Response to Part I of ‘The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence’ by Marika Rose (Update: Response from Hankins)

Below is the first response to Davis Hankins’ The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence‘, dealing with Part I of the book (‘God, Wisdom, Sage: Immanent Emergences of Transcendence’) by Marika Rose.

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‘Part 1. God, Wisdom, Sage: Immanent Emergences of Transcendence’ begins to bring the project of transcendental materialism to bear on the first section of the book of Job. It is imaginative, illuminating, and compelling. I’ll never read Job in the same way again, and I don’t think I’d want to.

Hankins’ argument opens by drawing distinctions between three different types of wisdom which can be found in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘wisdom’ is the imperfect, incomplete human wisdom, which yearns towards the perfect and transcendent divine ‘Wisdom’. This divine ‘Wisdom’ may be glimpsed, partially, in the particular wisdom of the sages, not through some partial truth which can offer us a shadowy image of the true Form of Wisdom itself but precisely in the cracks and gaps, the wisdom which ruptures wisdom from within. wisdom is the gap between thesis and antithesis, between Proverbs 26:4a, ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly’ and Proverbs 26:5a, ‘Answer a fool according to his folly.’ The choice we have when we read Job, Hankins argues, is the choice between the traditional reading of Hegel, in which the constant churn of thesis, antithesis and synthesis lead us on infinitely in the direction of the Absolute/Wisdom; and the Žižekian reading of Hegel, in which the key is to realise that the Absolute is not what we arrive at when we finally resolve the contradiction into identity but the recognition that identity is contradiction. Job is not, Hankins argues, a book about the desire for God which leads us on endlessly towards an impossible and ever-receding goal but about the rejection of this desire for wholeness in the name of the death drive, that the transcendence which escapes us is not the missing piece which will fill up the gap at the heart of being but the excess which emerges out of that generative gap. God is not that which holds all things together but the crack which divides all beings from themselves. Whilst this approach is an attempt to ‘short-circuit’ ‘the usual categories of biblical interpretations with concepts drawn from other fields’ (16) – in this case, specifically, from Lacan and the Hegelian Lacanianism of Slavoj Žižek and Adrian Johnston – Hankins is clear that it is not simply a case of anachronistically imposing an external conceptual framework onto the text. Rather, ‘this project demonstrates that these concepts are there, walking around through the texts, even if they have not yet been thematised by interpreters’ (18).

Chapter 2 begins to draw out the implications of this approach for the first two chapters of Job, the prose tale which frames the book. When ‘the satan’ incites God to wreak havoc on Job’s life, the central question on which his challenge hangs is this: ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ (Job 1:9). Against the scholarly consensus that the issue at hand is whether Job remains pious only because God rewards his good behaviour with blessings, Hankins points out that, even in the biblical texts, calamity commonly leads not to a rejection of God but to renewed worship. After all, the satan suggests to God that ‘if you stretch out your hand and touch all that [Job] has, he will bless (brk) you to your face’ – the Hebrew verb tending to be incorrectly rendered as ‘curse’. What God is after, Hankins suggests, is a more Kantian ethic whereby Job’s piety is properly for nothing, indifferent to blessings and curses alike. The test is rigged: if Job curses God when disaster arrives, he was only pious for mercenary reasons; but if he blesses God, his piety is a no-less-mercenary attempt to find hope and solace in the divine.

When divine violence visits Job it is ‘“for nothing” in the sense that it has been committed for the sake of including a nothing within the world’: for the sake of making Job himself a nothing. Divine violence ‘does not save Job from his inauthenticity, or from his folly, or from his impiety, but from himself, from determination by his own empirical conditions.’ It renders Job symbolically dead, as we see from the fact that Job’s response to the series of catastrophes is to begin the rituals of mourning which cut off the mourner from the rest of their community, to scrape his skin from his body, and to take up residence on the trash heap, the place of that which has been ejected from human society but has not yet quite made its way back to the neutrality of the nonhuman world. Job is ‘between the two deaths’, symbolically dead but physically alive, occupying the place of horror and disgust, of zombies and vampires. He is nothing, but also not quite nothing; less than nothing, perhaps. Job likes this liminal place of symbolic death to the liminal place of symbolic life: ‘naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there’ (Job 1:21). Perhaps it is precisely here that new life will emerge.

In the meantime, Job must contend with his wife’s imprecations which hold him, like the satan, between two impossible choices: to ‘Curse God, and die!’ maintaining his integrity but not his piety; or, by implication, to continue to do his religious duty at the cost of his honesty. Job rejects this false dichotomy, refusing the notion that there is any coherent law by which either he or God might be judged, and refusing to act out of the desire to fulfil the law, to attain completeness and consistency. Job chooses instead to worship God out of a freedom which is conditioned neither by the consistency of the symbolic order that he inhabits nor by any consistency of his own identity. Job fully acknowledges the split within himself, which is also a split within both Wisdom and wisdom; in doing so he becomes identified with wisdom.

