In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Here one may certainly admire man as a mighty genius of construction, who succeeds in piling an infinitely complicated dome of concepts upon an unstable foundation, and, as it were, on running water. Of course, in order to be supported by such a foundation, his construction must be like one constructed of spiders’ webs: delicate enough to be carried along by the waves, strong enough not to be blown apart by every wind.
Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”
0. Before the Text
I’ve decided to do something ostentatious, and to what end, I’m not sure. I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible book-by-book—the whole Bible, including the Old Testament (otherwise known as the Torah and the Tanakh), the Apocrypha (which I haven’t ever read, being a good Protestant), and the New Testament. While I’m still trying to define—or, rather, to cleverly justify my inability to define—the goal my project would aim toward, I can mention a few things that propel it from behind.
For one, I’ve just finished Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, which not only has quickly become a book that I will treasure for probably the rest of my life but has also shown me something new that writing can be and do. (Nearly all of my favorite books accomplish this latter task in some way.) Carrère fuses memoir and imagination with historiography and forensic investigation as he retells the story of the Gospels and the early church particularly through the lens of Luke the Evangelist. In the book, Carrère also recounts his own conversion experience and his couple-years-long “Christian period,” during which he meditated and journaled on one verse of the Bible every day. His retelling of this world-changing story captures not only the humanity of all the players involved but also his own. He intersperses among his first-century narratives the moments of his own life that instructed his approach to these narratives and the themes they involve: his readings about Trotsky and Stalin in preparation for another book, his depression and experiences in psychoanalysis, the horrific babysitter he and his wife hired on the basis of someone else’s lie, and, most poignantly for me, his loss and/or rejection and/or suspension of faith following his conversion.
Aside: I have to include a couple of lines that I loved from his book, which follow his statement that he had become the person he was most afraid of becoming: “A skeptic. An agnostic—not even enough of a believer to be an atheist. A man who thinks that the opposite of truth isn’t falsehood but certainty. And the worst thing, from the point of view of the person I was, is that I’m doing fine.” So much of this rings true from my own experience, and that last line—honest, defiant, risky, self-alienating, self-deconstructing, and confidently consoling—I just loved.
Carrère inspires me to do something I had thought of doing just before reading the fruits of his own practice of doing it: to return to the text that shaped my past life and, which is to say the same thing, my present one from the perspective of this moment in time. When I was in the last month of my senior year of high school—still a believer but desiring to know precisely what and why I believe, in ways stronger than before—I challenged myself to read the entire Bible in three months, finishing it by the end of the summer and before I would begin college. I made it through a solid month of that heavy reading, and though it took me a full year to actually finish the rest of the Bible, I did finish it.
I’m happy to be aware of the text in full, but as every good student of literature knows, we bring things to a text that change the text for us. In that reading, I brought my belief, my unrequited devotion, and my yearning for some kind of certainty or pious experience of grandeur, some enlightenment. I brought to the text as well my communities of faith: the non-denominational Christian school I had attended since preschool and that I was just leaving; the Evangelical Assemblies of God church I had grown up in and was about to start working at part-time; the group of friends I began praying with at the community college, some of whom I had known previously and others who were international students at the college from Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Colombia; and the house church I was participating in with my sister, through worship as well as small-group discipleship, a group whose doctrines and practices emphasized both the Jewish roots of Christianity (in a dogmatically and, I would argue, myopically Zionist framework) and the ecstasies and demonologies of Pentecostal Evangelicalism. These I brought with me to my reading while I still maintained an attachment to them.
Now I have the chance to return to that text that has been central to my life and the lives of my communities. But this time my reading will carry with it not only all of those things already mentioned but so much else as well: my changed attachments to those communities and to the faith overall, my theoretical and literary education that has continued for six years since the last reading, and my updated methodologies of reading, which have become both more critical and more playful (and there is always an element of play in good critical reading). My world has changed, and so has everyone else’s. Now is always as good a time as any to begin again and to make the familiar things new.
So as I prepare to begin my long journey through Bible, I would like to take the rest of this post to sketch out, if you will, a methodology of critical reading. This, like all of the posts on this blog, is an experiment. It’s a tentative playing-with of thought and text. I begin this series, appropriately, with the first chapter of Genesis: the Song of Creation. And I cast each day of that creative process as the stages of the critical process of thinking, reading, and writing. This is an arbitrary delineation, but the creation and intermixing of any schemas at all generally allows for new thought to emerge—indeed, Christianity itself as a hermeneutical framework imposed on earlier texts like the Book of Genesis allowed for not only a hell of a lot of new thought but also two millennia of civilization growth, change, destruction, and frustration.
