this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Month: March, 2011

On Serrano’s Piss Christ: the Scandal of the God who Shits

The incarnation is scandalous. So much so St. Justin Martyr felt compelled to argue that Christianity was not atheism in his first apology to Caesar. To Caesar the scandal of the Incarnation was the scandal of atheism—that is god becoming a creature rightly means that god is in his creation and subjected to it. God no longer holds the world in his hands so to speak so much as god has put her/his self into the world’s hands. God became one of us.

This is horrific. Where there once was a god above who decreed, spoke, made laws that we could feel justified or guilty by, there suddenly was a dead human body. As Jaques Lacan noted, the death of such a god does not mean that now everything is permitted, i.e. there is no sin, but rather that nothing is permitted, i.e. anything can be sin. Now everything is called into question because god became one among us. Suddenly the whole Greek and Jewish religious systems are thrown into doubt by their very colliding. There is no law. We are all condemned. God became one of us and we killed him.

The Christian god, who is the dead god, is a radically particular god, not just a dead god, but that dead god who is that dead body. This is the irony of the crucifix being used as a symbol of hope or inspiration. Even if this is because of the resurrection or hope or promise of a resurrection it still presupposes that at some point our god is a particular human who was killed. Thus why Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is nigh the closest one can get to a true icon—the Christian god is a god who had to piss. A god submerged in piss. The death of god, although scandalous, is not the true scandal here—god, the one who created all, is the mother and father of all, etc., took on himself piss, blood, shit, semen. That’s the Christian god. The god who shits. What can be more scandalous than that? No wonder St. Justin had to make an argument as to why this wasn’t atheism.

Christian theology then is, to steal a phrase from Derrida’s work on Artaud, a scato-theology—the story of a god who shat her/himself. And as Freud points out it is shit which is my first encounter really with the horror of my own body that I must separate, must wash away, flush, etc. (thus anal retentive/fixation). Shit is something I must disassociate from myself viscerally in order to deal with it—I must objectify and other it, deny it came from me (can you imagine a toilet that would make you confront your own shit?). Likewise the Christian god is one who disassociated her/himself from her/himself. This is the tension inherent in the parent/son imagery of the trinity. The defecation that god became and cut off is Christ, the godhuman, the god-who-had-to-piss. A god in piss. This is the scandal—the scandal of a god who became a particular Jewish male body and shat himself.

 

Beyond the God of Light

Beyond the God of Light: Re-Reading Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite

 

Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,

up to the farthest, highest peak

of mystic scripture,

where the mysteries of god’s word

lie simple, absolute and unchangeable

in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.[1]


St. Bonaventure, following classical Greek thought, makes the claim that “we can contemplate [the] god not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges, inside through his image, and above through the light.”[2] For the sake of this post I’m going to read Bonaventure against Pseudo-Dionysius which, granted, isn’t terribly fair, but Bonaventure is clearly following a discourse of Western metaphysical thinking which Pseudo-Dionysius outright rejects, particularly in The Mystical Theology.

First point to note about Bonaventure’s tri-fold distinction is it is wrapped up strictly in the language of sight—we see the “vestiges” of the god outside of us, the “image” of the god within us, and the “light” of the god above us. Bonaventure later propounds the classical notion of sight as a mingling of lights—the light from the object mingling with the light of the viewer. This tri-fold knowledge of god then is ultimately the Western understanding of the trinity: god the father as the vestige (the god “without” or outside us), god the son as the image of the vestige (the god “within,” the one who became like unto us), and the third which appears between the two lights, namely the holy spirit (what god-as-without looks like from the perspective of humanity through the god-within), the mingling of these two lights.

