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'Organic Foucault' by Ada Jaarsma CC by 4.0

For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.

“Sympathy” is a term generative for political theology in its ability to reflect on and give rise to problems. One way to engage with “sympathy” as a keyword is to note the divergence in meaning that underscores a difference in how critical theorists make sense of problems. This difference maps loosely onto broader political orientations that we might name, provisionally, as humanist and post-humanist. In part because “sympathy” has such different meanings in these orientations, it draws us into tensions between these approaches.

Another way to engage with this keyword is to reflect existentially on our own orientations, in terms of our affective relations to problems. Who and what are we drawn to, as we choose our objects of inquiry and embark upon lines of thought? In similarly loose and provisional terms, I find it useful to note another difference here in the ethos animating our intellectual work. We might consider this difference one of philosophical affiliation: are we persuaded by thinking that seeks to connect, to build bridges, and to diagnose and heal broken relationships? Or are we compelled by thinking that tracks divergences and seeks to propel differentiation? Connecting or diverging? “Sympathy” maps onto each of these, with the meaning of “difference” itself being one stake of this contrast; humanist responses to problems of difference (to other minds, to other species) become, in post-humanist projects, impediments to differentiation (to becoming-otherwise, to mixing with unexpected entities).

For thinkers who draw on humanist frameworks or who reflect on such frameworks, “sympathy” can refer to empathy, compassion, and similar feelings that respond to the suffering or experiences of others; sympathy, on this understanding, has an interpersonal as well as subjective meaning, feeling what someone else feels. As a reader, I might feel what someone else is feeling, precisely because a text’s tone or a character’s behavior draws me into identifying with them (Ngai 2005, 49, 188); on the same grounds, I might detach from such identification, if an “unfriendly” tone or character blocks my affection (Ngai 2005, 50, 207). As this adjective “unfriendly” suggests, “sympathy” is inflected with a capacity for variation: one can be more or less sympathetic. Sympathy can also appear and disappear again, as in the literary passage, “His sympathy lasted as long as his curiosity, once that had gone he suddenly withdrew, making himself unavailable” (Kitamura 2017, 40). Likewise, “sympathy” conjures up affective opposites, like antipathy or distaste, or even a mixing of positive (“gift”) with negative (“invasion”), terms Leslie Jamison uses to name its impacts: sympathy, Jamison writes, involves entering “another person’s pain as you’d enter another country” (2014, 6).

In terms of this broader framework, “sympathy” as a political resource draws on 18th-century associations of asymmetry (Lobis 2015, 256), in which someone feels sympathy for another’s suffering. In terms of political systems, these feelings can reinforce, rather than mitigate, structures of inequality; as Lauren Berlant argues, we learn for whom (and whom not) we should have sympathy through “the privileged pedagogies of social coldness” (2004, 11). As we will see, the inegalitarian effects of sympathy Berlant tracks align with the second account’s sensitivity to violence wrought in the name of humanism.

More often, though, “sympathy” takes on a positive valence, referring more broadly to a caring and empathetic “I,” as in the case of Lori Gruen’s account of “entangled empathy” (2017), which groups sympathy within a broader net of moral perceptions. This “I” includes the habits, affects, and relations by which someone’s subjectivity reaches out and affirms the subjectivity of others, which might well include—importantly, for Gruen—non-human animals. In this understanding, sympathy often crosses into the terrain of empathy, despite definitional attempts to parse their differences. “Empathy,” in contrast with sympathy, is a newer term, associated initially with aesthetics and then with cognitive capacities. The word “empathy” entered English vocabulary in the early 20th century as a translation of the German einfühlung: the activity of “feeling into” (Debes 2015, 286) or “feeling for.” Across work in phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and moral philosophy, “empathy” is tasked with shaping a shared world (Throop and Zahavi), with enabling connectedness (Pigman 1995), and with creating common ground (Read 2021). The problem that concerns many researchers, in these contexts, is the problem of other minds: how to recognize, feel for, and ultimately understand another’s perspective. “Sympathy” tends to bring these meanings—of empathy, of feeling-for—together with an additional, pragmatically ethical sense of caring. To feel sympathy involves wanting to alleviate suffering (Wispé 1986).

For thinkers who draw on post-humanist methods, “sympathy” is at odds with such ascriptions of connection. Rather than an enabling (human) capacity for identification or imitation, “sympathy” is an open-ended, dynamic exchange that might involve human and non-human animals and might also involve things and even ecologies, an exchange that generates forms of becoming rather than building bridges between (human) beings. In contrast with positioning others or other minds as problems—and to engaging problems as if they have solutions—this account draws us into an altogether different relationship with problems. This latter point is why a difference in ethos is ultimately at stake in these two accounts.  

