Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Attending to the Other Round-Up: Part One

I got back yesterday from the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture conference, "Attending to the Other: Critical Theory and Spiritual Practice," hosted by the Faculty of Theology at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. Here's a (very long) round-up of the event:

After drinks in a splendid room in the Bodleian Library, the first night consisted of a dinner and a keynote address by Amy Hollywood (Harvard University), "A for Antigone: Reading Derrida's 'Differance' Again" - which was hard to follow not only due to the content, but also because of the aforementioned drinking and because she spoke very quickly and often too quietly, and, ultimately, wasn't particularly "audience friendly" in her presentation style, which was disappointing. Pamela Sue Anderson (University of Oxford) chaired the session, and it was nice to catch up after meeting her at the inaugural conference for the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion (Liverpool Hope University) last year.

I stayed at my uncle and aunt's house "near" (40 min train ride, 30 min walk) Oxford to try to keep the cost of the conference down, but on Saturday morning someone had stolen copper off the railway line or something, so my uncle very kindly drove me in so I wasn't late for the start of the day. After a quick cup of coffee from the refectory, I went to Modern Theology panel of the first parallel sessions of the conference, chaired by Trevor Hart (Universiy of St. Andrews). I particularly enjoyed Natalie Wigg's paper, "Christology as Crucible: Practising Wisdom at the Intersection of Church and Academy," which framed theology as a component of ecclesial practice, but was primarily a methodological reflection on her positioning within the church community she is studying.

She began with an introduction to Pierre Bordieu's notion of "habitus" and by characterising the ethnographer's task as that of identifying the objective structures and governing forces that shape participants. The ethnographer has to also, however, develop the subjective experience of possessing the habitus him/herself. However, unlike researchers such as Loic Wacquant, who himself became a student of boxing in order to study the habitus of prizefighting in American black ghettos, Natalie is already a part of the community she is studying. Thus she already inhabits the habitus. Her research methodology therefore involves teaching classes at her church, wherein the group explore together their shared habitus, to bring their habitus to light, to reflect upon why they think what they think, why they do what they do, why they say what they say, why they desire what they desire, etc.

After a coffee break, we all reconvened together for the second keynote address, "Critical Theory and Spirituality: Restless Bedfellows," from Graham Ward (University of Manchester). In this address, Graham not only addressed the relationship of critical theory to spirituality, but of "critique" to "theory," since critique is necessarily parasitical on the theory it criticises. He began by recounting Descartes' experience during the 30 years' war of being in a dense forest. Imagining being lost, Descartes reasoned that the decision/choice/wager of the direction in which to walk could be a moment of conviction only. From this, therefore, the forging of a method, tool or theory could likewise only be based upon conviction. Graham enumerated the differences, however, between critical theory - which he defined as a practice - and spirituality - a discipline, since it aims to form particular types of persons, i.e. disciples - as:

  1. The telos of Christian spirituality is worship. Therefore it's orientation is liturgical, soteriological and doxological. In contrast, critique is orientated around the immanent structures of the world and not, therefore, towards a transcendent redemption that will necessarily ever arrive.
  2. Christian spirituality is not the enemy of, neither does it withdraw from, materiality. Spirituality begins with an entrance into the material more profoundly, and - following the central narrative of Radical Orthodoxy - only metaphysics of transcendence can grant meaning to the immanent. Critical theory, in its refusal of the transcendent, makes the immanent nihilistic.
  3. Rather than the attainment of mystical feelings or knowledge, Christian spirituality is a discipline and not just an emotional or intellectual practice. It is a submission to being governed and formed by an authority, a disciplining and discipleship.
  4. Spirituality is not an end in itself, but a means to conformity to Christ, the resurrection of the body and the redemption of the soul.
  5. While spirituality concerns immanence, it arises from transcendence, and therefore moves across boundaries of immanence and transcendence, secularity and sacrality. In contrast, critique (parasitic on theory, which it exposes as contradictory) is itself generative of contradictions, tensions and dualism - e.g. individual versus social, natural versus ideological, the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie.

Graham's paper, therefore, exhibits the central structuring motif of many arguments by those associated with Radical Orthodoxy - only Christianity! Only Christian spiritual practice (understood properly as a discipline that forms disciples) can perform the kinds of critiques that critical theory itself attempts and fails. Victor Seidler (Goldsmiths, University of London), who's own keynote later took up the image of walking, asked why exactly Graham rejects "walking" or the practices of theorising - philosophy, as well as theology - as spiritual. To my mind, this question was never really answered.

