Reading the Jacob story as a prequel

As I have been working through Genesis in Hebrew, I have been engaging in a thought-experiment: what if we read this text as a prequel to the Exodus story? I know that it is not literally a prequel in the sense of a text that was conceived as a sequel filling in the backstory of Exodus — clearly many of the stories originate from earlier periods, and the canonical Book of Exodus itself “already” refers to the events of Genesis in some detail (e.g., the role of Joseph in Egyptian history). Notwithstanding the fact that the overall text has been “smoothed over” in that way, I still think it is productive to read the way that the stories have been assembled and presented as a way of rereading (possibly unrelated) cultural legends as anticipating Exodus.

Whatever the sources of these stories, they have been shaped in such a way as to connect them very directly to Exodus, and more importantly, to answer some questions a reader of Exodus might have — for instance, what claim could the people of Israel possibly have over this foreign land God has given them? Some of the stories are clearly meant to establish some kind of claim for Abraham’s family in the land of Canaan. They dig wells, they buy burial plots, etc. Very early in the Abraham story, we even have him coming into conflict with Pharaoh when he pulls his enigmatic “she’s my sister, not my wife” routine, which makes Egypt into a kind of immemorial enemy of the Israelites. Toward the end of the book, we also have the story of Joseph, which directly accounts for why the Israelites were even in Egypt and also establishes that Joseph was responsible for Pharoah’s great wealth and power — making the later Pharaoh’s betrayal all the more sickening. (At the same time, as prequels often do, the Joseph story arguably “breaks” the Exodus narrative by making him the engineer of the slave regime in the first place.)

In between, we have the story of Jacob. It seems to be a very unflattering portrayal of the figure who would be Israel’s namesake and the father of the twelve tribes. He is dishonest and conniving, betraying his own brother twice over. Most troublingly, he seems to “steal” God’s blessing. What possible question could this story be trying to answer or clarify about the later story? What is this story trying to “retcon” in the biblical narrative?

I believe one possible answer is that Jacob is the only biblical figure who wants it. Everyone else receives God’s call and either submits immediately (Noah, Abraham) or else tries to weasel out of it (Moses). The people of Israel as a whole are basically forced into the covenant at gunpoint — certainly we are not dealing with a real negotiation. But at a crucial moment in the biblical narrative, right at the point where the nation of Israel proper is about to be born, we finally get a character who fights for the blessing, who is willing to do anything to get it. Yes, he is immoral, but the biblical author has already established with the Sacrifice of Isaac that being willing to violate morality in the service of the LORD is no vice. By contrast, his brother is willing to trade that birthright for a hot meal, and his father — already established as a passive victim of his father’s faithfulness — does not seem to care one way or another what happens to the blessing that was imposed upon him.

In Jacob, we have a unique figure who is not blindly obedient and does not take the covenant for granted. His story opens up a space of human agency in a story that otherwise seems fully predestined. His story tells us, unambiguously, that yes, Israel does want, even demand the blessing of the LORD. In this way, the Jacob story pulls off the greatest achievement available in the prequel format: giving us a very unexpected plot development that nonetheless snaps everything into place.

The Liturgy of the School Shooting

We talk a lot about the routinization of the reaction to school shootings — the “thoughts and prayers,” the denunciation of thoughts and prayers, the obligatory Onion article — but for schoolchildren themselves, it’s more than just a routine. It’s a liturgy, with set postures and responses that they take class time to practice. It is more aleatoric than most liturgies, in that you never know when or where the next nihilistic mass murderer will strike, but that’s all the more reason to make sure that the stand/sit/kneel of this particular rite of passage is deeply ingrained.

It is in this context, I think, that we need to understand the ending of the Netflix show The OA. When it first aired, I recall seeing a lot of negative reactions to their choice to stage a school shooting in the final episode — and watching it myself, I did initially find it to be a non sequitur. The rest of the plot centered on a group of people who are kidnapped by a mad scientist for their apparent knack at coming back to life after being clinically dead. Over time, he kills them again and again, and they slowly become aware of a series of movements with seemingly magical powers. These movements are arbitrary and even absurd, but they practice until they get them exactly right.

