In this two-part interview, the theologian J. Kameron Carter discusses his current work regarding political theology and the construction of the modern racialized world, speaks about the Obama presidency and the recent Occupy movement, and reflects on theology’s ongoing work in the wake of colonialism. Part I of the interview addresses Carter’s current work as it relates to his first book, Race: A Theological Account, and presses into the nature of political theology within modernity’s “scripts of racial governance.” Engaging figures as diverse as W. E. B. Du Bois and Karl Barth, Carter interrogates the social logic of atonement and calls attention to the “problematic of how the death of Christ came to be thought of in such a way as to lend itself to being a social form or a form of social organization.”

The Other Journal (TOJ): It’s been three years since you published your highly acclaimed book Race: A Theological Account, in which you argue that the problem of modern racism has its roots in a particular form of Christian supersessionism that gave birth to modern notions of race. In many ways that book seems to represent a culmination of your doctoral work at the University of Virginia—here I am thinking specifically of your work in patristics—and your interest in black intellectuals and critical theory as theological resources. Are you still asking questions related to that book, and if so, how would you describe your current work as it has developed on the topic of race and theology?

J. Kameron Carter (JKC): Indeed, I am still asking the kinds of questions I posed in Race, and I think you’re right in your basic characterization of the book. But I first want to say that it is my first book, not my last. I was only clearing my throat in it, trying to figure out some things that I was worrying over in my doctoral work—things that I still worry over.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that Race as a book must be distinguished from my doctoral dissertation, which bears the same title. In many ways it’s a leap-off book, a departure from my doctoral work; as a book it is totally new, completely rewritten. One of the main reasons I rewrote the dissertation and altered its argument was because I wasn’t satisfied with the trajectory of my dissertation in terms of its handling of the relationship between theology and race. I wasn’t satisfied because my dissertation had not wrestled deeply enough with theology’s own implicatedness in the constitution of modernity’s racial imagination. I was working within that woefully inadequate binary of orthodoxy versus liberalism to try to understand the racial world as a certain kind of Christian production. And because I was still working within that binary, I had not yet realized that orthodoxy and liberalism are not viable alternatives for the oppressed.

Rey Chow, in her fabulous book The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism,[1] shows that there is a mode of resistance—let’s call it liberal resistance, for lack of a better way to frame it right now—that, paradoxically, only ends up reproducing the order of things. But traditional orthodoxy—and this is the crucial thing I’ve had to learn and hadn’t yet figured out in graduate school—can also reproduce the order of things; it too can function on the topside of the slave ship. And such qualifiers as narrative theology or radical orthodoxy don’t necessarily provide protection. I had not yet figured out that both theological liberalism and theological orthodoxy can function as modalities of governance for grounding the authority of Western man as the privileged figure of modernity, the figure in relationship to whom life is regulated.

Thus, my project is neither a new orthodoxy nor, shall we say, a new black theology (where black theology is often deployed both as a term of a specific kind of theological liberalism and a term of dismissal). The shift from the 2001 dissertation to the 2008 book reflects my movement beyond the orthodoxy-liberalism binary. The point of my drawing on patristics like Maximus the Confessor and others in my book isn’t to affirm orthodoxy; it is to reposition some of their theology and concepts inside the traumas of the racial world of modernity and the traumas of the making of modern subjectivities and modern procedures of evaluation and the like. In the book, I’m clearing my throat and trying to track, in terms of the race question, the relationship between system and society, between theological expression and its internal social imaginaries, and between doctrine and doxa, which I mean in the Bourdieuian sense.[2]

As I’ve said, this involved me in a new kind of apprenticeship to the craft of theology and required a much deeper critical engagement with blackness and its future. I had to digest my Cedric Robinson (Black Marxism), Hortense Spillers (that seminal essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” among others),  and the great Du Bois, Fanon, and Césaire.[3] There was a whole world of vital material I had to engage. Back in the world of theology—for in the end, all of my intellectual questing is because I’m a theologian—there was further growth I had to undergo. What finally emerged from all of this was the Race book.

