July 21, 2011 / Perspective
Author Matthew Dickerson explores the use of food in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and why food is the defining feature of the Hobbits’ culture.
August 26, 2015
Verona: Burt, are we fuckups?
Burt: No! What do you mean?
Verona: I mean, we’re thirty-four—
Burt: I’m thirty-three.
Verona: —and we don’t even have this basic stuff figured out.
Burt: Basic, like how?
Verona: Basic, like how to live.
Burt: We’re not fuckups.
Verona: We have a cardboard window.
Burt [Looks at window]: We’re not fuckups.
Verona [Whispers]: I think we might be fuckups.
Burt [Whispers back]: We’re not fuckups.
—Away We Go
What is theology, and what might it mean to be good or to succeed at it? Conversely, what does it look like to fail? In a recent plenary address at the 2013 annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Paul Griffiths argued that theological discourse is duly determined by its object: the logos of theology is determined by the identity of theos. In other words, proper theology is always ‘God-talk’ : a brave attempt at the faithful enunciation of the mysteries of divine being and acting. The kind of talk (logos) is constitutively shaped by the character of God (theos). Theology is a distinctly “discursive performance” that names who God is or who the gods are. While Christian theology may not follow these specific parameters, when it comes to the Catholic faith, Griffiths posits this additional determination that is indeed doctrinally defined for him:
Catholic theology is responsive to the Lord’s doctrinal self-gift, which is to say the gift of a lexicon and a syntax for thinking and speaking about the Lord, and of a substantive set of teachings about the Lord’s nature and activity. That doctrinal self-gift is evident first and fundamentally in the canon of Scripture; and second and derivatively in the magisterially given and authoritatively binding teachings of the Church about matters that have to do with the Lord.
Theological success would particularly entail the skillful deployment of “the gift of a lexicon and a syntax for thinking and speaking about the Lord,” governed by “the canon of Scripture” and “the magisterially given and authoritatively binding teachings of the Church,” while disciplined by the tasks of discovery, interpretation, and speculation. As Griffiths goes on to argue, “the point and purpose of theological work” is “to bring the Church to greater cognitive intimacy with the Lord.” Griffiths admits that “it is easy, and common, for theologians to find themselves serving and seeking other goods—social justice, perhaps; or world peace; or the preservation of the created order—as if pursuing these things were theology’s primary task. But it is not.” These are merely “distractions.” Attempts by theologians to use theology to intervene in these matters flow from misconceptions about what theology is and what it is good for. Social and political matters should be addressed by social theory and political science, and not by theology, for while they are very important concerns, they are not theological in the proper sense.
As a political theologian, this argumentation strikes me as wildly insufficient and problematic. Does it not foreclose the possibility of immanent critique, that radical self-reflexivity which interrogates one’s own antagonistic contradictions and seeks openings for emancipatory social change? If our sense of theology is restricted to helping religious believers “achieve cognitive intimacy,” what then does theology have to say to the social unrest in Ferguson, the hostile rise of Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) and the Levant, the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the global public health crisis, or religious violence in the Central African Republic?
My objections here are not unique or original or even that interesting. In the broadest sense, theology has attempted, in recent decades, nothing less than a full-scale recalibration to resist this kind of privatized reduction of theology to ecclesial doctrine (i.e., Paul Tillich, David Tracy, James Cone, Mary Daly. and so on). It has done so by making itself more adept at addressing significant contemporary challenges and opportunities (sexism, poverty, religious violence, ecological crisis), not only in society, church, and politics but also in addressing pending crises in its methods and structure. These attempts have been polyphonic and varied, using assorted emphases and differing strategies to realize the power of theology in the public sphere, to rediscover its political character, or to return to its sacramental and aesthetic moorings. Some theologies have reinterpreted Christianity as a type of materialism or have attempted to excavate its lost feminist history. Yet these attempts have all been inadequate and ineffective because they all more or less opt for a politically charged theological discourse or a theologically charged political discourse. They either vacate the theological for the sake of pragmatics, or they all too easily leverage theology in favor of particular political commitments to such noble sounding ideals as reconciliation, justice, and peace—as if we know what those ideals should looks like. But perhaps this is not a matter of political theology becoming too political or insufficiently theological. To put it differently, it seems to me that political theology is inadequately critical – and failure may be just the remedy.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Halberstam presents failure as a queer strategy for life and persistence. Amid cultural formulations and dominative social forces that constrain and regulate all forms of knowing, acting, and being according to conventional logics of success, Halberstam proposes failure as a discursive practice that contrasts the narratives of neoliberalism, heteronormativity, queerphobia, and advanced market capitalism. Failure emerges as a queer “art of existence” that is uniquely capable of incubating and generating critical forms of thought and knowledge which can then clear space for alternative ways of life. These political formulations of failure, however, take a deeply dark turn: they are antisocial, antihumanist, and negative forms of life, modeled on the relational dynamics of atemporality, disjunction, dissensus, and unbecoming. Halberstam argues that this kind of unplugging is necessary to counter the dominative logics of success, many of which run along disciplinary, generational, and reproductive lines and which have often been the obstacles to the persistence and survival, much less the flourishing, of queer life.
