Symposium Introduction

 

The following symposium first incarnated its relations during the American Academy of Religion’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. What was then the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity Group (now Sacred Texts, Theory, and Theological Construction) gathered to celebrate the recent release of Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh with Duke University Press.

In three parts, Rivera’s book “elaborates a view of corporeality woven by its carnal relations to the world—spiritual, organic, social—describing the folds of body and flesh, flesh and world, body and word” (10). Working through ancient texts like Pauline letters, the Gospel of John, Tertullian, part 1 traces different Christian conceptualities such as body (soma, corpus) and flesh (sarx, caro) and the different configurations those concepts take in ancient texts. She traces two strands: (1) “somatic views” like that in Paul that “contrasts ‘spiritual bodies’ with ‘carnal bodies,’ treating flesh as a negative metaphysical principle” and (2) “carnal views,” “whereas the Gospel of John envisions salvation through the ‘flesh,’ rather than the ‘body’ . . . tend[ing] to emphasize metaphors of flesh, carnal exchanges, and transformation” (11). Each view carries challenge and potential.

In its second part, the book traces concepts and philosophical critiques of flesh as they emerge in the twentieth-century works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty imagining the “flesh of the world” as it entangles human and nonhuman materiality of bodies. Such conversations seem to be reinterpretations of the “carnal view.” Finally, in the third part, Rivera examines “ambivalent incarnations” or the “becoming flesh of social relations” (12). These becomings occur in the histories of colonial politics, racialization, gender, and other social-material ways the world comes to be.

In a luminous session inspired by Rivera’s work, panelists engaged in creative practices of “writing with” Rivera’s deft tracings of Christian poetics of bodies and flesh. Add into those hours Rivera’s own brilliant and gracious response, and you get an AAR session dreams are made of, poiesis itself. As a presider and cochair of that group, I couldn’t have been more in awe of colleagues and scholars engaging an audience with their critically collaborative best.

We could not, therefore, let the opportunity pass us by to share some of the fruits of that session, and what you’ll be reading are revised or extended conversations provoked and emergent from that first panel. Including Rivera’s own response, the five essays included here contribute to a quickly expanding scholarly reflection on Poetics.

Biblical scholar Tat-siong Benny Liew’s essay begins this symposium by locating Rivera’s work in a context of growing interdisciplinary theory on “corporeal existence, bodily vulnerability, and material matters.” Scholarship on what is being called the “new materialism” in and outside of religious studies enables Liew to examine the implications of Rivera’s work for complex issues of agency and subjectivity. Indeed, those questions of agency and subjectivity shift, form, and reform in complex forces of materiality and machinery, gender and race. What Liew ultimately finds in Rivera’s Poetics is “a dynamic process of relational negotiation, in which we are both acting and acted upon, both contributing and constrained.”

Theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s response considers that dynamic process in the textual flesh of the book itself—exploring poetics, structure, style, and theological practice or method. Copeland points out Rivera’s explorations of the complicated and sometimes problematic relationships of Christian concepts and the body. However, the constructive poetics or what Copeland calls the “critical contemplative dialectics” of bodies and flesh in Rivera’s work constitutes a kind of political aesthetics, “a way of living so that beauty and justice suffuse the world.” To do so transforms the stuff of ordinary life into possibilities of affirmation, glory, or divinity. Rivera’s book “stands out as an outstanding exercise in and of polydox theology, i.e., critical reflection on religious faith that becomes flesh in knowledge and love in the radical transformation of oppressive systems.”

The latter two responses think with Rivera’s work about radical transformations in concrete theological and social ethical contexts. In his poetic and provocative piece, Elias Ortega-Aponte, a social ethicist, turns to what he calls contemporary “neo-lynching spectacles,” where we are given “front row seats” to violence committed by white supremacy and can interact, debate, frame, and reframe these scenes in a variety of social media debates. Ortega-Aponte argues that “the poetic mobilization of language in Rivera’s book beckons each one of us to consider the processes and social formations that make possible our individual, but mutually constitutive, enfleshments.” And in that context, the recurring question of his piece asks “how does the disappearance of touch in the social world impact collective understanding of concern for others?” That is, with technology and virtual interaction reconfiguring the very touch of social relations, “How do racialized and gendered social ways of knowing and attitude shift under such conditions?” These conditions, Ortega-Aponte argues don’t allow for touch even as they allow for witness. Touching, proximity, flesh, and the hauntings of these social conditions offer political possibilities.

Finally, my own essay thinks with Rivera’s poetics from the perspective of a theologian gently writing within the vast and complex theo-ethical problem posed by anthropogenic global warming and climate change. Turning to Anthropocene and climate ethics, I ask how conceptions of flesh might impact perceptions, imaginations, practices, and possibilities of thinking of life in our new planetary context. Riffing on the nonhuman, the non-anthropocentric implications of Rivera’s work, I argue for a concept of “atmospheric flesh,” where the elemental flesh of our ecosocial relations entangles creaturely life and demands a kind of relational responsibility as well. Reflecting on recent theological constructions of the earth as the “body of God,” I argue that atmospheric flesh composes the flesh of the earth and the flesh of divinity. To construct an atmospheric poetics of the flesh attends to the creaturely bodies churned into fossil fuels by time as well as creatures practicing resistance and resilience in the wake of the burning of those fossil fuels.

The essays in this symposium reflect the rich interdisciplinarity of Rivera’s work—ranging from biblical imaginations to ethical considerations of gender, race, and ecology, to postcolonial theory, new materialism, and contemporary theological construction. Each of these essays carries a common address: how do we as scholars challenge conceptualities that disregard flesh, render bodies human and nonhuman disposable, or ignore the complexities of social materiality? Rivera’s book gestures toward the challenges and possibilities of addressing such questions with justice, poetic rhythm, and ethical carnality.

M. Shawn Copeland

Response

What is Poetics?

My response to Professor Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh can be nothing but admiration and appreciation. This is an amazing, stunning, and rich work of philosophical erudition, intellectual suppleness, existential and intellectual passion. Absorbing this challenging work will require time and patient reading as well as questioning, but in the meantime, in these brief remarks, I consider poetics, the book’s structure and style, and theological practice (or method).

