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”

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.

Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

Word on the street is that the PC police are at it again. Their new unreasonable expectation is that people should avoid “cultural appropriation,” which in the minds of anti-PC columnists means that literally no one should ever engage with any cultural artifact outside of their own culture. I mean, who could possibly think that, right?! What does that even mean?

Back here in the real world, no one does actually think that. No one wants hermetically sealed cultural bubbles, other than perhaps white supremacists. In reality, the key word is appropriation. The goal is not to prevent cross-cultural dialogue, but to insist upon it. The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.

So here are a couple examples. If Eminem claimed that he invented rapping, that would be cultural appropriation. If he collaborated regularly with black artists who accepted him as a member of their artistic community, that would be healthy cross-cultural dialogue. If he became increasingly detached from that black community as his career progressed and accepted being treated as the only rapper on earth, then he would be edging toward cultural appropriation even after a non-appropriating start. If I read a book about Buddhism and decided to start a Buddhist retreat without ever talking to a single living Buddhist practioner, that would be appropriation. If I read a book on Buddhism and decided I wanted to practice and hence started consulting with actual practicing Buddhists who have a living connection with the places and communities where Buddhism originated, then that’s healthy cross-cultural dialogue. Odds are, it would take a lot of work before I got to the point where I could start a Buddhist community of my own without it constituting appropriation, and I would need to make sure that the actual pre-existing Buddhist community I had joined approved before doing that. If I thought they were being overly narrow-minded, then I would have to take responsibility for the appearance of cultural appropriation and expect to receive criticism in that regard.

There are some borderline cases. For example, I taught a couple courses on Islamic thought with only minimal engagement with real-world Islamic communities. To some extent, I think that’s justified — my whole approach to religious thought is historical rather than sociological — but it was also partly laziness and a generally anti-social predisposition. At the same time, I didn’t claim that I discovered Islam or that I was the only or best source for authentic Islamic teaching. If someone rated my performance “problematic” in this regard, I couldn’t help but hear them out and promise to do better next time. That’s life. Other things I have done have been called out as problematic as well, and I survived. Sometimes I think people’s concerns are exaggerated, but most of the time I think they have a point. It’s my decision how to respond and whether to take their criticism seriously, but if I don’t change my behavior, I don’t have a right to never be criticized. Again, that’s life — there’s no way to be perfectly insulated from all criticism in advance.

No one is perfect — and by the same token, no one is required to jump straight to the most outraged defensiveness any time someone points out a mistake that they might not have thought of on their own. If the anti-PC columnists are so concerned to preserve the great tradition of cross-cultural dialogue, they might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation instead of (wait for it…) appropriating the concept of “cultural appropriation” for their own ends and defining it in whatever way they want. The best way to preserve cross-cultural dialogue is to engage in it, instead of unilaterally proclaiming your righteousness from on high.

Exhausted Politics: A Few Comments on the Video for Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F**K)”

Run the Jewels just released a video for one of my favorite songs on their recent album. The video is hard to watch, if only because there is something hard to watch in the fictional violence against a black man that is expressive of the images of real violence we have seen every month and that others have been seeing long before social media made this available to wider audiences. The video is open to lots of poor readings, including one I saw on Facebook by a certain popular, nihilistic appropriator of black culture. It’s not really important to name names here, but the reading he gave was that there is a certain reversibility in the image of the struggle between the white cop and the black man. It’s a poor reading in large part because it takes an abstract expression captured by film as if it were supposed to be a documentary or even as if these images were supposed to be didactic. But it’s also poor simply because the supposed reversibility is not present. The cop expresses his positionality as an instance of an institution with his uniform, with his gun, his mace, with his handcuffs, with this lights and sirens, and so on. These are progressively lost throughout the video, but it isn’t as if the black man gains them, or takes on the position. The only one who is able to issue a command, to make a declaration, thereby being the voice of an institution, is the cop (“Don’t you fucking run!”). Of course the only response to such a demand is to start running and to look for a weapon as you do. In so far as the black man expresses he does so through without the recourse to language, without the structure that would project him into transcendence, he has no ground but his own existence, his own expression in the flesh.

Generally I tend to avoid reading an artist’s statement on their own work. The work itself expresses and when I write on that work I like to think I’m building and riffing off the work, rather than providing the true reading of it. But I see the artist’s statement as their own act of riffing and building, without any particular access to the truth of the work either. So I’m largely setting aside AG Rojas’ remarks aside. But, he is very clear that these two figures are not meant to stand for the reality, that these are precisely archetypes in his words. Instead of looking at the video as an instance of reversibility, shouldn’t we see it rather as an instance of the struggle between the master and the slave? And perhaps this exhausted tussle is an advance upon the mixed determination present in Hegel of these figures. That they are an abstraction is the point. They are an abstraction in the form of thinking through the problematic of America, not just police violence against black people, but America as such as a country built upon violence against black people and that’s why the video is largely successful in my view. As the tussle plays out upon a background emptied of any people, of anything but the struggle, we are given a meditation on the relationship of blacks/whites as such. In that relationship the few glimpses of triumph or relative transcendence are scenes of the black man. Free from the relationship with the cop as such, but this only exists as a virtual possibility as they sit on the marriage bed, a loveless marriage to one another as the train that calls itself progress rings in the distance.

One of the first things that struck me as I was watching was a remark that James Cone made in an interview with Bill Boyers some years back.

JAMES CONE: […] Now, you don’t get away from that by not talking about it. That’s too deep. Germany is not going to get away from the Holocaust by not talking about it. It’s too deep. So, America must face up that we are one community. We– you know, if anybody in this society– if anybody is brother and sister to the other, it’s black people and white people because there is a– there is a tussle there that you cannot get out of. It is a– it is deeply engrained in our relationship to each other in a way that’s not with anybody else–

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean?

JAMES CONE: –in this land.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAMES CONE: Because 246 years of slavery, number one. We have built this country. White people know that. Then, after slavery, segregation and lynching, we still helped built this country. So, it’s a history of violence […]

This familial tussle (either between brothers or something more sinister) plays out as exhaustion in the video. The relationship is one of exhaustion precisely because politics is exhausted in this relationship. While one form of (white supremacist) politics is constituted by this relationship (a politics we are all exhausted of), even the higher politics is exhausted by this relationship. Even the cop, a willing pawn in the construction of the exhausting politics, is exhausted. Or, as Fred Moten puts it to white people regarding any possible coalition, “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

I can think of no better filmic expression of the feeling of exhaustion than this video, of being exhausted before the present political options, and so expressive of the need to think of something else. Or at least to find a way out of the exhausting relation of this kind of politics as such. Or at least that’s my reading.