The Political Theology of Swamp Thing

Over Christmas break, I read one of the great literary classics of our time: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Better known for Watchmen, Moore is one of the true comic book auteurs, and I was fascinated that he got his start writing for what has to be one of the most ill-conceived characters in comic history. His origin goes like this: scientist Alec Holland and his wife Linda are working on an advanced bio-restorative formula in a remote lab in the Louisiana bayou. Someone plants a bomb in the lab in order to sabotage the project. Holland notices the dynamite strapped under the table just a second too late and is caught in the explosion. Aflame, he runs into the swamp, where the bio-restorative formula from his lab turns him into a plant-based swamp monster.

From this unpromising, borderline nonsensical starting point, Moore crafted stories of remarkable creativity and emotional depth — they are honestly some of the best comics I have ever read, maybe even better than Watchmen itself. In fact, reading back over my post, I realize I’ve allowed my enthusiasm perhaps too free a rein, resulting in more plot exposition that is strictly necessary. Readers less invested in the details of decades-old comics are therefore encouraged to scroll down to the heading “The Political Theology Part.”

After getting through his entire run, I decided to go back and read the earlier Swamp Thing comics, just to see the straw that Moore had woven into gold. Continue reading “The Political Theology of Swamp Thing”

Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe: An Easter Meditation

One of the few things the three great monotheisms agree on is the resurrection of the dead. All of these great Abrahamic faiths envision a day when every human being who has ever lived is re-created in order to be judged, then rewarded or punished. The afterlife is not a matter of a disembodied soul or ghost or “becoming an angel.” The joys of heaven are bodily joys, and the pains of hell are bodily pains. And the true afterlife is not the fate of the individual after death, but the fate of all human beings after the end of all earthly life as we know it. A new heaven and a new earth, bodily and material, to replace what will have become the hollowed out husk of the old — death and resurrection on the grandest possible scale.

In Christianity, the death and resurrection of Christ is supposed to be the inauguration of this apocalyptic process. Paul teaches that Christ is the firstfruits from among the dead, and it is clear in 1 Thessalonians that he expects the general resurrection to follow within his own lifetime. In Matthew, the death of Christ sparks a resurrection of some unspecified saints, as if by anticipation of the general resurrection. And no matter how much the teaching of the resurrection has been overshadowed by the fate of the individual soul in Christian piety, the expectation of the general resurrection remains very much on the books — most notably in the final line of the Nicene Creed: “And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”

The celebration of Christ’s resurrection is also the anticipation of our resurrection — and here, by consensus of all monotheist faiths, we can say “we” and “our” in the broadest possible sense. As James Joyce (and after him, Thomas Altizer) would say: “here comes everybody.”

Continue reading “Even the Dead Will Not Be Safe: An Easter Meditation”

The Feast of the Death of God

Christ died and then rose on “the third day” — counting the day of death itself as day 1, and the day of resurrection as day 3. Since he dies in the afternoon on Friday and rises before the women come to tend to his body very early in the morning on Sunday, Christ is only dead for maybe a day and a half, but he definitely lies dead in the tomb for one full twenty-four-hour day: Holy Saturday, today.

Liturgically speaking, God is dead today. That is not a heretical provocation, but a fully orthodox proclamation. Before Nietzsche declared that God is dead, Luther did so. According to orthodox Christology, the human and the divine are fully united in Christ, though without confusion. Christ does human things and Christ does divine things, but Christ does them all. So it is equally orthodox to say that Jesus of Nazareth created the heavens and the earth as it is to say that God had a poopy diaper. That’s the mystery of the incarnation — everything Christ does and suffers, God does and suffers. On Good Friday, God dies. On Holy Saturday, he lies dead in the tomb for a full twenty-four-hour day so that there can be no confusion about the fact that he is really dead. He didn’t survive the crucifixion and stumble out of the tomb. He died. He really died.

It’s puzzling, in a way, that Christianity does not have a carnivalesque festival on this one day when God is dead. That moment is instead displaced to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before the Lenten period of reflection and asceticism that leads up to Easter. Of course, the Christian God is not supposed to be one you want to get away from. Unlike the mean “Old Testament God,” we continually hear, the Christian God is loving and forgiving. He’s not a stickler for rules. He just wants us to be our best selves. In fact, he loves us so much that he gave his Son for our salvation! Amazing. But who is he saving us from?

