For a New Theologico-Political Bestiary (or, What Our Unseen Monsters Have to Do With Our Momentary Gods)

Essays

Critchley’s new cookbook for experimentation with quasi-, proto-, or post- political forms of association is compelling, often beautiful. Indeed, one cannot help but be struck by the way such good writing, such clear formulations, of our contemporary political scene have emerged under the rubric of the theologico-political (assuming here that alongside Critchley’s book we could also name Paul Kahn’s Political Theology, Giorgio Agamben’s Power and the Glory, and Eric Santner’s Royal Remains, all important figures in my little pantheon of ‘where we are today’). And while this clustering of such forceful cultural diagnoses under the aegis of political theology for me still feels surprising, maybe this surprise is just the point, an indication of a form of sensibility that has not yet become common, tired, worn out. In any case, this is a surprise worth reflecting on in the sense that we could wonder aloud about why it is that– at this particular moment in time– an attention to the theologico-political seems to focus very directly and illuminatingly on those contemporary paradoxes, deadlocks, or experiences of what Boris Groys explores so provocatively in his Communist Postscript as being oddly “stuck” in and with the problem of the common and the shareable.

This is the third response to Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

Critchley’s new cookbook for experimentation with quasi-, proto-, or post- political forms of association is compelling, often beautiful.  Indeed, one cannot help but be struck by the way such good writing, such clear formulations, of our contemporary political scene have emerged under the rubric of the theologico-political (assuming here that alongside Critchley’s book we could also name Paul Kahn’s Political Theology, Giorgio Agamben’s Power and the Glory, and Eric Santner’s Royal Remains, all important figures in my little pantheon of ‘where we are today’).  And while this clustering of such forceful cultural diagnoses under the aegis of political theology for me still feels surprising, maybe this surprise is just the point, an indication of a form of sensibility that has not yet become common, tired, worn out.  In any case, this is a surprise worth reflecting on in the sense that we could wonder aloud about why it is that– at this particular moment in time– an attention to the theologico-political seems to focus very directly and illuminatingly on those contemporary paradoxes, deadlocks, or experiences of what Boris Groys explores so provocatively in his Communist Postscript as being oddly “stuck” in and with the problem of the common and the shareable.

To that end, I’d like to hazard the hypothesis that, in each case just mentioned, it is the supplementation of a discussion of the political with reference to a very particular mode of the “theological” which makes these works so vibrant.  More specifically, the forcefulness or compulsion of these works seems to me intimately related to the way these works do not (as I understand them) seem to give credence to the “theological” in a traditional sense.  At the very least, they do not confuse the “theological” with a position of proprietorial advocacy, or—put crudely—they do not believe in the gods of traditional Western theologies.  To play on Critchley’s language, ours is a theologico-political epoch in which we believe rather in “momentary” or vanishing gods.  It is our sense of the necessity of these contingent divinities that fuels the compelling return of political theology.

As one who thinks that some of the best thinking about the history of religion is staged in the cinema of horror, I recall the strategies of the horror director who realizes the dead end of concretization or objectification.  At least one strategy of such directors, of course, is to steer well clear of the representational focus on the knife wielding maniac of Scream, the scarred face and prosthetic fingernails of the protagonist of Nightmare on Elm Street, not even to mention lumbering beasties like Godzilla or King Kong.  Let’s face it: Cloverfield was scary only until we saw what it was that was chasing everyone around, this little filmic phenomenon affording us a trustworthy cinematic touchstone: once it’s clear what the monster in question is, the monster is no longer very frightening.  The Ring produces extraordinary or creepy effects when its horror emerges as a displaced voice on the telephone (that wonderful little apparatus which mediates presence even as it scrambles spatial/representational placements of the same).  Some of the effect is lost when, later in the film, the anonymous horror of the phone calls is turned into the representation of a little girl who creeps out of television screens.  And wasn’t the real promise of the old Blair Witch days that it might be a recognition of the low budget horror film as that which is destined to keep fear alive, precisely because it does not have the money to ruin the anamorphic or indirect “special effect” with direct representation?  The odd comparison is important to me given Critchley’s almost Deleuzean interest in the question of “resonance” across prefabricated strata of life.  Isn’t this type of cinematic “special effect” just another mode of thinking (as in the politics of Rousseau or Badiou) the excess of presentation over representation, our predilection for a politics “at a distance from the state”, or even our susceptibility to a passion for religion without religion?  As Critchley likes to say of Rousseau, we are tracking, mapping strata of décalages which constitute our multiple rooted existence.

For example, what would it mean if my chatty little tale of popular scary flicks is an important mode of access to the question of the Western history of religion or theology more generally?  What if we were to claim that such populist spectatorial experiences are in keeping with the way that, in relation to the history of religion or theology—however constructed— these entities are at their strongest when they are dis-believed, un-convincing, somehow lacking a foothold in the real world?  “Once reformed, always reforming”, said the early Protestants, but Protestantism is just one strand of what might be read as a larger religious history of secessionism, exodus, and new start.  Our thinking tends to start with religion as a stable ritual or conceptual identity, imagining unbelief is as a swerve away from the (self-)same.  But perhaps Critchley’s work (and his interest in disappointment more generally) invites us to see things the other way around, with the real driving force being a pulsation of disenchantment, secessionism, or distancing from the ‘true’.

