In the Shadow of Eleggua: The Prince of This World book event

This response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Jared Rodríguez, Doctoral Candidate in African American Studies, Northwestern University.

MIRANDA: But who is that? He doesn’t look very benevolent! If I weren’t afraid of blaspheming, I’d say he was a devil rather than a god.

ESHU: (Laughing) You are not mistaken, fair lady. God to my friends, the Devil to my enemies! And lots of laughs for all!

–Aimé Césaire, A Tempest1

I met the devil on a Saturday morning cartoon. Crimson, horned, and fully Technicolor with pitchfork in tow, the devil rode the shoulder of a cartoon cat named Tom. After the devil’s first attempt at convincing Tom to murder his cat compatriot and keep their mouse bounty for himself he began slapping the cartoon cat while exhorting “Now listen here, you’re a citizen ain’t ya? Ya got rights. That mouse was yours first. You had priorities on it. Okay then. Plant that axe in his toupee and you’ll have that cheese-napper all to yourself. Go on, swing it.” In true Tom and Jerry fashion, the axe blade slides off of the handle as he brings it down on his buddy’s head and all Tom gets for his
troubles are the bumps and bruises of a lesson unlearned pid_23793when the mouse escapes in the course of the tussle he greedily initiated. Tom clearly couldn’t hear me shouting at the tv, “don’t do it,Tom!” “That’s Eleggua, It’s a trap!” Tom and Jerry introduced me to the Western figure of the the devil, one I could only understand in the shadow of the Orisha syncretized with the Christian Devil, Eshu.2 Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World stands in the fine company of Tom and Jerry in continuing my education in the strange and mysterious folk-ways of Christianity’s Devil.3

Suffusing my life as Eleggua does, I am unsurprised to find their presence entangled in the lines of TPOTW. Kotsko’s text summons the Orisha as an element of their argument against viewing the Christian devil as a “universal religious symbol,” a transcendent, typological “trickster” that “enjoys meddling in other gods’ plans.”4 Esu-Elegbera as they are known in Yorubaland, metonymic kin to Santeria’s Eleggua, Vodun’s Papa Legba, and Candomble’s Exú, are imbricated figures of West African cosmology. Esu’s New World relations emerge in the African Diaspora to the Western Hemisphere precipitated by the Euro-Christian colonial institution of racial slavery. Sometimes referred to as gods, or deities, an Orisha can perhaps be better understood as an accretion of Ashe, the power, possibility, and potential of all that is, was, and will be. Orisha’s emerge through the performance of a valence of Olodumare, or the fullness of cosmological possibility. The Orisha Esu is a manifestation of indeterminacy, spoken of in the pataki or oratures as both the messenger of the Orishas and guardian of the pathways of the universe, invoked at the open and close of ceremony. While some pataki describe them as a trickster, the common point of emphasis is the in the indeterminacy of possibility. Esu embodies neither good, nor evil, but the relationality that marks the impossibility of their objective distinction. Though the devil is an omnipresent figure of Christianity’s colonial disposition, the Orisha constitutively exceeds the spiritual fetters of its binaries. The entanglement of Christian colonial regimes of racial slavery and African cosmologies that produce the syncretic isomorphism of Esu and the devil draw us to Fred Moten’s conceptualization of Blackness as “testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.”5 While racial-colonial practices of Christian anti-Blackness attempted to discipline Esu’s cosmo-political indeterminacy by enclosing them in the evil shadows of the devil, something excessive continues to slip the bonds of object-hood. Despite its narration as achieved reality, the colonial object of Blackness remains an aspiration.

My invocation of Eleggua is not another paradigmatic inversion of the Christian kind whereby “the devil, having originated as a theological tool of the oppressed” becomes a “weapon of the oppresor.”6 Nor am I attempting an adjudication of the moral or ethical value of Yoruba spiritual practice, the juridical is far too Christian a posture for my taste. After reading TPOTW, I’m more convinced than ever that Christianity is indeed its devil’s best advocate. Instead, while Kotsko’s warning that we not see the devil in every trickster is well taken, I highlight the possibility of beckoning Esu to analyze the devil as one of the many generative possibilities the book allows. TPOTW’s genealogical practice unsettles the naturalized binary distinction of good and evil that produces the Devil as a Christian technology of domination, making Esu’s indexical bondage ever more a generative site of inquiry. These gestures strike an affinity with Sylvia Wynter’s move to “total rupture… with our present approaches to our present discipline” and “the episteme of which it is an expression” that we might inhabit a “diagnostic, rather than merely exegetical, analysis.”7 Kotsko’s Wynterian kinship continues,