Continue reading “The Feast of the Death of God”

The Cross: That’s How They Get You

Long-time readers may know that part of my path out of evangelicalism involved a Catholic phase. I went so far as to convert and was very devout for several years, then slowly let go of it after starting at Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s not part of my life or identity anymore, except for one thing — I use the prayers of the rosary as a kind of calming mantra, for instance when I’m having trouble sleeping. I sometimes even keep count of five “decades” for a full rosary, though I don’t meditate on the “mysteries” (which have somehow inexplicably changed in the meantime? They can do that?). One night recently I was having a lot more trouble sleeping and was trying to remember what the specific “mysteries” were. I calculated that it was probably a “Sorrowful” day and then remembered the sequence: the agony in the garden, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion itself (i.e., nailing him up), and his death on the cross. And something within me said: No. This is not what I am going to direct my attention toward. This is disturbing and wrong.

To me, that felt like a watershed moment, showing how alienated I had become from Christian piety and its deep presuppositions. I was rejecting, at a gut level, the most theologically and emotionally charged moment in the Christian story — a moment that serves as the affective “hook.” The old me, even the early post-Christian me, would have heard a response like I was now giving and seen it as evidence that I just didn’t get it. The cross is precisely the most liberating and radical and anti-imperial thing about Christianity! It’s the thing that’s just too real to handle. In fact, the real problem with Christianity is that people don’t take the cross seriously enough.

Continue reading “The Cross: That’s How They Get You”

Excerpts from an interview with Agamben on Buddhism

[Translator’s note: A few months ago, I was approached by Steven DeCaroli and Adam Lobel to translate an interview that they were in the process of conducting with Agamben on Buddhism. I accepted, mostly out of a desire to see what he had to say! In this fascinating exchange — which is still ongoing — Agamben addresses every stage of his work and reveals that Buddhist texts have formed part of his reading and thinking for a long time. The complete interview will be published in an edited collection on Agamben and Buddhism, which is still in its early phases. As the author of the first published scholarly article on the topic, DeCaroli is especially well-suited to helm this project. They are still looking for potential contributors, so please drop them a line if you have relevant expertise and interest: steven dot decaroli at goucher dot edu and/or adam dot releasement at gmail dot com. In this excerpt, the co-editors’ questions are in bold and Agamben’s responses are in normal type.]

Prior to Karman, there are only three references to Buddhism in your work—twice in The Coming Community and also in a short chapter at the end of Idea of Prose. In The Coming Community you reference “Indian logicians” and in The Idea of Prose you specifically mention Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. Though these are relatively early references, for many years it has seemed to us that a familiarity with Buddhism has been a subtle influence on your work more broadly. Is this assumption correct? And given the recent publication of Karman, what has made you turn to Buddhism more directly and in a more sustained and expansive way?

My readings of Buddhist texts—and more generally of Indian thought, in particular the Vedas and Upanishads—go back a long time, certainly long before 1985, when I published Idea of Prose. In the 70s, in Paris, I read the Vedas in Louis Renou’s translation and also occasionally attended Rolf Stein’s lectures at the Collège de France on Tibetan Buddhism. If citations are lacking in my books, it is because I have always followed the principle according to which one can work seriously only on texts whose language one has mastered. In any case, for me the early reading of the Nagarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle Path (Madhyamaka kārikā), which came out in Italian in 1968 in Raniero Gnoli’s translation, was decisive.

The proximity—and at the same time the distance—between this text and the tradition of Western philosophy struck me in an extraordinary way, as is evident in “Idea of Awakening” at the end of Idea of Prose. In particular, the idea of the error of imperfect nihilism, which consists in capturing and holding the doctrine of emptiness in representation, has much to do with my conception of philosophy. Philosophy is not a doctrine that could be expressed in the form of a series of correct opinions on the state of the world; as I write in that text: “awareness of the emptiness is not, in its turn, a representation; it is, simply, the end of representation” (pg. 132 of the English translation). In any case, Nagarjuna’s book is a masterpiece that I never stop rereading.

