Power, Breath, and Violence: A response to Maria José de Abreu’s ‘The Charismatic Gymnasium’

Connaught Initiative Entangled Worlds Book Event. February 28th 2022. 12:00-2:00 PM EST.[1]

Thank you, Maria, for this book, and thank you Valentina for the opportunity to respond to it.

Although there is much to be said about the topics that this book works out, I found myself gravitating toward the book’s description of a particular “power formation of our time,” one that “draws energy and political shape not from moving toward a specific goal but by running, like an athlete in training, after itself.” (17). Because I am not an anthropologist or an expert in charismatic Catholicism in Brazil, I want to provide a response that focuses on how The Charismatic Gymnasium reconceptualizes power in and for our time.

The power of the breathing body that The Charismatic Gymnasium explores is no more apparent than in our pandemic when both our respirations and aspirations encounter various limits and tensions. For those on the far right who overreact to masking and vaccination mandates as if they were atrocities, I notice that the there is a certain shortness of breath that animates the notion that wearing a mask is a limitation on freedom, and inspires a kind of paradoxical power that is both a strong way of asserting oneself and a weak way of receding from challenge. This entanglement of advance and retreat, and weakness and strength, is a fascinating part of current right-wing cultures that increasingly adopt the language of liberalism and identity politics for their own purposes.

In The Charismatic Gymnasium Maria describes how power combines in and through the breathing body, theology, and mass media, and further analyzes the elasticity and flexibility of a religious respiratory program that resonates with neoliberalism and right-wing extremism. As I read about the fluid form of totalitarianism that The Charismatic Gymnasium illuminates, I was also watching the horrific invasion of Ukraine unfold. I think that the form of power examined in this book is also very helpful for understanding how warfare and violence have taken on new forms in our time – forms that are simultaneously a kind of hierarchical power that forces, and a kind of ephemeral soft power that coerces. Over the past few days, I have watched as both violent force and rhetorical coercion are co-instantiated in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, from the language of a “special military operation” rather than an invasion, to the open threat of nuclear war and the unfolding ground war.

A popular image presents power itself as something hierarchical, linear, causal, and physical, but several thinkers in the discourse on political theology have challenged this view. In my recent book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time I survey how Giorgio Agamben, Marie-José Mondzain, Nicholas Heron, and Adam Kotsko each challenge the idea that contemporary theopolitical power takes these straightforward forms.[2] For each of these thinkers, power is found in imagistic movements of hiddenness and revealing, mediation and management, and liturgical acclamation that conceal their forcible character under various guises, from public service to debt and guilt. I was drawn to their work because I am interested in how the term ‘violence’ names something more than a physical exertion of force, and this is the topic of my dissertation “Ontologies of Violence” where I compared approaches to violence in the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite pacifists, and Grace Jantzen’s late work.[3]

My thinking has been challenged by reading The Charismatic Gymnasium because – in my rush to understand power as something other than oppositional exertion – I fear I have missed the ways that at least two forms of power are co-instantiated: one form of power that is traditional, hierarchical, linear, causal, and forcible, and the other that is hidden in exercises of coercion, persuasion, spectacle, mediation, and management. The Charismatic Gymnasium has helped me understand not just that these two constellations of power are used concurrently, but also how they are entangled. I felt real surprise this past week as a ground war began with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and upon reflection I found that my surprise came from my impression that the character of war had fundamentally changed in the 21st century, moving away from oppositional wars with two sides and a clear beginning, middle, end, winner, and loser, and toward endless occupations focused on maintenance. This kind of warfare is what Caroline Holmqvist calls a “policing war,” and it is exemplified by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where the perpetual maintenance of occupation replaces the temporally limited character of past wars.[4]

When I read The Charismatic Gymnasium, I was struck by how what I thought was a transformation of power from hard hierarchies to soft mediations really included both kinds of power and violence in new combinations. I appreciate how Maria’s work shows that rule and disciplinary order is both hierarchical, linear, and causal, and also rhythmic, temporal, and fluctuating like the ticking of a clock and the swaying of a pendulum. It seems to me that the authoritarian populisms of our time alternate between these differing forms of power in an improvisational and reactive way. As we hear in The Charismatic Gymnasium, when Trump and Bolsonaro first deny the reality of COVID-19 and then affirm it later, we are not witness to a contradiction but a fractured reality with no pre-existing whole to contradict (x, 184).

From pastoral alternations between reverential iconophilia and irreverent iconoclasm, to the state-led comingling of virtual and physical warfare, I see power differently when I look through the lens of The Charismatic Gymnasium – especially its theorization of “a particular logic of value that prizes the ability to articulate and extend things in view of a certain suppleness of form” (2). This gymnastic and elastic flexibility shows itself in the Christian aerobics of devotion and spiritual fitness and also in neoliberal forms of power that subject all things to economy and quantify what is really social.[5] This economization and quantification of human social life is related to the pattern traced in The Charismatic Gymnasium wherein sacred “representation” is replaced by technical “operation” (3), but not a cold technical mechanism, but a musical, repetitive, and reproducible operation that alternates and oscillates instead of making decisions in zero-sum terms.