It is unclear whether the narrator (the titular OA, or Original Angel) is to be completely trusted, so the audience doubts some of the miracles attributed to the movements in her story. Within the framing narrative, the present-tense of the show, the only apparent miracle is that the OA was formerly blind and can now see. So when she and the new cohort of companions stand up and start performing the movements that the OA has trained them in, it’s not clear what’s going to happen. In practice, it winds up distracting the shooter to the point where he can be disarmed, though not before the OA herself has been shot.

The show does not presume, I think, to offer a solution to school shootings — certainly it does not indulge in the fantasy that such a problem can be solved without cost. But it does suggest that a counter-liturgy, born out of deep trauma, may be able to disrupt the liturgy of the school shooting in which we all find ourselves.

Stalinist Tactics in the 21st Century

Someone has started a petition on demanding — yes, demanding — that Verso (or, failing that, Monthly Review Press) publish a translation of Domenico Losurdo’s Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. They specify that it should be affordably priced and that it not have a preface by Slavoj Žižek.

This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. The spectacle of a bunch of Stalinists writing a very strongly worded petition is the performative contradiction of the century. I suppose they do need more information about Stalin, because I’m pretty sure his approach to this dilemma would be to learn Italian and translate it himself, at breakneck speed, through sheer force of will, regardless of the cost.

Political Theology: A Reading List

Some Facebook friends have asked me about my personal “canon” of political theology, and I decided it would make a good idea for a blog post. This list, like any attempt at a canon, does not simply reflect the state of a field but aims to change it. It is about what political theology is and also about what it could and should be. While some of my choices are presumably obvious, others reflect my conviction that political theology must grapple with questions of economics, race, gender, and sexuality, that our contemporary neoliberal order is an order of political theology, that political theology is a genealogical discipline, and that the root of political theology is not the homology between politics and theology but the problem that motivates both — in political terms, the problem of legitimacy, and in theological terms, the problem of evil. In other words, this could be taken as a reading list to understand the style of political theology I practice in The Prince of This World and Neoliberalism’s Demons. But more broadly, it is an attempt to group together a body of works that can be productively read with and against each other. [UPDATE: I have added two works to the list as several people have pointed out that I underemphasized the specifically Jewish contribution to the field.]

Here’s the list, in something like chronological order:

