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.

Law // Esposito (Part 4)

On theory., Uncategorized

On the excess of death, the limits of life.

But something else comes into view, that is, the reason behind the desire for breaking, for going beyond finiteness and experiencing the infinite. This is another way of saying coming into direct contact with the Thing, experiencing community on one’s own flesh, taking pleasure in the Real beyond the imaginary and the symbolic… Yet taking pleasure in the Real, which is to say realizing the law to the point of canceling it out, would also mean touching what in life can prefer death.

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

 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

            Romans 7:9-10

So much life is buried again in so much death. Christianity derives its every power from the death of life, from a transfiguration of a human life, enfolded into its own death. This is called rebirth: Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born again from above, not of flesh, as with human birth, but of water and Spirit (John 3:1-5). To be born again – as this phrase is interpreted several times throughout the Bible – means to die to the flesh, to deny the impulses of the living body that torments us with its ungodly desire, and to submit instead to the resurrection that comes only through the resurrected Christ. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed. And what is this freedom? That it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives through us.

We become marionettes of a supposedly living law so that we no longer have to live – to make the daily choice concerning what our lives can be. These are decided for us, by a law written long ago and understood to be embodied in the life of a man who lived a millennium and a half later and two millennia before us. I’m hitting on a theme here which has run through all the essays in this series: that in the belief/power system of Christianity, we arrive into an all-consuming totalitarianism that decides our lives for us before any given moment in which we ourselves might make that decision. It exerts this entirely devouring power through identity, through fear, through myth and story, and also through law – a law that, as Scripture says, creates both death and life, the latter of which is also death so long as we are alive. To deny ourselves, to die daily – these anti-actions mark an ideal life within the government of Christian principles.

As I think about this, I’m reminded of that quote by Viktor Frankl, the survivor of the death camps who theorized man’s search for meaning as the central motivating force in a human life: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl is wrong, because even the freedom to choose one’s own way and attitudes can be stripped away if power imports its strictures of law into the mechanisms of decision that govern a person’s behavior. Certain attitudes are good and certain are evil; there is a way which is the Way, and everything else is the broad road that leads to destruction. Freedom, defined within these limits, is total accordance to a law that may not be considered except to understand and to apply. The holy law must stand beyond the profane act of questioning.

Believers will often, in an attempt to make their gospel seem relevant to seekers of today, try to strip down Christianity into certain fundamentals. They will say that the whole lot of the program is captured in those two basic commandments “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They follow Jesus in saying that in these two things are contained all the Law and the Prophets. Or they will say that all that matters is a saving faith in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, that in his death we are allowed entry into grace and everlasting life, the infinite gift of forgiveness for the sins that damn us. In one of the college campus ministries that I participated in, a lot of the students were obsessed with the idea of Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient because he reveals the insignificance of everything beyond him, everything before him, everything after him. The desire for a simple gospel, a pure gospel, consummates in the obfuscation of everything that lay outside of the incarnated law. Fix your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.

To have Jesus is to acquire a law which may govern our entire lives and make possible a greater life beyond this one that we spend on earth, this life that is nothing more than a vapor, a wisp of fleeting smoke. It may be worth noting, not as a matter of shaming but of recognizing the lack of fit between Jesus as exemplary law and the actual nature of the lives we struggle to lead on the earth, that Tchividjian suggested a certain lack in the sufficiency of Christ when he forfeited his ministry by cheating on his wife with another woman. Why does this happen so often for leaders in the church? We should think that those who preach most vocally of the great sufficiency of Jesus, of the overwhelming peace and satisfaction in the law and grace of God, would be those least likely to desire the decadence that exceeds the Christian life.

The Christian law negates more than it affirms. As Paul says, the law tells us what sin is. The law makes death, submits life to death. Before the law, in the sense of preexisting the Law, we live. Before the law, in the sense of entering the courthouse, awaiting judgment, we all die. The best we can hope for is that we find, before the law, a rebirth so that the law can live through us, and we no longer have to live.

The Christian law consists of a series of negations. Even when it affirms something like “love,” when we bring these broad affirmations to the level of concrete action, what filters through the words are a series of “Thou shall not’s” and “I will not’s.” The “thou” becomes “I” in the moment of identification with the law. When I believe in the law – when I love the law – I say to the Law-Giver, I will not have any other gods before you. I will not make an idol to worship. I will not steal. I will not lie. I will not desire what is not mine. I will not kill (unless the fickle law instructs me otherwise). The law tells us what sin is, because the law’s only content is sin: the law is the construction of sin, evil, and death. When the law arrived, I died. We all die before the law.

Nietzsche writes that these series of “I will not’s” constitute our ongoing promise to the power structures which seek to manage our wandering on the earth. Christianity institutes a new people through a law which becomes that people’s memory, that which is said to transcend time so that at any point in history the people who ascribe to the timeless law make up the same people. We live and die before the same law that all the saints of old lived and died before, and the pendulum of death and life before the law undulates on perpetually, synchronizing a single dance to which we all falteringly step. In this way, Christianity as an institutional power gains control over large populations of people all across the globe. Government works best when it no longer needs to govern, because it has instilled all its principles of governmentality into the most intimate anxieties and felt obligations of the governed. The goal is not to enforce the law. The goal is to organize the group, and the law works as the adhesive: multitudes of singular lives who have chosen to die to their singularity in order to allow a timeless law to live through them. A Spartan army of good Christian soldiers.

In Christianity we have a perfect dispersion of law into the decision mechanisms of those who make up the Christian population, and the population becomes self-governing. This turns that population into a prime target for political leveraging, because if some policy or political value can be presented as integrally connected to the identity-forming law, the population will coalesce around that political action. We see then the emergence of a Christian Coalition, of a Moral Majority whose morality, now bound to new ideas, values, and policies, dictates that population’s political maneuvering. I know many believers whose single-issue voting on the matter of abortion drives their commitment to support for the Republican party no matter how much incoherence, in terms of morality surrounding the protection of life for its own sake, that party’s platform contains. Abortion presents a prime example of a moral issue which, being only recently politically relevant (relative to the timeless law), is used cynically by political organizations to sink their hooks into a self-governing population of religious believers who will then reorient themselves toward all the interests of those political organizations because they are the ones who care about the sanctity of life. The law dictates the issues we should care about, and as we pick up those issues and run with them, there are strings that trail from those issues to a heavy cart full of unrelated interests which we now pull forward in our zeal for the law that lives through us.

But there is also a deeper problem, I think, in the way the Christian law annihilates the world. When it is no longer we who live but the law who lives through us, we lose all the messy, beautiful excess of the world that complicates all simple notions of what life is. As we daily create our own lives, we run into contact with the lives of others, lives that exceed the limits of our lives and yet open apertures for the potential spilling-out into something utterly new for us. We become new when that which is outside us creates an opening for us to be outside ourselves, to be outside the governance of a limiting and negating law. In the words of Veruca Salt, I want the world. I want the whole world.