What is poetics? Western literary criticism traces its engagement with the notion of poetics to Aristotle’s aesthetics, the works on Poetics and Rhetoric. In the Poetics, the philosopher provides an account of the “creative making” of poetry, treats poetry in and of itself, distinguishes its various kinds (epic poetry and tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry) as forms of mimesis or imitation of nature and life, and differentiates each type one from another in relation to medium, object, and manner or mode of imitation (Poetics 1, 1). Centuries later, Jonathan Culler contrasts poetics and hermeneutics in contemporary literary studies: Hermeneutics attends primarily to the complex intellectual and existential process of understanding the meaning (or meanings) of a text, while poetics takes declared meanings or effects as its starting point and asks how these are achieved. Most literary criticism deploys both of these methods in a single analysis, although one may function more prominently than the other.1 Philosopher Richard Kearney defines “poetics” as “an exploration of the human powers to make (poiesis) a world in which we may poetically dwell.”2 In Mayra Rivera’s reflection, such poetic dwelling intimates an aesthetics of the political, a way of living so that beauty and justice suffuse the world.

Structure and Style

Poetics of Flesh introduces its project by distinguishing flesh and body, not so much to separate or disconnect or unsuture, but to sharpen, advance, complicate, and enrich our understanding of their meanings and effects. In this work, flesh refers to a “slippery materiality . . . formless and impermanent,” and body to “an entity complete in itself and visible.” (2) With an introduction and conclusion, three major perspectives or approaches to flesh and body constitute the interrogation Poetics of the Flesh enacts. The first part, “Regarding Christian Bodies,” considers meanings and relations of body in early Christian imaginaries (the Gospel of John, the Letters of Paul, and the thought of Tertullian). The use of participles in their progressive verbal form—becoming, abandoning, and embracing—suggest action as ongoing, interrupted, incomplete. This section orients the reader to problematized relations between Christianity and the body discernible through kenosis, descent, or material fleshly becoming (becoming flesh), through contestation of body and flesh (abandoning flesh), and through ambiguous and fragile conjoining of body and flesh (embracing). The second part, “The Philosopher’s (Christian) Flesh,” points to phenomenology’s interruption of philosophy’s tendency toward abstraction—its distancing relation to history, the world, the flesh, the body as well as its ambivalent relation to religion. What comes to the fore here is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s recognition of the possibilities of philosophy “to convert the bread of ordinary life [the stuff of every day life, what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz named lo cotidiano] into a sacramental poetics.”(83) The notion and action of “converting” resonates with poiesis or “creative making”; it also gestures toward another kind of making, another kind of giving. The reader is directed back to the first chapter’s meditation on the flesh and blood, bread and wine, life and water that the enfleshed Word gives to his followers. The phenomenologist, critically attentive to flesh and body, body and flesh and their mutually weighting relations within and to reality through signification, enacts another kind of making and giving. Through word, the philosopher or theologian or writer makes present flesh and blood, bread and wine, life and water to open, excite, comfort, honor, inspire, and accompany the reader’s famished heart and soul. Read theologically, this iteration of poetics evokes another kind of transfiguration through which the stuff of ordinary life radiates the sacred or holy; or perhaps, poetics may perform another kind of transubstantiation (confect another kind of eucharist) since the matter enfleshed in and as the Divine Word is matter identical to all materiality. The world is charged not only with the grandeur and glory, but the mystery and matter of God.

“A Labyrinth of Incarnations,” the third part, brings to mind Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude 3 for her theological practice, and that practice in Poetics of the Flesh departs from the formal exposition characteristic not only of her earlier work, The Touch of Transcendence,4 but also from most of contemporary theology. I understand Rivera’s theological practice (or method) as a critical contemplative dialectics.5 With the phrase critical contemplative dialectics I mean those acts of attending to and interrogating, interrupting or unsettling, assemblage, refusal or skepticism, silence, interpreting, silence, judging, silence, re-assemblage, theorizing as writing. From the perspective of political theology, these operations concern theology’s relation to knowledge (epistemology), being, (ontology), and action (ethics). These procedures clarify the manner and effect of those relations between and among human subjects and the structuring of those subjects in history and society; moreover, given the trajectory of that history for the past five hundred years, a critical contemplative dialectics accords attention to disruption, displacement, and loss. At the same time, this practice shows how the historical and social always exist as, through, and in concrete forms of knowing, being, and doing. Finally, these operations point toward theologies staked, neither on a priori first principles, nor on absolute validity and total certainty so typical of Cartesian method in science and philosophy or the Kantian categorical imperative in morals. Rather, this practice emphasizes theologian’s (or philosopher’s) own interiority, i.e., on the theologian’s self-appropriation through the heightening of her/his intentional consciousness and objectification of her/his own critical cognitive operations. Self-appropriation concerns one’s actual performance as attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, loving, and acting human subject. Moreover, self-appropriation offers a practice (or method) that permits one to grasp oneself as a source of understanding and judgment, of responsibility, of truth.

Poetics of the Flesh stands as an outstanding exercise in and of polydox theology, i.e., critical reflection on religious faith that becomes flesh in knowledge and love in the radical transformation of oppressive systems; that abandons dogmatic certitude and makes an option for openness to the unknown, unforeseen, and impossible, that embraces the interrelatedness and multiplicity of existence and existents; that engages “critical apophasis or critical nonknowingness as an energy of epistemological and theological integrity.”6 Rivera explains this genre/style elsewhere by drawing on Eduardo Galeano’s notion of “Magical Marxism: one half reason, one half passion, and a third half mystery.” A polydox theology, she states,

is clearly not amenable to calculation and cannot be called a method; it might include a little bit of imagination and no less poetic folly. Such a polydox theology attends to the devastating realities of pain and oppression without losing sight of the marvelous qualities of ordinary life, without ever believing that it has at last discovered the absolutely real. It does not so much abandon traditional symbols or critical analysis as move in them, to open spaces for indeterminacy and wonder, dis-enclosing theology, to experience glory in our perennially unfinished and redeemable world. It seeks to cultivate the capacity to endure wonder—creative in its receptivity, persistent in its disposition. The flourishing of creatures may well depend on this capacity to welcome wonder before the weight of reality.”7

The literary critic Maurice Blanchot is said to have described reading as light and serious, a “joyful, wild dance” with an invisible partner.8 To read Poetics of the Flesh, to dance with Mayra Rivera, is to take up reading as freedom and discipline, rapture and anguish. Reading Poetics of the Flesh has disciplined my own theological practice, coached me to be a better dancer, a more daring theologian. Certainly, Mayra Rivera is an extraordinary partner.


