Anthony Paul Smith responds to the final section of ‘The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence’

The final response to Davis Hankins’ The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence is by Anthony Paul Smith, assistant professor in the department of religion at LaSalle University.


Davis Hankins The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence is a remarkable book. The care that Hankins shows in his attention to the biblical scholarship is matched by the care he takes when thinking through the theoretical frame (“transcendental materialism”). This shouldn’t be understated. Hankins takes a great risk in the book of alienating both groups of readers and yet he truly weaves them together in a nearly seamless way such that the reader willing to trust Hankins receives something (a somewhat Satanic wager akin to that of the figure of the Adversary [hassatan] in Job). I teach a course on suffering organized around Job and contemporary readings of Job and so much of the material was familiar to me as I was reading. But, while I have read much of the same material Hankins presents here (the work of Clines being a major influence for me) I have never known how to engage with theoretical felicity such biblical scholarship. Hankins’ book should be celebrated simply for the way he does what philosophers can only usually pretend to do (as Badiou’s book on St. Paul is testament to).

Ultimately I do not share allegiance to Hankins theoretical framework, but I am able to recognize the remarkable reading of the Book of Job framed by it nonetheless. And, even if I am unsure of the possibility of fidelity to Hankins’ philosophical canon, I can see how productive and genuinely challenging it is. The figure of Job we get read through Hankins’ transcendental materialism is one that moves beyond mere ideology critique to a kind of philosophy of nature (though I am not sure that Hankins would use that term). We get a Job who cries out violence not only against the unjustness of his suffering, but that cries out violence against the very notion that his suffering could be grounded, that any sense can be made of it other than an immanent sense that turns into a practice.

I take the first claim about injustice to be legal and the claim about grounding to be ontological. By connecting the legal to the ontological—thereby moving past the readings that ground everything in the legal metaphors of the text—Hankins moves far beyond the cursory reading of Zizek as well as the deeper, but explicitly Christian reading by Gustavo Gutierrez (I would guess that Gutierrez’s commitment to Christian orthodoxy marks him as ultimately “ideological” for Hankins). However, in the line of critical theorists reading Job, he shares much in common with the overall thrust of Navid Kermani’s reading (though Hankins grounds his reading in scholarship to an extent that Kermani does not) and also Negri.

Before turning to a short summary of Part Three of the Book (“Ontology, Aesthetics, Ethics”) and further questions, I was struck by the lack of engagement with Negri’s reading of Job. While Negri is not part of the Lacanian tradition Hankins builds with and his reading might at first glance appear to be in the thrall of the legal metaphor, he too foregrounds everything in the ontological in a similar way. Negri’s book, The Labor of Job in English but bearing an Italian title that could be translated as the “the power of the slave”, focuses on the ontological resistance found in the story of Job. While I am hoping Hankins can tell me what he sees as the more important difference, I would hazard that the (immanent) theology at play in the two readings is where the difference might be thought to lie. But both Negri and Hankins have a sense of God as immanent, either as a transcendent power that is ultimately seen to be illusory and therefore finds its very genesis in immanence, or as both Negri and Hankins claim in some places that God is the name for what bars any sense-making of suffering. In both cases the instability and ultimate groundless of being/reality is affirmed. So, ultimately what causes Hankins to choose the Hegelian-Lacanian genealogy over the Spinozist one? This is perhaps an unfair question. Hankins clearly differentiates his reading from other biblical scholars and engages with a range of different interpretations within that field and spends a lot of time in the Biblical Hebrew. That is a monumental task in and of itself, so while he only provides brief glimpses at other critical theorists engagement with Job I suppose the question is simply is there a theoretical reason for that lack of detailed engagement or not?

As to the structure of Part Three, Chapter 6 (“Ontology, Aesthetics, and the Divine Speeches”) considers the ontology sketched in the Book of Job, especially in the response to Job from God presented at the end of the book. Against those who try to read some kind of affirmation of the consistency of nature/creation here, where Job’s sufferings are ultimately local and the cosmos remains fundamentally ordered when scaled above Job, Hankins’ reads the divine speeches as affirming the fundamental chaos of creation. Even going so far as to suggest, against the usual readings of Genesis for example, that the creation narrative implied in the divine speech betrays a violence origin of creation. Good news flows from this violence, though, because the cosmos described by YHWH “is not a closed totality but a dynamic genesis, not foundations but a founding, not a measured whole but the stretching out of a measuring line, not secure basis but the sinking of bases. The earth YHWH details is not a bound, eternally secure structure but an active production (180).” It is unsurprising to find Hankins engage with the work of Catherine Keller here as some of this sounds a great deal like her reading of Job in The Face of the Deep, however where Keller sees harmonious interconnections (even in discord) Hankins sees disconnection and alienation. I find this in many ways right, though of course he does not set up a simple choice between his position and hers, and in a sense Hankins refusal of process is a refusal of theodicy. Further, his textual support suggests that this alienation is present in the divine speeches far more than harmony. “Nature in these speeches is fearless, untamable, coursing in directions from which it is not deterred until it collides with another unrelenting creature. Neither the cosmos nor the earth is described as a solid or safe place. […] The message is rather that job inhabits a world form whose foundations he is fundamentally disconnected and with which no solid connection is possible because it is not fully connected with itself (183).”