Or, to switch back to what I have presented as a cinematic variation of the same thought, is it not the unidentifiable or garbled voice on the telephone– about which we declare, “oh, it’s probably nothing, really”– which gets us to the heart of Critchley’s political theology wherein the hitting upon new political forms or associations for us needs to happen as an event under the sign of contingency, emerging as if from nowhere?  Remember the quotation of Marx in the conclusion of Critchley’s discussion of Rousseau, a quotation which Critchley underwrites as the very “logic of the political subject” in our time.  And note that here is a good line for the telephonic special effect scene.  Hitchcock couldn’t stage it better, the barely audible voice of the proletariat over our receiver: “’I am nothing and I should be everything.’”  Yikes.  This is the sort of stuff we can believe in, a convincing special effect for our moment, as it were, in film and divinity.

Maybe the real punchline of the resurgence of political theology today will be in the way it delivers us over to new tableaus of Althusserian interpellation, tableaus more in keeping with Althusser’s late turn to what Critchley calls transcendental contingency.  Forget the policeman shouting ‘You there!’  What our age prefers is the anonymous caller and the incomprehensible message.  “Who is this?  What do you want?”  It’s a scene that moves us, apparently, resonates within us.  We wonder whether the incessant ringing is a mistake, whether the evident incomprehensibility of the message is an indication of a merely technical problem, a friendly joke, or—belief and horror go hand in hand here—my God, whether we are being singled out, somehow informed by this deformed or formless address.  Forget Althusser’s old policeman—this is the (horror) scene that incites in us a sense of real drama.  It is “the call” for a complex and fragile ecology of a contemporary (and uncertain) life.

Critchley likes to formulate the impossible possibility of the contingent happening of a new form of political subjectivity—the new association which, as it were, is a real ‘game changer’—by way of the language of knowledge versus fiction and belief.  We know the new association is fictive, he writes, contingently hung on the frail thread of nearly nothing, but we believe it nonetheless.  Hent de Vries explores the “special effect” as a way of approaching a genealogy of philosophical and theological discussions of the “miracle”, and there is something about the aisthēsis and specific technical staging of the “special effect” which, for me, seems even more useful than the distinction between knowledge and belief.  Above all, the former seems to open more directly onto what seem the most compelling aspects of Critchley’s theologico-political reflections, namely, their interest in the experimental conjuration of new forms of association by way of subterranean or non-representational “resonance”.  We are in search of transformative special effects, striking revelations of unexpected, contingent overlapping of refrains, recursivities, systems.  We are in search of what they might yield, what they might open up, these momentary divinities indistinguishable from our fragile, criss-crossed selves on the brink of new modes of association.

True to its philosophical roots, this book is a compelling protreptic address, inviting us to join in a paradoxical or countercultural spiritual experiment in and through which we singularize life differently, practice at singularizing it differently and with an eye to the emergence of new community.  We new wanderers are certain of this, that the contingency or openness of things affords transformative happenings, events whose very contingency or openness necessarily yields also an uncertainty, an evental quality we might just as well name faith.  In keeping with my wonder about the staging of horror in film, I think the real force of Critchley’s contribution to the developing literature on political theology is the way it points beyond the repetition of, say, Schmittian or Badiouean formalizations toward a new form of spiritual aisthēsis, keyed to aleatory or contingent resonances which might transport us, mendicants without a predetermined plan, into new spaces, temporalities, and textures of “association”.

 

Ward Blanton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. Among other publications, he is the author of Displacing Christian Origins: Philosophy, Secularity and the New Testament (U. of Chicago Press 2007) and editor, with Hent de Vries, of Paul and the Philosophers (Fordham 2012).  He recently introduced Stanislas Breton’s A Radical Philosophy of Saint Paul (Columbia 2011) and is currently finishing a book tentatively entitled, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and Other Philosophers of Undying Life.

2 thoughts on “For a New Theologico-Political Bestiary (or, What Our Unseen Monsters Have to Do With Our Momentary Gods)

  1. thank you!
    — is the history of religion a dialectic of fear? you write, “once it’s clear what the monster in question is, the monster is no longer very frightening.” this is true for fear, but what of love? in order to keep love alive–so to speak–must we dispense with direct representation, that is, open ourselves to the inadequacy of direct representation? but then, per your deft analysis of the new hypermodern horror of the leap (your figuration as the unknown call), we are plagued by a horror promulgated by such anonymity…
    you write beautifully, “We new wanderers are certain of this, that the contingency or openness of things affords transformative happenings, events whose very contingency or openness necessarily yields also an uncertainty, an evental quality we might just as well name faith.” and if we are afraid of names–may haps rightly so–let us dare at least to answer the call.

  2. Hey MF,
    Perfect! Yes, I like the direction of your intervention– what about analogies of love rather than horror? I would be totally happy with spinning everything in that direction, and I didn’t mean only to think the history of religion through the history of horror (it’s just a perennial interest of mine). I also very much like your reference to Hegel’s dialectical story, and I think—given our inclination to live life as lovers as well as spectators in a horror flick—this makes our placement of Hegel a little tricky. I mean, my sense is that some of Hegel’s narratives really do describe what is, effectively, modern religious history. As you’re suggesting, it’s a dialectic whereby fear leads to tactics and techniques of further control, with the result that the God of this development becomes ever more technocratic, God’s faithful more and more priggish, aggressively narcissistic, and lost in their roles within the larger regime of the manufacture of further control. I think the brutal truth is: that is what has happened, by and large, with the result that Hegel is both the great guru of contemporary Christianity for me—but also the one I want to struggle against (with some of his own tools, actually). How do we break out of the cycle of anxiety, control, and forced reaction against these controlling powers? As you suggest, my gamble is that a philosophy of singularities or difference (a more Deleuzean Hegel, perhaps) renders the totalizing dialectical story useless, enabling a thinking about irruptions of what here we called “momentary Gods” which press in very different subjective directions than the technocratic or ontotheological God did. And maybe that could be a love story? Thanks, WB

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