If failure is the way forward, the queer art of existence, all beware! Failure should not be mistaken for a kind of “mystical nihilism” or subtractive rebellion from regulative social orders. For Halberstam, failing, losing, or getting lost is necessary, but it is not to be celebrated or lifted up as a hopeful path of redemption or liberation. To fail is to stutter, to fall, to stumble; it is the way of bleakness, futility, emptiness, and loss. The affective register for failed thought is defeat, sterility, and vacuity: “to fail [is] to to make a mess, to fuck shit up, to be loud, unruly, impolite, to breed resentment, to back back, to speak up and out, to disrupt, assassinate, shock, and annihilate.” These antisocial and antihumanist ways of knowing and acting, which are generated by queer styles of failure and loss, form, give shape to queer political subjects by habituating them towards anarchic practices of resistance and refusal.
Positivity and optimism are continually, and problematically, utilized as disciplinary tactics to form, regulate, and police political subjects into lives of complacency and complicity in a destructive and dominative sociopolitical order. And so, acts of failing and losing are rude, disorderly, and uncivil events that question whether discipline, legibility, mastery, and memory as strategies of success really provide the best avenue for queer ways of life. Childish and pointless acts of failing and of losing may indeed transgress and exceed the commonsense boundary of the sober grown up, but the space opened up by the anarchy of stupidity, forgetfulness, and silliness helps us to get beyond regulative norms and to use negative affects to undermine and expose the fallacies and false promises in the toxic positivity and optimism of contemporary life. Perhaps, Halberstam queries again and again, we are all better off being fuckups.
It is true that looking to failure to open up an alternative way of being may be read as both utopian and nihilist. Halberstam counters this by refusing to counter: failure is a decisively queer art, one that comes out of the concrete bodily experience of queer life, struggle, and persistence. We are reminded that queer theory has never sought to be a program, that in all its agonist hybridities and multiplicities, it has consistently eschewed anything like official recognition, establishment, or institutionalization. It has never tried to be normal or successful. It has embraced the naive, the nonsensical, and the uncouth, all of which has led to its status as subjugated knowledge, as queer persons and bodies have persisted in a world that has been constructed specifically to make their lives unlivable.
It is clearly discernible, then, how failure also entails a particularly queer form of politics. Beside the antisocial, antihumanist, and anarchist aspects, failure introduces a ruptured politics of negativity that does not seek anything resembling a revolutionary politics. Instead, this failure leads to a politics of critical resignation, even apathy. And so, what might a political theology look like that has taken up failure as a critical category for thinking about politics and theology in such a way that eschews political praxis for something much more inaugural and interventionary?
Failing as a queer way of life commits oneself to “not being taken seriously” and “losing one’s way.” This directly confronts the regulatory and formatives tactics of institutions, guilds, and disciplines, all of which depend on the standards of legitimacy and respectability. For queer folk, existing outside the domain of the normal is both the contested site of struggle and flourishing. For as Lee Edelman reminds us, “Queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one.” The queer, then, no longer marks identity but rather names a specific relation to power:
“Queer” . . . acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative—a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men but . . . available to anyone . . . marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.
As a liberatory act, failure is a queer art of existence because it is a position of resistance and nonobeisance to that which normativity deems right and successful. It can become a queer theological art by likewise refusing respectability and civility and actively calling to question the kind of regulatory, normalizing, and exclusionary practices that mark the life of our faith communities, our academic institutions, and our disciplinary guilds. By refusing respectability, order, and legibility, failure as a queer theological art takes up the affective register of rage, impoliteness, and disrespect in an effort to liberate itself from the toxic power of competition and the seductive pose of the normal, which are required to satisfy the script expected for recognition, belonging, or commendation. In a word or two, as queer art, theology must refuse to be successful and abandon all claims to legitimacy. It must no longer try to be taken seriously but instead present itself as a stupid alternative, an alien threat to the conventional logic of the guild, the powerful, and the disciplinary. Failure dissents from the prevailing ideas about success. Our failings also shift us away from actionist political projects by depriving theology of any self-satisfaction or moral sentimentality. Such failings are not desirable by any means (failure cannot merely be success by another name) but are nevertheless generative because they move us to do things differently, to take a breath and do something again, and to sustain our protest and dissent in all its anxiety-provoking and fear-inducing beauty.
