Let it Go down : Grand Imaginations and breaking with the present

Oh, we said our dreams will carry us
And if they don’t fly we will run – Santigold

For those of us called to be theologians, sinking deep roots into “the terrain of
spirituality and practice” is indispensable. We do theology because we want to
collaborate fundamentally in bringing about a different kind of world in the here and-
– M.Shawn Copeland

Our thoughts take a particular form in the world , and once they take form , they settle into our lives and become part of our imagination. Some people have thin imaginations and others have thick imaginations. I would like to focus on thick imaginations , or what one could call a grand imagination. The term ‘grand imagination’ is more relevant to theology , especially at this time. So much of what is thrown around in the academy has to do with recovering the grand imagination of the christian tradition , committing oneself to its preservation , translating the works of the great architects of this imagination. After all , theology is the queen of the sciences right?!?! The Queen must sit upon the finest of thrones! Nothing less than the Summa Theologiae can sustain the weight of her gold & silver. She can only be served by the most “serious” of thinkers (preferably men with no desire for other men…and a lack of Melanin would be nice too).

What I am interested in , is how a ‘grand imagination’ might shape our present world and determine our place in it. Or to put things more clearly , how this grand imagination seeks to explain the conditions that made its existence possible. It does this by not naming these conditions. The grand imagination was brought into existence by the transcendent. It has no points of contact in the world. None of the common marks of humanity (race , disability ,gender , class & sexuality) play any role in its existence. The grand imagination is able to admit that there is an order to things that precedes it , and that it has played a role in creating and sustaining the current order and is even capable of admitting that the current order of things is troubling. The solution? More of itself. It has classical texts , art , music , architecture , morality , Goodness , Truth and Beauty to offer us. The present order has got to go! As long as it is making room for the grand imagination to take over. Continue reading

The Schizophrenia of Our Piety: Demonology and Whiteness

Put contrary to the all merely theoretical demythologizing, the war with the demons for the earth has begun. We participate in it on one side or the other.

-Ernst Käsemann, On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene

Käsemann’s critique of pietism is always also a critique of whiteness, and always put in the context of a curious demonology – curious, at first blush, because Käsemann is a student of the dutifully demythologizing Bultmann. Pietism, here, isn’t just the 17th century German-Lutheran movement of the church which emphasized personal behavior and immediate experience over mediate doctrine, but the church that is homogenized through Western middle class notions of whiteness. For Käsemann, pietism precisely is the solidifying movement of normativity that seeks to theologically ground middle class norms and morality, or the kind of church (i.e. white, western churches) that don’t see violence committed against the indigenous, GLBTQ*, or black bodies, etc. as explicit demonology:

in midst of the inferno of creation terrorized by ideologies and despots, demonically disfigured by hunger, exploitation, torture, and murder, there exists the reality of a lordship of Christ that looks toward the resurrection of the dead and that thus resists demonic violence, concretely and bodily.

Continue reading

So Speak and So Act…

Language, the essentially human in [humankind], can be abused in order to dehumanize [humanity]. The task of a theory of language in the most ambitious sense therefore consists of a defence of the humanity of language, for the sake of the language of humanity.[1]

What we say sits right beside who and what we are. Our speaking does not take us away from the particularities of our life. Language is a central part of our being-with one another. It has two kinds of significance; we use language to communicate with one another in daily life. This is something of a ‘second-order’ kind of significance, since we (Wittgenstein and others notwithstanding) don’t spend that much time reflecting on the basic and fundamental structure of language. The other kind of significance I call ‘first-order’ because the feelings of discomfort that it evokes in others, is very acute. What I have in mind is expressions of pain. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking about crying in public. People do not know what to do with this. It’s considered a disruption of the dominant aesthetics in the public sphere. In other words, it’s an act that acknowledges that things have gone wrong. This expression of pain is a form of language that is rarely, if ever truly heard. The cries of Tina Fontaine’s mother and others like her, have been overlooked and simply ignored for as long as this country has existed. The screams and tears of those being bombed and losing loved ones in Gaza is drowned out by the sound of the next explosion. The agonized screaming of those who are exhausted by the non-value attached to black life, is silenced with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Throughout his work, Gerhard Ebeling makes reference to what he calls “the experience of the world”. For him this is essential for Christian faith. I think he is correct, and for this reason, I will use the term with reference to the experiences of those on the underside of various forms of violence and domination in the world (western cultural hegemony, patriarchy, state violence, etc.). As I said before, language is an important part of our being-with one another, and this involves pain and suffering. Going back to contemporary events, such as the turmoil in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown, and the recent murder of Tina Fontaine in my own city , I’m wondering what people have said in light of this? There has been screaming, lament, condemnation and prayer, among other things. With this in mind, I think Ebeling is right when he says that “Language contains within itself the whole fullness (and paradoxically this also includes the whole poverty) of the life and suffering of the human race”[2].