There was a time, halfway through high school, when I desired to leave the Christian school I had attended since preschool and spend my last two years at public school. A large part of my wish then had to do with the possibilities for the different classes I could take at another school, but also my sense that the culture of my Christian school had grown stale, lifeless, predictable in dry and arid ways. During the minor crisis of my decision-making process, the principal of my school gave a sermon at one of our weekly class chapels on the figure of Demas, referenced only three times in the New Testament. Demas used to work with Paul in his missionary ministry, but as time goes by, Paul suggests a change which has come over his partner – “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Timothy 4:10). My principal used the story of this figure to explain how the love of the world, the desire for a life comprised of a world beyond our Christian institution, seduces us away from the life Christ has for us. In my narcissistic paranoia at the time (the sermon may or may not have been directed at me), I felt so angry. Looking back, I see the truth now in what he said, as I see the truth now in so many of the warnings of my Christian leaders from my youth, that the love of the world does lead us away from the life Christ has for us. However, in the revaluation of values that necessarily takes place as one deconverts from a totalitarian ideology, I see that risk, that danger, as far more affirmative of life than any life written for me by a messiah whom I have never met.

I don’t want to gain a soul and lose the whole world. I want a world that exceeds me, that pulls me outside myself, a world to which I owe the better part of myself. I want a million worlds, each one breaking my simple black-and-white ideas into a technicolor sea of potential. Here I must move beyond the language of law and embark into the territory of desire. Though I carry the baggage of a law I hate for the way it instructs the negation of so many other lives, I find pleasure in joining the reckless dance of the affirmative destroyers. We who have nothing in common spin like dervishes in an uncoordinated entropic motion that looks like beauty. We collide, we swing away, ever expanding the movement into new constellated forms, allowing the motions of the others to inspire our own direction, allowing our direction to inspire re-creation by another. Before the law, our dance looks like chaos, and means death. After the law, our lives mean nothing, and so flourish dynamically, unendingly, into real lives.

Guilt // Esposito (Part 3)

On theory., Uncategorized

On learning to forget.

 

The accidental, that which happens, strikes the origin and pulls the origin outside itself. It grabs hold of the origin and then loses it. This is how history, society, and technology are born. Time: death. Time is death: the origin of every evil insofar as it superimposed, superseded, and is subsequent to the first origin.

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

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—  therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

            Genesis 3:22-3

If I think about it in a certain way, by shuffling off the immortal coil of Christianity, I have dehumanized myself. I have become not only less human, but I have become inhuman, the stranger who, though appearing uncannily like a man, radiates an unsettlingly beastly demeanor. I act as though I no longer belong to the human category. It would seem – and it is not precisely untrue – that I express no patriotism for the identity, that in my every gesture I aggress against its nature, that I abide no longer by its laws and exist as unbeholden to them. I would be titled the Sociopath if it would make any sense to do so, which it would not, seeing as I have removed myself from the Society that knows itself as the Kingdom of God.

Such is the case when a minor character slips beyond the borders of the grand narrative in which he had been inscribed. Christianity, like any fascistic faction, knows itself through the story it tells itself of itself. (Nota bene: take no vindication if you do not belong to the fold, “free-thinkers”; there is fascism inside every one of us.) The story is an origin story, about the genesis of not only the group, but the human, and as is often the case, within the origin you can find also the end. I have commented before about how a teleology may impact our behavior in any and all given moments (see Part 1 in this series), but we often neglect how our origin, when we know it, may also tell us where this is all headed after all. It only takes a beginning.

When I was a Christian, I put my faith in a God who knew the beginning from the end – who in the Boethian fashion saw it as occurring all at once, like a well-wrought urn – but in my reliance on that exteriorized trust I distracted myself from the knowledge I already had wrapped up transparently, with a bow, in my own belief. There is always an end in our beginning, a Revelation in our Genesis. I consoled myself with the thought captured in a Scripture verse that every year meant something new to me – “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Through all of history, intention ruled. God’s Son, Spirit, and Self – the author and perfecter of our faith – works mysteriously in the unfolding of history and, as is implied, of our lives. Yet while he shrouds his work in mystery, he has also laid the blueprints within each of us. We were destined for eternity, and so eternity was imprinted in our hearts to have us feel an ache for a God whose fullness could not be experienced within mortality. In fact, even to look on him would kill us.

Right there, from the moment we were conceived (since the individual lives of persons begin, as we were made to know, in the womb), our seedling hearts knew the People we were destined to become, the Kingdom we were destined to take part in and to prepare a place for on the Earth. In our peculiar beginning, our humanity was defined, from the prologue to the afterward. Which is to say, that before we had a chance to make a single decision with what consciousness we had access to, our entire life plan, in its main plot-points, was already decided for us.

When I left Christianity, I gave up on the humanity that I was told I was taking part in. Even before I left, back when I was still considering alternative ways of thinking about my life still within the frame of biblical metanarratives, I questioned the particular story about us that I was given. That particular story, which still dominates the thought of most Protestant evangelical religion, failed to be informed by so much of their holy book. It’s the Jeremiad, that well known story of Perfection, the Fall, and Redemption unto a renewed Perfection. The entire story could be plotted out in reference to only Genesis 1 (Creation), Genesis 3 (the Fall), and the Romans Road (“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 6:23]).

God created us and said that we were “very good.” But we desired knowledge, and that drove us to break the one law he had set for us, that we refuse the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because were we to eat it, we would become like God and surely die. For a very long time, I have been fascinated by the idea that the first way humans were ever tempted to sin against God, as written in the Bible, was to doubt. The serpent beckons Eve to the Tree, inviting her to eat, and when she expresses hesitation, he asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1)

So the first sin ever committed in the Bible was not murder or theft, or even disobedience. The first sin was to doubt that what God had commanded was good, that the story he had told was true. Looking back from the other side of the looking glass, this makes absolute sense. Without faith in some sort of origin story, we have no idea who we are. If we allow any sort of leakage in the divinely mandated version of this story, then we are suddenly vulnerable to a thorough crumbling of the whole framework for our faith, the originary blueprint telling us the end from the beginning. I let myself ask the question, “Did God actually say…?” and whether I maintain my trust in him or not, I have let go the strength of my certainty about my life in the world. I knew my God through a few fundamental “Do’s” and “Do not’s” regarding my behavior, that first of which – the original sin that preexisted me and simultaneously articulated to me my humanity – was to seek knowledge of right from wrong against the simple literal binary that was already allotted: Do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but do eat from the Tree of Life. To know that we can make our own distinctions between good and evil, outside of the legislation of holy writ, is to seek to be like God, and God will not suffer an insurrectionist (as seen in the case of Lucifer). He requires death for those who seek to know the many faces of which their lives consist.