In Race I tried to bring together aspects of black studies and black thought; aspects of modern thought, critical theory, critical studies, and philosophy; and aspects of patristic and modern theology as a way to determine Christianity’s and theology’s own participation in the constitution of racial reality. How did Christianity and theology incubate the racial world? How are we all—and the “all” here is significant, for I mean Christians and non-Christians alike—inside of and contending with what Christianity and its theologians set in motion? These questions can only make sense if we shift our thinking away from Christianity—and for that matter, away from so-called religion—as a set of discreet doctrinal ideas to which we give or refuse to give intellectual assent and toward an understanding of Christianity and doctrine as beliefs that are intrinsically tied to social processes. In a very concrete sense, Christianity and doctrine are themselves social processes and are thus about formation. They are about a certain production of the social self, of subjectivity, to risk a term often bandied about in theoretical circles. Race tried to get inside of this nexus of doctrine and social doxa, of Christianity and its social imagination at the “flashpoint” of the global idea of race, to borrow an idea from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History.[4]

Now you asked whether I am I done with this project, whether I am on to other things. In many ways, no. I’m still trying, in some sense, to sharpen the arguments I began developing in Race, to put finer corners on some of the edges of the arguments that I’ve developed there. I made it to the end of the book and felt that I had only scratched the surface. But the tenure clock was loudly ticking, and as I like to say, I work for food—I had to make sure I had a job, so I put the final period in the book. But that final period is really the ellipsis of a “to be continued.”

Thus, in my current work I’m concerned with going even further into regions of black studies and black thought, and shall I say, “dark thought,” as it relates to Christian theology. I’m still very much a theologian and so I am still interested in the constructive work of theology, especially given theology’s and Christianity’s implicatedness in the making of modern racial identities. I am interested in the ways that theology and Christianity are implicated in the making of self-determination, the so-called free subject, and in the making of the so-called citizen subject, who is born out of homo-christianus (i.e., “Christian Man”), who then becomes homo-modernus (i.e., “modern man,” “Occidental man,” or “Western man”).[5] In speaking of the problem of Man, we’re in the sphere of anthropology, of the figure of the human, of theological anthropology. Moreover, in speaking of Man I’m gesturing toward the specifically racial-gendered architecture of this unique creature of modernity. I’m also gesturing to the work of the Caribbean intellectual Sylvia Wynter and her profound meditations on the making of “Man” and what it means to think of the human “after Man”—how Occidental Man still feeds off of the medieval production of Christian man.[6] I’m also thinking about the work of Frantz Fanon. And in the midst of these analyses, I want to consider how might we reimagine what Christian theology is all about given Christian theology’s own implicatedness in the production of these realities. From the standpoint of the world of modern and contemporary Christian theology, I’m finding resources for answering this in unlikely places. For example, people like Wynter and a whole host of other transatlantic thinkers, chief among them Fanon, Richard Wright, Aimé Césaire, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Édouard Glissant. What many transatlantic black intellectuals are providing me are ways to think out where the kind of air pockets of resurrection reside, right inside the death zones of modernity.

I want to do theology right inside the air pocket, right inside the zone of the new humanity and the social space that is Jesus. And in case the metaphor of the air pocket is insufficiently Scriptural for some people, I would just say that one way to think about the death of Jesus is that Jesus actually descends right into zone of death, the fallenness of the creature. His death witnessed to a mode of life, and his resurrection was an affirmation of that mode of life; a distinct way of being human was complete and full and utterly accomplished in him. His mode of life, the way he lived, was fugitive from the order of things. He cared for the poor, fed the hungry, hung out with menaces to society, refused to judge according to our measure of judgment (indeed, his judgment was against all judgment); he worked on the Sabbath, doing good and healing the sick even and especially on that day. This was his mode of life, his way of being human. And it was a threat. He was homo inimicus; his life was inimical. He was the quintessential enemy to both the religious order of things and, especially, to Roman imperial society. And because of this there was massive collusion to kill him by his Jewish compatriots, Roman/Gentile society, and even within the fold of his followers, the disciples (the “Christians” themselves). No one escaped. But even death did not stop him: he was resurrected.

