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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

With last week’s publication of Lucia Hulsether’s essay on Lauren Berlant, the first series of “Critical Theory for Political Theology” essays has come to an end. We have published about an essay a week for the past year, each focused on one theorist, each explicating the thought of that figure and probing how their thought contributes to, or complicates, conversations in political theology.

The series was motivated by a sense that the field of political theology has been rapidly changing. A decade ago, “political theology” primarily named a conversation Christian theologians were having about politics, and it also named a conversation European philosophers and their North American interlocutors were having about religion. In both cases, a handful of German, French, and Italian men shaped these conversations.

Today, political theology names a gathering place for anthropologists, literature scholars, critical and political theorists, religious studies scholars, scholars of religious thought from various traditions, activists, and community leaders interested in critically interrogating the complex interactions between religion, politics, and culture. Yet the names that orient this new conversation have in large part remained the same: Schmitt, Agamben, Derrida, Moltmann, and Metz remain key authorities.

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

Instead of trying to think about political theologies of capital with Schmitt or Moltmann, we invited readers to think with Kojin Karatani, Michel Henry, Cedric Robinson, or The Invisible Committee. Instead of trying to think about political theologies of gender with Derrida or Metz, we invited readers to think with Sara Ahmed, Hortense Spillers, Julia Kristeva, or Gloria Anzaldúa. While it is possible to use Agamben to help us speak about political theologies of colonialism, our contributors showed how Enrique Dussel, Anibal Quijano, Aime Césaire, or Kuan-Hsing Chen could become conversation partners.

When we launched this series, we wrote, “By helping us focus our attention and questions in novel ways, the theoretical approaches introduced by the essays that follow will help sharpen political theology’s critical edge in its struggle against the injustices of the world.” 

The essays that comprise the series followed many divergent theoretical threads — too many to easily organize or categorize. They enacted varying approaches to political theology and opened novel trajectories. They thought critically and speculatively, genealogically and hermeneutically. 

They posed and investigated innovative questions, such as: What becomes of political theology when it remembers the importance of air and breath (a question asked by Beatrice Marovic in her essay on Luce Irigaray)? Or, what does a political theology appropriate to the post-Copernican cosmic immanence look like (a question Kirill Chepurin investigated in his new reading of Quentin Meillassoux)? Or alternatively, what are the possibilities of a feminist theory of nonviolence in relation to political theology (as Dana Lloyd asked in her essay on Adriana Cavarero)?

The essays also elaborated distinct—sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary—visions of what political theology entails. Early on in the series, Adam Kotsko revisited the work of Silvia Federici and especially her rejection of conceptual binaries, her historical method, and her strategic presentism to clarify the standing and method of political theology. David Kline explored the conceptual import that Niklaus Luhmann’s system-theoretical approach might have for political theology.

Many of the essays focused on the cross-pollination of concepts. This was done forcefully, for example, in Dean Dettloff’s essay that explored the relevance of Paul Virilio’s elaboration of dromology, accidentology, and revelation for political theology. Such an approach was also visible in Girim Jung’s revisitation of Han Byung-Chul and his theorization of the achievement society.

Some of the contributions, by contrast, posed challenges to the very rubric of political theology, suggesting it to be less than a neutral, analytical domain. Nowhere was this as explicitly explored in the series as in the contribution of Basit Kareem Iqbal and Milad Odabaei. Their essay on Talal Asad problematized the paradigm of political theology, showing how Asad called instead for a general “attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts and practices across different situations” and for an anthropology of the secular. 

Anthropology of the secular reappeared several times, showing both its proximity to and distance from political theology. Michael Allan, Mayanthi Fernando, and Noah Salomon revisited Saba Mahmood’s intervention into ethics, politics, and hermeneutics. Sean Capener touched on the way critiques of the secular share theoretical points of convergence with the thought of François Laruelle and theories in Black studies. 