Tucked away in a footnote later in the book, Hankins asserts that ‘the feminist insight that undergirds the logic of the entire book’ is that ‘Job’s transformation of the wisdom tradition [is] a feminization of the tradition’s (masculine) structure of wisdom.’ But Lacan and Žižek are at best dangerous allies for feminists, and it’s not clear to me that Hankins here escapes the logic by which Lacan asserts both that women are the exemplary subjects and yet also that only men like Lacan himself are capable of consciously occupying and articulating that subjective position (Seminar XX: ‘A woman cannot but be excluded by the nature of things, which is the nature of words, and it must be said that if there is something that women themselves complain about for the time being, that’s it. It’s just that they don’t know what they’re saying, that’s the whole difference between them and me.’). The apparent wholeness of Job’s life as a wealthy, property-owning man is stripped away from him; his animals and children all die; yet it is not his sons and daughters who Job mourns but himself, ‘the conditions of his life … his ties to the community … all that he identified with’ (55). Even the incipient natality of Job’s abject positioning between the two deaths is a way to return to the womb and be born again, but this time without a mother. Didn’t Irigaray warn us about this?

I’m asking these questions not because I want to catch Hankins out, but because they’re some of the least comfortable questions that have emerged from my own work on Žižek. I don’t know how to answer them. But I hope that Hankins, whose use of Lacan, Žižek and Johnston is both careful and incisive, might be able to help me, that some surplus dimension might emerge from these cracks.

Hankins is careful to distinguish the freedom of Job from the ‘autonomy or freedom often disparaged these days as Cartesian/Liberal/Romantic’ – and, of course, masculine. The fantasy of wholeness, of the coherence of the Symbolic order, may be equally untrue for all subjects. But as Lacan himself knew, it is not equally intended for all subjects: ‘A woman cannot but be excluded by the nature of things’. Can a person be made a nothing if she has always been nothing? I am thinking here not only of women but also of blackness, especially as it is understood in the work of Frank Wilderson. There is something troubling in the valorisation of violence and trauma in Žižek’s work, of the affirmation of rupture as the locus of newness and possibility. This is not so much because violence and trauma are inherently bad, but rather because of the implication that the primary loci of transformation are we for whom the symbolic order exists, those of us for whose security and stability the violence of everyday language and the ordinary function of things is wrought. If women are constructed as the projection of male fantasies of wholeness, if black people are constructed as the projection of white fantasies of completeness, then may well be that men and white people need to recognise and face up to our own inherent incompleteness. But this is still to construct a drama that takes place primarily around us, we who have already made ourselves the centre of the world. Are we to take even their nothingness away from them?

Davis Hankins’ response to Marika Rose

I am grateful to Marika Rose for her careful presentation of the ideas and analysis offered in the first part of my book, and for her thought-provoking questions.

Rose highlights an admittedly under-developed footnote in which I suggest that Job’s challenges to sapiential discourse could be understood as a feminist response or “feminization” of the tradition’s masculine or patriarchal discourse. She then asks important questions about the extent to which (1) Job’s story, and (2) the primary philosophical influences underlying my interpretation of it, can actually contribute to struggles for transformation by groups marginalized with regards to social life and power.

So, first, does Job’s story of transformation extend in any helpful way beyond the centers of social life and power, and the male/white fantasies of wholeness that try to stabilize those centers? I would say yes. One can begin to see Job’s potential by comparing it to other similar, widely shared stories from the time when Job was likely written: namely, the various narrations of the exile preserved in the Hebrew Bible. Exile offers a somewhat similar story of loss of status, humbling, dislocation, and other similar tropes. Ezekiel, for instance, is a story of an elite’s displacement into a new position: a priest loses his temple and land and is forcibly displaced into an agricultural community in rural Babylonia. But Job’s prose tale seems intent to tell a much different story. Job 1-2 does not describe Job’s displacement to a different social and geographical place, but rather Job’s emergence in a completely unexpected and ambivalent place within the same setting. Of course, Job’s former life and identity are not rendered wholly irrelevant. But the story seems primarily interested in this question: can something truly new (e.g., a free act, a transformed subject, an alternative society) emerge that would be irreducible to the material out of which it arises? I think that this desire aligns with Rose’s interests. Job narrates a break from the fantasy world of a stable center in order to explore instead the possibilities of a world based on contingency.

Rather than focusing on a new status and new orientation, Job is fundamentally disoriented, suspended in a surprising place where the coordinates are unclear: what is Job and what is not-Job? What is on the inside and what is on the outside? What is the boundary between the individual and the social? The human animal and its environment? Being and meaning? Subject and object? That the prose tale raises all of these questions suggests to me that it concerns issues far beyond an individual’s loss of status, wealth, and children. To return to my counter-example of exile, I do not mean to suggest that the prophetic accounts of the horror, trauma, and loss suffered in the disaster of exile share nothing in common with Job. But it is significant that Job does not end up living in a different land, planting in foreign soil, and bearing a lesser status. He remains in his land, sitting on his community’s garbage, and attending to his body in pain. But he inhabits a land from which he is cut off, he sits on a pile of what the community rejects, and he experiences his body as alienated and opposed to himself. Thus his story seems not entirely foreign to others about folks who lack access to sources of social wealth, who are affected by norms regulating what a society keeps and values or discards and shames, and/or who experience pain and alienation because their bodies are more entangled than other bodies with forces beyond themselves. At this point the substance available to make such connections is fairly thin, but then again we are only in chapter 2. Job is a story about life in a world shaped by radical contingency that, as the book makes even clearer later, extends beyond existence into ontology and materiality. Of course it is a book written by elites for privileged eyes, as is all ancient literature (and, if we’re honest, nearly everything that is packaged for our eyes as well), but the narrative seems intent to break the ideological grip that is tied to the presumed social location of either its author(s) or characters.