The Charismatic Gymnasium identifies a pattern in the Charismatic movement in Brazil that I also see reflected more broadly in contemporary political power and violence, and it is a “command to hold tension through opposites… complexio oppositorum: the principle by which the thesis and antithesis endure their antagonism without mediation into a higher third” (5). This mediation without real synthesis is challenging because it sustains tension with the promise of resolution, but without real or fulfilling resolution. As Maria points out, for that dark founder of political theology Carl Schmitt, there is a Catholic way to “embrace antonyms” and draw power from their opposition (5-6).

There is a more general problem with these extremes as well, and that is that they implicitly posit a center – and one that is rhetorically usable by those who call for attention to ‘both sides’ but really dignify great violence. This problem of the complexio in oppositorum that Maria works with is found within terms like ‘fanaticism’ or ‘extremism’ that imply a stable centre from which the fanatic and extremist deviates.[6] In light of these problems The Charismatic Gymnasium theorizes the gymnastic elasticity of Catholic complexio in oppositorum and shows how this also serves to strengthen neoliberal values through an undecidable holding together of opposites and a “compromise of noncompromise” (8). In short, not either/or decision but both/and combination is the signature of this new form of power (8) – and it is close to the inhalation and exhalation that defines breath. The Charismatic holding together of what others deem distant is what allows the groups studied in The Charismatic Gymnasium to join conceptual and spiritual abstraction with the breathing body and “bend the past and the present” in a distinct kind of mediation that – as Maria says – “joins in displacing” (10).

Through reciprocal movements inside and outside, the “New Song Community” for example, engages in recitations, stretchings, and articulations that form a “community in motion” (23), and “a community that is communication” (14). Here again, power runs after itself in tautological ways by both being community and doing communication at the same time. Maria calls this form of temporality an uncontained and “ongoing middle” that is media and mediation. But rather than mediation in the conciliatory sense that would seek reconciliation, this mediation is a “paradoxically fluid totalitarianism” that totalizes through the circulation of the Spirit and self-referentially implodes that totality (31), for example through charismatic tools that do not separate user and used, but instead are something “abstract in their concreteness” (31).

I found these paradoxes in the second chapter of The Charismatic Gymnasium where Maria shows how confession moves from the verbal to the bodily, from the private to the public, from sin at the origin to embodied practice in the middle, alongside changes in the confessional self (53) – especially in music. She writes that “Song makes one aware of the messianic qualities of time, the time that time takes to come to an end…” – and this intervallic time has circularity and interruptions, starts and stops, that split and join, and reveal a pre- and post- caesura.[7] This simultaneity is an important part of the value-laden and theopolitical act of periodization that I explore in my own work, and again I really found The Charismatic Gymnasium’s unique reframing of power to be helpful in understanding how we ascribe value to time not just by dividing it into befores and afters, but also by merging different temporalities. For Maria, “interruption and break are the necessary devices to align the body to its mechanical rhythms” alongside the “risk of turning flicker into seizure and capture” (77).

Confession and the dramaturgy of televised Eucharist explored in the book’s second and third chapters are such helpful sacraments to think with when considering this kind of combined and entangled power – power that is distant and proximal, here and there, while being neither here nor there. I think that this kind of power is fundamentally confusing because it entrenches paradox so far that any distinction that we would want to make could be otherwise.

I think is may be why a theme toward the end of the book is decision, because decision means to cut through what is joined, and to sever the past from the present and future. The epilogue begins with this theme in the form of figural apertures, gaps, openings, and intervals that can both challenge and entrench bipolarity and simultaneity. When Maria discusses how Charismatic Catholics in Brazil take up Greek terms so that they do not have to decide between Charismatic and non-Charismatic status, I see the complexio in oppositorum again (179). Decision is a form of incision that cuts homogenous empty time and periodizes by dividing a before and after and then ascribing value to both. This periodizing cut is something that I see in the politics of ‘shock’ that Maria discusses on page 180, where she asks: “If the power to shock once depended on its exceptionality, what happens when exceptionality no longer has the power to shock? And if exception no longer holds as exceptional but has become the structure of ruling, what happens to sovereignty?” This implicit question for Carl Schmitt has an answer, I think, in the kind of power that entangles mediation with hierarchy, strength and delicateness, centralization and diffusion, the figure of “the arsonist and the fireman” (185), and of course breathing in and breathing out. As Maria writes: “Rhythmic incision rather than transformative decision characterizes contemporary power.” (188). What remains is to decide what and how these rhythms will be.

Thank you, Maria, for this challenging and exciting book,


[1] Maria José de Abreu, The Charismatic Gymnasium: Breath, Media, and Religious Revivalism in Contemporary Brazil (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2021). All further references to follow in-text.

[2] Maxwell Kennel, Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Ch. 2.

[3] Maxwell Kennel, Ontologies of Violence: Jacques Derrida, Mennonite Pacifist Epistemology, and Grace M. Jantzen’s Death and the Displacement of Beauty” PHD Diss. Department of Religious Studies. McMaster University, 2021.

[4] Caroline Holmqvist, Policing Wars: On Military Intervention in the 21st Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[5] See Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018) and Steffen Mau, The Metric Society: On the Quantification of the Social. Trans. Sharon Howe (London: Polity, 2019).

[6] Cf. my reading of Alberto Toscano and Dominique Colas in Postsecular History, Ch. 4.

[7] Cf. my discussion of the ‘post-’ prefix in Postsecular History, Ch. 1 and 2.

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