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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.

Kuan-Hsing Chen (陳光興, 1957-present) is a critical theorist based in Taiwan. He has recently retired as professor in the Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies (the only academic faculty of cultural studies in Taiwan) at National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. He was born and grew up in Taiwan and received his PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, USA. After his academic training and teaching in North America, he moved back to Taiwan to develop his postcolonialist exploration into the future of Asia. He began utilizing resources from Asia rather than continuing to import Western knowledge into the East Asian context. (This might be the reason why his research has generally not attracted attention from Western academia.) 

The Continuation of and Challenge to Stuart Hall’s Tradition 

In Chen’s early career he co-edited a book with David Morley, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (1996), signalling Chen’s dialectical relationship with British Cultural Studies—the Birmingham School.

Chen agrees with Hall’s critical agenda, which attempts to uncover and end racism, sexism, and classism, and to re-examine imperial history. History established by Enlightened rationalism, with its metaphysics and positivism, sustains a world which is white, male and Eurocentric (Chen 1996: 309). But Chen also argues that the end of History means ‘the beginning of histories’: which includes the history of the oppressed, of minorities, and of the Third World (310). 

However, Chen disagrees with Hall’s binarism, which, he asserts, may be the result of Hall’s ‘strategic articulation of social antagonisms’: 

The oppositions between women and men, working class and capitalists, blacks and white, or the third worlds and ‘first’ world, can no longer be understood as ‘ontological’ givens, but are rather articulated political effects of present social contradictions. (312)

Chen questions whether these seemingly opposing categories are realities or are merely labels for maintaining oppression and privilege. 

Following on from Chen’s theory, the theologian might ask: Does Black Theology become more marginalized when it gains academic recognition? Black Theology initially developed to fight for equality in faith and in the power of theological interpretation in the context of the exclusion of non-white people. Now it is institutionalized in an academy dominated by white elites, and the full political significance of ‘Black’ may not be heard in such a context. Black Theology needs to remain wary of becoming a niche market in theology, of the dangers of targeting a specific group of people. Black Theology can easily be regarded as a theology of Black people alone. Chen’s dialogue with Hall then may help us recognize the dangers of ontologizing some social categories used by political theologians.

The Rejection of Canonizing Theological Knowledge

Chen argues that cultural studies needs to discontinue the ‘canonization’ of the Birmingham School. He does this because, if the classification of disciplines is not challenged, it will internalize, extend, and duplicate ‘the immanent logic of imperialism’ (Chen 2008: 501). Based on his experience designing a curriculum for teaching cultural studies in Taiwan, Chen asserts that, because cultural studies is canonized by Western academia, its ability to understand historical contexts in East Asia and in Taiwan is limited: ‘We have to be bold enough to challenge the self-colonization … in our own ways of teaching, to challenge the appropriateness of the accepted categorization of disciplines, and to seek alternative modes of knowledge’ (Chen 2008: 513). Chen seeks to build a connection between ‘Cultural Studies in the Chinese speaking world’ and ‘Inter-Asia Cultural Studies’ (512) to go beyond the concepts of the West, and to identify and locate the context of non-Western worlds. 

Chen’s perspective is an East Asian one that challenges Western academic hegemony, and it provides something valuable for political theology in the West to reflect on, especially with regard to the ‘canonization’ of Western theological knowledge. Have Western political theologians continued to practice self-criticism that examines the foundations of Western political theology? Is political theology still captivated by Karl Marx, or Carl Schmitt? While Marx and Schmitt may still have important resources to contribute, Chen reminds political theologians to re-source their knowledge and their own contexts. As Western society has become more culturally diverse (in terms of race, sexuality, gender, etc.) than in the time of Marx and Schmitt, is their political theology sufficiently contextualized to respond to this situation? 

Chen may suggest that Western political theologians should reconsider what kind of ‘political’ they are talking about in relationship to their context. They should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life. (This echoes the primary spirit of British Cultural Studies, with its political, social, and cultural critique rooted in a British context.) If political theology would like to learn from critical theory, it should also learn that critical theory is an ongoing journey of disclosing power and oppression, and of self-criticism. 

Asia as Method 

In 2010, Chen published his celebrated monograph Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. By tracing the trajectories of decolonization, he points out that the decolonialization and deimperialization movements in East Asia did not start immediately after independence from the Western empires, nor was their development as straightforward as people anticipated it would be. For example, the relics of Japanese imperialism in Pacific Asia have not yet been fully scrutinized even though its expansion ended. Nor has the impact of colonialism yet been fully articulated. Nor has the ‘imperialization of the subject’ (kominkan, Japanization)—which transformed the colonized people in Taiwan and Korea into Japan’s imperial subjects—yet been unpacked. 

