The Bible and Posthumanism: Book/Chapter Announcement

Bible and Posthumanism Cover

Some readers may be interested in a recently published book—The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer Koosed. The volume includes an essay of mine entitled “Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs.” I have yet to read through the whole book, but I am especially looking forward to essays from Denise Kimber Buell, Stephen Moore, and Benjamin Dunning. I’m particularly honored that my essay sits directly next to Ben Dunning’s insofar as his intellectual generosity and meticulously patient criticism have played an unparalleled role in my own thinking, writing, and research at Fordham.

Here’s an excerpt that provides a sense for the essay’s argument:

Thinking with Derrida, I argue that Gregory’s discourse on animality remains irresolvably conflicted. Although he labors toward it, Gregory’s theology cannot finally abide a categorical distinction between humanity and animality. The theological anthropology informing Gregory’s anagogical exegesis of the Song of Songs “short-circuits” so that human animality is necessary to reach the deepest meaning of Scripture and the summits of spiritual ascent, despite Gregory’s more explicit claims that spiritual transformation entails the transcendence of humanity beyond animality. Animality remains integral to Gregory’s reading of the Song of Songs, not simply because of the pervasive animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but on account of his understanding of theological exegesis and the role of desire in spiritual progress.

Animality and the Word of God :: John 1:1-4

I have been dwelling for quite some time at the boundary between humans and animals, thinking through the way that this boundary is imagined and presented, and especially thinking through the way that this boundary is infused with theological significance or drawn in theological terms.

This afternoon I was reading through Derrida’s final seminar (now published as The Beast and the Sovereign) and in the 12th session of that seminar came a discussion of the first chapters of both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Of course, both of these texts are heavily freighted so far as the relationships among God, humans, and other animals are concerned. Derrida’s circuitous thinking inspired a (theologically loaded) translation of John 1:1-4 that I’d like to try out (significant elements italicized).

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through this word, and apart from this word not one thing came to be. That which came to be by this word was animality, and this animality was the light of humanity. The light appeared in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now, clearly this is pushing the usual semantic range of ζωὴ, at least as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, I think that this translation has some merit.

Etymologically, ζωὴ [life] is the animating force of the ζωόν [living being, animal]. ζωὴ is emphatically not something that is exclusive property of human beings, but is the animating force in which both humans and animals are alive. Classically, when someone comes to define just what it is that an ἀνθρωπος [human] is, being human is described as being some kind or another of ζωόν [animal] (for two famous examples, ζωόν πολιτικόν [the political animal], ζωόν λογον εχων [the animal having speech/reason/discourse]. ζωὴ, then, is a necessary element of being human, but can’t belong to humanity alone.

Furthermore, John is most certainly quoting and riffing on Genesis here. The λόγος [word] is clearly the speech of Elohim, at which all creation emerges (not just the human mode of being).

All that to say, to imagine that the life of which John speaks here is something that belongs only to human beings precisely as human beings (e.g. a “spiritual” life that has nothing to do with animals) is a stunning bit of prejudice. The life which is the light of humanity is not a life that excludes, or comes in distinction from the life which is the life of animals. In order to reinforce this point, we might remember the oft-made point that the λόγος becomes σὰρξ [flesh] in order to dwell among us, not (literally, at least) ἀνθρωπος [human].

If this line of reading is viable, then one of the first things that we need to theologically reconfigure is the significance of God’s λόγος, and of God’s being as λόγος.

Traditionally, in both Greek philosophy and much of the Christian tradition, among creatures λόγος  has been an exclusive property of humanity, and a direct connection with God which excludes all other creatures. The human is rational, articulate, speaking, discursive [all valid translations] whereas other creatures are not. This is so much the case, that one can name the class of living beings which are not humans (every non-human living being that falls under the label “animal”) simply by saying “ὁι ἀλογοι” [those who lack λόγος].

Now, if the divine λόγος can be thought as animating creatures other that humans as Genesis and John perhaps suggest, then using λόγος as the boundary that divides humanity from all other creatures is a stunning bit of hubristic appropriation. To claim λόγος as something that belongs to us and to us alone is to cut ourselves off from the rest of creation, and perhaps, from God’s presence to the rest of creation.

