“Democracy and Apophasis: Longing for a Just Community”–abstract for IFTR 2015

On July 6 begins the 2015 conference for the International Federation for Theatre Research. It’s the first time I’ve been able to attend, and this year it is in Hyderabad, India. The theme is “Performance and Democracy”. I will be representing the Performance and Religion Working Group, and the abstract of my paper (which I am still working on!) is below:

Democracy and Apophasis: Longing for a Just Community20120508-augustine Giusto_di_GandJoos_van_Wassenhove

Apophatic spiritualities revel in the paradox of the impossibility of belief, turning instead to an epistemology of the negative. From the ancient Platonists’ rejection of earthly manifestation of the true, to the existential dialectics of Soren Kierkegaard and his failed “leap” of faith, to French Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion’s apophatic phenomenology of the gift, and “post-theological” philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s negative notion of the Other through Being as both singular and plural, modern and recent negative theologies correspond to negative epistemologies—how one may know beyond belief; knowledge in the absence of positivistic affirmation or even hope. If we consider contemporary negative theologians alongside performance theory from the last twenty years or so, a pattern of negative thought emerges. Especially in relationship to gender and queer theory, concern for the indistinguishable, the non-categorizable, and the felt presence of the absent and unknown marks the rise of performance studies throughout the 1990s and into the 21rst century. Muñoz’s and Halberstam’s work between utopias and other “queer arts” highlight the revolutionary potential of impossibility, while the “poetics of failure” (Bailes) demonstrate how the accidental and the unknown can open up the performance of the possible. Throughout the development of the discourses that describe theatre and performance studies, both transformation and resistance remain key terms that mark an abiding interest in such liminal experiences (MacKenzie). However, such theories are still based upon positivistic outcomes: learning, development, change. What can we learn from a history of thought that radically rejects the positive, not only negating any positive proposition, but striving to negate the negation as well? This paper will look to one foundational apophatic thinker whose writings have helped shape, for good or for ill, theories of democracy: St. Augustine of Hippo. I will focus on Augustine’s Confessions, which, written as monologs to be orally performed for friends, dramatize the soul’s search for God. The abiding emptiness at the core of the restless heart makes the soul what it is: a vehicle of longing for the Lord. The Confessions are a spiritual autobiography, but also an allegory for community. Just as at the heart of the Soul’s relationship with God is an emptiness forever waiting to be filled, so too is a good community structured by constant longing for justice. The work of self-discovery in the Confessions is the work of discernment in discovering the just society. Just as Augustine was constantly haunted by the question, “How can I long for what I do not know?” so too must a democratic society strive for a justice it has not yet embodied. Through explication of Augustine’s performative spiritual autobiography as political theology, I suggest that democracy itself can also be understood as a negative epistemology, and that there is nothing short of our humanity itself at stake not only in our awareness of the blind spots in our knowledge, but also in our ability to negate the performance of our own ignorance.

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