Molotov in the Form of a Prayer for Grad Students: Or, The World Is Over, I Must Write This Seminar Paper

On theory., Uncategorized

This is the document I produced back in April/May in lieu of doing a traditional seminar paper for one of my graduate courses. Typically these seminar papers will take the form of a 25 – 30-page draft of a publishable research article. Because of my own exasperation at the contradictions of professionalism/professionalization and the fact that I was approaching this project during the first wave of the COVID crisis in the United States (who knows what wave we’re on now), I took a more experimental, unprofessional approach to this project.

I should note that I made this before the George Floyd murder by police and the subsequent protests that swept and are still sweeping the country. I imagine some aspects of this argument and imagery might be different if I made this today, but some of it might nonetheless resonate.

Link to full-size version that may be easier for zooming:×14465-1.jpg

Undead Authors // Deuteronomy

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

            Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.

            Deuteronomy 34.5-6

Evangelical Christians of the stock that I was raised among read the Bible as a kind of originary last word. Whatever the doctrinal or theological dispute, the correct response is to return to the Word of God and see what he has to say on the matter. For them, the scriptural text is authoritative and inerrant, the articulate statements of the Lord channeled through the forty-some-odd writers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, third member of the triune Godhead. Any time this flavor of biblicism was raised in itself as an issue for dispute, custodians of the text would pronounce a line that was itself taken from the text, a sentiment iterated first in the book of Deuteronomy—the last of the five Books of Moses—and repeated suggestively in Revelation—the canonically final book of the unified Bible: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it…” (Deut. 4.2.; cf. also Deut. 12:32 and Rev. 22:18-19). The words accumulated in this grand text over millennia are to be taken as final, the signature of the Author and the seal of the work’s authenticity.

This way of reading the Bible effectively obstructed any serious engagement with it as complex text with a complex textual history and content. What came first was not actually an honest engagement with the Bible but instead with a prevailing idea about the Bible. We knew the nature of the textual object before we allowed the text to teach us what kind of object it was.

As I return to this last Book of Moses, I notice a number of obvious truths about it that my institutionally-sponsored reading methodology refused me as a kid. The first—something I became aware of as I experimented with heterodox readings years ago—is the obvious irony of that line from Deuteronomy 4.2 as an authorial statement. The line is spoken by Moses in one of his three speeches that frame the narrative of the book, as he retells the history of this Israelite people and their sojourn so far. Moses commands, as from the LORD, that these laws he has given them should not be adulterated because the word of the LORD is singular and final. Moses, serving as the LORD’s chosen mouthpiece, has recorded this singular and final word in these five Books of the Law. However, this inspired prophet records his own death, in the third-person, within the narrative of this fifth book.

The narration includes an odd remark about Moses’s unknown burial place, that the burial place has remained unknown “to this day.” This remark makes much more sense to be read as an editorial insertion by whomever actually recorded Moses’s death in these iconic historiographical documents. It sounds a lot like another insertion in the previous chapter, describing the massive iron bed of King Og of Bashan: “In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites” (Deut. 3.11). If this were any other text, a plain reading would suggest that this insertion is something like an anecdotal footnote for a reading public contemporary to the writing, implying that both the writing and the reading took place long after the events described.

While Evangelicals would perform critical gymnastics to obfuscate minor insertions like this, many scholars of biblical studies instead have opened up passages like this to show much more, to make much more sense of a much vaster historical context animating and making use of this text. A serious reading of the Bible does not foreclose the readings that the Bible itself offers to us but instead allows the Bible both to speak for itself and to be read within the political history of the people among whom it emerged.

A common scholarly consensus reads Deuteronomy as emerging from a much later history than the events recorded. Though it aggregates older legal texts and concepts, it was arguably constructed as a part of the nationalizing political project of the Kingdom of Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BCE and functions as the core introduction to the “Deuteronomistic history” texts from Joshua to 2 Kings, which were also likely compiled in that period. Josiah reigned during the period when the tribes of Israel were divided into two nations, the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with its capitol in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Judah was the less prosperous of the two with fewer large cities and less arable land, and up to about the reign of Josiah, Judah had existed as a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. However, while Josiah was King of Judah the Assyrians were fighting a losing series of battles against the Babylonians and the Persians, which resulted in a brief amount of time during which Judah had the political space to determine itself more than it had previously. (This moment would soon come to an end, however, with the imminently encroaching Babylonian exile as Babylon secured further victories over the Assyrians and their allies.)

As Josiah led the people in this project of self-determination, the account of his reign in 2 Kings has him ordering the renovation of the temple in Jerusalem under his high priest Hilkiah. During this renovation, Hilkiah is said to have “found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22.8), and Josiah made this text the central authoritative guide in instituting renewed juridical norms within the Kingdom. Many scholars take this “book of the law” to be Deuteronomy.

When I was taught the story of King Josiah within Evangelicalism, the summative moral was that Josiah was a good king because he made the people return to a righteous way of life that was obedient to God’s commands after a series of wicked generations. He was presented as a model of good government—the king who truly loves God and makes God’s commands the law of the land. Josiah’s youth at the time of his coronation also provided a great illustration for kids that they too can be models of righteousness to transform their country toward godliness. (Bear in mind that I would have been taught this concurrent with the period depicted in the film Jesus Camp. Many of the didactic themes of the camp sermons were common in Bush-era Evangelical children’s education.)

However, reading this story now in the context of its scholarly discourse, I am able to see both this history and the text of Deuteronomy as serving a nationalist political agenda. These are the texts of a people trying to make sense of their history—of what led them to this precarious position, trapped between imperial vassalage, civil rupture, and approaching imperial conquest. But the text is also a tool in their effort to circle the wagons and consolidate cultural practices to redetermine themselves as an autonomous people. But Deuteronomy is also a complicated text, containing within itself layers of history and contradiction—contradictions that become sensical when read as an overdetermined accumulative historical document.

The text offers a few signs of its historical layers. A key shift occurs in Deuteronomy’s shift, for instance, of the authorized site of sacrifices to one that is centralized, though sacrifices had been previously common at many places: “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes…” (Deut. 12.13-14). This “place that the LORD will choose” seems clearly to expect the temple at Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah. Such a sanction makes a lot of sense, given that the issue of authorized sacrificial sites served to fortify much of the divide between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century BCE, when Jeroboam of Israel established alternative temples in Bethel and Dan to prevent Israelites from going to Jerusalem in Judah. King Josiah later tries to centralized authority in the southern kingdom by writing its exclusive legitimacy as a site of sacrifice back, obliquely, into the founding Book of the Law.

With this centralization of religious sacrifice, exceptions had to be made for the slaughter of animals that took place outside of religious sacrifice, such as for food, as Bernard Levinson notes in his annotations in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. This then explains the new allowances (contrasted to earlier Books of the Law) for slaughter away from an official altar: “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer” (Deut. 12.15).

There are more signs of these layers that I won’t go into in depth, such as the coincidence of polytheism and monotheism within the space of the single book, suggesting the palimpsestic presence of Canaanite theology and the centralized national theology more consistent with the Kingdom of Judah (cf. Deut. 3.24, 4.7, and 32.8 against Deut. 4.35 and 6.4; one could note also the use, at times, of the names El and El-Elyon to describe the Israelite god but which were originally the names of the Canaanite god who sat at the head of their pantheon). Then there’s the allowance for converting livestock into money for the sake of traveling, necessary in a centralized kingdom but less so in a nomadic tribal system. And then there’s the curious anachronism that takes the ostensible present to be the distant past: “the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it…” (Deut. 30.5). This line, along with the surrounding verses, make much more sense if written during or after exile from the land, rather than long before.


With all of this in mind, I’d like to conclude with a meditation on a single passage that gets at some of the heart of this complicated textual scenario. Here, we can think about the relationship between terror and mediation that comes through in the account of the people beseeching Moses to talk to YHWH so that they don’t have to hear his voice. I’ll quote the passage at length:

These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; and you said, “Look, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard this voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (Deut. 5.22-27)

The people fear that if they continue to hear the direct voice of YHWH, it will kill them, so they beg Moses to serve as their mediator, their salvation. I find this passage extremely provocative for a few reasons. In one sense, it serves to buff the authority of this text as holy scripture by suggesting that it has come from such a raw and terrifying source of divine power. The true author behind these words burns like a ravaging fire. Only the elect champion can draw near and return un-consumed. Moses’s divine right as prophet and warlord is tested and proven authentic.

In this sense, we can think of the terror that necessitates mediation and the terror that mediation produces. From the text’s narrative, the terror of the people at such undiminished voice becomes the opportunity for the mediation of ideas and laws—the message of the voice that they need to hear, condensed from the grave and dangerous reality of the voice’s presence.

On the other hand, we can read this as establishing a kind of monarchic political theology. Moses’s performance as mediator, within the text, transforms the text into a graven record of divine command. Since Moses is presented as the elect mediator, anything he is taken to mediate is blessed with the authority of holy writ. From this perspective, Josiah was a genius despot, knowing that what the people needed was not a new prophecy but an old one, with all the authority of law and all the power of a god. Moses, as mediator, stands in as the first monarch of a holy kingdom, in which the law that is executed is a law that was instituted by the god at the asymptotic heart of the community, a god that moved since time immemorial in the same direction as the self-determination of the contingent community. A negation becomes a presence via its mediation through this great undead author Moses, who becomes the signature of the authoritarian terror exerted by theocratic monarchy.

It’s not uncommon to read the Bible looking for its god. The ritual of personal “quiet time” with the Word that my friends and I practiced in college was done with the hope that something of that terrifying source would leak through this printed text before us. We would ask God to “speak through” this Bible to us, and, sometimes, we would walk away with a sense of direction, maybe a warmth of presence—not terrifying, but comforting—as though the feeling has resolved that fundamental question: Where are you? He is there, in the text—you only need to swim through the depths of mediation.

In the worldview of such practices, paradoxically, nothing is more terrifying than the idea that God could be mediated, that the “authors” of scripture are necromanced for many purposes, some national in scope and some personal, some intimately closer to the one who reads. To raise the question of mediation is to lift a red flag before the casual synods, councils, and church boards of the institutions who require the curtain never to be drawn, the holy of holies to remain forever occulted. The medium is the holy message, with all the weight and presence of the holiness it points to but which you cannot see. And the mediated body of text mobilizes another people who find new ways to choreograph the strings that connect the limbs of their authors, who have something new to say that was said long, long ago.

A Land Without a People // Numbers

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

Even if it is called the social nexus, link to the other in general, this fiduciary “link” would precede all determinate community, all positive religion, every onto-anthropo-theological horizon. It would link pure singularities prior to any social or political determination, prior to all intersubjectivity, prior even to the opposition between the sacred (or the holy) and the profane. This can therefore resemble a desertification, the risk of which remains undeniable, but it can—on the contrary—also render possible precisely what it appears to threaten.

            Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”

…[T]he very violence of the foundation or positing of law must envelop the violence of the preservation of law and cannot break with it. It belongs to the structure of fundamental violence in that it calls for the repetition of itself and founds what ought to be preserved, preservable, promised to heritage and to tradition, to partaking. A foundation is a promise.

            Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”  

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.

            Numbers 33.55-6

Two thematic threads weave their way through the disjointed narrative in the Book of Numbers, stitching its various episodes and genres into a somewhat unified story. Before naming these two threads, though, let’s take stock of where the first three books have brought us. Genesis introduced the family from which the protagonist people would descend. It introduced as well YHWH, the god to whom this people would be fundamentally related, according to the promises he made with their bloodlines. Exodus told of YHWH’s deliverance of this people from captivity by means of plague and genocide. It then marked YHWH’s institution of this people as a people, a nation (more than merely relatives of a particular family) by means of the violence of law. Leviticus detailed the people’s law and the relation of purity and blood that was their law’s organizing principle. So we are left, at this point, with a people in possession of a legal identity and a few promises, wandering through the wilderness awaiting the consummation of those promises in the land they will enter.

