Our Hope Is Nothing

Content Notice: I use some sexually explicit language and sometimes use vulgar slang below. If you would prefer not to see such language then please skip this post. – APS

It is always awkward to give the (nearly) last word to one who rightly passes for a CIS-gender, straight man. It is perhaps even more awkward for the man who accepts the ontological shame of being such a man, rightly or wrongly. But it is a man’s world, as the song goes, even if all us such men know—and fear—that it would be nothing without a woman. James Brown’s lyric isn’t quite right. The truth is that we fear that we, our very selves, would be nothing without a woman. We would no longer be a he, but an unrecognized it. Without a woman defined in relation to a man this big, hard phallus that we fuck1 with is just a bit of insignificant and embarrassingly useless flesh.2 So as I have been given the truly terrible honor of providing the last of our responses to Linn Marie Tonstad’s provocative, challenging, clear-headed, and often beautiful God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude, I’m struck with the embarrassment of being caught with my dick out. I’m reminded of my own nothingness, the own abyss of my personhood, the lie I’ve been brought up believing regarding my own identity. Even though I am thankful for being invited to read and respond at all. Such things truly are a grace for me. 

That said, despite the confessional performances that often accompany those, like myself, who rightly pass as CIS-gender, straight men (and—my God—I’m white too!), such a nothingness bothers me very little. Though I speak with forked-tongue—or is it just pierced?—there is a freedom that comes from recognizing such a core of nothingness, a freedom that comes from giving up hope of finding anyway out of the phallic bind of being born this way (or rather, raised to believe I was born this way). When I read Tonstad exhort us to practice theology in a way that moves “from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence” I found myself thinking of the lyrics to Danny Brown’s “I Will”, a celebratory and graphic ode to clit-licking by someone whose body can’t be anything but queer in the world even as he too passes as a CIS-gender, straight man. There is a part of me that wants to read these lyrics as providing a kind of queering of theological practice for those born into these bodies and raised into these desires, but it is job season and I fear that already the honesty and impropriety required to speak of our sexuality and one’s hope or not in the Christian trinitarian God has me wanting to talk about this only behind closed doors, hidden deep in a valley, with one (or—hell—two or three or wherever the spirit leads) who share what can’t be shared with others.

I too will try to stay on the side of propriety, to cover up as best I can, and only comment that when I read her Althaus-Reidian exhortation I thought of Danny Brown’s apostolic response, “I will”, accompanied by a kind of gendered apophaticism, “I go dumb and ignorant when I’m on that clitoris”. No phallus, but still the pleasure of giving and something like purity (yes, I will not shy from that gnostic word even amongst all these Christians who claim their impurity as a ruse to power). A purity that comes from the phallus reduced to nothing but a bit of flesh. Knowing that anything I give, as a theologian who isn’t one, will only be a theological manqué. Which is a nice way of saying I can’t even provide the material needed for an abortion, it’ll be the failure to produce all the way down to the root. It is a straight-white-guy way of saying sorry, but truly with the sorrow of being this way in the hope of not being anyway. A kind of peace only found in those moments when one loses the self and the world, which can only last for as long as we are rolling on the abyss of the deep.

Such vacillation between the style of academic propriety and honest impropriety also appears to haunt Tonstad’s work. She says as much in her apologias for the queer theological modality throughout her text as she moves between the audacious sexual honesty of Marcella Althaus-Reid and the missionary position of those who hold themselves with comportment on the theological public square. There is a part of me that wants to know if this is merely a matter of survival (which I, above all, do not denigrate!) or if it is part of some important theoretical move. After all, it brings to mind a question that nags me whenever I read Rahner’s axiom for Trinitarian theology regarding the immanent trinity is identical to the economic trinity. Why would we ever trust that God is honest? I understand I don’t have the appeal to tradition, to an abortive community. Though, let’s face it, such an ideal rooted in the queer anti-social proclamations of Christ have are all too often borne into the world as blond beasts all too ready to police the borders to secure a future for white children and the beauty of white women. But even if I did, that tradition would include terrible moments of God’s unknowability that, even accepting the ontological distinction between Creator and creature, I could only read as signs of God being beyond such honesty. If God is honest then it is a honesty that surpasses all understanding, and maybe God is protecting some queer being from the blond beasts given birthed queerly from the Divinity Itself (surely queer parents have disappointed children too), but I’m still left wondering who God is fooling in the response to Job, just teeming with duplicity. And since it is God’s duplicity than I suppose I cannot but doubt that it is a just duplicity. 