This is all very neat and tidy—too neat and tidy. For this sort of ocularcentric-theology, god is as knowable and understandable as the book in front of my face. In other words, the only kind of doubt for god I can have is doubt of her or his existence not of his or her (a-)metaphysical “makeup.” Just as doubting whether or not the book in my hand “exists” takes for granted a whole metaphysics of what a book is as such and what eyes are and how they work and the makeup of these things, etc., so too a god of pure knowing and access, of light, takes for granted a metaphysics. This ocularcentric god is one for whom existence is either possible or impossible, and all questions as to what she or he is are assumed and never called into doubt.

Enter Pseudo-Dionysius who begins his “letter to Timothy” with,

“my advice to you as you look for a sight […] is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, […] strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”

In other words, sight in the mystical sense for Pseudo-Dionysius, is a glimpse of something beyond sight—a unification with the beyond precisely in not “seeing” it. Although god takes on names, as Pseudo-Dionysius works out in The Divine Names, “our words are [always] confined to the ideas we are capable of forming.” Our words never leave behind the language of sight, that is to use Bonaventure’s categories, the language of mingling. In yet other words, there is no light from the god abovethere is no god who knows—there is no god who cares.

These and other “names” are all analogies at best and only true as regards a contextual mingling, i.e. god’s interaction with certain creatures at a certain place and at a certain time. We can make affirmations from these contexts, name the mingling-of-lights, but, “more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations,” because “the cause of all is considerably prior to all this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.” Every negation is the other side of an affirmation and, further, there are unknown names withdrawn from our context because this god is a god who is “beyond everything (emphasis mine).” We can only describe god from this side of the infinite, i.e. the finite—therefore no name for god is lasting.

To worship the name is to worship an idol in a quite formal sense—to worship the ideas of our own language above that which is beyond it. In the names we give god we find at best icons—finite, tendential means of accessing something beyond them, and, at worst, idols. In this way theology as a naming, and I mean no slight, is strictly an aesthetics. It is only by entering the habitat, the non-presence of this god always beyond, the habitat Pseudo-Dionysius describes as pure darkness and silence, that:

“being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”


[1] All Pseudo-Dionysius’ quotations from The Mystical Theology

[2] The Soul’s Journey into God, Ch. V

Guest post over at Ex Animus

Did a guest post on the Nicene creed over at my good friend Kevin’s blog to be found here. Hope you enjoy!

The Crumbs under Thy Table: Lent is a Butterfly

No, this post is not about the typical image of a process, any process, as the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. It’s more about Lent as a sort of non-process, that is revelation. The first Sunday of Lent I visited a friend’s Anglican church and heard a rather atypical sermon on lent not as rescinding, withdrawal, in short, asceticism, but rather as actualization—that is lent is not so much a season of fasting as a season of what feasting should authentically look like. In other words, lent is not the cocoon, awaiting Paschal emergence, Lent is when we emerge, fully formed and hungry.

But what form is this? It is a form that is “beautiful,” sure—the lenten mass with hymns and all, the absence of the Gloria and alleluia—but it is also horrific. Following something me and my roommate Kevin have been discussing (see his post here), I thought it seemed appropriate to comment on how Lent is revelation, that is, the pulling back of the cloak to reveal, well, our depravity, sin, and vice. Our horror. During this season the Eucharist-as-feast becomes ironic and uncanny—we become hyper-aware of our own shortcomings, confess and reflect, and even pronounce “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table” but yet, but yet—we eat god. Not just god—god as man. We become cannibals. No—that doesn’t quite capture it—we are revealed during lent to have always already been cannibals. We ask god to eat the breadcrumbs and he gives us precisely what we are really asking for, namely blood.