The Book of Numbers then, on the one hand, is a story of the struggle for leadership of this people. This struggle concerns the distribution and delegation of authority—especially the establishing of legitimacy of authority—among the people in response to several rebellions. The second concerns the struggle for the land promised to the people by their god, a bloody struggle between the people who wish to settle in the land and the people already living there. Both of these struggles revolve around the problematic of the promise: what force a promise has and for whom it has force. Both the struggle for leadership and the struggle for the Promised Land determine the soul of this people—how, within the account, they came to define themselves and how the account lends itself to inspiring a certain continuing identity and claim within changing historical contexts. I would like to explore these themes and this problematic in connection with Derrida’s discussions in “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” It seems to me that in examining the notion of this people alongside that of this promise, we stumble into a terrain where our every step concerns matters of purity and violence.

// Power, the People //

I have to keep reminding myself the difficulty of looking back at a text like this. Everything that happens in this story has oblique resonances of concepts and structures that concern us in the present, but the difficulty here is that this was a time before, a leafing back through the pages of history to pages that could not have predicted what would be written later. We are trapped in the bind between reading the soul of the past and the many ways that our reading is informed by concepts that did not concern these subjects in the same way they concern us or with the same definition. I repeat to myself this problem, again and again, like a paranoid schizophrenic, knowing the dangers but never quite knowing the source, only these voices that both are and are not the voices of my own age.

I see in this book a story of sovereignty, of political formation, of nation, and of governance. These words frame my orientation to the text, but I’m looking into the black box of a pre-political age, an age that existed before politics as we know it was imagined. Sovereignty means something else here. Power means something else. Who can know it?

I can only begin from what I have before me, every step into prehistory a penetration into a dark desert: “Nocturnal light, therefore, more and more obscure,” as Derrida describes revelation and our will to penetrate it. It’s a playful phrase that appears suddenly in my mind every now and then.

So, power, however we may come to understand it here. There is a portioning of power at work in Numbers, YHWH designating who holds what role. This is how we have to approach power’s function in this book: every designation or legitimation of power has always to do with how this people understands their relation to their god. Power comes from YHWH, or rather, power means a specifically defined relation to YHWH. He designates power early on in the book when he apportions to the Levites the role of administering the sacred instruments and the tabernacle:

[Y]ou shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it; they are to carry the tabernacle and all its equipment, and they shall tend it, and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And any outsider who comes near shall be put to death. The other Israelites shall camp in their respective regimental camps, by companies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the covenant, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall perform the guard duty of the tabernacle of the covenant. (Num. 1.50-3, emphasis added)

This designation of power involves a regimentation of space within the camp (the tabernacle at the center, the Levites concentrically located nearest). The tabernacle was the meeting place between YHWH and the people, and the Levites both saw to that place and resided at the central heart of the community, in nearest relation to their god. This designation was so strict that violation of such spacing and administration was a matter of life and death. The Levites were insiders, the most inside, bearing a sharp distinction from the other tribes whose access to their god would always be mediated by this ruling class. Order emanated from this center; chaos involved an erosion of the established channels between the center and the periphery.

However, when we think of power and privilege and ruling classes, we think often of license. Those with the most power get to do the most of what they desire. This is complicated here, since the Levites receive their designation of power essentially by being received as communal sacrifices. They take their place at the center as a form of dying—they are taken by YHWH as the required sacrifice of the firstborn that was enforced in their deliverance from Egypt:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD. (Num. 3.12-13)

Birth remains a constituent element of power. The firstborn receives the inheritance of the father and thereby the father’s authority in the clan upon the father’s death. So again, power descends along bloodlines. But notice the complexity here: this is an entire tribe designated as “firstborns,” thereby acting as scapegoats for YHWH’s wrath involved in their deliverance. Rather than require the physical death of the firstborn children and animals from the Israelites, YHWH accepts the eternal service of the Levites as substitution, making them a sacred class, already sacrificed but abiding as living sacrifices. The firstborn tribe, then, retains the power of being at the center of the community and presiding over their most sacred and significant affairs. Importantly, though, they are the firstborns both of the entire people Israel, of all the tribes, and of their divine father. Their power is not a substance that produces for them a kind of license. It is a position, articulated spatially, as they reside at the midpoint between the human community and the divine authority, and they reside there by constituting, in a sense, a kind of half-life, neither fully divine nor fully human. (N.B.: This will be crucial for reading the Jewish messianic interpretation of Jesus’s position as both fully divine and fully human. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Christ.)

The circle divides deeper; the Levite tribe is made up of several families. Each family is apportioned a role in presiding over certain of the sacred instruments and structures. The ancestral houses in the census of the Levites include the Gershonites, the Merarites, and the Kohathites. The Gershonites were placed in charge of the fabrics of the tabernacle and were positioned behind the tabernacle on its western side. The Merarites were in charge of the structures and pillars of the tabernacle and were positioned on its northern side. The ancestral house given the most significance—the most power—were the Kohathites, the house that included the clan of Moses and Aaron. “The service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things” (Num. 4.4). They were in charge of the furnishings within the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, its inner sanctum where YHWH resided at the very heart of the community. While the general house of the Kohathites were to reside on the southern side of the tabernacle, the family of the high priest—Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons—were to reside on the eastern side, “having charge of the rites within the sanctuary, whatever had to be done for the Israelites; and any outside who came near was to be put to death” (Num. 3.38). They were to position themselves between the entrance of the tent of meeting, where all communal judgment and decision-making occurred, and the rest of the entire community.

As shown in the passage above, Aaron’s family, as the preeminent family in the community, was given the power to put to death those who violate the laws of access to the tabernacle and, therefore, to the divine. It was this family that put to death those who worshiped the golden calf in Exodus. (Except for, interestingly enough, Aaron himself, who actually constructed the idol. Perhaps there is something to be said here regarding the sovereign exception as defined by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, that sovereign is he who decides on the exception.)

The first time leadership emerges as a problem or question is coincident with the first narrated episode of rebellion. In this first episode, the people complain about the pain and privations of their wilderness journey. First, the complaints are vague, but the response from YHWH is fierce when he hears them: “Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah [Burning], because the fire of the LORD burned against them” (Num. 11.1-3). As will be the pattern for subsequent episodes, this first one establishes the legitimacy and strength of Moses’s power as supreme mediator between the community and YHWH, and this is established by Moses’s ability to ask YHWH for mercy and thereby to bring about a salvation for the people from YHWH’s wrath.

When the Israelites continue to complain, Moses asks YHWH to lighten his burden of governing this rebellious and numerous people. YHWH responds by taking “some of the spirit that was on him” and placing it on seventy of the elders of Israel, as a sort of delegation of authority (Num. 11.25). When the elders receive this portion of the spirit that was on Moses, they “prophesy,” including two (Eldad and Medad) who were still in the camp rather than at the tent of meeting. (It’s unclear what is meant by “prophesying” here. I have heard an interpretation that it involved glossolalia, speaking in tongues, but this may have been an effect of the Pentecostal will to strengthen later doctrines by contriving their origin in a pre-Pentecostal text.) Some, including Moses’s second-in-command Joshua, complain about this act of prophesying as it appears to be an attempt at breaching Moses’s authority. Moses makes a gesture toward something democratic-sounding in his response: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11.29). However, these seventy elders only prophesy this one time, while Moses apparently carries the gift with continuity, a mark of the preeminence of his divinely apportioned authority. It’s difficult to determine the intent behind Moses’s line then. Maybe it’s somewhat disingenuous and meant only to keep the peace. As there are such clear divisions in place regarding who can have access to the divine (and lethal punishments for those who violate it), it’s unclear how we can take seriously this stated wish that YHWH’s people would have such direct access to his spirit.

Following this episode, Moses’s right as leader is directly questioned for the first time. This challenge comes from Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. This challenge has again to do with relations of access to YHWH, but this time the question of leadership includes the element of racial/national purity, the purity of blood: “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the LORD heard it” (Num. 12.1-2). Scholars point out that “the Cushite woman” could refer either to an Ethiopian or to someone from Midian, which means that they could be referring to Moses’s wife Zipporah. But their claim has not only to do with the purity of the community’s blood—that all in the camp would be properly children of Israel. Their challenge here also predicates the legitimacy of leadership on a relation of access to YHWH. One can be a leader of this people only if one can channel the voice of their god. Again, power, according to this community, describes a quality of relation to the divine, to the vital but occulted heart of the community.

As the text goes, this challenge is resolved in Moses’s favor when God appears in a pillar of cloud and offers his own verdict:

And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the LORD make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. (Num. 12.6-9)

The legitimacy of Moses’s authority is established based on his unique access to YHWH. While others, such as Miriam and Aaron, are spoken to obliquely in visions and dreams, Moses is spoken to face-to-face, “and he beholds the form of the LORD.” For this reason, he is entrusted with the entire community. He has the greatest amount of power because he has the greatest access to YHWH. Because of Miriam’s insubordination (again, why is Aaron not punished?), she is struck with leprosy and thereby cast outside of the camp for seven days. Because she questioned Moses’s authority, she is made temporarily as one who does not belong to the community, as one belonging to the wilderness of the outside. The question of his intercourse with a non-Israelite woman is ignored, however. This is curious, because as we will see, the matter of sleeping with non-Israelite women becomes a fatal offense to YHWH, because his covenant is with Israelite blood. Anything else pollutes the channels between YHWH and his chosen people.

// Purity //

Okay, so far we’ve established the means by which power is attained in this community and what meaning power obtains for this community. The means and the meaning both have to do with a relationship of access to the voice of YHWH. Those nearest to the tent, those who can prophesy, and, most of all, those who can prophesy based, not only on dreams and visions, but on an actual encounter with the face of YHWH maintain the greatest amount of power here, the power to rule and the power to be indemnified against punishment. Power is given by YHWH to those who can hear it. Power is a promise from the mouth of YHWH given to those whom he chooses.

When we think in terms of promises and why they matter in this text, for this community, the element of blood purity at play in these power relations begins to make sense. All power and all promises between YHWH and the Israelite people have an originating force dependent on YHWH’s original covenant with the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Covenant and promise are somewhat interchangeable words in these Hebrew texts, but they mean something stronger and different than our modern senses of promise. (Though perhaps, arguably, these still provide the root of our modern sense of to promise and hence should shift the significance we give to the term.) A covenant denotes a relationship between two parties—a sort of pact or contract, but more existentially significant. As I mentioned in my post on Genesis, biblical covenants always seem to include four elements: a promise (in the modern sense, an assurance of future acts), a blessing, a law, and a sign. Each of these elements is constitutively bound in the others, such that a promise is never a promise in itself; it is a promise as a unique relationship between two parties who have agreed to act in particular ways (bringing in the element of law).

The Hebrew phrase denoting the forming of a covenant between two parties means, more literally, to cut a covenant. A covenant, in its etymological essence and therefore in the imagination of the culture that developed the practice, involves violence and blood. Keep in mind that the sign of the covenant with Noah was an archer’s bow in the sky, immediately following the annihilation of all humankind other than Noah’s family. Then, the sign of the original covenant made with Abraham was circumcision, a cutting of the flesh—and particularly a cutting of the flesh of the appendage associated with progenation. This covenant was reaffirmed for Moses in an episode from Exodus, when Moses was returning to Egypt from Midian with his wife Zipporah in order to inform Pharaoh ultimately of YHWH’s promise to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if he did not free YHWH’s firstborn son, Israel:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Ex. 4.24-6)

The only prevention against YHWH killing Moses is for Moses to wound his child, thus reaffirming, via the spilling of blood, Moses’ place in YHWH’s covenantal family. (And to drive the point home, “feet” here was actually a common euphemism for penis.)