And it is on this point, the problem of evil and Trinitarian theodicy, that I find myself wanting to ask why we don’t hope for nothing, rather than lament that our hope would be for nothing if not for the resurrection. After reading Frank B. Wilderson and Orlando Patterson’s early work I am somewhat obsessed with the function of the figure of the slave in (white) theoretical work. If one were to flip through the books I’ve read in the last three or four years, they would find the word “slave” circled in thick strokes of pencil, so that I might not forget to see this figure all too often hidden away.3 Often the rhetorical labors the slave is put to confirm Patterson’s fundamental thesis of Slavery and Social Death that our conception of freedom is secured through the difference it makes with slavery. And so I was drawn to this point in Tonstad’s work and wondered if it too confirmed Patterson’s thesis. In the constructive part of the book she turns to the slave in order to discuss the status of Sonship. Rather than reading the relationship of the Father to the Son as essentially gendered she reads it instead through economic terms. First telling us, “So overcoming death as the life-giver is a good way to express just who the Son is as God; undergoing death as a human being for our sake is a good way to express just who the Son is as a human; and his person is not sundered. The union of God with humankind in Jesus just is the communication of God’s gifts to humankind (234).” What is the nature of this gift? Manumission by way of adoption.

I will now quote Tonstad at length since I believe there is a lot going on here that presents a challenge not to her profound theological project (though it will be extension), but to the Christian basis of any theological project. Such a project is predicated on the distinction between Sonship (that is, personhood with its attendant dignity and freedom from the death sentence of gender) and being a slave with its attendant lack of dignity and non-being. Because, even if there is some ideal of apocalyptic and abortive ecclesiology at play, there is still the demands of community for intelligibility, for a language that is claimed to be common, and for a grammar of freedom that still operates through a differential exclusion.

Among the various images of transformed relationships between God and humankind, two in particular stand out in the New Testament: friendship and adoption. Those who participate in Christ are adopted as “sons” and given room within the Father’s mansion. Sonship language indicates the for-us character of divine action. We cannot become children of God by nature [!], but we can share in God as adopted children and chosen friends. The “Spirit of adopted sonship” (Rom. 8:15) makes us children of God as we are united with the Son. Sonship is an economic designation [my emphasis], just as fatherhood is. But sonship is not only an indiction of the intimacy God offers us. The work such language is doing is to show that being sons of God means we are not servants of God. The distinction is not between sons and daughters, say (so that we are “sons” but not in a human way, in analogy to the arguments considered in Chapter 5), but between sons and slaves. As in Galatians 4:6-7, insofar as the Holy Spirit teaches us to cry “Abba,” the result is that we are no longer slaves but sons, and if a son then an heir of God through Christ. Indeed, the reason for the sending of the “Son” is so that we may be transformed into heirs rather than slaves, into friends rather than servants of God. The relevant paradox is not the simultaneity of obedience and freedom or their nonopposition in God, but the simultaneity of “sonship” and friendship: the claim on God we are allowed to make in virtue of our adoption and the side-by-side relations we are given by virtue of friendship with God incarnate. As Didymus says, “The Spirit himself adopts us as children and bears witness when our spirit possesses the same Spirit by participation that we are children of God. In consequence of this, on the one hand, God bestows spiritual gifts upon us like a father bestows a bountiful inheritance [are we back in Connecticut with those blond beasts? – APS], but on the other hand, we are fellow heirs with Christ, insofar as we are called his brothers through his grace and kindness.” The Spirit of freedom [my emphasis] sets us free and gives us full access to the banquet that God has prepared for God’s people.

My point here is not that Tonstad’s work should be placed on the bad side of the ledger because her Trinitarian theology rests upon the same dialectic of freedom and slavery that Christian theology generally arguable does. I want to affirm with the other respondents the beauty of the work and the enjoyment I felt while reading it, so often slipping beneath the waves in beautiful ecstasy, out of my own depth as an anomalous theologian untutored in the nuances of trinitarian debates and marveling at a real theologian excelling in their performance and work. Of course I also do not want to deny the truth of the analysis if it leads us to the position that (a certain white) queer Trinitarian theology of freedom still rests upon a dialectic that has been actualized in Christian history in racial ways that produces its own ungendering and nothing-ing of the self, as Hortense Spillers has argued in her “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”. But the demand (which may yet exist) to account for this split in Christian experience is not my demand here. That’s probably not a demand I can or should make. In fact, I’m making no demands. Rather, I want to suggest how this renders problematic one of the more beautiful and hopeful parts of the book for me. Note by this grammatical ambiguity I do not mean that I found it particularly beautiful or hopeful in a subjective sense, but I mean that it was offering me—in my subject position with all its death dealing to me and others—access to the beatific vision and hope in something I’m tempted to call salvation. Precisely the becoming nothing presented as an image of salvation around the banquet table.

She writes, “The end toward which the trinity works is overcoming and transforming the kind of relations generated by the not-enough conditions of human existence. One spatial way to represent the character of this transformation is to imagine the heavenly banquet table around which we gather as simultaneously huge and tiny—everyone crowds in next to each other, yet somehow, the closer everyone gets, there is always room for all. Relations between persons get intensified—side-by-side relations can represent this, but an economy of surface touch works as well. Those intensified relationships can be symbolized through the very type of materiality that we see in the risen Christ—here’s where his ability to walk through walls matters […]. His body no longer competes with other bodies for the same space. His body and the wall or door can be in the same place at the same time without crashing into each other or shattering each other, yet his body has not become ethereal or vaporous—he eats and drinks [does he also do less polite things like shit and fuck, as Deleuze and Guattari write about desiring-machines?], he can be touched (243).”

