Symposium Introduction

In Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault, Mark Jordan invites us to read (and re-read) the complex and contested corpus of Michel Foucault, attending to the form, style, and other literary dimensions therein in order to reflect on the process of reading and writing about bodies, especially the bodies of the lost, forgotten, subjected, and violated. While this book certainly contributes to the important scholarship that surrounds Foucault’s perspectives on religion, its aims and execution strive beyond the typical “scholarly exposition,” as Jordan subtly guides the reader through stylistic boundaries between literature and philosophy so that these same elements are revealed in Foucault’s writing. In describing what allured him to make this book, he writes, “I am lured not by [Foucault’s] bodily life but by whatever lured him to write endlessly about the bodily production of our words for bodies” (3).

The contributors to this symposium have each offered unique and engaging perspectives after allowing Jordan to lead them in this singular book. The imaginative exercises enacted in reading the writing of these readings of Jordan coalesce in their vulnerability to lay bare their own practice. Some imagine Jordan’s own reading and writing practice in a mimesis of his activity with Foucault (Tonstad, Dubilet). Others engage in analogous readings of authors both classical and recent who engage in their own process of reading, writing, re-reading, and re-writing (Larsen). All the authors highlight new lines of inquiry opened up to them by their reading, such as “the question of forms of resistance to pastoral power” (Dubilet), “the figure of the entrepreneur” (Tonstad) and the aesthetic dimension of life (Brintnall). Finally, Jordan’s engaged responses to each contributor is itself a helpful opportunity for him to give voice to theoretical and strategic dimensions of the book that can only assist in the reading process.

Linn Marie Tonstad links Jordan’s practice of writing and reading to queer interpretive practices as she reflects on the tense interplay between word/sound and the body in agony and wonders about the role of sexuality as strategy of power. Alex Dubilet’s “structured ruminations” attend to the interplay and porousness in discourses of religion and secularity, while most perceptively identifying perhaps Jordan’s greatest achievement in his book: the “training [of] readers’ sight to these elements—modes of speech, comportments of body, modes of subjectivation, techniques of power, forms of discourse and truth…” Lynne Huffer pays excellent attention to Jordan’s intended re-figuration of philosophy into camp, a kind of “histrionic excess,” as the lens through which to read Foucault’s writings, best understood as “dramaturgies” (140). This sensibility saturates Foucault’s work, and especially Jordan’s, which she identifies as an “ethopoietic camp philosophy.” Kent L. Brintnall captures the didactic dimension in Jordan’s book poetically when he writes, “Jordan’s writing traces a finger across the page of Foucault’s texts, directing our eyes and focusing our attention.” His essay focuses on the literary dimension of Foucault’s and Jordan’s texts, articulating Jordan’s program as an invitation to consider the question “Should we read Foucault as a novelist?” In a most helpful and learned essay, Sean Larsen situates Convulsing Bodies within the context of Jordan’s other work in ethics, theology, and queer studies, as well as providing analogous examples through readings of the re-writing of bodies in writings of James Baldwin and Augustine of Hippo.

Theology plays and haunts throughout these essays, as it does Jordan’s book and Foucault’s work. Allusions to the word, the Word, and other incarnational references are peppered throughout, often in poetic contexts. This is appropriate, considering the great struggle and joy of the work is about bodies and the tension of their presence and absence as we, Jordan, Foucault, and others, write them. All of these essays take Jordan’s invitation and challenge seriously to disrupt the rationalistic stranglehold on scholarly discourse, a challenge Jordan himself reveals as a constitutive aspect of Foucault’s own work.

Linn Tonstad


Performing (the) Truth

THE BODY THAT WANDERS through Mark Jordan’s Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault, is not just the convulsing body of the title. The body is a sounding body, a body whose utterance has moved beyond speech but not beyond hearing. The cry of that body marks the limits of speech, and the limits of power. Indeed, speech and power approach identity in Jordan’s beautifully written, palimpsestic record of a life of palimpsestic reading. The death-dealing capacities of language to identify identity—to trap becoming as being—are eluded, resisted, and made visible behind their “perfect mask[s]” (114) as the body expends its force at the uttermost limits of what can be borne by living, carnal matter. Linguistic violence and flesh-rendering violence cannot be separated, for one permits the other. One exercises its capacities in service of the other as power exerts its force on living matter. Power names, by way of its filial conventions (the authority of origin), in order to fix the fixable and torment the resistant. Power’s speech arranges bodies spatially, in relation to each other and within and in relation to the architecture of power, as for instance in the transformation of the monk’s cell into the prisoner’s, or as bodies pass by a destroyed temple and an empty, magnificent church. Power conceals itself under the blank face of the bureaucrat; or as a laughably spectacular display of sovereignty that conceals its own power precisely in its display. Exciting power to dis-close itself requires theatricalization, performing bodies that speak toward the limits of speech. Yet as each diagnostic performance arrives belatedly in power’s arena, power has already moved on to a new, cunning stratagem for extending its reach while concealing itself. At the moment power overreaches by provoking the non-agential body into convulsion and the cry, power expels the convulsing body from its then-current, pastoral domain and into the domains of the medical and juridical. As power expels the convulsing body from the pastoral domain, power goes along with the convulsing body into those new domains. For power is omnispatial.

Jordan’s style of reading is reflected—or so it seems—in his style of writing. As I worked through Convulsing Bodies, I found myself repeatedly wondering about, and imagining, the material practices that subtend such careful, archival work, work that nevertheless moves always across (quer) and in a curve, rather than in a straight line of dependency, genealogy, or authority. What kind of notebooks does he use? How does he retrace his steps, to discover just the page and line that illuminates another page, far removed from the former in time or space? Do his physical books, like mine, fall apart from too many travels and too much scribbling? Do they surround him in stacks or return to his attention one at a time? Jordan writes writing, in analogical and even homologous relationship to the performing analyst of power who attempts to point to the body’s cry. Writing writing, as Jordan makes splendidly evident, is also writing reading. And while Jordan does not make the point in as flatly literal a way as I am about to, the writing of reading is intrinsic to (albeit not coextensive with) queer interpretive practices. Reading queerly means reading with and across other readers, other readings; writing reading creates other readers too. And in queer theology, as Jordan knows far better than I, its founding moment is perhaps the moment in which a reader first reads the words of a writer who tells of her own writing body as it writes its reading, the moment that teaches how to “do theology without underwear.”

The marvel of the non-coincidental contiguity of word/sound and body returns to the fore over and over. Jordan ceaselessly reminds us that words have the temerity to seek to capture bodies, imposing themselves on bodies from infancy (114), representing unruly bodies by way of the dead letter. But bodies voice themselves, especially their agony, in response, adding the aural and temporal to the spatial. For the architecture of dead knowledge of the falsely represented body is historical, not eternal. Having pushed the body to the limits of its endurance, the body revolts in space and by sound. At that moment, the body seems to promise a non-classifiable “knowledge” of its capacity to evade invasion, waging guerilla warfare against the can(n)ons of empire. So power takes the body’s promise for its own, producing the externality and sexuality of the body as the fictional other of power’s repressive force.

I wonder how far power has taken the place that power itself marked out for sexuality in this story. Power conceals its actual histories under different masks, masks that require the uncovered, naked truth of the body (genitals silenced, or at least silent? [103]) to resistantly distort power’s knowledge in service of another truth. Power acts, perhaps not as a substance but certainly as an agent, or actant. Jordan, writing his reading of Foucault, marks the danger in characteristically thoughtful fashion (82). Yet power invades (83), “makes itself tolerable by masking itself” (110), practices “deliberately irresponsible naming” (112) when it invents sexuality. As long as the agent of power remains Christianity, or pastoral power, or the Roman Catholic Church, power’s aggression and intrusiveness (90) belong (fictionally? really? both?) somewhere, to some ones, or at least to the practices of power an institution/fiction (the “Church”) exercises. To look for such a somewhere, or a someone, afterward, is to be “tricked again by monarchial narratives of power” (113) that have “imposed [concepts] on [embodiment] from infancy” (114).

Imposed? Are we then to circle through this sequence again? Perhaps. The turn to the body as the site of our hope takes place with and alongside the invention of sexuality. The age of sexuality is also the age of “embodiment”; our theoreticians of resistance discover the body’s capacities for resistance at the same time as bodies are organized into factories, then disciplined in front of desks; at the same time as bodies are allowed their various pleasures as long as they do not interfere with work. Jordan refuses to fall for seductive but finally unconvincing stories of how “bodies and pleasures” will save us all (116). Such an interpretation drowns artifice in flat sincerity, sacrifices irony to the idol of the real—the condition under which names could mistakenly be thought to have captured bodies. As Jordan repeatedly shows, unmasking power requires denaturalization, but strategies of reversal are not enough for the terms of engagement remain the same. Another economy, outside the territory of the idol of the real, must be found.

It may turn out that only “knowing” god in the body can save us, if indeed we can be saved. Or at least that “knowing” (in the biblical sense) god in the body moves one away from the moral code and into an ascetics of excess, an ascetics of camp. The dead idol of the universal law can perhaps be shown up as deadly deception by self-duplication that places the self beside the self in order “to become again, by remaking what has already been made” (173), to become what one never was.

At the end, we are left with the body of the Cynic, who “transmut[es] social ostracism and physical suffering into philosophic teaching” (189). Genet does not appear as a named actor in this drama, but in the doubled consciousness of reading the writing of a character, “Mark,” who reads the (sort of self-) presentation of a character, “Michel,” in order to hear the cry of the body, his presence cannot but be noted. Let us walk once more through the circle to descry whether the landscape mapped out by the ruses of power’s self-concealment under sexuality’s desire for an authentic-authorizing name has indeed shifted (and I stay here with spatial metaphors while cognizant of Jordan’s suggestion that temporality, or space thought temporally, offers more promise).

Cynic bodies are self-stylized bodies that go all the way, holding nothing back. “Cynicism presents a series of breaking points at which philosophy must confront its own inconsistencies. It is a carnival but also a race to the limit” (188). The Cynic reads the body’s role so sincerely that the very sincerity becomes parodic, carnivalesque. The Cynics seek “the genres in which to make manifest the style of life that shows forth truth” (188), by making their own bodies into the bodies of truth. They “invert . . . gender expectations” and “includ[e] women as equal members” (189); they play outrageous roles in order to draw attention to truth, to make truth a form (a style) of life. The parrhesic mode of speech of the Cynics interests Foucault, Jordan suggests, as “an open situation of risk with an unknowable outcome” (180–81). Making themselves into the material of their becoming what they never were, the Cynics risk themselves in an uncertain, non-calculable future.

But to double oneself and to produce a role for oneself in order to risk oneself into an uncertain future, to double oneself as a way to become the self one never was, is analogous to another figure I spend much of my time thinking about these days, the figure of the entrepreneur. This is not, let me hurry to insist, a repetition of a debate I find generally uninteresting, about the relation between Foucault and neoliberalism (in part because my understanding of contemporary capitalism moves beyond the standard worries about neoliberalism as the extension of economic logics into all domains of life). Rather, I think about relationships between risk and incalculability, between vulnerability and threat, and between an open future that beckons invitingly and an open future into whose threatening maw one has no choice but to run with all one’s power. For the entrepreneur shares significant features with the truth-teller. The entrepreneur is one who risks beyond calculability (at the very point where calculability fails, and remember that the calculation of risk to the point where it can no longer be calculated is fundamental to the rise of modern capitalism); the entrepreneur is vulnerable, but risks themself in a total way; the entrepreneur commits to a future only they can see, a future that emerges at the limit of the possible. Is the relation between the entrepreneurial and the parrhesic one of indeterminacy, or dependent on outcome? Or to ask in an idiom closer to Jordan’s own, if a form of life that permits truth-telling is a matter of style, what resources remain to distinguish the entrepreneur from the truth-teller? In which story is Baudelaire like the Renaissance man like Lypsinka? In what sense did being the queen of Bithynia prevent Gaius Julius from making himself into the Caesar that never was before?

The mode of transformation, of fracture, from the body’s cry into truth-telling is not an event that happens once. But the body that cries out is gendered: “The origin of truth telling is a female accusation against the mendacious silence of a male god” (183). Jordan makes the case through a reading of Foucault (and Nietzsche) on Ariadne, and Foucault on Creusa. Creusa moves from the cry to truthful speech (confession), as both Ariadne and Creusa learn that “a cry extorted from a convulsing human body is the only proper speech for getting a god’s attention” (183). The move into truth-telling follows Foucault’s bodily representation of Creusa’s cry (185). But Jordan’s response to worries about whether Foucault is a misogynist leave me underwhelmed, or at least wanting more. Jordan fears losing the other questions that we might ask to the question over Foucault’s misogyny. For instance, “Which bodies do we consider authorized to write the cries of other resisting bodies?” (184). To determine what Foucault is allowed to say is to situate oneself an enforcer of biopower’s precepts. Another important question: “What kind of relation do we assume between the legibility of a body and its writing?” (185). Now, these are indeed important questions, and I share Jordan’s desire for “an embodied authorship that can contest power by writing across assigned identities, their privileges and inhibitions” (185). But the juxtaposition of these questions to a feminist worry makes feminists who worry about the content, not the body, of Foucault’s writing the willing handmaiden/soldiers of biopower, because Jordan elides the worry about content with concern regarding Foucault’s body. To my mind, the important questions about Foucault on gender are not questions about whether, say, a woman or non-binary person writing what Foucault writes would elicit the same worries in their readers. The important questions are quite specific to the content of Foucault’s writing, and they have to do with fundamental questions, and possible disagreements, regarding what sorts of bodied writing of reading are most promising for those who recognize the binary sex-gender system as a distorting, destructive system of power-knowledge. Jordan hopes, for instance, that writing as Foucault does on violated male bodies and “through or against gender expectations” “complicate[s] the relation of violence to gender” (184). It is just here that feminists disagree with each other (feminists of many different sex-gender identities and feminists of none). Does the violation of male bodies change the relation between gender and violence? Are sex-gender systems best made unstable by denaturalization or inversion? Is change in sex-gender systems best elicited by way of written, bodily representation, by way of voiced bodily representation, or some other way? (Perhaps encounter with gender-confounding persons is more transformative in the body than in the imaginations that accompany our reading.) Are sex-gender systems as stable as they pretend, or is their stability an effect of their instability? After all, Jordan has just described a transmutation of power—when convulsion is given up by the Roman Catholic Church to the medical and psychiatric realms—that further solidified, rather than changed, power’s illusional capacity to capture identitarianly determined bodies. I would like to read more of Jordan’s bodied thinking on some of these questions, perhaps because I find feminist worries less driven by identitarian concerns than he does.

