poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death


  Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
  As dead as we shall ever be,
  Speaks of some total gain or loss,
  And you and I are free

  To guess from the insulted face
  Just what Appearances He saves
  By suffering in a public place
  A death reserved for slaves.

W.H. Auden, Friday’s Child

The core thesis of Adam Kotsko’s The Politics Of Redemption is that any theological account of the meaning of atonement - the sense in which Christ’s death on the cross was a “saving” or “atoning” act - must call into the frame an “ontological infrastructure” capable of accounting for both the state of affairs addressed by the atoning act, and the “saving power” of the act itself. We need a way of saying “what is wrong” not only with some local structure or situation, but with the human world in its entirety, in order to frame Christ’s execution by the Roman authorities as a globally significant and redeeming event.

Theological talk about “redemption” thus has a natural affinity with other discourses which attempt to give the broadest possible account of the human (social and historical) condition: its concerns tend to run parallel to theirs, even if its terms of reference are sometimes strongly incompatible. Indeed, it may at times be almost impossible to tell theology and social theory apart, as theologians dutifully demythologise and social theorists find their aspirations leading them willy nilly into metaphysics (I obviously mean things like dialectical materialism, rather than talking about angels).

There are points in The Politics of Redemption where an indistinction of this kind takes hold, and it seems to me that Kotsko is deploying theological language as a fund of metaphors for discussing a kind of social anthropology mixed with systems theory. The domain of the metaphor is mythology, but the target is a Hegelianised sociology. An open question, still problematic for me, is whether this metaphorical mapping is perhaps really an isomorphism: does the picture-language of Christianity have anything finally to say about human social being and its ultimate concerns that couldn’t equally well be said by critical social theory, armed with a suitably powerful “ontological infrastructure” of its own?

Perhaps the answer is no; and perhaps it doesn’t matter. The affective and persuasive dimensions of discourse signify too, and even if one were to grant total parity of conceptual expressivity between theology and social theory, there would still be a performative difference between (say) liberation theology and post-Althusserian marxism. Leaving aside questions of doctrine (or conceptual compatibility, under translation), liberation theology employs a different theatrics to (for example) Leninist politics: notably, a different relationship to violence. This in turn entails a real difference at the level of political action, in the counter-theatrical means with which liberation theology confronts the “theatrics of terror” employed by imperial power.

In my view, the most significant consequence Kotsko derives from his survey of various liberation theologies is what we might call an ontological option for the poor. The choice of a “social-relational ontology”, based on mutually-determining processes of individuation, over an “individualistic ontology” based on rule-governed interactions between ready-composed monads, is - to put it baldly - a choice of the ontology of the oppressed over the ontology of the oppressor. Kotsko glosses the fundamental incompatibility - the ontological parallax - between these two views as follows:

The difference between oppressor and oppressed is not simply that of different social conditions as such: the role of the oppressor incites and even requires his wilful ignorance of the social reality that underwrites his privilege. Presumably if a white person undertook a thorough-going analysis of the social structure…then he or she would wind up concluding something similar to [James H.] Cone, namely that Jesus ”is black because the was a Jew”. That is to say, they would recognise the strong parallels between Christ’s own situation as a Jewish peasant living under Roman rule and that of blacks in America and therefore perceive Jesus as a liberatory figure bringing hope to the oppressed in both those contexts. Instead, white theology is dominated by abstraction, granting abstract authority to the Bible while missing its key message and reducing the Christian message to a matter of abstract internal dispositions with no relation to actual social conditions.

I believe that this distinction between the white and black mind-set can be mapped out onto the distinction between an individualistic and a social-relational style of thought. Blacks have an epistemological advantage because they are essentially forced to be aware of the oppressive social structures under which they live, while whites have the luxury of ignoring their own role in oppression and chalking everything up to individual choices.

This is very baldly stated, and risks incurring a lot of high-hackled spluttering about stereotyping and unwarranted generalisations, but the basic point here is not that white and black people have - for reasons to do with some intrinsic or “culturally determined” whiteness or blackness - different “styles of thought”, but that oppression produces a disjunction between oppressor and oppressed at the level of the basic ontological co-ordinates of their responses to their respective situations.

There is a slight elision here between “epistemological advantage” (the oppressed know something about oppression that their oppressors do not - and indeed are required not to know) and “ontological style”, or the basic grammar and syntax of the reflecting mind’s attempts to articulate the world and its contents. My guess is that the chain of differential production here goes something like this. Differences in “ontological infrastructure”, as it is laid out implicitly or explicitly in theology, social theory or philosophy, are second-order reflections of differences in cognitive style, which are themselves produced by different social-epistemological pressures (what one needs to know, and the kinds of knowing one needs in order to get by).

Of course this chain of productions can be interrupted and rerouted: a privileged person can come to know things that he has no “need” to know, and even - with far greater difficulty - things that he needs not to know. But the privileged person who does this will not only be “bucking the trend” but also bringing himself into conflict with powerful social mechanisms of discipline and reinforcement. These same mechanisms are already known to the oppressed person whose social being they exist primarily in order to regulate - a fact which strongly conditions the understanding people on each side of the division between oppressed and oppressor have of the meaning of “the Cross”, or the moment of Christ’s confrontation with the imperial theatrics of torture, humiliation and execution. In particular, as Kotsko demonstrates at length, it has been important for some black and feminist/womanist theologians to avoid construing that confrontation as a selflessly passive endurance of suffering, and instead to understand “Christ’s work” on the cross as a work of active (non-violent) resistance to the Roman reign of terror.

Politics of Redemption makes a strong case - leading by example - for white theology to recognise that it must make itself intellectually accountable to the thought of black and feminist/womanist theologians in order to remain faithful to its ideal of accountability to the Gospel itself. Kotsko’s detailed working out of “the social logic of salvation” itself proceeds through a series of readings of patristic authors (Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm) alongside contemporary social theorists (Laclau and Mouffe, Judith Butler). I’m not competent to say whether specialists in patristics will find these readings illuminating, but they succeed in “re-motivating” the ontological problems addressed by these authors, and I hope will prove suggestive for future discussion of the Christian intellectual tradition. A particularly bold and effective move is Kotsko’s adoption from Korean theology of the concept of han, a term one might loosely translate as “heartbreak”, as a social-relational corrective to the overly-“religious” (in Bonhoeffer’s sense) and individualistic Western concept of sin.

Kotsko’s commitment to a social-relational worldview is borne out, finally, by the written style of the book: wry, serious and gently surprising, it never loses its sense of accountability to the reader (or, more properly, of mutual accountability between reader and author). Kotsko shows considerable skill in drawing clear argumentative sequences out of difficult texts (such as those of Jean-Luc Nancy), without ever traducing the complexity of his sources. I would readily recommend Politics of Redemption to students of theology, as well as practising theologians - and, of course, to anyone with an unprofessional interest like my own.