Response to Part II of ‘The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence’ by Tommy Lynch

In the next installment of our book event on Davis Hankins’ The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence, Tommy Lynch responds to section II of the book. Included below is Davis Hankins’ response to Lynch.


‘Part 2. Ideology, Resistance, Transformation’ is a bold, complex analysis of the book of Job drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Levinas, Derrida, Agamben, Sartre and a variety of biblical interpretations. Running through this dense and diverse discussion is a central theme of resistance – the character Job’s resistance to the various interpretations of his plight and the book of Job’s resistance to the resolution of the tensions and ambiguities of the character’s situation.

In chapter 3, Hankins discusses ideology in terms of the tendency towards resolution. Ideology is the presentation of ‘an opposition as ultimate and exclusive that actually only involves one side of a dilemma’ (80). Working through Job 4-5, he argues that the resolution of uncertainty and ambiguity is the ideological temptation confronting both Job and the interpreter.

Chapter 4 examines two potential responses to Job’s situation: fear and anxiety. The friends recommend fear: ‘Fear will allow Job to escape his anxiety not because it tells him something he does not know but because it locates the unknown dimension of his experience at a safe distance from himself’ (118). If Job fears God, his experience of disruptive anxiety would be rendered intelligible. Hankins puts this in Lacanian terms: ‘By negating this dimension of truth and the Real from what is accessible, the ideology of sapiential fear installs it in a beyond’ (117). Fear allows Job a measure of resolution – it might not ease his suffering, but it provides a framework in which that suffering makes sense.

Job is unable to accept this option, though. His anxiety ‘indicates to him the immanent presence of the dimension that fear treats as transcendent’ (125). As a result, God is not a transcendent agent tormenting Job. God is immanent to Job’s reality as that which distances reality from itself (130). Or, put another way, God has no place within the Symbolic; God is that which prevents the Symbolic from closing. God is not transcendent in the sense of being beyond or above immanent materiality, but is ‘somehow a surplus within the world over itself’ (134). As Hankins later explains, this attempt to convince Job to fear God is, again, part of the effort to ideologically resolve Job’s situation. To fear God is to relate to God as presence, even if an absent presence. Job experiences God as the collapse of the difference between presence and absence.

In chapter 5, the resistance to resolution manifests itself in the opposition between guilt and shame. If Job is guilty of something, the legal reading is able to resolve the tensions within the text. For Hankins, if Job is guilty his alienation becomes something beyond, something out there – in his guilt he is free to fear God. Instead, unable to move from anxiety to fear, Job becomes unbearable to those around him, ‘an abhorrent display of excessive jouissance’ (160). Rather than being guilty, Job is filled with shame.

One of the strengths of part 2 is the parallel between Job’s struggle and the struggle of the interpreter. Just as Job is hearing from Eliphaz that the ambiguity is a failure of understanding, the interpreter is on the same quest. This parallel sets up the potential irony of reading Job – all too often, as Hankins shows, interpretations seek to valorize Job and critique his friends, while simultaneously making demands of the biblical text in the way that the friends make demands of Job.

Evading this collapse back into the demand for a resolution of ambiguity is the crux of Part 2. Perhaps the best articulation comes towards the end of the section. Hankins repeatedly returns to an analysis of the shortcomings of legal framings of the narrative. These readings cast Job as a courageous figure calling God to appear in court and justify God’s treatment of the faithful servant. Hankins explains:

‘What is presented as an ideology-critique of theology turns out to perform the most ideological of theological moves, safely installing God in a realm transcendent to the Bile and to experience, and this safely protecting the Bible and experience from God’s presence. What is avoided is the traumatic presence of God to which Job’s testimony testifies, a presence that is not transcendent to the courtroom but is the courtroom’s immanent limit, that which keeps it from ever constituting itself. In short, the celebrants of the legal metaphor fail to apprehend the text because they transpose Job’s testimony about the non-phenomenal character of God into testimony about a God that resides beyond phenomena’ (164).

Part 2 left me with two questions. First, at the end of chapter 4, Hankins writes that ‘Job locates God precisely in the position that Lacan will call the objet petit a, that unique object that is a product of and surplus beyond the Symbolic order’ (134). Much of the discussion of God and the Symbolic emphasizes the latter half of this characterization. God as a product of the Symbolic order, on the other hand, is less developed. This phrase captures the essence of the subtitle of the book – ‘the immanent genesis of transcendence’. What is the nature of this genesis? Does ‘God’ name the disruptive lack of any Symbolic order? Or is this lack the site of the emergence of God?

