Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology

The Mystery of Things

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Petra Carlsson Redell
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     170 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Petra Carlsson Redell’s Foucault, Art, and Radical Theology: The Mystery of Things presents a remarkable connection between Michel Foucault’s writings on art and Carlsson Redell’s expertise in the field of radical theology. More specifically, the author explores five texts written by Foucault between 1965 and 1975 as a source of inspiration for contemporary radical theological thinking. From the onset, the book has a large agenda and promises to deliver: (1) a postrepresentational critique of transcendence; (2) an enigmatic material sacramentality; (3) playful theopolitical accounts of the transformative force of stupidity and nonsense; and (4) political imagery in motion enabling theological interpretations of contemporary artistic collectives.

As such, the book is a perfect fit for the Routledge Series in which it was published: New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies. The presented arguments result from an innovative reading of a set of philosophical texts on visual artistic practices, in which Carlsson Redell finds fruitful theological resources. As she writes, “The reason for doing so is not to proclaim a new theological truth but to broaden our sense of what theology can be. Taking a postrepresentational perspective on theology means that expressions quite different from those we usually regard as theological are able to stand forth . . .” (1).

This notion of the postrepresentational stands at the heart of Carlsson Redell’s analysis. A postrepresentational approach replaces questions about the meaning of an artwork with the question of what the artwork is capable of doing. This approach does not focus on meaning and symbolism of content and logic of representation, but rather on the power of expression. It leads to questions about how, through artworks themselves, artists aim to discuss the logic (and illogic) of power embedded in representational practices. For Carlsson Redell, such representational practices, and the structures of power these bear, also have a fundamental role in theological thinking, liturgical practices, and their political implications.

Foucault’s writings on art function as hermeneutical lens to examine performative, material, and political aspects of contemporary theology. Performativity and materiality constitute, as Carlsson Redell calls it, the mystery of things. The mystery of things is a “surface approach” resulting from Foucault’s approach to knowledge as a surface of appearances, which presents a challenge to theology, as it leaves no room for transcendence. Rather, it proposes the world itself as a mysterious place, with knowledge as a way of exploring this mystery. Knowledge is embodied by artworks, just as much as by liturgy and ritual. The book highlights “the creative and transformative force of the materiality and performativity of Christianity,” with the thesis that Foucault’s “lifelong interest in painting opens up avenues for new understandings of theology and spirituality today” (3).

The five texts by Foucault deal with five artists in particular: Diego Velazquez, Édouard Manet, Rene Magritte, Paul Rebeyrolle, and Gerard Fromanger. Foucault produced various types of texts, ranging from academic texts to transcribed lectures and catalogue essays. In the setup of the book, the chronology of Foucault’s texts is maintained as to follow the development of his line of thinking. It also allows Carlsson Redell to add her own analysis of more contemporary performance art, with a particular activist character, in the final chapters. By adding analyses of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Pussy Riot, the author identifies how power structures emerge and how these contain the ability to assist resistance and emancipation within a theological framework. This occurs through adding to, and developing further, the existing set of symbolic imagery within this framework, particularly by means of the incorporation of new artistic media and the employment of the nonsensical that tests and challenges existing semantic hegemonies.

As a concept, the mystery of things includes and simultaneously reaches beyond the notion of knowledge. Rather, “it describes how thought turns to action - even to activism - as a force of the image and imagery itself. . . . In different ways, the notion of the mystery of things instigates a surface perspective that harbors theological potency precisely when traditional symbolic referents have lost their vitality” (124). This is where Carlsson Redell’s perception of radical theology seems to turn radical. She sees a place for artistic production in the enhancement of radical democracy, ideally resulting in a transformation - even eradication - of current hegemonic structures, in which the multitude of voices gains a place of prominence. In such a transformed situation, the absurd would have an equally powerful role as the iconic. And in such a situation, artistic performances, like those of Pussy Riot, are no longer considered a sign of secularization, but rather a sign of the postsecular - representing renewed and transformed church-state relations (14). Although these stakes may seem too grand and too idealistic, through her reading of Foucault resulting in the mystery of things, Carlsson Redell constructs an excitedly innovative argument deserving of further discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lieke Wijnia is Curator of Modern & Contemporary Collections at Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, the museum for Christian art and heritage in The Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Petra Carlsson Redell is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Stockholm School of Theology, Sweden. She has published multiple times on religion, philosophy and art in journals such as Studia Theologicaand The Oxford Journal of Literature & Theology, and in books including Mysticism as Revolt (2014).


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