Tonstad’s transformation of our finitude through clit-licking surface touching rather than dick-sucking metaphysics of presence suggests a way out for rightly passing CIS-gender, straight white men like myself. For even when I’m reminded that anything I might call my identity is really nothing (and I mean that quite literally, really nothing), my experience in the world is one of taking up space. I’m taking up space in this discussion, I’ll take up space on a panel later in November, I take up space at the front of the classrooms I’m tasked with facilitating, I take up space on the bus and subway, I even take up space when I attend a panel and worry about my body touching someone else in ways that make them feel disgust, with my broad chest, my belly, these formerly-toned tree-trunk thighs constrained by jeans, and by the maleness they perceive even though I really do keep it in my pants and enjoy those moments of dance when I can perform some kind of femininity in the dark with no one paying attention (though damn, if they do, I worry that they see just some chubby white dude gyrating badly, so thank God or Nature for the distance between their conciseness and my own). White, straight men take up space with their phallus, regardless of intentionality (NB: intentionality may be a bedrock of liberal legal theory but it has nothing to do with ontological offense). As one who does not rightly pass for a Christian I take some kind of pleasure in hoping for nothing and I read this discussion of the economy of surface touch and intensification as a message of freedom from the death dealing powers of the masculinity I’ve been raised into believing I’ve been born this way. A body that does not take up space, but that may still be touched, that may still eat (in Danny Brown’s sense), sounds like freedom. Yet, such freedom still relies on adoption, on the condition of slavery. For this abortive hope to truly escape the logic of domination Christianity is so enthralled to in its future-oriented logic, then a deeper account of such slavery must be developed. For the forced nothingness of the slave seems as if it is the condition of the freedom of not having a thing.

Notes

1. I am not simply using “dirty words” for some kind of shock effect. Such shock may have been possible in some other time, but perhaps it is owing to my living in a major city, but I simply can’t imagine such language shocking anymore. Instead I use “fuck” because this is how we actually speak when “we do what lovers do” (as Adele politely sings) and I am using it in a technical etymological sense that points to the agricultural and productive sense of the term, one that is lost in our more pleasure-focused odes to fucking today. This etymology is reported in terrible clarity by Edward E. Baptist in his economic and personal history of American racial slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told.

“The entrepreneur looks out at the fields from the new porch on his cabin, talking. His employee listens, then walks over, picks up a clod of dirt. Smells it. Maybe tastes it. Puts it down. The next day it rains hard in the morning, but when it stops the men bring the mules and the plows out. The spongy earth oozes into the hollows, sucking the metal plow points. “Fuck this mud,” the men mutter. Fuck. From an Old English word meaning: to strike, to beat. Before that, in an even older language: to plow. To tear open. The seeds are waiting. In the sack in the shed. Or maybe safe under the entrepreneur’s high bed. The bed where he fucks his wife. Bed brought by wagon from the landing, bed bought with last year’s crop. Maybe he didn’t bring his wife. Maybe the sack is under the bed where he fucks the sixteen-year-old light-skinned girl from Maryland, also bought with last year’s crop. Maybe she is the same girl who washes the bloodstains from the sheets in the morning. Who carries the chamber pot to the woods. Who turns it over, brings it back empty, sets it by his side of the bed. Bumps her toe on the bulging sack, full of tiny seeds. Her toe feels their caress through cotton bagging sewn up with cotton thread. One hundred thousand DNA packets, each one encoding Gossypium hirsutum. One hundred thousand cotton seeds. Oily against each other, warm like Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley, where five thousand years ago Indian women tamed these seeds’ ancestors.”

2. One of the great moves Tonstad makes in God and Difference is to disabuse us that Lacan somehow magically doesn’t conflate the phallus and the penis. It’s true that a woman can have a phallus in the symbolic sense, but it is also true that the symbolic phallus is superimposed upon the physical penis in a kind of hallucination of the hardness of our selves, our presence, and our male importance that staves off our impotence.

3. The image of “the little man in the boat” as mnemonic device for sexual play turns to something horrific with the image of bodies laid out for maximum storage and supply, and yet both draw upon the phantasmic images of the “wound-womb” that is superimposed upon the baroque, multiplicitous genitals popularly (mis)called “the vagina”. Glissant writes, “This boat is a womb, a womb abyss. It generates the clamor of your protests; it also produces all the coming unanimity. Although you are alone in this suffering, you share in the unknown with others whom you have yet to know. This boat is your womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. This boat: pregnant with as many dead as living under sentence of death.” (Poetics of Relation, p. 6).

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