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Abyss by Shadar CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Queer and Trans Religion, Devoted to Berlant

This forum reflects on the intellectual legacy of the late affect theorist Lauren Berlant, who passed away in 2021, for queer and trans studies in religion. Berlant once claimed they had nothing to say about religion – but our contributors disagree.

The passing of Lauren Berlant (1957-2021), a pathbreaking critic of the American dream and theorist of sexuality, gender, citizenship, affect, and neoliberalism, has been felt across critical corners of the humanities, social science, and the arts well beyond the United States. Pedagogical, playful, idiosyncratic, erudite, casual, disarming, committed to following difficult thought and to constant revision, reversal, and refinement, Berlant’s work continues to demand much of readers, but it gives us even more in return.

Berlant observed, in “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy,” that people come to theory “to become possible” (159). As David Seitz notes in A House of Prayer for All People, they come to religion, and queer religious practice, for the same reason (31). This forum emerges from a session at the 2022 Queer and Trans Studies in Religion conference at the University of California Riverside.

In gratitude and in grief, we convened that session to begin to make sense of what Berlant’s work continues to make possible for us as critical scholars of religion. The forum brings together the perspectives of three theoretically engaged junior scholars of religion, gender, and sexuality in Indonesia and the United States to reflect on the wide-ranging, at times surprising salience of Berlant’s insights in religious contexts – surprising, because as contributor Brandy Daniels points out, Berlant claimed to have nothing to say about religion.

Reading Berlant against Berlant, our contributors, Brandy Daniels, Ferdiansyah Thajib, and Max Thornton show that Berlant is generative for thinking about queer and trans approaches to the study of religion. They think with Berlant about the always-political place of gender and sexuality in religious practice and theory. As Lucia Hulsether says in PTN’s Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0, “Berlant is helpful to scholars of religion and politics because their work demonstrates a way to critique political theological forms without, on one hand, triangulating them as confessional recuperations of a suppressed Christianity or, on the other, revaluing religion as the repository of possible resistance to modern secular discipline.”

Daniels, Thajib, and Thornton show precisely how queer religious practice can be bound up with troubling political structures invested in impossibility, as described in Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. These are capitalist and normativity-reproducing promises that both sustain their subjects and undermine their flourishing. Intertwined with the neoliberal structures of cruel optimism, religion can create paradoxical desires, especially for queer and trans folk. At the same time, queerly adapted religious practices can be tactics for moving through or within what Berlant calls the impasse.

Queerness and religion together can create impasses, as Thajib so clearly shows. Thajib takes up Berlant’s curiosity about how people continue to inhabit social structures that are presumed – both from within and from without – not to work for them, Thajib traces how Indonesian queer and trans Muslims scramble to inhabit textual and spiritual practice on different terms. Through careful reflection on ethnographic vignettes, Thajib shows us subjects who have unfinished business, to recall the subtitle of Berlant’s 2008 book The Female Complaint, with their religious objects of attachment. Religion can be a form of stuckness, but also a space of possibility.

Daniels turns to Berlant’s earlier work, The Female Complaint to think through the limits of some feminist theology that seeks to transcend gender. Daniels asks whether the eschatological ends of these theological visions might in fact follow a structure that Berlant analyzes throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s culture of female dissatisfaction with patriarchy that nonetheless buys into a fantasy of normativity imagined to transcend various social antagonisms. While this fantasy may provide a sense of belonging, producing an intimate public, that imagined collectivity is rather restricted and accedes to the structures it critiques. Likewise, Daniels considers whether feminist theologies repeat the desire for hierarchical submission that they critique.

Thornton draws on trans and crip readings of Berlant to consider the always-politically inflected cruel optimisms of trans male binding and religious bindings. Reflecting on queer practices of body modification and BDSM, Thornton wonders if religious expression and practice might become sites of play, amplifications of tension between pain and pleasure or explorations of possibility that can open up world making experiences of the divine. Trans religious and embodied practice, like the Jewish practice of tefillin, can create “a sensual and affective relation to the divine Other.” For Thornton, there are no neat divisions between the affective, the spiritual, and the queer practice of embodiment and sexuality.

These pieces show us how queer and trans folk move with and against religion and the political. Collectively, the authors in this forum show us how religious community, theology, and ritual can stage utopic cruel optimisms imbricated in capitalism and normative forms of citizenship at a range of geographical scales (see Berlant Queen of America Goes to Washington City, Seitz A House of Prayer for All People). At the same time, the essays demonstrate how queer and trans religious practices simultaneously imagine endurance beyond teleological redemption (Daniels), form new attachments (Thornton), and forge new queer worlds (Thajib, Thornton).

Some queer religion, as Berlant says in Cruel Optimism, “tries to break the double-bind of cruel optimism, not reentering the normative public sphere while seeking a way, nonetheless, to maintain its desire for the political”– and here we might add the religious as well(230). Religion can become a resource for navigating through various notions of the “good life” whether that be notions of sexual morality (Thajib), transnormativity (Thornton), or the feminist good life (Daniels).

The queer and trans study of religion knows redemption is a fiction. It pays critical attention to articulating political theologies that navigate the racial-sexual demands of global capitalist nation-states and the impossible demands of religious citizenship within those states. Berlant proves good to think with in this regard, because their work complicates notions of religious utopias and religious pastoralisms (as for sex, so for religion) as paths out of alienation toward community/communion (see “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times”). At the same time, Berlant attunes us to scenes in which queer and trans religiosity can allow for “sideways zones of suspension that allow for the circulation of multiple affects” (Sex or the Unbearable, 46).

Taken together, these papers explore how queer and trans religion can allow for what Berlant calls, riffing on Eve Sedgwick, “improvisations, affective rhythms, better conceptualizations of what the subject is capable of that will always coexist with the aspect of the subject being stuck in drama” (Sex or the Unbearable, 54). This forum imagines religion and the political together in new queer ways, sideways zones that allow for affect to flow in alternate ways, provisionally opening up new material and spiritual worlds.

Symposium Essays

Inhabiting queer religiosity

Drawing from ethnographic research of Indonesian Muslim queer experiences, this essay addresses Lauren Berlant’s conceptual legacy in understanding tensile relationships between queerness and religious affects.

Feminist (Theological) Fantasies

Berlant’s work points us to other possibilities that avoid, that resist, the fantasy of redeemed gender—calling for us instead to reside in the messiness of our attachments and providing space and ways for us to negotiate them, rather than seeking to transcend them. Whereas the efforts to transcend gender seem to, paradoxically, deepen our attachments to gender norms, it is also the case then that in negotiating the messiness of those attachments, one finds space for other ways of doing gender that perhaps subvert or move us beyond its constraining norms.

Binding Berlant

The burgeoning subfield of queer and trans studies in religion is opening up avenues for understanding our bodily attachments within and beyond religion. With Berlant’s sensibility as a guide, scholars of queer and trans studies in religion might seek to explore the paradoxes of desire and love that Berlant theorized with a generosity, curiosity, and clarity we can all hope to emulate.