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The Brink

To Think is to Resist: Notes Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Freedom

Shulman’s seminar unfolds a creative cosmos for pursuing new knowledges and new forms of life together.

[A] teaching . . . can, I will even say should, always problematize, that is, put forward, its own limits and conditions in order to draw attention to them, to make them the theme of research. . . .

Jacques Derrida[1]

Fear of freedom, of which its possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or she prefers to the risks of liberty.

Paulo Freire[2]

These notes are inspired by George Shulman’s seminar on “Political Theology.” This ambitious seminar brings together biblical texts from Exodus to Matthew and beyond with modern critical works that include Nietzsche and Baldwin. I can only imagine the conversations around the seminar table as seminar members wrestled with the legacies of the modern construction of knowledge/power owing to the trinity of theopolitics of knowledge, geopolitics of knowledge, and bio(s)politics of knowledge.[3]

While Shulman invites his seminar students to critically reflect on political theology, the intellectual task of the seminar is necessarily implicated in a broader conversation on the production and reproduction of knowledge. In so doing, Shulman’s seminar can be constructively engaged along the lines of what Derrida terms “counter-seminars” which, by “breaking with some of the usual pedagogical conventions,” open a critical space to rethink the knowledges, categories, and discourses of political theology.[4] It is this broader conversation that preoccupies me in this reflection, for Shulman’s seminar exemplifies a style of thinking that commands our attention.

Shulman’s seminar critically examines the shifting contours of political theology. In so doing, he recognizes that the seminar will necessarily involve adjudicating competing and contrasting forms of knowledge that are consolidated under such categories as sacred and secular, faith and rationality, politics and theology. How and in what ways seminar participants go about this process is very much informed by how they conceptualize the logics and operations of these categories and how they undertake critical practices of thinking. By surfacing these often latent tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities the seminar resists orthodoxies – sacred, secular, and otherwise – of thought that seek to authorize, fix, and contain meaning, interpretation, and understanding.

The seminar’s critical practice of thinking facilitates an expansion of how we conceive of thought to encompass the rich terrain of a Wittgensteinian inspired “forms of life.”[5] It is not merely the use of language and how people play particular language games in relation to the Lebensformen that preoccupies Shulman, rather he invites students (and us) to consider how and in what ways our thinking practices can cultivate and nurture a critical capacity to revise our fundamental ideas of politics and of theology as forms of sociality. It is a practice of thinking political/theology within the arena of the slash in the sense of what Charles H. Long reminds us of as the space where “things are changed and moved around” where the seminar exposes the complexities, densities, and histories of mentalité and materiality consolidated in discourse of political theology.[6]

Shulman’s seminar is an open invitation for us to fundamentally rethink the formations of thinking the theological and the foundations of the political. He opens a space where he along with his students may take up this challenge with a Longian inflection – which is at the same time an opportunity. In other words, the seminar thinks the slash between the disciplinary organization and protocols of knowledge in resisting the simple bifurcations that constitute the theological and the political. To resist those dominant arrangements of thought is critical in thinking with those undisciplined modes of thinking that resist the logic and protocols of existing regimes of thought.

Shulman, it seems to me, extends an opportunity to pursue a fugitive thinking that tarries along the boundaries of categorical frames in exploring (exploding?) the thought of the modern. He also invites us to think with the in/visible ones who think (and act) within the long shadow of what Dominique Janicaud in another context terms “the shadow of that thought.”[7] In this case, we extended an invitation to think with those figures and formations of an/other human which facilitate rethinking the relationship between the theological and the political – particularly configurations of this relationship sutured to singular conceptions of the human.

There is an element of caution in this task that must not go unremarked. If we accept this invitation and take up this task, the categories of thought and the modalities of existence – normed as they are to what is the real – forces the misrecognition of this opportunity. In other words, we may rush to accept a practice of additive thought rather than substantive and constitutive thinking. Thus, what is needed is a reterritorialization of the project and an inauguration and elaboration of a style of thinking that establishes new coordinates for grasping the very condition of possibility of a new thinking of political/theology and of humanity. This, it seems to me, is a singular challenge and opportunity announced in Shulman’s seminar.

One way to approach this task is by way of a critical pedagogy of thinking the wound of political theology. In this formulation, thinking the wound of political theology is to confront a festering open sore of dominant and dominating forms of the theological and the political that arrests, tries, convicts, and executes those other practices of thinking and “forms of life” that contain conditions of possibility for articulating new and fresh perspectives of political/theology. It is such a pedagogy that educates and instructs us to interrogate seemingly rigid and sedimented forms of thought that often mask various modes of epistemic and material imperialism of political theology.