  1. Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011), 62.

  2. Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, Modern to Postmodern (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 8.

  3. Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude (New York: Grove, 1961).[/footnote] as well as those labyrinths of Greek mythology, brutally intricate mazes constructed as ordeals through which some prize is won or as tests defying easy escape or release. As a metaphor, “labyrinth of incarnations” insinuates the imposed solitude of racialized flesh and those social practices and arrangements “that produce material effects that are woven into the textures of flesh [and] materialize in bodies—differently” as well as disclose the violence that leaves visible marks on the body. (133) This section “fleshes” out psychological, social, and material relations and their consequences in deforming epidermal and corporeal schemas that habituate and limit, impose and wound, diminish and deplete.

    Rivera’s writing style throughout Poetics of the Flesh projects, as I proposed, a political aesthetics. The writing is simple in its use of dense concepts, in fact, deceptively so and is never simplistic. Rivera’s style is lyrical and suggestive, never didactic in opening and exploring theological or philosophical or social complexities.

    Theological Practice (or Method)

    Poetics of the Flesh takes inspiration from the practice and theorization of poetics by Martinican writer, poet, and literary critic Édouard Glissant. Poetics on his account, “refers not only to styles of writing, but also to modes of knowing, being, and acting in the world.” (2) Glissant’s poetics function for Rivera as a kind of “toolbox”[footnote]Hans Ulrich Obrist, Édouard Glissant (Kassel, Germany: Veranstaltungs-GmbH, 2012).

  4. Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007).

  5. Here, I consider dialectics in the context of theological method as critical thought and/or argument that identifies, grapples with, discerns, and weighs contradictory facts or ideas; then analyzes the weltanschauung or worldview or horizon from which the text emerges in order to clarify, name, and uncover the underlying ideas upholding these contradictions.

  6. Catherine Keller and Laurel Schneider, introduction to Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, ed. Keller and Schneider (New York: Routledge, 2011), 3.

  7. Rivera, “Glory: The First Passion of Theology?,” in Polydoxy, 181.

  8. Jonathan Littell, “Reading?,” http://this-space.blogspot.com/2009/02/reading-by-jonathan-littell.html.

  • Mayra Rivera

    Mayra Rivera

    Reply

    Response to M. Shawn Copeland

    Poetics and/or Method

    My understanding of poetics is shaped by Caribbean thinkers—particularly by the work of Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. I use the term poetics in a number of related ways. First, my reading of ancient Christian writings as well as of recent philosophical texts strives for a poetic sensibility—that is, to be attentive to the specificity of their metaphors as well as their imaginative dimensions. Second, poetics names for me a way of engaging the world—one that acknowledges the affective dimensions of what we experience of the world. Third, I use poetics to refer to particular practices that attempt to imagine and put into words alternative sensibilities and different possibilities for our bodies—trusting that affirmative words might also become flesh.

    For many Caribbean thinkers, the practice of poetics is a kind of stubborn faith: a refusal of despair, a commitment to love the world—in spite of history. Poetics here brings together the denunciation of injustice and the stubborn faith in the possibilities of new becomings. Thus my orientation to conceptions of flesh acknowledges its ambivalence and yet seeks to articulate its constructive potential.

    Shawn Copeland’s review expands on this connection between the poetic and the political, a central concern or orientation of the book. By describing it as a “critical contemplative dialectics,” Copeland relates it to her interpretation of Bernard Lonergan’s work on theological method. I welcome this description and the connections that it seeks to establish. And I also welcome Copeland’s thoughtful challenge to reconsider my discomfort with “method,” expressed in previous writings. I speak about the “orientation” or “approach” of my work because I see myself immersed in and related to the worlds I write about. Still her efforts to redefine what we understand by “method” in relation to classical texts on the subject and to her own theological practice have challenged and inspired me.

    I like the description: “attending to and interrogating, interrupting or unsettling, assemblage, refusal, or skepticism, silence, interpreting, silence, judging, silence, re-assemblage, theorizing as writing.” This language prompts me to think more about the relationship between this book’s poetics and approaches associated with liberation theologies, broadly defined. (I think of Hannah Hofheinz’s work on theological writing).

Tat-siong Benny Liew

Response

From Poetics of Flesh to Ponderings on Machines and Palimpsests

I must begin by thanking Mayra Rivera for this wonderful book that is not only thoughtful in content but also delightful in form. Writing elegantly with a captivating style, Rivera “unsettle[s]” the scholarly tendency to “reify” flesh as a uniformly negative image in early Christian imaginations (155). Through her careful and nuanced reading of John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, Tertullian’s writings, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, Édouard Glissant’s poetry, Frantz Fanon’s work, and many others, Rivera emphasizes how “carnal interdependence” and “unpredictable interactions” put us in “webs of relationships” that facilitate or even promote an openness and accountability to others, and hence the “possibility of love” (7, 154–55). For Rivera, this rereading and rewriting of flesh can also function to bring about a better balance between the scopic (sight) and the haptic (touch).

As Rivera herself points out, her work is part of an expanding current of scholarship within religious studies that focuses on corporeal existence, bodily vulnerability, and material matters (5–7). This expanding current is, however, not limited to religious studies. Literary scholar Hortense Spillers, for instance, has talked about physical scars and wounds as “a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh” or ethical haunting.1 In what follows, I would like to refer to the work of two scholars—one from within and one from without religious studies who have contributed to this expanding current of scholarship—to tease out the implications of Rivera’s work on agency and subjectivity: first of humanity in general and second of women and racialized people in particular.