Which brings us to the carnivorous tendencies of some types of butterflies and moths. Yes, they are certainly pretty, but also they eat creatures—including interspecielly—ie, they are, what we tend to call, cannibals (certain butterflies appear also to be gynandromorphic which somehow seems relevant to mention). This is the sort of butterfly we are during Lent. Lent is not a moment of interior withdrawal, a sort of ascetic slavishness, but rather, the emergence, the exteriorization, of a “new” “species”—but that “new” “species” is one that has been inside of us all year, in the cocoon of regular time, brooding and sinister, awaiting its authentication and emergence. Lent is not a fast—it is a feast, a feast on the body and blood of our fellow man, because, as creatures of this world, we inevitably have a desire to feast on this world, destroy it for our own glory and desire. The god of Christianity, the god who became man, knows this, and gives us his flesh.

piecemeal-assemblage

I have been thinking about people–what it means to “understand” or “get” a person–I mean, what the hell does that mean after all? I think here of the stereotypical Derridean mantra “all reading is misreading.” Sometimes I feel this way about people. Just as no one “understands” a text except in that there is some dissonance or difference between the author’s intention/interpretation-of-the-text and the reader’s, so is there no understanding of people except in the tension of intention and reception that we call the person’s personality (the inbetweeness of the person, the she or he that exists in the world that is between the self and the other).

However, this inbetweeness of the other (Heideggerian mitsein, being-with) can cover-up the other’s fundamental otherness. I may think I know my roommate well but there are still moments of surprise, moments when I ask myself, “I thought I knew Ian, but do I really? I never thought he was capable of X, but…” etc. There are moments when the being-with, the comfortablility of a world-between is shattered by us having to stand face-to-face with the other. Suffice to say these were the thoughts behind this short series–the event of facing otherness in what has been covered up by sameness, by the shared world which lies between the otherness of individual persons, which appears to me to be a sort of assemblage built slowly and contingently, shattered and rebuilt, and then shattered and rebuilt, piece by piece.

 

piecemeal—assemblage


Some Sundays

visiting church or

family I get the feeling

of being spread-out,

naked, a leg dangling

over the wood railing

and God-for-certain

not one condom

in reach.

 

* * *

 

We, that is,

you & I, shopped

for clothes,

 

a “new style,”

something different:

afternoon,

 

slight of wind,

holding coats, shoes,

pull-over

 

sweaters, and

I realized then how

much it was

 

like language,

like words in our

mouths

 

speaking, and

I had to tell you it

was like

 

this—and words,

and language speak

-ing mouths.

 

* * *

 

Sure, it was lent,

but sometimes mushrooms

and cigarettes and drinking

and love-making happen:

and when you walked

behind, down the stairs,

your eyes tightly closed,

(the blind leading, &c.)

and silent, I knew

then, that no one

was following

anyone.

 

Empire is No More or: Give up “Nature” and it Will Be a Hundred Times Better for Everyone

This is a response to two other blog posts, one by my roommate Kevin here, and the other by my dear friend Brett here. Both deal with the notion of “the” environment or “Nature”—this notion of a pure, virginal, giving earth-mother. And, to quote Slavoj Zizek, I would like to disagree and say, “Nature is a crazy bitch.” That is to say that the boons of Nature are equally a catastrophe—i.e., oil. Nature is a chaos. Which begs the question, is the notion of “Nature” even a helpful one then? Kevin, and I am with him here, argues emphatically “no.” Brett, however, argues for a sort of chimerical amalgam of society and nature that, to me, ends up looking like a socialized-Nature.

Now I have a few problems with this. Granted, although a more complicated, more nuanced depiction of Nature, a socialized-Nature still is this sort of top-down metaphysics Kevin’s post seems to be arguing against, namely, a direct and knowable lost (or able to be lost) Utopia. It seems just as tautological as “Nature” or “the” environment. And, as much as I love me some Czeslaw, this seems to be his problem as well as Brett’s to me—Czeslaw may recognize the chaotic, the Moloch, in the “social” world as well as the “natural” world, but these still seem to be opposing worlds even to him no matter how you choose to reconcile them or shove them together. In other words, Nature+Society=World is as bad of a formula as Nature=World or Society=World.