First, before we begin, as all of this prelude attests to, we begin from somewhere, with something, and as someone. Even this great book of Beginnings begins in medias res—“In the beginning when…”: a qualification of time. And God was there. And the Spirit of God was there. And we might even say that the Son, the Word of God was there, if we were to impose a later writing (John 1.1) onto this earlier one, which is a difficult activity ever to avoid. So not only is someone there before the reading begins—the reader herself—but also a community is there, because not even God is alone in the universe. We bring so much to a text before we begin: we bring the royal We, but we also bring the multitude of singular people that we are, with all of our bundled experiences.
This is one reason why the text is a chaos before we begin. It is formless and void despite its existence as chaos, because it has not yet been shaped by a reader. But still there is movement. We hover over its face; we undulate in the dynamic lives we live, the dynamic being-with that we constitute, that constitutes us. We approach, ready to make something happen.
1. Perception: …and God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1.4)
In arriving at the text, we must ensure first of all our own capacity to perceive that a text is there. Before any work is done on the text, some work must first be done on ourselves. We turn on the light. We give ourselves the gift of vision. But this act is the original act of reading, as much a part of the process as the rest of it. My approach to reading the first chapter of Genesis follows from my practices of learning to read at all, of learning to think and to see. This means that my reading here arguably began for me in kindergarten, when I first began to learn the letters of the English alphabet. It also began when I learned to read other texts prior to this one. Reading begins with a certain development of capacity, a capacity for perception—a capacity for a certain specific (though large in number) set of perceptivities. We read this verse, and we might think that light differs only from darkness. However, light differs from other light as well. We begin with a certain inflection of light which gives us the ability to see in a certain way.
2. Attention: And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (Gen. 1.6)
Next, we pay attention—we pay attention to something. In this act, we separate off the rest of the world to read this text, this bit of the world. We introduce a principle of selection, which is a necessary act if we are to contribute speech about something in particular—and if this is not our goal, and if our goal is instead to ramble on about anything that flickers into our consciousness, then we play the fool to the mediatized status quo that seeks to jolt our attention toward a million sensational half-glimpses at the epiphenomena of things. Culture suffers from a lack of attention and a surplus of distractive compulsions—the tics of the 24-hour news cycles and punditry and presidents and social media—so that we feel that we know the world, but we don’t know a thing about the world because we fail to attend to any thing in particular. So the act of paying attention—of imposing selection—is not only necessary but is also a strong imposition of values. We cannot avoid this; we chose to speak about this material and not about the infinite other material we might have discussed. But if the status quo runs on a kind of distraction that we experience as paranoid attention-shifting, then to refuse close attention is only to consent to the attendant values of the dominant regime. So, on this reading, we select this water, for now, and when we are to speak about the water beyond the scope of the dome, it will be in reference to the water below, whose surface we hover over and gaze into. Again, we must begin from somewhere.
3. Distinction & Fertilization: And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” […] Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation…” (Gen. 1.9,11)
Once we’ve selected our material for reading, thinking, and writing about, we can make distinctions internal to that material. The work of distinction is the beginning of a kind of thinking that can produce something. This takes place on two terrains: conceptually and materially, and these two terrains interact. In order to theorize something productively, we need to get specific about the concepts at play—to define our terms, to clarify the stakes on the level of the concepts involved, what is equivalent and what is differential. The very term “critical” comes from a Greek word meaning, in one of its senses, “to divide,” which means that to think critically involves introducing difference into the subject matter at hand. (In fact, difference is far more productive than equivocation, which is a fallacy because thinking becomes impossible when we assert that too many thoughts are the same. Equivocal identification is a fascist and totalitarian instrument; such forces can function not only in the work of governments and nations but at the sentence-level of writing as well.) We must have distinct concepts of “water” and “dry land” with clear conceptual content before we can cultivate one side of the distinction—here the dry land—to bring forth the new that is in its capacity to bring forth. In making a distinction, we inscribe a certain range of capacities for what else can come forth—and we eliminate alternative capacities that could have been inscribed. The etymological root of “critical” also means “to decide.”
4. Relation: And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons…” (Gen. 1.14)
Despite all the language of “days” and “evenings” and “mornings” in the earlier parts of the first chapter of Genesis, we could say that time does not actually get instituted until the fourth day, with the creation—as this verse has been understood—of stars and planets. In one of its senses, time is an institution of relations, a system of standard differences that allows us to locate ourselves and things in a manner more precise than absolute categorization. In this sense, we might say that the fourth stage of critical reading involves the installation of relations between distinct objects of the text and the world. This also allows us to speak in terms of change and transformation, of tentative persistence through change. Perhaps this explains why the artist behind this Song of Creation found it necessary to use the language of time from the first act of creation rather than only from the fourth: because without this conceptual language, it would have been impossible to speak of transformation and evolution in the work of creation. A lot happens here in this fourth stage; in addition to relation, time, and transformation, we also have here the first potential for narrative to emerge. One event happens and then the next, in a diachronous relation of before and after where the following event depends on what preceded it for it to have even been possible at all.
