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Camera Obscura: Ancestral Light Series—Smithfield, Alabama, 16x20 in paper negative, 2020. Tony M. Bingham. Posted with artist's permission.

Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.

At first glance, Karl Marx’s critique of religion appears to be a critique of abstractions as spectres to be exorcised. The young Marx, at least, is often assumed to have the same secularizing position as his contemporaries: like Bruno Bauer, the state needs emancipation from its theological supplements; like Ludwig Feuerbach, “God” is the outward projection of humanity’s own “species-being.” On this reading, Marx sees abstractions as mystifications, spiritualizing what are in fact empirical conditions of social life and laboring.

When Marx’s “criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth” in its full depth in Capital, we might thus anticipate concrete laboring practices and material wealth (use-value) to constitute the standpoint of critique. From this lens, the real working class and the stuff of the world would be supposed to best proffer normative standards for revolutionary action. While partisans of the concrete bring social practice into view, this “traditional Marxist interpretation,” in Moishe Postone’s rendering, does not depart from nominalist traditions whose rejection of universals have long undergirded the “reproach of abstraction.” Nor does it address Marx’s more abiding concern: the empiricist presupposition of religion as a problem of thought ends up being as mediated by phantoms as its theological object of critique.

Marx’s conceptual breakthrough—to address, as we will see, abstractions as “real”—desediments the classical theological mediation of heaven and earth: Christ’s attempt to resolve, in his very body, the practical question of how to make an abstract, unknowable God meaningful with respect to the cosmos and its creatures. The history of Christian thought is a history of working through the incarnation’s bringing-together of opposites, from the supersessionist association of Christianity with spirit and Judaism with flesh to controversies about the nature of the eucharist, the use of icons, and the relationship between inward, spiritual faith and outward, material actions.

Sylvia Wynter describes humanism as the great “counterrevolution” against theocentrism, a revolt against groundless religious abstractions and a call to “bring these events back to serving the logic of human purposes rather than the reverse” (21). If this revolt is “partial,” in Wynter’s estimation, it is because the human’s new “bio-ontological form” retains contradictions already apparent in God’s abstract character (36). Across classical political economy, the “abstract state” and “abstract labor” enforce a theodicy of man that reoccupies what was once the realm of the fallen and the damned with unruly subjects, uninhabitable lands, and embodied scarcity. Blackness both takes on the lowest attributes in newly emergent racial hierarchies (rebellious, overpopulated, impoverished) and serves as the invisible outside (the not-human) necessary to the composition of “abstract man” (for Wynter, “overrepresented as if human”). This two-step process, between blackness being both persistently bottom-rung and a negative presupposition outside all measure, I postulate below to be coordinated by the “abstract slave.”

To believe Marx is saying the “economic” ultimately underlies any overview of intellectual history is to be only partially right. A hallmark of Marx’s critique of religion is that we cannot shear spiritualized epiphenomena from the world — in order to understand immaterial abstractions such as ‘man’ or ‘labor,’ we have to grasp the material conditions that produce their distinctly abstract qualities. In this way Marx introduces to the world of critical theorizing what Alfred Sohn-Rethel identifies as a “real abstraction,” “an abstraction other than that of thought” (14-16). Before these abstractions occur in the mind, they are sustained through social practice (for Sohn-Rethel, in commodity exchange). The substance of real abstractions cannot be empirically deciphered nor can they be brought to an altar, confessional, or laboratory. Real abstractions instead point to the “supra-sensible” (Capital 165) conditions that Marx traces between time, money, labor, and wealth, and which through a “social synthesis” (Sohn-Rethel) proceed “behind the backs of the producers” (Capital 135).

Capitalism is peculiarly primed to generate social abstractions. Labor, for example, appears as a “point of departure” for the political economist. It might seem intuitively plausible to say that labor is “an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society,” but for Marx, labor also only “achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society” (Grundrisse 105). Where the tailor previously engaged in “sewing,” laborers now bring to market the abstract power to “labor.” The exchange of coats and houses in a capitalist wage context confers upon them a common substance—abstract labor—whose expression in the form of money ends up constituting social feedback loops that demand we continue to sell our labor, for it is all we have. Although now seemingly disconnected as subjects, Marx reads our social relations as densely mediated by the demands of “value,” whose threads, unlike the slave “held by chains,” are invisiblized (Capital 716). This mediation secures the capitalist character of “abstract domination,” a type of violence that humans collectively enact against themselves and that remains distinctly difficult to detect and undo.

Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us. If Marx’s “finer science of invisibilities” brings to life what economists cannot see (the commodity-form’s nested abstractions), political theology already approaches social forms like the state as spiritualized. In approximating the dialectic of the concrete and the abstract, it is no surprise, then, that Marx repeatedly entreats readers to “take flight into the misty realm of religion” (Capital 165). While Marx’s sense of ‘religion’ seems limited to a demystifying analogy, we could hypothetically turn the tables on Marx: would a “critique of political theology” along the lines of a “critique of political economy” refigure the presumptive relationship between the two? Would the story of so-called secularization envelop that of primitive accumulation; would religious iconography displace or reconfigure the commodity-form? Such questions might answer, along the way, how to grasp the endurance, transmutation, and reoccupation of religious abstractions with respect to the social forms that arguably structure their emergence.

Even though Marx thinks deeply about the histories of states and kings and cosmographies, it is worth noting that his method begins with the least presupposed abstraction—the elemental immediacy of the commodity—in order to then unravel its “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital 163). To follow such a method in our hypothetical “critique of political theology,” we might be tempted to first conjure a host of equivalent theological elementals (the gift, the sacramental community, etc.). But to begin with homologous objects is to put the cart before the horse of critical method; doing so without working through a systemic reconstruction of the universe of political theology will, in Marx’s view, yield a “chaotic conception of the whole” (Grundrisse 100) with only symptomatic explanatory power. Then again, to write a “critique of political theology” along strict Marxist protocols may mean, in the end, not only reinscribing Marx’s “scientifically correct method,” but also, more strangely still, re-writing Capital and its “rich totality of many determinations and relations” (Grundrisse 100). If Marx long engaged in “the critique of the critique of religion” (Toscano), perhaps Capital already accounts for the inherited tensions embedded in secularization, such that political theology would be redundant to (because already synthenized within) the critical presentation of capital.

While the tools Marx developed were meant to be adequate to capitalist social forms, the mature Marx’s disinterest in staging a rapprochement between religious and real abstractions doesn’t rule out reading his early work as an excavation of the production of a separable religion—“religion as such”—as an expression of the state form. But even reading his “On The Jewish Question” or The German Ideology backwards from the lessons of Capital, it seems unlikely that a critique of political theological abstractions would bring about a constitutively new understanding of the material life of social relations and the forms of faith that undergird them. At most, following Marx and “rising from the abstract to the concrete,” as his famous methodological procedure goes (Grundrisse 101), could substantiate glimmers hinted at already in Marx’s scattered references to the “religion of everyday life,” those habits and practices that supplement the disenchantment with and impoverishment of the world (already the preoccupation of the Frankfurt School). Reading a critical religious theory of real abstraction alongside the critique of political economy would constitute but an appendix (albiet an instructive one!) to Marx’s mature work.

Instead, we might discern a “symptomatic mismatch” between the critique of political economies and theologies. In capitalism, it is the thing which believes — the practice of exchanging commodities and labor with money and back again carries with it capitalist abstractions regardless of our pious or profane relation to capitalism. In political theology, however, it is the quality of belief itself, with its legitimating features, pleasures, doubts, and politics, that forms the cornerstone of critical attention. Faith here represents a different sort of worldly opening. Although abstract logic is now associated with a purely formal exercise, scholastic theologians approached syllogisms and analogies as tools of divine reason and paths towards revelation. Only through the nominalist critique that pried apart objects from thought would enough of a practical split between the abstract and concrete be generalizable for “real abstraction” to become a useful reflexive category.

Wynter’s “sociogenetic principle” enters a conversation with abstraction that traverses political theology and critical theory by understanding race as their (not-so) vanishing mediator. Her reading of Marx expands from the yet unpublished “Black Metamorphosis” to an explicit redefinition of “Marx’s class struggle in the terms of a ‘politics of being.’” Here, the survival of nominalism in the biological concept of species-being is just one index of “the genetic status-organizing principle of which the phenomenon that we have come to know as ‘race’, is the expression.” As the “zero-degree signifier” for the reoccupation of “being” by race, “blackness” does not so much represent an abstraction in Wynter’s layered writing as it does an indeterminacy internal to social forms expressed in perverted form in the abstract human (indexed by the laborer and the believer) and abstract slave (the thing which believes for us).

Wynter’s oeuvre illuminates an immediate overlap between the critique of political economy and Afro-pessimism’s “critique of political ontology,” even as the latter doubles as a critique of the former; putting a stop to the play of abstractions means leaning into the architecture of the abstract (its “abduction schema or morphogenetic fantasy” [Wynter 49]) in order to abolish it. But Afro-pessimism’s development of “a new language of abstraction” requisite to the “horrors” of slavery has generated a curious double disagreement. From historical materialism’s perspective, Afro-pessimism trades in “bad” abstractions; “unmoored from time and space by a ruthless disregard for material historical processes,” its coupling of the “slave and human” in deadly antagonism is represented as a betrayal of historical materialism and recapitulation of Feuerbachian essentialisms. For historians of racial slavery, Afro-pessimism denudes the slave of meaningful qualities to the base abstraction of social death, deadening the experiential livity of enslaved peoples. But what if the collision of race, slavery, and the problem of being is the first time “slavery” (divorced from discrete causes like debt and war) becomes true in practice?