At lunch, I had a good catch up with Steve Shakespeare. Chatting with various people at lunch, meant I was late for the first ("Theological Materialism") of the panels organised by the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion (Liverpool Hope), which Steve was chairing. I missed the gist of - and had to stand up for! - Jeff Kauss' paper, "Slavoj Zizek and Dynamic Incarnationalism: Towards a Lived Material Theology of Personhood," and then wasn't familiar enough with Meillassoux or Bataille to get much out of the other papers. Hopefully I can get Jeff to email me a copy of his paper, though. After lunch, I went to two panels on "Theological Humanism," but I was too tired to concentrate and decided to go back to my uncle and aunt's early to have a rest and go over my paper for the next day. It did mean, though, that I missed Toril Moi's keynote, which others said was much more "audience friendly" than Amy Hollywood's.

On Saturday morning, I went to the second Continental Philosophy of Religion panel ("Phenomenology and Deconstruction") where I was keen to hear Dan Miller - a student of Jack's from Syracuse who finished his dissertation, on radical democracy as religious affirmation, earlier this year too - give a paper on Milbank, and to catch up with Neal DeRoo (Dordt College, Iowa) whom I met at the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology's "Postmodernism, Truth and Religious Pluralism" conference in April 2008.

Dan's paper, "Synchronicity and the Flattening of Materiality: Evaluating the Phenomenological Turn in John Milbank's Theology," framed Milbank's work in terms of a shift from a non-realist narrative philosophy to a phenomenological and materialist realist philosophy, arguing that the philosophy thus produced is open to a deconstructive criticism since it requires a metaphysical supplement to preserve the integrity of the material. While Milbank asserts that when we attend to the world (the phenomenological shift Dan identifies in Milbank's theological method) we see a "harmonious synchronicity" of the transcendent in the material. However, this must be a harmony that is eschatlogically given, since, if we attend to the world as it is given to us now, harmony is not synchronically present but diachronous with traumatic disruption, fragmentation and brokenness.

While I enjoyed Dan's paper and largely agree with his assessment of Milbank's project, I disagreed with how he presented what he regarded as Milbank's earlier work of "suspending the material," since this suspension is explicitly not one of "putting the material aside" (as Dan suggested) but of demonstrating that only participation in the transcendent can "suspend the material" over and against the void (as in a suspension bridge). Further, I wanted to know whether he had engaged with Gavin Hyman's book on Radical Orthodoxy - The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Textualist Nihilism? which argues that Don Cupitt's (non-realist) critique of Radical Orthodoxy distorts it into a realist framework when Radical Orthodoxy attempts to overcome such dualisms as non-realist/realist. I felt that the shift Dan identified in Milbank's theological method (from non-realist narrativity to realist materialist phenomenology) risked the same distortion.

Dan took these points constructively, acknowledging that he possibly hadn't fairly represented the meaning of the phrase "suspending the material" and that the language of realism and non-realism is problematic in relation to Radical Orthodoxy. However, he maintained that, even at points where Milbank stresses that the Christian narrative is not grounded in anything other than itself (hence, Dan's characterisation of this position as non-realist), he is left - as a reader - unconvinced that Milbank doesn't "actually believe" the narrative is a realist one. As a project, Radical Orthodoxy depends upon the persuasive powers of its story... I guess it has a way to go to convince Dan, then... or me.

Neal's paper, "Phemoneology as Eschatological Materialism," reflected upon broader questions of the nature of phenomenology. How can phenomenology - the study of "things themselves" - talk of God without turning God into a thing? Neal suggested that phenomenology's recent so-called "turn" to eschatology enables us to see that, rather than eschatology adding to phenomenology "from without," we might say, phenomenology is revealed as inherently eschatological. Specifically, not only does phenomenological reflection on intentionality reveal a two-fold notion of time as horizontal and diachronic, but that this two-fold notion of time is what phenomenology is. It is, therefore, inherently eschatological. This means, further, that the eschatological turn in phenomenology is, rather, a making explicit of what is already central to phenomenology. One of Neal's edited collection adds to these suggestions: Phenomenology and Eschatology: Not Yet in the Now.

After Paul Fiddes' keynote, "The Sublime, the Conflicted Self, and Attention to the Other: Neglected Contributions from Iris Murdoch and Julia Kristeva," I took myself off to read through my paper before presenting in the late afternoon. This has already been a rather long post, so I'll leave my reflections on the rest of Saturday's events, as well as on the panel I was most looking forward to - Sunday morning's "Political Theology" panel from the Association of Continental Philosophy of Religion - for another day.

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