Davis Hankins responds to Anthony Paul Smith

For the final installment of our book event on Davis Hankins The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence, we have Hankins’ response to Anthony Paul Smith’s last post. Thanks again to Davis, Tommy, Marika, and Anthony for their participation in this event.


Anthony Paul Smith poses a variety of thoughtful questions about the final part of my book. The first asks whether there is any theoretical reason for the book’s relative lack of engagement with other critical theorists’ readings of the book of Job, especially that of Antonio Negri. Smith is correct, and I suppose that lack speaks loudly. To be honest about Negri’s book, I acquired it late in the process of formulating my analysis of Job (the translation appeared in late 2009 and I didn’t look at it until after I attended a review panel on it at the SBL annual meeting in November 2011). But to be frank about theoretical readings of Job, they tend to be composites in a way that I wanted to avoid in two senses. First, I did not want my argument to get bogged down in trying to extract Negri’s (or Jung’s, Bloch’s, etc.) Job from Negri’s philosophy. Second, I did not want to write a book that could be ignored by biblical scholars because it appeared to be “merely” another attempt to work out a theoretical perspective by engaging a biblical book. While I recognize that I did to Negri’s and other theorists’ works precisely what I want to avoid for my own, my aim in doing so was to produce a book that biblical scholarship could not, fairly or unfairly, relegate to the margins as a “mere” composite. Perhaps my book may even make such theoretical composites seem less marginal to the critical conversations in biblical studies.

Smith helpfully notes several pivotal features that my analysis shares with Negri’s, and then asks why I prefer the Hegelian-Lacanian orientation over the Spinozist-Deleuzian one. Smith’s question exposes what I would like to highlight by way of response. While I don’t think Smith is advocating such a division, I am uncomfortable with any suggestion that the Lacanian and the Deleuzian orientations are incommensurable. I am aware that their central concerns are often distinct, as are some of the resources they use to address these concerns, and that important criticisms of each are made from the standpoint of the other (including by those upon whom I often depend), but I typically find both Lacan and Deleuze helpful and far from incompatible. I hope that the same could be said of my book and Negri’s. And Smith says as much, especially noting the importance in both readings of ontological as opposed to “merely” epistemological concerns. I would add the centrality to both of the view that Job poses a radical critique of traditional notions of transcendence. I certainly could have done more to indicate how my reading aligns (or not) with Negri’s.

As for the not about which Smith asks, in addition to the places where Negri wanders away from reading the book of Job in order to offer more direct philosophical or political reflection, my reading is at odds with his in certain places. We offer divergent conclusions about the significance of particular passages (such as his view that in the whirlwind speeches “God justifies himself” [96]), and I am not entirely comfortable with some of Negri’s conclusions about Job as a story of redemption replete with other Christian themes such as resurrection and the messiah. As Boer notes in his epilogue, Negri ultimately concludes that measure overtakes immeasure, order over chaos, in ways that I disagree with. However, there is plenty in Negri’s discussion of the divine speeches and in the book that I agree with and that complicates the nature of this redemption. For example, about the divine speeches he argues, “God is torn from the absolute transcendence …” and the human is creatively immersed in the divine, thus “linking ontologically–not morally, not merely intellectually–the human powers to those divine, that is, the singular in the universal” (96, 97). To return to Smith’s question about Hegel-Lacan and Spinoza-Deleuze, my conclusion is quite similar (although I defend it on very different exegetical grounds). I argue that God and Job are linked in a way that’s easiest to capture with the image of the Möbius band, which I explain using the concept of the mathematical sublime, although Deleuze’s notion of a disjunctive synthesis would work just as well.

One final comment on the question about why Hegel-Lacan over Deleuze-Spinoza: I didn’t start out thinking that I would interpret the book of Job from a transcendental materialist perspective. As I said in my introductory post, from the outset this analysis has been embedded in collaborative efforts to rethink the entire wisdom tradition. I wrote the dissertation alongside and in collaboration with two others. David Knauert and I initially developed this reexamination of ancient Israel’s wisdom in light of the new perspectives on Kant and German Idealism being developed by folks such as Žižek, Malabou, Johnston, and others. David wrote his dissertation on Proverbs (to put it too schematically: our Kant), as I wrote mine on Job (our combination of Fichte and Schelling), and as we both looked forward to completing the trilogy in a future, co-authored monograph on Ecclesiastes (our Hegel). David tragically died shortly after finishing at Duke, but in the meantime a third had joined our tiny cadre aimed at rethinking wisdom with the help of contemporary (mostly) French philosophy. Brennan Breed and I are now working on a book on Ecclesiastes. So, the basis for rooting my interpretation in Hegel-Lacan is far deeper than this book indicates. For me this orientation best accounts for the historical and intellectual developments in the discourse of wisdom during Second Temple Judaism.