Along the way, contributors returned anew to classic figures of the 20th-century who articulated political theology differently from and sometimes in opposition to Carl Schmitt. In this vein, Yael Almog returned to Hannah Arendt and Elettra Stimilli elaborated Jacob Taubes’ retort to Carl Schmitt. Two different anti-Schmittian trajectories were recounted in the essays of David Brazil and by Nitzan Lebovic. The former explored the revolutionary and utopian response of Ernst Bloch; the latter situated anew Martin Buber’s concept of theopolitics

While the weekly series of essays on theorists has come to an end, we realize the series has not been exhaustive. There were not essays on figures who clearly have something to contribute to conversations in political theology – Gayatri Spivak, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Chantal Mouffe, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Denise Ferreira da Silva, to name just a few. (While we are not accepting new essays on theorists at this point, we welcome queries that explore theorists through keywords for our new series.) 

Starting next week, the Critical Theory for Political Theology project enters a new phase. Guided by a ten-member editorial collective, each week the blog will feature a brief essay on a keyword from the discourse of critical theory, explicating its meaning and exploring how the term could inflect conversations in political theology – and how the keyword’s meaning could itself be transformed by engagement with political theology. These essays will address the question posed by the call for proposals: “Are there keywords from the fields of feminist theory, queer theory, decolonial studies, Black studies, or Indigenous studies that could enrich discussions of political theology?”

The series will launch with essays on survivance, relationality, martyrdom, and autopoiesis, and we anticipate that it will run weekly for a year. After that, in 2023, we look forward to a new series of essays organized around debates at the intersection of critical theory and political theology.

While most of the essays in the new keywords series have been commissioned, there are a few spots that remain – and many important keywords deserving treatment (for example: archive, body, child, extraction, performativity, temporality, and trans*). If you may be interested in writing about a keyword, reach out to the collective’s convenors, Alex Dubilet and Vincent Lloyd, with suggestions and queries.

We are especially grateful to Wonchul Shin for welcoming the series onto this website and to graduate assistant Jacques Linder for copyediting, formatting, and guiding to publication most of the essays in this series. And we are looking forward to working with a new graduate assistant, Laura Simpson, who will support the keywords series.

The New Critical Theory for Political Theology Editorial Collective:

Lilith Acadia, Assistant Professor of Literary Theory, National Taiwan University

An Yountae, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Cal State Northridge

Alex Dubilet, Assistant Professor of English, Vanderbilt University

Lucia Hulsether, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Skidmore College

Dana Lloyd, Assistant Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Villanova University

Vincent Lloyd, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University

Revital Madar, Postdoctoral Scholar, European University Institute

Andrew Prevot, Associate Professor of Theology, Boston College

Marika Rose, Senior Lecturer in Philosophical Theology, University of Winchester

Rafael Vizcaíno, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Silvia Federici

Federici provides a model for political theologians engaging with race, gender, and sexuality through the lens of capitalist oppression

Luce Irigaray

“Perhaps it is in precisely this ambivalent way that air (and Irigaray) reminds us of just how much we belong—to the air itself, to this emptiness that hovers and sings in lifedeath. We might forget air, we might forget that we breathe, or how to breathe. But air does not forget us. And air will never cease to carry us, to lift us up, to set us into flight, even when we no longer live in a body that tried (if unsuccessfully) to fly.”

Niklas Luhmann

David Kline introduces the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann for political theology and reflects on how it might think about its own limits of observation.

N. Katherine Hayles

A reflection on the political implications of N. Katherine Hayles’ critical aesthetic inquiry into the ecological relationships between the human and the technological, thought and cognition, and information and materiality.

Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers, continental philosopher of science, offers pragmatic resources for animating thinking with interest and passion, affirming heresy over conformity and undercutting the all-too-common binaries of religion/science and science/fiction.

François Laruelle

“[For] quantum gnostics, there has never been a creation of the world or in the world—it is the world that is ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’, and consequently also the God who claimed to have created it and yet hesitates to assume it.”

Enrique Dussel

Rafael Vizcaíno offers a biographical introduction to the philosophical work of Enrique Dussel, a major figure of the decolonial turn. Separate from his theology, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation offers crucial reflections for contemporary political theology.

Claude Lefort

It is as productive to think with as it is to think against Claude Lefort, a revolutionary-turned-philosopher who analyzed power and the political regimes to which it gives rise.

Fred Moten

Moten’s prophecy bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.

Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties.

Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio, one of France’s foremost theorists of speed and technology, is a deep well for doing political theology in an apocalyptic time.