We also find in this chapter an interesting distinction between hermeneutic readings and aesthetic ones. In Hankins’ casting of these two terms the first always seeks to fill in gaps and to complete the meaning of a text while the second analyzes “the conflict, the contradiction, the discord, as essential to the message (185).” He goes on to fill this distinction out through a summary of Kant on aesthetic judgments and how scholars of the book of Job take up such judgments. Here Hankins makes an argument that the speeches are concerned with the “mathematical sublime” rather than the “dynamical sublime” where the first is ultimately a immanent coincidence of two positions impossible to bring together while the other takes place through an operation of transcendence. I realize Hankins is following Kant here, but I found the two terms taken on uncritically. Why, for example, are animals excluded from the dynamic sublime since they are presumed to have a telos, while the mathematical sublime includes other natural formations like mountains and rivers? Would not “less-than-fully unified” pervasive throughout the cosmos not undercut such teleology and a recognition of it and since Kant does not hold to this Joban rejection of theodicy is not his distinction between mathematics and dynamism built upon a faulty vision of the cosmos?

Chapter 7 completes the book and turns to ethics. We see here a critique of the hegemonic role of virtue ethics in biblical studies. Job is a challenge to this hegemony precisely because he is not struggling with communal norms, but “emerges as an ethical subject at the moment of a traumatic experience or rupture from his past and himself (205).” While Hankins clearly thinks that virtue ethics is not an adequate theoretical framework for understanding the ethical import of Job, there is a certain sense in which he agrees with virtue ethics before going further than it in a way that strikes me as an important articulation of what Laruelle has called a “generic ethics”. “WISDOM’S [Haskin writes this in small capitals to refer to the third kind of “wisdom” that manifests as the difference between particular-wisdom and a transcendental Wisdom, thus it is a kind of immanent form of Wisdom present in partcular-wisdom, if I read him correctly on this nuanced and difficult concept (14)] genesis in a particular event renders it specific and immanent to a situation. WISDOM cannot be grasped as an ethic in general or as a Kantian transcendential a priori. What virtue ethics cannot allow is that the WISDOM that Job must display could be both particular to his situation and universal for his situation. Job’s particular experience renders him non-particular, the incarnation of nepes as such, the limit of experience for all in his situation (210).” In other words, Job is the generic human being as the generic human victim without this setting Job up as a transcendental figure. Job may only embody such a universal truth in so far as he remains immanent to the situation and thus remains particular in some sense. And thus, in a very specific way, Job is an ethical subject precisely because he is not a communal subject (“Job emerges as an ethical subject at the moment of a traumatic experience of rupture from his present and his past. His subjectivity is incommensurable with his past self and the community with which he sits and speaks (214).”). I have a great deal of affinity for this claim, from my own position influenced by Laruelle’s distinction between politics and ethics, but I wonder how this accords with the transcendental materialist framework which appears to have attendant political commitments. Job, on Hankins reading, is a figure utterly separate from the polis, a kind of stranger or foreigner in the social body. This may be political in some sense, but it would even suggest an impossibility to party politics. Hankins gestures towards some political possibilities at the end, but for reasons that become clear below and because he does not sketch them out, I find this to in some ways move beyond the real challenge of the book.

In reading Job so much depends upon the final divine speeches and Job’s own replies. The final prose section where Job gets “everything back” is a disgusting Hollywood edit where the viewer is thought to be dumb enough to think dead children can be replaced with new children and even Hankins’ cannot sustain the level of passion evident in the majority of the book when he turns to it. There is an impossibility of reparations here. Thus the Book of Job truly ends when Job pronounces (quoting from Hankins’ translation): “therefore I reject and I am consoled concerning dust and ashes”. For Hankins reads this as Job declaring that he “rejects and is consoled about one and the same condition” (220). What might this mean? Well, ultimately, that Job’s only real basis of hope is the very same baselessness or “unlimited openness” (what Negri calls the immeasurable nature of his suffering) of his condition. God (or Nature) is the immanent condition for Job’s existence and remains in some sense plastic.

To conclude, I want to again emphasize the beauty and power of Hankins’ book. We are given here a true alloying of biblical studies and critical theory that does not, in my assessment, sacrifice one for the other. When philosophers and critical theorists turn to ancient religious scriptures they usually do so without the level of erudition present in this text and when biblical scholars turn to philosophy they usually do so in a purely instrumental way. Hankins performs that rare feat of letting the biblical scholarship perform philosophy and the philosophy respond to the biblical text. I suspect there will always be an element of arbitrariness in the philosophical system the biblical text is thought to support, but Hankins provides more evidence than most for the fittingness between the Book of Job and transcendental materialism.


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