Response to Mark L. Taylor’s “Sing it Hard”

 

From Taylor’s paper:

In time, flesh will wear out chains.

Victor Serge, “Stenka Razin

                                                Now get yourself a song to sing

                                                and sing it ‘til you’re done

                                                Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well

                                                Send the robber barons straight to hell

                                                The greedy thieves that came around

                                                And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found

                                               Whose crimes have gone unpunished now

                                               Walk the streets as free men now.

                                                Bruce Springsteen, “Death to My Hometown”

  The song now rises as high as the flames of hatred

  now whispers softly, kind and tender,

  Now glows like the sun and glitters like the lodestar

  Now thunders down the prisons

  Trang, “The Rising Song”

 

Thank  you, Dr. Taylor for your forceful, rich and inspiring presentation.

In his paper, Sing it Hard, Mark L. Taylor begins by briefly describing the problem of mass incarceration both in terms of the sheer number of people it affects in this country (per capita) and with regard to the significantly disproportionate population of minoritized groups and people of color that are imprisoned in the U.S. or controlled by the penal state in various ways.  Using James Samuel Logan’s study on the subject, Taylor lists four primary causes of the rise of mass-incarceration in the U.S., each of which interact together in the greater national and global context:

  1. Mandatory long-term sentencing
  2. The war on crime and specifically the war on drugs inaugurated by the Nixon administration and revived by Reagan, etc.
  3. An “ever-increasing social policy commitment to incarceration and draconian criminal justice policies as a control solution geared toward exploiting fear about insecurity and containing and regulating the frustrations of the nation’s most exploited residents…”
  4. growing privatization of prisons and the profit that can be captured as a result

Secondly, in order to explain how mass-incarceration can be understood specifically as a decolonial struggle, Taylor frames his analysis of this problem both historically and internationally: historically from the standpoint of U.S. politics in the latter half of the 20th Century, contending that mass-incarceration is part of the repeated necessary sacrifice (Dussel) of surplus populations (Mike Davis and Christian Parenti) inherent in the rise of modernity itself dating back to as early as the 15th century and following with the so-called discovery, or as Dussel likes to say, the “invasion of the Americas.”  Internationally the issue is situated with respect to globalization on the one hand and the on-going dominant role of individual nation-states like the U.S. in the West on the other.

I find this to be an especially significant point – acknowledging the growing power of trans and supranational capital and financial mobility that characterizes globalization, but not overlooking the persistence of geopolitical, nationally based centers of power that govern these financial and capital movements – Taylor recognizes, in other words, that to speak of Empire or neoliberalism as if it exists solely in the aftermath of the declining rule of nation-states is premature (otherwise we might not see such disparate imprisonment numbers in the first place) Furthermore, by examining the problem from a global perspective, Taylor does not, in my view, abstract from the concrete situation but rather adds clarity and depth of engagement to it.

(Citing Wacquant and Gilmore) Additionally, Taylor means to show that mass-incarceration is the inevitable byproduct, and to some extent even the engine, of U.S. economic growth since WWII, as well as that it is a consequence of the continued neo-colonial project of American exceptionalism and imperialism in general.

While there have been some praiseworthy underground resistance in the Christian tradition over the centuries, Taylor notes as well the extent to which many of Christianity’s most vocal proponents have been complicit in this militarist-expansionist project of the U.S., often under the guise of speech about “liberty.”

Similarly, while getting popularized by rhetoric about “individual responsibility,” the subsequent withdrawal of social support services and the augmentation of deregulatory economics only compounded the problem and has further lead to the development of the penal state.

Then, following several post-colonial theorists (Wallerstein and Mignolo) and in particular the thought of the Peruvian Anibal Quijano, Taylor expands the issue of mass-incarceration by conceiving of it not only the traditional Marxist, materialist categories of labor and class, but also the ambits of subjectivity, sexuality and collective authority, each of which he expounds upon and are interacting and overlapping dimensions through which mass-incarceration exercises symbolic power (Bourdieu) over its victims,  is expressivist (Durkheim), and functions as a dominant policing and economic force controlling human bodies.

And herein lies the key connection to decoloniality: seeing the U.S. prison population “as an important segment of the “world precariate,” those peoples who belong to the long history of regions, subject to Western and, more recently, U.S., imperial formation and enforcement.”  This, for Taylor, is what warrants that the struggle be named- decolonial.

Attention to these additional dimensions of coloniality coincides with Taylor’s call for a response in theo-poetic fashion – which is not reducible to the level of political economy but is also concerned with affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, artistic, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to both express and catalyze a social movement against the oppressive force of mass-incarceration.  So just as coloniality broadens and deepens the configuration of this particular form of exploitation – in mass-incarceration – so too will an appropriate resistance movement take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in policy at the political-economic level.  It will be more total than that, Consisting of at least three visible marks of critical resistance, a Christian decolonizing effort according to Taylor is constituted by dynamic social existence moving from    

1.     Owning of agonistic being (ontology of struggle)

2.     Cultivating of artful reflex

3.     Fomenting of counter-colonial practices

The fomenting, Taylor stresses, is dependent upon the owning and the cultivating.

Finally, tracing the distinctives of a Christian Theo-Poetic challenge to mass-incarceration, for inspiration Taylor deliberately makes no reference to a transcendent Other or to knowledge that is dependent on some kind of revelation from beyond or outside.  Instead, Taylor wishes to invoke a neither fully immanent nor transcendent mode of trans-existence or trans-immanence (Nancy) that is in-finite, opposing any attempt to lockdown the world as is or close it off, as it were, and envisaging the world as unfolding…

A theo-poetic challenge, however, is nevertheless firmly grounded in the way of the cross for Taylor, and there are three main features to this way.  It is:

1.     Politically adversarial – Taylor makes a strong case for why this can be taken straight from Jesus’ own life and ministry.