Second, Smith poses a series of questions to my use of Kant’s mathematical and dynamic sublimes to read the divine speeches. The divine speeches are textbook examples of the sublime, mentioned by both Burke and Kant, as Negri notes (60). The sublime remains an important category in many contemporary readings of Job (e.g., Keller, Newsom, Beal). Newsom, for example, reads God’s first speech (chap. 38) as a presentation of nature aimed at inducing in Job a feeling of the mathematical sublime insofar as material reality appears as an overwhelming complexity that the human mind cannot comprehend, whereas the animals and monstrous beings in the second speech (chaps. 39-41) illustrate dynamically sublime objects that the human mind cannot grasp because they are so strange, powerful, and/or terrifying.

If I understand his questions correctly, Smith seems to suggest that I take on Kant’s concepts without qualifying them by those aspects of Job that fail to conform to the Kantian system, and that I argue against the appropriateness of the dynamic sublime to readings of the speeches. Here I can hopefully clarify my reading. In my discussion of various reasons why the Kantian sublime is partially productive but ultimately inadequate for grasping the divine speeches, I claim that the primary problem lies with the already fractured state of Job’s subjective condition (194-95). One can certainly use Leviathan and Behemoth to illustrate dynamically sublime objects, for example, but I don’t think that the dynamic sublime is an adequate framework for understanding the subjective experience that the speeches afford Job. The speeches do not grant Job an exceptional, “God’s-eye-view” elevated above his fractured state. Instead, God’s view depicts a world that is subject to the same fractured condition that separates Job from himself and his world. Yet God’s perspective on this condition is the inverse of Job’s, which might make possible a mathematically sublime experience insofar as it involves the co-presence of two conflicting perspectives.

Support for this reading of the divine speeches lies in part in the reactions to one another reported at the beginning of chap. 42. Job’s and God’s mutual affirmations of one another in chap. 42 are usually understood as involving implicit retractions of their preceding statements in which each opposed the other. God’s speeches enable Job to see that he was in some ways wrong, while God acknowledges that Job was in some ways right. However, the substance of what each says is not really opposed to the other; each speaks a truth about the other’s perspective that the other did not acknowledge or perceive. The mathematical sublime provides a logical framework in which this structure can be understood. The world that God describes is capable of producing monstrous beings like Leviathan or like Job, and Job’s experience is only possible if the world is structured as it is in the divine speeches. So, while there may be something behind Smith’s question that I have failed to perceive, I found Kant’s distinctions between the mathematical and dynamic sublimes, especially as they have been put to use by post-Lacanians such as Joan Copjec and Alenka Zupančič, to be a conceptually helpful framework for presenting the disjunctive synthesis that I think relates God’s and Job’s perspectives in the book.

Third, Smith finds in my analysis of the ethical implications of Job certain resonances with François Laruelle’s “generic ethics.” I possess only a vague familiarity with Laruelle’s work, so I cannot speak deeply to the comparison, but I am excited to learn more about possible connections between Job and a facet of contemporary French philosophy about which I have neglected to learn. Smith wonders whether my analysis supports a Laruellian, non-philosophical, generic ethics divorced from politics more than a transcendental materialist framework with its apparently “attendant political commitments.” First, from what I know about Laruelle’s generic ethic, the story of Job seems a wonderful illustration. Here<hyperlinked to Angelaki intro> Smith says that Laruelle’s “generic” involves a theory of the human “without any transcendental attribute” that aims to “think a universal that actually is universal, rather than a universal that takes some particular as the universal.” This sounds like the kind of concrete universality that I argued Joban ethics exemplifies (see 209-14, from which Smith draws in his response). Job attacks the rooting of ethics in any sort of generality, end, or transcendental that would exist apart from the particulars of a situation. Job is rendered an ethical subject when he is ruptured from his situation by being positioned at its limits.

The ultimate questions with which Smith and the book of Job leave us, then, concern next steps. Once the ethical moment opens with Job appearance in his context’s blind spot, what is to be done? Smith dismisses Job’s conclusion as a disgusting Hollywood-like failure to answer this question satisfactorily by escaping back into the past. For Smith, Job’s conclusion offers a pathetic appeal to reparations, a weak, resigned attempt to recreate the pre-traumatic community. On one hand, Smith is correct to view the prose conclusion as in many ways a move beyond the central ethical point of the book. It is a tiny addendum at the end. However, I don’t think that it’s as much of a departure from the rest of the book as Smith suggests. Certainly the ancient author could have told us a longer story, but the significance of what we are told is more ambivalent than Smith’s reading suggests.

My argument concludes with attention to what I think may be quite significant about the prose conclusion. From the outset the book of Job seems very individualistic, contributing little to anyone who wants to think about ethical matters from the perspective of a collective. But then the conclusion suggests that one could perhaps imagine Job in the center of a community that is transformed by affirming the truth that his experience illustrates regarding their former constitution. Even still, this move from the individual to the communal, from the ethical to the political, is not developed in Job. Smith sounds skeptical about whether it ever could be. Job seems unsatisfied with such a position. But Job ultimately offers only an axiomatic assertion without a satisfactory account of this possibility. Job, I suppose, thereby leaves it up to us to reflect on such urgent questions. To Smith and all currently exploring them, I remain grateful.

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