  1. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza coins the term political theology in reverse, with a foundational work of modern political theory that is at the same time the foundational document of modern biblical scholarship.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: So many of the key questions of political theology — the complex intertwining of morality, religion, economics, and power, as well as racial and ethnic differentiation — are front and center in this text, which also provides the basis for the genealogical method.
  3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The conventional blinders of political theology, which defines the political as excluding the economic, is the only thing that keeps this text from being an obvious classic for the field. Everything we expect from a political theological study is present in this text, and the exclusion is even more egregious when we recognize how deeply Weberian Schmitt is (precisely because he is also deeply anti-Weberian).
  4. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: I’d be laughed out of the room if I didn’t include this one, and rightly so. I have been living for years in the tension between the promise of Schmitt’s research project here and the blinkers that lead it into a destructive blind alley.
  5. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism: psychoanalysis has always played a role in political theology, and this is Freud’s most theological text. I would accept Totem and Taboo as well, but I lean toward Moses and Monotheism in recognition that most classics of political theology tend to be total unwieldy messes on the textual level.
  6. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: Another “gimme.” In dialogue with the other texts in this list, however, we can see in Kantorowicz a version of political theology that takes the interweaving of the political and economic for granted — this study is just as much about fiscal policy and corporate charters as it is about the vaunted parallel between Christ and the king.
  7. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: This book provides the groundwork for the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic — which in Neoliberalism’s Demons I call “Arendt’s axiom” — that will decisively shape subsequent studies in political theology. It takes Schmitt’s incohate bias against the economic realm and equips it with real theoretical rigor and a full-dress genealogy. I view the influence as unfortunate, but we need to confront it head-on to get past it.
  8. Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology: Taubes’s account of the dynamics of eschatological thought and the way that different political-theological paradigms tend to grow out of the deadlocks in their predecessor helps to connect the genealogical and synchronic elements of political theology.
  9. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: This is really a stand-in for the entire lecture series, but this particular volume does a lot of heavy lifting with the influence of pastoral management techniques on modernity. So far, Foucault is presumably the author who would be most puzzled by my designation of him as a political theologian, but I don’t think we can understand the field as it is today, nor do the kind of genealogical work that needs to be done, without drawing on and extending Foucault’s analyses.
  10. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: a masterwork of genealogy that ties together the rise of capitalism with the rise of race thinking, the disciplining of gender and sexual expression, and the ever-evolving place of theological and metaphysical thinking.
  11. Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism: A conceptually elegant account of the political ambivalence of monotheism, recognizing it as an ultimately unsustainable revolutionary demand.
  12. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: here again, this is more a stand-in for his entire body of work, which has pushed political theology forward in so many ways. The Kingdom and the Glory has been most influential for my thought as well as for the field as a whole, forcing the question of the economic — albeit in a way that I find to be incoherent, due to his near-fanatical loyalty to Arendt’s axiom. (And of course, it meets the “unwieldy mess” standard.)
  13. Alexander Weheliye, Habaeus Viscus: A profound critique of Foucault and Agamben that homes in on their blindness to the question of race. His account of the unruly flesh provides one way of getting at the “unfixability” of the problem of legitimacy and the problem of evil that stand at the root of my account of political theology.
  14. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: While she would surely not relish the comparison, Brown’s study of neoliberalism is deeply Schmittian in structure and approach and gets at the question of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of our present order. Brown is guided by an unwavering faith in Arendt’s axiom that ultimately undermines her project in my view, but her way of posing the question of neoliberalism was what opened me to the possibility of thinking of it in political theological terms.
  15. Jared Hickman, Black Prometheus: This study of the enduring influence of the figure of Prometheus in modern race thinking is also (in Peter Coviello’s estimation as well as mine) the definitive political-theological account of race in the modern world. His theory of competing racialized political theological paradigms within the global space of immanence opened up by 1492 cuts through any number of the false binaries that prevent us from truly grasping the deep dynamics of modernity.

Of course, it would be arrogant to put my own books on there, though presumably if you were puzzled as to why these texts all belong together, taking a look at my work might help. And if anyone wants to hire me to teach a grad class with this reading list, you know how to reach me….

What did Noah begin?

In Genesis 9 (facing Hebrew, NRSV), after God promises never to send another Flood to destroy all living things, our attention turns to Noah and his three sons, from whom “the whole earth was peopled” (9:19). After being reminded of their three names — “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — which are repeated again and again, in that order, and being told of Ham’s son Caanan (surely, an unfortunate name from a biblical standpoint; 9:18), the text informs us that “Noah began” (וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ). As a man of the soil (אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, ish adamah, the latter term from the same cluster of Hebrew words that includes “Adam” and dam, blood), he planted a vineyard (9:20). The NRSV interprets this to mean that Noah is the first to plant a vineyard, and if that is the case, then perhaps we can excuse Noah’s drunken behavior as that of a person unacquainted with the ways of wine.

Let’s assume, though, that at some point in the 2000 years of human history, it occurred to one of the extremely long-lived (and presumably very bored) primal humans to cultivate wine. We do know, after all, that other trappings of civilization are known, including even such advanced arts as metalworking (4:22). If winemaking was a known skill, one with which Noah was well acquainted from the 600 years of his life prior to the Flood, then perhaps we can read “Noah began” more broadly: Noah began to rebuild the human world, and his first step was to make some wine. It is a promising beginning, perhaps betokening a celebration of their survival, or a ratification of their unique bond after inhabiting the ark for over six months.