One of the problems in Christian communities of faith is the question of what must be said. Too often nothing is said, or a posture of (false) mediation is assumed. This is unacceptable. The debilitating force of settler colonialism and the non-value attached to black lives are not unspeakable evils; they are very speakable evils. The task at hand for those communities who choose silence, is to join those who are speaking the language of suffering. Ebeling is right when says that “If the language of faith ceases to be in dialogue with the experience of the world it has effectively become the language of unbelief”[3].

The church who is not engaged with the troubles of ‘undersid Continue reading

An Empty Apology: Liturgies of Repentance & Risking Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about apologies and repentance. On an inter-personal level, I recently received an apology from someone who said some very hurtful things to me. Collectively and institutionally speaking, I have lost count of how many articles, tweets, facebook posts, and blogs I have read by Christians calling for repentance in the face of Syria, Gaza, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown…and so many many more. I thought of the liturgies of repentance and lament that I’ve read and spoken in progressive white churches at times like this, times of great violence, grief, and fear. Indeed, having grown up in a church that gathered to worship God each Sunday without hardly a word said about what was going on in the world that this God created, I’ve been very grateful for these liturgies. I thought, at least there were white Christians who were gathering and naming the violence, the grief, the fear, the injustice, and their complicity in them. It was like a breath of air in the suffocating insulated apolitical worship scene of white Christianity.

What is an apology? From the Greek apologia the classical definition is “a speech in defense.” From there springs an entire genre called apologetics, essentially self-justifying speech. But what if we were to take a different etymological route with regards to the word apologia? What if we were to think of it as apo-logos where apo signifies a negation of logos, a dominant discourse?  What if an apology then were not a self-defensive speech used for the maintenance of something but a self-offensive or negating speech that effectively decomposes the logos in question? Such an apology would certainly be risky. Continue reading

Blood, blood, everywhere…

…and not a drop to spare.  (my riff on Coleridge’s “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink”)

For those following the book event on Gil Anidjar’s recent Blood: A Critique of Christianity over at the AUFS blog might also want to check out this poignant piece by Rhyd Wildermuth over at The While Hung blog entitled “Blood Cries Out from the Soil”.

Is Infinite Jest Nihilism in Sincerity’s Clothing?

I have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and hereby begin my first public foray into some light literary and cultural criticism. I expect that this is fairly commonplace – that anyone who has read the book is driven to process it in some shape or form. I want here to talk about Infinite Jest in a way that isn’t so much about the details of the plot since the contents make nearly zero sense to those who have not read the book (this is very intentional, as I will explain presently), and there are already many very good and interesting theories out there about the the plot and its ending. Michael Moats’ blog post is particularly good at collecting various websites that deal with the plot, and evaluating their theories. Do not read them if you have not read the book because it is really important that you do not rob your future reader-self of the experience of going through Infinite Jest for the first time.

I am here more interested in the larger question of what Wallace is attempting to do and whether or not he succeeds, particularly pertaining to the relation between content of the book and its form. This relates to larger questions about the role of literature in our present Western entertainment-culture. Part of what I hope this will do is make Wallace look intriguing enough so those who have not yet read him will want to.

Wallace (1962 – 2008) has explicitly articulated some ideas about what he believes fiction is supposed to be about. His essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction argues for a new kind of fiction that is not the sort of ironic self-parody influenced by television-culture, but

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval.

These ideas have spawned a movement called “New Sincerity,” which has had an impact on philosophy and the fine arts, arguably including in Wallace’s own book Infinite Jest. This manifests in details like the fact that a certain character is saved from his depression by a very un-romantic kind of love for his disabled wife. Arguably the only other character who is not addicted, depressed, or otherwise messed-up is a disabled, naive, but absolutely trusting boy, attentive to the people around him.

