It’s job application season and as a postdoc who is nearing the end of her post, this is currently taking up large amounts of my time. I’ve never resented the job-application process, though. I find the exercises involved – trying to make sense of what one is about, trying to effectively and concisely communicate the significance of one’s research – to be a fantastic opportunity to zoom out and look at the whole forest, to remember why I do what I do.
This time around, I am noticing the many different points-of-view from which one could understand my research, each one emphasizing something slightly different. These are some of the different fields, topics and insights pertaining thereto that have come out of my research on rhythm:
One of the main conclusions of my research is the significance of oscillation in both the world in general, and for human understanding in particular. The pervasiveness of oscillating waves in the natural world is well-known to us, but one of the conclusions from research in poetics and social sciences is that as creatures bound to time, we cannot think or understand without ourselves oscillating between perspectives (see my post on James H. Bunn’s Wave Forms for a clear articulation of this connection). This is has important methodological implications for theology. If oscillation is unavoidable for human thought, then human thought about theological questions should likewise involve movement between perspectives, rather than an attempt to encompass the whole from a single perspective. It seems to me that often, when a theologian goes wrong, it is because they think they have found the one vantage point from which reality as such can be understood (and I would here include theologians as diverse as von Balthasar, Keller, RO). In doing interdisciplinary work, oscillation is unavoidable but it’s important to fight the urge to try to transcend the oscillation.
In my own interdisciplinary work on rhythm itself, one important oscillation that became apparent is that between metaphysical and experiential perspectives, and in a way, my attempts to point out rhythm in theology is an argument that this oscillation in particular must also be part of Christian doctrine.
Another oscillation that has become a part of my research is one between Catholic and Protestant theologies. This was unintentional at first, but I have since come to see rhythm as an important locus of conversation between these two traditions and have tried to intentionally make use of it in this way. One of the primary figures in my research is the recently-translated-into-English Jesuit Erich Przywara. The title of his main work is Analogia Entis, a concept that is viewed with skepticism by both Protestants and continental philosophers. However, the rhythmic way in which Przywara articulates the doctrine is different than it is often described, and in some ways resonates quite well with certain characteristics of Protestant theology, like the emphasis on the event and even a Barthian sort of interruption.
Another observation I have made, though this has not been sufficiently researched to be made as a formal claim [obligatory disclaimer about this being a blog that does not reflect my final arguments, but only thoughts in progress], is that Catholic theologies seem to take a metaphysical, synchronic view of rhythm as a pattern in which all parts fit together (Augustine, Balthasar), while Protestants seem to take a more experiential, diachronic view of rhythm as foregrounding the surprises and interruptions that inevitably happen to creatures limited by time (Barth, Jenson). This is not to say that either side would reject the other perspective entirely it’s just a matter of emphasis. In my attempts to oscillate between these perspectives (literally – I define rhythm as requiring an oscillation between synchronic and diachronic perspectives), I often find myself emphasizing Protestant themes in a Catholic’s work while also arguing for the traditionally Catholic position.
A Philosophical Category
I first discovered the category of rhythm, oddly, in continental philosophy (Giorgio Agamben actually), and for a long while I did most of my research in that area, attempting to understand how various continental philosophers were conceiving of the category. However, it was once I started looking into poetic theory that I was able to make sense of the differences. In some ways, philosophical uses of rhythm can be sorted into two groups similar to the Catholic/Protestant difference described above (analyses of poetic rhythm tends to fall into these two categories as well, which was how this helped me). One group uses rhythm (anti)metaphysically as an attempt to try to say something about reality as a whole. This group includes Deleuze, Nietzsche, Hegel, Bergson – all assuming something like Benveniste’s definition of rhythm as an improvised form. The other group uses rhythm as a way of describing a certain kind of experience from inside reality, they are more concerned with questions about subjectivity or poetical-political intervention. This group includes Agamben, Kristeva, Lacoue-Labarthe (see this post for a reference guide to rhythm in several continental philosophers.
As far as I know, the use of the category has not been analyzed across philosophers before. Part of the reason this is interesting is that it draws the methodological lines somewhat differently than they’re typically drawn. In particular, much is made of the similarities between Agamben and Deleuze when in fact they seem to me to have fundamentally different concerns and methods even if some of the categories they use are the same, and looking at their use of rhythm shows up this difference quite starkly. However, if someone comes along and challenges my interpretation, I’m quite happy with that as well, because, while I think my analysis is right, what I’m really after is starting a conversation around this category as one that is important for understanding some of the moves made in continental philosophy. Rhythm perhaps helps us to see something more clearly about some of the objectives and methods of these thinkers.
Theology and the Environment
There seem to be trends in the sorts of jobs advertised each year and this year there appear to be a lot of jobs available on theology and the environment, and this has got me thinking about the ways in which my research is in fact an engagement with the environment. It’s trendy at the moment to acknowledge the fact that doctrines are not disembodied but shaped by the practices of a community, but the category of rhythm sheds light on how theory is embedded in a wider cultural and natural environment. This research bridges Christian theological doctrine and the environment at the most general level, namely as the intersection of rhythms. My research on the nature and function of rhythm in theology shows that the same rhythms operative in human environments are sometimes called upon when giving accounts of reality. The results is that the way in which a particular doctrine formed is in part a result of the prevailing rhythms of the environment.
I have been researching this particularly with respect to the doctrine of creation recently. The field of cultural or human geography, particularly the work of Nigel Thrift, has been particularly helpful here (read more here). He identifies pre-cognitive dimensions of our current, Western environments that shape how we form thoughts about the world and the nature of reality. The development of technology, in particular, has created an environment of improvisation and spontaneity made possible by background calculations that have taken over many tedious everyday tasks. This seems to suggest that it is not accidental that process theology has recently come to think about reality in these ways. I suspect the same is true in the opposite sense for the ordered cosmos of the patristic theologian. My objective, of course, is not explain away doctrine on these accounts, but to make the argument that the rhythms of our environments ought to be intentionally attended to on account of their theological influence.
My next project even more intentionally moves towards an interest in thinking about the environment in terms of rhythm. In particular, I am interested in how the environmental rhythms that we construct lead us towards behaving in certain ways and encourage certain sorts of orientations towards the natural world and others. In other words, this is an attempt to unearth the role of rhythm in ethics, the idea that we perhaps have an ethical obligation to maintain certain rhythms and not others if we have a certain vision of a just and good society.
This is what I’m seeing at the moment, but I look forward to discovering new angles. One of the most fascinating things about research is that it’s not always clear to the one doing the research what the significance is of what has been done.