I can no longer make it through the nights. This is different from insomnia. I’ve had that, though mine always seemed to be about a certain kind of missing out. As if the fact of sleep meant I wasn’t out drinking or dancing or wasn’t up reading or writing. Staying up all night then kept me up the next night or I would sleep during the day when I should be out writing and reading. The worst of this was during my doctoral work. Something about the demands of a job, the demands of a certain shared sociality of employment, pretty much ended my insomnia. Now, no matter how late I go to sleep, I wake up too early. If I have a particularly bad dream then it might be 3am. If not, then it’s usually no later than 6. I wake up tired. Deeply unhappy. My pillow contorted into a lump that I have aggressively dug my head into. Nothing like the images of sleeping people on TV. Their head and shoulders comfortably lying on the soft down or synthetic petroleum-based something or other. They look so good at sleeping. They look so good. Read the rest of this entry »

“It’ll take time to restore chaos.”

It’s one of George W. Bush’s most famous garbled quotes, but lately I’ve begun wondering if it was actually intended as a straightforward description of America’s long-term ambitions in the Middle East. By now, it’s clear to everyone that the U.S. failed to achieve even a single stated goal in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And surely anyone with any intellectual integrity has to be asking very serious questions about whether any of those goals — building a stable democratic republic, rooting out all terrorists ever, etc. — were ever even possible. Yet things seem to be more or less on automatic pilot over there, with Obama pondering leaving troops in Afghanistan for all eternity.

This is one of those points where one needs to apply the “what if it’s a feature, not a bug” test. What if the positive goal is to create chaos and turmoil? If we stipulate that the U.S. can’t positively shape events in the Middle East — or, what amounts to the same thing, that it’s not willing to commit the resources necessary — then the next-best result is to prevent anyone else from controlling the situation.

From this perspective, we can see the true horror of America’s Middle East policy: a seething cauldron of violence that threatens to explode into World War III is preferable to allowing anything like genuine self-determination by the people of the Middle East. And it becomes even worse when you realize that the whole thing is engineered to maintain control over a fuel source that may literally render the earth uninhabitable in the long run.

As a Palestinian preacher once said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

Why would Agamben deny that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker?

In The Time That Remains and elsewhere, Agamben flatly dismisses the idea that Paul is an apocalyptic thinker. This is strange to me, because Paul obviously is an apocalyptic thinker. It’s even more puzzling because Agamben gives basically no explicit reasons for this assessment.

What would be wrong with apocalyptic from Agamben’s perspective? Is it simply too “mythological” to be appropriable in the way he takes a “messianic” Paul to be? Does he think that all apocalyptic roads lead to Schmitt? Any ideas?

The spectacle of hell in Augustine

Modern critics of Christianity have repeatedly drawn attention to the recurring trope of the blessed watching the damned being tortured in hell. It appears most forcefully in the famous passage from Tertullian’s De spectaculis that was quoted by both Gibbon and Nietzsche, as well as in later theologians like Bonaventure and Aquinas (who didn’t have the excuse of being persecuted).

This theme appears to be mostly absent in City of God, where Augustine nonetheless insists on the reality and the appropriateness of eternal damnation for the majority of human beings. There is a strange element of his treatment of eternal punishment in Book XXI, however, in that he responds to critics who don’t believe that a physical body could endure endless suffering by pointing to all the many natural wonders he had experienced or heard of. He mentions the salamander, which supposely lived in fire, as well as more obscure examples such as the imperishability of cooked peacock flesh (something McDonald’s should look into). There’s even a passage in which he anticipates the Insane Clown Posse’s immortal line: “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” The ostensible message is clear — if God can do all this amazing stuff, how can you doubt that he could make a body that was able to endure eternal torture? Yet the subtext is disturbing: by insistently associating eternal torture with all these cool things, he is implicitly counting it among God’s marvellous wonders.

Hence the theme of enjoyment of and fascination with the tortures of the damned appears even here, in submerged form.

The definitive interpretation of Revelation

In my devil class, we read Daniel and Revelation in a short period, attempting to get at the apocalyptic mindset that produced our familiar figure of the devil. I’ve written previously about my theory that Antiochus Epiphanes’ brief but horrifying reign provided a key impetus for the development of the idea of a spiritual/political power that was not simply God’s unwitting tool (though he also remained that), but consciously fought against God’s purposes. The emergence of such a figure, who broke the Deuteronomistic pattern by punishing the Jews precisely for being righteous and faithful to the Law, could only mean the impending end of the world order that the Deuteronomistic paradigm had rendered intelligible — and produced the demand for a radically new world order in which the problem of evil would no longer be a problem.

Daniel’s strategy for presenting his view (for the sake of economy, let’s not get into the weeds of parsing out sources, etc.) consists in giving an account of world history up to his time (the Maccabean period), an account that is symbolic but more or less transparent when you know what he’s talking about — for instance, the various beasts are empires, the “little horn” is Antiochus, etc. The author brings us up to the situation in which he’s writing/redacting/whatever, but then in chapter 11, he gives us a prediction that didn’t come true (Antiochus is supposed to mount one last offensive against Northern Africa before ushering in the Last Judgment).

The visions in Revelation are much more difficult to “map onto” any particular history and seem to generate a kind of collage effect. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the core prediction is the ignominous fall of Rome, centered around Nero as an Antiochus-like figure. But the stakes have been decisively raised. Read the rest of this entry »

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.


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