Continue reading “Excerpts from an interview with Agamben on Buddhism”

Guest Post: Eric Santner on Agamben’s Pandemic Writings

[As part of the research for my Slate article on Agamben’s covid writings, I interviewed several colleagues, including Eric Santner, whose ground-breaking interdisciplinary work is surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Rather than limiting himself to short answers to my questions, he found himself composing a longer essay on the roots of the paranoid pandemic turn in his earlier writings. With Eric’s permission, I am posting his full response here.]

Reflections on Hobbes form a central part of the analysis of sovereignty delineated by Agamben in the inaugural volume of his Homo Sacer project. When Agamben returned to Hobbes in a series of lectures given at Princeton very shortly after 9/11 it was in the context of a more general discussion of the concept of stasis, of “civil war as a political paradigm.”[1] There Agamben tries to refine his earlier analysis of the notion of the state of nature as synonymous with the city as if dissolved (ut tanquam dissoluta consideretur). Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, the claim is that civil war represents (for Hobbes) something like the realization of this “as if,” that is, the emergence of a real state of exception or emergency in which a now really disunited multitude (rather than merely “as if dissolved”) attempts to reconstitute itself as a people by positing a new sovereign authority that will mediate its unity, represent itself to itself as one. Or alternatively, the (only virtually real) dissolved multitude represents a remainder/reminder of a (really) disunited multitude, one now held in reserve by the sovereign (the one who decides on the state of exception). In the state of exception, the sovereign power suspends the rule of law in the name of the protection and security of the people in the face of some threat or emergency. In the time of the exception the people in some sense return to a kind of pre-political status, to a “state of nature” now directly under state power and authority without the normal cover or mediation of law.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Eric Santner on Agamben’s Pandemic Writings”

The Assassination Gap

[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]

We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.

One symptom of that deeper conflict was the prevalence of assassination as a political tool. Continue reading “The Assassination Gap”

The Political Theology of Watchmen

The publication of The 1619 Project in an expanded book form may be the appropriate time to revisit another attempt to rewrite a popular story to center racial oppression. I am speaking, of course, of HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, a sequel and adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name. By happenstance, I have been rereading the comic this week, as a colleague who had borrowed my copy prior to the pandemic finally returned it. Returning to the original text with the HBO series in mind reaffirms to me that Lindelof and his team of writers have achieved an absolute masterpiece of adaptation and reappropriation. The HBO series shows that our contmporary culture of endless remakes, prequels, and sequels does not have to be creatively barren — that the act of taking up a beloved source can actually inspire greater artistic feats and add a layer of enjoyment unavailable from a more original story.

(Since it has been two years, perhaps we are past the statute of limitations for spoilers, but I will do everyone the courtesy of putting plot details “below the fold.”) Continue reading “The Political Theology of Watchmen

The Hezekiah Option

My Esteemed Partner and I both grew up in the Midwest and have lived here our entire lives. As we were enjoying our morning coffee amid the din of harsh winds and sirens, I turned to her to confirm an intuition: “Tornadoes are supposed to happen in the summer, right? Not in the opposite of summer, which it is right now?” She agreed with me, and yet here we are, waking up to find that tornadoes have ripped through multiple Midwestern states, killing dozens — in December.

Continue reading “The Hezekiah Option”

Choose life

It’s a small mercy that I at least never attended an anti-abortion protest. That was a little too tacky, too “political” for my upwardly mobile family at our upwardly mobile church. God sent his Son to die on the cross so we could clean up and move to the suburbs, and his perfect will for our life obviously didn’t include yelling and screaming and getting arrested. Nonetheless, the pro-life movement is driven by “my people,” the evangelicals, who are now on the cusp of victory in a generation-long battle that has deployed all available tactics, from the long march through the institutions to harassment, terrorism, and assassination. They wanted it bad, and now they’re getting it. We’re all getting it.

Recently I was talking to a friend from a similar background to mine. Though he was a little younger, we both shared the experience of living through the Bush years in a conservative Christian college milieu, and both of us found it profoundly disillusioning. He put it well when he said that both the Christian college community and the Bush administration represented a world in with “our people” had won, and both were unlivable. I can’t help but notice that the same pattern held when the evangelicals won by catapulting a man who exuded the sleazy menace of a televangelist — preaching the prosperity gospel without the tedious “gospel” part — into the White House against our will. And it will continue to hold when Roe is overturned, as the result will be a moral, social, and political disaster that will make Prohibition look like a well-considered public policy intervention.

Continue reading “Choose life”