New Materialism and Machines

Religious studies scholar Denise Buell, like Rivera, uses new materialism as a framework to discuss what she calls “relational ontology,” which indicates what we humans share with other life forms to feature our ethical accountability to others, to other beings, and to the environment, although Buell does so not with the term “flesh” but with the ancient Christian term “pneuma” and the modern understanding of microbes to highlight the imperceptible forces, influences, and connections that Rivera also emphasizes.2 Buell, like Rivera, also reads John’s Gospel and other early church writings to highlight the diversity of thoughts within Christianity, but, unlike Rivera, Buell suggests that understanding human permeability and malleability through shared substance and conscious connections does not necessarily imply freedom from hierarchical oppression or from anthropocentrism. Buell refers specifically to John 6:52–65, where Jesus not only distinguishes his flesh and hence himself as logos from other offerings of flesh and bread as the only true source of eternal life, but also makes the comment, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (6:63).[fotonote]Buell, “Microbes and Pneuma,” 70–71.(/footnote] Understanding ourselves as connected with or related to other life forms does not ensure just relationships; there is for Buell a difference between “just us” and justice.3 To be fair, Rivera does acknowledge the difficulty presented by Jesus’ dismissive comment in John as well as the reality of vulnerability in relationships; after all, she is clear that Tertullian’s “embrac[e]” of flesh is enmeshed with its share of problematic gender connotations (7, 24, 43–54). However, I am interested in exploring further what this vulnerability may imply for us as readers of Rivera’s poetics. While Rivera tends to link “flesh” with what is earthly, she really uses “flesh” as a shorthand to signal a “social-material” matrix that embeds everyone and everything, and hence also to challenge tendencies toward not only individualism and anthropocentrism but also dualistic thinking by blurring the division between material and spirit, human or nonhuman, culture and nature, animacy and inanimacy, discourse and materiality, subjectivity and objectivity, and so on (ibid., 100, 109, 134, 137, 150–51, 155). Through the play of poetics and flesh, Rivera emphasizes how human activities have material effects on matters of the world around us, as well as how matters of the world can affect us in ways that even change our fleshly bodies (104, 134). While I understand and am sympathetic to the concerns behind Rivera’s emphasis, I wonder if and how this emphasis on materiality and materialization that involves also matters and material forces, as well as this blurring of boundaries may lead to what Donna Haraway calls “cyborg logic”—that is, a blurring between organism and machine and hence an oxymoronic “artificial life” that simultaneously fascinates and frightens us. More importantly, this logic for Haraway “seems like a dream that makes the nightmare of Taylorism seem idyllic.”4 What haunts me about Rivera’s captivating poetics about flesh—with her repeated uses of words like material, materiality, materialization, and matter—is how it borders on another m-word; this other m-word that Rivera never uses but keeps on flashing in my imagination is machine. As Haraway intimates and as Mark Seltzer explains in much greater details in his book Bodies and Machines, Taylorism and its obsession with technology at the turn of the twentieth nntury was already imagining not simply the replacement of bodies by machines or the materialization of bodies into machines but their coupling.5 While this is undoubtedly a boundary-blurring coupling, I wonder if a poetics of flesh that animates not only various life forms but also different forces and matters does not eventually become problematic through its blurring of being and thing. Does this call to return to flesh in some ways not turn into a turning away from carnality? Will the turn to new materialism in this century take a wrong turn or a U-turn, so it ends up taking us back to modernity’s Taylorist dream of the last century? Would it be helpful for Rivera’s fleshly poetics or materialist turn to articulate a clear biological—as opposed to a mechanistic—orientation? When pushed to its logical conclusion, what may an understanding of intersubjectivity that includes not only material forces but also matters and machines imply, especially since artificial life and artificial intelligence (including the possibility of loading human brains onto computers) are already being actively pursued and developed all around us?6 Ironically, the materialization of the mind as “brain” that can be loaded onto and function as a computer—what is also known as “transcendence”—often implies the very dismissal of human flesh and body. Rivera mentions Descartes’ detached subject as being problematic, but does her poetics of flesh not in some way risk going back in the future to Descartes’ thought that a human being may (now) be(come) merely a “thing that thinks”?7 Though she mentions recent developments in science and technology, (8–10) Rivera’s discussion of vulnerability seems to focus on the unequal social-material structure that constrains certain fleshly bodies. Again, I understand and am sympathetic to this focus, but I do not know how far Rivera would push this incorporation and animation of matter; I simply cannot help but worry about what this new materialist turn may imply, especially if unintended and especially given the “virtual reality” of the twenty-first century. While Buell does not elaborate or develop her thoughts along the line I just did, she does mention more specifically that her relational ontology is an unsettling proposal that asks us to “reframe our understanding of subjectivity and agency.”8 Buell is also certainly correct to suggest that “openness has its appeals but also its limits,” especially for the structurally oppressed.9 The haunting that is meant to disrupt humanism and ensure a wide-open future haunts me in turn, especially if one views the interface between human and technology in light of Taylorist history and in consideration of women and racialized people. For instance, the coupling of humans and machines may be viewed as something that is awfully subhuman when women and racialized people are involved, but as something that is awesome and superhuman when it involves people of the dominant culture.

Skin and Palimpsest

Unlike Rivera and like some of the philosophers Rivera discusses, art theorist Kaja Silverman staunchly rejects the entire Christian tradition as hopelessly hierarchical and denigrating of flesh.[foontote]Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford University Press, 2009), 1.[/footnote] Unlike Rivera, Silverman’s flesh is more or less restricted to relationality among humans, especially though not exclusively relationality between male and female. Like Rivera, however, Silverman emphasizes our sharing of flesh as having the potential to help us overcome individualistic competition, but Silverman does so by proposing that, as flesh, we all share a need to accept not only change but also a common experience of death.10 In other words, shared flesh should help us understand ourselves as participating in a cycle rather than competing to get to the top of a ladder; just as we succeed the previous generation, the next generation will succeed us. Like Rivera, Silverman also goes back to an ancient tradition to begin and illustrate her arguments, though the tradition she chooses is the story about Orpheus and Eurydice in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.11

