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.

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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.

Before the Law // Exodus

On the Bible., Uncategorized

The violence that [Walter] Benjamin defines as divine is instead situated in a zone in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between exception and rule. […] Divine violence shows the connection between the two violences [i.e. law-making and law-preserving]—and, even more, between violence and law—to be the single real content of law.

            Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 

            Exodus 32.17-18

It is a difficult task to isolate biblical texts from the way they get used culturally today, but many of these uses reduce the texts to the point of being something other than they are in the plain meaning of their content. The Book of Exodus is a clear case in point. Many will think of this book in relation to its theme of deliverance and justice for the oppressed: the God who had promised to redeem a nation ensnared under the cruel boot of slavery makes good on his promise, leading that nation out from bondage on to freedom and bounty. This is the story that has also been firmly established in religious practice—most clearly in the Passover Seder ritual performed yearly in Judaism. It’s a powerful narrative that lends itself to all sorts of historical and political operationalization, as long as “Egypt” is made into an empty signifier attachable to any new enemy.

But this is not the whole story of the Exodus. Even in a simple sketch, the Exodus is not only about deliverance, but it is about the constitution of a people. A people was delivered, but this people only really existed in bloodlines before the Exodus. After the Exodus, they exist as a people unified under a law, with a unique ritualistic identity, a hierarchy of representative organization, and a unique devotion to a unique god. This people is made as a consummation of the process of their deliverance. And just as soon as they are constituted in this way, they also suddenly become a danger to themselves as a people. More on this in a minute.

The process of deliverance is not all tambourines and celebration, the great march through the parted sea on to a land flowing with milk and honey. As much as I love (read: love) the animated musical The Prince of Egypt, this deliverance cannot be adequately thematized in the joyous pronouncement, “There can be miracles when you believe.” As with so many moments of YHWH keeping his promise in the Bible, so it seems, this deliverance enters in the wake of a great and cruel genocide. The constitution of a people is perhaps a necessarily violent act, and despite all the tremendously horrific violence performed in the constitution of this people in the Book of Exodus, this text continues to be used as the mythic justification of such people-making endeavors. Or perhaps we should not say despite the violence, because in the case of the contemporary Zionist movement, this founding myth serves to justify the ongoing violence of a people against those seen as inimical to the people (as constituted by bloodlines and religious identity). A strange sort of reversal has occurred, where identification with the mythic oppressed has allowed oppressors to perceive their hands as clean.

As YHWH is imagined in this text, he too seems to insist that the violence is necessary for the spectacular deliverance he wishes to perform—hence the many times he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that Pharaoh would refuse to let the Israelite people go: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go’” (Ex. 4.21). (See also, for example, Ex. 7.3; 9.12; and 11.9.) Because YHWH deems it necessary that all of his macabre wonders be performed, he makes it impossible for Pharaoh to acquiesce to Moses’s demands prematurely, and for this reason, the Egyptian people are condemned to poverty, famine, starvation, thirst, skin diseases, vermin infestations, destructive hail, fire from the sky, the blacking out of the sun, and the divine slaughter of all the firstborns, both of the livestock and of the people of every class, from the royalty to the most precarious peasant and laborer. It would not at all be a stretch to say that God demonstrates total war, terrorism, and biological warfare as effective tactics for preserving the nation that sufficiently fears him. It would, then, also not be a stretch to say that a people who worships this God could use this text at any point in history to justify such tactics in their own pursuit of self-preservation.

When a people is made, they are often identified against an enemy or an outside, and they are often defined in terms of the legal relation they hold to one another. A people makes a law in order to make a people, but the law such a people makes in their self-constitution sets them apart from other peoples, thereby making that law inapplicable to those who do not belong to that people. I find it interesting to read Egypt in this text not only as the enemy of the protagonist nation—the justifying reason for the violence that ensues—but also as the people who reside outside of the divinely constitutive law of that nation. Egypt represents the limit-case or the boundary of Israel’s Law, which might give us some insight into the role of identity in this legal apparatus—as well as the violence that identity (necessarily?) emerges from.

But the question of how a people’s law functions in the Bible is not only crucially important but also very tricky to navigate. The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are referred to as the Torah in Judaism, and “Torah” is often translated as “Law.” So these first five books are regarded as the Books of the Law that contain the 613 commandments or mitzvot in the written Law. When you look at the narrative content of these texts, however, the Law as a set of commandments from God do not emerge until the latter part of Exodus. Genesis gives us the creation story and the founding legend of the family from whom would arise the nation of Israel, and we also get in that book a part of the covenant that God made with that family. In Exodus the Law is established—famously through the inscription of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai—and it’s really in Leviticus when the Law is more fully enumerated, down to the prohibitions on eating scallops or wearing polyester blends.

In Exodus, then, we get a clear picture into how Ancient Hebrew civilization imagines the institution of Law: what it relies on, what it prescribes, in what manner it is enforced, and what animates it. In critical theory—notably in the work of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben—there has been an interesting discussion of “the force of law,” and this discussion, focused on the driving motor of law in modern history, identifies a mystical core to the whole apparatus. Modern law does not, apparently, rely on the sovereign prince’s violent power over life and death in the same way that medieval law did, so theorists have worked to understand the way that a law without a prince could be understood to have a “force.” When we bring this frame of questioning to bear on a pre-modern and pre-monarchic civilization’s narrative about the institution of law, we might gain some curious insights. For instance, this people also lacks a human sovereign, but their law nonetheless relies on a spectacular sovereign force in this incredibly powerful god. And their law, though it ultimately becomes a written law, originates as the speech-acts of this god. In fact, “Torah” is perhaps better translated as “instruction” or “teaching,” rather than “law,” which illustrates the violent and binding nature of communal pedagogy, just as much as it highlights the pedagogical nature of communal law. A certain type of human is to be developed, one who would belong to this community.