The wound of political theology – imperial forms of t/Theology proper wedded to a politics of Empire – akin to Walter Lowe’s “wound of reason,” directs our attention practices of thinking and forms of life in the wake of memories and ongoing experiences of suffering. For Lowe, “the phrase evokes the wound which reason inflicts, the alienation and disequilibrium which reason visits upon humankind.”  “But what is crucial,” Lowe continues, “to the use I propose to make of the phrase is its capacity to intimate the existence of something more – a something more which cannot be subsumed within the all-embracing healthy-mindedness which ready-made enlightenment too cheerfully recommends. The notion of a wounded reason is a humbler alternative, but one more in keeping with our time. It suggests a wound which reason – at least a certain sort of reason – might bear within itself.” [8]  

This “certain sort of reason” is one that must be translated as a thought, or rather, a practice of thinking, that resists a science of reason tethered to a calculus of an enlightenment which evades – by necessity – its own conditions of possibility. It is a conjuration of an/other logic of re/newing possibilities which resists the dominant regimes of thought and existence. In turn, it is based on an ethic of humility and hospitality in welcoming the new. Indeed, such a practice of thinking “aware of its own brokenness might prove, in the end, a better guide than one committed a priori to healthy mindedness. Thus, Adorno’s painful maxim, ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.’”[9] 

Shulman’s seminar forces a practice of thinking elegantly captured in Alice Walker’s dedication to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, “To my daughter Rebecca / Who saw in me / what I considered / a scar / And redefined it / as / a world.”[10] Shulman’s weekly letters are testimony to a fidelity to and cultivation of a pedagogical practice that is committed to nothing less than redefining political theology and, by extension, knowledge and the world. 

The seminar also forces us to confront the critical question, “Do our modes of knowing – theological, political, and otherwise – bracket too much of the human condition that makes thinking possible?” Are traditional formulations of political theology, to appropriate the words of Mumia Abu-Jamal from another context, “dehumanization by design”?[11]

Shulman’s seminar marks another beginning of a critical and necessary conversation on the central tensions that have formed and informed knowledge production in the modern world.  His critical pedagogy is an expression of “a mode of being” – drawing on the idea of Charles Long – in which the practices of thinking and critical formations of knowing are intimately connected with the stories, cultures, and habits of life that elaborate new modes of human existence across space and time.[12] These modalities of knowing share some relation with one another and impinge on the very viability of critical humanistic education in the contemporary academy and the possibility of creating a just world.

Ella Baker understood that “radical change . . . was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle.”[13]  Her understanding of radical change critically informed her undying faith in young people. She truly believed that something special entered the world with the infinite imaginations of young people. Shulman’s seminar is animated by this spirit in inviting us to cultivate a habit of critical thinking by attending to the wound of political theology in elaborating conditions of possibility for an/other form and formation of knowledge.

By dispensing with the categorical logic of a civilizing mission underwritten by God and its secular analogue the w/Word, Shulman’s seminar unfolds a creative cosmos for pursuing new knowledges and new forms of life together. 

[1] Jacques Derrida, Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? Right to Philosophy I trans. Jan Plug (Stanford University Press, 2002), 6.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (1970; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 36.

[3] This tripartite configuration draws from the work of Walter Mignolo. See Walter Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.1 (2002), 57-96.

[4] Herman Rapaport, “On Derrida’s Seminars: Reading Derrida’s Readers,” Poetics Today 42.1 (March 2021), 104.

[5] See Nicholas F. Gier, “Wittgenstein and Forms of Life” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 10 (1980), 241-258.

[6] Charles H. Long, “Charles H. Long:  Reflections on Race, Religion and History,” in The Veterans of Hope Project, Charles H. Long:  Reflections on Race, Religion, and History, Veterans of Hope Pamphlet Series 2, Number 3 (2004), 11.

[7] Dominique Janicaud, The Shadow of That Thought, trans. Michael Gendre (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996).

[8] As cited in Peter Heltzel and Corey D. B. Walker, “The Wound of Theology: A Prolegomenon to a Research Agenda,” Political Theology 9.2 (2008), 252-255.

[9] Peter Heltzel and Corey D. B. Walker, “The Wound of Theology: A Prolegomenon to a Research Agenda,” Political Theology 9.2 (2008), 252-255.

[10] Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt, 1983), x.

[11] Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live From Death Row (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), 86.

[12] Louis Benjamin Rolsky, “Charles H. Long and the Re-Orientation of American Religious History,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80.3 (2012), 767.

[13] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 1.

Response to George Shulman

We are all indebted to Shulman’s important delineation of prophecy’s role in American thought, especially in relation to race and redemption.

The Zeal of a Convert to Political Theology

Shulman listens for and to race. Toward these ends, Shulman writes about political theology with the zeal of a convert, which I mean as a compliment.

Between old and new gods

For the left to prevail in the war between old and new gods, we need not only prophetic discourse, but forms of mass organization capable of cohering a social bloc. In this work, religion, understood not as prophecy but as missionary work, remains a crucial resource.

To Think is to Resist: Notes Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Freedom

Shulman’s seminar unfolds a creative cosmos for pursuing new knowledges and new forms of life together.

Nietzsche’s Prophet, Shulman’s Prophecy

I am responding to George Shulman’s letters on Nietzsche and on prophecy. I do so by offering some thoughts on Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra. In addition to considering Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in light of Shulman’s “Political Theology” seminar, I also take illumination from Shulman’s American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (2008).

What’s Faith Got to Do with Political Theory/Theology?

This essay reclaims the value and role of faith in Shulman’s political theology and shows why it is important for wrestling with our contemporary political realities.

Re-imagining Political Theology

For me, “political theology” thus names the study of the ways that imagination is embedded in sentient, desiring bodies, instantiated in vernacular forms of life and ordinary (ritualized) practices, and conjured in mytho-poetic metaphors, images or representations that are formalized by literary genres and assembled into scriptures.

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