‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Divinanimality 3: Eric Daryl Meyer, 'Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John'

Quite properly rebuked (very politely) by Eric Daryl Meyer for generalising about the Divinanimality volume [in the comments to this post], I read his essay: 'The Logos of God and the End of Humanity: Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John on Animality as Light and Life'. It does, as he notes, pose the question that seems to me so crucial in the 'divinanimality' discussion:
Should God's incarnation be understood as a celestial endorsement of the exceptional status of humanity over against all other creatures or as the deconstruction of humanity from within, a salvifically subversive maneuver undertaken for the sake of all God's beloved creatures? [148]
Meyer goes with option B. He starts by deftly sketching in the traditional readings of St John's Logos, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianus up (bit of a leap, but OK) to Agamben and Derrida. The thesis is intricate, but very roughly: there are two logoi, the divine and the human. 'Human life (ζωή) radiates as light from the Logos of God ... but John writes of a darkness that refuses the light. The world of humanity, the kosmos, is the site of this darkness; humanity fails to recognise the Logos as its very life' [146]. Some thinkers see these two logoi as congruent, either actually or potentially. Meyer wants to argue, via Agamben, that not only are they not so, but that the divine logos works (if we understand it properly) precisely to undermine the complacencies of the peignoir of our own beings-in-the-world. So: one of Agamben's more famous distinctions is between βίος ('political life', fully realised human life) and ζωή ('the bare life of eating, sleeping, breathing and procreation'). Meyer notes that this distinction is tricksier than you might think:
For Agamben, it is not the case that one finds ζωή out in the world in order to organize it and found a city. Agamben inverts the commonsense political myth of origins, arguing that the production of the category ζωή is the fundamental business of political life. So βίος is not so much an improvement on a ζωή that was already there, but an operation that is suspended over ζωή as a rhetorically necessary category. ... Political life (βίος) produces bare life (ζωή), then, in two ways: First, bare life functions as a mythical Ur-concept that marks political life as better than the brute life that preceded it, even if no concrete memory of such a life exists. Second, political life produces bare life by exclusion, by occasionally denuding somebody of the protection of the law and exposing him or her to whatever death or misfortune might befall him or her. [152]
Hence homo sacer. Meyer agrees with Derrida that Agamben can't really claim to have discovered this 'Foucauldian biopolitics' already fully formed in Aristotle (as he does). But what he wants to do, broadly, in this essay is constellate 'animal' and 'human' in ways analogous to this ζωή/βίος distinction. 'The Logos of God is no longer the Master Signifier', he insists. A slightly longer quotation:
It will be helpful to locate the divine Logos within each of the three aligned distinctions from Agamben's text. First, with regard to the distinction between bare life and political life, it is commonplace to recognize Jesus as the figure of the outcast, the scapegoat, the refugee, whose life cannot be assimilated to the order of his society. ... In this regard Jesus the Logos clearly stands on the side of ζωή rather than citizenship Second, with regard to the human-animal distinction, the Logos obviously bears human flesh, but his alignment with humanity rather than animality is less secure than it might first appear ... One might ask whether the Logos of God appears in the place of the animal [Meyer has been arguing eg as the lamb-to-the-slaughter] to endorse eating, slaughter and experimentation, or to loose the knots holding these cultural structures together? Third, where is the Logos situated with regard to the interior distinction between humanity proper and human animality? Does the incarnation of the Logos as a human being underwrite or undermine the workings of the anthropological machine? ... I suggest that the Logosas the very ζωή of human beingsis aligned with human animality against humanity's proprietary logos as it disavows animality through the anthropological machine. [158-9]
This is cogently thought-through, but I don't think I agree with it. Taking 'one' first: isn't it one-sided to read Christ as (in effect) the scapegoated solitary homo sacer? He was sacrificed, its true, and scapegoated; but considering his ministry as a whole, isn't it closer to the truth to see him at the centre of a community (the disciples and the larger group that formed around them) instead of outcast from community? Isn't one of the main thrusts of Christ in the gospels congregrationalist (I mean, in the neutral, not the sectarian, sense of that word)? His preaching gathers many people together, and its that gathering-together that is the real point. Two I think is on even shakier ground, as it happens. Thinking contextually, one of the most distinctive breaks Christianity makes with the religious practice that preceded it was not only to anthropomorphise the incarnation, but to exclude the divine animals that form so prominent a part of the pantheons of the Ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks and so on. Around this time everybody was worshipping divine animals. Rather than being some special sign of divine respect for the animal kingdom, one of the newnesses of Christianity was to mark out a radical new divine-conceptual territory: humans only. (The counter point here is that, in doing this, it was only following in the footsteps of Judaism: which is a fair point. But Jews were still sacrificing animals to their non-animal God; Christianity substituted a human being even for that sacred role.)

