In a remarkable work that explores visceral intimacies between humans, animals and the planet, the anthropologist Kath Weston proposes a critique of predatory capitalism and a “technological contagious”, while arguing that intimacy with an animate planet sits at the edge of any conceptual language. This process is a constantly changing affective relation with the world, as it is also the world itself: “This is not the world fully formed, springing from the hands or head of a god (not even the secular pantheon of science, society, and modernity). This is not the kind of lifeworld that dutifully offers up a holistic cosmology to the anthropologist. Instead, the pressing matter of what evokes embodied worlds on the edge of description, and how, becomes the very thing.” (2017: 5). She is right, yet not right enough.
In this short reflection, I want to follow one possible line of inquiry in the relation between social cultural anthropology and political theology. This is by following a way in which an anthropological analysis reveals or better brings into awareness a transcendent-immanent register into politics. And then in turn how a political theological perspective can open a possible re-reading of anthropological material beyond one of its default modes –sociocentrism. By sociocentrism, I mean the naturalizing move to put an anthropocentric idea of society as a foundational basis for analysis. To signal this analytical possibility I start from Weston’s line [not] “springing from the hands or head of a god”.
God as a creator in its cataphatic capacity is, of course, one of the central tenets of Christianity. However, within a tradition of late medieval German mysticism, the praxis of mystical figuration is a process of intimate negation, of “dis-imagination”. It is where affects and sensation allow for a “poetic of imagination which does not hinge on a hermeneutics of the intellect (Largier 2014). Beyond an allegorical register, Niklaus Largier reads this theological tradition, in its affective intimacy, as a movement of figuration and transfiguration that gives shape to the life of the soul. In other words, this is a movement of life through image-contemplation that stems out of an active withdrawal from an hermeneutic imagination, an invitation of a practice of figuration that is not grounded in a conceptual mind but arises from an embodied contemplation via the senses. This, as both sweetness and terror, does not represent the divine as such, it is not an attempt to represent Her, instead, it is an absorption into an affective threshold which denaturalizes the meaning of images, and concepts, while piercing through, and imploding normative representational circuits. This is explained by Eckart’s student, Henry Suso, a German Dominican friar, who, contrary to his master, regarded dis-figuration, the sensorial practice of actively undoing a received hermeneutics of the image, as the first step toward then living a relation to the image as an incarnated and sensorial poetics of figuration anew:
“in his understanding of the function of images the very act of including the apophatic moment in the practices of figuration makes an attempt to liberate images—and figuration in general— from being bound up with both the representational function and the allegorical meaning that deprive images of their freedom.” (Largier 2015).
In the words of Suso, this active movement of dis-imagination happens through an apophatic contemplation of the Pietá, when the realization of the suffering and the power of the incarnation of Christ is liberated by a received knowledge attached to the representation, to give space instead to an image arousing as a ‘pure’ fact. So, the movement of dis-imagination requires the letting go of the entrapping of an hermeneutic desire of the image, to allow the image arousal as a (mystical) ground for an immanent singularity. With this, I mean a singularity of experience as a space-time conflation that has infinite openness and possibility. In accordance with a tradition of negative theology then the subject is formed by its extimacy, which, in this medieval mystical reading, is a touch, a pressure on the senses from an “outside” that is trans-formatively constitutive of an intimacy of the subject with the world.
If in widely embraced registers of analysis affective intimacy may well be an ultimate frontier of capitalist incursion into the subject (Berlant 2011), it is nonetheless also a possibility of a terrain, a ground that may be not fully encapsulated by what springs, in Weston’s words, “from the hand or the head of god”. Contrary to Lauren Berlant’s argument that (cruel) affects in a post-Fordist condition become melancholic detrimental attachments for the subject, in my view, a ground of (mystical) affect can instead predicate an undoing of the promise of the future, or of the obligatory horizon of one’s vocation (as the promise to find “the” right voice, the unique voice in which one is called by God). Let me be clear that I make this transhistorical move of contraposition between late medieval mystical dis-imagination and (Weston’s) 21st C critique moved by a study of the affective animation of the planet under the pressure of labor regimes and detrimental technological forces, in a specific way – to offer a way to think of active dis-imagination as a grounding political force. That is to say that an attunement to the affective animation with the planet requires an active relinquishing of hermeneutic desires, which in turn, I argue, could be a ground for a different politics. A politics of dis-imagination as a foundation for what I see is a much needed dis-identiterian politics.