And yet, we told ourselves that God’s commands were for our good. Ever since that God-damned day we ate the cursed fruit, we have been marked guilty – original transgressors of an originary law. This fundamental guilt has been interpreted in a couple different divisive ways among evangelicals: either this means we are by nature totally depraved unless given the gift of grace and its correlate predestination to total redemption in the Kingdom of God or we are naturally prone to depravity – we would eventually succumb to some evil temptation despite the theoretical potential to freely choose otherwise – and so are in need of the same redemption. Whether our nature is “free” to choose or not, the result ends up the same: we are guilty and in need of redemption.

This is the story I have left behind, and by which I am left behind. I have slipped like molten stone through the spaces just between the fingers of the One who once held me, but it was only within the domain of that hand that I possessed a human nature. The Human is the guilty mortal-cum-immortal figure, who, through the precious blood of the atoning sacrifice – a death for a death, a death-unto-life – achieves her return to that original state of perfection. If all has been degraded, then it is implied that all was once whole and perfect, such that through sacred murder the degraded is made whole again. Aside: in the economy of God’s grace, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

How did we dupe ourselves into remaining for so long in such an existentially abusive totalitarian theo-anthropology? Why would we endorse a belief system that tells us that we, in ourselves alone, are less than scum, worthy only of death or worse?

Shame. That’s where I think it lay so often. Allow me to fulfill a presumptive trope of what a deconverted ex-Christian does – in that I mean, allow me to quote from Nietzsche: “To be ashamed of one’s immorality—that is a step on the staircase at whose end one is also ashamed of one’s morality.” When we are taught that we are guilty, we are given a code of Law and asked to compare our behavior against it. Perhaps you have experienced this with a street-preacher on any given Friday night downtown – they ask you if you have ever lied, or stolen, or disrespected your parents, or broken any other part of the Ten Commandments, which provide the scaffolding for the entire system of Law on which Judeo-Christianity is based (though, admittedly, Christianity has worked hysterically to find loopholes for the other 603 commandments written into the biblical law). If you can say “Yes, guilty as charged!” of any of those imperatives, you are in need of salvation.

In comparing our behavior against a law, we are taught to feel shame for our failure. Shame is so intimately bound up in the sensus divinitatus that would drive us to seek out a God who could save us. Shame is similarly bound up in both self-hatred and self-love, “love” here meaning the prudential impulse for self-preservation against the death and eternal undying that we fear. The problem with shame is that it needs to be made so personally relevant to us that we cannot escape it no matter where we go in time or space.

If you grew up like I did, it is very likely that this shame at your immorality that Nietzsche refers to took on the form of shame at your immoral sexual impulses. At least for Christian boys and young men, we were raised universally within an atmosphere of self-hatred regarding sexual desire. We would attend Pentecostal summer camps, and every first night of the week (this was the pattern every summer) the sermon oriented around our undeniable guilt and need for redemption, but nearly every time, whether explicitly or implicitly, we were encouraged to interpret that guilt with reference to the various times we had “lusted” after a woman (or a man, though I intend to return to “abominable” sexualities in a future post) or acted on that lust, either through teenaged romantic relationships or the consumption of pornography.

I am not interested here in any real definition of innocence or guilt regarding sexual behavior. What I am interested in is the way this discourse surrounding sexuality was utilized to enforce a need for a redemption that could only be received from the Christian church, through the saving blood of Jesus Christ. Sure, I think many of these moral laws regarding sexuality were lies – because founded on a fictional comprehension of the world which I believe now to be false – but to quote Nietzsche yet again, “Even when the mouth lies, the way it looks still tells the truth.” We can look at the mechanism that emits the lie in order to understand the truth of the power it seizes.

Christianity, whether it acknowledges it or not, exploits the sexuality of adolescents in order to make its inscription of human guilt so intimately personal that the child cannot escape the rearing of its ugly head. We were taught to feel disgust with ourselves for the natural chemical drives that pushed us toward given behaviors. Even “thought-crimes” reinforced our guilt – this one goes all the way back to Jesus, who furthered the reach of biblical law in saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-8). If even a wayward thought comes to one’s mind, or a wandering eye sees what it ought not to see, we were taught to react to that with repulsion toward our own guilty, depraved nature.

Here contemporary Christianity has exerted one of its most clever and nefarious power-grabs. It targets the hormonal chemistry of the pubescent child and sinks its hooks into those unwilled chemical drives, forcing us to interpret them as intent aggressions against the perfect moral Law of God. Chemicals fire in the brain, and suddenly we are damned – and not only damned once, but constantly reminded, so long as those chemicals keep firing, of our ongoing subjection to a damning God. I hope you can imagine, if you have not already experienced it yourself, the deep anxiety and self-hatred this might impose on a kid who’s just burgeoning into a young adult. I try to remain even-tempered at times about Christianity’s absurdities, but this facet of exploiting the frail insecurities of kids in order to make them feel a need for a Christian god, I can see as nothing less than deep and ongoing emotional abuse.

Perhaps it would be more accurate still to call it straightforward sexual abuse, in that it manipulates the sexuality of children toward its own gratification and its own expansion and expression of power. And yet, I can blame no particular Christian, because it is the self-reproducing, self-preserving nature of the system of belief to exploit these tendencies in order to assure its own survival. Christians have bought into it because they have felt that shame, or because the affects and story of Christianity have served in other ways to motivate their own decisions to transform their lives in prudential, self-caring ways – and they thrust these successes in gaining control of their own lives onto the God who knows the beginning from the end, whose intent has authored all of history and their own correlate lives.

I return again to the latter half of that previously quoted Nietzschean aphorism when I suggest that viewing our shame regarding our own immorality as a shame imposed by our understanding of our immorality can be carried on through to question the entire moral system, right through to its foundations. Or, allow me to put it more directly: here I am taking the role of the satanic serpent in encouraging you to doubt the guilt which was painted on you. Did God actually say? Does God actually say anything? Is there a god that can speak?

So long as these questions are removed from the table of inquiry, we will be caught in the Christian origin story that tells us what humanity is: guilty, degraded, worthless, and disgusting. I no longer can endorse such a view of the singular individuals I spend my time in communion with, nor can I bear living with such a view of myself. It is in the moments when I consider the way Christianity has fucked with my own psychology that I most feel a need for rebirth, to be born again without memory and to see myself as beginning anew.

Esposito writes about memory in his analysis of communities’ origin stories. He says, “Memory unifies and destroys the multiplicity of existence. It makes the other the same; it makes the outside inside; the many, one.” In Christianity, our origin story told us what all of humanity could be boiled down to: this fall from grace, this guilt, this need for redemption, this hope for being redeemed. We looked into our own hearts and hated them, and we projected this resentment onto everyone else. We were damned from the start; in the beginning was our end. I see now that the only way to extricate ourselves from this degraded sense of humanity is to do the hard – perhaps impossible – work of forgetting our origin. We begin now. We have no blueprint, no map, no direction or orientation, no true north. We have only the abundance of an undefined life, and as terrifying as that utter potential is, the more we can commit ourselves to that wild open, the less we submit ourselves to fascist incarceration.

