Featured Reviews

J. Kameron Carter – The Anarchy of Black Religion [Feature Review]

Anarchy of Black ReligionThe Fuzzy Logos of Black Study

A Feature Review of

The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song
J. Kameron Carter

Paperback: Duke UP, 2023
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Joshua E. Livingston (Luna Kim Yeh)

When we want to imagine otherwise possibilities—otherwise worlds—we must abolish the very conceptual frame that produces categorical distinction and makes them desirable; we have to abolish the modality of thought that thinks categorical distinction as maintainable. To attend to anti-Blackness, we must be committed to considering the ways the very concept of Blackness depends upon the theologically and philosophically assigned category about who can and cannot be Man, and therefore human.     -Ashon Crawley

As a poetic contribution to Black radical thought, J. Kameron Carter’s astounding new book The Anarchy of Black Religion goes all the way down. We’re taken beyond what we might imagine to be the roots (radix) of Black religion. We are invited into the depths (tehomic). What we are encountering here is far from a blackness in the key of politics, theology, or cultural criticism. By employing an aesthetic frame, Carter does nothing less than propose an alternative, anti-colonial cosmology. This is an interrogation into the making of the world as we know it. We are invited to a fundamentally distinct “re: Sourcing” of a new world where Black lives not only matter, but where our world is shaped by the mater (the maternal, materiality) of Black life. These linguistic acrobatics have implications that are nothing short of cosmic and ecological, restructuring the very ground (arche – as in anarchy) on which we move.

Carter cites Genesis 1:2, “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” This mythic origin (again, arche) is biblically juxtaposed with the Johannine cosmology: “In the beginning was the Word (logos).” As someone raised on what could be thought of as a “normative” theological interpretation of these texts, it all seems so straightforward. God is the Creator. Regardless of where on the spectrum of biblical literalness one might fall, the point being made here is how mythmaking (always through the mediating filter of language) is itself a worldmaking enterprise. So the creation narrative that we may have imagined in our Bibles perhaps has worked itself out within a world that is shaped within a very particular logos, very specific understandings of meaning, matter, persons, religion, politics, economics, God, etc. We inhabit a mythos funded by an eccentric embodiment of god-terms, a master signifier wherein the master is actually made in our image; as Ashon Crawley puts it, the flesh become word.

In one particular passage, Carter draws on feminist theologian Catherine Keller’s work, The Face of the Deep, to shine a light on and:

“expose the normative theological tradition’s repression of its own myth character. That repression has occurred through a certain way of understanding “God,” first in bordered difference from creation, and then by feat of logos declaring the supremacy or, to use the theological language, the sovereignty of the former as superordinate Creator to the latter as created or subordinate creature. In this way, Creator is the name of that which upholds the single origin or arche of the world as such. This ontotheological maneuver is what is designed to repress the whiff of myth” (101).

In contrast, what Carter calls “the black study of religion” approximates what could be a structural analogy to a kin-dom of god where the ellipsed “g” might signal the omission of the god terms inherent in this mythic character of ontology (being), or ontotheology (being in relation to God) or what we in the modern West might characterize as the sovereignty of God unawares of the whiteness of religion.

This book asks, what seem to be, very simple questions. What is the world? What is matter? What is the human? What is religion? And more specifically, what is Black religion and correspondingly, the Black study of religion? (For a fuller account of this, please read Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s classic The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study.) It’s through this last one that Carter begins to turn the narrative tables on all the others,

“…to wit, how the Negro was transubstantiated or religionized into existence and how that religionization must be understood in relationship to the market rationalities and reason of state that obtained in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Atlantic commerce and exchange … how the discourse of the fetish within the Atlantic commercial theater is … a site of the antiblack epidermalizing of matter, the racial blackening of matter precisely at the originary scene of primitive accumulation, the arche, in which the African is blackened or transubstantiated into the Negro” (63-64).

How does this play out in what Carter calls black religion? “The black study of religion conceives of black religion as instancing a material mysticism that manifests as a distinct poiesis or artistic way of living that as such is anarchic” (136), an aesthetics of the human evacuated of sacrality, a generative practice “in the break,” as Fred Moten calls it.