Reading Foucault on religion after Jordan is a new task, one more interesting to me now than it was before Jordan’s attentiveness to the performative, bodied moments in which form and content unite in Foucault’s oeuvre. After Convulsing Bodies, I find myself gratefully forbidden to do to Jordan what he refuses to do to Foucault. (I will admit great affection, perhaps even fandom, for To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, and for some of Guibert’s writing elsewhere as well.) Much remains to be said, in particular about the implications of Jordan’s reading of Foucault for redirecting searches for religion in territories outside the Foucauldian. There is at least an implicit sense in which Jordan points toward other topoi than those usually canvassed by the religion-hunter. I am grateful for the chance to see for a time with his eyes.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan


    Reply to Linn Tonstad

    In the second paragraph of her perceptive response, Linn Tonstad recalls what she counts one of the founding moments of the project of queer theology. She locates it in “the words of a writer who tells of her own writing body as it writes its reading, the moment that teaches how to ‘do theology without underwear.’” In the elusive introduction to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology, underwear appears—or rather disappears—in anecdotes about policemen and missionaries, in a recollection of lemon vendors, and in the author’s distancing self-reference to “the Argentinean theologian” who would like to take off her underwear when writing theology.1 The gesture is at least as complicated as the indirect reference. Althaus-Reid deliberately offers her genitals for interpretation—that is, for moral reproof or desire or political appropriation. She places her body with the indecent, the indigenous women who are scolded for not knowing how to cover up. More exactly, by uncovering her body she reminds us that it has already been classed and anatomized alongside theirs. She is an Argentinean. She is a woman. Indeed, beneath her underwear there lies what some suppose most of all “makes” her a woman—and so both an object and a subject within economies of priced bodies and church-licensed couplings.

    Only Althaus-Reid never does take off her underwear so that the reader can see. She does not describe her body in particular terms. She gives no sustained account of her loves, her escapades, or even her desires. For all its supposedly scandalous disclosures, Indecent Theology offers us no more than a Masked Theologian or—to speak more traditionally—a Veiled “Woman.” Veiled indeed: she is inspired one Carnival to “go out as a female impersonator of the Virgin of Guadalupe” (Indecent Theology, 48). So much for visible, self-evident genitals. Althaus-Reid’s insistence on the endless refraction of sex/gender—her turning, say, to so Nietzschean a writer on sex as Pierre Klossowski—makes room for an adequately incarnational theology by refusing all the obvious accounts of bodies, including those of earnest testimony and direct inspection. If Althaus-Reid would like to write without underwear, she certainly does not mean to trade on the (academic) market value of what is to be found underneath. If she invokes embodied pleasures or pains within theology, they are not some raw material neatly packaged for shipment to an academic mill Up North. Althaus-Reid writes against the stereotypes that made her only a Latina Liberation theologian—with assigned lines and paternalistically delimited concerns. At least in these ways, She writes like Foucault.

    Tonstad moves on from her invocation of Althaus-Reid to other considerations, each of which deserves reflection. But let me jump to her last section, in which she raises acute questions about my labored, elliptical pages on Foucault’s misogyny. I said little in them partly because I took as given Lynne Huffer’s long engagement with Foucault and feminism in Mad for Foucault. I also wanted to resist what some readers seem disposed to take as the interpretive key to anything I might write about Foucault and women—I mean, their presumption of my bodily sex. What Tonstad calls the elision of content and authorial body is not one I perform. I find it already accomplished in many readings around me. In those pages, I try to contest it in order to open space for reading Foucault—and, indeed, for doing and adequately incarnational theology.

    Let me rehearse points on which Tonstad and I agree, then those at which we may not. First, I agree emphatically that “feminism” is said in many ways. The fights among feminists are legendary—especially with regard to sex. Second, Tonstad and I agree about troubling omissions, slipped readings, and awkward ironies on some of the pages that Foucault writes about women. I note one striking omission in the section to which Tonstad refers: his failure to mention the philosophical vocation of Crates’s wife, Hipparchia (Convulsing Bodies, 189). Still, these textual failures must be discussed in the particular. Generalizations are risky when assessing so ironic a writer. Amy Richlin’s famous charge that Foucault describes an ancient world without women is one that he partly acknowledges in discussing the limitations of the elite, prescriptive sources he choses. But the charge is not finally fair either to the genre or the contents of History of Sexuality 2–3. Much less could it serve as a whole description of his last lecture series, in which—as I hope to have shown—some women have key roles.

    If generalizations are risky, diagnoses are much more so. “Misogyny”—like “homophobia”—carries competing meanings and energies, many of them psychological or clinical. It seems to mean, at various times, a felt prejudice, an unacknowledged bias, a linguistic habit, a psychoanalytic genealogy, an expressed or implied political platform, a “class consciousness,” and the psycho-physiological fate of most maleness. The confusion of meanings multiplies as they are transferred back and forth between texts or artifacts or institutions and persons. The diagnostic terms are designed to encourage that transfer. I have heard students describe History of Sexuality 1 as a “misogynistic” text because they judge that it excludes women in a way that they consider typical of “patriarchal culture.” I’m not sure whether Tonstad would consider that a judgment on content. I consider it an incipient diagnosis of the (projected) author. One already begins to pass from what Foucault said to what Foucault must mostly deeply have been. It is generally not counted a satisfactory defense to reply that Foucault’s work aims to resist precisely this sort of diagnosis, which moves so confidently from textual symptoms to an imputed (moral, socio-political, quasi-pathological) identity. “He is a misogynist.”

    Let me add immediately that I see the same diagnostic logic in typical uses of “homophobic,” a pseudo-clinical term that pretends to explain much. Just when I am being cursed as a “notorious homosexual” masquerading as a Christian theologian, I particularly want to avoid shouting back that my opponent must be “a homophobe.” Must be, because every speech act must be interpreted in relation to an identity. Must be, because no one may speak without declaring an identifiable subject-position. Of course, these rules for compulsory naming apply far beyond polemical exchanges. Negotiating a hook-up has long required assuming an identity. The Advocate classifieds asked you to choose from a short list of symbols or icons. Grindr now offers a drop-down menu for specifying your “gay tribe.” In how many ways we have to rehearse bio-power’s primal scene of metaphysical ethnography?

    I am not sure how far Tonstad would disagree with those last two paragraphs. Even if I reach it by different routes, I do endorse her formulation of the “fundamental questions . . . regarding what sorts of bodied writing of reading are most promising for those who recognize the binary sex-gender system as a distorting, destructive system of power-knowledge.” Yes and amen. Let me add two codicils—which I hope will be agreeable to Tonstad. First, there are many different kinds of people among those who resist “the binary sex-gender system”; they may well find different promises in contradictory writing. Second, there is of course more than one “binary sex-gender system.” The “systems” of sex and gender I was sometimes able to see as an adolescent gringo growing up in Guadalajara in the 1960s were not the systems I saw in suburban Dallas during the same years—though I suppose both were “western” and “Christian” and “capitalist” and “patriarchal.” Our terms for analyzing sex-gender taxonomies are still both clumsy and rudimentary—in no small part because they have never been disentangled from the taxonomic logic of diagnosis by identity. They often repeat the favorite operations of the power that they mean to resist. If I am sometimes worn out by the quarrels of “queer theory,” I remind myself that we have just begun the poesis of language for writing queer theology.

    1. Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 1–2. My reading of Indecent Theology has been much improved by Hannah L. Hofheinz, Implicate and Transgress: Marcella Althaus-Reid, Writing, and a Transformation of Theological Knowledge (doctoral dissertation, Harvard Divinity School, 2015), here especially 107–10.

Alex Dubilet


Pastoral Power, Counter-conduct, and the Flesh

Some Remarks on Foucault and Mark D. Jordan’s Convulsing Bodies

MARK D. JORDAN’S CONVULSING BODIES: Religion & Resistance in Foucault is an unusual text. It is difficult to categorize: Part reader’s guide with a quasi-pedagogical style, part primer to Foucault’s work focused predominantly on its ambivalent entanglements with religion, the text reads as an homage of a scholar who has been engaged with Foucault for a lifetime, deciding to reread that corpus once more. Throughout, it remains close to Foucault’s work, retracing its development, placing intonations and emphases throughout, while cautioning against a variety of possible misreadings and confusions. The book presents less than an overall thesis about Foucault than a set of structured ruminations, building a path, at once personal and scholarly, through Foucault’s extravagant production and its entanglements with religion, which in this case (as in many others) ultimately means Christianity. As Jordan himself puts it, in a gesture of humility that the text carries out, “I wish only to stand in front of a selection of Foucault’s texts, pointing here and there in admiration” (10–11). In what follows, I will pick up a few notes of shared admiration, but also pointing to knots of theoretical complexity that have come to mind in regards to Foucault while reading Jordan’s book. What follows is both a dialogue with Jordan and an attempt to think with Foucault, trying to be true to the kind of community of reading that Convulsing Bodies enacts.

One of the effects of reading Convulsing Bodies is to remind us of the ways Foucault’s discourse problematizes and undercuts any clear distinctions between religious and secular modes of speech, discourse, and ways of life. Part of this results from Foucault’s attentiveness to the material lives and embodiments of religion, or as Jordan quite eloquently puts it: “Foucault’s inquiry presupposes that religion arises from and issues in fields of forces inseparable from the rest of human history. What distinguishes it is not some rigid connection with an already separate realm of special entities. Religion is distinguished instead by how it arranges languages and practices—teaching and rituals—to control this world and the bodies very much in it” (9). Foucault’s discourse remains itself indeterminable—neither easily religious nor secular. Instead it repeatedly traces the complicated entanglements, afterlives, mutations, and separations of putatively religious and secular elements across different epochs and assemblages. As readers of Foucault know, the concrete concatenations are rather varied and multiple. In History of Madness, for example, it is a question of the constitution of (secular) reason through the confinement and disqualification of modes of speech that used to be, among others, taken to be forms of ecstatic speech, divine speech, and mystic speech. Across the works of the late 1970s, it becomes tracing the contours of Christianity’s pastoral power as a certain genealogical kernel for modern governmentality. In the final stage of Foucault’s writing, it becomes the exploration of spiritual exercises informing the epochal transformation between philosophical and religious modes of subjectivation.

Convulsing Bodies covers these and a number of others transitions and articulations, but in each case, the relationship between religious and secular elements is shown to be neither developmental, nor even necessarily oppositional, but micrological and specific. Elements are extracted from exclusively religious or purely secular frameworks of interpretation and are repeatedly seen as forming heterogeneous and historically singular dispositifs. It is precisely training the readers’ sight to these elements—modes of speech, comportments of body, modes of subjectivation, techniques of power, forms discourse and truth—while freely thinking across the boundary separating religious and secular that has made Foucault’s thought so important for recent critical rethinking of secularism.

On this point, I would agree with Jordan’s assessment when he writes: “There is no bright line between the old religion and the secular state, however much the latter prides itself on being utterly distinct. In many ways, the secular is another mode of religious reform, the latest reformed religion” (53). But I would agree only partially. Yes, Foucault’s work repeatedly subverts the boundary necessary for secularism’s self-justifying narratives, but religion is itself hardly a monolithic entity, whose name could signal an entity that could be (re)formed into secular modernity. Rather, I take Foucault’s perspective to suggest that what the secular state wants to enforce as a divide is always interpenetrating and hybrid—that forms of subjectivation or techniques of power are plugged into assemblages that do not respect the secular/religious divide, but operate on a level that makes the attribution of secularity or religiosity difficult, if not impossible. The dispositif does not abide by a clear-cut secularist distinction (between itself and what is religious), but even so—it is not rendered religious thereby. Secular modes of power contain material techniques and practices taken over from putatively religious histories, and religious modes of speech and subjectivation have secular effects and afterlives—the question is of constructing material links and modes of analysis that could follow these crossings.

For example, if at the heart of the modern disciplinary apparatus is the extension of disciplinary techniques and spaces of confinement (e.g., “cells”) of old monastic environment, as Discipline and Punish suggests, then a number of questions arise. How does one think about the status of the two sides, their relation and nature of transformation? One might want to draw a line of distinction between willed regimes/practices (monasticism) and imposed regimes/practices (penal disciplinary modernity). But such distinction breaks down if we recall that monastic life was oriented around production of submission, humility, and obedience, that is to say, it can by no means be seen as unproblematically willed (even if the original entry into the monastery was admittedly much more willed than entry into the penal system). Or, to put the question another way, do we begin thinking of the monastic modes of life, and everything that went into them, differently after this linking with disciplinary modernity is asserted? It is a question of at once continuity and discontinuity—of thinking together, without reduction—since just as there is an originary monastic site for the formation of disciplinary practices, there are also a number of new elements (such as, for example, the rise of the norm) that render the modern disciplinary dispositif radically different from what occurred in the monastic environment. An altered version of this question emerges again later in Foucault’s work when he explores the role of truth telling and verbalization of sins in the formation of the modern subject, and finds its original formulation in the monastic works of John Cassian. Here again we are pushed to ask, what are the effects of these stories that take modern modes of secular subjectivity and power back to the spaces of the monastery? It is certainly a kind of rewriting of Weber, a kind of displacement, from a Protestant inner-worldly asceticism to a longue durée framework of early and medieval Christianity, but how does the visibility of this filiation transform not only our understanding of modernity, but precisely of monastic formations with which they are tethered in this narrative?

