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