“the problem of evil is not merely an intellectual problem. It is an existential problem, a problem that touches on the most profound questions of how we are to understand and respond to our experiences in the world.”8

Evil is too important a problem to be left to those whose minds are marked by grace, in fact one of Kotsko’s most fertile implications is the revelatory potential of bearing the devil’s brand. As long as this piece doesn’t meet with complete disaster, I hope to soon return to AUFS and speak at length to the generative possibilities Esu offers for Black Apocalyptic study in the shadows of the study of religion. For now, there is no greater praise that I can offer to TPOTW than to say it channels the spirit of Eshu as it stands among the very best resources I have found for illuminating the Christianity of Modernity and the impossibility of its objective secular distinctions.

Reading Kotsko alongside Black scholar of religion Charles Long illustrates the potential of TPOTW for marking the Christian exegetics ensouled in secular hermeneutics. In Significations: The Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, Long speaks to the hermeneutic “value” of “the primitive” to modernity as deriving not from its intrinsic worth, but in it’s figuration as a comparative opposite, what it produces as a “negative structure of concreteness that allows civilization (Christian) to define itself as… superior to this ill-defined and inferior other.”9 When a crisis emerges, as in TPOTW’s opening vingette wherein Police Officer Darren Wilson murdered an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, a specific “methodological procedure” is triggered.10 Wilson’s statement, “It looks like a demon,” carries more than simple descriptive weight, it effortlessly conscripts Brown into a powerful and unavowed Christian theo-political hermeneutic. The political technology of marking Blackness as demonic initiates the analysis of pathology in a form “where it appears nonpathological… and fully expressive.”[Long, 102.] Kotsko explains that this demonic frame institutes the interpretive conditions where “it is not simply that the victims committed a crime but that they are criminals.[Kotsko, 2.] Not the Black doers of evil acts, but Black Devils, or perhaps more to the point, Black. Drawing on the genealogy of the Christian West’s theo-political constitution through the figure of the devil that Kotsko so ably charts, we can see its embodiment in the transcendent theological emancipation of secular authority from the obligation of commensurability. Secular adjudication is eschatologically emancipated from the fetters of linear temporality as the punishment always fits the crime if the crime is that of being the devil. Embodied in theo-political fungibility, the Black criminal always arrives pre-adjudicated, in advance of itself, eschatologically delivered via the devil. This sacred racial discipline forecloses commensurability outside of Christianity’s demonic ethics all the while representing it’s judgements as the paragon of secular commensurability, for what is a damning judgement affirming the grace of the redeemed if not just. If there is as suggested by Kotsko, no legitimacy in the Christian assignment of evil to the devil, then any punishment that follows from the evil of transgressing of Christian order is just as illegitimate and yet paradoxically, the mark of a good Christian.

TPOTW helps us see the Devil as offering the absolution of Christian sin, for no sin committed in the divine pursuit of evil’s eradication is unforgivable. And so the burden of equivalence is transcended, politically, if not representationally. That this secular-racial hermeneutic can so successfully invoke and simultaneously foreclose the legibility of the theological in the incarnation of the pathological element (Blackness) is an indication of the importance of TPOTW’s intervention. What Kotsko’s devil finds in a location no less related for it’s difference is what Long conceptualizes as the role Christianity yoked Blackness to serve modernity, that of the materia prima (raw material) consumed to maintain hold on the “ontological dimension” through the incarnation of constitutively silent, oppositional figures. As TPOTW imaginatively illustrates, the thoroughly racialized Christian figure of the devil is a technology of consumptive foreclosure.  The clarity it provides to the operation of the theological in Christian Coloniality’s construction of the “non-theological” foundation of the Western Secular Modern is further testament of the disruptive potential of TPOTW. The unsettling paradigmatic’s Kostko develops in the course of his pursuit of Christianity’s devil locates it not only in the theological armature through which Christianity constitutes the political, but in the the sacred orienting practices of the secular’s political geography. The Devil’s conversion to Christianity is, in effect, it’s colonization, assimilated as a “tool of the oppressor,” denuded as it is “torn from its native political soil” in Hebrew Apocalyptics, “its political stakes” obscured and still alive in the mechanisms “that produced demons and their allies in the medieval paradigm” which now produce demonic Blackness through the inclusion of exclusion.11 The devil of Anti-Blackness can thus now be read as a secular katchekonic practice or orientation, demonic blackness an internal avatar of external Apocalyptic possibility whose domination performs the divine obligation of Christian, now secular, Apocalyptic attenuation.