So, the shedding of blood—a common wounding of communal flesh—is a crucial sign of God’s covenant with Israel. His promise is, fundamentally, a promise with the bloodline of the Israelite people, and for this reason, it becomes crucial that Israel maintain the purity of this line in order to maintain the covenantal relationship in good standing, as all power and promise stems from this relationship. This is why it becomes a capital offense for the men of Israel to sleep with the women of other tribes in the following episode, quoted at length. (N.B.: See the sharp contradiction below between the way other men are treated for sleeping with Midianites and the way Moses benefitted from the sovereign exception for the exact same offense):

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man in the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Num. 25.1-9)

This nation—this protagonist of these civilization-shaping books—was founded upon the address of God to figures belonging to a family, and their manner of responding to the address reaffirms their status as a family, and moreover as the chosen family. In a sense, the unique status of this bloodline begins as an address, a communication between one party and another. The origin is plural, bound within various events of encounter. This recognition allows us then to invert the idea that promises here are determined by blood, because blood, too, is determined by a promise. The act of promising, as Derrida argues, is the origin not only of the possibility of religion but also of social connection at all, and religion cannot be thought without an attention to the ways social connections form and function. If we think of religion as an institution or even as a practice, we think of it as the repetition of acts bound to a common significance, and this repetition of activity binds people together by relating them to the original event(s) that allowed for their coming-together. Here is Derrida:

Axiom: no to-come without heritage and the possibility of repeating. No to-come without some sort of iterability, at least in the form of a covenant with oneself and confirmation of the originary yes. No to-come without some sort of messianic memory and promise, of a messianicity older than all religion, more originary than all messianism. No discourse or address of the other without the possibility of an elementary promise. Perjury and broken promises require the same possibility. No promise, therefore, without the promise of a confirmation of the yes. This yes will have implied and will always imply the trustworthiness and fidelity of a faith. No faith, therefore, nor future without everything technical, automatic, machine-like supposed by iterability. In this sense, the technical is the possibility of faith, indeed its very chance. A chance that entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil.

The concept of the promise is a complex one, because it functions in all verb tenses. To promise, in the present, describes the activity of encounter that hinges on a future to-come. A promise, in the present, is the object of a past encounter that directs one toward something or someone not-yet-arrived—it lays claim on something that does not exist, but in bringing that inexistent thing to present attention, sealing it, appropriating it in this way, marking it as belonging to the one addressed with the promise, it makes it exist without existing. Here and still to come. A promise draws one back into the past, the moment of encounter, the act that forged a relation between two parties. The promise is a heritage, an identity, and a destiny. When a promise is fulfilled, it repeats the act of encounter but—because history is flux—it repeats the encounter by making it different, new, other.

Faith is more than trust as a feeling or mental state or rejection of opposing feelings or mental states (namely, doubt). We can follow Kierkegaard, in part, by agreeing that faith is subjective: it can only be described as something having to do with relation, how one relates to another, how much fidelity that relation has. The truth of faith is in relationship, not in correspondence between mental states and facts of the world. But we have to go beyond Kierkegaard, because faith must concern more than one. It is not about how one feels or believes or loves or trusts. Faith is an activity binding one to another. In a sense then—and to be pretty Derridean about this—faith undoes the one, cuts the one, opens the one by making the other have a constitutive relation to the one. Faith is wounding, exposure, infection. Faith makes one different from oneself. Faith is the activity of cutting this difference, of binding and loosing in the space between, binding and loosing as one simultaneous activity.

Derrida argues that the possibility of the promise creates the possibility of faith, of relation, of future. To go further, the possibility of promise creates the possibility of the one, the self (auto), because the one can only determine oneself by establishing oneself as distinct, as different. Different from what? Different from another. And then can only remain different by repeating a sameness, an automaticity. Difference via repetition. It follows from this that the self, the one, is the accident, the contingency—the more-than-one, the one-as-other, the relation that cuts across the closure of the one is fundamental. Only the many is given. The one as same to oneself is enforced by acts of violence that confirm an identity that was, that is, and that is to come.

Through this strange framework, we have another key to interpreting all the ways violence happens in these books of faith. These books are books about covenant, about promise, about faith in a promise. We have established that covenant is about wounding, the binding one to another. But the “menace of radical evil” that Derrida suggests is always possible where faith is possible is here in these books too. A promise is about a wounding, but a promise produces wounding too—this is how a promise repeats and binds, how a people is kept the same, how a bloodline remains pure. Radical evil happens when faith is turned in on itself—when the self is not made other to itself, but when the other is made one with the self. Here is how Leonard Lawlor describes Derrida’s notion of radical evil:

The worst violence occurs when the other to which one is related is completely appropriated to or completely in one’s self, when an address reaches its proper destination, when it reaches only its proper destination. Reaching only its proper destination, the address will exclude more, many more, and that “many more,” at the limit, amounts to all. It is this complete exclusion or this extermination of the most – there is no limit to this violence – that makes this violence the worst violence. The worst is a relation that makes of more than one simply one, that makes, out of a division, an indivisible sovereignty.

The worst violence, the most violent evil, happens when one refuses the wound that defines the binding of oneself and another. It happens when the binding is repeated without acknowledging the significance of the wound, when the binding is made complete, such that there is no wound. The determining power of the address involved in promising is turned in upon itself so that the address does not determine but is determinate—an address to be repeated violently, with a finite origin and destination, an irreducible addressor and an addressee irreducibly appropriated in the address. Here’s a metaphor that plays out concretely in these texts: the worst violence happens when blood is made into something pure, rather than something inconsolably infected by another’s blood. The worst violence occurs when a bloodline is made privileged and distinct as one bloodline, necessitating the exclusion and cleansing of other blood, of the blood of another.

So here’s the hard proposition that this comes down to: The function of YHWH in these texts is to facilitate the working of the worst violence.

These texts have refused the fundamental ontological status of the address and have instead made a singular addressor, YHWH, the foundation of all address. They have defined power and blessing as having a pure and direct relation to this addressor. The powerful human is the one in a position to be addressed by the one being who is to have existed before all address. These texts say that a command created the universe—Let there be light—and in saying so, they have blinded us to the reality that something exists more fundamental than sovereignty. By making YHWH the first and the sovereign, every act of address here becomes one of appropriating or annihilating. No one may speak back to the Speaker.

In establishing a foundation of chosenness by the sovereign, the people that wrote these texts wrote themselves into oblivion. Their only presence here is presence as completely appropriated to the sovereign One. They do not exist—they only live, move, and have their being in the One. The One necessitated that existence be submission of one’s being and will to him, such that separation would mean exclusion, dispossession, annihilation. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 30.19-20).

This total, complete submission to a god taken to be sovereign and first means that this national community can only continue by repeating and repeating the worst violence, identifying themselves with their god by denying themselves and all others. This is what they count as blessing: that they are nothing, but their god is all, and therefore that all others are nothing. When the mercenary prophet Balaam is hired by Balak the Moabite to curse Israel, YHWH stops him by having Balaam’s donkey speak back to him, refusing the mission. YHWH commands Balaam to bless, rather than curse, Israel three times. These blessings confirm YHWH’s will that Israel is special, distinct, set apart, and that Israel will dominate all others. Their blessing means a curse for everyone else:

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him.
Here is a people living alone,
and not reckoning itself among the nations!
Look, a people rising up like a lioness, and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain. (Num. 23.8-9, 24)

As it is written, for the unchosen blood, the only choice is to be cleansed or to be consumed. There is a fatal cost that comes with the violence of a promise.

The first fulfillment of this promise, this blessing, and the violence that necessarily attends it occurs in the book of Numbers in the protagonist nation’s genocide of the Midianites who lived in the land they would enter and threatened the purity of their bloodline. The episode is worth quoting at length, though it is a difficult one to read:

They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives on the third and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” (Num. 31.13-24)

A number of themes come together in a harrowing way in this passage. Here we see that the promise associated with a privileged bloodline—the promise of a land that belonged to them, though it was already inhabited—effectually negated the lives of those who already lived in the land. The violence done in the taking of the land is not registered as indicative of moral failure or a sign of evil in YHWH or Moses, because the promise, dependent on purity, is supreme and definitive of this holy nation’s approach to the world. It is as though the others do not exist, and so they are made to cease existing—except for the young women who are made to exist in the social death of sexual slavery. Following the slaughter, the nation purifies itself of the dead—the dead who were always already dead to them and whose status was simply confirmed by the encounter. And so, the nation enters the land promised them by their god, colonizing a land now without a people, as was the chosen people’s birthright.

// Coda //

All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon that last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond silence–then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (1949)


Image source: sdobie, Flickr (edited)

One for Azazel // Leviticus

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

…but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

            Leviticus 16.10

Disgrace upon you, Azazel! For Abraham’s lot is in heaven, but yours is upon the earth. Because you have chosen and loved this for the dwelling place of your uncleanness. [T]herefore the Eternal Mighty Lord made you to be a dweller upon the earth […] for God, the Eternal Mighty One, has not permitted that the bodies of the righteous should be in your hand, in order that thereby the life of the righteous and the destruction of the unclean may be assured. […] [Abraham] is an enemy to you, and to those who follow you and love what you desire. For, behold, the vesture which in heaven was formerly yours has been set aside for him, and the mortality which was his has been transferred to you.

            The Apocalypse of Abraham 13

And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.

            The Book of Enoch 10.8

The concept of the sacrifice occupies an immense territory in human imagination. As a ritual practice, sacrifices have existed in so many different cultures throughout so many periods of history, and while the form in which this practice appears has changed, it has by no means diminished. With Christianity’s absolute focus on the theology of redemption taken from Paul, a core theme of contemporary Christian thought has described, in legal terms, the self-sacrifice of Jesus as fulfilling and thereby nullifying the Ancient Jewish requirements surrounding the rite of sacrifice. Because of his singular nature—being both fully human and fully divine while managing to live without sin of any kind—Jesus was able to serve as the scapegoat, bearing in his body the sins of all humanity. By submitting himself to a public execution, Jesus fulfilled the blood-debt for all humanity once and for all, allowing for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins. All counts of guilt could then be rendered, not innocent, but paid for, in a cosmic system of exchange functioning through notions of debt and debt-repayment. Sanctified humans—washed in the blood of the Lamb, as it were—no longer need to shed the blood of a sacrificial creature to cleanse their sins. With the consummate sacrifice already performed, the redeemed are made free to sacrifice themselves daily, to take up their own crosses—but this continuing sacrificial language translates the rite into one of abstract spirituality and inwardness. One goes on living by considering oneself dead, sacrificed to the greater sacrifice and thereby becoming eternally indebted—indentured, enslaved—to Christ.

This account of sacrifice as based in exchange and legal sentences of guilt is not the oldest biblical account, though the juridical/economic one does bear traces of the older model. For the original account, we would need to pay attention to the suggestions within the Bible of the practice as preexisting any institutionalization of Jewish worship, and those suggestions are certainly all over Genesis and Exodus. (There is, of course, the first blood in Genesis, where God sacrificed an animal to provide clothing for Adam and Eve following their first act of disobedience.) But instead of that, I would like to focus on the first place the practice is codified as an official part of the religious ritual practices of Israel, and where better to identify this institutionalization than in Leviticus—everyone’s favorite book.

Tell anyone that you’re reading through the Bible, and one of the first things they’ll remark is how much of a slog Leviticus is to get through. This may be true if you’re looking for a page-turner, but you have to place the book in its proper genre. Leviticus offers the account of the instructions YHWH gives to the Israelites following their exodus from Egypt, preparing them to ritually protect his dwelling among them in the tabernacle during their sojourn through the wilderness. Read from this perspective—that Leviticus constitutes a codification of the Israelite god’s first systematic list of instructions for his chosen people—the book offers an exceptional glimpse into the soul of this people and their relationship to their god.

In my post on Exodus I described the law as a way of identifying a people and separating them from other peoples. This post continues on that theme but with special attention to the role of sacrifice (which is to say, the role of violence) as well as to that which is beyond the law, to what and who is outside it. The text offers two understated figures key to this second theme: that of the wilderness, the territory of the outside, and that of Azazel, the god of the outside.

In this pre-Temple era of Jewish history, the tabernacle served as the dwelling place of YHWH. A mobile yet ornate structure, it was re-erected at the center of each new encampment along their journey and served as the site of their ritual practice. It was the center of their community both spatially and symbolically, and in the Holy of Holies—that inner sanctum of the tabernacle where only one person, a priest, could enter only once a year and only in a cloud of incense—their occulted god resided. When we understand the position of this tabernacle and its role as a house for the divine, the ritual laws that are given seem far less arbitrary than they are made out to be by some critics today. In fact, there is a unifying logic to these instructions, if a nevertheless mystical one predicated on a certain metaphysics of sin.