This alternative—the abstract slave and its supra-sensuous reproduction of “the Ultimate Chaos that was the Black” (Wynter 37)—has some advantages when it comes to thinking abstraction. Instead of diagnosing the slave as the opposite of the laborer, with the former representing concrete domination and the latter its abstraction, we can address Marxism’s underdetermination of slavery as a problem for Marx’s critical reach. When slavery is considered (only) a matter of empirical-historical significance, it is impossible to grasp why its organization of “white-over-black” compulsively reappears in scenes of anti-black violence. When abstraction is realized primarily within the purview of capitalism, with Marx writing “individuals are now ruled by abstractions, whereas earlier they depended on one another” (Grundrisse 164), black thought and action become limited to pre-capitalist revolutionary potential. Irreducible to the critique of political economy, the critique of epistemology, or the critique of political theology, Afro-pessimism’s critique of political ontology tarries with excesses encoded in historical representation and their unreflexive abstractions. Here, we might also trace connections between the abstraction of the slave, the availability of abstraction for thought, and the difficulty of abolishing real abstractions. This abstract nexus is at the heart of Afro-Pessimism’s seemingly apocalyptic cry: “slavery must be theorized maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level. The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality. Otherwise, we succumb to the forces of mitigation that would transform the world through a coalition of tiny causes.”


Annotated Bibliography

Ilyenkov, E.V. The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital. Trans. Sergei Syrovatkin (Dehli: Aakar Books, 2008),
https://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/abstract/index.htm

This English translation reflects a circumscribed publication history: Soviet editorial oversight led to delays of Ilyenkov’s major work that, when finally published in Russian in 1960, led to the removal of nearly half the book, including the longer sections on the philosophy of history indicated by planned title The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Thought. Even within these confines, Ilyenkov’s expansive reading of the Marxist method and intellectual surroundings remains an invaluable guide and, with renewed interest in Ilyenkov from ongoing study groups to reissues and edited collections, there is hope that this vital text will be translated in fuller form for the English-speaking public.

Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. Trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel (Leiden: Brill, 2020)

Having long been out of print, the recent reissue of the 1978 English version (itself an expansion of its German original), with introduction by Chris O’Kane and afterword by Chris Arthur, constitutes something of an event in Marxist circles. Though roundly critiqued for its infidelities to Marx, from its empirical bent to its centrality on exchange (see Moishe Postone, Anslem Jappe, John Milios, and Norbert Trenkle, among others), Sohn-Rethel’s attempt to unite the thought-form and the commodity-form prepared the way for a historical materialist epistemology whose open possibilities continue to inspire.

Toscano, Alberto. “Beyond Abstraction: Marx and the Critique of the Critique of Religion.” Historical Materialism 18, no. 1 (2010): 3–29

Toscano’s mid-2000s intellectual itinerary is responsible for an English-language revitalization of scholarship on “real abstraction.” In this article, Toscano considers the possibilities in Marx’s “critique of the critique of religion” to be “embryonic,” and though he may have overstated the gulf between the young and mature Marx (see, by contrast, Alex Dubilet’s sophisticated and generative return to “On the Jewish Question”), Toscano effectively lays out the differences between reading Marx as a critic of demystification and a critic of the conditions for the constitution of particular social forms.

Wynter, Sylvia. “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism.” boundary 2 12/13, no. 1 (1984): 19–70

A turning point for Wynter, this wide-ranging essay begins to gather together Wynter’s reflections on the humanist heresy and its transumption of Spirit and Flesh into the orienting logics in which race comes to necessarily appear as “difference” and blackness as “chaos.” The citational web she spins here informed much of her writing to come and provides an instructive lens to reflect on her earlier work on Caribbean culture, culminating in her 2015 callback to this essay in “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition.”

Survivance

Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”

Relationality

Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.

Martyrdom

Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.

Autopoiesis

In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.

Sovereignty

Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.

Abolition

Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  

Techno-Orientalism

Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”

Thing

Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.

Diaspora

Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.

Blackness

If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.

Eugenics

Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.

Humanism

Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.

Risk

Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.

Doxa

Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.

Police

In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?

Taboo

This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.

Affect

What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.

Kinship

While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.

Command/Commandment

The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.

Mourning

That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.

Personhood

The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.

Sympathy

For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.

Queer

Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.

Care

If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.

Matter

A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.

Money

The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.

Refusal

Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.

Seva

Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.

Abstraction

Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.

Flesh

Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.

Indigeneity

It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.

Animal

As we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.

Natality

In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Coming

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.

Coming

Demonology

“[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.”

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