I'm being polemical, of course; but I do detect a subtle gravitational pull at work (in this essay, and the others from this volume that I've read) tugging the gospels in order to draw them closer towards 21st-century Green (and further away from 1st-century tribal) mores. Maybe that's fine. Maybe that's the best thing to do with the gospels. But it leaves me pulling my 'not sure I agree' face when I read things like this:
God is present as the incarnate ζωή-Logos of creation, but the human form of the Logos does not validate humanity's ideological projects, but presents God's most personal judgment upon them. In Barthian terms the Logos of God sounds out a thundering "Nein!" to humanity precisely by taking on human flesh. [159]
I dig the Barth line, of course; but I don't see why God is present as the incarnate ζωή-Logos of creation. Wouldn't it make more sense (as per Agamben) to think of God as the βίος-Logos of creation, suspended over the human ζωή as an ontologically necessary category? The pre-existent βίος needful such that the ζωή can come into its fullest being?


  1. Well, he was despisèd - I don't think you can get away from the Scourging, which put Jesus in precisely the position of the Agambenian homo sacer. That said, you're absolutely right - the entire ministry was a process of building a community, calling together an εκκλεσια (and one which would continue to act upon the world outside it). It's just that which makes the events before the Crucifixion so powerful. Jesus spoke of coming to us like a beggar or a thief in the night, but his actual social status - at least within his own community - was always much more assured, until the end.

  2. Forgot to add - I remember a critique of the Nine O'Clock Service group which said that their focus on 'the planet' was actually rather un-Christian, as it took the place of the church in the world. Instead of the individual experience of religion being put to work through collective engagement with the world (in some form), it became an ecstatically shared individual experience, validated through an imaginary engagement with the Earth. The church as ἐκκλησία (pardon earlier misspelling) - as social, called-together collectivity - is really central to Xtianity, I think.

  3. Phil: I think that's right, yes.

  4. Wow... Thank you so much for your generous engagement with my essay. I feel like I've been read well and summarized accurately---which doesn't happen all that often even in the academic world. So, mostly, I'm just thankful for your attention to my work.

    Regarding the link between Jesus and the homo sacer: I received considerable pushback from a few readers on that connection. That section was included in my dissertation and I'd have to go and check, but I'm pretty sure that I pulled it out. It's too easy a move (and too stereotypically Christian) to say, "Oh a figure of exclusion and oppression....that must be Jesus!" All that to say, I respect the reason behind your cringing at that connection and I've got some sympathetic cringe-instincts there too.

    But, while I'll concede the point that connecting the homo sacer to the historical Jesus is perhaps too easy, too quick, I do think that the structure of Agamben's argument here does provide some interesting ways to think theologically about the incarnation. Particularly, if the socio-political performance of "humanity"---humanity as a bios---is constituted by way of an exclusion of zoe, and in becoming-incarnate God aligns with the excluded life, then in the grand scope, humanity turns out to be a rootless exercise in ideology.

    Your last comment and question (which I greatly appreciate) reinforces the realization for me that the whole “reversal” that the essay enacts really does take place within an assumed and inherited Christian cosmology. Obviously, the essay significantly rearranges that universe so that God turns out to be against humanity rather than for it (or for human beings as creatures, but not as the interpellated subjects of ideology). Still, as I mentioned in the comment on the other post, the essay is walking into a room and moving all the furniture around, rather than building new furniture from scratch. In this case, the particular “furniture” of the Christian universe has enough symbolic cultural power that I’m persuaded that a rearrangement would do some good.

    But, the final question is a good one, especially if one wants to think one’s way toward a different space and different furniture. The whole discourse of Christian theology—and especially the way that the incarnation often functions as a kind of regulatory norm of human life and behavior [WWJD!]---certainly looks a lot like a political order, a way of life that presumes to arrange and determine the bare lives of the redeemed. I think that needs to be conceded outright. Still, my ultimate hope is for a form of ecological politics capable of recognizing and reflecting upon the ways in which our (human) lives intersect with the lives of creaturely others. If we stopped disavowing our animality, we might be confronted with the regimes of death, torture, and dispossession that we inflict on all the creatures around us. I think the “big point” of Agamben’s text too, is not a call for the revolt of zoe to throw off the encumbrance of bios and return to a non-political state of being (or something like that), but rather, an attempt to imagine a politics that is not predicated on the disavowed inclusive-exclusion of the supposedly non-political (that is, the whole zoe-bios pattern). On that level, if the presumed operation of the incarnation is to undercut humanity’s particular bios and return human beings to a political order where ecological relations are knit tightly into human subjectivity and sociality (rather than being the originary exclusion), then I don’t think it much matters whether we call this new life “zoe-logos” or “bios-logos”. It’s an unabashedly messianic pattern of thought, but it’s a messianism in which this distinction is finally robbed of its traction.

  5. Dear Eric: thank you for this fascinating comment. There's a lot there, and it's all very interesting. The 'political order' stuff is, I suppose, inevitable in the establishment of any community, for a congregation will need some norms and rules, and these calcify very quickly into hierarchy and oppression. I do take the force of your attempt to rethink 'God' as a means of levering out habits of life and thought out of the ideologies that interpellate us in our day-to-day. What I'm less sure on is where this connects specifically with *animal* rights. There remains for me something counter-intuitive in taking a religion whose coming into the world was precisely the supercession of the theological praxis of the divine animals (Zeus the divine ram, Apollo the mouse god and so on) as the path to the divine-ing of animals.