irksome differences, entangled with that which is being resisted. Apophatic entanglement belies ideological purity.

Carolyn.   What a luminously dark reflection on adoption (such a crucial alternative to the reproductive determinism that imposes heteronormativity and the miseries of overpopulation.) You deploy apophatic entanglement with layered metaphoric precision: the unknown child, probably of color, who will be (perhaps already is) entangled with you in ways that both exceed and shape genetics: “my child’s body will still come from mine and mine from hers.” There seems to me nothing more important than the practice not merely of relationship, not merely of love, but of new intimacies and extensities of bodies. With the autobiographical sensitivity of your example, you lift up and embrace the vulnerable and uncertain future of embodiment. Such intercarnationality might beg for a fresh exegesis of the christological “adoption.”

Kate, indeed it is a good thing to “hold each other up to high standards,” and I salute the banners of sex and race under which you march. No doubt the valiant clarity with which you refuse alliance will do needed work in the world. If your critique enacts the ideology of separative antagonism (different from entangled agonism) that I criticize for its mirror-game with the dominative paradigm, that is not surprising. Obviously the cloud-crowd marches under a different standard, one that seeks complex, impure, and multiplying alliances. However for the sake of readers let me clarify a couple of race matters, as race does matter. As to the little story about Lee, of course it can be misread. I expect that anyone reading my book would presume what all students in my seminary (admittedly perhaps a much more diverse context than most) would know by the end of the first semester: no instance of poignant resilience, of improbable grace, even begins to excuse or hide the injustices that have, along with a stroke, crippled this Black man. But I did not write this book for people who could misread the story thus. However, I do more simple teaching of the reality of systemic injustice elsewhere.

More surprising is this statement: “A single reference to James Cone also serves as the single reference to racism in a three hundred and ninety four page book, ostensibly on the Christian tradition.”  A single reference? (Yes, it was a climactic one, and I ran it by him.) One may not like, agree with, or deem the references adequate. But one counts over a dozen references to race just in the first chapter (of ten) including a substantial discussion of the Thurman/MLK/Rustin rhizome.

I hope some will find the clue to the African-American legacy of ontological relationalism– as already linked to the “luminous darkness” (Thurman)– significant, which is to say, energizing of race-sex-gender-class-religion-species multiplicity for current alliances. A chapter in Face of the Deep, “Darkness on the Face,” had years ago anticipated this unexpected enfleshment of negative theology. In the face of Ferguson, Staten Island, etc., I am glad it haunts this book, which is of course not “about” race, or any single issue or identity. It is about the dark zones into which, and from which, the issues that matter keep—issuing.

Austin. You bring the elusive divinity of the Cloud into articulation—your speech, mine, its own. And so you recalibrate the oscillation of the eco-ethico-political with the theological. Importantly, you manage to show, or to perform, the rhythm of the kataphatic and the apophatic. And, remarkably, you crystallize the extreme methodological tensions of this work. Across its intensively human spectrum—stretched on either side, but never snapped into inhumanism, this human inseparably populated by from the nonhuman quantum on one end and the nonhuman God on the other—you are evolving your own discourse. Its theological inflections remain resolutely question-able, unapologetic, curious.

As you face the possible impossibilities of your own very different contexts of communication, I hope the unknowing helps you to host surprising new rhizomes of ekklesia. Even this present context, in its virtuality, its potentiality, poses entangling challenges. I hope that your tracing of the “panentheistic thread” running through the book will clarify the Christian stakes of the argument: finally, as you rightly iterate the final movement of the book, a matter not of ‘believing in’ but of doing—God.   And as you note, that possible panentheism, smudged and darkened as it is, will remain for some impossible. But then it means to precipitate a whole host of discourses, discourses hospitable to those who question them.

Karen. Yes, yes, attunement as atonement! Just not at-one-ment with the logic of the One. As your own writing of the vulnerable, depressed, oppressed places of our relations makes so clear. And yes, “entanglement can be captivity.” Not only do I concede the point, I thank you for making it (again and again.) This is why we need to mind –really be worried by—the entanglements rather than ignore them. The tangles begin to strangle when ignored. “Mind your relations,” as Thomas King’s character Thought Woman murmurs repeatedly against the white colonizers.

I think you are asking for a response here: “To say if it is not the impulse of love that the oppressed need in order to flee old tunes for new, then perhaps it is not the love of those they are fleeing for which they seek. Perhaps we need to rest longer in the abyssal crease between the unfolding of exodus and the reconciliations found in an enfolding of loving intercarnation.” Thank you for the chance to clarify: it would precisely not be the love of those they flee that then they need! Even the “love of the enemy” does not signify such a need. No, they may need the love that will fortify the coalitions, that will build up (edify, construire, construct) the alliances worthy of the name of love. Which I can only name as “questionable love.”