I know that there’s been much important theological ink spilled over how to interpret the resurrection. These are important discussions that as a theologian I continue to follow and that I have my own judgments about. But as my daughter says, “Let’s not get it twisted” or lose the point. The resurrection, if nothing else, is the affirmation of Jesus’s unique and distinct way of being in the world, the very way of being he was killed for. What was accomplished in him was accomplished in a way that could never happen by us, and yet he invites us not merely to imitate him (for we can’t), but to participate in his way of being and his resurrection. This is what I mean by the air pocket, by the zone of life that Jesus himself is. Jesus enters into the region of death—the slave ship, the slave plantations, the underwater mortuary of the sea itself where many Africans-become-slaves/Negros now rest as seedlings of the ocean deep—and there articulates life. He lives humanity. And so, Christian theology at its best should be a fugitive discourse. It thinks from the position of the slave who “steals away,” as the Negro spiritual puts it. Or to borrow from my colleague here at Duke, Fred Moten, who is a poet and works in the English department and who is doing some of the most creative work in black studies today, theology is or ought to be a discourse of “stolen life”—life escaped from the order of things.[7] This is what blackness witnesses to (and here I mean blackness not as an essence but as a witness to a different mode of the human being and thus as a provocation for theological anthropology). As one of the students in my atonement class put it, blackness names a mode of life in which suffering refuses to be narrated simply as a death. How do we theologically account for such a mode of life, for life in the break? What is its architecture? Can reflection on such a form of life inform Christian theology today?

TOJ: This helps to explain your recent turn toward political theology. For example, on July 18, 2011, you published a review on the Immanent Frame of Paul Kahn’s recent book, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept Sovereignty, which was a sort of update to the Carl Schmitt’s original book on sovereignty published in 1922.[8] In the article you suggest that the next horizon for political theology as a mode of critical inquiry is to learn from black intellectuals and others who have written largely from a non-European perspective of abjection, and as you say, out of those sites “where sacrificial sovereignty or normalized peoplehood was constituted—and contested—in modernity.” How do these matters relate to the “air pocket” that you’ve described? Can you unpack what you mean by abjection and what you mean by those contested sites of sacrificial sovereignty?

JKC: This is a nice place to explain how Race represents a sort of announcement of the beginning of a project and not a definitive or concluding statement. In chapter 2 of Race, “The Theo-Politics of Race,” I deal with the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and this term, theo-politics of race, is crucial. I didn’t realize it as deeply as I do now—again, I was just clearing my intellectual throat—but in many ways Kant gives us some of the most crucial early Enlightenment statements to articulate modernity as the zone of life management. Michel Foucault and others, like the Italian philosophers Giorgio Agamben and, more recently, Roberto Esposito, have thought this out in terms of what they’ve called “biopolitics,” a politics or government of life itself. My interest in the Kant chapter, in part, was examining the convergence of the theological and the political in modernity’s strategies for governing the life of the people, particularly in the ways these strategies aim to form certain kinds of subjects. The claim of my book is that the name of that governmental convergence is race, which is constituted through a series of antagonisms by which certain determinations are made as to who properly belongs, et cetera. The tragedy of modern Christianity—again, I was trying to lay this out in the book—is how Christians allowed the scripts of racial governance and the story of racial belonging to be more determinative in how they understood themselves than the scripts of love and belonging. In that chapter, I wanted to highlight Kant’s investment in and theorizing about strategies of racial governmentality, that is, racial belonging vis-à-vis his theorizations of race. I wanted to establish how a residual Christian imagination was at work here at the site of Kant’s racial reasoning, albeit a Christian imagination that was restructured within the bounds of reason alone for Kant. Again, I was trying to demonstrate that, for Kant, at the convergence of the theological and the political there is the formation of the proper Western man, the true citizen-subject, or, more specifically for Kant’s context, the proper German cultured class, a Bildungsbürgertum: and so we have the proper human as the proper citizen. What his race theory starts to explain by negative implication is the nature of the improper human as the improper citizen. My concern was to demonstrate that a long-standing imperial-colonial imagination that was also wrapped up in Christian theology stood behind this.