I would like to end this post with the last lines of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. These lines are spoken by the character Prior Walter, whose contraction of the AIDS virus may be interpreted by Christianity as retribution for behaving according to an originally guilty nature, and who, due to his particular love, represents yet another inhuman figure to the eyes of Christianity. He says:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. 

Bye now.

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

And I bless you: More Life.

The Great Work Begins.

Fear // Esposito (Part 2)

On theory., Uncategorized

On making death certain.

Indeed, what does it mean that we are “mortals” if not that we are subjects above all to fear? Because the fear that traverses us or rather constitutes us is essentially the fear of death; fear of no longer being what we are: alive. 

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

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

            Matthew 10:28

We sat on wooden benches set out in rows that striped the incline of the amphitheater’s grassy slope. The sky had darkened toward the black end of blue. I do not remember whether the fireworks came before or after, but I do remember the scene in general as another one filled with crowds of young Christians. Many of the vignettes that strike me as I think back on the telling moments in my Christian life involve crowds, usually children or teenagers, usually singing, crying, desperately asking Heaven for some help, some gift, a word, a sign, some peace. Now and then we were jumping. Sometimes we danced. But it was always the crowds of those who strained our fingers around a common desire, hope, fear.

Whether before the fireworks or after, a man, perhaps a pastor, asked us if any of us wanted to seize the moment to confess repentance and accept Jesus as ruler in our hearts. We needed only to raise our hands. The speaker would say, “Yes, I see you, thank you. There’s another, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Hands going up all across the room tonight. I see that the Lord is moving tonight. Thank you.”

This scene, a recurrent pattern, often unfolded with our eyes closed so that all the kids could feel free to express themselves truly and individually under the dark. So many times I felt the strong compulsion to peek and spot the formerly unsaved ones, but some powerful moral impulse always seemed to simultaneously adjure me to keep them shut. Others peeked, I was sure of it. Yet I wondered, who needed it this time? Was it anyone I knew who had messed up and needed Jesus? Had anyone I knew been running from God all this time? Was the speaker being honest about how many hands had actually gone up?

But then the question often followed that would turn my perspective inward – “Does anyone here want to rededicate their lives to Christ? Maybe you were saved before but something makes you feel unsure and you want to make a new commitment to Jesus here tonight.” We were maybe nine, ten years old, but still this question would throw us. How could I be sure? Have I sinned this week without asking forgiveness for those sins? Maybe I hit my brother out of irritation and frustrated rage. Maybe I gossiped about a friend at school. Maybe I lied about how much I had actually practiced my trumpet this week (a real source of guilt for me). I would find myself, again and again when that question was asked, raising my hand, wandering to the altar at the front, and pleading with my Jesus that he would forgive me, that he would make my salvation a sure thing, this time.

Back then, we were so afraid. We were raised by our church leaders to feel as though we constantly teetered over the edge of apocalypse and oblivion – at any moment the sky could open, the trumpet could resound, and Jesus could come back to rapture his believers. If we were caught unprepared, like the foolish virgins without lamp oil in the parable of the swiftly returning polygamous bridegroom, we would be left behind. I remember having the sorts of philosophical conversations that children have, querying whether, let’s say, sinning one extra time after asking forgiveness for our sins would cause us to get left behind at the sudden moment of the Rapture. Some would stumble prematurely upon the meditation of the Philokalia (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner”) not because we felt at the time any need for liturgy but only because of the practical urgency of forgiveness’s implications. Forgiveness was the only antidote to Rapture, and to be forgiven, we needed to ask.

In that desperate pursuit of constant forgiveness, we kids made ourselves continually recognize our deserved precariousness: that something about our little human conditions painted us as those naturally owing to ourselves an outcome of being forgotten by God, forsaken by grace, doomed to our absolute punishment for our sins. We needed salvation, and salvation was a gift, not something we could construct ourselves, only wish after – or at best, something we could sign the contract for, so long as we kept to its terms.

We were so afraid, because fear was inscribed as the most important motivator for all our most important decisions. If it wasn’t Rapture, it was the more concrete possibility of dying at any given moment and not being ready for what came after. To be left behind would be a grace compared to the eternal conscious torment of Hell that we would be consigned to if we died unmarked by salvation. Another question that I heard so often – “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” The implication being that when the trapdoor drops open underneath our lives, we slip through one of two thresholds, Heaven or Hell, both absolute and eternal in their respective visceral bliss or torment, and the threshold is decided by a single decision we make while we’ve still got breath in our lungs. There was a Christian rock song – one I used to sing and dance to with so much delight – that made light of our imminent death and its eternally determined aftermath. When I sang along, I would sing lyrics like, “It could happen anytime, it could happen anywhere. Could happen while you’re napping in your easy chair. Could happen at home, could happen at school…” and so on. Even our fun held this blistering core of absolute, immeasurable fear concerning our fundamental existence.

Heaven and Hell, hope and fear, absolute good and absolute evil, so inextricably woven into each other. You can’t have one without the other, and these binaries are stitched across the self-concepts we inherited in Sunday school and worship gatherings. They stitched us to each other then. In Communitas, Esposito identifies this conception of hope and fear in Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy of the terrible origin of political community. “Even if in daily life fear is never alone, it is also accompanied by what man opposes to it, namely, hope, in the illusion that hope is its opposite, while instead hope is fear’s faithful companion.” He writes that, for Hobbes, hope is a sort of fear with its head hidden, “that hope is born from conceiving an evil together with a way of avoiding it, while fear consists, once a good is in view, in imagining a way of losing it.”

As children we were taught about the wonderful, beautiful plan God had willed for our lives. If he had his way, we would all be with him in paradise when we die. But in imagining this affirmative hope that would pull us onward through life, we also imagined its companionate fear, that Hell, the everlasting undying death that would face us if we faltered from the narrow path to Heaven. Our God was a god of a black and white balance that pivoted on a decisive yet precarious justice: a single choice tipped the scale toward hope, a lifetime of alternatives tipped it back toward horror. How could we say God is just, if his justice never condemned the guilty? How could we say he is good, if his goodness never rejected the evil ones?

It was on this doctrine of Hell that I first saw the substance of my faith leaking through the seams of my reason. No matter how hard I tried to reconcile the doctrine to myself – and I did try, very hard, because my eternity depended on my coming to the right conclusion – I could not see the mercy or even the justice in this sadistic doctrine.

Sadistic, that’s how I would put it to myself upon finally letting go of the doctrine, but while this may be partly correct of the nature of the belief in itself, the belief works differently, I think, in the hearts of its believers. Sadism connotes a pleasure that someone receives through the pain of others, but none of the eminently decent Christians I knew – and I knew multitudes of them – derived any pleasure from this imagining the unending torment of others at the hands of God. But they did fear it. They feared that future. They feared the way its fingers wickedly groped toward their friends and loved ones who needed the salvation that only came through Jesus’s sacrificial atonement.