I think the general impression among lay Christians of the nature of Leviticus is that it offers a list of sins with their respective legal punishments. If you do this, then the just retribution is that, and so on. But this is not exactly the case. Rather, when we read the text for its intrinsic definition of sin, we don’t necessarily arrive at one of legal infractions calling for a retributive debt-fulfillment. Instead, sin is made to look much more like disease or a festering wound—it is a communicable impurity, prone to spreading through contact, leaching the life of the body. Sin, as festering impurity, is then not understood as a breach of social contract—as it would be in a modern legal sense—but rather as a natural byproduct that leaks from certain activities, many of which are not necessarily intentionally performed, and which manifests itself at times in visible blemishes on skin, furniture, or cloth. Most of the sacrificial offerings prescribed in Leviticus are aimed at ritually cleansing this festering impurity, and though they are often called “sin offerings” or “guilt offerings” it would be more accurate to call them “purification offerings” (Lev. 4.1-35n). (The other offerings described are gift offerings of food for the divine, performed as spontaneous acts of religious devotion, and these include burnt offerings, grain offerings, and well-being offerings.)

Understood this way, we might read Leviticus not so much as a codification of legal proscriptions but rather as step-by-step guide to cleanliness, but one for which the stakes are incredibly high. To follow these instructions is a simple matter of survival: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” (Deut. 30.19). Jeffrey Stackert, in his contribution to Leviticus in the footnotes of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, describes the view of sin this way:

[The Priestly source] portrays sin both as a weight of guilt shouldered by the offender until it is borne away through forgiveness and as a defiling object attracted to the sanctuary like certain metals to a magnet. Left unremedied, such sins will accumulate in the sanctuary and drive the deity from it. (Lev. 5.1n)

And he describes ritual impurity—related but not identical to sin—in this way:

In Priestly literature, impurity is a real, though invisible, film that adheres to persons and objects and is attracted to the tabernacle as some metals are attracted to a magnet. However, impurity is fundamentally different from sin: impurity is contracted in the course of normal, daily activities and carries no moral stigma … Yet because impurity is contagious and threatens the continued presence of the deity in the sanctuary, its disposal must be accomplished fastidiously. Failure to purify is sinful and carries dire consequences (cf. 15.31). The sources of impurity are human and animal corpses (ch 11; Num 19), normal and abnormal genital discharges (chs 12; 15), and a disease, “surface affliction,” often mistranslated as “leprosy” (chs 13-14). The common denominator among these sources of impurity is their association with death or at least a loss of life force. (Lev. 11.1-16.34n)

As always, it helps our understanding of this religious imaginary by positioning ourselves, as best we can, within the perspective of an ancient people living in a time of constant tribal wars of conquest, wandering precariously through the wilderness, without the benefit of modern medicine or natural science. The threat of death was a condition of daily life, and you can imagine the horror they might associate with the spread of disease, especially when such disease bubbles on the surface of someone’s skin or, as in cases of mold or lichen, seems to eat away at their clothing and the structures of their dwelling places. It seemed that death, itself, was spreading across the surfaces of their lives. What can stop the spread of these ill-understood conditions? And more than that, what can cause these impurities? When all natural occurrences—as well as many human feats—are associated with some kind of divine intention as a response to the soul-health and moral behavior of the people, these festering impurities have a cosmic significance as well as local ramifications for daily life. They need a way of immunizing themselves against this threat of death, the disintegration of their body as a people. Believing that YHWH has been their rescuer and protector, delivering them from their enslavement in Egypt, the people turns to him as the one who can sustain them and rescue them from other dangers that creep into their lives as a condition of living.

This also serves to explain the strange (to a modern point of view) prescriptions surrounding genital discharge, childbirth, and menstruation. On the one hand, the key element in these things is the role of blood. I have mentioned before the significance of blood in the Bible, but Leviticus offers us another entry-point by which to understand how blood is made to mean. Here, blood is a contaminant, making the garments and people it touches unclean. Even when the flesh of a sacrificial animal is considered holy, the blood remains a contaminant, as in the discussion of animal sacrifices for purification offerings: “The priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall become holy; and when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place. […] But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting for atonement in the holy place; it shall be burned with fire” (Lev. 6.26-27,30). Stackert explains, “The blood of the offering seems to decontaminate by absorbing impurities, which explains how it contaminates garments and vessels” (Lev.6.26n). Blood is a contaminant because it absorbs the impurities contracted through daily activities and sinful acts. Blood is the detergent, washing away the things that threaten the life of the community—the life which is located in their blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Lev. 17.11). Blood, then, is both the carrier of life and the carrier of death—it has the capacity to sustain and to absorb within itself that which festers and destroys.

For this people, life always seems to be understood within a frame that takes death as primal. The positive of life is thought always alongside the negative of the risk of death, such that life is that which has been protected from death. The sexual prescriptions—for ritual washing and containment after sexual acts, after menstruation, after less common genital discharges, and after childbirth—have to do with the danger of loss of life associated with these acts and with the spilling of blood more generally. René Girard, the great theorist of ritual and religion, makes this point within his broader argument that sacrifice, in all religious practice, constitutes a people’s way of containing and immunizing violence. Sacrifice, for Girard, is a method by which the violence inherent to a community—particularly the potential cycles of vengeance that can escalate from a singular act of intra-communal violence—can be relocated onto an acceptable substitute, thereby transferring the community’s inherent violence to something perceived as outside the community, dissociated from it in some way: “All our sacrificial victims […] are invariably distinguishable from the non-sacrificeable beings by one essential characteristic: between these victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance” (252). Girard remarks on the strong risk of death that these communities observed in childbirth and as a consequence of sexual acts: “Sexuality is impure because it has to do with violence. […] Like violence, sexual desire tends to fasten upon surrogate objects if the object to which it was originally attracted remains inaccessible; it willingly accepts substitutes” (271-2). So there is both a mimetic and a physical correlation between sexuality and violence in the imagination of such ancient communities.

Sacrifice, then, is a vaccination against death—against the violence that is seen as “eminently communicable,” as Girard explains: “Ritual precautions are intended both to prevent this flooding and to offer protection, insofar as it is possible, to those who find themselves in the path of ritual impurity—that is, caught in the floodtide of violence” (267).

The quintessential act of sacrifice, in this model, that is prescribed in Leviticus is that prescribed for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the annual ceremony established for the consummate purging of impurity from the community. This is the day when one priest would enter the Holy of Holies and meet with their occulted god to plead atonement for the sins of the whole community. It is, in other words, the day set aside for deep cleaning those hard-to-reach places. As a part of this ceremony, three animals are sacrificed. First, a bull is sacrificed for the sins of the priest, to wash him clean enough to enter the holy place. Next, the priest takes two goats, casting lots to decide which one is sacrificed for YHWH. This goat’s blood is shed for the people upon the mercy seat that sits atop the Ark of the Covenant, which is the residence of YHWH within the inner sanctum of the tabernacle. On this one day of the year, the sacrificial blood is spread deeper into the holy place than at any other time.

It is the other goat that interests me the most because the language surrounding the other goat troubles the idea that this was a monotheistic people. This is the goat on which the lot falls “for Azazel” (Lev. 16.8):

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16.20-22)

In many translations of these passages, this phrase is rendered as the much more well-known term “scapegoat.” Here’s the King James Version translation of this verse: “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.” Stackert explains this difference as follows: “Azazel, probably, ‘angry’ or ‘fierce god,’ a demonic figure (cf. 17.7), in contrast to the Israelite deity. Rabbinic interpreters understood Azazel as ‘the goat that goes away,’ i.e., the ‘scapegoat’” (Lev. 18.8n). As is often the case with moments in the Bible that challenge our views of its consistency regarding theology and cosmology, this figure has often been rendered as a symbol or metaphor and not representative of a legitimate belief in a second deity. For instance, the Jewish Encyclopedia cites the account of the 13th-century Talmudist Nachmanides: “Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the goat was, as stated by Naḥmanides, a symbolic expression of the idea that the people’s sins and their evil consequences were to be sent back to the spirit of desolation and ruin, the source of all impurity. The very fact that the two goats were presented before Yhwh before the one was sacrificed and the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with Yhwh, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with the righteous government of Yhwh.” This symbolic sense of the scapegoat translates into our modern use of the term: some person, group, or object gets (often unfairly) designated as the one who will bear the guilt of others or as the one to blame for certain problems and is punished as a way of eschewing punishment for other wrongdoers.

However, it seems incontrovertible to me that there is a sense in Leviticus that Azazel was an actual being—a demon at least but perhaps a deity who dwelled in the wilderness beyond the camp. He is the one to whom sacrifices are made by the communities outside the tribes of Israel. He is the one to whom illegitimate sacrifices are made when the sacrifice has not been blessed by a priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Lev. 17.6-7). I see this anti-worship of Azazel as the necessary consequent of the sacrificial immunization of this community. The “holiness” they so valued really means a “separateness”—their ritual washings cleansed them from the outside, from the death of the wilderness, that constantly seemed to creep into the inside of their community. Life meant a connection to YHWH sustained through his continual dwelling among them. Death meant a separation from him, but death was always linked to these festering impurities spreading over their members, which required removal from the camp. On Yom Kippur, the day of purgation, the impurities of the entire community were soaked in blood and spread onto another living goat, who was then cast into the wilderness, carrying their risk of separation from YHWH out to the anti-divine whose territory was the Outside: one goat for the god who lived among them and sustained their life, one goat for the god who lived beyond them and threatened them with infectious death. In both cases, the powers of life and death are in the suprahuman hands of a supernatural being (though in a world where there is no distinction between natural and supernatural). If they one to whom they devote themselves in worship is their rescuer, their life-giver, and in so doing has made them into a closed community, then who animates the threat of the outside? It cannot also be their rescuing god, so it must be some other divine. I think this helps to explain the later use by Christians of the figure of Satan—the second god who must exist for the first god’s identification with a community’s life to make sense.


Girard, René. “From Violence and the Sacred.” Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader, edited by Jeffrey Carter, Bloomsbury, 2003, pp. 239-275.

Becoming Undone // Arendt and Butler

On theory., Uncategorized

On that which follows terror.

Nothing in his fucked-up study of black history had ever hipped him to this: The long life of a people can use their fugitivity, their grief, their history for good. This isn’t magic, this is how it was, and how it will always be. This is how we keep our doors open.

            Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” (2017)

But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.

            Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent GQ feature article on the making of Dylann Roof proceeds from the question of what led Roof to murder nine people during a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. As Ghansah’s journey in the essay develops, the responses to that question shift from an isolated focus on Roof himself and toward the shedding of a little light on the social forces that play roles in the emergence of such an act. Moreover, as Ghansah follows Roof’s story, her own winding narrative spreads to include other faces, other names, and other figures shackled within an American history that has worked so insidiously to deny them faces and names.

What becomes clear is that Dylann Roof’s act of terrorism, while harrowing and absurd, must be understood as a fundamentally American violence. Roof was the first person in all of American history to receive a death sentence as the penalty for a federal hate crime, and yet his act bears within its substance an engine constituted by all the hate and terror that has defined the American world since its birth. We are a society whose origins consist in the systematic terrorization of entire people groups, from chattel slavery to the deportation of Latino/a children from their homes, and no matter how much time or reform goes on, there’s a blood like the biblical Abel’s blood—an originary violence, an original sin—that remains upon our doorposts, our monuments, and in our participation in this unfinished history. Ghansah describes Roof’s boyhood habit of compulsively using hand sanitizer “[a]s if he were aware of some stain or some filth that others did not see.” However Roof himself might have identified that stain, I believe it might be understood in some way as the terrorism bound up in our social practices of negating others in order to secure a life for ourselves, those who we allow to belong to our own blood and soil.

Ghansah’s writing in the essay exhibits the strength of a critical act of mourning that resonates for me—insofar as it functions as a reflection on terror—with two critical theorists whose work has revealed the functions of terrorism that are often obscured in our discourse of it. The first of these is Hannah Arendt, whose work in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) defines terror not according to violence perpetrated by lone-wolf actors or minority cells but according to the violence that allows terroristic state regimes to secure their dominance. The second is Judith Butler, whose book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) reflects on the conditions of possibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ways in which our response to terror may simply perpetuate the violence perpetrated in the first place. In thinking these writings together—particularly on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and considering the hate-fueled will-to-terror that came vividly to the fore in Charlottesville recently—we may better understand the nature of our lives together and what makes such life impossible.