Now the piece I did for the Immanent Frame on Kahn’s book was a sort of announcement of how, in my view, our reflection on the problematics of political theology, if I may invoke the artist Beyoncé, “needs to be upgraded.”[9] In many instances, issues of flesh management are being connected to issues of political theology, but what remains to be deeply thought through are issues of race and political theology. To really grapple with this would entail taking into account issues of space, place, and what may be termed issues of the modern surface, issues like skin, costume, architecture, and performance. When Paul Laurence Dunbar spoke of “wearing the mask” in his famous poem, he was on point in describing modernity: the self is a social performance in which one dons or inhabits the skin of another and thus lives through a “second skin” of sorts, a theme masterfully explored by literary theorist Anne Ahnlin Cheng.[10] All of this, by the way, raises profound questions for how we might understand the incarnation and what Christian subjectivity and discipleship are all about. These are the types of issues that must be brought into the horizon of political theology. They are what I—drawing from Foucault—call issues of governmentality; indeed, these are issues of racial governance.

I suggest that neither Kahn—though he’s written a very important book—nor Schmitt before him, nor far too many others in the swelling conversations that take place in the humanities today about political theology, have begun to take this on as crucial to any understanding of modern political theology. We might say that racial governmentality is what is being repressed in conversations about political theology. This is a huge problem and it is what I was starting to name in the piece I did on Kahn’s book. Now to be fair, Agamben’s Foucauldian-inflected work in his homo sacer trilogy clearly moves in the direction of the problem of government, economy, and the management of life. Agamben’s latest work, The Kingdom and the Glory, is very, very important because he connects the problem of governance and economy to its original and paradigmatic home in Christian theology, especially patristic theology, where we find the divine economy articulated in Trinitarian terms. His argument is going to give many theologians heartburn because if he’s right, the problem of biopolitics represents an ongoing social display of a certain Trinitarian imagination that is so pervasive as to be now thorough, complete, and thus invisible to us.[11]

Yet I argue that there still is a certain abstraction in much of this work insofar as the problem of the government of flesh never quite seems to clarify itself as in fact the problem of racial governmentality—indeed, the racial-gendered problem of Western Man. We could even say that the overdetermination of the figure of the human by white masculinity is a distinct kind of theological production. But in order to make this move, one would need to think of political theology as Schmitt’s contemporary Walter Benjamin did, from the tradition of the oppressed. One might then see that the friend-enemy distinction that drives modern political theology and that works in lockstep with racial governance requires a third term to explain what’s going on: not only is there the subject (the “friend”) and the object (the “enemy”), but there is also abjection (the “abject”), that is, the one who is neither friend nor enemy, the one who is the no-body, homo inimicus, the inimical. What does it mean to think about an entity whose very constitution is as the no-body?

An example of this may be found in the novels and poetry of Richard Wright, who tried to portray how blackness in modernity occupied the position of the inimical. Wright understood that the inimical is a religious position and that it thus may be dealt with in religious terms. He sought literarily and poetically to represent how blackness, as a figure assigned to death, was the product of Western Christianity’s social operations, indeed, of its atonement theology. Atonement was made to operate socially so that blackness was conceived as life destined to die, as dishonorable life, as guilty life, and therefore, as punishable life. I suggest that Wright and others were in effect interrogating the theo-political condition of blackness and that he and others were at the same time rethinking political theology. They were rethinking its internal logics of flesh management and racial governance; they were offering suggestions for reconceiving of the death of Jesus in relationship to his life. That is, they were rethinking atonement and the future of death, which is to say, the future of life and the meaning of the human. What I seek to do under the provocation of thinkers like Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, and other unlikely theological interlocutors is to put the problem of wretchedness and abjection on the table for politico-theological reflection.

