Undead Authors // Deuteronomy

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

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

            Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

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

            Deuteronomy 34.5-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ends of the World // Kant and Fisher

On theory., Uncategorized

On imagining futures.

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

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

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

            Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image source: Flickr, Alma Ayon (edited)