In the late 1970s, Foucault began exploring pastoral power as it was developed in Christianity—and Jordan’s book is particularly engaging in tracing this element of Foucault’s oeuvre. Security, Territory, Population, the 1977–78 Collège de France lectures, suggests that it was pastoral power that was the original site of incubation for modern forms of government. There, Foucault isolates major elements of pastoral power being that (a) it is non-territorial but focused on the flock; (b) it is a power of care oriented around salvation; (c) it is performed in a self-sacrificing way with endless application; (d) it is fundamentally individualistic and individualizing. It is responsible for all and each. Remarkably, in these lectures, pastoral power becomes a kind of defining and singular element of Christianity. “The pastorate begins with a process that is absolutely unique in history and no other example of which is found in the history of any other civilization: the process by which a religion, a religious community, constitutes itself as a Church, that is to say, as an institution that claims to govern men in their daily life on the grounds of leading them into eternal life in the other world, and to do this not only on the scale of a definite group, a city or a state, but of the whole humanity . . . and we have no other example of this in the history of societies” (STP, 148). Moreover, for Foucault, this formation of pastoral power is ultimately “something from which we have still not freed ourselves” (STP, 148).

What interests me here is thinking about the forms of resistance to pastoral power that Foucault outlines. If pastoral power is a power that sought to mold and govern human conduct, it has not been an all-encompassing totalizing historical process, but was repeatedly disturbed by modes of what he terms counter-conduct. “It seems to me that the Middle Ages developed five main forms of counter-conduct, all of which tend to redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth” (STP, 204). Typologically, these include asceticism, formation of counter-communities, forms of mysticism, modes of scriptural exegesis and eschatological affirmation.

Two elements are interesting to note. First, by elaborating a perspective that highlights question of counter-conduct, Foucault allows for a way of linking medieval revolts with modern phenomena of social and political unrest. As he notes, for example, about nineteenth-century political revolts—they were organized around questions of conduct: “to be led differently, by other men, and toward other objectives than those proposed by the apparent and visible official governmentality of society” (STP, 199). With such a perspective, Foucault opens up anew connections that were made on different theoretical grounds by Marxists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—but have unfortunately been left aside by scholars of religion more recently. In fact, Foucault suggests a kind of condensed counter-history of revolts to pastoral organization of conduct, tracing a lineage that includes, among others, Beghards and Beguine movements, Wycliffe and Huss, but also Anabaptists, and including various modern revolutionary formations. These pages of the lectures are more suggestive then programmatic. But they do open up a possibility of further thought—and at least two questions about it: First, if Christian pastoral power is at the origins of modern European governmental power, to put the argument all too briefly, then what kind of transformed afterlives can these earlier heretical modalities of counter-conduct have? And, furthermore, what does a retelling of history of resistance that crosses the medieval/modern or Christian/secular divide allow us to see?

But the schema of counter-conduct is not stable. Sometimes for example, as Jordan notes, mysticism is not seen as a form of counter-conduct but as an expression of pastoral power. This is a minor but significant note insofar as it points to the broader question of the status of these modes of counter-conduct. It is true that all five have the capacity to resist pastoral power as Foucault describes, but under what conditions and in what situations do they resist and actually are modes of counter-conduct? Moreover, is it justifiable analytically to exclusively center Christianity around the question of pastoral power—without embedding it precisely within modes of eschatology, community, ascesis, exegesis? This is to ask, do all these modes of conduct have an ambivalent structure, such that they can be and have been enacted, at various times within the history of Christianity, as proposing programs of counter-conduct as much as legitimating proper conduct? That is, there are forms of eschatological proclamations and ascetic practice (to take two of the five) that buffer and legitimate the power of the church and pastoral power as much as there are those that challenge and subvert them. If so, such oscillations point toward the necessity of thinking of broader assemblages, wherein forms of eschatology or asceticism or mysticism partake of a single apparatus, be it in a given instance legitimizing or subversive. In this case, one would also have to trace the condition under which mysticism or eschatology, for example, has articulated a form of radical counter-conduct rather than merely another set of practices and discourses for a more effective enactment and enforcement of proper conduct. And more generally, one could ask whether these counter-operations actually subvert the governmental paradigm or rather, in the end, only seek to improve and perfect it?

But of course pastoral power’s centrality in Foucault’s work takes on different directions. Subsequently, for example, in On the Government of the Living it is seen as the incubation point for modern forms of subjectivity. Indeed, it is centrally the monastic instructional texts of John Cassian that embody the double obligation of obedience or willing nothing by oneself and hiding nothing or telling the whole truth about oneself, the dual obligation that for Foucault is constitutive of the western subjectivity. Here early Christian monasticism forms “a regime defined by obligations for individuals to have a continuous relationship to themselves of knowledge, their obligation to discover, deep within themselves, secrets that elude them, their obligation, finally, to manifest these secret and individual truths by acts that have specific, liberating effects that go well beyond the effects of knowledge” (GoL, 83).

Jordan is particularly good at tracing the nuanced differences that emerge across chronologically distinct iterations and occasions in Foucault’s writing. But the question for me remains how are we to think together about the various, if not mutually exclusive then at least not immediately convergent, schemas of pastoral power. I find Jordan’s suggestion that Foucault is a negative theoretician, like a negative theologian, perpetually unsaying and displacing his own prior formulas, useful (121)—but I am left with the question of how to think, for example, of the role of pastoral power—when can it be tied to questions of governmentality, but also subjection and subjectivation? How do we think through the interconnection of this bewildering set of schemas across the years of lectures? Moreover what is the effect of repeatedly proliferating new schemas? Part of the effect, I would suggest, is to put into question, in ever more nuanced ways, whether western modernity has ever escaped being Christian—and whether secular power has always been, at least in part, a Christian power, despite its own insistences and narratives.1

If spiritual direction is a practice central to pastoral power’s individualizing practice and partakes in the formation of a truth-telling subject, it also appears in another moment of Foucault’s work. Earlier, in the Abnormal lectures, we see the way early modern spiritual direction produces an intensification of speech and vigilance about the body. And this new form of power-knowledge produces its correlate object, which Foucault names the flesh. As Jordan describes it, “The desiring body—the concupiscent body, to use the technical term—is coded or gridded as flesh that can be endlessly monitored and copiously described. Flesh is a way of personifying a new power through or behind the body” (86). A resolutely modern matrix is developed between sexuality, confession, direction and the flesh. Indeed, as Jordan notes, tying the discussions together, pastoral power contributes “these techniques of interiorization, of cultivating the conscience by alerting oneself to the sources of sinfulness—to what Christians already begin to call ‘the flesh’” (125). Here, the flesh becomes an effect of an interiorizing power of surveillance.

In turn, convulsions repeatedly mark a certain resistance to the disciplinary and surveillance apparatus. As Foucault writes, “The convulsive flesh is the body penetrated by the right of examination and subject to the obligation of exhaustive confession and the body that bristles against this right and this obligation. . . . The convulsive flesh is the resistance effect of Christianization at the level of individual bodies” (Abnormal, 213). But is there a difference between convulsive flesh and the convulsing bodies that give Jordan’s book its name? Jordan’s discussion at times deploys the terms in distinction and at others more pushes them toward synonymy—convulsions revealing modes of resistance become more significant than whether they are said of the body or the flesh.

But exactly how do we think the analytics of the relation of the flesh to the body? Is flesh only an object that becomes enacted and manifested in relation to a specific kind of power, as a way to control and discipline the body? Or can the flesh name something more impersonal and dis-individuated that allows us to rethink the theoretical primacy accorded to the status of the body? This question seems to require to be both within and without Foucault’s paradigm, putting it in discussion with other theorizations of the flesh. As Mayra Rivera suggests in her recent Poetics of the Flesh, perhaps the flesh can help us name and think more material forms of relationality, interdependence, and exposure. Or one can think of others engagements like that of Alexander Weheliye’s deployment of the thought of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter to think of the flesh as something that stands at a tension with the individuated status accorded to the body. Can the flesh become a name for thinking against plans for redemption and salvation that power elaborates for it? Perhaps, furthermore, this thought from the flesh, could also be tied to the question of mystic speech—toward modes of speech that affirm the possibilities of desubjectivation; this would be a speech other than that of the subject incessantly revealing its own proper truth, that might register instead something like commonness of the flesh. Such questions can not only potentially lead to uncovering a different archive within Christian and secular modes of speech than those that prioritize obedience and subjection, but also return us to the status of madness in relation to reason, and traverse again the force implied by counter-conduct.

  1. In this, Foucault’s thought would be an interesting dialogue partner for Gil Anidjar’s thesis on the identity of Christianity and secularism.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan


    Reply to Alex Dubilet

    Alex Dubilet and I share an interest in the “effects” of genealogical stories. We both want to ask why people tell them. I hope that we also agree on some of the risks lurking in favored genres for this storytelling.

    For me, stories about The Religious and The Secular are odd allegories. So far from thinking that religion is a “monolithic entity,” I don’t count it an entity at all. “Religion” is a rhetorical personification—like the old murals of Virtue or certain statues of Liberty. Since I regard personification as a practice best understood in the “micrological and specific,” I don’t even want to talk about allegorical Religion abstractly (thus personifying Personification). I prefer instead to examine Religion’s roles in particular stories told by someone to someone.

    We all know that Foucault begins History of Sexuality 1 by recalling and then mocking a related allegory. Its protagonists are Repression and Liberation. Part of his mockery is to depict the famously irreligious claims of sexual liberation in terms he presumed would be all too familiar to an educated audience in the French province of European Christendom. He says that “our” vindications of sex reactivate “certain of the old, traditional functions of prophecy” (Histoire de la sexualité, 1:14). Our discourse links the revelation of truth with the proclamation of a reversed world order, the promise of a new day, and the assurance of ultimate happiness. (Wasn’t that the story that enthralled Europe for a millennium? The story that even now makes plausible talk of Revolution?) So it is perhaps not surprising that sex attracts new preachers, from “subtle theologians” to “popular voices” (1:15). I would add that the theologians of sex include not a few “queer theorists.” It is astonishing just how many of the old functions of theology are now performed by Theory.

    Foucault takes pleasure in pointing out the survivals of Christian forms in the rhetoric of the secular nation-state. He even has stories of his own to tell about the transit from Christian pastoral “care” to modern discipline. Dubilet is right to insist on the question that should come next: And what are the effects of telling such stories? More particularly, what does Foucault expect to follow upon his claiming that the modern project of putting sex into discourse was formed, over a very long time, in a long arc from Christian ascetical or monastic communities to the Council of Trent’s reform of the confessional (1:29)? The answer cannot be: Foucault means to identify the origins of our repression in order better to liberate us! Sexual liberation, he insists in many places, is the victory of modern forms of power, not their defeat.

    I agree with Dubilet that part of Foucault’s hope in constructing analogies between Christian practices and the techniques of bio-power is to encourage comparisons. If we continued to believe that modern penal reforms represent a revolutionary break with a benighted past, we might not think to compare the prison “cell” to its monastic model. We might not wonder how far a monastic “rule” is and is not a norm. And so on. Foucault’s stories can even encourage us to ask, as he too rarely does, what happens to monastic cells after the invention of the modern prison—or to Christian spiritual direction once it is suffused by pop psychology?

    Dubilet wants more than analogies. He wants something to come of the stories that Foucault tells at largest scale. I suppose that I do too, even while I insist that we are almost always misled by such stories. Sometimes I hint at such stories in the book or in these replies. (What are the differences, if any, between an allegory about changing genres and one about the indispensable conceptual artifacts of reigning power? Would it help to hear our tale of sexual liberation as very much like a poetic allegory about Poetry?) Dubilet writes that Foucault’s counter-narratives “put into question, in ever more nuanced ways, whether western modernity has ever escaped being Christian—and whether secular power has always been, at least in part, a Christian power, despite its own insistences and narratives” (with a nod to Gil Anidjar). A condition for putting this into question, according to Foucault, is that the counter-narrative never become the dominant and literal scripture—that it remain always counter-narrative, as much in its form as in its position within the dispositif.

    So if Dubilet—or my colleague, Mayra Rivera—is surely right to suggest that there is more to think through the category “flesh” about relation, dependence, and exposure, that thinking requires careful writing in order to avoid immediate reduction to the vernaculars approved by prevailing power. “Can the flesh become a name for thinking against plans for redemption and salvation that power elaborates for it?” That can too easily sound like a question about conceptual possibility or likely persuasion. It must be first of all a question for composition. Taken in that way, the question can only be addressed in writing that resists being read as either dogmatic mythology or promissory platform.

    With the rapid dilution of Christian speeches, as much by trivialization as by tyranny, becoming a platform of political promises may be just now the more dangerous temptation. Before he borrows Christendom’s terms to characterize our cherished exhortations about sex, Foucault explains that we like them so much becomes they confirm “our” political views. “Our” is here ironic, as so often in Foucault: it refers to the encampments of the French left through which he has moved as a vagrant observer and unpredictable ally. Seeking to avoid an overly theological rendering of Foucault, we may fall into the worse betrayal of a merely political rendering—as if Foucault were only a Theory for what we have already proclaimed as our practice.

    Jesus of Nazareth sometimes cautioned against ridding yourself of one demon only to see it return with seven more (e.g., Matthew 12:43–45). A very Foucauldian parable.

Lynne Huffer


“I Am That Young Woman”

Camp Philosophy in Foucault and Jordan

The poet recommends: “Bend down, bend down further.”
—René Char

IN A TWO-PART lecture he gave in Brussels in December 1964, Foucault draws our attention to Odysseus in a famous mourning scene from book 8 of The Odyssey. I want to use Foucault’s Odysseus figure as a way to bring out Jordan’s “camp” approach to speech about loss: a paradoxical, convulsive speech that cannot speak in the face of the very death that sustains it. Jordan makes much of Foucault’s attraction to Char’s poetry in the early 1960s, drawing special attention to the poet’s call to “bend down, bend down further” (19). “To the page of poetry” (19), Jordan continues. “To the archival document not yet recognized as poetry. To the murmurs of the silenced mad. To the echoes of retreating gods” (19). To the bodies of those who have departed, one might add.

