a few words

Month: March, 2012

TODAY!: Of Miracles and Machines — Derrida and Religion

I should have thought to post this earlier, but if you in the NYC area today and looking for a good conversation, you should come by Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for the following symposium on Derrida and Religion. The symposium is centered around a recently published book, Miracle and Machine by Michael Naas, who will be one of the speakers, along with Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Martin Hägglund. There are, apparently, other things to do in New York City this afternoon, but this one will be hard to beat.

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Of Miracles and Machines

A Symposium on Derrida and Religion

Thursday March 22, 4:15–7:00 pm

12th Floor Lounge, Lowenstein Building ● Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus 60th and Columbus, New York City

To mark the publication of Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media (Fordham UP, 2012), this symposium brings together four leading scholars from across the disciplines to debate Derrida’s continued relevance for religious thinking.

Speakers

Penelope Deutscher, Northwestern University ● Sarah Hammerschlag, Williams College

Martin Hägglund, Harvard University ● Michael Naas, DePaul University

Contact

Samir Haddad, sahaddad@fordham.edu

Sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Theology, the Deans of the Arts and Sciences Council, and Fordham University Press.

This event is free and open to the public.

For More Information Miracle and Machine Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media Michael Naas

432 pages 978-0-8232-3998-6, paper, $30.00 $20.00 (Promo Code: Naas12)

To Order: http://www.fordhampress.com ● 800-451-7556

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Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

Of Time Machines and Beating Tomorrow’s Dead Horses Today

In America we’re seeing not the expectation of future growth, but the pessimism of imminent collapse. For the first time since they started asking the question in polls, most Americans don’t think the next generation will be better off. And there’s good reason to believe so: for the first time in American history the average life expectancy has dropped. The future has had over a trillion dollars in value sucked out of it in the form of student debt, that time machine that brings decades of yet unperformed labor to the market now. The future may be young, but it’s a whipped dog.

via bifo says relax by malcolm harris | thestate.

Rising tuition, powerful student lenders, and enormous unemployment effectively use students’ dreams to hold them hostage. In a great bargain for all parties involved (Universities, banks, employers), student loans functionally guarantee tomorrow’s labor today. You can’t earn a livable income without a college degree, but (if you don’t come from privilege already) you must mortgage your future in order to earn it.

Sacred Topographies (or) Parks and Revelation

I would encourage you to distribute the following CFP far and wide, and put in a proposal yourself. This year’s conference promises to be an excellent event.

Photo by Angela Lau

Call for Papers :: 2012 Fordham Graduate Theology Conference

 “Places do not, of themselves, defile us, but the things done in the places (by which even the places themselves are defiled).” ~ Tertullian

“Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.” ~ Michel de Certeau

The Greek word for “place” – topos – carries with it all the ambiguities that modern theorists have come to see as embedded within the concept.  It is both the physical location and one’s orientation to it.  It is both the structural building and the office one holds within it.  And it can be both a reference to a particular part of the human body as well as an occasion or opportunity for that body to act.  Michel de Certeau distinguished the static, stable quality of a place (i.e. the sidewalk) from the malleable, productive, and performative quality of space (i.e. the pedestrian whose walking re-creates this “place” as her own “space”).  Put simply, topos represents the interplay between place and space.

The 2nd Annual Fordham Graduate Theology Conference seeks to investigate the ways in which religion both produces and has been produced by its understandings of space/place. The Theology Graduate Student Association at Fordham invites submissions from graduate students in the disciplines comprising religious studies and theology (and cognate fields).  Students whose research is primarily textual/biblical, sociological, historical, philosophical, ethical, or constructive are all invited to submit and attend. Examples of topics within the scope of the theme include (but are by no means limited to):

Shifting topographies: i.e. What are the ways in which immigration, forced migration, multiculturalism, empire and globalization impact religion’s construction of/by its spatiality? How does human embodiment and its topographical setting inform and give meaning to one another?

Structural topographies: How has religion been influenced by and contributed to an understanding of “constructed” space?  (e.g. the relationship of art and architecture to ritual and religious practice/identity; the appropriation of non-religious – “secular” or “profane” – space for “sacred” use; the mutually determinative relationship between religion and geography, etc.)

Abstracts of 500 words or less should be sent via email to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com by Monday, May 21st.

The conference will be held on Saturday, October 20th at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan. Papers of 15-20 minutes will be given by graduate students. The keynote address will be given by Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Barnard College, Dr. Elizabeth Castelli. Complete conference schedule, keynote address theme, and other information to follow. Questions may be directed to fordhamtgsa@gmail.com.

Complete conference schedule and program to follow. More information available at the conference website

Authenticity, Worldliness, Critique, Theology

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.

Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.

– William H. Gass, “Lust”

via we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world. « Departure Delayed.

Brad posted this fragment of Yeats and the passage from Gass, noting that commentary could only swindle away the full effect. He’s right. But the paragraphs overwhelmed me  enough that I wanted to share them; and wanting to share them, it seemed that I ought to do more than merely ride the coattails of Brad’s extensive reading. So with some reluctance, I’ll risk commentary.

Several of Bonhoeffer’s early sermons—given to a congregation in Barcelona—contain an unmistakeable debt to Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer shares Nietzsche’s distaste for the world-denying character of religion and calls his congregation (as perhaps only a young and somewhat naive pastor could) to a life of faith that resonates with Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life. While he moved away from the rather titanic, muscular language of those early sermons, he remained convinced that faith, and therefore theology, must always enmesh a person within the concrete realities of life—the sites of rage and lust and desire.

I bring up Bonhoeffer only because of the collision of two thoughts which emerged while I read the passage above. First, that Gass traces out Nietzsche’s affirmation of life in tenacious, wounded, and haunting words; and second, that theology worth its salt ought to come from an attitude akin to this one. Bonhoeffer’s affinity for Nietzsche is based, I think, on something like that second thought. Theologians should not hide in rosy constructions of the world’s goodness, but should think and write with gritty soil between their fingers and on their pages, obstacles that prevent the pen from tracing lines too smooth.

The point of this post is not to suggest my similarity to Bonhoeffer. Rather, even though I stand by my gut-sense that faith and faith’s thinking are best done in the mud,  I want to try to articulate some new-found second-thoughts about it, questions or qualifications.

First, to say that, “Theology ought to be like this!” is to set out a yardstick for “genuine” theology. It is to set up a high bar of “authenticity.” While such affirmations generally ring with a sincere ambition that theological thinking ought to reckon with the world in ways that it currently does not, they very quickly turn into bludgeons that measure the inauthenticity of others. Authenticity is an easy claim to stake, and perhaps for that reason it tends to generate more defense than creativity. I’m not  wholly against measurements or bludgeons—not even theological measurements and bludgeons—but I’ve come to recognize that “authenticity” only generates vague and capricious criteria.

Second, saying “Theology ought to be like this!” can amount to a dismissive effort to capture the power of a critique without really reckoning with its barbs. Too quickly assuming that “genuine” theology rises in anger against “willful stupidities, grim indifference, real sins, murdering hordes, smug myths, exploitive habits, and catastrophic wastes” ignores theology’s own historical complicity with all of the above. It too easily turns theology into an airtight ideology where every criticism is colonized, and that seems to me like a fundamental betrayal. Perhaps loyalty to theology in the face of powerful sentiments like Gass’s (or the more direct criticism of Nietzsche) does not simply add a transcendant amplifier to those sentiments (e.g. “This is the voice of faith!” or “God shares such a rage!”), but abides with them in a self-critical sobriety—a reception much quieter than Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and more like his risky, tentative prison letters, where so much seems unhinged.