As someone raised under an American civil religion posturing as Christianity, it can be simply breathtaking to behold the disentanglement of religion happening in this text. Particularly for a faith that was baptized in epistemic certainty, it can be painful, yet immensely liberating, to see the ways religion as we know it in the West has been woven together with an extractive, racialized, capitalist world that is birthed out of an economics that has fetishized African religion, and subsequently, commodified Black flesh. It’s not just about racism. It’s about how structural racism funded the imagination for globalized capitalism, both of which were underwritten by religion. The everyday world we take for granted itself is what Saidiya Hartman calls an “afterlife of slavery.” Carter quotes Hartman at length: “The slave ship is a womb/abyss. The plantation is the belly of the world …  Gestational language has been key to describing the world-making and world-breaking capacities of racial slavery” (57). In this sense, re-making the world entails acknowledging and understanding the embryonic role blackness has played in this world-making, the “black(ened) womb as a site of extractive, reproductive potential” (58). In short, Black lives mater.

Here, blackness is not a political identity, much less a marker vis-a-vis skin color (and perhaps the same can be said for queerness in the realm of sexual orientation or gender). Rather it speaks to a certain mode of performance in the world and upon the earth, “…where blackness is to be understood not so much as a category (of race) but as, in fact ‘[referring] to rare and obsolete definitions of matter’ that connote ‘another mode of existing in the world,’” (80) as Denise Ferreira da Silva has it.

The center will not hold. This is not about blackness’s need to gain access to normative white performance. It is the enactment of outness, a liberated performance otherwise. It is the performance of free jazz in counterpoint to either a classical symphony or your traditional jazz standard. It is a new left, not a performance on the spectrum of political partisanship, but rather of what’s “left” after the evacuation of racial capitalist enclosures of earth-ravaging, propertied production and politics.

As such, Black religion is not just the Black version of what is normatively called religion, “born as a term of racialized, specifically blackened, un-Reason” (76), “Rather, black religion is at once contending with the ‘unparalleled catastrophe’ of the racial-religious capitalism that has been imposed on the earth and an open set of practices that operate out of a different orientation to matter and thus a different orientation to the earth and cosmos” (77). Black religion is an “exhaustive celebration” (134) that inhabits the wounds of blackness, a fuzzy logic that eclipses our neat mythologies of self-enclosure, an apocalypse of the self-negating, contradictory rationalization and signification of what we know as religion in the Atlantic world. It is the (in)signification of an elliptical poetics, an “outness” (queerness, if you will) amidst “religion’s invented status within a colonial and capitalist cosmology of separability … and to the violent enclosure through colonization and settler colonialism of the earth itself” (15).

As a culturally displaced Asian American with strong anarchist leanings, who has long felt the decolonization of the Christian faith within his own body; as one whose day job involves working pretty intensively in Black church contexts, but also happens to think as a Lacanian, this mystic song sings to me in multiple registers and keys. It’s very hard to articulate the joy that held me in this reading. In fact, the uncanny experience, at times, of not only reading, but of being read, with all of the primal complicatedness that this entails, might better be described as jouissance. Within a discourse of straightforward, rational analysis and the cold logistics of review, I’d say it’s simply not possible to do this work justice. This is what poetry, music, and dance are for. This is a felt text as much as it is thought. It’s the marriage of these discourses, the affectual stance of what Sinophone scholar Ting Guo, via C.K. Yang, calls diffused religion in the material world, that feels truly generative and liberating. One of the many things I love about this book is for all the ways that it is concerned with content, it is just as much communicated through style. It feels like Black music, with an improvisational unfolding in what seems like real time, a poetic mapping of a non-exclusionary earth, linguistic free associations, a Black religious performance of critical jazz.

And finally, The Anarchy of Black Religion is a tremendous resource of Black study. Resource, that is, a word that is suggestive of ‘myriad words,’ (e.g. re-source and re: Source), and hence, myriad worlds. For me, the book opened up entire new worlds of Black study. Much of this work can be found in the Black Outdoors Series of Duke University Press, along with a string of interlocutors engaged within this text, including Kara Keeling, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Charles Long, Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, Ashon Crawley, Saidiya Hartman, Sarah Jane Cervenak, Renee Gladman, Sylvia Wynter, M. NourbeSe Philip, Edouard Glissant, Hortense Spillers, and Denise Ferreira da Silva. It is the first volume of a planned three-volume work by Dr. Carter. The second volume, The Religion of Whiteness: An Apocalyptic Lyric, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in 2024.

Joshua E. Livingston

Joshua E. Livingston is a writer and community developer currently residing in Indianapolis. He is the director of Cultivating Communities and the author of Sunrays on the Beachhead of the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2021).

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!
We respect your email privacy

In the News...
Christian Nationalism Understanding Christian Nationalism [A Reading Guide]
Most AnticipatedMost Anticipated Books of the Fall for Christian Readers!
Funny Bible ReviewsHilarious One-Star Customer Reviews of Bibles

Comments are closed.