I can’t and won’t argue it out here in full (beyond what I’ve already tried to indicate in John’s text), but I’m laboring to work out a theological thesis. Namely, that it is the concern to foster and defend an exclusively human λόγος (our own rationality, our own speech, our own mode of thought) which actually cuts us off from the divine λόγος which is present in animals (and everything that has come to be). The “rationality” which we imagine as the dividing line between “us” humans and “them” animals is also the pathology that cuts us off from God’s activity in and for creation. Our autonomous λόγος is not the opposite of, but is precisely the expression of our παθος. In (my [per]version of) John’s terms, the darkness that cannot and will not overcome the light is the autonomous human λόγος that cannot and will not eradicate the ζωὴ [life, both animal and human] which is God’s work.

Salvation, then, would be imagined not as a process whereby one’s animality (desire, lust, embodiment, etc.) is overcome and abandoned in an approach to God (who is perceived the opposite of all of these things), but rather as a forsaking of the autonomous human λόγος (which can only end in death) for the life-giving λόγος of God. Perhaps the λόγος of God saves human beings by integrating them more deeply into the life [ζωὴ] which is the life of all creation. Perhaps becoming a child of God (John 1.12) entails becoming more animal rather than less.

Jacques Derrida, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs

Just yesterday I received the welcome news that my submission to the Animals and Religion consultation at the 2010 AAR in Atlanta was accepted. I’ll be presenting the paper at a session entitled “Thinking Animals, Rethinking Theology: Abrahamic and Indigenous Traditions.” I’m very excited for the opportunity to present my thoughts and looking forward to the ensuing conversation. The proposal which was accepted is below:

Though it is an undeniably erotic text, Solomon’s Song of Songs is also undeniably strange. In large part, the text’s strangeness is attributable to its enthusiastically zoological imagery, which strikes contemporary readers as anything but erotic. The very metaphors praising the bodily beauty of a woman and a man and celebrating their union simultaneously release an abundance of flapping, leaping, grazing animals into the space between two naked human bodies. These animals—doves, deer, sheep, horses, goats—pervade the imagery of the Song to the extent that animal bodies are caught up in the erotic interaction of the two lovers and animal eyes seem to peek through every look of longing.

The fourth-century Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa found this canonical text no less strange than we do on account of both its sexually explicit content and its disconcerting animal metaphors. Nevertheless, Gregory lauds the Song of Songs above every other text in Scripture for setting forth the profoundest wisdom for prayer and ascetic contemplation. Gregory’s reading depends upon a powerful sublating hermeneutic which transforms the Song’s erotic energy into the driving impulse for a spiritual ascent. His Commentary on the Song of Songs presents the fruit of an assiduous attention to the many figurative valences latent in every image and a careful effort to explain the manner in which the cumulative effect of this imagery elicits the reader’s desire for God. Remarkably, however, despite Gregory’s vigorous distaste for any carnal understanding of the Song—readily visible in oft-repeated warnings—the animals of the Song populate Gregory’s higher meaning no less pervasively than its literal level, and indeed take on an even greater theological role.

Reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I am alongside Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs provides a critical lens through which to explore the human-animal distinction in Gregory’s theology. Derrida’s text traces an “immense disavowal” of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition wherein all the differences between animals are discarded in favor of a single catch-all category—“the animal.” Politically, the maneuver to sum up all animals in a single term underwrites a notion of human exceptionalism (“the human” over against “the animal”), and justifies regimes of maltreatment, modification, restrictive confinement, over-production, and slaughter. Derrida summons Descartes, Kant, Lacan, Heidegger, and Levinas as exemplary theoretical offenders.

There is no shortage of reasons to see Gregory’s allegorical treatment of animals in the Song of Songs as part and parcel of this same trajectory of disavowal—the impulse to spiritual sublation has rarely worked to the advantage of animals. Nevertheless, Gregory’s relationship to animals is more complex than would initially appear. I argue that although Gregory labors to disavow “the animal” (as a single bounded set) in his interpretation of the Song of Songs, particular animals continue to creep back into his text through gaps in the fence he erects, troubling the purity that Gregory is laboring toward. The re-entry of the animal into Gregory’s text, I argue, is inevitable and necessary, not simply because of the presence of animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but more significantly, because of the ineradicable function of (animal) desire within Gregory’s understanding of theological exegesis and spiritual ascent. Thus, Gregory adopts the blurred lines between humans and animals in the text of the Song of Songs within his own spiritual exegesis because doing so sheds light on the contemplative path of the Christian in a way that would be impossible were his disavowal of the animal more thorough.

