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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Read the rest of this entry »

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Black Religion in America: Resource Request

I have proposed to my head of department a course for next Fall with the somewhat sterile title “Black Religion in America”. I am very excited to teach the course for a number of reasons. Since coming to this post, I have been trying to correct my lack of learning from black scholars and organic intellectuals. My experience in Philadelphia brought home to me that, if I was to be anything like an effective teacher and a teacher that aimed for something transgressive (à la bell hooks) in my pedagogy, I had to bring myself under the conditions for theory set by the blackamerican experience and blackness as such. I do not mean this in an instrumentalist way, I mean very seriously that the immanent conditions for thinking through some of the most important aspects of reality for me required that I listen to this particular manifestation and that my work had to be shaped by it without in anyway seeking to speak for or even about that experience. So, as one should, I’ve read a lot of really important theoretical work in the black tradition. I am, as in all my intellectual pursuits, utterly amateurish here and I have noticed that the few times I have come across professionals in Black Studies they are unimpressed with the sources I have found inspiring. Importantly there is no single black tradition, there are debates there, and there is reality but no necessity. All of this I take to be important philosophical conditions.

Much of what I have been reading, unsurprisingly, relates to questions of religion. And, while I am very aware of the trap I may have set for myself in terms of falling into unconscious forms of white supremacy, it seemed in our current environment that putting this research to use in a classroom setting would be good for our students. As a campus we are, relative to national averages, very diverse in terms of our students. We do not quite reflect the demographics our city, something that some of us continue to push for, but we are far closer than many of the other universities. We have a lot of work to do to make the faculty reflect even our student body, to say nothing of our city, but until we are given the resources to hire a black scholar I feel like risking failure may be worth it. Especially as I have cultivated a pedagogical method that helps get me out of the way and, if students are willing to take the lead, may be student directed in a way that would offer a corrective to any mistakes I may call into. My hope is that if I can’t reflect for our students what having a black professor would, I can at least provide the framework and platform to engage with the work of important black thinkers, communities, and problematics.

I have a number of ideas for how to organize the course, specifically with regard to readings, but I am hoping to tap into the hive mind of our readers for their thoughts regarding 1) texts they have used or think would be good for a course like this and 2) pedagogical methods for disempowering as much as possible the whiteness of the professor.

Some remarks on how I want to present the class. I think it is vital to spend some class sessions on the religious/theological construction of race, specifically with regards to the Slave subjectivity that both conditioned and was reciprocally underpinned by the middle passage (I am very curious about suggestions here). I want then to look at ways in which resistance via religion manifested. So obviously discussions of mainstream forms of black religion will be there (Black Christianity and the move to Sunni Islam), but I want to look at those other inventive, syncretic forms of resistance and survival. Blackamerican Islam strikes me as particularly important there as it plays out from the Temple Moorish Science to the Five Percenters, but I may also include those groups that push the identity of religion like MOVE.

What thoughts do you all have?

Agamben translation: Update and request

Work on my translation of The Use of Bodies continues apace. I now have full drafts of the prologue, first major part, first “intermezzo,” and second major part. I have nearly completed all bibliographical work for those segments (the publisher requires that I consult English translations of every work Agamben cites if they are available), and over the next week I will be reviewing my drafts and then passing them over to a generous Italian colleague to check. Then I will return to translating new material. The deadline for submission of the final manuscript is August 1, and I am confident I will get it in on time if not a bit early. After that, your guess is as good as mine as to when it comes out.

There is one lingering citation problem I have [used to have, before commenters helped!]. If you provide a full citation and direct quotation from the English translation of the relevant texts in comments, you will earn your way into my acknowledgment section. The problem is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus that purports to be from Oration 31 (better known as the 5th Theological Oration), section 35. In no edition of the orations have I been able to find a section numbered 35 or a quote that even remotely approximates this: “We Greeks say religiously one ousia in three hypostases, the first word expressing the nature of divinity and the second the triplicity of the individuated properties. The Latins think the same, but due to the restrictions of their language and the poverty of their vocabulary, they cannot distinguish the hypostasis from the substance and instead make use of the term persona… It is believed to be a difference of faith, while it is to us only a diversity of words.” I have already run multiple text searches of the transcriptions of the ANF available online. I’m wondering if it’s been completely mislabelled. Somehow it feels more like something John of Damascus would say. Any thoughts?