Like Buell, Silverman also points out the uncertain politics of shared flesh by noting that Darwin’s Origin of Species—and hence his evolutionary biology and his competitive survival-of-the-fittest proposal—are all based on connections through a shared and common origin: namely, Darwin’s “belief that . . . all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form.”12 Like Rivera, Silverman also talks about how one’s identity is related to “external,” “mirror” images one receives from others, but our similarities and shared connections with others, according to Silverman according to Lacan, actually cause us to desire separation from those others to become “individuals.”13

Silverman’s point regarding Lacan and the desire for individuality is instructive for considering Rivera’s work regarding feminized and racialized flesh. Going back to my earlier reference to Taylorism and the desire to couple people and machine, various scholars have discussed how Taylorism and its alchemy to couple people and machines for material gains often entailed a particular cost to and management of women and racialized people. For example, Jennifer L. Fleissner has argued that Taylorism and its use of technology represent a compulsion to control that includes disciplining female bodies at work and at home, and Saidiya Hartman has suggested that various forms of enslavement during the last few centuries has been nothing less than a process of turning some black people into waste so that this waste or wasted people will perversely generate gold for other people.14 In fact, feminized and racialized subjects are often so objectified that they are already viewed as monstrous sub-humans that are in-between humans and things. This in-between status can be seen, for example, in how racialized objects are often collected as substitutes or stand-ins for a racialized people and culture.

Being objectified like and as a thing, feminized and racialized populations’ desire for subjectivity is understandable. That is the psychodynamics that we learn from Lacan through Silverman. Similarly, it makes sense why many would respond to the experience of being dehumanized by insisting on their humanity or being willing to be “rehumanized” to prove themselves to be as good as the dominant population. However, by doing so, one may end up reinforcing anthropocentrism or riding out another round of violence. The rush to recuperate flesh or to reclaim embodiment by feminized and racialized people may also end up providing a readability that the dominant gaze desires and foregrounding a body that the powerful force is more than ready to consume.

Rivera’s work is helpful here because she does not talk about flesh and body in this reactive manner. Since flesh in Rivera’s understanding does not represent a prediscursive reality but instead a relational pliability, it implies “indeterminacy” rather than “immediacy,” and it relies on “multiplication” more than “negation.” (76, 127, 158). In fact, more than just an arresting rhetorical style, Rivera’s “poetics” is meant to signify the limits of our knowing and hence the importance of imagination (73, 158). Given Rivera’s focus on connection and love, her repeated warning against the presumption of immediacy and full knowledge may be read as having more to do with how one deals with and relates to an other. I would, however, like to point out that Rivera’s overall emphasis on flesh as being in and being a social-material matrix of relations that reshape us but are also being reshaped by us actually mitigates against the kind of knee-jerk assertions on corporeality, subjectivity, or authenticity that feminized and racialized subjects may be tempted to make about themselves. To put it simply, Rivera effectively presents identity—whether in terms of gender, race, or both gender and race—as less a fact but more an effect of incorporating what others say and see of us, with others here understood not as a monolithic but a multiplicity of opposing communities and norms. Rivera’s poetics of flesh is not a reactionary flipping of an oppressive script; it does not try to retrieve or recuperate what has been denied of us as feminized and racialized objects; doing so would only be enacting another kind of dualistic thinking. Instead, what Rivera highlights is a dynamic process of relational negotiation, in which we are both acting and acted upon, both contributing and constrained. Her flesh is, therefore, something that is perhaps less legible and harder to manage for those who desire to control and consume. In contrast to extreme versions of human-machine coupling, I see this as a helpful complexification of agency and subjectivity, especially for feminized and radicalized subjects who want to take an easy route to resist objectification.

Despite Fanon’s shortcomings on the gender front and despite his intentions, I think his work can also be read in a way that extends this implication of Rivera’s work, as well as evokes a different poetics—one not of flesh but of skin. I mention this not as a corrective of but only as an alternative to Rivera’s careful and helpful poetics, though I do think that featuring skin also has something to offer that may not be available in a focus on flesh. What inspires me is partly Silverman’s discussion of an artist, Gerhard Richter, who likes to paint layer of paint upon layer of paint to signify not only the passing of but also the connections over time.15

For me, Fanon’s “look, a negro” points to an important insight into our identity as feminized or racialized subjects; our subjectivity involves our identifications with and inventive improvements of others’ objectifications. That is to say, “look, a negro” is not a denial, but an affirmation of Rivera’s emphasis on us being embedded in a world of social-material relations. More importantly, I do not read Fanon’s “black skin, white masks” as a plea to separate what is superficial from what is substantial so we can uncover or recover the reality of our own bodies or our authentic selves; instead, I read it as part of a poetics that uses the skin, mask(s), or cover(s) being given to us to devise a process or a schema of self-making.

As I mentioned earlier, flesh is really Rivera’s shorthand, so her flesh is not separable from skin and body, and she talks about Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Fanon’s epidermal schema (66–70, 119–22). However, Fanon does not only distinguish these two schemas, he also talks about a third schema: “a historical-racial schema.”16 The subjectivity Fanon explores in Black Skin, White Masks, therefore, involves a layer upon another layer upon another layer. If Fanon’s work helps us think about words becoming flesh, it should point us to the direction of something like a palimpsest. Skin and mask(s) already signify different layers.

Skin, as Rivera points out by way of Fanon, is often racialized. Women are stereotypically sexualized as having skin that is softer and smoother to the touch. Skin of women and persons of color is in many ways assumed to be inherent, intractable, and in alignment with one’s interior and innermost being; at the same time, skin—known also as fold or hide, for good reasons—can also be viewed as a cover that the gaze of the dominant has to penetrate to see what is underneath. This is the absolute knowledge that the dominant power assumes, desires, and hopes to utilize for management purposes. What if we think of skin as neither a meaningless embellishment nor a key disclosure to a deep essence? What if we use skin to not only blur that interior/exterior dualism but also deflect and disturb those dominant assumptions and desires? I have argued elsewhere that John’s Jesus is an elusive figure who seems to love playing hide-and-seek; his present absence and absent presence frustrate a lot of people, and his enigmatic speeches conceal as much as they reveal.17 Notice also how John, after beginning with his “word became flesh” pronouncement (1:14), ends up emphasizing Jesus’ clothing toward the close of his Gospel. There is a puzzling reference to Jesus’ seamless tunic during his crucifixion (19:23–24), as well as an equally puzzling mention of some linen wrappings and a head cloth being left in the tomb after his resurrection (20:5–7). Between one’s flesh and clothing or layers of clothing is, of course, skin.