And your work will carve, cut, that “abyssal crease” (yes!), that deep fold in which reconciliation is deferred, until such time as difference is dealt its due.

Marika, I will just quote here your own conclusion:

“To say that God is the liberator of the oppressed is to say that God is the judge of the oppressors. To say that God is a rock is to insist that this particular truth is, however coarse, however rough, however lacking in philosophical niceties, a name for God that is so high we can’t get over it, so wide we can’t get round it, so low we can’t get under it; so that instead we must choose whether to be offended at it, to stumble over this vulgar materialism, or to make it the cornerstone on which we choose to build, on which we will stake our hopes even as the rains come down and the floods come up and the cloud of unknowing envelops us.”

And let me say “amen.”

God the rock, yes, the stumbling block, the crude, the vulgar, the matter. But let me also say that rock only matters, only trips us into proximity to what matters, because it has its own elemental vibrancy. Because it is not the stolid solid rock of classical materialism (which has both vulgar capitalist commodifications and elite intellectual egos in its thrall.) It is a rock made of actual occasions of experience, to parrot old Whitehead. And of course God is in each one of them too. Often, be it said, failing to trip up those oppressors.

And let me add one proviso to your beautiful reflection: you worry about the mountaintop Moses of negative theology riffing on Exodus. The multitude is left down below. A dangerous parable for philosophy, indeed, fostering of the worse kind of Platonism. But let us not forget our own entanglements: your rhetoric of “liberator of the oppressed” and of God as “judge of the oppressors” is Exodus rhetoric. It doesn’t originate somewhere else. The fact that Moses, like Jesus later, needed sometimes a mountain retreat—a withdrawal—to get some silence and clear his ears, amidst the impossible density of relations. It does not first of all signal elitism but wisdom, not disconnection from a crowd but capacity (by way of the cloud) to teach. In our present political negations let us unsay but not betray our crucial ancestors.

Rock on Marika!

BeatriceI apologize that your course of study wasn’t more of sci-fi adventure.

The infinite spaces and speeds do get disciplined into, well, the discipline of theology. An und Für Sich. Still, no one in this conversation is failing to complicate the boundaries of any relevant discipline. A wilder planetarity struggles into language. No longer theology in and for itself, but in and for—its material world?

In the meantime just this citation of you here, paraphrasing someone else: “but process thought does have the tendency to simplify relationality by an often hasty reduction of everything down to relations as such. My agreement morphed into a kind of semi-formulated position of its own: if relational thought has the capacity to make constructive interventions into developing forms of speculative thought, then relational ontology has to become more complex, nuanced, specific.” Surely, always more! The nuance (nuage, cloud) won’t reach saturation. But just so one gets confused: the fundamental units of process thought are not relations but occasions: actual occasions of experience, an atom or a human. And those occasions are actualizations of past relations in new forms. The relations are not actual but potential for new becomings. I lift up the relational ontology because it can get underplayed in process theology if the actual occasions or “entities” get reified. But everything does not come down to relations (for my version of process thought either) but to becomings. Apophatically entangled becomings, perhaps, but concrete materializations of becoming. Never extricable from the relations enfolded and yet to unfold, but not identical with any relation. And the becoming aims always at greater complexity. So indeed it requires an all too complex account.

As to withdrawal, I am glad you are engaging the OOO’s. I will not reduce their notion of “withdrawal” to one more clever white male strategy of disconnection. One more surrender to the metaphysics of substance. No, let us grant the “object” its due, and then let it withdraw. Subtraction permits finitude. There is as Deleuze and Guattari put it the “n-1” at play in the very multiplicity of the rhizome (quite a figure of entanglement.) And at the risk of re-repeating myself: a withdrawal from this or that relation does not expunge the traces of the relation. The withdrawal is its own relation.

Speculative thought, as you note, can be ignored, disregarded or discontinued. But that just means that we fail to take responsibility for our imaginative constructions and our subliminal contextualizations. In other words, denial of speculation is just another ploy for abstracting ourselves from the demanding multiplicity of our relations.

You put the point well: “But anyone who’s interested in advancing a philosophical position is always already speculating. I’d like to see what would happen if relational ontology became a thing that people actually admitted that they did. But maybe that’s just the sci-fi adventure priorities taking over again.”

Why not? And maybe you will speculatively apply your idea of the “theological relic” —a dazzling expedition into the figure of “the creature” — to extra-terrestrials next…

But I suspect those creatures will send you right back to the earth, which right now cannot afford your withdrawal. But I do intend to read Cloud Atlas any minute now.


Thank you all seven—really– for this collective cloud burst of communication.

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