But what does it mean for theology to be successful today? Of course, it depends on whom you ask, but dominant positions in the guild maintain that it must somehow contribute to establishing justice, peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, equality, and order. Theology must be practical, and by that I mean it must generate actual praxis. It must address the holy trinity of emancipatory politics (class, race, and gender) and be active in confronting concrete challenges in practical and actionable ways. Theology must do work. Theology must be praxis, and in absence of this, it is at best empty and at worst insidious.
To counter this, a critical political theology embraces the idea of failing at praxis; it takes an aggressively passive stance of protest and refusal toward the disciplinary policing of theological scripts. A theological account of failure, I argue, eschews outlining practical consequences or proposing actionist programs, but is nevertheless thoroughly political by recognizing the critical-theoretical aspect of its work, an aspect that is missing in Griffith’s account. A critical political theology follows Theodor Adorno, for whom the refusal to translate critical theory into a program for political action often led to the improper charge of political passivity and resignation. Yet, for Adorno, as for Halberstam, the call to practical activity, not the lack of a social program for change, was the most apathetic, the most resigned to the current configuration of political possibilities. It displays the inherent belief that the options before us are the best or only ones that we could think of and that any suspension of action was not worth it; nothing really could ever change.
Yet insofar as human emancipation is the common interest between queer theory, political theology, and critical theory, the real problem is that political theology (and all too often queer theory as well) frequently presumes to know exactly what human emancipation is and how to accomplish it. Learning failure as a queer theological art may help a political theology inhabit a more critical posture of negativity (as Halberstam explains) so as to discover something we cannot yet know and a future we have not pretended to have already mastered. I think the problem is that many political theologies buy into the positivity of emancipation without recognizing their complicity in the toxic logic of success, which is dependent and reliant on the demands and configurations of the present. They succeed by acting as if they know what ought to come and are unable, for example, to embrace justice, peace, and reconciliation for what they are: failed projects.
The critical distance that a theological account of failure takes from praxis arises from a thoroughgoing distrust for political immediacy that would constrain or otherwise impinge upon the autonomy of theory. Rather than acquiesce to a fusion of theory and praxis that would try to guide and inspire a revolutionary politics, a critical political theology questions the dominant role of practicality that guides modern theological thought, disavowing any kind of purchase it may have on the present for the sake of unencumbered, free, and opening thinking which is unconstrained by current demands of actionable immediacy.
Making failure both a critical and theological art will, perhaps, better position theology to respond to the inherent violence of the normal. A critical political theology may help us take a subversive posture of radical protest, avoiding hopeful and optimistic calls for a redemptive futurity and opting instead for a critical iconoclasm that reclaims the abnormal as a site of possibility for being and living. We might then realize that our options for engaging the world theologically move beyond doctrinal formulas, the generational logic of the history of ideas, and positive political agendas, which seem all too sure about what justice looks like and that reconciliation is always desirable. Instead, the queer art of failure might teach us theologians how to disrespectfully dissent from those prevailing ideas in order to imagine, to generate, and to fuck up, but to do so better.
 Griffiths, “Theological Disagreement: What It Is and How to Do It,” CTSA Proceedings 69 (2014): 23–36.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 25, and 26–29.
 Ibid., 28.
 Ibid., 29.
 Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 70–74, 124–25.
 Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless (London, U.K.: Verso, 2012), 103–155.
 Ibid., 23, 120-121.
 Ibid., 110.
 Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 186.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London, UK: Verso, 2003), 146.
 Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 6.
 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 17.
 David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 62.
 For more on this, see Theodor W. Adorno, “”Resignation,.”” Telos 1978.35 (1978): 165–-168, and Adorno, “Critique,”, in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1998), 281–-288. Adorno has often been critiqued for their “bourgeois idealist” refusal to involve themselves in active revolutionary struggles, most notably by Jurgen Habermas. Described as “the Grand Hotel Abyss” by Georg Lukacs in his indicting phrase, their theory consists “of nothing, of absurdity.” Georg Lukacs, Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosphical Essay on the Forms of Epic Literature, trans. Anna Rostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 22.. Christopher Brittain connects this directly to political and liberation theology in his excellent Adorno and Theology (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2010), 114–39.
Silas is a doctoral candidate in theology at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. His dissertation focuses on the relation of theology to ideology in political theology, critical theory, and continental philosophy of religion. He is also currently at work on a co-authored monograph on alienation and materialist theology, an introduction to Slavoj Žižek’s political theology, (both with Cascade Books), and is co-editing a volume on Kierkegaard and Political Theology (Pickwick Publications).