But Noah takes this token of fellowship and hoards it all for himself. He drinks, and becomes drunk, and reaches such a point that he exposes himself in his tent. The unlucky Ham sees it, then tells his brothers about the unfortunate scene, leading them to cover up their father while studiously avoiding laying eyes on his nakedness. When Noah awakes, he curses the Canaan, the son of Ham, to be “a slave of slaves” (עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים), or as the NRSV puts it, “the lowest of slaves.” This passage, which was clearly intended to legitimate Israel’s conquest of Canaan, would go on to have an improbable afterlife as a prooftext for the African slave trade, as Ham later came to be seen as the father of the nations of Africa.

Even if the latter reading is a clear ideological forcing, the passage deals inescapably with a hierarchy among nations and peoples. This is what Noah is “beginning.” The first step is for Noah, as the father, to claim the beverage of fellowship all for himself. And when that assertion of authority has the unexpected side effect of humiliating him by exposing his nakedness, he creates a pecking order among his own sons. This fact is somewhat obscured by translations, which typically render Noah’s description of Ham (בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן) as “his youngest son” (9:24). Yet prior to this, we had no reason to suspect that Ham was the youngest. The trio is always listed in an order that places Ham second, and he is the only one who is credited with having a son of his own — so if anything, we might guess that he is the oldest prior to Noah’s declaration.

More than that, in the many biblical genealogies that precede this passage, the norm has been for only the first son to be named, after which the text makes an indifferent gesture toward other sons and daughters. Among the patriarchs, only Adam and a descendent of Cain named Lamech have multiple named sons. In Adam’s case, the birth order is clearly specified. Lamech’s first two sons, Jabal and Jubal, are born to the same wife and could reasonably be assumed to be twins. Could Noah’s sons be triplets? Even leaving aside that speculation, they have been treated as equals up to this point, most often simply grouped together as unnamed “sons.”

Hence I suggest that Noah is not designating Ham as his youngest son, but — following other possible meanings for the adjectives qatan — as his smallest, most insigificant, most worthless son. I might even dare to translate it as “his shitheel son.” Noah’s assertion of paternal authority had backfired and lowered him in his sons’ eyes, and so he deflects that shame and thinks of the son in whose eyes he was most vividly diminished as himself small and worthless. What’s more, the very thing that seems to point toward equality with Noah — Ham’s status as father — is then twisted into a curse, as this son is no longer an heir but a hyperbolic “slave of slaves.”

What Noah “begins,” then, is the whole order of hierarchy and domination that had been wiped out by the Flood. Nothing in God’s behavior had pointed in this direction. Though there is a privilege granted to humanity over against the animals, in that humans can kill animals for food but not vice verse, there is no indication of any intra-human hierarchy in God’s covenant — all equally enjoy the benefits of a new food source and the assurance that no future Flood will wipe them out. The biblical author portrays hierarchy and domination as a human choice. And I think there is wisdom to be found in the biblical author’s decision to ground that curse, not in Noah’s lust for power and domination, but in his shame.

A teachable moment on “fake news”

This new tell-all book about the Trump administration (excerpted in New York Magazine) is a teachable moment for “fake news.” The author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for exaggeration and even falsification, including conversations that are recounted in such vivid detail that they basically have to be invented on some level. Some significant portion of this book is likely to be bullshit, and even just from reading it, I think any critical thinker is going to suspect that some of it is just too good to be true.

Nonetheless, people who hate Trump are passing around the juiciest stories already, and the full book is likely to be a goldmine for months to come. The reason is that they hate Trump, and these stories are satisfying because they present Trump in an extremely humiliating light. The implication is that they believe the stories are true, though if pressed they would probably say that they don’t care if the particular details are true because the overall message is. And that’s fine. I hate Trump, too. I read and found satisfaction in the excerpt. I might well pass along select tidbits in casual conversation.