Second, I wonder about the relationship between transcendental materialism and the biblical text. As Marika noted last week, Hankins writes, ‘this project demonstrates that these concepts are there, walking around throughout the texts, even if they have not yet been thematized by interpreters’ (18). There is a difference between philosophy (whether it be transcendental materialist or other otherwise) illuminating a truth already contained within a text and tradition and philosophy producing a truth through an engagement with theological or religious materials. What is at stake in insisting on the former rather than the latter? Hankins is right to dispatch any potential charge of anachronism, but the charge of anachronism relies upon a particular understanding of the reader’s relationship to the text.

Davis Hankins’ Response to Tommy Lynch:

Much thanks to Tommy Lynch for his careful reading of part 2. I appreciate his accent on resistance and resolution, and I especially enjoyed the Freudian slip of the keystroke where he typed Bile instead of Bible.

Lynch’s questions at the end are, at least structurally, quite analogous. On the one hand, he asks, is God in Job the name for the lack in the Symbolic order that keeps subjectivity and reality open to transformation, or, is God something that emerges out of that lack? On the other hand, does philosophy name a truth in the book of Job, or is the book’s truth produced by the philosophical engagement with the book?

To the first question, I think that Lynch rightly suggests that the accent falls much more on the former. Job’s God is fundamentally a force within the world that keeps it and himself from ever achieving any sense of closure. God keeps reality and subjectivity unfinished, foreign to themselves, and open to transformation. The book of Job offers a number of different perspectives on this basic ontological structure of openness. The friends try to resolve it by imagining a transcendent deity that stands outside this openness. Their theology thus secures their sense that the experience of an open ontology is actually contingent upon the limitations of humans with respect to the unlimited divine. Job emerges in the book as the answer to the latter half of Lynch’s first question. Job actually becomes the surplus produced out of this fundamentally conflicted structure. At the end of the book the community is formed around Job as the bearer of truth about the ontological structure of reality and God’s relationship to it.

To the second question, I think that the answer is not quite as straightforward. The question is whether I am discovering something about the book of Job that has been there all along and yet has been obscured in some way, such as, for example, by theological categories blinded by metaphysical commitments. Alternatively, does this analysis actually produce the philosophical truth of the book of Job that is absent apart from the philosophy?

The quickest way that I can respond to this question would be by recourse to the psychoanalytic notion that Freud referred to as Nachträglichkeit (“deferred action”) and Lacan called the après-coup or “retroactive effect” of meaning. The logic here allows one, in a sense, to affirm both alternatives. On the one hand, the mobilization of the philosophical orientation produces a truth about Job that was not previously present within the book. On the other hand, my analysis goes to great lengths to show that this reading is demonstrably immanent to the book. To affirm both of these requires a particular theory about texts according to which they are inherently open to transformation. Texts are, as Adrian Johnston might say, “hard-wired to be re-wired.”

Lynch’s question made me wonder about another concern that some may have about this book on Job. Do I think that we need the book of Job? Do I think that folks working within the transcendental materialist framework have to recognize the book of Job as part of their intellectual history? Is this an attempt to compel a group of materialists to start attending Bible study? Certainly not. However, new developments in thought such as we have in transcendental materialism are always compelled to rethink the past alongside the present and future. In so doing we might find that our intellectual history has allies we could not have foreseen. So I do hope that this book might add Job to the list of helpful precursors to contemporary reflections about these difficult issues. While I think that Job’s helpfulness goes even further, especially in its dramatic staging of the paradoxical link between the structure of material reality and the kinds of subjects, animals, and communities that emerge out of this material reality, I don’t think that it’s the only way to respond to this difficult question about the relationships linking and dividing ontology, subjectivity, and community. I should probably stop here, however, since these are issues of direct concern to the third and final part of the book.


2 thoughts on “Response to Part II of ‘The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence’ by Tommy Lynch

  1. Pingback: Post at ‘Working Group on Contemporary Materialism’ | theoretically apraxic

  2. Thanks Davis, that’s really helpful.

    On your last point, I don’t mean to suggest that you are arguing that transcendental materialism (or any other philosophical perspective) needs Job. I had in mind the strategy whereby every critical perspective is already within the theological tradition (whatever tradition that might be). It’s a kind of theological defense mechanism. Whether it be feminist, queer, post-colonial or critical race theory, it seems there is a pattern: at first the criticism is resisted, then it is found to already exist within the tradition. This process simultaneously defangs the criticism (at least in relationship to theology) while reasserting the tradition as a/the locus of truth. It was in light of this pattern that I was raising the question of the relationship between philosophical method and text. I think it’s possible to carry out an immanent reading of a text that mutates or reconfigures the text to produce new meaning, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to claim a stronger link between transcendental materialism and Job.


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