Despite all of this, however, I am left with the question of whether or not Wallace in fact succeeds on a larger scale. Arguably the main plotline of the book turns around a lethal “entertainment” called Infinite Jest that traps its viewers into never wanting to do anything else but watch it over and over again. The book Infinite Jest parodies the “entertainment” Infinite Jest in its form, namely by engrossing readers so deeply into its abstruse plotlines that they are pulled away from everyday reality. As soon as the reader has finished the book he or she is very strongly compelled to go back to the beginning in order to figure out the ending. What did the plot really mean? What are the details buried in the text that can help make sense of the ending? The following makes an interesting argument about the way in which the book manages to evoke this impulse to start again at the beginning:

It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

This commenter goes on to point out that from what we know of the entertainment, the same logic applies. It’s not actually that Infinite Jest is so entertaining, but its implications are so horrific that viewers are compelled to search for information that would make it right again, information that was never provided. It’s more like being stuck inside a nightmare.

So, in the end, isn’t the book as a whole simply a depressing trap that makes readers stuck and lonely, cut off from real life? Is this actually nihilism? An addictive, eternal return of the same without any hope? I think the answer to that question lies largely in whether or not the passages and characters of hope are enough for the reader. The book poses the question of what it is that we require of life. Are the small glimmers of hope in certain passages of sincerity enough for us or will we continually seek some larger foundational meaning that will keep us spinning on the hamster wheel?

This raises the question of how much we want to see the structure of Infinite Jest as a representation of the shape of reality as a whole. In particular this raises the question of fracture. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talks about the importance of fracture. This is the function of his use of footnotes. The author’s responsibility is to fracture the text is in the way that is most honest to the author’s experience of reality. Why does Wallace speak like this? Why is fracture important? It seems to me that this emphasis on fracture is itself a way of conceptualizing reality that is at least in part influenced by an entertainment-saturated society, particularly evident in media’s increased complicity with the internet. Television has always been fragmented by advertising, and episodes are by nature fragments of some larger world (it’s interesting that Wallace talks specifically about television, rather than film. However, the entertainment cartridges of Infinite Jest seem a lot more like films, which suggests to me that Wallace has not quite himself grasped the significance of fracture as an addictive component of entertainment). However, this has reached new heights with the internet in that we are now able to move rapidly between articles and short video clips and status updates and tweets etc. Two examples that have struck me recently are the phenomenon of “vines,” 7-second video clips, and the Youtube series H+ in which episodes are about 2-5 minutes in length. I am not saying anything new here, but what I think is interesting is that Wallace’s fractured narrative very much reflects this trend. And if this is the case, then his fiction is arguably still a self-conscious parody influenced by television-culture.

So what does this mean? Do we dismiss Infinite Jest as nihilist? As not really giving us anything new but a repetition of the same old patterns of darkness and stupidity? Again, I don’t think that this necessarily follows. What I hope my questions lead to in the end is a greater self-awareness on the part of the reader in interacting with Infinite Jest. In the end, the text does not represent reality by itself but reality as the way in which reader interacts with the text. The ball is put in our court – how are we going to respond to a sometimes absurd and heartbreaking reality? This is particularly evident in the above commentator’s assertion that what the reader is left with in the end is characters who fall apart and so he or she goes looking for the meaning of this, or some inkling that they will be okay again somewhere beyond the future of the book. But this is entirely a matter of interpretation. Several of the main characters that supposedly experience “destruction”  all end up trapped inside themselves and are unable to communicate with the outside world. That is a very lonely place to be. However, this is also the point at which these characters undergo something of perhaps a salvation, if that’s not too strong a word. One learns to become a real person, another learns how to deal with pain in a way that is real, healthy, non-escapist by learning to abide in the moment. There are even several references to this character asking for help from a higher power. Moreover, there are ways hinted at that these characters come together. So, there are several ways in which the absolute loneliness is actually not devoid of a kind of contact and a kind of communication. They are precisely united in their solitude (194).

Now, if I interpret this as destruction my response to the book is going to be very different than if I interpret this as salvation. As I mentioned at the beginning, the details of the plot are very idiosyncratic and difficult to talk about with those who haven’t read the book such that one becomes almost trapped inside it, which is no doubt why readers like me are then almost driven out into public to escape the kind of loneliness that this generates and seek some sort of conversation. However, this illustrates precisely the dual way of interpreting the form of Infinite Jest. The lonely, circular structure can be seen as trapping and threatening like the “entertainment,” but it can also be read as doing the necessary work of separating us from the frenzy around us such that we are able to find the kind of meaning and connection that comes from doing something difficult and lonely. If that’s what I want to get out if this then I am, arguably, currently undercutting that possibility by broadcasting these thoughts. But I’m a work in progress, so I  welcome conversation nonetheless.