The word “performance” is quite appropriate to the world of academia. Such a world exists often to perpetuate itself in its cloistered conferences, panels and endless need to produce for consumption publications in order to justify continued funding for whatever department in whatever school of a university one finds oneself. In such a context, it is difficult to avoid seeing the commodization of thought which Horkheimer and Adorno seek to combat in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment. This production and consumption logic permeates even discourse that seeks to ground itself in whatever reinvigorated neo-Marxist theory is “sexy”, making what once was of true utopian significance another “it” to which one may come to identify and perpetuate. Thought as commodity and we, the academics, have not an idea of what we are as that entity which enquires nor what exactly it means to enquire or what we even are enquiring about. Rather, we perform and construct programmes for others to consume, conceptually, but more narcissistically, in the construction of a picture of the academic.
This is the person defined as that bourgeois individual who seeks not the betterment of humanity as their impetus for study, but some trifling selfishness hidden behind an excuse of blunt “curiosity” or because they find that they have a knack for writing. There is no revolutionary potential in this person, this person who most assuredly wishes to write and speak and publish about freedom and emancipation with no courage to affect the change their poetic prose suggest. This is a dangerous person, insofar as this academic squelches the fiery passion what enquiry can be, namely, a rigorous pursuit of truth as that which empowers and frees individuals from the oppression of delusionary ideals and material oppression.
The question posed to someone studying in the humanities “why does this matter?” cannot be written off as rooted in simple ignorance. To so relegate the realist concern for what and why this or that discourse is to continue in an oppressive programme of hegemonic domination of thought by this constructed picture of the academic. Someone is always deciding, deciding what thought matters and what thought can be dismissed. The power to decide is associated with the picture the academic projects of her/himself. This becomes the real truth insofar as the projected individual or group of individuals makes the ultimate decision through their perceived credibility, whether or not their followers really understand the conceptual frameworks being advanced.
As I reflect upon my own situatedness in academia I am taken with the idea that for my own discipline to survive we must continually be revisiting what it means to be self-reflexive about who, what and why we are. I am specifically situated as a postgraduate student working at the intersections of theology, philosophy and literature. The previous paragraphs of this brief post reflect the fact of my own wrestling with the reflexive task insofar as I have in mind specific interactions born of this place within academia. In particular, it seems that theology can formulate no clear direction for itself as a discourse among discourses in the academy. This is certainly a broad statement but I want to continue in my assertion if only to spark conversation here and in the following weeks posts.
Theology students are given a variety of reasons with regard to the “why” question of their education. However, two poles seem to suspend the spectrum of theological education. On the one instance, the student is fed resources proper to whichever denomination lays claim to their academic soul. On the other, students are given a myriad of theoretical resources, usually in the realm of sociological and continental theory, and then told to not only understand these resources, without rigorous historical training in philosophy, but also told to apply them somehow to theology (which usually nets the very underwhelming sort of writing I myself exemplify in my first post about Badiou and theology…fuck my life).
In the former, theology appears to justify itself by appeal to an internal logic. The bible or the creed or whatever authoritative idol provides the definition for the who, what and why of discourse. Other modes of enquiry must simply learn that theology dictates their own functionality and, by way of some sort of genealogical analysis of history in which the theological becomes secularised, their very existence. This is what some might call a textbook version of fideism, as it cannot but recourse to itself for its justification. In the latter instance students are not given any clear vision for why they are using the various theoretical resources and the end result appears just as fideistic. They are given a common sense of political involvement and social concern appropriate to the Democratic National Convention and told that the god of Christianity not only exists but exists in something that looks very much like this pseudo-activist. This is true even when they say god is not this sort of liberal-democratic citizen given his apocalyptic transcendence or whatever.
In reality, theirs is a hoped for god who resembles very much the bourgeois academic described above. Theirs is a god both radically other yet still somehow immanent enough to warrant the bastardised usage of theory that has nothing to do with their theological disposition. In short, students associate with trends and construct their own projects in line with the motivations mentioned above. Some jettison belief but insist that they do not by speaking of Christian atheism or radical theology. Others dig into the apocalyptic, utilizing it as a trump card similar to those who appeal to the internal validity of theology’s “logic” as authority. The apocalyptic in this sense functions for the student as a means to avoid realist concerns and becomes a means by which the theologian seeks psychological comfort. This is understandable, albeit regrettable, since who would want to admit that the “academic” life they have been leading is really a fantastical projection?
Given this state of affairs, and it is ‘given’ insofar as I am the one giving this as the state of affairs out of my own perspective, the state of theology as a discourse in the university seems to be one of confusion. If theology cannot dialogue with other disciplines without either subsuming them or abusing them, if theology cannot account for itself in a way that is intelligible to the thinking person who seeks to understand from the outside of this particular language game (to say nothing of how delusional we are if we really think that relativizing language by abusing Wittgenstein and Gadamer in this way is legitimate), then “why does this matter”?
“I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to start.” Ernst Bloch’s refrain, penned in his work The Spirit of Utopia, I take to give us the beginnings for how to begin to reflect upon what/who we are as enquirers, what/who we enquire about and the initial why for our continued participation in the educational process. The humanities can only be justified if we retrieve its namesake, if we again and again come back to the human. Regardless of the overarching metaphysical trappings we may gravitate toward, our ontical existence gives us our starting point and it is here that we can discover our camaraderie as fellow sentient beings living with one another. In this sense, the self-reflexive task for the academic in theology is both deeply phenomenological and deeply social.
Thus, the reason for the current rant/introduction to a new series of posts here on FoT. In the following weeks Sean, Joel and I will be exploring the nature of pedagogical theory as this relate to the humanities in general and to theology in particular. My hope is that this will inspire some real conversation on the blog about what the fuck we are all doing in our respective places in academia. Furthermore, I am hoping that our conclusions, differing, as I am sure they will be, will point toward a basic responsibility to society. Academia must account for why it matters and we as students and future professors must be so in order to affect difference in society, even if this turns out to be a futile and tragic process.