Arendt was a Jewish refugee and political theorist who fled to America from the Nazi regime. In the academic work she undertook here in the States, she wrote provocatively and insightfully on a number of political subjects relevant to our lives in the world, including democratic performance, positive freedom, the construction of public realms, and the violence that plays itself out in law and governance. In The Origins of Totalitarians she reveals the ways in which fascist and totalitarian regimes, as well as the nation-state itself as a political-force, both displace certain people, turning citizens into the stateless, and control their own populations through a unifying political identity and narrative. It is in this latter discussion that her definition of terror arises.

For Arendt, terror does not consist in the spectacular violent acts of uniquely depraved or psycho-pathological actors. Rather terror consists in ideology—the ideological narrative that functions as the motor of totalitarian state power. It is a condition of and the central active ingredient in the administration of a certain type of state. Terror describes the totalitarian state’s practice of inscribing its subjected population into a single, unified political body whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. Alternatively, against the notion that terror exhibits a fundamentally lawless relationship to a public, she describes terror instead as itself a certain type of law—not a law enforced to limit the actions of political subjects, but rather a law to motivate them toward acting so as to construct a particular arrangement of reality. She writes, “Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some suprahuman force, Nature or History.” Additionally, totalitarian terror produces an “identification of man and law.” Seen from this angle, terror constructs the world that totalitarian subjects occupy by making them construct that world for themselves, according to a single plan or the force of a single narrative agent. (For the Nazis, it was Nature and Nature’s expression through the proliferation of ethnic nationalisms; for the Stalinists, it was History and History’s predetermined end.) Therefore, following Arendt’s definition of terror, we might say that terrorism is expressed more essentially through the identity it enforces upon the actor, rather than the particular acts it pushes the actor to commit.

I like Arendt’s definition of terrorism because it allows us to step back from the momentary spectacles of terroristic violence and to see what actually drives the whole infernal machine. By thinking of terrorism as a type of and practice of identity, we can see Dylann Roof’s terrorism as consisting primarily in his white nationalism, even more so than in the shots he fired. White nationalism is itself a terroristic identity, in that it represents an ideological understanding of a history that is headed somewhere in particular—namely, a white ethno-state. The valorization of white identity as a closed group within the evolution of history is, from its origin, a murderous ideal. Abstractly, it constructs its reality around a strictly defined set of people and thereby negates the reality of others. On the ground, it calls for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Roof hoped that the nine murdered people in Charleston would represent a bloodbath to come, as was written in his identifying ideology.

As is clear in Roof’s case, the terror that Arendt pointed out as existing in the structure of totalitarian states can be seen as well in the actions of individuals for the very reason that the identity those individuals claim can represent many—though as soon as the identity is claimed, the many washes into the monolithic One. Looking in this way at the violence that occurs on the ground, we can use Butler’s ideas about violence and mourning to see how terror functions interpersonally, and how the act of mourning either affirms or complicates our will-to-violence.

In Butler’s account, violence is a revelatory phenomenon. When violence occurs, even in the most vulgar sense of a gunshot in a church, that violence reveals the state of relations that exist at the point between the people involved, and between people more generally. Grief and mourning allows for the practice of reflecting on those relations that come through. Roof fires shots and reveals two levels of extant relations: on the first level, he reveals his own negation of the others in that room, his attempted negation of his ties to them; on the second level, he reveals the ongoing and proliferative dependency we all have upon one another. If one can end the life of another, this shows that one’s life depends on the life of that other and how they choose to relate to us. We are bound to each other; we exist through each other and depend on a certain condition of general care in order for our lives to be possible at all. When we mourn an act of violence, we are compelled to acknowledge the precariousness of our lives, and we are left with a decision as to what to do with that knowledge regarding others.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred sixteen years ago, the United States as a people were confronted with a decision in response to that violence. While the attacks revealed the United States’ state of relations to peoples and actors from across the globe—the mutual way global societies rely on the good faith and care of others to continue to exist—what the United States chose was to respond with an exaggerated reactive violence that has continued until today, with no signs of stopping. On domestic ground after the attacks, Muslim and Middle Eastern communities across the country faced harassment, bigotry, and violence on the part of the those who defined their national identity in opposition to them.

With regard to the world stage, three days after September 11, 2001, Congress and the Senate passed with near unanimity the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill that granted the President the authorization to use military force against anyone involved in the attacks or associated in some way with those involved. The violence of this response, largely due to the vague and infinitely applicable language of the bill, has proliferated and metastasized since the response was initiated with the start of the War on Terror. Business Insider points out that, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the AUMF was used to justify militant violence in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. We had a chance to curb such bloodshed when, recently, Rep. Barbara Lee from California—the only one to vote against the AUMF back in 2001—introduced an amendment to a defense spending bill that would repeal the AUMF. However, as things so often seem to go here in America, this gesture toward reaffirming care of and dependency on others with whom we share the world was refused, stripped from the final bill. Currently, President Trump is escalating this perpetual “War on Terror,” and we might say that he does so by using the very mechanisms of terrorism: the negation of the other, the instantiation of a unified identity against all possible difference, the denial of our precarious dependence on each other.

When I consider this cancerous terror that seems to infiltrate every sphere of our political and social activity, I find two particular moments in Ghansah’s writing on Roof especially poignant. Upon the end of her awkward visit to Roof’s church, in which she felt outed and side-eyed for being a black stranger, she stumbles upon the security procedures the church provides in a manual: “I flipped through all of it, but the St. Paul’s safety binder had no instructions for what to do if the shooter was one of their own.” We fail so often to see the terror that functions in our own communities, our own interactions with other individuals. We wind up so often blind to the ways our enclosed senses of self make it impossible to consider the care others require of us, our dependency on them. And in this blindness that proceeds from our finished, closed selves, violence strikes in all directions. Ultimately, this violence we do against others whom we depend on becomes a violence against ourselves.

When Ghansah writes of the Mother Emanuel AME church, she remarks on their ceaselessly opened doors, their welcoming attitude and willingness to invite the stranger, in a manner so unlike the white church that Roof regularly attended. Ghansah identifies this openness as a crucial element in black survival throughout a history of American terrorism that has acted upon those communities. She writes that they used their grief, their suffering, and their experience of being cast out while yet within in order to survive. Perhaps survival requires suffering. We feel that security comes through violence toward our opposition, but in the experience of grief, as Butler shows, we realize that violence toward opposition is always already a violence against ourselves—a cutting off of the life support we have in the care of others. In the place on the beach where Roof once inscribed Nazi symbols—symbols of negation—Ghansah returned to affirm the lives of the dead by writing each of their names in the sand. To affirm life and presence: this is the cure to terrorism, the only response to violence that does not aggravate violence at the same time. We keep our doors open, our selves open, our life proliferative, and only through our care for each other, we live.


Image source: The Atlantic, AP Photo/Suzanne Plunket (edited)

The Ends of the World // Kant and Fisher

On theory., Uncategorized

On imagining futures.

A philosophical attempt to write a general world history according to a plan of nature which aims at a perfect civil association of mankind must be considered possible and even helpful to this intention of nature.

            Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784)

Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.

            Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)

It’s hard to take the long view of history, and even when we do it’s usually wrong. We hold such small capacities to see and to know, but this nevertheless fails to deter us from thinking in terms of futures. Toward what does the arc of the universe bend? And what provokes us to seek out such a determinate logic?

As a boy, being fed histories of the great upheavals of the twentieth century—the trenches, the Holocaust, the dropping of the big bombs, Vietnam, the birth of computers—I would imagine the possibility that things might turn a corner and become interesting again. What if the rollercoaster sequence of all the accidents that happen, like the Mamba that I used to ride a dozen times per visit at our local amusement park, could just possibly be cresting that first big hill. I would lean back, shield my eyes from too premature a view of the drop, and await the plunge into the dynamic course that would always unfurl me along with it.

When September 11th happened, I was in the third grade, too young to know that something new had occurred and too young still to know that the ground of the new tends toward mundanity. Spectacles become background noise before they finish playing themselves out, if they ever do. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have trundled on in the background of the larger half of my life, so far from Kansas and Nebraska, and I’ve managed to forget about them more than I’ve remembered that, no, they still haven’t stopped. It took me several years before that old rollercoaster started making me nauseous. Despite the constancy of its path, how well I knew each pivot, rise, and fall, I just stopped riding along. I found it impossible to enjoy as rapturously as I used to. I could watch, uninspired but sufficiently composed, from the ground.

Later, I learned to spectate lethargically regarding other affairs. Some of my college pals and I would feel that “realism” was just another word for “cynicism,” and so we called ourselves cynics. We understood that caring too much about a cause was just another way of being strung along like we had been for years in our own lives by other grand redemptive narratives, messianic tales about the end of history and the beginning of a new one. Disillusionment—this was a term I learned from history class in the context of World War I, the crushed dreams of the entire modern epoch, a limp response following a confrontation with the great failure of their highest hopes in one prolonged blustering display of the great stupidity that humanity breeds in its advancement. Disillusionment—the only response we can muster when a redemptive myth not only fails but was proven to be a damning joke all along. As with all jokes, what makes it a joke is that, in the end, it comes to nothing, though everything else carries on. It’s the sudden violent recognition both that an illusion existed in the place of what you thought was reality and that the illusion can no longer be maintained.

Jean-François Lyotard was famous for declaring in the late 70’s that what defined the contemporaneous “postmodern” era was a general “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Here, “metanarratives” means any grand story that fundamentally serves to explain subordinate daily goings-on and thinking in society, a story that usually includes the end-game teleologies of various social forces. Whether or not that general incredulity was true of that era of recent history—and I have reason to think that it’s a bit reductive (and perhaps elitist) as a descriptive account of social phenomena—I certainly think it can be complicated today. If we think about the course of the later 20th century into the 21st, it is true that certain foundational modern metanarratives had apparently proven indefensible. As an example, the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose thinking arguably had a crucial impact on the whole modern epoch, in the late 18th century theorized history as a grand revolution of slow time. He argued that, by means of the various accidents and self-interested activities of humankind, an ultimate perfect state of rational relations between humans on earth could be achieved. This was not a revolution that could be forced into being by a singular act of the general will at a moment in time. Rather, it would be a moral revolution, in which humankind, through a process of incremental progress, would as a race achieve the full use of its reason and would therefore seek to act with a good will at all times. A cosmopolitan society of security and freedom would be constructed, with freedom defined by Kant as acting upon the rational use of one’s faculty of moral judgment. One day, by means of the long winding course of history, a future would arrive in which humans relate rightly to each other.

Kant’s was a utopian vision that every century seems more and more unlikely. It is, however, worth noting that his utopia ends in a stasis of civic relations: a perfect state of human relations is achieved at the teleological end of history. This leads me to my complication of Lyotard’s claim. Modern metanarratives of history, such as Kant’s, still exist today but have become mutated to endorse the current state of affairs. Moreover, where these narratives still exist, they often exist as Janus-faced, claiming a narrative of progress while simultaneously running on the premise that the teleological end of such progress has fundamentally already been achieved. Today the mutated metanarrative exists as a function of neoliberal capitalism’s self-reproduction.

The late Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism, interrogates capitalism’s claim that “there is no alternative” (as famously put forth by Margaret Thatcher in 1980). This claim fuels the engine of capitalism’s dominance: the idea that no alternative future can be imagined beyond a global “free market” economy and its bedmate liberal republican democracy. This claim was also made by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argues that human ideological evolution has concluded its progress and that, in a way, Kant’s teleological utopia had been achieved in the liberal democratic form of government. “Capitalist realism” as Fisher defines it is this: the belief that capitalism can be the only reality. It subsumes all resistance to it, and it defines all of its goals of progress within its extant bounds. Fisher writes, “The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion”—a tragically ironic comment, since Fisher would later, in January of this year, commit suicide due to his own depression.

Within the regime of capitalist realism, there can be no future, because everything that happens is a playing out of different iterations of the present state of affairs. Our best hopes for leadership lay with those who will uphold the status quo and save it from decrepitude—hence the (in my opinion, mistaken) perception that Hillary Clinton was a progressive candidate, when in fact she would uphold many centrist policies that would continue the violence of neoliberal capital’s imperialism both at home and abroad, maintaining both the financiers’ grip on domestic “democracy” and the global state of emergency that liberal democracy maintains to legitimize its wars. Even the “hope and change” of Barack Obama’s campaign turned out basically to be more of the same, though in a voice that was more pleasant to our ears than his predecessor’s.