Hell, while an idea rightfully absurd in the minds of unbelievers, reveals itself to be an example of that perfectly pernicious nature of beliefs that hold the power to reproduce and propagate themselves perpetually. Hell as a concept is groundless, dependent on the truth or falsity of no self-evident factual matters but only on its axiomatic acceptance. And yet, merely by introducing itself as a concept, it lays claim in the most extreme ways to the table upon which we prudentially strategize our existence. It’s Pascal’s Wager: if the cost for not believing an idea that turns out to be true is infinitely horrible, and the cost for believing it though it turns about to prove false is minimal, then reason says we ought to cast our lots upon whatever saves us from those infinite consequences.

Yet there is a cost to this doctrine, this fear. For one, there is the cost to the Christian institution in the flocks of young doubters exiting sanctuaries because they cannot stomach any version of accepting that infinite horror. For another cost, the fear of Hell and its correlate (founding?) fear of death motivates costly strategies of self-preservation. If we fear death and eternal death, we must find a way to protect our life and our eternal life, and since eternity is in the balance, the means of protection can reasonably be drastic.

For Hobbes, the thing which founds a political community is everyone’s mutual fear of one another in the state of nature. As the story goes, when we’re all milling about individually within the natural chaos of the world, we have so little to protect ourselves from the homicidal tendencies of others, of the masses. So we enter into a mutually beneficial contract – namely, the civil state – in order that our fear of one another may be channeled into structural powers that protect us from one another and from the society’s outside.

If we think this more fundamentally, as related to my last post on the blog, our “communities” are often constructed as a way of protecting ourselves from whatever is outside or beyond that community. City walls defend against the wilderness, the stranger, and the enemy, and our walls, while protecting us, simultaneously tell us who we are, where we end and another begins. In the case of evangelical Christianity, we built our communities to protect ourselves from those terrible fears of Hell and death that our hopes had imagined for us. It is difficult to determine what came first, the fear of death and all its friends or the hope for eternal life – like the chicken and the egg. They need each other; they are the origin of each other’s coming-into-being. And perhaps there is a more originary fear which is vague and which preempts the writing of a stronger, clearer fear. Esposito writes, “This is how the infinite dialectic of fear begins and unravels: to escape an initial and indeterminate fear, men accept an amount of fear and indeed institute a second and certain fear with a covenant.” Like the state, whose task is “not to eliminate fear but to render it ‘certain’,” the religious institution can only live as an institution of a certain fear, a fear which the church can offer the protection against. The certainty of that fear informs the identity of those who enjoy the certain protection that the fear requires.

Growing up, my fear of dying and suffering a certain Hell told me who I was. I was not only the son born guilty of original sin, destined for a dark justice, but I was also one of the saved, a son born again into life, adopted by my Father in Heaven into the community of believers. With all of the momentary joys and pleasures that my life of devotion to a loving savior gave me, it also shut me out to a world of people with minds unlike my congregation’s. Since our lives were on the line, the beliefs that saved us also marked out the territories in which the enemies waited to entrap us.

Many identified one such territory as the secular university, in such a way that when I told them I was going to a secular institution to study English and philosophy, they quoted to me Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Every time, I got irritated at the mantra, the lack of trust I felt from them for my being able to take care of myself, to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. But there was always a side of me that felt grateful for their sentiment – that their quoting that passage to me betrayed the kind of love which is embodied in fear for the life of another. They feared that while in the territory of the enemy I would begin to sympathize with them, that the spectre of atheism, or humanism, or Marxism, or simple skepticism would infiltrate my internal grasp on those beliefs which would save me from Hell and eternal death.

They were not wrong. My vulnerability to alternative conceptions of the world has killed me, insofar as the me that is dead is the me that had life only in relation to a particular belief about what life is. I have teetered over the brink, gone off the deep end, looked into the abyss and become the abyss that looked back, etc. But I am not afraid of Hell anymore, and I am not afraid of the God whom Hell implies. I have known that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of a certain sort of wisdom – a philosophy founded in a faith that tells the faithful whom to watch out for, who threatens their faith and thus their very existence. In turning from that fear, at least I have kept for myself the capacity to abide with that other in this valley of death – that other to whom I owe a part of myself, to whom I am exposed and yet from whom I have chosen to fear no evil.

Nothing in Common // Esposito (Part 1)

On theory., Uncategorized

On the love that preserves or destroys.

The community isn’t a mode of being, much less a “making” of the individual subject. It isn’t the subject’s expansion or multiplication but its exposure to what interrupts the closing and turns it inside out: a dizziness, a syncope, a spasm in the continuity of the subject.

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

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but that they had everything in common.

            Acts 4:32

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of an interstate. If there was something that called me home – a holiday with the family, a long weekend – I would travel the two hours of distance between Manhattan, Kansas and Kansas City by means of I-70. The interstate cut through miles and miles of prairie fields rolling farther from either side of my little beige Ford Escort than I could see. It felt to me like a suspension in space: for two hours, I would sit and, though moving, be still, the tall grass outside my windows continually different and the same. I would let whatever music I had playing wash through my brain, out my mouth, or at times I would forget it was there. I would contemplate the interstate, the in-between of that constant stretch of time that separated the kid I was becoming in Manhattan from the kid I had been, to which I was returning, in Kansas City.

Not only a difference in space, or a difference in my sense of episodic time, when I traveled the interstate back then I moved between different local constellations of the people who I felt had formed me. Back home, there awaited my immediate family, contributors to the signature of blood in my body, those whom I had known for a larger sum of time than any of the strangers who became friends or the friends who became dear friends or the friends who became people I used to know. Family is there is from the origin, and a lot of the time, if we’re lucky, they will be there until the last things. Subtract my father, my mother, my sister, or my brother, and there is no remainder of me – I am because of them.

Back home there awaited also the remnants of the other people I grew up with – folks from the church and the Christian school in which all the years we consider pre-adulthood winded down for me. Those groups were a mixed bag, a patched fabric with original threads, threads lost, and new threads woven in different seasons. Every group loses its form and reforms. This process of transformation weaves itself constantly through each self who enters and exits the weave of different lives. Threads cross. Threads touch and lose their touch.

This was how I interpreted my home to myself, using concepts like “duration” and “remnant” but also “alienation” and “loss.” A part of this self-styled hermeneutic came out of what was happening for me at college, on the back end of that interstate, during those years. I was meeting different people, joining different groups, encountering unfamiliar ideas or familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways, settling into and unsettling myself from different – what you might call – “communities.” Some process of becoming that had wormed itself into my interior life from the years at home had continued to play itself out for me at college, at times unfolding myself so that what was inside became expressed, embodied, and what was going on outside intervened in my thinking, my feeling, my sense of my place in the world.

To put this more concretely, I was gradually losing my Christian faith.