To conceive of a whole that is the sum of its parts and therefore in some way a greater object as such, therefore submitting the parts to the whole, is, in short, totalitarian. Aristotle wouldn’t do this—this is what teleological thinking avoids and, I believe, it was here Kevin was intending to get us. Namely that if we can speak of a world that is a whole it is not a holism which the parts are submitted to in anyway but a whole strictly speaking as regards its telos (which, given Kevin’s leanings, I am to assume is the Kingdom of God—which is to say those parts realized as themselves, people as truly fulfilling their ethical desires as authenticated people, the earth no longer groaning, lion lying down with the lamb, etc.). In other words, if we can speak of any great “whole” we are floating around in it is 1. always tentative and conditional given our finitude and situatedness and 2. not a top-down metaphysics (ie Nature is the Good/holism so we all must make sacrifices, as its parts, to appease her).

My final critique for this notion of a socialized-Nature is the same one I have with Heidegger’s conception of Welt (world), namely it’s rank anthropocentrism (and therefore tacit racism, sexism, et al). We immediately must ask whose society socializes? I get that one could respond societies as such or an amalgam of social systems but at some point we in our finitude are establishing a hierarchical whole (a “top”) from within that very system (pretty much near the “bottom”). I immediately want to ask, when faced with this notion of a socialized-Nature, what sort of “socialized”-world do, say, amoebas or sea slugs inhabit then? They equally have an ecological world that has a vast impact and, in ways, conditions our very social world as well. Point being is vast amounts of our world have facets which our society does not come in contact with yet still function socially and presumably have vast effects on us (just think of global warming for one example).

It seems to me that this way of constructing existence breaks down on itself. I think what is so profound about the Tim Morton Ecology-Without-Nature “movement” which, I think, is what all our posts are tacitly about, is that it attempts to radically abandon this top-down, whole>parts discussion as involves worldhood. There is no Nature rightly speaking as regards this top-down hierarchical structure (fallen mother, etc). However, ecological worlds are very real and we happen to be in one that is very real, namely, “our” society. These worlds all interact (touch, elide, collide, withdraw) within… what we call a world for lack of a better term—whatever our sharedness and otherness floats around in. But rightly speaking this isn’t a more true locality or world, it’s just the amorphous fluid all of our worlds happen to be mis-communicating in. It’s just as much of an object as say the world of rabbits, the world of east Indian botanist-missionaries, or the world of mice who I am convinced are hiding in our walls. Just as much of an object as my laptop too. There is no Nature because there is no “system” that is an inherent “top” system.



Initiation

Still processing things and all–specifically as regards event and what it means to begin, to be beginning, ie what is it that makes this any different from that? Why does a certain “phase” present itself so distinctly against what we expect? Why is there surprise in our personal histories/narratives? This all gets particularly complicated given that narrative as regards self emerges somewhat alongside while ahead-of the event itself–when catastrophe happens it is only “catastrophe” as regards its narrative once I have narrated it as such, once I have structured it, built and apportioned rooms out of its traumatic void and inhabited and walked about those rooms. Suffice to say things are always complicated and enmeshed. Always enmeshed.

 

Initiation

 

Sometimes such things

begin like a thundering—

or maybe more like

walking right on

through a thundering

of some terrible surface

of such things, sometimes,

just this way, a little like

beginning.

 

 

people

You may have noticed that my poems have a terrible tendency to be 1. rather long and 2. conclude with a sort of metaphysical moralization, i.e. a large or overwhelming image. I have been trying rather actively as of late to err away from this sort of negative Western-phallogocentric tendency. Not every poem has to end with a linguistic orgasm–sometimes just a linguistic kiss or touch or elision even is nice. So, suffice to say, I am pro/re-gressing to smaller and subtler forms. Hopefully these recent poems seem more intimate, easy to take up, and don’t swallow the reader in some Bergman-like existential moralizing–and, hopefully, they are more playful in a way too.

 

people

 

Cigarette

today, black

 

tea,

poetry—

 

a woman,

hiding

 

her face

as she

 

hurried by.

Some pe-

 

ople, some

people.