Fisher titles his first chapter after the phrase associated with Frederic Jameson, that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” When I hear this phrase, I relate it to the form of capitalism that was closest to home for me growing up, by which I mean capitalist evangelicalism—or, possibly, evangelical capitalism, because it’s nearly impossible to imagine evangelical Christianity today without its capitalist core. This religiously-inflected capitalist realism truly brings together the two faces of the current system in rather a clever, if somewhat subterranean, manner. The American system of Christian evangelicalism, on the one face, culturally fights tooth and nail in defense of and toward the intensification of neoliberal capitalism. They call for the privatization of public goods and public care, as well as the tax-sheltering of private institutions. They define freedom in terms inextricable from market freedom: because of Christ’s saving grace we are afforded the freedom to understand ourselves in whatever Christian-identitarian terms we like, but the actual acting out of that freedom must go no further than what the doctrines of financial maximization allows. None of our absolute freedom may presume to provide public structures or public goods to preserve the actual positive freedom required for hard-pressed communities to flourish. In this sense, evangelicalism, like capitalist realism writ large, believes that the end of history has arrived and that it is very good.

On its other face, Christian evangelicalism—whose doctrines of dispensationalist millenarianism developed concurrently with post-industrial capitalism—believes the end of history is imminent, that it is yet to arrive but will arrive, one day soon, like a thief in the night. With regard to this religious sect, I would take Jameson and Fisher one further to say that it is easiest to imagine the end of the world and to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. The two claims support each other in political factuality, if not in logic. Kant presciently described the same dark chiliasm of end-times-obsessed Christians when he distinguished the three possible ways to predict the course of history in his essay “A Renewed Attempt to Answer the Question: ‘Is the Human Race Continually Improving?’.” One of those options is what he calls, intriguingly, “moral terrorism.” He defines it as follows, in terms that sound a lot like the signs-of-the-times sermons I heard as a teenager:

A process of deterioration in the human race cannot go on indefinitely, for mankind would wear itself out after a certain point had been reached. Consequently, when enormities go on piling up and up and the evils they produce continue to increase, we say: ‘It can’t get much worse now.’ It seems that the day of judgement is at hand, and the pious zealot already dreams of the rebirth of everything and of a world created anew after the present world has been destroyed by fire.

In the evangelical Christian imagination, the best system we can hope for on Earth is capitalism, with all of its cruelties and incoherencies. But that’s the key: on Earth. For them, there is no need to imagine alternative futures, because Jesus is coming back to save humanity from itself, to destroy all the kingdoms on Earth and to install a new kingdom on a new Earth, one that will reign perfectly forever and ever. One must wonder what sort of monarchy that will be—perhaps a bit like Kant’s ostensibly beloved Frederick the Great’s, with a little hedge-fund investing mixed in, and in which all the streets of gold are owned by private proprietors. But it’s not just that there’s no need to imagine alternatives to capitalist realism when the world will ultimately end by fire anyway. This end-times theology enforces capitalist realism’s present reign—the intensification of disparities in economic well-being, the willingness to benefit off of what must necessarily be a doomed system, and to keep enjoying the prosperity God gives to his chosen ones.

It’s a godless activity to imagine real futures. Those who dare attempt it deny both the God of the Armageddon, whose sword reaches from his mouth, and the God of the Invisible Hand, who gives us the absolute freedom to buy what we want to fit what we need. After several exhausting turns on this nauseating rollercoaster, however, I am not yet convinced that I am actually unable to use my own two feet, among the cloud of many witnesses—the disillusioned multitude who see the present two-faced “realism” as two faces of the same debilitating profane phantom—in new directions, right out of the amusement park. At the very least, if we allow ourselves, just for once, to second-guess the myopic resignation of the claim that there is no alternative, we may be able to open up the space in our imagination to conjure visions of different futures that are, against all odds, within our power to create.


Image source: Flickr, Alma Ayon (edited)

Everyday Neoliberalism // Mirowski

On theory.

On how I learned to stop worrying and love the market.

It is predominantly the story of an entrepreneurial self equipped with promiscuous notions of identity and selfhood, surrounded by simulacra of other such selves. […] Everyone strove to assume a persona that someone else would be willing to invest in, all in the name of personal improvement.

            Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2014)

Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.

            Paul Ryan, Twitter (21 Feb 2017)

“Neoliberalism” was a word I had not heard until I entered graduate school, and then it was everywhere – in the theory texts I was reading, in the conversations between graduate students, and in the leftist discourse on Twitter, podcasts, and journalism that I became more attuned to over the last couple years. Often the word is wielded as a weapon of accusation: we can’t support a certain politician because he or she is a “neoliberal”; “neoliberalism” is killing education and healthcare; or it’s “neoliberal” oppression that I have to pay $25 to Graduate Studies so that they can host my thesis on their server, something they required in order for me to graduate despite the work already having been accomplished (this last one may be a little specific to my own case). It seems that many of the classic leftist/radical critiques of the political system have shifted in recent decades from decrying “capitalism” writ large to the perhaps more specific program termed “neoliberalism.” What is often unclear, based on how the term gets used, is whether this popular bugbear refers to some specific policy doctrine or some more general condition of culture or society. The answer, as I’ve come to understand, is both.

According to the tale Michel Foucault tells in his lectures from the late 70’s, American neoliberalism emerged as a reaction against the Keynesian economic reforms put forward by the Roosevelt Administration in the 30’s as a response to the Great Depression. Where Roosevelt’s programs focused on increasing government intervention in the economic crisis by developing social programs and aid, thereby increasing the federal deficit, neoliberalism called for laissez faire deregulation of the economy on the basis of the idea, from Adam Smith, that the “invisible hand” of the uninhibited market would work out its own solutions and create prosperity. The neoliberal program was codified into theory by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, particularly through the development of the Mont Pelerin Society, which was founded in the late 1940’s.

Foucault explains that, in the more radical version of neoliberalism that took hold in America, more and more functions of government would be handed over to the market. This can mean a couple things. On the one hand, conservative calls for a “smaller government” lead to hyper-privatizing of various public goods, such as healthcare, education, prisons, even the military. This form of neoliberal privatization of goods does not put these things back in the hands of the people but rather in the control of the mythical “market,” which really means the wealthy financiers and bankers with ties to the government who can turn public goods into objects for making a profit, usually to the injury of the general public and particularly of the poor.

On the other hand, the functions of government are handed to the market not through privatization but by using market standards of efficiency and growth as the guiding values behind governmental action. In this way, economic productivity is the primary value driving policy, rather than other potential metrics, such as the health and welfare of citizens or the humanistic empowerment of the public. This leads to the thinking that the cause of most political problems comes from too much interference in market fluctuation, thereby inhibiting the natural efficiency of the order of things. If you hear the phrase “market-based solutions” this is neoliberalism providing neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems caused by the neoliberal worship of the mythical rationality of the “Market.” For instance, the individual mandate to purchase private health insurance as a part of the Affordable Care Act was a neoliberal solution to a problem produced by neoliberalism’s refusal to make healthcare public and universal, as would be the case with a single-payer system. It kept healthcare private, thereby protecting the profiteering healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical industries, while making it slightly more accessible to just a few more people. When these sorts of strange market-based solutions inevitably prove themselves to be a less efficient way to address a problem, neoliberalism turns up again to say we should have just let the market do its work in the first place without undue guidance, giving us even more craven “solutions” like the slim and stupid, hyper-privatized American Health Care Act.

Philip Mirowksi, in his fantastic book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (seriously, I love this book), makes the case that neoliberalism was a particular sect of economic theory that gradually, against all odds and results, became the ruling ideology of the American system and continues to exert an absurd amount of influence over economic theory and governance in our country despite its many failures, particularly its big one of being entirely wrong about (as well as partly the cause of) the financial crisis of 2008. Where Foucault seems to say that neoliberalism is just the way things are now – that it’s the condition of our times, this general economization of all human things – Mirowski wants to make clear that it comes from a particular community of thought that has gained undue power through a particular series of events. Nevertheless, Mirowski also shows the many ways this sectarian economic theory has gone on to inform much of daily life and the self-perception of people today.

When we consider neoliberalism as a condition of contemporary culture and society, the simplest way to sum this up is to say that neoliberalism has instructed us to see ourselves as entrepreneurs of ourselves. Prominent social institutions – everything from the government itself to schools to churches and even to romantic relationships – are viewed as though they were businesses or financial investors. What we want is to be invested in, to put ourselves in situations that increase our own social capital and make us more successful, success being defined according to the principles of the market. This has a number of impacts on our daily life choices, especially those “big” ones: whether to go back to school, whether to start a business, to work on developing some personal skill or appearance, to gain “experience” whether or not it is justly compensated (unpaid internships for massive for-profit institutions are an evil unique to the neoliberal program for success).

By forcing us to constantly be on the move, developing our social capital portfolio, selling parts of ourselves, our time, and our lives to the various agencies or ideals handing out investments, neoliberal culture fragments our lives into the mesh of changing skills and start-ups we comprise. It takes from us a sense that our life belongs to us, because we hand over parts of our life to a market that might magically develop and improve it. Identity gains a monetary value, but not even a solid one. Rather, identity’s value shifts with the stock market, with the supply and demand of the job market, with the interests of those various investors we prostrate ourselves before. We are instructed to risk ourselves, not necessarily to trust the market but to enjoy the fact of its washing over us and absorbing all our attempts at making a life for ourselves. View each moment as a start-up, and don’t worry if you fail. Failure is a part of the rationality; just keep risking. The arrogant hypocrisy of such a culture is that, while the poor and the vulnerable are taught to enjoy the vulnerability that comes with risk, security exists for those who have greater control of the market. The housing crisis hurt a lot of people, but not the bankers who shorted the housing market. Doing away with public healthcare would hurt a lot of people, but not the people who profit from private insurance purchases or hiking drug prices, or the people who can already afford to buy health insurance because they’re the ones handing out the jobs and investments.

We see the success of neoliberalism’s hegemony of culture in our recourse to the sharing economy and the commercialization of organic materials. Things like Über or AirBnB are evidence that in neoliberal culture even private property does not belong entirely to us but belongs also to the market at large, to the flow of capital that courses through our lives and everyone else’s. If the market has left you in need of income to pay for the services no longer publicly provided for you, find a way to monetize more aspects of your life, such as your car or your house. Even more poignant are the ways we monetize our own bodies, submitting our blood plasma or wombs (as in surrogacy) to the market forces that are depriving us of what we need to live well. Moreover, what do we do when we learn of greater deprivations of life, human rights, or dignity at the hands of the market? We ask the market for help. So there’s slavery or labor violations in the coffee or berry farms? Buy fair trade. So animals are being treated terribly by meat producers? Buy free-range, antibiotic-free meat, or better yet, just buy more tofu and quinoa. So the patriarchy is depriving you of a just wage and equal access to a voice in political decision-making? Buy a “Nevertheless, she persisted” t-shirt.

As Mirowski shows in his incisive writing, neoliberalism makes us vulnerable while insidiously teaching us to enjoy our vulnerability. It guides us toward an erasure of the self while at the same time instructing us to be concerned only with ourselves, with our own little lives tossed in the sea of market dynamics. He writes, “The worse things get, you must not engage in rage, remonstration, or ‘stoicism,’ much less communal support; instead, the space spanned by your consciousness becomes the perimeter of the ‘economy,’ which is no longer about what you make, but consists exclusively of the stories you tell about yourself. Your vigilance must never waver from its focus upon the center of your own little universe.” We meditate on our little lives in order to find new stories about ourselves that open up a rational space for us to succeed according to the rationality of the uninhibited market, and we are told not to get in the way of ourselves. Public need is cast to the market, and we are taught to trust that everything happens for a reason, that God will take care of poverty and climate change, and that what we should be focused on is learning how to code or deregulating the kidney trade or shutting up and letting the businessmen do what they’re best at.


Image source: Flickr, Sam valadi (edited)

Experience // Esposito (Part 6)

On theory.

On displaying the wound.

Non-knowledge isn’t the production or the attribution of meaning but knowledge’s being exposed to what denies and negates it. Whereas knowledge tends to stitch up every tear, non-knowledge consists in holding open the opening that we already are; of not blocking but rather displaying the wound in and of our existence.

            Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)

On that day the prophets will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; […] each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” And if anyone asks them, “What are these wounds on your chest?” the answer will be “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

            Zechariah 13:4-6

This is a story that has no ending, not because it lives eternally but because it is by nature inconclusive. A life has no definitive origin or destiny; a life consists of infinitely infinitesimal origins and destinies entangled within each other, pulsing in every now-time we try to demonstrate to ourselves. Still, I’m not sure we are capable of avoiding our stories about ourselves. “Know thyself!” the maxim of the West has instructed us since the time of Plato, and we sometimes get this sense that to live an examined life is to devise a knowledge of our lives that sets our shit in order. Here’s what I was as a boy; some other things happened, so taken all together, here’s what I am as a man. It’s so natural to take our life in timelines, chronologies, causes and effects.

I want to avoid writing a conclusion to this post series that is conclusive. That’s too easy, too reductive. I just don’t think it makes total sense to say that I journeyed through Christianity until that chapter had ended, and making my way, I arrived at where I am now. This is no consummation, no determinate effect, no natural conclusion. Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To write a reminiscence in any form is to admit that the past is present to us – or rather, it is to make the past present, to dissolve the limit of seasons, like snow in the month of May, like celebrating Christmas in July. So I suppose this final post in this series is perhaps more about what it is to remember, rather than what is being remembered. But, of course, it is both. It’s always both.

I have written in a previous post that the dust of the past I tried to shake from my feet is the same dust of which I consist. Now I double back to say that the act of shaking a past away is a way of conjuring it up, of presenting myself a certain way, with that past included in the presentation, and in the moment that we conjure a self before us, the self that conjures slips away. In identifying ourselves, we lose ourselves, sacrificed to a new beginning disguised as remembrance. The poet Rimbaud writes, “Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” To be present is to become present, is to arrive, and in arriving, we simultaneously depart, like a stop motion image comprised of new faces every instant. This is who we are: an anachronistic presentation, dead on arrival, and in that way always coming to life. Writing is a form of arriving, a way of effacing the face we thought we saw. Foucault describes this process of writing the self rather wonderfully:

What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.

In writing about ourselves, when we do it critically and with love, we write ourselves into hiding, but that’s exactly where we are: hid, lost at sea, one with the churning waves, the whole constellation of shifting shadow and light. We are a hiding that cannot be found except in the question that God first asked Adam in the story of Eden, after Adam had fallen from his holy origin – “Ayeka?” “Where are you?” Here am I, Lord, in the question you ask.

I cannot tell you how many times I asked that question in the opposite direction throughout my youth and young adulthood. “Where are you, God? It’s me, Dillon.” I searched for him morning and night, everywhere I went, every time I remembered the question. I began to understand myself through that question. I was the kid who asked “Where are you?” At an important moment, a friend recommended to me the book God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel. When I read it, this book joined the pantheon of books I would say made me. Heschel, an Orthodox Jew from the mystical Hasidic tradition, exclaims the idea of wonder. In his vision, when we stand before the universe, we ought to remark upon the grand mystery of it all in a posture of wonder, because it is all so wonderfully ineffable. “We live on the fringe of reality and hardly know how to reach the core,” he writes. “What is our wisdom? What we take account of cannot be accounted for. We explore the ways of being but do not know what, why or wherefore being is.” The world is a mystery, perhaps with a core but a core we can never grapple. We reach our hands, and this is our holy posture, reaching without grasping.

Because we cannot comprehend this world so pregnant with light, we seek the sparks breathed out by the Creator, and all this light suggests to us the world’s fundamental message: that God is in search of us. This is what our search reveals, that all along, we were the ones being sought. That revelation is intransitive, bearing its own truth, not dependent on some object being revealed. The Light of the World doesn’t shine upon any answers or secrets – it just shines.

This book was to me like the dropping of a crude landscape painting to reveal the endless mountains, rivers, stones, sky, and plains stretched out to blurry infinity behind the façade. It consoled me that to live in the questions is no less of a life than to begin from an answer. Indeed, the question may be, after all, what life is. We scream ecstatically to the heavens and to our deepest selves, “WHERE ARE YOU!” and discover no answer. But we linger there, enamored by all the living contours such wondrous light intimates to us. Many of my most liberating moments have involved some manner of reassurance that the questions must be asked, that they are enough, that they invite our tarrying amid them. A whole life can be lived in those questions.

This is to say that the things which caused me pain, held me captive, at the hands of Christianity nearly always took the form of some answer, the power that an answer wields. An answer is a violence, and like all violence, whatever the intentions or results, whatever sort of preservation it is supposed to bring about, it always functions through a wounding. But the world is too much for our answers, and life always exceeds what we say of it. Nevertheless, we speak, spewing out answers, secreting them into our questions, overturning them by propagating a different one. We could say it’s a problem of language, or perhaps the law of existential relativity: that behind every criticism of an absolute truth is hidden some subterranean absolute value waiting, itself, to be deconstructed. It’s turtles all the way down.

I was taught to fear such endless regress of deconstruction. Christianity is not alone in fearing an incredulity toward fundamental answers; this is something I encountered, too, in my undergraduate philosophy classes as well as in much of liberalist political culture in the United States. Implicit in such anxiety is the idea that knowledge is where we start from, and we build on in a positive direction, incorporating new knowledge upon a strong foundation of fundamental truths. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Fundamental answers provide an apt point of observation where we can watch the power and violence of a system at work. When a system of knowledge relies on an assent to fundamental truths in order to successfully market and maintain itself, you will often find in such a system strong cautionary tales about questioning that foundation. These are all over the New Testament, for instance, in Jesus’s parable of the house built on a rock:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

The parable demands that we accept Jesus’s words as the (only) true, strong foundation, but it captures as well some incisive points. When our knowledge involves a foundationalism, the natural vicissitudes of the world will not affect it. The house built on a fundamentalist rock can withstand new empirical evidence contradicting its claims, the pain of others affected by the power of the system, as well as the constant failure of the system’s leaders and members to live according to its tenets. Such wind and rain can be used to fortify the ostensible strength of the system: the fear of the outside serves the preservation of the enclosed body. To buy into a system that relies on indefensible yet utterly agreed upon foundations requires a total identification with the system. The Book of James raises this key point:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

It is not enough to entertain such knowledge; you must live it. You must remember the image of who you are, an image inscribed in the law you live. Become a living sacrifice to this law, a perfect image of your Savior, who is the sovereign Living Law. Other names for systems with such imperatives are totalitarianism, ideology, and terror. The alternative to terror is to be one who looks in a mirror and later forgets what he sees. But I think this is what I want to be: one who is confronted by myself in such a way that the face I see, which is my own yet estranged to me, cannot be incorporated into any knowledge-system I have built regarding myself. I want to be confronted by myself such that I lose my identity, that it breaks down in the confrontation. Let the immediate image wound the system. Greet another and let them tear you apart, because you belong with them as much as you belong with yourself. And when you are wounded, display the wound. Linger with it. Let it fester, dissolve you, transform you amid a cloud of many witnesses.

What led me away from Christianity – with all caveats about the inherent reductiveness of explanations regarding a life – was the realization that I could not live the answers it handed me. Life exceeded them, wound its way around and outside them, introduced me to wonderful strangers whom the answers would annihilate. I found that in the sweep and spray of life’s undulations, a stony foundation proved insufficient for living. I was drawn to this quote by Rilke: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” It is better to live the questions with the expectation of a coming answer than to live in the expectations that an answer provides, like white-robed hysterics seated atop a hill waiting for the end of the world. Let us say that the world has already ended and that we carry on in the dynamism of what comes after, here in a sea of the multitude who make and unmake us constantly, to whom we owe ourselves. Perhaps to remember – to remember the answers that we lived and the questions that we are living – is to reintroduce the world that we lost, or that we lost ourselves to, and so, to remember is to display the wound, the lack in our existence, the place for transformation. To display the wound is to give ourselves back to life.


Image source: Flickr, Carol Vinzant (edited)

Ecstasy // Esposito (Part 5)

On theory., Uncategorized


On speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels.

The sea is the site of the improper, that is, of that which isn’t proper because it is the site of being far from home and of wandering. […] That we are mariners has no other meaning than this: our condition is that of a voyage that takes us far away from ourselves.

            Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)

There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.

            1 Corinthians 14:10-11

Eyes shut tight, a crowded room, knees knocking on cold cement. Under the barn’s tin roof, canned praise music on the stereo speakers. All around, the chatter of incessant whispered murmurs, the moans that pitched above the din, the yearning and the noise, a chaos of singing. Focus, focus. The visionary woman we had come to see – not unlike the Oracle – passed me on to her assistant. She asked if I would let her pray for me.

“It helps to loosen your jaw a little bit. Let yourself be open to whatever God has for you,” she said. “You’re an analytical person, like me. It’s harder for us to be open to this, because it’s not really a reasonable thing.”

“Try making the first move, letting yourself mumble little sounds. This shows God that you’re willing.”

“When it happened to me, it was sort of like…ba…ba…ba, like a baby’s babbling. You kind of have to be childlike.”

Focus, focus – but don’t think too much. In my praying, I chose to stop speaking intelligibly, to unhinge my jaw and to move my tongue, gently and sympathetically, to any motion the Holy Spirit might attempt to exert upon it. What would it feel like, I wondered. Would my tongue start dancing beyond any act of my own will? Would the temperature in my mouth alter, a chilled stammer, or a warm pressure?

I positioned my hands palms up, at times resting on the tops of my knees and at others lifted, supplicating the ceiling in a posture of receptivity, of openness, desire. In my search for the physical manifestation of the Spirit’s conduction, I nearly gagged with the awkward strain on my throat, as my muscles groped for an encounter with the Divine You: as in, You are all I need. You are all I desire. All I want, Holy Spirit, is Your utterance playing off my tongue.

Ba… ba… ba…


We were walking through parking lots on the campus of our community college. Friday afternoons we met in a classroom with some others, some friends from high school or church, some friends from other countries whom we had met at the college. In that classroom, we prayed fiercely, urgently, for the student body. We figured that in the economy of God’s grace and love, those who could tap into the spiritual realm with our words would create functional spaces where the divine economy would move toward the dominion of the Kingdom. The arc of the universe tended toward justice, toward judgment, and meanwhile, we were riding the wave of personal salvation. We spoke a great deal about the overwhelming peace of Christ, the joy he gives so unceasingly – despite all the times we felt dark, depressed, or anxious.

The others, it seemed, believed with genuine conviction that a body could experience the love of Jesus, and that this divine encounter would radically alter that person’s relationship to her own life. They were the sort who felt an exciting kind of guilt at failing to ask a paraplegic student if they could pray for the healing of his legs. Our new Ecuadoran friend shared with them that he had met Jesus in a dream, or awake in his room at night, as in a vision, and he fell in love. This was what the others were after, and to an extent, so was I. But I was always reaching, always flexing and straining. Maybe – when? I believed as a sheer act of will, but the belief was beginning to bleed. And so I spent my time in the community of believers, living a life that took the form of the believer, and this was the most effective way to remain in contradiction to my own entropy. Sunk cost. Besides, it was good to have some friends.

Not many days before the night at the barn – I don’t remember where we had been this time, but it was evening, the sky had shaded into a marine blue. We walked beneath rows of silent streetlights toward the parking garage. We talked about encountering God.

“Do you speak in tongues?” she asked, tentatively, a simple curiosity.

I hesitated, recognizing in myself the weight of a long and fraught coming-of-age that revolved around this question. “I haven’t – but I believe it’s real.”

I told her about how I had tried so many times before, but always wanted to be sure it was genuine, that I wasn’t faking it.

She told me a few days later that she couldn’t get over how surprising it was to her that I believed in the gift of tongues but hadn’t experienced it myself. I probably shrugged, or nervous-chuckled, not knowing how to respond. “But you do want to?” she asked.

“Yeah. I do.” I said it with a slight hint of hopeless resignation.

Soon, she invited me to go with her and the others to the barn.


