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Book Preview – An Insurrectionist Manifesto (Clayton Crockett)

An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics.  Ward Blanton, Clayton Crockett, Jeffrey W. Robbins, and Noëlle Vahanian.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 2016.  Hardcover, paperback, e-book.  224 pp.  ISBN-10: 0231176236.

The following is a book preview by one of the authors.  The “manifesto” was written for Columbia University’s “Insurrections” series.

Our insurrection started on the streets of Philadelphia. A friend dropped me off on Saturday morning for the 2005 American Academy of Religion meeting, and the first person I ran into was Creston Davis, whom I had met the year before.

Creston was going to meet Slavoj Žižek, and asked me to accompany him. We found Žižek eating breakfast at one of the downtown hotels, and we then took a cab ride back to the conference, with Žižek talking the entire time. The next day, I wandered into the market looking for lunch, and ran into Creston once again.

As we ate, Creston explained how a publisher wanted him and Žižek to edit a book series, but he was ambivalent, and already doing something with Duke University Press. Jeff Robbins and I were also doing something for a smaller publisher, Davies Group, in Colorado, so we proposed that we team up and propose a new series.

It seemed a little unwieldy to have a book series with four co-editors, but it worked. After some brainstorming, Jeff suggested the name “Insurrections”, and the series was approved by Columbia University Press in 2006. After a number of successful book projects, in summer 2011 Creston and I met with Ward Blanton (then at the University of Glasgow) at a lake in western North Carolina to talk about the next step. We wanted to do something collaborative, to make our insurrectionist theory and vision more explicit. We came up with the idea of writing four ‘gospels,’ each of us contributing a gospel that would address one of what Heidegger calls the “Fourfold: Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals.”

As Creston then left his academic position to found a new experimental educational institute, the Global Center for Advanced Studies, he was unable to write his gospel, although he did contribute a preface for the book. We asked Noëlle Vahanian to take on the “Gods” chapter, and she agreed. It took a while for all of us to complete it, but it was finally finished and we invited Peter Rollins to write a Forward, and Catherine Keller an Afterword, to make the entire book as collaborative as possible by including a multitude of voices.

So the book in some sense spells out what was implicit in the series Insurrections, by setting forth in the introduction an outline of what we understand by an Insurrectionist Theology. In the introduction we sketch out and discuss five elements of our insurrectionist thinking:

  • A filiation with the tradition of radical theology, which includes a never-ending reflection on the many and multiple “deaths of God” of the inherited traditions.
  • An ontology of the Real that is for us always linked to the theorization of Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze as well as elaborated by Slavoj Žižek and Franҫois Laruelle.
  • A theological materialism that affirms material reality in non-reductive ways, recognizing the valencing effect of ideas which must still be called “vital”. This materialism would be a plastic materialism, following Catherine Malabou.
  • A commitment to a leftist political edge which nevertheless eludes dogmatic certainty—ours is the struggle with and within the world for an ethical-ecological vision of Life beyond money, greed, power and devastation of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism.
  • An experimental theology in which everything is up in the air, staked and at stake, a politico-theological laboratory formulating new tests for a theology which is always en procès (in process/on trial, to use a term from Julia Kristeva).

These five elements indicate our filiation with the traditions of radical theology, Continental philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and what is sometimes called “new materialism.” We wanted to offer a political manifesto incorporating these elements, and addressing the four sites that we took from Heidegger’s mytho-poetical reflections, that he in turn borrowed from Hölderlin. We felt that some elements of contemporary Continental philosophy of religion had become too staid, too invested in identifying and retrieving a conventional religious sensibility.

In this respect we also wanted to invoke the ‘wild’ years of radical and postmodern theology as expressed in the work of Charles E. Winquist, Carl A. Raschke, Mark C. Taylor, and the blinding force of Thomas J.J. Altizer’s Gospel of Christian Atheism.