Rose also worries that Lacan and Žižek are “at best dangerous allies for feminists.” Indeed, Lacan had a habit of making arrogant, provocative statements that, on the surface, often sound absurd. In the line quoted twice by Rose, it certainly seems as though he intends to speak a truth about women that they experience and yet, unlike himself, are wholly incapable of knowing. Without getting bogged down in the details of Lacan’s complicated project in and around the twentieth seminar, I will stick to describing what has been exceedingly helpful to me. My understanding of Lacan’s work in this regard is deeply indebted to Joan Copjec and several other feminist interpreters.

First, as Lacan often repeats, he understands human beings as ontologically incomplete and sexed, which leads him to conclude that no sexual relationship can fully bind two subjects together. Or, as he puts it, “there is no sexual relationship.” Sexual difference then offers Lacan a language for speaking about two structurally distinct ways of dealing with this failure, the male/masculine way and the female/feminine way. Lacan notes that the former has been shown in numerous cases to have a consistent structure and logic, which achieves its consistency and apparent wholeness through its recourse to an exception that escapes it. However, “up until now, the not-whole [i.e., the female way] has not been amply explored,” and thus “it’s obviously giving me a hard time” (57). The point here is not only to showcase a rare instance of Lacan’s humility, but more importantly to emphasize the structural character of Lacan’s work on sexuality. He is interested in presenting different structures of sexed, subjective being within the world, and in the kinds of libidinal attachments and affective experiences that these subjective structures make available.

Lacan notices how the real impasses that render meaning and being ultimately incomplete are denied or reframed in patriarchal discourse through a prohibition that pretends to install what would complete them in some exceptional beyond. The alternative to patriarchal discourse, which Lacan characterizes as feminine, does not cover over or deny this conflicted character of materiality and sexed human being. As opposed to achieving consistency by reference to an exception (the exclusion of which makes it logically incomplete but gives it an illusion of wholeness), the feminine structure disallows any exceptions to this incomplete character of being. Thus he refers to this structure as not-whole or not-all (pas-tout).

Lacan continues just after the line Rose quotes: “The fact remains that if [woman] is excluded by the nature of things, it is precisely in the following respect: being not-whole, she has a supplementary jouissance compared to what the phallic function designates by way of jouissance” (73). Lacan is focused here on three things: (1) a structure (“the nature of things”) from which woman is excluded, which he refers to as male or masculine and which we can call patriarchal discourse, (2) a structure of being that he calls female or feminine, which is characterized as “not-whole” insofar as it is not bound by an external limit, and (3) “a supplementary jouissance” or affective experience that is available to subjects that retain an awareness of this incomplete nature of their being. Although the challenge that Job presents to traditional wisdom is not overtly sexualized, it tends to follow this other way of relating to the ontologically incomplete character of materiality and human being.

After completing the book manuscript, I wrote an article that develops this underdeveloped footnote into a study that includes biblical texts beyond Job. I explore the possibilities and pitfalls of analyzing the changes and challenges within the wisdom tradition as shaped by and significant for social constructions of gender and sexed material being. Even in light of all that I say above about Lacan’s usefulness to gender critical analyses, he is not the most important thinker in that article. My paper actually relies as much on Elizabeth Grosz’s and Catherine Malabou’s recent work on sexuality and materiality, in which they make use of the life sciences to inform their philosophy. Grosz and Malabou, like Copjec and Lacan, understand sexual difference as a real, ineliminable, and ontological condition that constitutes nature and culture as incomplete and open to transformation. For me, Lacan’s intellectual singularity is not a matter of uniqueness; instead, it stems from the intensive connections his thought forms with so many other areas and concerns that far exceed his mid to late 20th century French context. In short, I find that his thought extends far beyond himself even at times in spite of his arrogant attachments to himself.

At the end of her response Rose poignantly asks, “Can a person be made a nothing is she has always been nothing? I am thinking here not only of women but also of blackness … Are we to take even their nothingness away from them?” I think that Job’s radical critique of traditional wisdom is precisely interested in exposing and dignifying this nothingess, not in taking it away. Job ultimately insists that this counted-as-nothing should constitute the center of social-political life and intellectual activity. The satan asks at the beginning of Job: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” I think the answer is yes, and the nothing for which Job fears God is precisely the sort of nothingness to which Rose draws our attention in her insightful remarks.

 

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