The first part of my paper examines the complex of shame, exposure, modesty, nakedness, and clothing (one of many lines along which the human-animal distinction is cut, and a theme central to Derrida’s text), querying the nakedness of the bride in the Song relative to the nakedness of the animals which mediate the description of her body. I ask whether the bride is naked as an animal, naked as an animal, or actually naked at all. Gregory’s squeamish allegorizing hastily weaves a cover for the bride’s nudity, but she is still exposed in and through the animal imagery that describes her contours.

The second part focuses on the distinguishing human “proper” of reason and speech (logos for Gregory). While Gregory differentiates humans from animals (the alogoi) on the basis of their capacity for reason, in the economy of Gregory’s theological exegesis and in his account of spiritual ascent, reason is actually secondary to the faculty of desire that pervades human and animal life alike. The text of the Song of Songs functions anagogically (that is, one layer of its meaning leads the reader toward God) precisely because it incites a propulsive desire within the reader that motivates and focuses her contemplation. Likewise, on the path of spiritual ascent, the Christian’s ever-increasing desire for God carries him beyond any comprehension of reason or language. Thus, for Gregory, (animal) desire finally outstrips discursive rationality in its theological importance, calling into the question the purity of his initial distinction between the human and the animal.

The third part takes up an ethical/political question from Derrida’s text: What happens to the fraternity among brothers (or alternately, relations in human society) when an animal enters the room? I argue that the presence of animals in the text of the Song is what launches Gregory’s theological interpretation in the first place (because the literal reading remains woefully inadequate). Paradoxically, it is the pervasiveness of animal imagery within this erotic poem that opens the text up for an allegorical reading that excises the “animal” content of straightforward sexuality. Thus, on Gregory’s reading, the bride and bridegroom loosen their sexually passionate embrace, and instead are bound up in the intimacies of prayer, forgiveness, and spiritual transformation. The presence of the animal in the text marks an excess that allows for the attempted erasure of the “animal” in the human. Finally, however, insofar as Gregory’s disavowal is incomplete, his gesture imaginatively endues animals with spiritual agency—the dove with her longing eye and the deer leaping across the hills in pursuit of the divine.

In the end, Gregory cannot banish animals from his interpretation of the Song while at the same time sublating the generative power of its metaphors. Gregory succeeds only in folding the animal into the human; redeeming the animal by directing its energy. Equally, the obverse is true, that the human has been folded into the animal whose drives are powerful and determinative. At any rate, what remains are spiritual animals—with equal stress falling on both words. Over the course of Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs the “proper” traits of humans and animals (nakedness, shame, clothing, reason, language, passion, desire) lose the precision whereby they mark a hermetic and exclusive distinction between animals and “the human.” The animals creep in the backdoor of Gregory’s commentary, undermining his disavowal by showing themselves to be integral to the highest human good that he can conceive.

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)

The Paradise narrative of Genesis 2-4 haunts its readers with a host of lacunae that call for return after return to the text in order to venture out on various explanatory bridges. The story of Adam and Eve proceeds at a breathless pace, offering bare details of dialogue and action without developing a full and complete background. The movements of the text are sudden and superficial in a way that hints at an oceanic depth of backstory. These abyssal lacunae are all the more hauntingly urgent for readers because this narrative purports to account for humanity’s origins and provide a “place” for human beings in the web of cosmic relations. Perhaps for that reason, the spare and enigmatic compositional lines of this text have been a womb bearing an astounding variety of interpretations and explanations, the richness of which are an unparalleled gift. Gary Anderson’s Genesis of Perfection [1] attempts to takes stock of a number of these structural lacunae in the text of Genesis 2-3 and introduce a few of the myriad interpretive efforts that have inscribed fuller understandings of the universe into the lines of the Genesis narrative. In order delimit his sources to a manageable horde, Anderson focuses on readings of Genesis from within the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism and the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary genesis of Anderson’s text is his sense that the divorce in the last few centuries between the history of composition (undertaken in historical-critical precision) and the history of reception (for which the origin of the text is often of little interest) belies an impoverishing narrowness (xvi-xvii). Continue reading “Gary Anderson :: Genesis of Perfection (Review)”