If the orchestration of visceral registers is ever-present in public life, a call beyond sociocentrism is – as Connelly argues – made through “spiritual affinities” that are enlivened across differences toward “critical pluralist assemblage of political action” (2019). And it is also made through active dis-imagination of an autonomy of the subject, who may well be continuously generated instead by “sharing agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy” (Latour 2017). Pluralist assemblages of political action are a central theme in many anthropological and feminist works on (gendered) indebtedness, capitalist transformation, and precarity – of which Weston’s and similar contributions are part. Capitalism and religion are intrinsically connected by being cultic structures (Benjamin 1921), in such a way the indebtedness of the market has powerful roots in the internalization and externalization of the relation between guilt (not atonement) and debt (Stimilli 2018).
Cavallero and Gago have noticed that debt is a violent apparatus of generalized and specific gendered dispossession that orients and governs the “inside and the outside” (2020: 6-7). Late capitalism indebtedness is literally pressing on the skin as “individual” responsibility, or as an incision into the flesh of fugitive, transnational labor (Sanyal 2017). A nature of subjective and incarnated politics is part of debates on feminist movements and their articulation, not only in Latin American, but by extension to other contexts in which the neoliberal horizons have imploded (Cavallero and Gago 2021: 15). It is in the moment in which the “subjective” register has foundered that feminist politics emerges as “going from finance to bodies, in a move that removes the violence of currency from the sky of abstraction” – this is when the financial apparatus cannot domesticate and obscure the conflict that it contains (ibid: 30-31, my emphasis).
Here then, I argue, we should engage Cavallero and Gago’s argument that there is a potency (potencia) to bring an awareness to the “totality of forms of exploitations” and their counter-modes of disobedience (2020: 7), when we focus on forms of immanent singularity, enfleshed and enskinned in a feminist economics. If indebtedness is massive across the globe, then immanent singularity – the irreducible and never abstractable incarnation in a singular – is one of its possible political economic counterforces. And of course, this also relates to an active dis-imagination of an abstract economic language of growth and of the patriarchal autonomous subject which is at its center.
To return to Weston’s argument, if we understand an animate planet through a process of affective intimacies also invited by active dis-imagination (of planetary extractive and distancing relations) then a medieval radical immanent singularity in social life comes to resonate with a 21st C ground for a political intimacy of life against an ongoing relentless, destructive economy. Once again, I am aware I foreground this analysis by transhistorically evoking different archives, yet I do this move by engaging their interface as a generative critical practice. In this, I follow the invitation of Achille Mbembe for a ‘planetary library’ that foregrounds the inseparability of distinct archival entities (2021: 39). In focusing on an interface of political theological and anthropological archives, it is then important to pay attention to domains of intimacy and modalities of singularity.
In conclusion, I hope I have begun to show an analytical move, in a planetary condition of devastating technological pollution: that an anthropological call for an attunement to a different relationship with the animate planet (that Weston argues is in conversation, although different from a tradition of anthropological studies on animism) becomes better informed if in tension with some of the insights that theological (mystical) forms of affective communication articulates. That is being a possibility of an immanent singularity that stems from an initial act of dis-imagination – a foundation for a differently actualizing political present. Perhaps that is one of the possibilities to ask anthropological questions on a (mystical) politics of the singular.
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Cavallero, L. and Gago, V., 2021. A Feminist Reading Of Debt. Pluto Press.
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Connolly, W.E., 2019. Staying with the Possibilities. Theory & Event, 22(3), pp.759-768.
Largier, N., 2014. The Art of Prayer Conversions of Interiority and Exteriority in Medieval Contemplative Practice. In Rethinking Emotion (pp. 58-71). De Gruyter.
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Sanyal, D., 2017. Calais’s “Jungle” Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance. Representations, (139), pp.1-33.
Stimilli, E., 2019. Debt and guilt: A political philosophy. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Weston, K., 2017. Animate Planet. Duke University Press.
Featured image: “Altipiano di Asiago” by Leo Bonollo.