Foucault, Jordan reminds us, spent his life attending to the dead, to the remains of monks and sodomites captured in archives. We find Odysseus in just this attentive posture, bent over, in the first part of the Brussels lecture, “Literature and Language,” itself a document recently published through the efforts of readers bending down over the Foucault archive. In the lecture, Foucault redescribes the scene in The Odyssey where, visiting the Phaenicians and disguised as a stranger, Odysseus hears the aoidos, Demodocus, sing of Odysseus’s own adventures. Foucault lingers over the Homeric description of Odysseus dissolving as he finds himself, doubled over and crouching, in the bard’s words. Hearing Demodocus’s song, he “lowers his head, veils his face, and weeps,” Foucault writes, in the gesture “of a woman who, after battle, receives her husband’s cadaver.”1

This scene from Foucault’s 1964 lecture doesn’t appear in Jordan’s book, but it might have. Convulsing Bodies devotes many pages to crouching bodies undone by grief, their gestures part of a pattern of speech stripped of words Jordan helps us to find over the course of Foucault’s writing. Importantly, the Odysseus scene captures not only convulsive writing but also gestures of reading as acts of mourning that leave “traces of a body’s time spent” (1). Jordan opens Convulsing Bodies with a description of the traces of his own gay body: Coming out, watching fog over San Francisco’s Kite Hill, holding men as they died “from the ‘complications’ of the unnamable virus that killed Foucault” (2). We see Jordan, like Odysseus, crouching over the dead bodies of other men, unable to find words for the thing that killed them.

Importantly, as Jordan tells it, this singular, book-opening death of an author from “an unnamable virus” remains iterative, unfixed, convulsive: Unlike the clichéd “death of the author” so often affixed to Foucault, this author’s death in Jordan refuses to congeal into diagnostic platitudes or the hashtag celebrity of an icon. Instead, the book stages its own beginning in death as something non-generalizable: Here death unfolds as stubbornly singular, contingent, and painful. We can only read it as one of the many traces “of a body’s time spent” (1). But for all the pain that attends this and other post-mortem acts of reading, it is a pain Jordan seems to welcome. Recalling a story by Henry James, “The Death of the Lion,” about a woman who wants nothing of an author but his death—that is, his texts—Jordan writes: “I am that young woman” (3).

If Jordan is “that young woman” in James, he is also that other woman, Odysseus weeping, bending down over a husband’s body killed in battle. When I read Convulsing Bodies I imagine Jordan, theatrically, attending like Odysseus to the cadaver that is Foucault’s corpus. When we add Odysseus to Jordan’s list of female convulsing bodies, we can rehear Char’s directive to “bend down, bend down further” as part of the liturgy that accompanies ritual. In its bodily posture of crouching and curling inward toward oneself undone by another’s death, the reading body participates in a lamentation and, specifically, a feminine act of mourning. “The sign of literature’s implication of itself in itself,” Foucault tells us in the Brussels lecture, “is a ritual: precisely, a ritual of mourning” (GE, 125).

Foucault’s (and Jordan’s) wifely acts of reading as weeping and bending down give a form—as mourning captured, like a tableau vivant—to the self-hollowing act of poetic writing Foucault analyzed often in the early 1960s. One of the many valuable contributions of Jordan’s reading is its loving caress of an intensely literary Foucauldian body whose style is rarely noticed by his sociologically, philosophically, or historically inclined readers. That Odyssean tableau vivant of poetic self-hollowing as mourning ritual describes, on the one hand, what Foucault calls in the Brussels lecture the “restrained and discreet” way in which a work designates itself and, at the same time, cancels or unsigns itself (“se désigne”) (GE, 125). Foucault could be seen as describing here, in the fashion of his time, the quintessential Mallarméean disappearance of the poet into his own words. Such descriptions of poetic acts were all the rage in a certain French literary criticism during the same period when Foucault gave the Brussels lecture. The poetic work unsigns itself in a mise en abyme of its own linguistic utterance. In this guise, literature as mourning ritual presents itself as cerebral, masculine, and unobtrusive. Like a Mallarmé poem, this ritual self-undoing is controlled: A “restrained and discreet” form of mourning.

Except when it’s not. And so, on the other hand, and at the same time, we find the opposite of discretion and restraint: An over-the-top image of Odysseus weeping. He (or better, she) “wails” and “shrieks,” Homer tells us, like a wife with her dead husband, “her tear-drenched face . . . a mask of pain” as she bends over his cadaver.2 From this perspective, Odysseus belongs to Jordan’s cortège of convulsing bodies precisely because of her histrionic excess. The gay word Jordan chooses to name this excess is “camp.”

Despite his admiration for the symbolist teacher of the art of elocutionary self-undoing, Foucault is no Mallarmé. Like Divine, Maria Montez, or Odysseus weeping, Foucault’s textual body is theatrical, unrestrained, melodramatic. Foucault’s books, Jordan writes, “should be understood as dramaturgies. His flaw as a writer,” by Foucault’s own admission, “is a ‘sort of intensification, a dramatization of events about which one should speak less fervently’” (140). Jordan reads Foucault’s reading of the theatrical public penance of a weeping Fabiola (“the sobbing matron”) through the lens of camp. He finds in other Foucauldian convulsing bodies a “camp sensibility” (141), hears Foucault’s famous Collège de France lectures as “a serialized melodrama of magisterial instruction” (63), and reads the equally “melodramatic” famous final image in The Order of Things along lines we might name as camp. That face dissolving at the edge of the sea suddenly looks like a queen of the queer variety, one of many we find strewn across the pages of Foucault’s corpus: Queen Victoria in the opening paragraph of History of Sexuality, volume 1, Marie Antoinette, the jackal queen of Abnormal. I could go on. Jordan has a well-honed feel for the camp aesthetic of a writer who often spoke about himself in the feminine when in the company of his gay friends. It takes one to know one. Linking Foucault’s historiography to Baudelairean self-stylization, Jordan exposes genealogy as a queer method that stylizes history, “transmut[ing] souvenirs from an adored and ambiguous past” (157). Revisiting genealogy, we suddenly find that “the category of camp hovers nearby” (157): As nostalgia, as grief, as a stylized mourning ritual that is never quite finished. “I could go on. (One always can with camp)” (141).

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick devotes several pages to camp as a “gay male rehabilitation of the sentimental.”3 Sedgwick’s lens on gay male sentimentality has something to teach us not only about the complex play of affects that is camp, but also, indirectly, about Foucault as a writer well schooled in the arts of affect and, specifically, camp as a queer form of mourning. In the shadow of AIDS and HIV, Sedgwick’s writing on camp brushes up against death: Hovering near camp is “a very specific association of gay male sexuality with tragic early death” (EC, 144). And if the association is recent, Sedgwick writes, “the structure of its articulation is densely grounded in centuries of homoerotic and homophobic intertextuality” (EC, 144). In a footnote she mentions Achilles and Patroclos, Virgilian shepherds, David and Jonathan, St. Sebastian, and the elegiac poetry of Milton, Tennyson, Whitman, and Housman, along with Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet. She doesn’t mention Odysseus in book 8, but she might have.

Let me then, in closing, return to our opening scene: Odysseus, warrior-turned-woman, wailing and crouched over a dead body. What better way to dramatize the dizzying, abyssal, feminizing doubling that describes Foucault’s erotic, camp philosophy of self-undoing? In Jordan’s hands, the self-hollowing core of Foucault’s convulsive philosophical language becomes, as Jordan puts it, both “poetic” and “holy” (199). Jordan’s pairing of the “holy” with the “poetic” in the final pages of his book mirrors the “religion and resistance” promised, from the start, by his subtitle. Yet here, in the book’s closing, a transmutation has occurred: The academic announcement of a discourse about “religion and resistance” has been sentimentalized as “holy” and “poetic.” Tone-deaf philosophy has taken on the tragi-comic, ironic lyricism of camp.

This is Jordan’s Foucault: An aoidos whose work, both poetic and holy, reworks philosophy and gives it back to us as camp. That reworking happens through the detour of literature, a deviation to which Jordan is unusually attentive. As Foucault explains in the Brussels lecture: The gesture through which literature implicates itself inside itself—the same “curve” (GE, 119) we find in Odysseus bending down over the beloved’s body—opens literature toward a “quasi philosophical reflection” (GE, 120) that Foucault describes as “philosophy’s simulacrum” (GE, 120). Inspired by Jordan, this is what I’m calling Foucault’s camp philosophy. But, as Susan Sontag famously wrote in her “Notes on Camp,” “to talk about Camp is therefore to betray it” (in Jordan 141). Or as Jordan might put it, to say much more about Foucault’s camp philosophy would run the risk of “losing it” (141).

And yet Foucault embraces the paradox of speech that is camp. (In a book about Foucault, I myself once wrote, without realizing it, words similar to Sontag’s: “To explain unreason or make it speak is to betray [it].”4 I probably wouldn’t write that sentence today: I now read it as inflated, melodramatic, as a sentence that wails and shrieks. Perhaps Jordan can help me embrace it as camp.) “More might be learned about camp in Foucault by reconsidering the compositional challenge of writing about it” (141), Jordan writes. One way Foucault confronts the inevitability of betrayal is through a method Jordan calls “unsaying” (118). And so, paradoxically, we come full circle back to “restraint and discretion,” only this time as camp. When Jordan writes that “the only way to reach that other economy is first of all by unsaying, by apophasis” (118), he is describing an economy of convulsing bodies—the economy of the Loudon nuns in Abnormal—that is not only holy and poetic, but also camp in the specifically gay, sentimental, unsayable sense associated with rituals of mourning. As Jordan puts it: “We don’t (yet) have the words” (118).

And so, in the end, Foucault’s camp philosophy is nothing more, or less, than philosophy’s simulacrum. Stylized as camp, this philosophy hollows itself out through literary acts of self-replicating implosion captured by the image of Odysseus as a woman crouching over her dead beloved. This camp philosophy brushes the “edge of language” (199) as it bends down further over the sea of dead bodies that remain unnamed and lost to history. In the secular apophatic mode we find in Jordan’s reading of Foucault, we find a certain longing to record “inarticulate sounds” (198) “at the limits of language” (199): “insect murmurs” (198), “groaning prayers” (198), “cries” (199), “animal noises” (199), or “public love cries” (199). To give a name to those sounds would repeat the panoptical violence that consigns sodomites to archives and delinquents to the prisons of our modern carceral order. By unsaying the prepackaged acts of saying through which a culture both marks and masks its losses, Jordan allows us to feel them. This corporeal feeling captures, for me, the magic of Convulsing Bodies: Jordan lets those bodies “resound” (199) without pinning them down. Their reverberation across and beyond the pages of Jordan’s book—retrained and histrionic, poetic and holy, quiet and shrieking—describes the ethopoiesis that is Foucault’s camp philosophy: A philosophy of self-undoing for which “we don’t (yet) have the words” (118).

I want to hear more about how we might live this ethopoietic camp philosophy: This convulsive speech after death.

  1. Michel Foucault, “Littérature et langage,” vol. 1 of La Grande étrangère: A propos de la littérature, ed. Philippe Artières et al. (Paris: Editions de l’Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2013), 125, translation mine. Hereafter cited as GE.

  2. Homer, Odyssey, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 122.

  3. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 144. Hereafter cited as EC.

  4. Lynne Huffer, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 242.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan


    Reply to Lynne Huffer

    Having disavowed biography so publicly at the start of Convulsing Bodies, I am embarrassed to begin my reply to Lynne Huffer with the report of a shared season. During the fall of 2007, we taught together a seminar on Foucault. We taught it in unpredictable polyphony. Sometimes we sang in unison, but more often apart, making (we hoped) a richer consonance if not quite a harmony. Huffer’s remarkable book, Mad for Foucault, was not the seminar’s product so much as its frame: it connected the lessons, only some of which had fit within the semester. My book was written entirely after the seminar—and very much as antiphonal response to Huffer. In Convulsing Bodies, I took Mad for Foucault as given. So now I cannot think how to reply to Huffer except by troping her remarks once again.

    Let me begin with the line she quotes in her title. At the beginning of Convulsing Bodies, I end a retelling of one of Henry James’s short stories by “identifying” with one of its protagonists: “I am that young woman.” The immediate reference is to an ardent reader who has been persuaded to reinterpret her desire for an author—to forsake her album of autographs for the shelf of his works. Some otherwise well-disposed reviewers have found my remark odd because I am (really? literally? obviously?) a man. Of course, as Huffer points out, my locution would have been entirely unsurprising for queer men of generations past—certainly for Foucault, perhaps for James himself. Again, this woman with whom I pair myself is a character composed by James—another man about whose sex or gender there has been some anxiety. Huffer is right to see both the importance of “identification” and its deliberate complications.

    “I am that young woman.” I approach clutching my album. I am told that what I really want is not the author’s signature but his works. I am encouraged to marry the young man who guards the work by guarding the genius who makes them. —What have I just done? An obvious bit of drag, a cue for a camp performance. I have enacted other bits of drag in other books. (Recruiting Young Love, xix: “the nearest I come to speaking ‘true’ desire is histrionic irony. I am a fierce fan of Justin Bond [his name then] as the ageless lounge chanteuse Kiki. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ that’s my subject position. This season.”)

    Drag is often the uncanny performance of gender by the “wrong” bodies, from which we learn that there are no naturally right bodies for gender. But camp performance more generally is the epiphany of beauty where it is not supposed to appear. Drag and camp can serve as resistance that encourages survival. The survival of performers and audience, the survival of forms for their slantwise lives. I associate this encouragement with the curious consolation of the “poetic self-hollowing” that Huffer names in the first preface of Folie et déraison. Picture Foucault crouching down to the earth to listen for sounds denied voice. Doesn’t he resemble Odysseus bending over to weep on hearing Demodocus, bending over “in the gesture ‘of a woman who, after battle, receives her husband’s cadaver’?” Drag queens command a whole repertoire of stylized gestures for weeping, since they must depict it so often. Some of them put on make-up with the calligraphy of streaking mascara.

    Straining to hear the underground murmurs, Foucault prepares himself to lip-sync them. Perhaps also to weep again. Camp speech is, Huffer says, “a paradoxical, convulsive speech that cannot speak in the face of the very death that sustains it.” Drag wants to metabolize grief by mocking, transmuting, appropriating—eating it and then spitting it back as song. It draws on ritual magic that Foucault sometimes attributes to an ancient form of Christian penance. Exomologêsis was the grief of the wordless Fabiola, weeping and tearing at her clothes. Grief bodied forth. If some rituals of repentance are camp, camp is not only repentance. When Odysseus weeps as he listens to Demodocus, he may regret things that he has done. Mostly he laments.