As Kenneth Surin of Duke University recognizes and points out in his endorsement, we are elaborating an insurrectionist theology along a plane of immanence. We are refusing the traditional image of thought of theological and philosophical transcendence. As François Laruelle argues in his conception of non-philosophy, we are using philosophical and theological concepts and ideas as material for the composition of radical and radically immanent thinking rather than simply accepting the philosophical contexts and frameworks in which these ideas are originally put forth. In this respect, our book is an experimental text as well as a collaborative one.

In the first gospel, I develop some of the ideas that Jeff and I initially presented in our book Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Here the Earth is seen not simply as an object but also in Hegelian terms as subject, as substance becoming subject.  A quasi-Hegelian viewpoint is crossed with Deleuze as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, despite their antipathy to Hegel.

I try to shift the focus of our theology and philosophy from a humanist anthropocentrism to a more ecological geocentric perspective. Earth, however, is a plane—it is not a ball or a center. It is a singular planet, though, and it offers us life and sustains it, even as it threatens to destroy us and we it. In order to think from the Earth rather than to it, we need a more thermodynamic perspective, but this is a nonlinear, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, which is compatible with some of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas. I think that the ideas of what is called New Materialism offer better ways of conceptualizing matter, life, body, mind and spirit than either traditional materialism or idealism.

Matter is not static or atomic, reduced to the smallest bits for building larger objects. Matter is dynamic; it is energy transformation. We need to see energy as central to new materialism, in its ontological, cosmological, biological, psychological, political and even theological aspects.

Earth is a “ground” (in Heideggerian terms) but this ground is not foundation because it is also Ab-grund, an abyss. The pairing to Earth is Sky, in the second gospel Blanton offers a riff on “Satellite Skies,” which is also “The Gospel and Acts of the Vampirism of Transcendence.” Blanton builds off his book A Materialism for the Masses, which offers a more materialist interpretation of Paul, as well as his training in Biblical Studies.

Part of what contemporary neoliberalism does is manage and contains the forces and powers of radical thinking. Rather than throw away the well-worn traditions, Blanton reconfigures them as archives for a renewed and renewable materialism. In his conclusion, he contrasts an “Archivist Radicalism” with the “Divinity Managers” who oppose any radicalization of these traditions. Blanton’s cry resonates against the vampirism of our contemporary capitalist transcendence.

In his gospel, Robbins continues the trajectory of his political theology from Radical Democracy and Political Theology. Robbins offers a political theology for finite mortals that escapes the shadows of political theology cast by Carl Schmitt. Here a genuinely insurrectionist political theology goes “Beyond the Way of the Mortals,” because we all too easily accept how this mortality is defined and disposed of in our contemporary racist world. Robbins draws on the work of black liberation theologian James Cone, as well as Antonio Negri and Catherine Malabou, to assert that human nature is not essentially static or status quo; it is essentially resistance and change. Robbins concludes that “insurrection is the divine capacity written into the very heart of mortal being.”

The fourth gospel is an “Insurrection From Within the Heart of Divinity.” Here Vahanian provides not simply a fourth gospel, but a meta-reflection on the entire project of this manifesto by using the space ordinarily occupied by the “Gods.” Vahanian draws on her sophisticated secular theology of language, as articulated in her book The Rebellious No. This rebellious no is a refusal of ordinary non-insurrectionist philosophy and theology, but it is more importantly also a yes, an affirmation of the power to think and to speak. Vahanian concludes that “earth, sky, mortals, and divinities are bound by fate,” but our challenge is “to live once and for all.”

Our project is experimental, collaborative, discursive and poetic, echoing Heidegger.  At the same time we are entangling him in a theology and a politics that he refuses, but one that offers resources for insurrectionist living. We oppose any simplistic fantasy of individual resurrection with a vital and shared insurrection drawn from a dynamic and spiritual materialism. We invite readers to engage.

Clayton Crockett is Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas.  He is the author or editor of a number of books, book chapters, and articles, including Radical Political Theology (2011) and Deleuze Beyond Badiou (2013). He is a co-editor of the book series “Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture” for Columbia University Press.


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