5. Minor Proliferation: And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” (Gen. 1.20)
This stage differs from earlier ones more in terms of degree than of kind, as we have already seen the act of fertilization occur, which involved the inscription of a capacity to bring other things forth. Here this fertilization is intensified. The moving pieces become more dynamic, taking on a more mobile life of their own. A bird moves itself more swiftly and with greater autonomy than does a flower. However, there are two things further to notice about this proliferation of the life of the object under critical analysis. First, this intensified proliferation takes place, initially, in the area that was not privileged by the analysis. In the separation of land and sea, God focused on the land to bring forth life, but now it is the sea that is teeming, the air that has filled with life. The same thing occurs when analysis goes right: we lose some control of it, and the shadowy parts of our own attention begin to do and say things in ways we did not orchestrate. Second, this proliferation is one of swarming. The Song of Creation is often interpreted as describing an incremental increase in order: God makes a cosmos out of chaos. But swarming denotes a certain amount of organized chaos, like a swarm of bees or a murmuration of starlings, their collective organization rapidly reorganizing into shapes that nevertheless appear coordinated. However, the swarm moves too fast for us to comprehend and capture its shapes. We might say that this stage in the critical reading process is where we begin to notice a leakage, an aspect of our reading that exceeds us, that leaks through the gaps in our epistemological or inscriptive control. But good reading should exceed the reader. It is only in such reading that we can allow for our own transformation, through the opening of ourselves to that which exceeds us. (This is a theme that I return to frequently in my thinking.)
6. Major Proliferation & Subjection: And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” […] Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1.24,26)
Despite the radical and elusive nature of stage five, it’s stage six where the trouble begins. It starts out well, with the proliferation of new forms of life on the land. These lives take on greater autonomy and mobility than the vegetation. Beyond the geraniums, tall grass, and potatoes, we now get lions, tigers, and bears. Beastly forms emerge from the land we had fertilized, and the dangerous and the strange approach the reader in the full light of the reader’s attention. When the dangerous and the strange are brought near and confronted, this, too, could allow for wondrous transformation. However, our tendency when confronted with the dangerous and the strange is not to let them disembowel us and turn us inside out, not to let them force the question of our own ontology before us (for more on this, read Derrida’s essay about standing naked before his cat). Rather, our tendency is to resort to methods of security and control. We introduce subjectivity, some figure constructed according to our own image. (But what would it mean for us to have a comprehensive image? What does the face of God look like?) This returns us to sense, to the familiar, to the illusion of the safety we brought with us when we first approached the reading. This act of subjection is rather a reaction. Like all reactionary movements, it seeks to enforce a procrustean image on the new, an image that is thought to comply with the figure of some virtuous or true precedent: Make Creation Great Again. But the image is itself a new one and an intensified strategy of power and violence. Again, even the act of reading can be fascist.
7. Consecration & Institution: So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2.3)
By the seventh stage, everything has gone wrong. Not only has the reader subjected the material to his own fantasies of dominion and sovereignty just as the material was coming fully alive, but at the seventh stage the process of critical reading is evaluated as “very good” and “done.” This is an emphatic act of violence by a reactionary regime of reading and knowledge. The work is finished, the end of history is playing out now, as it was written. Adam, the image of the reader upon the anthropomorphized (theomorphized?) text, plays out his dominion by logging the names of the kinds of beasts, subjecting each form to his own ideal, and he feels as though he has, in this manner, conquered them. The text and all further readings of it, due to what has been forcibly imparted to it by the reader, will forever repeat, automatically, the claims of the first reader, the world that he has conjured. The reader ceremoniously cuts the umbilical to the reading, pronouncing it finished, takes his rest, and thereby installs a sterile repetition of this week for the rest of eternity: a cycle of automation going forever on without anything truly new or eventful. This is what it means to consecrate a reading, to make it sacred: it is to term it comprehensive, exhaustive, infallible, and absolute. The reader takes a cosmic syringe full of death and stabs it into the organic sites of proliferation, excess, and abundance that had emerged from the text so that it may be a living text no more. Consecration, as an act of reactionary power, leads to the institutionalization of the consecrated reading. The reading repeats itself monotonously forever, and this provides a foundationalism for the institution that would seek to profit from the securitized reading. And so it goes, and so it goes.
0*. Before the Text, Again
Beware the discourse of completion. Beware all talk of the end of history or creation. Beware the pronouncement of the absolute and the inerrant. Think about whose interests these discourses serve and who ensures their own self-propagation by means of these strategies of security and dominion. The thing is, the beast, as beast, exists and should be welcomed. The outer dark is where proliferative life actually flourishes and blooms, beyond the sacred and sterile institutions of what life must be. Reckoning with these strategies of power should encourage us to return to the text again, at the stage of, we might say, zero-prime: beginning again in a way that is wholly new, in order to bring forth the excess to the sacred. In the face of institutional and sacred readings, in order for life to flourish, it becomes time again to create new openings for the dangerous and the strange.