The Following is an introductory post to our book event on The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence by author Davis Hankins.
A word of thanks, first, to the organizer of this event, Michael Burns, to those who will give their important time to engage this book, and to all who will follow the event as it unfolds over the next few weeks. I am thrilled that such a group would gather to discuss a book that proposes (yet another) reading of the book of Job. I hoped that my book would do more than that, of course, and I gladly take this group’s interest in it as evidence that it does. It’s humbling that such intellectual collaboration and inter-disciplinary engagement would occur around my book.
In this initial post I intend to introduce the event with some background addressing (1) Why I wrote the book? (2) What I see as the primary intellectual stakes of the project? and (3) How I understand this project to relate to a (transcendental) materialist perspective?
- The book is a revised, truncated version of my doctoral dissertation, defended in February 2011. I first began to formulate the ideas articulated within it in the spring and summer of 2006. While writing my final paper for a spring semester graduate seminar on Lacan with Adrian Johnston, the extent to which a Lacanian orientation could reframe the defining issues in scholarship on ancient Israel’s wisdom tradition became increasingly clear.
Since then, I have expanded the cast of thinkers most important for my theoretical orientation, which initially and primarily included Lacan, the Slovenian marriage of Lacan with Kant and the German Idealists, and Adrian Johnston. While Johnston comes last in this intellectual genealogy, he has been most important to me for (1) clearly presenting the ideas and stakes of the former figures, (2) complementing their work with incredibly useful insights into the clinical importance of theoretical ideas for psychoanalytic practice, and (3) offering important critiques of their ideas from both philosophical/theoretical and political/clinical perspectives. I have continued to learn about and from these thinkers and others as well, even as I have extended my work beyond the wisdom tradition to other questions in biblical and religious studies. This book focuses on Job but also engages these broader influences and interests.
- I tried to write the book for two audiences. First, at its core the book offers a new reading of the Hebrew text of the book of Job. By consistently relating my interpretation to a full spectrum of contemporary biblical scholarship, I tried to make clear my sense of the extent to which my reading undermines ubiquitous conventions about the book of Job. Far from the liberal humanist referring to a personal experience of transcendence to critique stable doctrines about the divine, Job opposes any appeal to transcendence and insists instead upon God’s immanence to materiality and subjectivity as that which fractures them and ensures their contingency and freedom to enable transformation. My reading will not persuade everyone, but I hope that it raises new questions for Joban scholars to consider and exposes how standard readings of the book actually veil some of the most radical issues that it raises.
As I became increasingly familiar with deconstructions of the distinction between the “religious” and the “secular,” as well as with increasing philosophical interest in and engagement of religion and pre-modern forms of thought, I began to see how my philosophically informed analyses of ancient Israel’s wisdom literature might contribute to larger conversations in contemporary critical theory. Thus the other audience for which I wrote the book, the audience that is presumably involved in this event, includes non-specialists in Second Temple Jewish wisdom literature who are engaged in contemporary conversations about ideology, subjectivity, ethics, ontology, and materialism.
Of course, the book of Job is peppered with theological language, which would superficially at least seem at odds with ideas often associated with materialist thought. But in line with other recent works, such as Michael Burns’s Kierkegaard and the Matter of Philosophy: A Fractured Dialectic, and Ward Blanton’s A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, one can read religion and theological language in critical, materialist terms without either dismissing such language or compromising one’s materialism. In fact, in my judgment a truly rigorous materialism would be obliged to deny religion the exceptionalism it sometimes seeks. One need not subscribe to supernaturalist belief in a being beyond the rhetoric to ask what function references to God play in the structure of a particular text or philosophical perspective. One can even examine how such paper gods attain agential capacities in shaping the practices, social relations, and psychical symptoms of a particular community without having to posit the existence of some divine being beyond the vagaries of historical particularity. Thus, books by Kierkegaard, letters by Paul, and literature like Job should not be uncritically abandoned to a wasteland of philosophically useless idealisms. On the one hand, such abandonment would fail to take theological language seriously enough by ignoring how such language can effectively mobilize free human subjectivity and authorize collective political activity. On the other hand, such a facile dismissal takes theological language far too seriously, as if it is capable of realizing the onto(theo)logical foundation that new materialisms are otherwise eager to reject.
Some are rightly suspicious of those who would seek to advance their idealist religious and theological commitments by dressing them in the conceptual cloaks of contemporary materialisms. However, as many recognize, explicit atheisms can and often have been informed by a conceptual structure that is homologous to the worst kind of ideological religiosity. And even if such suspicions are justified by some (ab)uses of contemporary materialisms, I think that we cannot grant to religion or theology the idealism to which they at times (but not always) lay claim without thereby recreating the very framework that our materialism is supposedly rejecting. It seems to me that a materialist perspective must analyze theological language without reflexively assuming that it presents a popularization of idealist metaphysics, and attuned to how it participates in signifying systems that endow various political, economic, and other social relations with meanings. This doesn’t mean that all theological language is philosophically of equal value, and so one question that my book addresses is what makes the book of Job philosophically valuable.
- This book argues that Job is not simply illuminated by a reading from a transcendental materialist perspective; it actually wrestles with and so contributes to the fundamental concerns of transcendental materialism. In the roughly 2500-year-old book of Job, one finds the human self and material reality depicted in ways that resonate deeply with contemporary materialisms. Job offers a relentless critique of transcendence as represented by the wisdom tradition’s two-tiered conception of (human and divine) wisdom. Job resists framing the events it describes by referring to a god or principle such as Wisdom beyond those events. In line with several contemporary materialist projects, the material world and the human subjects within it are, to use Malabou’s term, plastic. Because material reality is non-All, inconsistent, and internally conflicted, it generates more-than-material entities and makes free human subjectivity possible. God in Job is primarily a name for the agency that appears in the capacity of materiality to produce, out of its limits, contradictions, and contingencies, transformations that did not seem possible. God is the force that undermines every attempt to finally determine an identity and keeps material reality destabilized and open to transformation. The book of Job falls far short of an exhaustive engagement with the concerns of contemporary materialisms, but it certainly stages a provocative conflict among voices intriguingly connected to emerging materialisms. Job’s presentations of subjectivity, freedom, ontology, theology, and ethics are certainly not naïve.
For this group, insofar as I make productive use of insights developed within contemporary transcendental materialism for presenting such an ancient, foreign text in a new, materialist light:
- I think that my book testifies to the flexibility if not generativity (perhaps I should say plasticity) of this emerging materialist orientation.
- I hope that my book will make it less likely that theological texts are excluded as necessarily non-materialist, and that it will open the canon of ancient literature and the contexts of social dispute that contemporary materialisms engage beyond Paul and Christianity (useful though they are).
- I suspect that more useful texts and contexts for exercising a materialist critique of religion might be discovered beyond the Platonism that infuses much early Christian rhetoric. (And in fact, materialist engagements with Paul tend to find, as Blanton puts it, a materialist Paul prior to “that saintly Paul who was retrofitted with the concrete shoes of a foundational ontotheology.”)
- I wonder whether a more materialist engagement with religion might open the theological language that suffuses many of the foundational texts of contemporary materialisms to renewed critical analysis.
With these preliminary remarks in place, I will wait with the patience of Job (that is, anxious anticipation) to hear what others have to say about the book. Again, to all the participants I extend my heartfelt thanks.