2.     Mimetic (theatrical: off-setting the unpredictable, theatrical performance of the state, creatively dramatic – this dimension is crucial, Taylor says, for unleashing a counter-vailing power much like Jesus crucifixion did by challenging violent mechanisms of power.

3.     Kinetic (moving and dynamic) Using Taylor words, this sets in motion an organized embodiment that sought to “sustain life-renewing activity and communal work” by extending Jesus’s own “radically inclusive love that transgressed the ways of the religio-political state”

Anticipating the likely pushback from those whom Taylor might dub guild theologians, Taylor does not deny that power for resistance can be derived from an idea of the God who is found and testified to in Scripture and the creeds, but this is not what Taylor is doing.  Taylor firmly believes that the power of a vulnerable, networking people who bear the weight of produced social suffering is sufficient (and more suited?) to ignite and organize a counter-carceral movement, and he finishes by giving two good examples of this.

Now while one might identify this paper as a work of political theology, it is certainly more political and social in its content than theological (– though Taylor prefers to redefine both of these terms as set forth in his most recent book, The Political and the Theological).  One can appreciate that Taylor distances himself so much from the theologies of Christendom.  When Taylor employs the ontology of transimmanence, he does not appear to be making a case for this ontology as such here, so I’m going to briefly respond to a few of his apparent assumptions that are made rather than take issue with the notion of transimmanence as it might defended.

Without taking anything away from his socio-cultural-political and post-colonial critique and proposal I hope  – and conceding full well that Christianity itself needs to be decolonized, and that ontological otherness has perhaps more often than not been appropriated to numb or to excuse inaction on behalf of the oppressed – to reinforce coloniality in all its ambits – I would prefer to join other more traditional theologians, even if it is predictable and unoriginal, in retorting that faith in God as transcendent and benevolent, and faith in the prospect of eschatological hope, can still be a great catalyst for social change – just as perhaps, I think, it could even be argued that a theology of trans-immanence is susceptible to becoming closed-in, totalizing or despairing in some sense.  In sum, I’m not sure why the neither/nor approach to transcendence and immanence is more desirable than a both/and understanding.  Can’t transcendence strongly criticize idolatry, say, in the form of fetishized domination and over-securitization? Can’t transcendence be the source of courage for Christian communities to enact resistance without fear of death?  And then conversely, doesn’t a concept of a transcendent God’s immanence promise hope to the victimized in that God can be said to suffer with and relate to the victim in Christ?

– I want to pause now though to emphasize something: namely that these doctrinal questions are secondary concerns for me.  They come after, as Taylor puts it, as interpretations – not first (existentially rather than chronologically).  First, there is a choice to be made. Most importantly I want to reiterate and affirm what I interpret to be one of the most compelling points and contributions in Taylor’s presentation – namely, his assertion that “everything hinges on what kind of social existence what kind of communal embodiment, those who call themselves Christians, who identify their lives and groups with the way of Jesus, will present in the world.  In particular what kind of social existence will they present vis-à-vis the coloniality of power in which current mass incarceration is inscribed?“

This, it seems to me, is the battle cry, if you will, that can mobilize people in the Christian tradition regardless of their theological persuasions.  In my view, this is a profound and compelling theological statement about an urgent issue today, even in spite of what some might consider to be Taylor’s otherwise-than-orthodox ontology.  Moreover, this is an attempt to not only include but to join the other, to rally anyone in the struggle for liberation from the chains of imprisonment, irrespective of identity or affiliation – to summon all who are unwilling to stomach, as Taylor says, the injustice and the racism of the penal system. While the issue of Christian identity in the respect that it was raised yesterday by Anselm Min is left somewhat untreated here, one does find both Christian agency and agenda operative in this proposal.  It is an invitation to people of the way of Jesus to deploy their resources, language and practices “so as to find their place within the larger, and not just Christian, movement of critical resistance” to dramatically contest this neo-colonizing strategy of rule.  And I should add: I share Taylor’s concern that not nearly enough Christians are involved in this struggle, in the arts of protest and prayer that might “thunder down the prisons” and sing hard that “flesh can wear out chains.”

One last political comment to close:

Just to indicate one direction in which the discussion could be extended, in the same way that the nation-state cannot be properly understood apart from globalization, perhaps neither can mass-incarceration be thoroughly criticized without examining it alongside of violence in neighboring Central American countries that is being at least indirectly incentivized by these broken criminal justice policies.  At one point Taylor speaks of how de-socialized wage labor is managed by hyper-incarceration.  Hyper-incarceration is only a domesticate system, however, while de-socialized wage labor is being propagated around the globe by U.S. foreign policy and the behavior of certain U.S.-based corporations.  In unstable regions of Mexico, for example, the management system is not hyper-incarceration but murderous competition between drug cartels for control of smuggling routes and the labor of disposable traffickers.

But finally I just want to comment in closing that this paper was very moving for me and has incited my somewhat dormant creative imagination and thinking about this issue as I further explore the problem of the drug war.

One thought on “Response to Mark L. Taylor’s “Sing it Hard”

  1. Pingback: Transcendence or Transimmanence? Theology for Critical Movements of Resistance | Bill Walker | Blog

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