When we think about religious laws, it seems more likely that we would think of those laws as primitive in some sense, primordial, by which I mean that they, in their nature, preexist any act of human will. There’s no constitutional convention for religious laws. (Though in the way religious laws are institutionally established, enumerated, and enforced, there certainly are. You only have to look at the history of religious councils or the way religious laws get enumerated in concert with the emergence of new religious movements, such as the Christian fundamentalists of the early 20th century or the resurgence of fundamentalist evangelicals in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority of the 80s and 90s.) But despite the primordial dressings of religious laws, they nonetheless are often sourced in some sort of mythic narrative. Perhaps in critically approaching such mythic narratives we can identify the ways in which such stories undermine themselves or produce their own leakage. We can also notice the ways those stories also include, in themselves, their own reactionary counter-resistive techniques.

This mythic narrative presents us with an occult god at the heart of the Law who exerts violent effects on those who do not fear him. I say “occult” here because he hides himself, revealing himself only to those ambassadors who would represent him to the people. When the people hear what this god speaks to them, they actually only hear it through Moses’s mouth. Moses is the only one granted access to YHWH directly, though a chain of hierarchical representation is established as well: “Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, you Lord Lord and Aaron, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near, and the people shall not come up with him’” (Ex. 24. 1-2). Moses is consecrated as the mouth of God, as a prophet, and as a sort of judge, arbiting the complaints of the people with the judgment of the Lord. This gets difficult with so many people, so Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (who is also a priest, though of the Midianites who are described as possibly worshiping the same god as the Israelites) suggests that Moses organize a civil chain of organization, relying on a delegation of representative constituency:

You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. (Ex. 18.19-22)

Moses will represent God to the officers, who will then represent Moses to the people, and so on goes the chain of access to the giver of the Law. In order to maintain the sovereign force at the core of this legal apparatus, several fear-mongering warnings are issued against the people’s approaching this god: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them’”(Ex. 19.21-22). I can’t help but think here of the Wizard of Oz—pay no attention to what goes on at the top of the mountain—but in this case, the curtain is never lifted, and the mouthpiece of YHWH maintains his role as representing this god to the people who shudder in terror before him:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’ Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex. 20.18-21)

The occult nature of the force of the law secures the sovereign’s control over the people subject to the law. In this case, we can be generous and say that it allows YHWH to secure his control over this newly constituted community, or, to read this more cynically, we can say that the occulted god at the heart of this legal order allows those who run the organization—Moses & Co.—to maintain order and control, because they alone have access to that which issues forth the law in the first place and that which animates its power. I would say that this mechanism also allows this text to be read in the modern era as cementing the power of a religious moral and ritualistic order against its detractors, because it has never been democratically instituted: there was, from the start, an occult despotic core against which no one may say anything because it is impossible even to approach it.

However, the text’s leakage and reactionary self-preservation occurs when the people choose to create an image of this god rather than to wait for Moses to come down from the mountain and present to them YHWH’s commands. They turn to Aaron, Moses’s brother who would become first in a priestly line, and ask him to make gods for them (Ex. 32.1). They give him their gold rings in order to do so: “He took the gold from them, formed it into a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Ex. 32.4). The Israelite people make gods for themselves to be the image of their deliverer, in the place of the occulted god on the mountain. Though they still attribute their deliverance to being distinct from themselves, at least this being is one whose image they had control in constructing—a god of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the story goes, YHWH, of course becomes enraged at their idolatry and tells Moses that he wishes to murder them all and start over with Moses to make a new nation, not unlike how he dealt with Noah’s generation or with Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses changes YHWH’s mind about this, reminding him of his promise to this people, and sets off on an inquiry as to the guilty parties. (Which leads to one of the funniest passages in the Bible, as Moses asks Aaron about what transpired. Aaron responds by saying that the people had asked him to make gods for them. “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” [Ex. 32.24]. It just popped out like this! I was just as surprised as you were!)

But when Moses approaches the people initially, he and his assistant Joshua hear a sound coming from the camps that sounds almost like war cries, but it is not. The shrieks and singing and dancing are not the sounds of conquerors or the violently subjected, but rather it was “the sound of revelers” (Ex. 32.18). By making an image of the god who delivered them, the people succeed neither in revolting against that god nor do they succumb to his esoteric control, but instead they play with his form, allowing themselves to authenticate their experience according to their own imagination. Though this is not a perfect comparison, seeing as we’re dealing with an ancient people and a primitive law, this scene of dancing and creativity makes me think of Giorgio Agamben’s writings on “playing with the law” as the only sufficient way to resist its intensified control in the modern era of biopolitics and the state of exception:

What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity—that is, another use of the law. […] One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born only after it. And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. (State of Exception, 64)

If the Israelites had been successful in their idolatry (but, alas, YHWH had all of the revelers involved in the apostasy massacred by the devout Levites) perhaps they would have been able to use their activity of playing with the form of their god towards their own liberation. Nevertheless, this might suggest a pathway for those of us who wish to resist religiously orthodox mechanisms of control and belief. Rather than merely claiming these biblical texts and narratives as either “true” or “false,” we might play with them, mold them into new forms, and use them as a site of revelry. In this way, we might secure a sort of democratic textual criticism that would allow us not only to approach the occulted center of this grand and violent machine, but also to speak back to it.

 

Image source: Thomas Cole, Moses on the Mountain, Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Becoming Undone // Arendt and Butler

On theory., Uncategorized

On that which follows terror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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