While Fanon talks about different schemas, biologists tell us that skin itself has two layers: an outer layer (epidermis) and an inner layer (dermis). What if we read skin in layers as a kind of layering? Instead of thinking of skin then as merely a cover and hence falling back into a division between exteriority and interiority or between the fake and the real, let us remember that Judith Butler’s performativity—which often involves clothing and costumes—does not mean fake.18 It signifies instead a plasticity that, in turn, signifies a process of becoming, not unlike a layering of texts that becomes a palimpsest. One does not strip or—shall I say, skin?—a palimpsest as if somehow getting to the bottom of it all will yield the authentic text; if one tries, one will only destroy a palimpsest in violence.

Come to think of it, perhaps one way to read Rivera’s provocative book is to view it as a kind of palimpsest, since what we find there is layer upon layer upon layer of texts: texts from different times and in different languages; texts from Christian theologians and secular philosophers; texts from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America; texts by men and women, straight and queer, and persons of various racial/ethnic heritages. There is no nativist insistence on purity, but only poetics to keep imagining what may still develop and what is still to come. Appropriately, the cover or the skin of the book is an art piece depicting an abstract female body that includes at least a snake and some kind of plant life by a Kenyan female artist, Wangechi Mutu, who is known for doing collages or assemblages that incorporate different forms and materials. The art piece chosen is telling, Non je ne regrette—“No, I do not regret anything.” Regret or not, my identity as an Asian American male or what have you is a palimpsest of identifications that is continuously being written over and over—by not only others but also myself.


  1. Hortense J. Spilers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64–81 (67).

  2. Denise Kimber Buell, “The Microbes and Pneuma That Therefore I Am,” in Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology, ed. Stephen D. Moore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 63–87. See also Rivera, Poetics of Flesh, 8–9, 104, 161n25, 178n84, for her references to new materialism.

  3. I am borrowing here from the late Mary Gaddis, an amazing person who loved to use the phrase “Justice, not just us,” to remind her church in Berkeley, California, that there should always be a greater purpose or direction for a community.

  4. Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 150.

  5. Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992)

  6. See, e.g., Robert M. Geraci, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  7. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. David Weissman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 66, emphasis added.

  8. Buell, “Microbes and Pneuma,” 64. Actually Buell does employ and engage Haraway’s work on the cyborg in another article, though she sees the cyborg as an “intersectional figure” that can contribute positively to im-purify, decenter, or expand the humanist framework of our academic work and intellectual pursuits. See her “Cyborg Memories: An Impure History of Jesus,” Biblical Interpretation 18 (2010): 313–41.

  9. Denise Kimber Buell, “Hauntology Meets Posthumanism: Some Payoffs for Biblical Studies,” in The Bible and Posthumanism, ed. Jennifer L. Koosed , (Atlanta: SBL, 2014), 29–56 (36).

  10. Ibid., 1–2, 6–7, 11.

  11. Ibid., 46–58.

  12. Ibid., 3.

  13. Ibid., 3–4.

  14. Jennifer L. Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (University of Chicago Press, 2004); Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

  15. Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, 218. Silverman’s work led me, in turn, to three texts that greatly inspired my thoughts that I am trying to communicate in this entire section. These texts are: Steve Conner, The Book of Skin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Tina Chen, Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture (Stanford University Press, 2005); and, last but not least, Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  16. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1968), 111–12. See a helpful delineation of these three schemas in Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance through Re-Narration: Fanon on De-Constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities 9 (2011): 363–85 (365–70).

  17. Tat-siong Benny Liew, “Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross-Examining John’s Engendering and Transgendering Word across Different Worlds,” in They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, ed. Randall C. Bailey et al. (Atlanta: SBL, 2009), 251–88.

  18. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  • Mayra Rivera

    Mayra Rivera

    Reply

    Response to Liew

    Ambivalent Relations

    I trust that my brief remarks about the motivations for writing this book begin to address Liew’s broadest questions: why relationality? why materialism?

    Liew observes that “understanding ourselves as connected with or related to other life forms does not ensure just relationships.” I agree.

    But unless we understand ourselves as not only connected to, but also constituted by relationships, we will be unable to track the effects of social arrangements and practices in others and in ourselves. Focusing on how bodies are represented in society does not connect the dynamics of power with their deepest effects in the bodies of those affected by it.

    Liew is right to say that this emphasis on material relations has implications for how we think about agency. For instance, it implies acknowledging that we are exposed, partly shaped without our knowledge and consent. But this does not imply reducing people to thing or machine. It is rather to trace how what may seem as merely material practices—commerce, manufacturing, environmental policies, and the like—result in the unequal distribution of life.

    I think we need not only to say that social ideas and practices affect bodies, but also to develop intellectual skills and habits of seeing the signs of social ideas becoming flesh all around us. I turn to materiality and flesh as concepts that might help us see these links and analyze the sedimentation of histories in and as our bodies.

    Not all understandings of flesh will help us here, of course. Even in the early Christian text we can see significantly different sensibilities at work. The task of the first part of the book is to identify and re-energize specifically those elements of Christian imaginaries that can stir our thinking today. In the Gospel of John I see starkly different logics working side by side. The first one, to which Liew referred, envisions a heavenly or spiritual dimension that at times seems to absorb everything else. But that is not all there is in the gospel. On the other side of heaven, so to speak, there is a rich world where flesh appears an element transformed, as it is given. My strategy was to begin with flesh and stay close to it in order to allow these dimensions to surface.

    This is a first step in the argument, linking a poetics of Word becoming Flesh orients us toward the material world—a world characterized by ambiguous incarnations.

Elias Ortega-Aponte

Response

Interfacing with Flesh

A Dialogue with Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh in Times of Neo-lynchings

what will your eyes do with me

when they are done.

will they lay me

in the tender flesh behind

the sun.

fold me into your memory’s back.

keep me

a

running water down your arms.