Political Theology CFP Reminder

A reminder that the call for papers for The Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion’s conference ‘Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular’ closes at the end of February. The conference takes place at Liverpool Hope University, UK, from July 10-12. Keynotes are Saba Mahmood, Catherine Keller, Katharine Sarah Moody and Richard Seymour.

More information at http://www.hope.ac.uk/acpr under the ‘Events’ tab.

Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event

During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a poetry workshop with Thylias Moss. I’ve only had a few teachers whose classes I anticipated—typically in secret—in a I want to learn to think like her kind of way. Back then, I was super practical and wanted to be a poet (I hadn’t even begun to dream about theology, yet). Moss was one of those teachers. Her work was powerful, formally formidable, elegant, and ultimately inimitable. On one level, of course, I knew I was never going to think just like her. Race is inextricably a part of her poetry, illuminating a world of things that I only understood from a different orientation. But—though not unrelated to this—her poems are also (to use a category I wouldn’t necessarily defend) “nature” poems. Her poems have birds, and dogs—and not just as filler. They also have exposed optic nerves. There is a nature there, but its proximity is at turns amicable, benign, and damning. People are animals, which is a problem (for both people and animals), yet also something incandescent. Her poetry used language to world the world in a particular way: it did things that I knew (in theory) a poem was supposed to do, but often (in many poems) failed to. Her poems had their own optic nerves that made these strange and pulsing sub-visual connections between things that were apparently alien to one another. I didn’t have expectations about what the course would be like. But I admit that I was surprised to get to the campus bookstore and find a short stack of texts—for her class—on fractals.

Fractal art—in the form of digital graphics, or macro photography—wasn’t entirely new at the time. But I don’t think anyone besides Thylias Moss was fractalizing their poetry. Ultimately, for her, this was taking her further outside of that poetic tradition of the page—one that she existed in a degree of tension with—and into something else (like this, “The Glory Prelude”). Looking at some of her newer work, I get the sense that she’s been reading up on entanglement, the multiverse. But, back then, what she brought to us were fractals: those fragile, yet still powerful, highly abstract, yet deeply embedded, infinite patterns within things. She would have inhabited the stuffy tradition of poetry-on-the-page with a difference, with or without fractals. That’s how she worked as a poet. But the fractals helped. Injecting a discussion about them into our conversations about language, about the way we were each using language, changed the way I think and write. There was a kind of sci-fi adventurousness to it that made poetics both far stranger, and far more accessible, than it had been before. I still wrote poems about the same boring things: content pulled mostly from the small world I knew how to access. But I used language in a totally new way, I learned how to make fire from new materials.

When I chose to study with Catherine Keller, for the PhD, there may have been some residual expectations on my part—that I would find a similar kind of sci-fi adventurousness in the study of theology. I was drawn to the chaosmos in Face of the Deep, the way it made theology both more alien and yet also more accessible. In some ways those hopes for sci-fi weirdness were foiled. I was doing a PhD, after all. The bureaucratic patterns of academic life don’t take well to sci-fi. And Catherine’s work, too, resists sci-fi. The most prominent literary interlocutor in Cloud of the Impossible is, after all, Walt Whitman. Catherine has worked very hard to absorb scientific literature on entanglement, and I sense that sci-fi may be too unserious for her. Perhaps sci-fi (to use a figure Marika roused in her recent response) is a little too witchy. Theology is also, of course, risky in ways that poetry is not. The establishment has a long history of violence. Its relationship to power and politics are more structurally intimate. I mention Thylias Moss in this discussion of Catherine’s work, however, because I do think that, over time, I’ve come to see certain resonances between the way they do poiesis—the ways they world the world into language. Studying with each of them, I do feel like I’ve been encouraged to find those sub-material optic nerves, and to experiment with arranging them in new ways, to create differently organized filters through which to view the world. I think both of them have granted full reality to the relations between things—pliable, but difficult to render representationally—and taught me to work with this raw material. And I think, in each of their cases, using tools that are emerging in interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities has helped to rupture the staid and stolid fields they work in. On a good day, this ruptured and ruffled sort of theology can almost be like the drag queen of the sciences. But only when it’s really put together. Something to aim for, at any rate. Read the rest of this entry »

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