    Huffer writes that I seem to “welcome” the pain “that attends . . . post-mortem acts of reading.” I welcome it only in the way that I sometimes yield to lament. I lament over dead authors, but mainly over what James famously calls “the dead,” my dead. Beyond a certain age, all reading is post mortem, as it is all so pressingly ante mortem.

    Lament seems to me a more sustainable response to reading than outrage. Call my reading “reparative,” if you want to credit Sedgwick, or more attentive to the precarious in the performative (Butler). The important thing for me is to make room for a politics of tears beyond a politics of rage. Rereading Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” I almost return to the plague years in which it was “important to say that, morally, the only necessary response to all of this is rage.”1 Today I would add that lament is a necessary and fully moral response to grief that cannot be healed in this life. Our losses are real. To claim that they can be made right by one political victory or another is obscene. The earnest ironies of camp permit me both tears and life. A much more talented artist, Foucault found the materials for camp in the unlikeliest archives and genres and scenes.

    What has this to do with philosophy? In his Protreptic, Aristotle first acknowledges that most people think that it would be better to die than to become a philosopher, since philosophers give up so much of life. After a string of persuasions, he ends with the claim that you might as well kill yourself if you cannot commit to the study of philosophy. It is a campy reversal. It is also a reminder that the philosophic writing of his teacher, Plato, begins within a scene of political execution. On the day of his death, Socrates performs speeches and myths for his students to protect them from despair. They still weep as he dies. Then they perform him again.

    1. Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” October 43 (December 1987) 197–222, p. 201.

Kent Brintnall


Reading Foucault as Novelist

SHOULD WE READ FOUCAULT as a novelist? Or, perhaps, the question I would like to pose is not, Should we read Foucault as a novelist? but rather, What do we notice about Mark Jordan’s Convulsing Bodies if we take “reading Foucault as a novelist” as its implicit invitation and provocation? Now, I am not suggesting, in a catty fashion, that Foucault should be read as a novelist—a fabricator of tales and spinner of yarns—because his supposed shortcomings preclude us reading him as a historian: after all, as Jordan observes, Foucault mistaken is more interesting than most serious historians correct about the same subjects and materials (123). No, I am wondering what it means to read a historian, or a philosopher, or a theologian with an eye toward style, and form, and voice, and allusion first, and proposition, conclusion, contribution second. Not: what does she say? Is she right? But: how is her argument crafted? What affect does it generate? In the wake of Convulsing Bodies, as in the wake of Jordan’s other work, I am once again forced to grapple with the question of what it means to read and write tout court—but also specifically, what it means to read and write the relations among “religion,” “bodies,” and “pleasures” after encountering Jordan’s reading of Foucault’s writing about them.

But it makes sense that I would be thrown back into questions of reading and writing. Jordan is emphatic, from beginning to end, that Convulsing Bodies does not offer a definitive, summative, exhaustive exegesis of Foucault’s oeuvre. (Because, after all, why write that? We have Foucault’s oeuvre.) Instead, it is a reading diary (1–2, 10–11). Jordan does not give us an apologetic defense of the pronouncements of the Master, but an affectionate tale of the charms of a companion. The first text treated in detail is not one authored by Foucault, not even one that originates in France, but rather a short story by Henry James that illuminates different ways in which fans demonstrate attachment to authors and their works. Or, as Jordan insists, the ways in which fans demonstrate attachments to works, rather than authors (2–3). Jordan reminds us that a common mistake in reading is to take an ironic passage for a literal one (93)—that is, to be inattentive to an author’s cues about how she should be read. When reading Convulsing Bodies, then, we should be particularly mindful of tone and style, given that Jordan is so clear about what kind of book he’s proffering. (We should also be mindful of style and tone since Jordan’s chapters so frequently mirror stylistic features of the Foucault works they treat. With this mimeticism, Jordan is attuning our ears to Foucault’s styles.) Convulsing Bodies does not present Foucault as Theorist or Philosopher; it does not champion him as the Great Resolver of Questions; it does not treat his work as Holy Writ. Jordan does not chide us—or other readers—for not having read carefully enough or broadly enough. This is not a text that glories in correcting and clarifying. Rather, Jordan revels in seduction, in restoring the allure of Foucault’s texts, by revealing charms previously overlooked. Jordan performs an erotic(s of) reading. Perusing Convulsing Bodies is like attending an incredibly well-curated retrospective of an artist we had known only superficially, or sitting up late at night while a friend makes the case that Tyne Daly’s rendition of “Rose’s Turn” is the best of all the recorded versions. Jordan’s writing traces a finger across the page of Foucault’s texts, directing our eyes and focusing our attention.

And where he focuses our attention so frequently is to Foucault’s style and technique—as well as to the literary sources from which they derive. Jordan begins his tour by giving sustained attention to three essays from Foucault’s “literary period” that engage the work of Bataille, Klossowski, and Blanchot. In each, Foucault is interested in the possibility of language to capture and produce a particular set of effects in the reader. In each, Foucault imitates the style of the author he’s engaging. Moreover, Foucault engages these authors’ literary productions alongside their theoretical writings. Just as this triumvirate would remain a touchstone for Foucault, Jordan refers to it across Convulsing Bodies to show how the concerns of these essays linger in Foucault’s work—underscoring its ongoing influence rather than its episodic, phasic character. In this same chapter, in a brief treatment of History of Madness—a monumental tome that surely deserves more attention than these incidental pieces—Jordan reminds us that Foucault took his guidance from a poet, René Char. “A reader can reject Foucault’s refusal to justify his method or even to describe it properly, but a careful reader won’t simply ignore this poetic rule while inserting another method on Foucault’s behalf” (18).

While Char’s poetic principle does not reappear, Jordan makes clear that Foucault was frequently inspired by literary figures. In his treatment of both the first volume of the History of Sexuality and the final lectures at the Collège de France, Jordan underscores how Marcel Proust functions like Foucault’s ghost writer. When treating Discipline and Punish and the Abnormals lectures, Jordan reaches out to Roland Barthes’ writing on Fourier, Sade and Loyola and Alfred Jarry’s theatrical depiction of King Ubu to highlight the ways that Foucault strives to make his readers aware of the multiple forms that power takes—as it strives to confuse, mislead and enchant us. To resist its lure, we must become more sophisticated readers of the aesthetic dimension of life. When discussing Foucault’s fascination with the Cynics, as a potential model for relating to one’s body and one’s self differently, Jordan notes similarities to the dandy and to camp, made visible through the prism of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry as discussed by Walter Benjamin. In his final chapter, Jordan engages Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—a biography disguised as a novel, or perhaps the other way around, or, at the very least, a biography honest enough not to hide its novelistic character behind the apparatus of footnotes. Most telling, perhaps, is Jordan’s treatment of Foucault’s fascination with Julien Gracq’s novel Le ravage des Syrtes (77): “What then is the difference between Gracq’s novel, which Foucault so admires, and Foucault’s own epics of aging power . . . ? [Foucault] will claim sometimes to write novels, then proceed to redefine the novel and to undo its sense of authorship” (80).

Why does any of this matter? What difference does it make to trace these allusions, to attend to the form of Foucault’s texts, to lose ourselves in the dense meditations on language’s limitations, to think Foucault differently? What do we gain by reading Foucault in this fashion? To think about the literary quality of Foucault, I would suggest, is to think differently about Foucault’s authority, or about authority generally. In The Freudian Body, Leo Bersani makes the following observations about literature:

Literature mocks and defeats the communicative projects of language; it both invites interpretation and makes language somewhat unsuitable for interpretation. It forces us to be aware of the density of words not as a function of their semantic richness, but rather as a sign of their inadequacy to the mobile sense which they cannot enclose. . . . Literature subverts any project of meaning in language. . . . And it should thereby help us to resist the coercive designs more or less hidden in all such projects. The social function of literature—its critical power—consists in its demystifying the force of argument, argument’s claim to truth. (67)

The attentive reader of Jordan’s Convulsing Bodies will be aware of his disagreements with some claims found in the massive commentary on Foucault’s work. But these disagreements are not the substance of Jordan’s writing. By displacing this kind of attention to Foucault’s writing, Jordan also displaces Foucault’s authority, his status as pronouncer of truth, thereby dislodging certain modes of authoritative truth-telling altogether. Jordan frequently lifts out the “negative theology” lurking in Foucault, the dimension of his writing that seeks to make us suspicious of all writing. By mimicking the literary, Foucault and Jordan pursue the project of disrupting power’s hold on us by interrupting the power of language itself. If anything is Foucault’s project, Convulsing Bodies seems to suggest, this is it. As Jordan told us at the outset, he is a fan not of the author Foucault, but of the texts—the writings—that author produced. And these writings constantly criticize the faith we put in writing as pronouncement, conclusion, definitive answer.

In addition, by thinking about Foucault’s texts—as well as other theoretical, historiographical and theological texts—as literary, we can begin to think differently not only about their authority, but also about their effects, as well as their affects, namely, what they accomplish rather than what they assert. If we take seriously Foucault’s fascination with Bataille, Klossowski and Blanchot, then we must also take seriously Foucault’s abiding fascination with the limit, the limit of language, the limit of experience, the limit of knowledge, the limit of the human—and writing that seeks to produce in its reader the affective charge of an encounter with this limit. This limit, according to Jordan, is the site from which a new economy of bodies and pleasures might just possibly come into being. Or, if that utopian fantasy is too fantastic—an ironic twist at the end of Foucault’s tale of sexuality—we can think this limit as the site from which resistance to the operation of disciplinary biopower will find some energy. Bataille, Klossowski and Blanchot reveal to us—because they revealed to Foucault—certain ways to rupture, to disturb, to explode systems of meaning, frames of orientation, scaffolds of being. But they do this not by offering a positive vision or an operational strategy; instead, they constantly draw us back to the alluring, terrifying void disavowed by the regnant systems of truth, knowledge, regulation, evaluation, and speech. And they do this, in part, by their poetics. If we (re)read Foucault as drawing inspiration from the work of these writers, then we must attend to the places in his writing that fail, that falter, that point to their own inadequacy, that fall silent, that become confused. Following this lead, Foucault can be read only as the guide who points us to the edge of the cliff that precipitates our dizzying disorientation: a disorientation profoundly different than the certainty of knowing ourselves, our place in the world, our theoretical and theological commitments.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to read Foucault as a novelist, to attend carefully to the literary dimension and inspirations of his work, to the literary character of intellectual work generally, is to imagine the sources and sites of our own work as scholars of religion differently. At the outset of Convulsing Bodies, Mark Jordan writes, “For me, there is no formulable essence of religion, no clear way of separating its words from the rest of human speech” (8). Convulsing Bodies strives, then, to draw attention to the places where Foucault “writes about gods and their devotees” so that its readers can comprehend the way “religion . . . arranges languages and practices—teachings and rituals—to control this world and the bodies very much in it” (8–9). At the same time, of course, “bodies use religious discourses or practices to resist powers”; religious discourses and practices are the places where the language of power gets scrambled, where it is potentially disclosed for what it is and so rendered a little less intense, its regulatory grip loosened just a fraction (10).

Following this trajectory, what if those of us who seek to study and understand religion, bodies, pleasures and the operation of power on, in, through and among them, understood our object of study to be language, its operations, its failures, its scramblings, and its scrambling to hold on, hold us? What if, following Jordan’s tour through Foucault’s fascinations with the sacred and the literary, we began to understand the literary as the site and source of what we’ve understood as religion? If an intense strain of apophaticism informs Foucault’s work, and if it is this strain that marks the limit that is the site of power’s limit, then the work of the scholar who wants to break open new possibilities for bodies inhabiting the world may be to attend very carefully to the form, style, and operation of language—especially to the places where it falters and fails.

Convulsing Bodies is the record of one reader’s—one very astute, very attentive, very thorough, very imaginative reader’s—encounter with Foucault’s writing. By providing such a record, Mark Jordan calls each of us to return once again to the word, to its haunting and halting power, anew.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan


    Reply to Kent Brintnall

    Kent Brintnall begins by asking, “Should we read Foucault as a novelist?” That is a useful question because provocative. Foucault himself was sometimes provoked by it. In a reported exchange with Claude Mauriac, he rejects the comparison and then rewrites it into a remark about his techniques of composition (see Convulsing Bodies, 80–81).

    Let me take Brintnall to ask about a practice of reading rather than any essence of the novel. Reading novels, we sometimes bring qualities of attention that we relinquish or suppress when studying philosophy or “systematic” theology. We permit ourselves to expose sensibilities. We indulge particularly eager pleasures. If we read long enough in the works of a single novelist, we may experience the almost carnivorous desire that Henry James describes in that story about the two literary fans, “The Death of the Lion.” They regret their author’s untimely death, but they lament more actively the loss of his final (and doubtless most delicious) manuscript. It is as if they dream of taking pages from his hand one by one just as he completes them. They want to stand right beside the very scene of his writing—to feel its heat, its breaths and pulses. If fandom surrenders some control over the supply of one’s pleasures, it compensates for that surrender by stalking the source.

    Reading Foucault as a novelist might encourage more resonant attention. It could also display more vividly the erotic energies behind our scholarly exegeses. Certainly Foucault means us to notice them. He troubles the assumptions of commentary. He breaks open the genres of intellectual historiography. He pokes at scholarly authority. Foucault challenges—page after page—the inevitable scholarly impulse to write about him. I share with Brintnall the urgency to “grapple with the question of what it means to read and write tout court—but also specifically, what it means to read and write the relations among ‘religion,’ ‘bodies,’ and ‘pleasures.’” I want to press that question against my own writing about Foucault page by page, to trouble the assumption that I can render his texts without remainder—indeed, that I can render them better than he could. But I also hope to catch the furtive operation of my own fandom in the ever-so-objective, the generously-public-spirited deed of standing right beside a Major Thinker.