On this understanding, “sympathy” concerns the a-personal, rather than the interpersonal, especially in terms of how people, animals, and things inhabit their milieus. Wherein the first account, feelings matter because they variously express someone’s agency, in this account, “sympathy” is a conduit from which agency might emerge (Manning 2020, 36, 91). Thus Erin Manning describes sympathy as a “force of feeling” (2020, 94), with an emphasis on the impersonal nature of this force. Along similar lines, Jane Bennett describes sympathy as “profound but impersonal” (2020, 43), “a feeling-with that respects the distance, and preserves the differences, between each being” (2020, 36). We cannot qualify “sympathy” on this account as being more or less, as here or not-here, but we can draw out its qualitative registers through synonyms like vitality, temper, range, and ambience (Bennett 2020, 35, 87).

It might seem strange, even oxymoronic, as Tim Clark points out, to describe “sympathy” as impersonal rather than personal (2008, 33), in part because the first account holds such intuitive sway. Bennett herself queries its political utility, asking, “can appeals to sympathy retain their persuasive force in political life?” (2020, xv; 2017). Others affirm its political value as improvisatory, experimental (Hankins 2019), and ecologically responsive. Looking to its Greek etymology, Marjolein Oele defines “sympathy” as co-affectivity (2020, 142), in which all boundaries are porous, including the boundaries of individuals ourselves. We are inseparable from our ecologies: “Sympathy is what things feel when they shape each other” (Spuybroek 2016, 109). As a keyword, “sympathy” might even extend to quotidian activities like reading and writing. Katrin Pahl explains, for example, that “Hegel demands sympathy with the life of the subject matter” from the speculative reader (2012, 116), and this descriptor of readers, “speculative,” points us toward non- or post-humanist approaches to reading, as it connects us with the materiality of books, book-production, and reading itself. Following Manning’s attention to the force by which relations take place, Nathan Snaza shows how literacy is not reducible to “human” abilities: books as objects are entangled with geological agency (forming clay), plant agencies (creating papyrus), and other kinds of corporeal engagements (2019, 63).  

As one of the key interlocutors in such work, Gilles Deleuze provides a succinct definition of the keyword. “This is sympathy,” Deleuze declares, “assembling” (1987, 53): sympathy is a connecting force, one that generates feedback loops of difference-making, even in terms of selfhood itself. In this a-personal account of “sympathy,” we should not“speak for, in the place of…”; instead, Deleuze writes, we must “speak with, write with” (1987, 52) – in order, it seems, to discover what new forms of “we” emerge from such creative relations. “Individuation without a subject,” Deleuze stresses (1987, 40), is a claim that opens up the first account of sympathy-qua-empathy as a problem. 

One might examine this problem via a much earlier understanding of “sympathy.” In premodern Europe, Michel Foucault explains, “sympathy” served as an explanatory way to find sameness across apparent differences, precisely because world and language seemed to mirror each other, as “the theatre of life or the mirror of nature” (1994, 17). As Foucault puts it, sympathy worked to render “things identical to one another” to such a degree that their individuality disappears (1994, 23). We might understand this premodern understanding as fully in the past, especially in the broader metaphysics of similitude Foucault traces. “Sympathy” continues to hold associations of metaphysical intervention, however, even around scientific inquiry and treatment – from “sympathetic powder” to the occult (Gurton-Wachter 2018), to the magic of ethnographic witnessing that Kath Weston describes as sympathy (2018). For political theology, this keyword reminds us to query any neat lines between what counts as belief or affective powers and what counts as scientifically verifiable.

Another way to examine the first account as a problem is to foreground “care” as at odds with the force of sympathy. Indigenous poet and theorist Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, “You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come” (2019). This refusal-of-invitation comes at the end of an essay in which Belcourt is describing modes of writing—what he calls “a listening and looking practice”—that expose and displace the settler state’s practices of so-called “care.” Belcourt notes that such writing, exemplified by Indigenous artists and theorists like Beatrice Mosionier, Audra Simpson, and Terese Marie Mailhot, has a vitality “that is in the name of Indigenous freedom and nothing less.” Importantly, then, it is not open to any or all readers: settler readers are hailed, specifically, as not invited, as invaders and therefore not guests. This interpellation of me and other settler readers as invaders echoes Jamison’s metaphorical account of “sympathy” as gift/invasion.

Jamison’s understanding of sympathy-qua-empathy though is biomedical, an understanding that supports the governance of care Belcourt exposes; after all, anyone appeasing the gatekeepers can meet criteria for “care-giving” by attending medical school or other state-based institutions. Belcourt calls out the lie that such seeming homogeneity sustains: namely, that this “monotony of voice” is recognizable as a settler one, based on the illusion that “humanist” means all people. As Snaza puts it, “while this human would loudly proclaim its universality, it is, in fact, highly particular” (2019, 29); “same, same, same, other,” Manning writes (2020, 62).

For political theology, the divergence between the two accounts of “sympathy” can draw attention to the ethos by which we undertake our work. On the one hand, as Vinciane Despret explores in her work on animal studies, problems of “difference” necessitate practices of sympathy. Researchers occupy different roles and perspectives from their subjects of research. Despret describes an “embodied empathy” that, partly because it lacks symmetry, can tap scientists into what matters for the subjects they study (2013, 55). This willingness to extend sympathy, to take on another’s perspective, means risking being touched and affected by that other (2013, 57), not in a romantic sense of imagining life as another being but in a responsive sense of living alongside someone else. A scientist is a caretaker, on this account, designing experiments in which research subjects can articulate themselves (Despret 2004, 124). Key to Despret’s analyses is that research subjects who are hailed, with interest and care, into articulating themselves might well resist a researcher’s question or even program of study. As Jamison puts it, a sympathizing doctor must ask questions, “knowing you know nothing” (2014, 5), open to discoveries such questions might facilitate.

