- Transing the Study of Religion:A (Christian) Theological Response
Christianity, Deleuze, queer, theology
I'm intrigued and persuaded by Max Strassfeld's call for "transing" the study of religion, a prospect and project I want to think through in a bit more detail here. Recall, per Susan Stryker, that transing is "a practice that takes place within, as well as across or between, gendered spaces. It is a practice that assembles gender into contingent structures of association with other attributes of bodily being, and that allows for reassembly. Transing can function as a disciplinary tool when the stigma associated with lack or loss of gender status threatens social unintelligibility, coercive normalization, or even bodily extermination. It can also function as an escape vector, line of flight, or pathway towards liberation."1
Some readers will recognize in the language of assemblages and lines of flight allusions (however brief) to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, apt choices given the issues under discussion here. (A shout-out to my fellow roundtable participant, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a real expert in Deleuzian thought who has done some of the best work I know of on trans [End Page 58] and queer issues in a Deleuzian vein—about which more later.2) A distinctive ontology undergirds these notions of assemblage and lines of flight, one that emphasizes materiality as constituted by change as much as (if not more than) stasis.3 Being is difference and differentiation. All that is exists on what they call a plane of immanence where "assemblages"—relations between "entities"—become and disappear. Entities are defined not by characteristics that inhere in them but by their ability to affect and be affected by others, their relative speed, the lines of flight they pursue. All entities exist in relationship, itself defined as affectivity. There is no cosmic director or transcendental scheme according to which entities come into relationship with one another. Assemblages come together (and apart) as much by chance as by any given entity's intention.
Though Deleuze and Guattari emphasize (some might say over emphasize) change, flux, newness, and becoming, their ontology acknowledges the temporal and spatial persistence of some entities and assemblages. (The plane of immanence is bisected by the plane of organization, the site where persisting assemblages reside before eventually dissolving back onto the plane of immanence). This way of mapping being speaks to fluidity and permeability as both giving rise to and undoing borders between and among entities and/or assemblages. While the resulting instability can be a source of anxiety it is also the source of new becomings; lines of flight, as it were, that take off in new directions across the plane of immanence producing new entities, new assemblages.
As Henderson-Espinoza's work shows, this Deleuzian ontology provides a helpful framework for thinking about our current normative system of sex/gender/sexuality and the challenge those outside the norms—including transfolk—pose to it. Readers of queer theory know that this system may be normative but is not natural. It emerged in a certain time and place (though not without resistance) and came to colonize other times and places (though not without resistance).4 Given its contingent origins, we can expect its (no less contingent) eventual demise and replacement by something else. Indeed, references to "the LGBTQIA community"—a "community" in name more than in reality—bespeak a complication of that system that may herald its demise. [End Page 59] Applying Deleuzian ontology to religion and the study of religion also helps clarify religion's potential trans-formative role as we navigate that expansion.
It may seem counterintuitive, if not outright dangerous, to claim some kind of intrinsic connection between ontology and the academic study of anything, perhaps especially religion. But religion—and its study—isn't merely academic in its import; it has real material effects. As the examples Strassfeld mentions remind us, people are hired and fired, granted or refused access (to bathrooms among other places), and recognized as who they understand themselves to be or not on religious grounds all the time. And religion, in turn, is materially and discursively affected by those actions...