Yet loss is a strange way to put this, in a universe in which everything transforms, unendingly. Even Paul – the man who told Christianity its direction in which to move – understood the necessary shifting that plays itself out in this life. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) A mind tends toward transformation. Although, even for him, this transformation involves a loss, a “giving up” on the things he once cherished. He consoles himself with a goal: the perfection of love, the hope that past this murky mirror before us eventually awaits a moment in which we will see in full. This is a way to direct our transformation. We believe that this change is headed somewhere particular yet undefined, and so we define our journey there with a single lamp unto our feet – a very small light, but enough to get us walking, enough to tell us where the next foot should fall.

This is the way belief can govern in our lives, one quotidian footfall after another. Faith makes it worth it. Faith asks us to trust the process. It asks us to trust in the one we infer to be guiding us. When we apply our hearts and minds to faith, we put our trust in the hidden God, and this trust assures us that what is hidden will one day be seen in full. And so we keep walking – walking and waiting. I could say, apropos of that typological community that also awaited a land of promise, we wander.

For Paul, the seal of this promise of a coming fullness introduces itself to us as love – the one entity in all of existence which never fails, never changes, never asks of us that it be given up. Faith in the hope of the coming Kingdom, backed by the promissory note of love. When we feel the love we have for the people we live among, we are told that this love is only a shadow of the love to come. Our love becomes symbolic. God crouches within the interpretive act, causing me to picture this singular, this peculiar love I feel for my friend bled through with a translucency that would allow me to look right through it toward some future etched in invisible light behind the experience I feel to be my reality. My reality is not Reality. My love is not Love, but it’s a tiny pictogram: keep gazing. God’s love makes us hungry for an experience that simply does not arrive underneath the ceiling of this life or this epoch and so drives us to an addiction to a substance which we could not afford even were to sell everything we have, and yet we are asked still to sell all.

The walk of faith, hope, and love led me to and through several interwoven communities at college. We called these “communities” because to us they consisted of small groups of individuals who shared a common heart and mind. We read love in similar ways, within the guiding limits of certain creeds. The semester that I arrived at Kansas State University, my roommate and I got up at dawn every morning that we could (this tapered off as the semester drew on) and followed our path to Danforth Chapel, a small sacred site within the secular institution, connected by a hallway to the larger All Faiths Chapel. There we prayed over the student body, sang songs to the God we loved, and imagined to each other the streets on our campus crowded over with the dancing bodies of every student, praising the same God, loving the same future. This was how we chose to enact the love we were promised, and this daily ritual brought the two of us together, gave us something to share, a space within time to share something.

We attended all-campus prayer gatherings with representatives from the various other Christian communities. We wandered our way around state-funded educational buildings and residence halls, asking the Lord to appropriate to his community the individuals inside. We asked that the others would experience the peace of Jesus Christ, that they would believe in Jesus Christ as their saving Lord and governing Savior. We stretched our hands with desire toward those limestone structures, stretched our hands toward a promised community that would flood the whole Earth, in which all God’s children would be born again as his children with a trust in the same figure to whom we had committed our allegiance. For us, the common which comprised our larger community of faith was a love that had come and was coming soon, a belief that we owned which was true and would soon reveal its truth, and a life set out like a path before us that we could each walk with our own two feet.

This core thought of community invites me to consider my path away from a life of faith in conversation with a book that attempts to understand what community is and how it works – Robert Esposito’s Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. In Communitas, Esposito shows that the appropriative impulse within our community-seeking – this tendency to grab a thing which we can share, to say that this is ours, that this is what belongs to us in common – is actually the impulse that drives community to its own destruction. To define an essence, a creed, an eschatology, as the principle of our particular community, by necessity, closes off our borders to the outside and the Other. It protects us from that wilderness in which the monsters outside weep and gnash their teeth. It makes us limit our love, not to those among us, but to whatever representative principle or figure it is that we have said brings us together. We love our God, our boundary, and by extension we love each other.

So what happens when we disaffirm the representative core? What happens when we lose our trust in God, when we feel that decisive betrayal in his disappearing act? Here I return to the language of loss through which I have articulated my transformation. I cannot shake the loss I feel partly because it is a loss which I have caused and which does not belong only to me. To remove yourself from a community is to wound both the community and yourself, because neither remains wholly the same. Esposito names it this way, “…the wound that we cause or from which we emerge when we ourselves are changed when we enter into a relation not only with the other but with the other of the other, he too the victim of the same irresistible expropriative impulse.”

In giving up on faith, I enter into relation with the community of faith’s outside, its wild other. I leave the Kingdom of God for the Gehenna beyond the gates. But this is because we have built gates in the first place, informing ourselves what belongs to us – these creeds, this hope, this particular construction of love – and what does not belong to the beasts of the outside. I have no choice: to lose faith in the creeds is to fornicate with a contagion. There is a love which is stronger than death, a love which knows precisely what death is, to whom death belongs, and so preserves itself against the touch of death’s givers.

Esposito says that what our closed-community formation forgets is the originary debt we owe one another. None of us constitutes a proper whole, none of us are independent. There is an interstate which cuts across all individuation, assuring us that we are always transforming, always incomplete, always owe something of ourselves to another, an Other.

The doctrine is correct when it says that the gift of God is eternal life, because God is a gift which we allow ourselves to appropriate to ourselves, upon which to define ourselves, and on the basis of which to define our protective boundaries. Eternal life protects us from death, tells us what life is, and defends against the outside of that life that ever encroaches. Remember who you are, who your Lord and Savior is. This will save you.

But to deny that God by transacting with his enemies is to commit the sin of Judas. Christianity assures us that the way of Judas is self-destruction, our satanic innards splayed out over the rocks beyond the city gate. But this is the narrative emanating from religion’s myth of community. What if the walls had fallen, the city gate a non-issue, and the teams of with-me or against-me not a force at play in our relations with one another? In this post series – presuming I stick to my intended route, the lamp of the hope I have for this writing – I aim to consider what is common to us and what is made uncommon. I want to try to understand my wandering away from faith – my sense of betrayal and my failure to believe – in conversation with Esposito’s theory that community is not a thing but rather a no-thing which unites us in our incompleteness, which forces our transformation in light of the debt we owe each other, the gift of ourselves that we must give and that we receive in the act of giving. Because there are a multitude of us out here in this outer dark, and we have nothing in common.

There’s a Golem in My Garden // Cynthia Ozick

On fiction., Uncategorized

On creating the heavens and the earth.

Golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator… The danger is not that the golem, become autonomous, will develop overwhelming powers; it lies in the tension which the creative process arouses in the creator himself.

             Gershom Scholem, “The Idea of the Golem” (1960)

 Puttermesser sees that she is the golem’s golem.

             Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers (1997)

 Allow me to begin by stating a few obvious things:

Making a golem is a little like playing God.
Making a golem is like writing.
Writing is an act of creation and therefore, also, a bit like playing God.