I’m not here to judge anyone, just to suggest that the other side is reading their exaggerated “fake news” stories in much the same way. I’m sure we can all imagine our conservative uncle spouting some improbable story about Hillary, then backing down if pressed but nonetheless maintaining that the overall message that Hillary is corrupt or untrustworthy is true. They don’t care if it’s true — they just find the stories somehow enjoyable because they provide further fodder to hate people they already hate.

I’m something of a broken record on this topic. Why do I think it’s important? First, I think we need to realize that political antagonism takes this form more or less universally. You decide who your enemy is first, and then you seek narratives that help support that decision. Regarding your enemy as an honorable worthy opponent is the exception rather than the rule. Such declarations are likely to be tactical moves meant to convince rivals of one’s own reasonableness, as shown by the fact that the “reasonable Republicans,” for example, are either dead, out of power, or marginal within their party.

The phenomenon of demonization is much more serious on the right than the left, of course. The conspiracy theories about Hillary are much more unhinged than anything we see about Trump. But I keep wanting to point it out on the left because the liberal’s default view is that I have rationality and discernment, whereas the primitive other takes everything literally. It goes back to the faith vs. reason distinction — those who embrace faith commit themselves, in the liberal view, to slavishly obeying authority in a machine-like way. Hence they swallow whatever “fake news” Facebook feeds them, while we are able to maintain ironic distance. In reality, though, basically every educated person is capable of taking up ironic distance toward authoritative claims, and no one — no one! — follows any type of authority, even scriptural authority, in a mechanically literal way.

Am I advocating for some kind of sympathetic recognition that our enemies are human, too, sharing our own foibles, etc., etc.? Far from it: the fact that our enemies are human is what makes them enemies. What I’m interested in is winning, and we can never win if we have such an impoverished view of the people we are struggling against. The view that our enemies will just believe whatever is put in front of them, for instance, leads down blind alleys such as the attempt to restore “truth” to reporting — as though the media wasn’t always a site of political struggle. They are not slavish followers of authority, nor are we purely logical beings. We won’t win by convincing them that Hillary wasn’t really running a child molestation ring out of a pizza parlor.

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves.

And honestly, if a demonizing narrative about Trump helps drive the voter turnout needed to make that happen, I’m all for it. Let a thousand tell-all books bloom! We just need to be honest about the fact that we’re involved in a genuine political struggle, not a made-up conflict between reason and irrationality.

Blog Year in Review

It’s been a slow year, which stems mainly from the fact that I have radically scaled back my blogging. In part it’s because I have been busier with other things, but in part it’s also because (seemingly with the sole exception of book events) it’s almost impossible to get an online discussion going anywhere but Twitter and Facebook. Our top post of the year came in late January, with my mockery of the infamous “ticking timebomb” scenario. Out of the top five, two were perennial favorites written long ago — Why Game of Thrones Sucks and an explanation of the Bible verse that says “he who will not work shall not eat” — while the remaining two were also on political themes — The Apocalypse is Happening Once a Week or So (on mass shootings) and On the Punch (about punching Nazis). My proudest post of the year, though, was probably Political Polarization in the Family.

Aside from me, Marika made the most contributions, mostly discussing pedagogy and course planning, along with a great list of academic writing tips and a reflection on her experience of boxing. Anthony made a triumphant return to blogging with a review of books on OOO and ecological theory. Jared Rodríguez contributed several posts, including one on racial profiling.

We only did one book event this year, on The Prince of This World, coordinated by Stephen Keating and featuring posts by Bruce Rosenstock, Linn Tonstad, Jared Rodríguez, Amaryah Armstrong, Marika Rose, and Dotan Leshem. I am grateful to Stephen and to all the participants for their engagement with my work.

Overall, I think that we are still doing the kind of work we have always done — just a little slower. Thank you to everyone for writing and reading. I can’t promise more content in the coming year, but I for one am committed to preserving what we have created in this space.