TOJ: Would you say something about how you’re starting to pursue this trajectory of inquiry into political theology?

JKC: I recently published two essays on Karl Barth and W. E. B. Du Bois in which, again, I was trying to put texture on this concern about how we understand the political and the theological. In those essays, I draw on two works that were written contemporaneously: Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, published in 1921, and Du Bois’s Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, published in 1920. Both works are trying to think through the religious logics of the Great War, World War I, and specifically through the problematics around what Du Bois described as the “dashing of the religion of whiteness on the shores of our time.”[12] What I’m trying to show is how Barth and Du Bois were picking up on the ways that this religion of whiteness was utterly demolished by the war but was mutating vis-à-vis the Treaty of Versailles and through the new ways in which modern states were being thought of as nation-states and not just as sovereign-states under the rule of dynasties and kings. Both Barth and Du Bois are trying to think through the “theo-logics,” as I have put it, of this new rise of statecraft in terms of the new forms of nationalism arising within the European nation-states. What I press into is how both Du Bois and Barth, unbeknownst to each other, were thinking through how the events of World War I and Versailles were episodes in the modern world’s long history of governing the flesh of the body politic. Both were interrogating how religion operated within this problem. In many ways Du Bois goes further in his analysis of the problem than Barth, but I argue that these two point to new ways in which political theology and the theological economy of the flesh are articulating each at the dawn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, they show how one must understand this problematic as the continuation of the problem of mastery and slavery, or in the terms mentioned above, a continuation of the determination of proper subjects and those abjected from the order of things.

The stuff that I’m working on and thinking through now tries to expand all of this by considering questions of abjection in light of the atonement, the Christian doctrine that deals with death and, more specifically the paradigmatic death, the death of Christ. Following Du Bois and Barth, I’m interested in the social logics and politics of the atonement. Both of these thinkers started to press into this problem in their diagnoses of the post-World War I Western world, and in Barth’s case, the beginning of the crucial period of Weimar German culture when Christian theology was adjusting to the postwar conditions. Du Bois and Barth call attention to the problematic of how the death of Christ came to be thought of in such a way as to lend itself to being a social form or a form of social organization. Barth’s Romans commentary and Du Bois’s fiction, particularly his short story “Jesus Christ in Texas,” thus press us to rethink the identity of Jesus to open from his life a different social form and a different mode of social organization.

[1] See Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002). This is a book overflowing with profound theological implications and insights about, for lack of a better way to put it, minority subjectivity; and it is full of analyses of what it means to be, shall we say, an “obedient and model minority.”

[2] See Pierre Bourdieu, “Structures, Habitus, Practices,” in The Logic of Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 52–79.

[3] See Robinson and Robin D. G. Kelley, Black Marxism: The Makng of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1983); and Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[4] “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. . . . For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” (Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections [New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968], 255).

[5] Following Sylvia Wynter, “Man” is capitalized to emphasize the masculine nature of this invention. As but one example of her important work, see “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (Fall 2003): 257–337.

[6] Ibid., 260–61.

[7] See for a recording of the Negro spiritual in which the slave “steals away”; and see Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[8] Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[9] See Beyoncé, “Upgrade U,” B’Day, By the way, I love this song!

[10] See Dunbar “We Wear the Mask,” in Selected Poems (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004), 54; and Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[11] See Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, [1995] 1998); State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and the recently published and vital work The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, [2007] 2011).

[12] See Carter, “An Unlikely Convergence: Du Bois, Karl Barth, and the Problem of the Imperial God-Man,” CR: The New Centennial Review 11.3 (2012) and “Between Du Bois and Karl Barth: The Problem of Modern Political Theology,” in Race and Political Theology, ed. Vincent W. Lloyd (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, in press); Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, [1921] 1968); and Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, [1920] 2004), particularly 22.