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Literature and Political Theology

Feminist Fantasy and Political Theology

How does literature shape the world, and the bodies, social forms, and political acts that constitute it? What particular roles might the category of religion, and specifically religious experiences, play in such shaping?

When I received the invitation to join the editorial team for the Political Theology Network’s “Literature and Political Theology” blog, I had to, with embarrassment, double-check that I knew what “political theology” meant. It was not a category I’d used in my work on Victorian and modernist writing on religion, as it appeared to bring together two terms that seemed too specific and systematic for my thinking about literature, religion, and feminism. In that work, questions of “theology” had always struck me as less urgent than matters of “spirituality” or “secularity,” and “political” felt too limiting when there was “the social.”

But I came to grasp the utility of this conceptual framework in the process of exploring the Political Theology Network, soliciting proposals from scholars working at this intersection, and then reading the excellent responses that my colleagues and I received. I now recognize that political theology can be far less prescriptive and more inquisitive than I had assumed. Across this site, readers will discover, as I have, that a vibrant conversation is currently unfolding among political scientists, historians, literary critics, and more, that asks what theology, as well as religion, spirituality, and secularity, have to do with the political and the social. While readers will find a variety of resources in this inquiry, to my eye political theology appears particularly promising as a resource for thinking about how writing and reading mediate relationships among aesthetic experience and political phenomena.

For me, these relationships raise aesthetic and literary questions: how do specific forms of writing, reading, and publishing foster certain experiences? I have been especially interested in experiences characterized by terms with religious connotations, such as conversion, ecstasy, and enchantment. What is the relationship between the literary forms, the contours of the experiences they foster, and the political and social acts they seem to inform? In other words, how does literature shape the world, and the bodies, social forms, and political acts that constitute it? What particular roles might the category of religion, and specifically religious experiences, play in such shaping?

An example of this idea can be found, in part, in fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin’s widely circulated observation about the relationship between art and political change: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” LeGuin presents literature—“the art of words”—as an origin point of political change in the world, indeed, even of world-scale political change. While LeGuin’s example invokes the specific political theology of the divine right of kings, it does not engage with the concept of political theology as an explicit variable in the relationship among art, reception, and political action. What might this category do for our understanding of these relations?

I’m particularly eager to explore how political theology might help us think about feminist literature, fantastic aesthetics, the authorizing power of mythologies, and so-called escapism. For the moment, I’ll focus on the first and last of these topics. The “art of words” has historically been important for feminist political and social change. Historian Lucy Delap argues that in early twentieth-century Britain and North America, “to be a feminist was very centrally a reading experience” (The Feminist Avant-Garde, 7). By this Delap means that people encountered the concept of “feminism” primarily in print, and especially in periodicals. But her claim can be productively expanded to suggest that feminism was not only a reading experience in terms of the reader’s encounter with the concept or figure of the feminist, but that feminism can be understood as a reading experience conditioned by the aesthetic forms of literary texts. For example, as I have argued in a scholarly article, the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote a feminist fantasy novel Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman (1927) that narrated a practice of escapism linked to feminist consciousness-raising. The protagonist flees from her life as “Aunt Lolly” to a rural retreat, where she discovers—spoiler alert—that her neighbors are witches, and she herself too is a witch. The novel features a deadpan style that presents Lolly’s escape as the realization of daydreams that appear absurd to others. But having escaped, Lolly finds—and arguably converts to—a new political reality: in a late conversation with her new master, Satan, Lolly claims that while witchcraft may seem fantastical to some, regarding spinsters like herself, it “strikes them real” (214). The elision of “as” is crucial, and parallels the novel’s account of Lolly’s strangely literary transports from day-dreaming and reading.[1] 

On one view, such transports are mere escapism. On another, they are conversions that are at once political and religious actions. Here, it seems, political theology might offer a particularly useful approach to Lolly Willowes and other projects related to feminism and fantasy, since both the conceptual category and these literary objects treat politics and religion as meaningfully entangled. This is in contrast to pervasive theories of modernity that regard religion as incongruous with modern literature and politics. By analyzing the religious and the political together, political theology might help us reconsider how what is sometimes called literary “escapism” is political—as it is for Lolly Willowes—and how, more broadly, genre fiction such as fantasy, with its transporting, transformative fantastic aesthetics and “world-building” quality, might be a particularly valuable category of literature in which to address such questions.

[1] The critic John Lucas argues that this phrase reflects a “refusal of simile [that] insists on the transformative power of what can be imagined” (John Lucas, “From Realism to Radicalism: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patrick Hamilton and Henry Green in the 1920s,” in Outside Modernism: in Pursuit of the English Novel, 1900–1930, ed. Lynn Hapgood and Nancy L. Paxton [St. Martin’s, 2000]), 208.

(((Jewish))) literature and political theology

Villanova University’s Center for Political Theology is thrilled to launch this new blog, Literature and Political Theology, with a post from Benjamin Balthaser, one of its editors. We will be sharing posts from the other editors, Kris Trujillo, Mimi Winick, Brook Wilensky-Lanford, and James Ford III over the coming months, between symposia on literary works. Among the literary works that will be discussed are texts by Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Susan Taubes, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Helene Wecker.

Feminist Fantasy and Political Theology

How does literature shape the world, and the bodies, social forms, and political acts that constitute it? What particular roles might the category of religion, and specifically religious experiences, play in such shaping?

What Does the Text Do? Contingency in Imaginative Writing

Who is this work being written for, what kind of critical stance does it take toward that imagined reader—challenging, comforting, prophetic, regressive? For me there is always something slightly transgressive about reading imaginative writing theologically.

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