Stuart Hall

The late public intellectual Stuart Hall, with his concept of the conjuncture, assists political theology in analyzing our current moment and potential interventions.

Talal Asad

Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between “religion” and “politics” (terms he opens to question), Talal Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts across different situations.

Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux’s thinking of post-Copernican cosmic immanence and cosmic delegitimation constitutes a challenge to political theology as still predominantly Ptolemaic in its assumptions and focus

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt argued that interreligious difference and Christian theology are steady influences on political movements, action, and thought.

Catherine Malabou

To read Catherine Malabou is to embark upon an adventure of thought. Her writing demands change from her readers if they are to follow her on that adventure. It is a process of change that is sometimes joyful, sometimes painful.

Jean-François Lyotard

Lyotard’s thought as it appears in Le Différend describes a linguistic state that evades speech, and the ways in which justice could be done to it, or not. Bearing witness to unpronounceable utterances brings about the idea of faith.

Aime Césaire

This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface

Jacob Taubes

Taubes’s thought revolves around two poles, philosophy of history and political theology, with the aim of inverting the Schmittian position and thinking a new form of community by means of an innovative return to Paul of Tarsus and Walter Benjamin.

Gloria Anzaldúa

Anzaldúa develops a theory of this borderlands consciousness through the experiential and embodied knowledges of Chicanx (and women of color) feminisms; or what she calls a ‘mestiza consciousness’.

Martin Buber

Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.”

Han Byung-Chul

Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world.

Jean-Luc Marion

[Marion’s] central concepts and phenomenological method offer an ambiguous resource for political theology: on the one hand, he articulates a rigorous method of doing phenomenology which is trained to remain open to phenomena historically ignored and marginalized, and on the other hand, his own conclusions can veer towards a Christian triumphalism which is in danger of betraying the primary aim of his philosophical project.

Kuan-Hsing Chen

Chen suggests that Western political theologians should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler’s work has altered the trajectories of multiple disciplines in the last thirty years; what can they teach scholars of political theology?

Anibal Quijano

Quijano reimagines the long-lasting and contemporary status of colonialism seen through the lenses of race, modernity/rationality, and economic exploitation, encouraging us to produce theological and political critiques from the ever-enduring nature of coloniality.

Michel Henry

What [Henry’s] oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.

Cedric Robinson

Vega focuses on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics.

Marcella Althaus-Reid

Althaus-Reid’s work asks whether Political Theology is capable of accounting for the power of sex, a power that comes to the fore if the theologian focuses on queer bodies.

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic approach and practice shed light on the unconscious, affective, and bodily formation(s) of religious and political discourses and systems.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe’s work excavates the legacies of colonial reason and violence shaping the powers of death in the world today.

Frank Wilderson III

Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead.

Adriana Cavarero

Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes the biblical commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill” as its starting point. This commandment is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).

Jean-Luc Nancy

The subtlety and poetry of Nancy’s language can mask the rigor and the urgency of his thinking. I hope to share that rigor and urgency here, particularly as it relates to global capitalism, Christianity, and ontology.

Roberto Esposito

In Esposito’s most explicit political theology work, he is concerned with re-working, or rather destabilizing, the essence of political theology.

Ernst Bloch

In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.

The Invisible Committee

The Invisible Committee may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.

Gil Anidjar

While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna.

Sara Ahmed

Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.

Hortense Spillers

What would it mean for scholarship in political theology to claim monstrosity? Perhaps it would mean focusing on underappreciated aspects of the Christian tradition, and other religious traditions, particularly those developed by women’s intellectual labor.

Lauren Berlant

Berlant is our preeminent contemporary theorist of how intimate practices bleed into and with national formations, and condition specific and powerful fantasies for what a good life or functional society would involve. To read their work is to become attuned to a set of dynamics that can be excavated in any given scene: the attachments being made and unmade, the forms of belonging that flash up and dissolve, the feeling-worlds that mediate everyday life, what remains unfinished.

Critical Theory for Political Theology: From Theorists to Keywords

We launched this series to make available theoretical resources that keep pace with the concerns raised by those working with political theology today, whose interests are increasingly tied not only to questions of genealogy, speculation, and political modernity, but also to questions of race, colonialism, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology, labor, finance capitalism, and economies of affect. 

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