I wanted to blurt my metaphors outright as a show of good faith, since no one likes an essay which turns out in the end only to have been a surprise extended allegory. That sort of essay comes a little too close to the cheap fiction devices which reveal, following any twists and turns and turmoils, that the whole experience was only a dream after all. Don’t get me wrong. What follows is a big ol’ bag of jumbled metaphors, but at least I’m admitting it from the start.

I may as well also admit the elemental sources used to cook up the alchemy of this post. For the main ingredient, we’ve got The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick. This is a novel which involves, among other things, a golem. For those of you don’t spend your free-time curiosity-tickling on subjects of medieval Jewish esotericism – and by no means do I imply any indictment for not doing so – a golem is a legendary, often humanoid, creature made out of clay and animated through some version of a mystical ritual. The golem also originates in a specifically religious tradition, that is, Jewish Kabbalism, and often gets thematized according the religious significance of creation. Gershom Scholem puts it this way in his seminal essay “The Idea of the Golem”: “For obviously a man who creates a golem is in some sense competing with God’s creation of Adam; in such an act the creative power of man enters into a relationship, whether of emulation or antagonism, with the creative power of God.” This ambivalence of emulation and antagonism in the act of creating – here is the topic I find so alluring and to which we will return.

The golem in Ozick’s novel awakens accidentally, through the down-and-out Ruth Puttermesser’s action of emptying the plant pots she hoards around her New York City apartment. Puttermesser was a lawyer and city bureaucrat until she was pushed out of her position through the nepotistic hiring practices of Mayor Malachy (“Matt”) Mavett, who then insists she help her usurper perform the professional duties for which she alone possesses the know-how. Frustrated and oppressed, wallowing in her dreary situation, desiring recognition and fulfillment and a child of her own as well, Puttermesser wakens from her reverie to find a golem in the form of a naked girl lying in her bed.

“She looked dead—she was all white, bloodless. […] Puttermesser reached out and touched the right shoulder—a reddish powder coated her fingers. The body seemed filmed with sand, or earth, or grit; some kind of clay.” This comes just after she envisions her imaginary never-born daughter memorizing Goethe’s Erlkönig poem in which a child is murdered in his father’s arms by an elf-king whom only the child can see. (Gotta love the Germans’ sense of childhood whimsy.) Such a surreal progression of events – a blurring of the imaginary, the real, and the actual – captures a constant stylistic thread throughout Ozick’s novel. For instance, she sets the book up like a biography, including the major events of Puttermesser’s life, and yet, in the introductory chapter, Ozick includes an event involving our heroine’s Uncle Zindel which she admits never actually occurred. Puttermessser never met Zindel. It could not have happened. But Ozick dodges judgments on such a fabrication in a peculiar fashion, saying, “Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. Who made her? No one cares. Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as given.” As the introduction slides into the episode with the golem, Ozick transfers the biographer’s task – an unclear one – to the reader: “Hey! Puttermesser’s biographer! What will you do with her now?” She has tricked us all, and now we are responsible for the life which follows, whatever we may do with it.

The clay girl in Puttermesser’s bed comes to life after Puttermesser has taken license to rework bits of the girl’s form. The created life featured in the novel has multiplied to two now (not mentioning the minor roles bustling about in the periphery). She wishes to name the golem Leah, after the daughter she has imagined for herself, but the golem says she prefers the name Xanthippe. Now, we could talk for days about the general interplay of Greek and Jewish cultural reference in Ozick’s work – people certainly have – but if we isolate instead these particular references, we find a couple of women who find ways of evading control. Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates, was known to be a commanding woman who expressed her mind and would not suffer the control of any man. Leah, the first wife of Jewish patriarch Jacob, tricked Jacob into marrying her rather than her younger sister Rachel. As the story goes, while Jacob spent all of his affection on her sister Rachel, Leah used the power of God to create a progeny that far surpassed Rachel’s. (Look, I’m not saying it’s a perfect feminist myth, but the pale subtleties are there.) The golem, proceeding under both names at various points, ultimately also eludes Puttermesser’s total control as long as she is kept alive.

The golem grows continually larger and larger, stronger and stronger – as golems are wont to do. While her increasing power initially becomes beneficial in helping Puttermesser take over as mayor and reform New York City, the golem develops powerful desires of her own, sexual desires, which lead her to erratic impassioned activity. “The golem will no longer obey. She cannot be contained. ‘My blood is hot,’ Xanthippe writes; she writes for the last time.” She soils Puttermesser’s mayoral reputation, and in order to preserve what is left of the once-again decaying city, Puttermesser enacts a plot which kills the golem.

And so we come around to the dangers of creation, which would appear at first to wholesale disconfirm Scholem’s statement in the epigraph quoted above. The golem became autonomous, and that is why she was dangerous. But that’s not all that Ozick suggests. The golem herself has used her power to make Puttermesser into who she has become: the Mayor of New York, first beloved, then reviled. The golem whom she created has in turn created her, fizzling into incoherence the whole creator-creature hierarchy we might have supposed. In this novel, creators have no control over their creatures. They brought them into this world and they can, perhaps, take them out of it – but as long as their creatures continue to live within their world, all the creators can do is interact with them. The two go on making each other. The creaturely paradox here perhaps helps partly to explain the complicated nature of the biographer’s relation to the biographical subject. Once Puttermesser arrives conjured into our imaginaries, she exists as a given, as an ongoing essence staking her claim to the life of the mind and therefore the life of the immanent world. We may not consider her an artifact emerging through some contingency, though she has. We ourselves – human beings, all of us – have arrived by way of the contingent accident of birth, yet here we are. And not to sound too melodramatic about this, but you must reckon with our being.

In the end, we return to our Garden where all things began, in a manner of speaking. My pun here is overwhelmingly intentional, as I consider, along with Ozick, the role of language in all this. When we create our golems, we try to become, to ourselves, little gods competing within the game of creation. A holy text says that God spoke the world into being, and the creation story kicks off with all attention turned toward that mythic primordial garden paradise. Ozick reveals the great irony of creative beginnings by ending her novel with Puttermesser in Paradise (after suffering a horribly violent death). The specific word “paradise” is especially important here, for its etymological symmetry to the word PARDES. “PARDES is a Hebrew word, as befits so messianic a thought: it means an orchard, it means a garden, it means Paradise—derived, no doubt, in this intertwining of the vines of civilization, from the Greek PARADEISOS.” PARDES, the garden, the paradise, is also the acronym for the steps in the Jewish model of four-fold Scriptural exegesis: p’shat, remez, drosh, sod.

Perhaps I disingenuously reduce what the play of language here amounts to when I say that paradise is a manner of interpreting divine text. Clearly, the paradox in all this amounts to much more. Within the play of language, we have the ongoing game of creation in which we are all irrevocably intertwined. Derrida possibly meant such a suggestion when he said “There is no outside-the-text,” but I won’t venture to explain or understand deconstruction at this juncture. What I would like to highlight here is that we, every one of us, are gods. Too much? I don’t know, and who cares. We commit Lucifer’s sin so defiantly at every turn: constantly we are creating – through our speech, our activity, our interactions with other creaturely entities – and our constant acts of creation speak, louder than words, to the fact of our desiring to be like God. We can do nothing less.