It’s a strange feeling, when you realize for the first time that something about the way you grew up was, by all accounts, strange. What could be less normal than my life? I didn’t feel the peculiarity of my Pentecostal boyhood until I was a few years into college, when I started hanging around a lot of lapsed Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Episcopalians – my beloved mainline misfits. There was only one time before that, at a lunchtime prayer meeting in high school: Austin started to pray in his Spirit-language, and Ryan, who had never seen this before, asked me what was happening. In that case, I knew that Ryan was a Baptist, and so he simply lacked an education in the full gospel. I was happy to oblige. But it was late in college when I was fielding questions about it all through a perspective that no longer felt that former belongingness, no longer that blessed assurance. That was when I started to joke about it – shouldaboughtahonda… oughtabuyakia…and so on.

But in the most buried way, for a while, it hurt me to make those jokes. As I babbled in my made-up nonsense, ridiculing something that defined the particular community of my childhood, I saw images of what my eyes had once seen, what desire I had felt in the seeing.

I saw the packed room at kids’ Bible camp, after the worship meeting. They had invited those of us who wanted the spiritual gifts to come up for a special prayer meeting, in an upper room like the one hundred twenty at the first Pentecost. I saw the younger boy with chestnut hair, who wore an ill-fitting tank-top, aping the sounds the man with the microphone made. Sha-ta-ta-tut. I saw the same hands of mine, several years smaller, the same palms poised open to the ceiling. I felt the same mouth hanging limp, waiting for something to move it.

I saw a couple of other scenes, blurry through the old tears. The close fabric on my knees as I pushed my head against them, alone in my bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, begging, “Why won’t you talk to me, God? Why won’t you give me what you promised?”

I saw the youth retreat, the leaders sitting around me in the hard church pews, the people who cared about me, people I respected and some of whom I remain friends with today. I had been crying again, and enraged, with that utter sincerity of teenagers. “I’m not going to fake it. I want it to be real. But I’ve been committed to all of this for so long, going to church, staying involved, studying the Bible – I feel like I’ve done everything that he asked of me, and he still hasn’t kept his promise!”

“Isn’t this supposed to be for everyone? Isn’t this the ‘initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit,’ supposedly for all believers? I believe! I’ve believed my whole life!”

Samantha, as an attempt, read to me from 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, where Paul talks about there being one Spirit but many gifts, that the body of the church has many members and a hand should not want to be an eye, an eye should not wish to be a foot. It was starting to make sense, in a way. Maybe this one was not for me – maybe my spiritual gifts were something much less fantastical. I was good at reading. I liked to study. Maybe those were no less spiritual than the magic tongues.

I let the issue fade into the background for years. I gave up desiring what I had been promised and learned, above all, to wait – to wait without hope, because hope would be hope for the wrong thing, as Eliot says. I learned to wait through the howling silence.


That silence – I probably recognized it even then, but it’s easy to admit it to myself now. The silence bothered me above everything else. I wanted the gift of tongues so badly, for so long, but I don’t think I ever really wanted it for the apparent reasons. Why would I need a prayer language to use when no other words seemed sufficient, when I always had so many words? I only ever had words – ways of talking about what seemed to me the ineffable that yet still required articulation. I wanted to understand the God I had chosen over and over again to love. I wanted to describe him, to capture him in poetic eloquence, to tell him who I thought we were together. I heard a story once about a Christian imprisoned for his faith who, in solitary confinement, would sing that old song with the lines,

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own…

As the story goes, this prisoner would sing this song and Jesus would be there with him – the cell walls would dissolve into a garden scene, or a woodland meadow, and the two would walk and talk with each other like old friends. I wanted that sort of relationship with this God.

Denominations and Christian traditions other than mine treated God as a more distant force. Though sovereign in his command of the Earth, he governs remotely, exists as Wholly-Other and so lives beyond the reach of our little human minds or experience. The way to him, in those traditions, is the way of unknowing – the via negativa through an inverted world, beyond the confines of human life. That was not our God. Our God was a close personal friend, one who stuck closer than a brother, our Heavenly Father to whom we could always turn in prayer. We were taught to have a “quiet time” every day, where we could lift up our struggles, our hopes and dreams and failures, to God in familial, intimate communion. My friends and teachers talked about “hearing from God” or “what God said to them” that morning, as they read their Bible with their coffee and their breakfast. They talked about their wonderful relationship with Jesus. We were taught that a key mark of a true believer was her ongoing partnership and communication with the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Imagine being a pubescent child, taught to resent every natural impulse that brushes against an ascetic and totalizing morality, living constantly with the overwhelming feeling of shame at your constant failure. Now imagine being taught that God can set you free of all that, because he loves you so uniquely, so intimately – that you can bring all those sins and failures to him, in your brokenness, and he can make you whole. He will whisper, in his still, small voice, words of comfort and peace and joy. Then imagine that every time you follow those procedures, with the earnestness of a child who feels his shame so viscerally, all you ever meet is that suffocating silence.

I wanted to speak in tongues, because I wanted to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he was still there, and that he knew who I was.


This is the kind of existential frustration that sticks around, long after you feel any commitment to its source. It’s the kind that you won’t shut up about, that people come to know you by. Over the years, I reasoned my way away from the belief in a personal God and toward, initially, something more mystical, less humanized, but the sensus divinitatus – that God-shaped hole that John Calvin told us about – remained for me in the shape of the particular god I had chiseled into me as a child. Yet as I made my way further and further from the faith, I still could not get on board with the angry atheists who jeered about the stupidity of devotion to the bearded man in the clouds reaching his finger to make contact with us Adams. Though I didn’t believe in that God anymore, I felt that those critics obscured lives like mine, who defined their loss of faith as struggle, as pain.

A while after I had dissociated myself from Christianity to the point where I could make cynical and blasphemous jokes about its no-longer-sacred cows, I had a small moment in which the gravitas of my process of loss washed back over me. I was sitting in a dark basement, with the first misfit friends for whom I ever felt a sense of post-faith belonging-with, and we were watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The Knight knelt in a confessional booth, not knowing that he was speaking to his enemy, Death:

Knight.     And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing? … Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can’t shake off? Do you hear me? 

Death.     Yes, I hear you.

Knight.     I want knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand towards me, reveal Himself and speak to me.

Death.     But He remains silent. 

Knight.     I call out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there.

Death.     Perhaps no one is there.

Knight.     Then life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness.

And the old tears, diffused into new ones, fell out of my eyes again. The scene presented to me a reminder that memory is not something we are able to leave behind – who we were, what we were taught to love and to fear, remains with us to the end. They made us, and they converse with every new element we introduce in an effort to remake us.

The communities we belonged to sought to save us by making us into something we could not live with, in the face of death. Having found that reality, that mythology, and those anxieties unlivable, I tried to shake the dust from my feet and find a new path into a bigger world, yet I am reminded again and again that the dust I tried to shake from my feet is the dust of which I consist. All I can do is work it into new shapes, to adapt it to new materials, make it open to encounters with the something-else.

In the experience of religious ecstasy, mystics write about their feeling of oneness with God, as though their entire sense of self becomes orgastically bound to the being of their Creator. When one reaches the height of religious devotion, one dies, seeks a selfhood in the One who is other than them. But why would they want that? Maybe they’re tired of who they are and want to be someone else for a while. Or maybe they’ve been made to understand their lives as frail attempts at imitating Christ, and so the only real hope for them is to become Christ, to lose themselves in his Presence.

I think for us – for us Pentecostal boys and girls – we only wanted to lose ourselves to the Spirit, not because we necessarily wanted our own absence or negation, but because we wanted God to make himself present. We felt the utter loneliness of a world that was supposed to be filled with the presence of a God we could not see, feel, or hear. The irremediable loneliness terrified us, so we took the strange ecstatic sensations, stirred up by our own desperate desire, to be signs of His life. Some of us couldn’t feel it though, and so our souls were marked by divine abandonment.

There is a reward, however, in actively working to kill the God inside us. If we can blot out the contrived signs of his presence, his absence will no longer enshroud all the multitudes of others who live and breathe around us every day. We can kill each other’s loneliness. If we give up on our idolatrous constructions of Being – the images of a God graven, by our fear, into our imaginaries – then the nothingness no longer presents itself to us as a lack, but a fullness. We will lose our footing in this. We will necessarily lose our certainty, the rigidity of our old selves, but we gain so much more. We gain a life no longer beyond this world, but a life within this world, among these people. Suddenly everything else comes back into view. You can see me, and I can see you.

The Island, the Promised Land, and the Desert // Derrida

On theory., Uncategorized

On being.

“In this same light, and under the same sky, let us this day name three places: the island, the Promised Land, the desert. Three aporetical places: with no way out or any assured path, without itinerary or point of arrival, without an exterior with a predictable map and a calculable programme. These three places shape our horizon, here and now.” 

            Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge” (1998) 

The Island

This is where we meet. This is the room in which we sit together, on sofas, holding warm cups of coffee or cocoa in our hands, or cold beers that warm us, speaking across tables, arriving at and departing from some consensus. We disarticulate consensus into the multiplicity that it compoundingly affords. We smile and giggle, gasp, cry, and place our hands on one another’s shoulders in an effort to encounter one another. This is the coastline that circumscribes us in its infinity. We walk along beaches, by the sea, and of course, we feel oceanic, limited only by ourselves and by each other and by the other that breaks the limit of ourselves. We feel the coma of the numinous, because we ate too much of it. We lounge together under a sky that alights its radiance upon our scalps – the same light that touches each of us leaves its mark in a darkening on the skin, in varied colors, dependent on the each of us. When it burns we hurt, but we hurt together. It is the same light that reflects on the endless arrival of the ocean, the endless departure of the horizon, that draws into visibility the face of each grain of sand, too bright for our naked eyes. We are different here, together. We make life here, together, and at times, we fall apart. Everything that comes together falls apart, and in the falling falls together. The going and the coming are the same, and we are needful of them both. This island is not any one of us, but it comprehends the infinite incomprehensibility of our mismatched-ness. We have nothing in common, and we come to know this, luminously, on the island.

The Promised Land

This is the way we took to get here. We blazed trails in our minds and with our own two feet enacted them. We brought arrival into being when we imagined home, some destination or landing place, and we landed here. It’s not what we thought it was, not what we thought it would be. Our dreams of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow live in the lines we write in the dust of today, which we walk all over with every breath, die in the dust of today. Capernaum by the Sea – I once wished to write a song for you, both paean and elegy, one that would draw me toward you against the magnetism of disillusionment and self-doubt. I imagined a temple on your Mount, still shaking with the echoes of your beatitude. The world you offered us was not the same world at which we each arrived. This place is different than I could have imagined, but it was imagination that brought me here. You gave me a past life, an after-life. I live in the shadow of my last past life, beginning again. From the paths we walked down, we encroach upon the sacred site, holding in our sheepish arms the bundles of firewood, the tether, the sharpened knife. The place upon which we have decided is blanketed in a dust that cries for a further decision. Here is a locked door. Here is an inner sanctum that barricades itself against the oceanic breeze of the outside, the smell of salt and olives. If this is home, we have more ground to cover, but I am not alone here. And neither are you. Here is where we drive the mountain into the sea.

The Desert

This is the night before the day we arrive. Under the moonlight, certain halves of faces shimmer into phantasmal being. The light does not scatter across the land, but the land itself offers its nocturnal light, more and more obscure, to a sky that desires it. Faces for crowds, gathered under the cool night’s covers, asking for nothing but the chance to be born. We are the fruit of the night, what is cultivated in the absence of a sun that would peer into everything that can be hidden. We trust that some things simply cannot be seen: midnight. Though our eyes constantly fail to adjust, in such a world a mountain may as well be an ocean, and an ocean may as well surround a strip of sand. The nearest angels we find are the starry individuals suspended, like falling men, over what we feel to be our heads, but these we can ignore, knowing that the dust beneath our feet, undulating in the desert wind, offer enough guidance to we phantoms who seek only our own becoming. I do not know who I am. I do not know myself from you. We do not who we are, but we feel the sudden warmth of our proximity to something else. With every footfall, we cast our wager, desiring without expectation a better warmth, a deep unto deep. When another star falls from the sky, our half-faces, without name, wonder at the trail it leaves that dissipates in the lack of light, and for a moment we lift our own shadows to greet it. Welcome, friend. Take serenity in your indetermination, among the flocks of the unbecoming. None of us wait for the morning who have found a way in which to dance during the night, and so we hold each other’s hands, give each other the warmth of our bodies during a time-before-time in which we have needed it most. The day will come for us to meet, but until then, here we are, together at last.