Theology and Non-Representational Theory

As I mentioned in my previous post, my current research on the role of rhythm in the doctrine of creation has taken me to thinking about the relationship between human culture and the natural world and to some of the research that happens at this intersection, in particular human or cultural geography. My introduction to human geography has come in the form of Nigel Thrift’s book, Non-Representational Theory: Nigel Thrift. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.

As you might expect, the theory is in part based on the work of philosophers like Deleuze and Foucault and sometimes advocates similar sorts of openness and experimentation. There is already theology that engages this sort of non- or post-representational theory. However, it seems to me that the method takes on a slightly different character in geography, especially in that its analysis seems to me more particular and concrete. It is this social-science version that I am interested in.

Helpful introductions can be found here, and here; there is even a Wikipedia article. Non-representational theory is a style of analyzing everyday life that attempts to think the pre-cognitive dimensions of reality, which shape how the world appears and the ways in which we are encouraged or discouraged to behave. Non-representational theory attempts to describe these flows of space-time precisely by identifying the scaffolds in which they are formed, rather than analyzing life in terms of representations of particular events. It therefore tends to notice flows, inter-connections, and the performance of actions in space-time, especially as they become regular practices. Thrift argues that the texture of space-time itself changes with different physical organizations of society. And thus the intersection between human culture and the natural world: culture shapes the ways in which the natural world appears to us in ways we are seldom aware of.

In our particular situation, a constant nexus of ongoing calculations forms a stable background-grid that enables reality to appear in terms of flux and movements, which flit across the surface of the grid. This has the feel of a natural environment – forces blowing this way and that independent of, though responsive to, any given person’s intervention. The resulting space is open-ended and relative, emerging as improvised through various encounters; reality is perpetual becoming (102). Nevertheless, this movement-space is dependent on and emerges from an absolute grid of calculation. The constant ongoing calculations of the GPS, for example, enable much more spontaneous movement. The work of navigation has been taken over by calculation such that space no longer appears to us in terms of planning and linearity but can emerge for us as we move through it (I would love to see non-representational theory applied to Pokémon Go!).

As a style of thinking rather than a circumscribed theory as such, non-representational theory tends to be used alongside other theoretical commitments and I would like to begin thinking about what it would mean to apply this methodology to theology. These are some of the ways in which I have thus far thought it might prove helpful:

·    There is much conversation about the various ways in which doctrines are embedded in historical, linguistic, and embodied contexts. Non-representational theory adds another layer to this sort of contextualization. Doctrines of creation in particular, which give an account of the nature of reality and the way in which the divine relates to created reality, may in part describe reality not strictly according to theological commitments but according to the way in which pre-cognitive forces collide to form a particular experience of space-time. If this is the case, then theology would have to be as much about evaluating the theological effects of such configurations as it is about evaluating doctrines themselves. Non-representational theory could help unearth those influences. 

·    Thrift is particularly interested in the way in which non-representational theory changes how it is that we think about ethics. The possibility of analyzing the environment as an ethical consideration is particularly fascinating. In the same way that the articulation of good doctrine may require an analysis of the space-time scaffold in which it is constructed, Christian ethics may require an analysis of the physical, pre-cognitive environment. Rather than asking questions about what I ought to do, this would be a matter of interrogating the patterns of movement and behavior that the currents of the environment encourage and discourage.

·   Finally, just as Thrift approaches the environment in terms of the intersection of biology and culture, he approaches the human in terms of a technologically-extended biology. This resonates with some of the theological work currently being done in transhumanism. Again, this may shift the question slightly from what it means to be human to what sorts of humans we are when technologically extended in certain ways. What is the human-cum-car, for example? Is it in any significant way different from the human-cum-bicycle? Does the nature of the human-divine relationship change if it becomes a human-car-divine relationship where the car is a pre-cognitive extension of the human body that in turn affects its experience of space and time?

Again, notice that I am not here so much interested in non-representational theory as a kind of Deleuzian approach to theology. This is already going on. Rather, I am instead interested in how non-representational theory as it has been used in fields like human geography and other social sciences may contribute to thinking about the nature of the relationship between theology/religion and the environment. Above are some examples, but I am interested in possible intersections others may have seen as well.



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