To speak, to write books, to read – these are all-powerful gestures, made no less powerful for their restriction to the domain of language. As Ozick has her Puttermesser (Ozick’s golem for whom Ozick is also a golem) say regarding the Hebrew language, “It seemed to her not so much a language for expression as a code for the world’s design, indissoluble, predetermined, translucent.” As we interact with text, we conjure golems into this slippery world, and our golems elude our grasp. They run about, growing disproportionately quick in ways we could not have foreseen but are only ever just beginning to imagine, and all the while they turn their newfound powers upon us, the creators. The pages we write, the pages we read, make us, and every word we write recreates our universe. One hand we weave with the hand of our scriptures, and the other hand we sweep along the horizon-line, proclaiming to ourselves and each other, “Ta daaa!

Image Source: Flickr, Michael Jones (edited)

And All Shall Be Well // T.S. Eliot

On poetry., Uncategorized

On beginning.

So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.

            T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942) 

The end is where we start from. 

            T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942)

 The occasion for this post is the New Year. As I look ahead through these last December days, I see the door to 2016 slightly ajar, a faint light filtering toward the place where I am seated, and an affective sense of the principle that – whatever the way of these times and whatever my fears of the future – there is always at least a small promise in beginnings.

I feel the New Year holiday unlike the sense I get from any other season. The truth of this has only swelled each year. Most years this is because the season provokes a nearly unbearable nostalgia for the moments which have passed away, the friends I once loved whom I no longer keep up with, the milestones which have shrunk to seeming inconsequentiality in the elapsed distance. I sit here, every year, and try to consider more than what I’ve lost. This gesture then allows me the chance to notice, perhaps, how I’ve grown, how and who I’ve become, but never without that haunting pall of the things remembered or unremembered which I have shuffled off. What comes next? I ask, yet feeling smaller than I was the year before.

This is one manner of seeing things, but it is not the only. Lately I’ve been ruminating on the poem “Little Gidding” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The cycle of poems of which “Little Gidding” presents the culmination deals with the difficulty, even the impossibility, of determining the matter of living toward death. Time pulls us onward past unspeakable moments, unspeakable because missed or misunderstood, and the poems explicitly attempt, fail, and try again to give voice to those moments. The problem is, life happens at such an immediacy that to remark on it is to capture something which is no longer there. As Eliot works through these meanderings, he brings himself in the end, in “Little Gidding,” to a consideration of the generative site from which life happens – not a specific milestone in passing time, but the timeless manner of happening. He journeys toward “the still point of the turning world” – as he calls the timeless present in “Burnt Norton” – and, though not finding what he came to find, he discovers the opportunity to affirm the new, this beginning.

True, living affirmatively has become a staple of optimistic clichés, self-help literature, and pop spirituality, you might say. We are familiar with catchphrases like “be here now” and images of Liz Lemon pumping two fists in the air while exclaiming “I’m saying yes to life!” It’s a Zen idea, that life consists neither in wrapping a stranglehold on the future with our plans nor in rehashing melancholic memory of a rigid past, but in centering, finding the present in every moment and living there.

I guess I’m not necessarily refuting these ideas, in their essence, but seeing their recognition as a perhaps inevitable end of our search for purpose. “It would be the same at the end of the journey,” Eliot says, “If you came at night like a broken king, / If you came by day not knowing what you came for, / It would be the same…” At the end of a year, turning around again at this self-sacralized season in time, I am trying to make sense of my life. And this is exactly the wrong move, because in doing so, I allow myself only to notice the sense which I have shaved off, deconstructed, let wash away. We may come up with “resolutions” for the new year, thinking this extends a sense of purpose forward, something we may pursue and fulfill, but again, Eliot says we will not find what we’re looking for: “And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all.” Notice what he does here. He does not say that purpose at all is futile, but what he does say is that a purpose is like a seed: we plant our purposes in time, bearing the form of the meaning we have ascribed to them, but the active present of later dates will reveal the seed to show something entirely other than the meaning we had presumed.

                                    If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. … 

We cannot forecast meaning, but we can use it to supply the opportunity to act. To be, in the vitality of a living present, and this present will show us that what we thought is not what is, but that what is requires humility, even reverence. “You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report,” the poem says. “You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.”  And what does prayer allow us? As in the best of the religious traditions, prayer opens the way, centers us, and thereby allows us the opportunity and motivation to act in the turning world.

When we become conscious of the inarticulable present, whatever words or sense we tell ourselves, as we must, become memorials to past moments. We kill the movement up till now in order continually to begin moving again. Here we stand, seeing the “Dust in the air suspended” which “Marks the place where a story ended.” Yes, there is the weight of death in this, the death even of our own lives up to now, but think about what the moment of death offers us: the eulogy, the elegy, the chance to remember our lives as seems fitting, to shape them into stories which mean something to us. “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.” The single poem, today’s particular elegy to our own lives and meaning-making, must not become our retirement house. This is how the melancholy of year’s end happens: when we rehearse, rehearse, rehearse the “meaning” of our lives without achieving the recognition that every end is a beginning, we subsist only in death.

Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.

What has been we carry with us; it has made us. And toward what? In the poem, Eliot meets an interlocutor whom he identifies as a dead master, a collection of the voices which at one time had informed Eliot’s manner of being in the world and now returns to impel him to the present. The dead master does not wish to rehash the ideas which he had once handed to Eliot, because those ideas are like the fruit which is eaten to bring health to the body but that “the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.” The point is to move, having eaten the fruit, rather than regurgitate and eat again. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” The master leaves Eliot with a valediction, one suitable, I think, to all of us dwelling at the opening of the new year: “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit / Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”

We all may be dancers in the unexpected flicks and turns of the fire of Love, that force which enlivens the timeless present moment, which allows us to expand our purpose beyond desire, resolutions, toward the entirety of the universe in which live, whatever happens. It is the genesis of our involvement in happening, purifying our purpose and reprieving us of the shackles of expectation and rehearsal. Love vivifies our meditation in prayer – it beckons us only to return to the promise that “all shall be well and / all manner of thing shall be well.” It grants us “A condition of complete simplicity / (costing not less than everything)” and in so doing it opens the way, not only in the world, but in ourselves to dance – actively, affirmatively – in the wonder of ever beginning.

“The end is where we start from.” Love is the starting-from. As the New Year thrusts us into encounters with old problems, old weaknesses, old questions, old wonders, we are given the gift of beginning again. We can find our way in the world, not because we’re looking for it, but because the newness of every moment reveals what we have found and urges us to keep finding. It only seems fitting that I end this piece with a valediction from Eliot, one of my own dead masters, who, whatever you might think of him, has at least, no less, offered me a little life and a little chance at beginning, becoming. He says,

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Happy New Year, everyone, always.

 

Image Source: Flickr, Jon Page (edited)