    In my book, as Brintnall shows, I double reading with writing. Or I try to disclose how fully they are confounded in what we call “scholarship.” In academic institutions, reading Foucault means producing plausibly new writing about him. We require that of our students. We do it ourselves. What is this ceaseless writing that so often masks itself as the merest record of reading? It is in fact not a mechanical by-product (or waste-product). It is willed mimesis. It is fan fiction. Some people spend their evenings typing out “hurt/comfort” scenes between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Me and my friends, we inhabit the world of Foucault.

    I’m joking—and not. As Brintnall makes clear throughout his astute response, I want to smear all the bright lines that divide philosophy from literature when it comes to Foucault. I advocate doing to the received stories about that division roughly what Foucault does in History of Sexuality 1 to the grand narrative of our liberation from sexual repression. Of course, the philosophy-v-literature stories don’t rise to anything so complicated as a plot of freedom, repression, and liberation. They tell only the orderly march to compositional cleansing.

    For a long time, they say, we tolerated a literary regime in philosophy, and we continue to lapse into it even today. At the beginning of the seventeenth century—unless it was the eighteenth or the twentieth—certain literary flourishes were still common in philosophic texts. Literary practices could be practiced openly; tropes were deployed without reticence, and wilder devices were employed in philosophy without too much concealment; one had a genial familiarity with eloquence. Happily a Cartesian (or Kantian or Fregean) searchlight soon pierced this belles-lettristic miasma. People began to write purified Philosophy—or Critique or Theory. They took the motto for their heraldic emblem from Descartes: “Those in whom reasoning is strongest, and who best direct their thoughts, so as to make them clear and intelligible, can always best persuade of what they propose, even if they speak only the dialect of Brittany, and have never learned the art of rhetoric” (Discours de la méthode, part 1).

    This familiar story of a philosophy shorn of literary trappings was protested almost as soon as concocted. Still it persists in a certain condescension towards the “merely literary” in some academic philosophy and theology. As if literary writing were a way of letting yourself go—like drinking too much cheap white wine at an obligatory reception or letting soft flesh lap over the waist-band of jogging shorts (because of course you jog). However much philosophy or theology took a “linguistic turn,” however much we were supposed to worry about language and its limits, still the genre proprieties had to be observed. I can praise literature in a journal article, but my article may not become literature.

    If only more writers of philosophy or theology could write literature. If only they could appreciate the ways in which literature assumes the risk of not knowing how to write—of writing still in the face of the unwritable. Or, better, all the ways in which “literary” writing can attend to how language twists itself “to hold on, hold us,” as Brintnall emphasizes.

    If that remark itself seems itself too figurative, perhaps I can substitute an observation about the historical contraction of the genres permitted to academic philosophy (and so to university-based theology). In several places, Foucault speaks of the “great and famous transfer of power” from pastoral care to medicine (Convulsing Bodies, 91). We might think of a parallel transfer of genres from philosophy to literature. For example, ancient and medieval authors of ethics resorted to a range of literary forms for representing human lives in the effort to shape them. These genres are surrendered in modernity to the modern novel or drama. So too many of the older genres available for thinking Christian ethics are displaced by legal forms honed in polemic—or else they are demoted “pastoral practice” now separated off as the duller application of truths properly articulated elsewhere.

    One reason why I now look, with Brintnall, to literature as a site for the essay or assay of new forms of resistant life is that I find in literature many of the oldest philosophical or theological languages about lives. In that sense too I want to “return once again to the word.” Or the Word.


Sean Larsen


The Word Was Always Flesh

CONVULSING BODIES IS ABOUT the difficulty of speaking in noncoercive ways.1 Can words make space for flesh? And what kind of space should flesh make for words?

Speech, like original sin, is an inheritance. If you can speak, you probably discovered your voice as you learned to respond to the names your parents called you—especially the (often implicit) labels for racial, gender, national, sexual, or economic identities—like white, middle-class, black, American, female, sissy, or gay. Such names are “powerful templates for forming individuals,” because they are preloaded with judgments and scripted responses. You learned how to interpret others’ and your bodies and acts by absorbing them from your parents, who absorbed the names from their parents.

Building on medieval sacramental theologies, Mark Jordan calls these inherited mini-scripts “characters.”2 Thomas Aquinas’s account of sacramental characters begins with the observation that people often use symbols to mark things off from one other: “a coin is marked for use in exchange of goods, and soldiers are marked with a character as being deputed to military service” (ST 3.63.3). A character, Thomas generalizes, is an external sign or “seal” that identifies something and distinguishes it from other sorts of things.3 Because a character identifies the individual by “a sort of personhood that encompasses many individual bodies,” its uses are versatile (66). It can: signal that someone is included in Christ’s mystical body, mark them as a soldier, or identify them as a Sodomite.

Thomas implies that the tendency to externally identify and distinguish one another reflects something unavoidable about our humanity. We were spoken about before we began to speak, and would have been spoken about whether or not we ever developed voices. The labels we began to collect from infancy (still) organize our experience of others’ bodies and our bodies (114). Even if what we (essentially) are remains an open question, we are becoming who we are because the names others called us prompted the voices with which we name ourselves.4

Our voices embed our lives in the space and time of the group that names us. There can be no such thing as a “timeless body” located “beyond concepts, outside histories” (114–15). How would we ever talk about it? Rather, words were always flesh. You can only write, think, sign, sing, or dance because of the firing energies, pulsing waves, drumming skin, marked paper, significant gesture, vibrating vocal cords, or moving limbs. Because it must be located in these ways, the language that empowers our voices and interprets our bodies has a place and a history.

In Foucault’s telling, the most revealing episode in the western version of this history locates the origin of the modern self in medieval practices of spiritual direction.5 Penitential rites used the power of naming to elicit a new sort of interiority, inventing what people would eventually mean when they used words like “I,” “me,” “individual,” and “self.” Pastors drew on manuals, which specified, expanded, enumerated, and ordered definitions of virtues and vices. By naming possible transgressions, the priests probed the inner lives of penitents, who discovered and then whispered new secrets. Since people, like sheep, are always going shamefully astray, they would forever remain dependent on their shepherds to restore them.

Once the technologies used to elicit confessions were abstracted from their Christian context, modern institutions like prisons, asylums, hospitals, and markets could build on the self that the confessional created. This left modern subjects precariously open to new kinds of control. Those who knew how to use pastoral techniques could enumerate more definitions, create new kinds of secrets, and produce alternative interiorities. Names like criminal, insane, patient, and consumer would capture people from the inside and then endlessly reconstruct them.6

This dynamic—perpetual control, shifting targets—reminds me of a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship. As one partner manipulates the other’s sense of reality, the victim loses individuality and depends on the abuser’s perspective. One abusive technique called gaslighting uses deliberate confusion in order to undermine a victim’s ability to trust his or her own judgment. The gaslighter confidently twists information, avoids questions, sets topics off limits, diverts attention from uncomfortable truths, and minimizes the victims’ responses. This constantly shifting ground beneath the abused partner eventually causes her to distrust herself. She thinks she has gone crazy.7 As one comedian aptly put it: “It was genuinely destabilizing to be on the receiving end of a lie that confident.”8 Coercive speech is designed to keep us unstable, and it uses “deliberately irresponsible naming” to create pariahs, abnormal, unnatural, monstrous, and shameful characters.

For Foucault, the concept of sexual identity functions to cover up a series of confident lies that are designed to keep us unstable. Sexuality has to be important. It grounds our relationships with our families, fellow citizens, and our lovers. It even determines how we relate to ourselves. It makes us who we are on the “inside”; a “sexual identity” is as close to what we can mean by “private” or “interior.” Medical, political, therapeutic, religious, and economic institutions offer to help us define ourselves better by offering us insights into healthy living, family values, God’s “plan,” or “your truth” about what is right for you.

Each distinctive scientia sexualis depends for its persuasiveness on a technique called “doubling.” Sexual identity “doubles” sexual behaviors (117).9 “Why did he do that? Because he’s degenerate.” Or, “He would never do that—he’s straight . . . or I guess maybe not.” Foucault argues that a “homosexual” act “doubles” with a kind of person. The homosexual’s stylized embodiment of sexuality makes him an  “abnormal” person who represents “a fixed species of (fictive) pathology” (66). The more difficult it is to recognize the history of a doubled identity in the place and time of a group, the more that identity feels “normal” or “natural.” I often ask my students whether they could find a homosexual or an African American in nature.“Of course!”, they reply, incredulous and slightly offended. “How did they get to be African Americans? How did they get to be called homosexuals?,” I ask.

Because they cover over histories, terms like “normal” and “natural” function as Trojan horses for shame.10 Shame socially isolates you. It identifies who you are with what you do. Unlike guilt, which says you performed a bad act, shame says you are a bad person. Guilt responds by making up for what you did. Shame wants to hide you from a disapproving gaze, either real or imagined. Natural and normal characters make possible unnatural and abnormal characters, whose difference makes them intrinsically shameful, “freaks of nature.” 11 In reality, of course, “sexual identity” was not primarily meant to help us tell a truth about ourselves. 12 Because the vague unity of social and bodily function is itself an artifact, no definition can possibly reflect a timeless, generic identity (103). 13  The concept of sexuality is “so useful to an emerging form of power” because its lack of clear conceptual boundaries makes it easy to selectively create abnormal characters and thereby shame anyone who calls the smooth functioning of social norms into question (112). “Deliberately irresponsible naming” selectively creates pariahs and abnormal, unnatural, monstrous freakish characters by doubling acts with identities.  Sometimes, you can separate identities and behaviors. It gets especially delicate the more normative and therefore fragile the imagined identity of the actor is. “Straight” men who perform “homosexual acts” with one another might not be gay, just “experimenting.” Other times, doubling is unreasonably inflexible. Preadolescent girls deemed sexually abnormal, criminal, and degenerate are institutionalized and then told, “Your identity is you’re a sex offender.”14

James Baldwin, who wrote with particular acuity about what it meant to construct normal sexual and racial identity in the United States, asserted that such “essentially nostalgic” ideals in his context had “almost nothing to do with what or who an American really is” or with “what life is.” For Baldwin, these black or queer characters exist instead because they externalize a “kind of social paranoia,” a “fear,” “a kind of sleeping terror of some condition which we refuse to imagine.” Without black people, he argues, “we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personality, with all those vices, all those conundrums, and all those mysteries which we have invested the negro race.”15

*                      *                      *                      *

Baldwin’s interpretation of “the majority” begins from the observation that coercive speech is not merely a cause of shame, but a response to it. Baldwin’s echo of Christ’s words on the cross indicates that shame also debilitates those who use it to dominate: “I was black in that world, and I was used that way, and by people who truly meant me no harm. And they could not have meant me any harm, because they did not see me.”16 Shame makes truth telling impossible because it depends on a system of lies in order to preserve convenient appearances.

If you want to know whether you can trust someone, Baldwin implies, you should look at how they dance. The dancers filling the Harlem nightclub remain “aware of the terrible and unreachable forces which yet rule their lives.”17 But because the illusion of control doesn’t trap those who feel disempowered, “no one gives a damn, and this allows everyone to be himself—at the club.” The movements of dancing bodies make space inside the shaming system for the dancers to be open to themselves. Dancing extravastates compassion, producing “an atmosphere of freedom which is exactly as real as the limits which have made it necessary.” The dancers in the Harlem nightclub show themselves to be trustworthy because of the way they move indicates that they have found ways to be free. “A person’s freedom can only be judged in terms of his flexibility, his openness toward life; it is not his situation which makes him free, but himself.”18

Alternatively, the “majority” dances with “joylessness.” On the one hand, they are like everyone else,  “struggling to be free of invisible chains.” On the other hand, however, their overriding “wish…to remain socially safe” constrains their style. 19 The need to maintain dominant control makes them quite fragile and insecure. As a result, they can’t make enough space either for themselves or for one another. A pitiful weakness and fears of self-confrontation at the heart of the bullying abuse, which controls them, too: “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires. Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be.”20 The system has to pretend. It depends on weakness and lies.

Shame cannot survive the magnanimity, strength, and dignity of compassion, which is rooted in the perception of being wanted. Compassion overcomes fear and makes it possible to perceive yourself and others truthfully. You can be open to others when you aren’t obsessed with protecting yourself. That is why it is only really possible to love your neighbor as yourself—much less your enemy—when you have figured out how to love own your life. Compassion frees you to speak truthfully and with parrhesia because it enables you to talk about yourself in a way that isn’t fueled by the victimizer’s terms and strategies.

No one in the world—in the entire world—knows more—knows Americans better or, odd as this may sound, loves them more than the American Negro. This is because he has had to watch you, outwit you, deal with you, and bear you, and sometimes even bleed and die with you, ever since we got here, that is, since both of us, black and white, got here—and this is a wedding. Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not, we are bound together forever. We are part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you. There is no way around this.21

Love, it turns out, reflects the truth of the situation. In his later Playboy essay, Baldwin said the same: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other. . . . We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.”22 Compassion does not need to define someone else before making space for them.

For Foucault, Jordan, and Baldwin, a politics that uses the fiction of stable identities in order to make space to include everyone presumes the system of shameful naming that it seeks to resist. For “much of the victim [identity politics] means to rescue has been created by the victimizing system” (56). Victims therefore increase their troubles as they seek to subvert, defeat, or join the abuser’s trap.

It seems to me very dangerous to model one’s opposition to the arbitrary definition, to the imposed ordeal, merely on the example supplied by one’s oppressor. The object of one’s hatred is never, alas, conveniently outside but is seated in one’s lap, stirring in one’s bowels and dictating the beat of one’s heart. And if one does not know this, one risks becoming an imitation—and, therefore, a continuation—of principles one imagines oneself to despise.23

Resisting oppressive readings of scripture by offering a better, more convincing reading of some biblical text is a way of merely tinkering with the shaming system. The problem was never with scripture, but with the terms on which it is read, which use gaslighting to shame readers into submission.24 The project of “gay liberation conceived as the proud assertion of gay identity” is also a way of tinkering with the system. “The problem with ‘gay pride’ is not the pride but the identity implicit in ‘gay.’ Overturning scientia sexualis requires giving up the desire for theories about sex—including the theories that underwrite identity politics.” A political response that seeks assimilation into stable categories of race or sexuality merely reverses “the pathological valuation—by proclaiming that the pathology was really normal all along” is a way of tinkering with the shaming system. Pride self-protectively uses identity-markers to push the problem of abnormality onto some different group—bisexuals, transgender persons. For the normalizing “epistemic project,” which remains “intact,” will need a new character on which to displace the fear and insecurity (117).