The importance of TPOTW is in what it now makes possible for us to think. In what follows the possibilities are lovingly thought through one of the book’s own admittedly minor, antimonious limitations. I borrow a point Kotsko makes of Nietzsche, that “he does not go far enough.” In TPOTW’s conclusion, Kostsko ventures an Apocalyptic risk within the context of our demonic order and asks us to imagine the possibility of freeing “the devil of the burden of being the devil—in other words, what it would mean for the devil to be saved.”12 My reading of TPOTW is as a powerful deconstruction of Christianity’s salvific paradigm, the very one that generates the theo-political meaning of Christian grace through a devil that is constitutively incompatible with salvation. The undecidability of this moment is itself a generative possibility in the spirit of Derrida’s comments on the apocalyptics of grace. Here we can think a demonic grace of fugitivity, an indeterminate gesture we might find “absolves” us, “at times, from the infinite double bind” of the saved and damned.13 We find the double bind again doubled in Kotsko’s denuding of Christianity’s denuding of the Hebrew devil as “affording sight” of TPOTW’s “apocalyptic movement.” Remarking on the immanence of Christianity’s Apocalypse, Derrida notes, “The end is near, they seem to say, which does not exclude that the end has already taken place.” TPOTW details the importance of the devil to forestalling that “second death.” To save the devils Christianity makes its katechons, we might now think the possibility of soliciting that “second death” which our domination holds at bay. The gift of TPOTW is in demonstrating the devil’s place in Christianity’s performance of grace through the practice of subduing the very evil it creates. I can think of no more appropriate act of appreciation than to use Kotsko’s gift to imagine what the demonic might offer in courting the Apocalypse.


This piece draws from my forthcoming dissertation, Apocalyptic Blackness: A Critique of Political Theology in Four Chapters, a project I would have never undertaken had the winds of chance not blown Kotsko’s work across my path. AUFS has quite literally served as my school house in Political Theology, the people at work here have visited upon me the angels of confusion, demons of clarity, and everything in between. I’d like to thank Adam Kotsko and all of the good people who make AUFS a wild and creative space for the critical engagement of all things theo-political, and the occasional cartoon cat reference. The thought-practice embodied in this piece has benefitted greatly from the brilliance of Christine Goding, Che Gossett, Tapji Garba, James Padiolini, and Daniel Barber, among others.


  1. Césaire, Aimé, and William Shakespeare. 1992. A tempest: based on Shakespeare’s The tempest : adaptation for a Black theatre. New York N.Y: G. Borchardt, 47. ↩︎
  2. For more on Eshu and Yoruba cosmologies see, James Padilioni Jr’s Cosmological Queerness Across the Yoruba Diaspora,” ↩︎
  3. Kotsko, Adam. The Prince of This World. Stanford University Press, 2016. ↩︎
  4. Kotsko, 11. ↩︎
  5. Moten, Fred. In the break: The aesthetics of the black radical tradition. U of Minnesota Press, 2003, 1. ↩︎
  6. Kotsko, 4. ↩︎
  7. Wynter, Sylvia. “On disenchanting discourse:” minority“ literary criticism and beyond.” Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 207–244. Emphasis mine. ↩︎
  8. Kotsko, 6. ↩︎
  9. Long, Charles. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, 101. ↩︎
  10. Long, 102. ↩︎
  11. Kotsko, 42. ↩︎
  12. Kotsko, 206. ↩︎
  13. Derrida, Jacques. “Of an apocalyptic tone recently adopted in philosophy.” Oxford Literary Review 6, no. 2 (1984): 3–37. ↩︎

2 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Eleggua: The Prince of This World book event

  1. Thanks for this, Jared — it’s really gratifying to see that my work can be productive in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. You are right that my initial caution about identifying the devil as a trickster is based on a desire to avoid the kind of impressionistic parallelisms that dominated a certain form of old-fashioned “religious studies” discourse that remains a kind of cultural common sense for people who have taken a “world religions” course. The goal is to make room for the more concrete historically situated connections such as the one you make between Satan and Eleggua. (Also loved to see the quote from Césaire after teaching that text this year — that scene certainly stands out to my students for reasons you might be able to imagine!)

    As for the devil being saved, I have to admit that it is more an intuition than a firm claim, as I hope the hedging in the sentence itself would indicate. I don’t want to simply fold the devil into the traditional Christian scheme of redemption/salvation — in fact, I trust the gut reaction of so many theologians to the effect that saving the devil would miss the whole point of even having the devil in the first place. “Saving the devil” indicates an attempt to think what is unthinkable in the system, in the hopes of (doing something like) deconstructing it.

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