On the other hand, we can relate to this “not-knowing” by affirming a more open-ended approach to thinking. Deleuze’s philosophy, for example, displaces the horizon of “knowledge-in-advance,” a horizon that can be accessed by posing problems that have solutions. Instead of solutions that can be deduced from what we already or will soon know, this approach inquires into the conditions under which problems emerge (Koopman 2016; Mader 2017). As I write elsewhere, we might describe this orientation as immanent or situated, in contrast to the transcendent or pre-set orientation of the first account of “sympathy” (Jaarsma 2020, 17). Problems become things to think with and about, rather than motivations for undertaking inquiry. So, along these lines, “sympathy” (especially qua empathy) becomes a meaningful problem to query. In this context, Despret makes a claim I’ve been musing about for years: empathy, she writes, “squats in the other” (2004, 128).

Despret’s choice of verbs—to squat—reminds us of associations of invasion and encroachment, drawn out by Belcourt and others. To squat in the other, as a researcher, is to deny the conditions of possibility for symbiosis, or emergent-mixing. Conversely, to tap “sympathy” on the second meaning is to find ways to become open to many other forms of knowing and not-knowing. “Sympathy” includes the non-conscious, the unactualized, and the unnoticed, forms of not-knowing falling outside the first account. For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions. The philosophical or theoretical work, emerging out of such practices, turns the question of affiliation and even ethos into one of experimentation. 

Annotated Bibliography

Bennett, Jane. 2017. “Vegetal Life and Onto-Sympathy,” Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms. Ed. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein. New York: Fordham University Press, 89-110.

I recommend this edited collection exploring the intersections of political theology with materialist, post-humanist methodologies. Jane Bennett’s chapter, in particular, points to “sympathy” as a keyword for exploring and inventing new methods. It prefigures Bennett’s recent Influx & Efflux, which also takes “sympathy” as a keyword for invoking and making sense of vibrant, relational processes. 

Despret, Vinciane. 2004. “The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis,” Body & Society 10(2/3): 111-134.

This is one of my favorite articles by Vinciane Despret, which contains the wonderful line “empathy squats in the other.” In addition to providing a wonderful overview of Despret’s methodological approach, the article asks us to consider the dramatic differences between non-human animals and humans, when they or we find ourselves to be the objects of scientific inquiry.

Jamison, Leslie. 2014. The Empathy Exams: Essays. New York: Graywolf Press.

The first essay in this book, “The Empathy Exams,” draws us into the vexed and all-pervasive biomedical model of empathy—dramatizing and reflecting on how medical students learn how to become “empathetic” according to a prescribed set of scripts and values. 

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Like Ngai’s more recent Theory of the Gimmick, this book combines rigorous analyses of affects like “sympathy” with close readings that exemplify the affects in play. This is my favorite account of how sympathy might or might not arise out of reading, in part because Ngai’s prose is so unflinchingly ambivalent about its significance, existentially, and politically.

Oele, Marjolein. 2020. E-Co-Affectivity: Exploring Pathos at Life’s Material Interfaces. Albany: SUNY Press.

This is an engaging philosophical exploration of the many and varied aspects of relationality, especially in the context of broader post-human ecological concerns. I especially appreciate how Oele brings ancient Greek philosophy together with contemporary continental philosophy; “sympathy” and its related terms like “compassion” come alive as concepts that bear directly on pressing social and environmental issues.

Snaza, Nathan. 2019. Animate Literacies: Literature, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism. Durham: Duke University Press.

This book is a marvellously materialist account of the activities we undertake as academics and as educators: reading, writing, and engaging with texts. In the context of “sympathy,” the book reminds us of the limitations of overly humanist frameworks and methods, especially in the context of decolonial and critical race theories. 


Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”


Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.


Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.


In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.


Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.


Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  


Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”


Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.


Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.


If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.


Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.


Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.


Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.


Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.


In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?


This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.


What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.


While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.


The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.


That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.


The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.


For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.


Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.


If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.


A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.


The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.


Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.


Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.


Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.


Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.


It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.


As we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.


In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.


[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.


From Myanmar to Mariupol, from the streets of Memphis to the waves and winds of the Mediterranean Sea: resistance to violence takes many forms. So does political protest against precarity. At which point does the unavoidable vulnerability of the living condition come to expression as political agency? Can such precarious politics constitute or configure an alternative community?

Hunger Strike

“Instead of neatly separating the forms of resistance to biosovereignty into life-affirming struggles and necroresistance and mapping them (and life and death) onto the reform/revolt dichotomy, I suggest that we conceive life and death as relational rather than oppositional categories. For every differentiation and intensification of death creates new possibilities of life; and every differentiation and intensification of life entails experiences of “death” that cannot be reduced to the power of one’s death.”

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