*                      *                      *                      *

Augustine’s theology is typically interpreted as an inadequate tinkering with Roman political, sexual, and social ideals. Perhaps so. But he can also be read through proto-Foucauldian irony. Consider his campy description of how divine compassion in Jesus undermines the Roman ideal of the impenetrable manly man. He playfully takes on the most normative and therefore fragile identity at the heart of the Roman domestic, social, and political structures. If you read him too earnestly, or if you identify too closely with the concerns of the subject that he means to critique, you’ll miss the joke—and, I think, what makes his thought so challenging.25

For example, City of God rewrites the story of the household (domus) from the beginning. God the creator, like any good paterfamilias, injects divine seminal formulae (rationes seminales) into the formless matter (mater). The seminales form the whole material hierarchy into the shape of the eternal Logos. God innovates by placing Adam, the father of the human family, at the head of the fleshly hierarchy. For, unlike other gregarious animals, which are made in groups according to their kinds, all people descend from a single couple. Human conjugal relations signify more than the extension of the human species in time and space. It inscribes the social and political intimacy of the human household onto our flesh.26

The human community was designed to reflect the ideal of the Late Antique, elite Roman household. In such a household, the paterfamilias exercises power (potestas) internally and externally, individually and socially, domestically and civically. Internally, potestas is the reasoned mastery of his body and his emotions. Outwardly, this potestas manifests as his competence to ensure harmony (concordia) in at the various levels of the household: he maintains a relationship of affinity (adfinitas) with his wife and secures the obedience and piety (obedentia and pietas) of his children and his slaves. If the inner-self mastery makes the outer competence possible, then the outer competence displays a character that values justice. In a massive, decentralized empire, civic life depended on personal trustworthiness of those with public responsibilities. And so someone who displays inner mastery through outer competence could be entrusted with civic responsibility. A just man will prioritize the common good over his private advantage. Alternatively, a man who lacked self-control and managed his household incompetently was suspect. How could someone who could not secure his own household be entrusted to protect the common good?

Since the human political community is united by kinship, Adam’s domestic competence would simultaneously ensure the political harmony of the human community. But unlike God, whose competence (omni-potestas) flows from divine self-sufficiency, Adam, the father of the race, was also God’s son. His self-mastery depended on the obedience and piety he owed to God. In City of God, Augustine argues that Adam failed to render God pietas and obedientia. And in On the Trinity, Augustine imagines that at the nexus of the inner and outer households, Adam and Eve traded the “whole that is common to all” for the sake of their own “private property” and were therefore “thrust into anxiety over a part” (trin., XII). They undermined justice by prioritizing their private advantage over the common good.

Adam’s failure to render God obedience and piety caused discord in the divine domus. Adam became impotent (im-potestas). He lost control over himself, his descendants, and his relationship with his wife. In the future, he would relate discordantly to himself, coercively to them, and violently to her. Adam’s immediate, physiological reaction to his disobedience was shame (pudor), which claimed as its icon the unruly male member, as a sign of a man’s inability to control his own body. What were once genitalia, the seed-producing images of God the Father’s fertility, have become pudenda, the shame of men, moving when men don’t try to move them and worse, failing to move in accordance with desire.27 In shame, Adam became obsessed with hiding all signs of his impotence.

Some of the most suggestive interpretations of Augustine locate the transmission of this impotence and shame in coercive naming.28 Adam passes on his insecurity to his descendants by teaching them to talk about themselves in ways that lack compassion and fail to do themselves and others justice. Augustine thought that the Roman social structure could never be just insofar as it depended on covering up male impotence with outward signs of dominance and glory. The social system was founded to be a giant smokescreen – a garment of fig-leaves, if you will – for men to hide their shame and, as a consequence, to manipulatively gaslight everybody else. A deep and enduring insecurity funds the Roman pursuit of glory. The social logic of all subsequent earthy cities repeats the pathology, weaving hierarchies meant to cover the limp and unpredictable with strength and impenetrability.

Augustine portrays the Devil on the model of the ideal Roman man—a transparently insecure bully. Obsessed with compensating for his (l)impotence, his shame-driven obsession with domination (libido dominandi) leads him to project a veneer of impenetrable strength. Since the Devil’s obsession stems from insecurity, his sense of competence is competitive. His need to be big and great depends on disempowering others. He does this chiefly through deception; he bends his superior technological skills to mendacious ends, drawing others into a deceptive cycle whereby he diminishes and shames them. This is why the Devil uses fireworks to show his greatness – they are like big signs meant to compensate for disobedient members. He may be vulnerable, but he can make everyone else even more vulnerable.

Because this version of ideal Roman masculinity lacks the Roman virtue humiliates, Augustine theologically re-narrates the virtue.29 Loving, merciful compassion (caritas) animates reality and makes a just vulnerability or a vulnerable justice a sign of courage. God the Father, secure in the divine potestas, has nothing to prove. Because of the divine sufficiency, the Lord (Dominus) demonstrates divine glory not through dominating haughtiness, but with vulnerability —“the greatness of being lowly” (On Holy Virginity, On the Trinity XIII). Predating Chalcedon’s substance Christologies, Augustine imagines a man (it should be clear why it was important to Augustine that he be a man—even if it turns out that he had to be intersex)30 who enacts a vulnerability so complete from an empowerment so sufficient that only an immediate, continuous flow of divine strength makes it intelligible. This man would seamlessly perform the humility of God. 31  Absent self-interest, he could restore Adam’s headship by pursuing the common good with the single-minded obedience and piety of a son.

The crucifixion is the culmination of the battle between Jesus and the Devil over the claim to competent management of the human household. Christ’s potestas would depend on his vulnerability in pursuit of justitia. Blindly insecure, the Devil knows nothing but the compulsion to compensate for what he lacks. From his weakness he assails justice and pursues his own advantage in order to extend his deceitful dominion. His need to control makes him unable to recognize Christ’s divine competence—and the vulnerability of its offer. Patient and humble pursuit of justice, not coercive domination, would evidence divine strength. Through one lens, Jesus ironically tricked the Devil into confusing his naked vulnerability for a show of weakness. The bully’s victory secured his defeat, for killing Jesus offset and exposed the impotence and insecurity of the Devil’s more conventional sort of dominance. Jesus played the nonstrategic fool whose potestas could more ably manage the human household. The Lord’s loving and healing availability through Christ would free those disempowered by the Devil. For the power that funded Christ’s vulnerability is such that it is chiefly invested in maximizing the style and the uniqueness of each repetition of goodness. In their shame, the deceived forgot about their goodness and resorted to the violent tactics of the bully. In Jesus, they could be made secure once again in God’s love. Baptism might rewrite their identity by giving them a new name in a household integrated not by Roman pride but by divine compassion.

The failure of the Devil’s mode of dominance undermined all its imitators, especially the version of the elite Roman masculine ideal that the alternative Christian view of sex and politics often took for granted. Jovinian’s theology represented the light baptism of the Roman household. It tinkered with the imperial project of masculine subject-formation, but ultimately left it intact. Jerome’s contentiously reasserted the ideal image of the prideful, impenetrable Roman man, but this time as the prideful, impenetrable ascetic. Augustine thought the Jovinianist position an unacceptable accommodation to the status quo, and he associated Jerome’s view of the superb that underwrites the imperial project. Both were too modest – just tinkering with a system that needed to be overhauled.

Through this lens, Augustine’s theology signals the sexual failure of the imperial superstructure. The failure of the Devil’s mode of dominance undermined all its imitators, especially the version of the elite Roman masculine ideal that the alternative Christian views of sex and politics on offer took for granted. By ironically redescribing the character around whom the Roman social and political order revolved, Augustine’s critique of Roman masculinity rejected the central Roman claims to justice and power. By unmasking the technologies used to control people by shaming them, the divine intervention in Christ indicated the dangerous and absurd impotence of Roman masculinity, the persistent violence of sexual intercourse, and the incompetence of Rome’s attempt at justice.

*                      *                      *                      *

“Normalizing discourse” uses shame to create social closure by inventing knowledges intended to make us transparent to ourselves. These knowledges deceive us, each of them functions to control us, and they use shame to abuse us. Since the names we acquire always “contain histories” and “are caught up in histories,” confessing the coercive naming itself makes room to face the stories that we have believed unknowingly. Confession has the power to dislodge what seemed to us universal “facts.” It thus resists shame noncoercively—without trying to “capture” or “direct” anything.32 Confronting what we have depended on to make our lives rational helps us discover some of the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we make the names explicit, it is more difficult to maintain the shaming system’s core claim that certain characters are “unnatural” or “abnormal” (81–82). If we learn to relate to the realities that the lies exist to avoid, we might begin to see, to receive, and therefore to speak more truthfully33 “Once you have discerned the meaning of a label, it may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.”34 When whole groups confess with parrhesia, then they are “forced to deal with themselves.” They no longer need abnormal characters,35 for they can stop trying to create the closure they think they need to avoid restlessness.

Confession is a “daily practice of rewriting” our bodies so that they can breathe (121). It only resists shame noncoercively when it is free from the anxiety of securing itself. Confession therefore needs to be eschatological, because it postpones the intimacy of words with reality to an indefinite future: now, “we don’t (yet) have the words” to speak with closure. Confession also needs to be apophatic, because it deconstructs and therefore continually undermines the adequacy of any linguistic and social system. “some day, perhaps, we will have another language for bodies and pleasures. We will praise or solicit them without also desiring their scientific truth. The only way to reach that other economy is first of all by unsaying, by apophasis” (117–18).

*                      *                      *                      *

You can breathe again when your therapist helps you to name the destructive cycle that has haunted you or your relationship. “When he perceives intensity or hostility in my demeanor, he experiences flooding. It’s a physiological reaction. His heart rate increases. His breath shortens. All he can do is look for the next attack or try to find a way out.” The name, flooding, diagnoses and recommends a script: take a break. Calm down. Return to the topic later. Wait for him to feel centered and able to trust you again. 36 The process of attaching words to experiences and feelings might in this case serves a relationship that exceeds both the words and the reality that the words try to name. By empowering the couple to relate to the dynamic rather than through it, the words empty out a space for both partners to breathe.

Buddhist shamatha-viashyana meditation recommends a similar naming process.37 When you attempt to be present with your breath, your mind wanders into thought and your feelings rush ahead of your breath. Gently, compassionately naming the thought “thinking” and the feeling “anxiety,” “sadness,” or “joy” restores you to your breath and saves you from an infinite regress of harsh self-judgment. Compassionately attaching words makes you present to your thoughts and feelings so that you relate to them rather than through them. It makes your heart capacious and soft. The newly opened emptiness inside of you, bodhichitta, becomes the space to inhale the suffering of all beings and to exhale the joy of the world’s goodness. When you are present to your breath, your perception of the world’s fleetingness—and your own—sharpens. You realize that trying to grasp onto the dream will diminish you. Since nothing is solid, you reject the only alternative—to harden yourself against suffering and joy in order to maintain an illusion. For grasping joy and pushing suffering away trades open emptiness for looming nothingness, reality for a dream. The practice of naming softens your small, stony, self-protective heart into a spacious, fleshy heart.

*                      *                      *                      *

Coercive speech must be dangerously pure and stiflingly complete. The social structure it produces aims to leave no space for unpredictable movement or unscripted styles. Whatever its form, it establishes, subverts, or avoids a normalizing space unencumbered by history or limitation. In this light, Jordan has rewritten Foucault in an anti-Pelagian and anti-Donatist tract. This impossible immediacy that purity needs always relies on either in the status quo or in its opposite. If only “the pious hope that the perfect words of the right theory would deliver our bodies to us, intact, unblemished” were reliable! Then words could surpass themselves and the bodies that speak or write them and give us access to something outside of our human bodies. Then we could finally secure ourselves.

Augustine’s thought means that speech cannot transcend flesh or its history. Michael Banner calls perfectionist forms of epistemic purity such as “pure nature” Thomism or its theoretical equivalents “epistemological Pelagianism.”38 An identity politics that secures its arguments by appeal to the transparently legible identity of the author might be called “epistemological Donatism.” In either case, epistemic purity is dangerous. For purity’s empowering fictions—that we can transcend our flesh, that we might be like God, knowing good and evil—trap us in our own certainties, and who knows what we might do with them? Such certainties also leave us without help. For if our words might timelessly absorb flesh in pure speech, why would the Word become flesh?

For Baldwin, pure, identity-completing speech is able to use sex, gender, or race coercively because it treats God as a toy: “I suggest that the role of the Negro in American life has something to do with our concept of what God is, and from my point of view, this concept is not big enough. It has got to be made much bigger than it is because God is, after all, not anybody’s toy.” Non-coercive speech instead relies on “something I do not understand.” It resists epistemic purity and its shameful characterizations by emphasizing the nonlinguistic depth of all speaking.

To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, which in the going toward, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not as a means to control others. Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.39

Baldwin’s God – like Augustine’s – cannot finally shame, dominate, or control subjects. For all speaking, interpreting, and acting participate in the eternal iteration of an unimaginable and ecstatic constancy in which divine life is present to itself in love. That divine self-presence is the vanishing goal to which all our speaking aspires. As the Word is God’s way of being ecstatically present to God and gratuitously present to us, our speaking makes it possible for us to be present us to ourselves and to one another as gratuitous gifts. This means at least allowing each person (whatever we are) to be “utterly distinct” as we share a life together.