never trust anyone with the first name pseudo

Over the weekend, while reading an excellent book on the reception history of 1 Enoch  (what a life, eh?)[1], I found myself thinking through pseudonymous authorship and the nest of problems that it raises for contemporary readers in a new light. Of course, pseudonymity is an issue with a document that claims to be penned by a character from the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, but it is also an issue when we come to many of the books of Scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy, 2nd/3rd Isaiah, etc.). Posed in its sharpest form, the question that pseudonymity raises might be posed like this: “How can we ascribe the authority of divine revelation (which almost always functions as a guarantee of truth)  to a text that contains an intentional deception about its author?” The standard apology for the practice—which I think is quite a good start—points out the cultural gap between our notions of the book as a finished product resulting from the creative effort of a single person (or discrete collective) and ancient notions of authorship and authority or the challenges of textual transmission.

The piece that Reed added for me was a careful attention to the fluidity and interchange between orality and textuality—something quite remote to our own practices. First of all, the practice of reading in silent solitude (primarily as a visual activity) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient reading, even if it was done in solitude—though that would have been much rarer as well—was likely done aloud. Reading was an auditory activity as much as visual.

In addition, the relative rarity and prohibitive cost of books meant that even knowledge that was written down was likely passed on elsewhere as “oral” tradition. Many historians, biblical scholars, and theologians operate with a somewhat romantic notion of oral traditions being passed down through centuries until some enterprising figure has the temerity to put it down in writing, upon which momentous occasion the oral tradition is frozen and becomes a treasured piece of the communities literary legacy. Even stating it reveals it as simplistic. Even with the same stories or teachings, oral traditions and written traditions likely overlapped and were mutually informative. A text is “read” and interpreted even where it is repeated orally, and this “reading” affects the hermeneutical approach of the hearer to all subsequent readings/hearings of any related material.One person might recount a (textual) reading to another in some detail without the benefit of the text for reference. That “reading” may be passed along to several more hearers, before being integrated into another text. Where this is the case,  oral and written traditions are mutually informative.

The role of the author in such a setting is profoundly more ambiguous than our preference for the solitary creative genius. Someone who is compelled to put a narrative or teaching to writing may have heard several versions, deriving from textual recitations and/or oral recitation. She may have a text in front of her that carries most, but not all, of the detail that she considers crucial to understanding and communicating the heart of the message. At any rate, where there is a fluid relationship between orality and textuality, and a concern to collect and pass on what one has received, it is actually an act of profound hubris to name oneself as the author of a text. Where traditions have been passed on in varying degrees of orality and their genealogy is not easily traceable, it is quite reasonable that teachings and stories should coalesce around a major figure, in whose name they are retold. In a context where orality and textuality commingle far more than our own, pseudonymous authorship is less likely a rhetorical ploy on the part of an unimportant author to gain credibility and readership for the text (by the way, this post has been guest-written by Ben Myers), and more likely a recognition that the text itself is only the transmission of a tradition that predates it by far.

_______

[1] Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

h/t to a venerable teacher of my past, Bruce Fisk, for the title of the post.

Lloyd Gaston, Paul and Torah

Wipf and Stock, 1987, 262 p .

Gaston employs a self-consciously experimental hermeneutic. Presuming that Paul is as familiar with covenant-nomism as E.P. Sanders and does not fundamentally misrepresent the Law (and thus Judaism) can Paul be read coherently? Gaston argues that Paul preaches exclusively to the Gentiles (and considers himself “apostate” from Israel’s covenant as a Gentile apostle), and that “nomos” functions in Pauline discourse in two very distinct ways: (1) as Torah, Israel’s law conjoined to the covenant; (2) as the law of Sinai administered to the nations by angels/powers, apart from the covenant, and thus with the inevitable result of a curse. Gaston’s exegesis is a strained, Procrustean attempt to weed out every hint of Anti-Judaism in Paul (though he is perfectly content to admit it in the rest of the NT). He opens up new readings with admirable creativity and problematizes old assumptions about Paul’s “antagonistic” relationship with Judaism, but his attempt to systematically re-read Paul simply cannot be taken seriously as a system. It succeeds as a goad to further conversation and as an experimental re-reading, it fails in terms of historical-critical rigor. Further, I’m not convinced that Gaston succeeds in furthering the cause that launches his project. Unless we are planning on re-pristinating a Pauline Christianity which was originally pure (and quickly distorted), the picture of the Pauline mission that Gaston delivers does not significantly avert anti-Judaism.