—Nayyirah Waheed

 

. . . . and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.

—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: Am American Lyric

 

Reading Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of The Flesh, I found myself pondering between folds of embodied memories. Perusing through my bookshelf, I heard echoes of past conversations and the pull of future ones in the texts (and their authors) that helped shape my perceptions of the world—Lucille Clifton’s poetry, John Scott’s Conceptualising Social Life, Emilie Townes’s Cultural Production of Evil, Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the novels of Mayra Santos-Febres, the stories of Yolanda Arroyo-Pizarro among others. I sat with them for a while. At other times, echoes of Poetics of the Flesh reverberated around me; they made me pause for a moment in the midst of the mundane acts of getting ready for the day. In these moments of listening, I considered my reflection(s), not through my own eyes, but through eye-memories of others: how my incarnation has been regarded with various measures of love, concern, disregard, and at times even hostility.

Flashes of friendly embraces and celebrations in the intimacy of places I have called “home,” spaces delineated not by geography but by care and affection, become distorted by the irruption of experiences of fear outside of “home-spaces.” Images of my hands up in the air alongside coworkers in an empty parking lot, as we negotiate ways to provide a satisfactory account to the law for the question: “Is it true that five men of color are on their way to work in the middle of the night?” . . . an answer that will keep us alive for the day.

Then, there are memories of touch. I recalled the vibrations of drums through my hands. The texture of different drumheads, whether goat skin, cow hide, and even synthetic, they each have a particular feel, a certain give, a unique resonance, a remarkable way in which their voice caresses my chest. Each a singular trajectory from living (animal) to non-living (skin), to living again (drumhead), or inorganic-living (synthetic) to sonorous afterlife—because, yes!, drums have lives of their own. I compared my memories of such vibrations with interfacing with various iPad drum applications. These virtual drums sound right, they excel at acts of sound mimicry, but not life resonance, they do not reverberate within the living. I can’t feel the virtual heads’ vibrations, they are not alive in the same way. They don’t speak with their own voices, they cannot be tuned in the same way, and therefore, one cannot be “attuned” to them in the same way.

It should not be surprising that reading Mayra Rivera’s magnificent Poetics of the Flesh should take one through such Borgean-inspired labyrinths and mirrors. Incarnational wonderings of mutually constitutive experiences of myself-through-others, past, present, and yet to come. Picking up threads laid by Mayra Rivera, guided through her labyrinthine explorations of body, flesh, and social creation of flesh through the pages of her work, it occurred to me that there are interesting interconnections between Poetics of the Flesh and the work of the neo-expressionist Caribbean painter Arnaldo Roche-Rabell.

In their own unique ways Poetics of the Flesh and Roche-Rabell’s paintings fold insights into their work that would be missed if one fails to sense the flesh in-between, or the incarnations in-between their work. Incarnation not as merely carnal, but as witnesses of his/herstories, personal, national, racially real and imagined, hoped for and even conjured as protests against the ways in which lives are unevenly distributed towards death or towards the possibility of flourishing. Consider Roche-Rabell’s panting “Yo lo encontré primero” (I found him/it first.) In this work, one sees a person leaning over an indistinct body, suffused within nature, as part of the foliage yet distinctively human; sunflower above the face, a shadowy facial structure, petals and vegetation all around and within, calls attention towards the left bottom corner (a specter of Van Gogh’s face, perhaps?) another human figure almost laying on top of it, but the anatomical construction seems off, impossible even, yet, organically real enfolded in the environmental setting around it.

In this painting, the demarcations between the human and vegetation merge into each other, who found whom first? There is no clear answer from the composition. There is also the aspect of the technique of frottage used by the artist. This technique opens an intimate space between the artists, the models—humans and non-humans, the canvas, and paints—the medium and the mediation interpenetrate with each other. In light of Rivera’s text, it makes sense to focus on how the process works with human bodies. After enfolding models, or better still, in-folding them with the canvas, the artist proceeds to apply layers of paints, touching, contouring, positioning, tracing a form. We can imagine that, as he is attentive to the emerging form, seeing through his hands, reflecting on the shape that reveals itself in a process that eludes full control, there is a sudden perception shift: he knows himself as touched.

The body beneath the canvas breaths, moves, converses, expresses discomfort, maybe even giggles—it is a process imbued with an erotics of life, an act of co-creation and inter-subjective performativity. Here is another plausible scenario. Once the canvas is lifted, artist and model stand in front of the canvas. They both recognize the trace of the flesh there reflected, they both see it and understand it. But each one knows it differently. Each one sees through their differences: creator, created, positive and negative space communicating through a layer of canvas. Frottage is the first step of Roche-Rabell; his process of applying paints is also unique.

A rich palette of vibrant colors is covered with a layer of black paint, and then, meticulously, the artist scratches away, uncovering layers of residue, bright and dark, unveiling the effervescence of meaning seen, unseen, there all along. Roche-Rabell’s artistic creations center around notions of memory, its retrieval, its disappearance, and how the subject is created and undone in memory-making processes. It is also a deeply political one: the problem of memory is central to conceptions of the self under the conditions of being, as a Puerto Rican, under the sign of imposed US coloniality, yet in active resistance.

Just as bodies are fixed through the intimacy of touch in Roche-Rabell’s painting, so does the poetic mobilization of language in Rivera’s book beckon each one of us to consider the processes and social formations that make possible our individual, but mutually constitutive, enfleshments. Just as Roche-Rabell’s models breath underneath the folds of the canvas, so do the pages of this book breath. But also, just as Roche-Rabell’s work uses a singular artistic technique among others, that of frottage, to prompt reflection on the role of the memory for a colonial subject with a directionality towards liberation, there is a similarly robust ethical dimension within Rivera’s argument. Namely that being and becoming flesh, touching and being touched, implies accepting the obligation to track the ways in which social mechanisms promote and distribute life to some and death to other bodies (157). It is at these junctures of touching and distribution of death that I will dedicate my remaining time. I will deal with them in reverse order than that presented by Rivera. I will engage first the social existence of the body as body and flesh. Second, I will consider the matter of touch. I will do so through the consideration of the following question: how does the disappearance of touch in the social world impact collective understanding of concern for others.