Chen argues that this is because the Cold War interrupted critiques of imperialism and colonialism at a time when all left-wing politics and thought were considered to be Communism and activists were sent to prison. East Asia was overwhelmingly subdued by the victory of American liberalism. On the other hand, while growing nationalism in East Asia appears to demand independence and subjectivity, in fact nationalism is entangled with the continuation of colonialism, Cold War antagonisms, and the imperialist imaginary. This is not a simple binary opposition between the West and East Asia, the Japanese Empire and its colonies, the colonizers and the colonized, or communism and liberalism. In order to articulate these entangled relationships, Chen proposes his tripartite doctrine of East Asian critical theory: deimperialization should not be separated from decolonization and ending the Cold War legacy.

Chen’s theory of Asia-as-method offers a critical viewpoint on political theology outside East Asia, especially when people generally believe that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or with the manifest failure of the Soviet Union to rival the economic success of the USA and other Western countries. Exemplifying the situation in East Asia, Chen reminds political theology that imperialism, colonialism, and Cold War antagonism reinforce each other. When imperialism and colonialism cannot be challenged in the West, it implies that ending the Cold War legacy has not begun. Cold War structures continue to have force in the West and they help secure Western imperialism and colonialism and postpone any critique of them. For example, ‘Communism’ is still a term which many people in the West fear. It is easily appropriated by politicians to attack their rivals. Socialism and ‘the left’ are considered suspect by many people. 

Another example is the ‘new Cold War’ between China and USA. (It is nothing ‘new’, Chen might say, because the Cold War never ended.) Chen’s Asia-as-method uncovers the deep, complex structure of this ‘new Cold War’—which combines the ‘Yellow Peril’, anti-communism, anti-authoritarianism, economic protectionism, the defense of Western human rights, and American imperialism. Asia-as-method reminds political theologians about the unwisdom of choosing one political side to stand by and of falling into a binary mindset. 

More importantly, Chen points out that Japanese imperialism continues in political structures even though the Japan Empire no longer exists. The mindset and structure of imperialism remains because Japan constructed imperial subjects. Paradoxically, the will of these individual imperial subjects can be put into practice in present politics by means of democratic votes. Chen’s analysis of the kominka movement draws political theology’s attention to the construction of imperial subjects and the orientation of their desire. Asia-as-method may show how tackling racism, homophobia, sexism and other social oppressions should work with the theological analysis of political desire. 

References with Annotations 

Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. “Post-Marxism: Between/Beyond Critical Postmodernism and CulturalStudies” and “Cultural Studies and the Politics of Internationalization” (An Interview with Stuart Hall by Kuan-Hsing Chen) In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, 307-323, 393-409. London, UK: Routledge, 1996. & Cultural Studies and the Politics of Internationalization

The essay and interview are collected in the book (edited by David Morley and Chen) which puts emphasis on Stuart Hall’s ‘critical dialogue’ within Marxism. Chen’s essay especially examines ‘dominant’ forms of postmodernism in relation to cultural imperialism. His critique concludes with an interview he conducted with Hall in which he raised the questions of historical Anglocentrism in the development of postcolonial theory, and transnationalism and globalization in cultural studies. 

Chen, Kuan-Hsing, Ien Ang, Hsiu-Ling Kuo, Hans Hang, and Hsu Ming-Chu, eds. Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Psychology Press, 1998.

This book selected 18 essays from Asian scholars across different topics about deimperialization, identity politics, and nationalism. In Chen’s Introduction, he reclaims Marxism not from the West or the imperial centers but from Asia. 

Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. “Problems and Problematics of Teaching Cultural Studies in Taiwan.” Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 9:3 (2008), 500-517. 

This essay shows Chen’s internal struggle over designing a cultural studies curriculum in Taiwan. As a practitioner, he shares how he puts his critical theory into practice in university education.

Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

This book systematizes and probably concludes Chen’s project of rethinking cultural theory in the Asian context. It also shows his critique of imperialization and explains why deimperialization is not yet completed. 

Morley, David and Kuan‐Hsing Chen, eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, UK: Routledge, 1996. 

This collection shows Chen’s dialogue with Stuart Hall and the tradition of the Birmingham School. In the essay he contributed, Chen explores the relationship between Marxism and historical materialism. The book includes his interview with Stuart Hall about the internationalization of British Cultural Studies. 

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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