As Jordan’s work approaches its constructive limit, I find it increasingly frustrating. The scripts he suggests require readers to improvise, and it can be difficult to know what to do. Recruiting Young Love, for example, sustains a precise, sophisticated, erudite, and compelling microanalyses of naming techniques. But it ends with less than five pages of constructive moral reflection (210–14). I suppose, however, that if my reading of Jordan is right, part of the (essentially Augustinian) point is that theological writing can only resist policing, coercive speech, if it abandons rhetorical techniques meant to control the reader’s response. No rhetoric, fast or slow, can guarantee outcomes. Jordan’s short conclusion retrospectively transforms what has seemed until then merely an erudite historical effort in deconstructive naming into “a litany of queer saints and a repository of queer rituals.” In this light, this and the rest of Jordan’s rather eclectic set of writings (on Thomas, queer theory, American history, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, etc.) reads like a de Lubacian project of ressourcement:

Christianity remains a repository for archaic, transgressive characters of desire and gender. They are inscribed into its scriptures, especially in the person of its founder. . . . The transgressive characters are regularly brought to life in Christian worship, in its liturgy and sacraments. Many churches labor to enforce a dominant moralism, but they inevitably perform a Gospel with a surplus of other possibilities—other characters. I now claim all these rituals for queer religion—and even for queer Christianity. Or I want to.40

Jordan’s writing asks whether there is some form of Christian practice and teaching that might help readers find a style—a way to be more themselves, to find in the “already-formed subject the makings of a future self that is a return to self” (174). He concludes Recruiting Young Love by asking this striking question:

Can we still imagine a Christian community that could form erotic characters in opposition to the state? That community would have to recall the extraordinary power of an englobing rhetoric that can begin in childhood and continue, through every stage of life, into promises for life beyond. It would need to remember that its rituals are more than the belated ramification or affirmation of civic identities. The basic Christian rites, baptism and Eucharist, actualize strange possibilities for gendered desire, as they establish unusual relations with the bodies and “identities” of Jesus Christ.41

Perhaps the unimaginable divine compassion that Baldwin perceived as he challenged white Christian identity politics or that Augustine perceived as he rewrote imperial Roman masculinity can make space for us to move into new and truthful styles. For if that God is real, then you not are necessary. The only reason you are here is because you are wanted. The truest thing about you is that you are a gift. Along with each other thing, your moving flesh shows what goodness is like in a way that nothing else can. That goodness is massive and basic and identical with existence and truth. “The truth must have a body,” and in your own way, that body is you (188). Only you can move the way you do, and so your central responsibility is to maximize your style. The stakes are high: you are an irreplaceably particular way of being the goodness, apart from whom the rest of us lose an opportunity to receive God’s limitless compassion.

Most people are not able to look on each other as human beings, and, in spite of everything, to treat each other that way. Until this happens, freedom is only an empty word. In the meantime, what one’s contrasting is a matter of style, i.e., ways of life, and contrasting these, moreover, in their most public manifestations. The atmosphere of a Harlem nightclub must be different from that of the Copacabana because of the way of life which has produced it, and the peculiar needs it serves.42

If words are always flesh, then words and bodies need to make space for one another in much more self-conscious ways. We need to make space for one another in how we speak. And so it has to be okay that the way we write or speak is always doing a bit more justice to our styles—and therefore never quite enough. We don’t have to interpret failures, mistakes, and imperfections as signs of corruption. Instead, we might be okay with being ourselves, learn to trust each other, negotiate our differences as they arise, and mourn the inevitable tragedies that accompany our limits, and perhaps thereby gain the strength and compassion necessary to confess our failures. That would be honest speech. Perhaps Jordan, together with Baldwin, Foucault, Augustine, and all the company of queer saints can help us to confess—or at least to speak with style.

  1. Mark D. Jordan, Convulsing Bodies: Religion and Resistance in Foucault (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015). All subsequent citations are parenthetical.

  2. Mark D. Jordan, “Sacramental Characters,” Studies in Christian Ethics 19, no. 3 (December 2006) 323–38; Mark D. Jordan, Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

  3. See Summa Theologiae, 3.63.1–3. “Whenever anyone is deputed to some definite purpose he is wont to receive some outward sign thereof” (ST 3.63.1).

  4. See discussion of the distinction between what you are and who you are in Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

  5. See especially Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978, ed. Arnold I. I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2009), 115–254.

  6. “Prisons aren’t mean to reduce crime. They are meant to control it by describing it. They are in the business of producing new characters, instruments for the exercise of disciplinary power” (56).

  7. “You’re Not Going Crazy: How ‘Gaslighting’ Erodes Your Sanity ⋆ LonerWolf,” LonerWolf, March 6, 2015,

  8. “Donald Trump,” Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (New York: CBS, 2016), https:/C:/dev/home/

  9. Mark D. Jordan, The Ethics of Sex (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).

  10. As some have noted, shame can result in a powerful group identity. I do not agree with theorists who think that shame itself does this. Insofar as shame describes a second-order analytical concept, it seems isolating by definition. Shame might, however, unite a majority of people through a process of scapegoating. See David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub, Gay Shame (University of Chicago Press, 2009). I found the following especially helpful: Brandy Daniels, “For Shame? Part 1 (of 3): An Introduction (On the Psychological & Popular Literature . . . And, on My Shame),” Women in Theology, January 30, 2015,; Daniels, “For Shame? Part 2 (of 3): Queer(-ing) Shame? (Or, Defining Shame, Queer Redux: The Affect & Its Effects),” Women in Theology, February 16, 2015,; Brandy Daniels, “For Shame! Part 3: A Shameful (Erotic?) Theology?,” Women in Theology, March 9, 2015,

  11. See Francis J. Broucek, Shame and the Self (New York: Guilford, 1991); Paul Gilbert, “What Is Shame? Some Core Issues and Controversies,” in Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture, ed. Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Brené Brown, “Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame,” Families in Society 87, no. 1 (March 2006) 43–52.

  12.  Jordan argues that, like its medieval predecessor, sodomy, no one can say exactly what sexuality is. See Mark D Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

  13. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Picador, 2003); Foucault, Security, Territory, Population.

  14. Sarah Stillman, “The List,” New Yorker, March 14, 2016, http:/C:/dev/home/

  15. James Baldwin, “In Search of a Majority: An Address,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 219.

  16. James Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 824.

  17. James Baldwin, “Color,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 676.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., 674.

  20. Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” 828.

  21. Baldwin, “In Search of a Majority: An Address,” 220–21.

  22. Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” 828–29.

  23. Ibid., 824

  24. Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

  25. I elaborate on this and provide references to specific texts in Sean Larsen, Naked and Unashamed: Rethinking Sex and Politics with Augustine (forthcoming).

  26. See Augustine, b. coniug., 1.1.

  27. I have learned much from Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser, “The Gender of Grace: Impotence, Servitude, and Manliness in the Fifth-Century West,” Gender & History 12, no. 3 (November 1, 2000) 536–51.

  28. Robert Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  29. Brian Harding, Augustine and Roman Virtue (New York: Continuum, 2008).

  30. Jane F. Gardner, “Sexing a Roman: Imperfect Men in Roman Law,” in When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity, ed. Lin Foxhall and J. B. Salmon (New York: Routledge, 1998).

  31. See Brian Daley, “A Humble Mediator: The Distinctive Elements in Saint Augustine’s Christology,” Word and Spirit 9 (1987): 100–117.

  32. As Jordan emphasizes in The Ethics of Sex, ideological rhetoric exists not to find the truth, because it is sure it has unmediated intimacy with the truth. It exists to perpetuate itself. It is simultaneously inescapable and impossible to refute on its own terms.

  33. More technically, and using Jordan’s and Foucault’s language, “the legibility of bodies” can only be “a constantly contested effect of power, in which writing, like convulsions, performs all kinds of roles, confirming and denying, repeating and displacing” (185). Confession that resists shame through compassion is the Foucauldian spirituality with the dual goal of identifying “[gaps] in the regime of disciplinarity” (62) in order to “[decenter] the received self” and then constantly cultivate “whatever it is that allows one to stand in a relationship of remaking to oneself.” Such a spirituality, Jordan argues, must be “less a cognitive act [and discovery of an inside] than a transfiguring illumination,” for it “presupposes that the subject, having no possession of truth by right, must be changed in order to teach truth” (173). The moral instruction or “doctrine” on which it depends is “more like a set of admonitions intended to help the reader acquire the virtue of seeing into ethical situations” (109).

  34. Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” 819.

  35. Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1983–1984 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

  36. See John Gottman and Nan Silver, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

  37. See Thera Nyanaponika, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness (New York: Citadel, 1969); Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Boston: Shambhala, 1994).

  38. Michael C. Banner, The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 15.

  39. Baldwin, “In Search of a Majority: An Address,” 220. “Negative theologies are an ongoing ritual of unsaying. They answer every positive claim about the divine with its corresponding denial. They must continue to do so for as long as there is theological assertion” (121).

  40. Jordan, Recruiting Young Love, 213.

  41. Ibid., 213–214. He continues: “But the imagined community would have to acknowledge first of all that churches have not learned to talk about sexuality. They have relied for more than a century on hasty borrowings and nervous negations. They have mostly ceded their old power for forming characters around sex and gender. They have reduced the theology of gendered desire to a belated pidgin.”

  42. Baldwin, “Color,” 677.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan


    Reply to Sean Larsen

    Sean Larsen undertakes the thankless task of situating my reading of Foucault within some account of my “rather eclectic set of writings.” “Rather” is a gracious qualification, “eclectic” a polite adjective. My list of publications has been called much worse. Larsen’s task is also made more difficult because I have not quite stopped writing. If Lynne Huffer’s Mad for Foucault is one sort of companion volume to Convulsing Bodies, another is my cumulative reading of Aquinas in Teaching Bodies.1 I juxtaposed books on Foucault and Aquinas as my best effort at bilingualism. I hoped to speak at length about the testimony of bodies in two of the languages I inherited. Call it an experiment in speaking theology through the impossibility of adequate translation.

    Larsen fits my pieces together both fairly and insightfully. So, for example, I do find bodily performance of character both in Thomas’s sacramental theology and in Foucault’s theatrical reading of the Cynics. I do connect Thomas on apophasis with Foucault’s way of unsaying. My only addition to his assembly would be to offer a certain reading of Plato as a missing piece. I learned the reading from Jacob Klein, though it has other practitioners and older sources.

    From Plato, I learned—or believed I learned—four things that figure in my reading of Foucault. First, no good sense can be made of Plato’s writing by ignoring the form of his dialogues down to their last dramatic detail. So now I read texts and teach them by focusing on what I call the their scenes of instruction (Teaching Bodies, 68–71). I learned, second, the decisive distinction between sophistry and philosophy, which I now describe as the difference between fast rhetoric and slow rhetoric (Recruiting Young Love, 211–12). In third place, I gathered from reading Plato the critique of doxa, of mere opinion, which is always more confident, more quickly communicable, and more easily digestible than knowledge. This lesson appears in Convulsing Bodies and other works as a recurring critique of standard forms of intellectual history, much of which is doxography in an inadvertently Platonic sense. Finally, most importantly, most hauntingly, I found in the Platonic dialogues gestures—gestures only—towards an erotic knowing, somehow divine, that exceeds human language but can be approached through embodied irony.

    If I had it in me to write a third exegetical book on bodies, I would meditate on the body of Socrates. I might compare Socrates as Eros in the Symposium with the Odyssean Socrates of the Republic. I would consider especially what did and did not happen that night when Alcibiades’s elaborate plans to seduce Socrates failed—that is, succeeded. The same Alcibiades interrupts the Symposium’s sequence of too sober speeches on love when he appears as the god Dionysus. His appearance might then lead me to the theophany at the end of Beyond Good and Evil and so to Nietzsche’s “madness.” I would eventually reach the beginning of Foucault, whose long trajectory brought him at last to a sustained engagement with those other descendants of Socrates, the Cynics. Foucault, following Nietzsche, opposes himself to all Platonisms, especially in Christianity. That reading of Plato may not nearly ironic enough.

    There is much more in Larsen’s comments—especially about Baldwin and Augustine, who have mostly eluded my efforts to write about them. Let me only admire the collage of Baldwin and Augustine as an example of how to write theology. It is the kind of collage that is, indeed, my version of ressourcement.

    I am not sure how exactly Larsen understands de Lubac’s version of the project of re-sourcing theology, of turning with fresh eyes to libraries both familiar and unfamiliar. Speaking as a technician, I would acknowledge that my reading of Thomas descends rather from Chenu and the Dominican house of studies, Le Saulchoir. My theological imagination was certainly formed by the culmination of ressourcement in some versions of Vatican II. I subscribed to their paradoxical hope that a faithful return would be a most persuasive renewal. Since I do not regard writing on Foucault as opposed to my writing of theology, I conceive my long apprenticeship to him as ressourcement in at least three ways. First, engaging seriously with Foucault reminds again of the range of styles and topics that must figure within contemporary theology that would be credible. Second, Foucault’s writing gives both occasion and example for reactivating old texts that want to shape human lives. Third, most important, Foucault displays just how far the powers of this world (to use an old phrase) have gained control of languages in which to proclaim or explain the Gospel—including, of course, traditional languages of theology itself.

    There is more. In many ways, ressourcement is a Roman Catholic version of Modernist aesthetics. (I mean literary and artistic Modernism, not the theological monster fantasized under that name by enforcers of orthodoxy.) The retrieval of the archaic in both its strangeness and its lived urgency—that is one impulse in Modernist arts. So too is collage (say, Baldwin and Augustine or Foucault and Aquinas). So too is the conviction that the conditions of modern life demand new forms—because new ways of life. Foucault is, in recognizable ways, a late Modernist. He is thus a distant cousin to ressourcement. (To say the obvious: he was also its beneficiary as soon as he began to work on early Christian materials.) He understands—perhaps more fully than the French theologians of the generation before his—how far the crisis of forms has proceeded. Diagnosing the cultural condition more exactly, he sets the standard for new writing even higher.

    I agree with that standard even when I cannot meet it. The abrupt end of Recruiting Young Love frustrates Larsen. It may make things worse to admit that the frustration was intended. In another context, Kent Brintnall has remarked that several of my books, beginning with The Invention of Sodomy, end the same way, with some call beyond the last page. I walk up to the “edge” of language along various routes—and in several senses. I recall traditional apophatic theologies. I construct and then undo characters. Much more mundanely, I repeat complaints against the tenacity of academic genres. Most of all, I caution against passive reading and its merely verbal sequels. Augustine rushes in from his Milanese garden to read a decisive passage in Paul. The passage seals a hope for bodily life that we reduce to a conversion. “I had no will to read more, nor was there any need” (Confessions 8.12, nec ultra uolui legere nec opus erat).

    1. Mark D. Jordan, Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).