The Body as Social or of Flesh and Ghosts

When Rivera thinks about the body, she invites us to a conversation that is simultaneously theological and sociopolitical. We are invited to a theological conversation as she asks us to pay attention to the ways in which theological traditions have separated bodies from flesh, carnal desire from spiritual aspirations, fallen humanity from divine incarnation, sanctified bodies from sinful flesh. In creating distinctions between flesh and body, theological discourses ushered dangerous precedents skewing social reality and unleashing colonial dynamics of power aimed at subjugating and controlling those placed under the colonial sign. Bodies shed skin that become dust, mostly wash away, but the dusting created from theological knowledge of the body have ossified in the creation of racialized and gendered ways of perceiving the world. These ways of perceiving the world through so calcified theological eyes carry within them deadly consequences for those bodies made marginal due to attributed difference. Differences are attributed through the appropriation of power to call forth particular ways of inhabiting the world as normative, while others are deviant and thus, in need of control, or lesser forms of embodiment, and not worthy of regard. It is at this juncture, that I read Rivera’s work as stretching our theological imaginaries to demonstrate the sociopolitical consequences of such theological ideations, and asks us to move from understanding them, to contesting them.

Through the mobilization of insights derived from Merleau-Ponty, Rivera explains that we can see the beginnings of how social representations function by how they “educate” conceptions of the self. The knowledge of the self gained through “self-contemplation,” Rivera argues, “is also associated with the view that others have of my body, and thus visual body images are inherently linked to imagining how others see me. It makes possible the construction of an ideal image of myself” (69). Notice that there are multiple imaginaries intersecting at various registers: my body understood through the meanings imputed by others, the multiple and contested interpretations of how my body is visualized (by myself and others), and then the externalized in idealized “me.”

Idealization, as social constructs, are marred with distortion because they are filtered through layers of social arrangements and past/present bodies of knowing. Working through Merleau-Ponty and Fanon, Rivera explains that

[EXT]social arrangements meet us in the bodies of others. Seeing the gaze of other human beings and hearing the cry of a child produced Fanon’s body-shattering experiences. . . . This means that the body I experience is tied to the experiences others have of my body. (145)[/EXT]

And thus, Rivera urges us to consider the following proposition: that the capacity for empathy is played out through echoes of incarnation, echoes on which other subject/bodies “depend for their ongoing incarnations” (146). The challenge before us is clear: a call for ethical orientations towards the world and others as intersubjectively and mutually constituted through, by, and for each other. This larger ideal of myself is linked to, and informed by, interaction with others, whose self-conception have, in turn, also been constituted through relations of how they are seen. Focusing at the personal level fails to achieve what Rivera is aiming for: that transmission of ways of perceiving the world are transmitted through time. We should be concerned with how, and to want end, and by whom, particular ways of knowing bodies and their flesh are transmitted.

Albeit in a different context and working through other bodies of knowledge, Rivera’s articulation reminds me of Christine Korsgaard’s interpretation of the Kantian imperative. For Korsgaard, as philosophically robust as the Kantian ethical universe might be, its appeal is often misconstrued. It relies, Korsgaard argues, on relations of friendship with other moral subjects.

Korsgaard argues that like justice, friendship “is not primarily a matter of doing things for one another, but of doing things together” (192). Furthermore, friendship is not an institutional demand but a bond of love, it is based neither on necessity, nor geography, but it is also not a matter of coercion, it is one shaped by love and respect. For Korsgaard, “to become friends is to create a neighborhood where the Kingdom of Ends is real” (194). But here lies the dilemma, what if we are not conjoined by ties of friendship but separated by enmity created by unequal and unjust social arrangements? It is possible that those outside of relations of friendship end up falling out of the moral regard one will grant to friends? In light of Rivera’s analysis, it is not solely possible, it is a likely occurrence in a social world constituted through the attribution of difference, and differences visually tagged. This practice of visually defining difference manifests itself in social oppression. Sociologist Douglas S. Massey offers an explanation for the rise of social inequality consonant with Rivera, in fact, it should not be surprising given that the work of both of these scholars deal with the consequences of social cognition and the ways it coordinate collective action. For Massey, when “social parameters are consolidated . . . the process of stratification becomes sharper and more acute. . . . A society defined by consolidated parameters is one in which the categorical mechanisms on inequality operate very effectively and where social boundaries are very salient” (256). In other words, this will be a society in which the touches of life and death are distributed not only unequally, but also at the whims of the powerful who controls the creation and maintenance of social boundaries. In such systems, life and death are removed beyond the unfolding of biological processes and into the realm of exercises of sovereign power.

I turn now to an aspect of Rivera’s argument that I wish to hear more about—that of touching. As I have mentioned earlier, I am interested in how the disappearance of touch in a contemporary era marked by the hyper-visibility mediated by technological apparatus may impact our regard for others.

The Disappearance of Social Touch

My comments below are geared towards the increasing desensitization to social misery that arises because of being “out of touching distance.” Of interest to me is the realization that in an increasingly technologically mediated world, what would have been private affairs, or limited to bystanders, now become virtual social happenings, opening a hyper-real public sphere. That is to say that due to increasing technological mediation, social reality now is open to dissection, interpretation, open to be debated, and even recreated in ways we could not have phantom in a hyper-real public sphere that never sleeps and distributed through a plurality of networks.

While some aspects of the social may be augmented by technology’s reach, particularly vision, touching and being touched decreases; with this decrease, it seems that the ability to empathize suffers. The effect of interfacing through screens may heighten the problematic named by Rivera—it is important to track how are perceptions educated into knowing in racial and gendered categories. How do racialized and gendered social ways of knowing and attitudes towards bodies shift under such conditions? While in the space left, I cannot possibly fully engage the ways in which technological advances are rewiring how humans interact with the world and their impact in human behavior, I want to lift to our attention what I am naming neo-lynching spectacles. I take neo-lynching spectacles to be comprised of two aspects: (1) those captured moments in which as spectators, we are given a first-row seat at the last breath of a person of color dying at the hands of white supremacy; and (2) more than just witnessing, one also faces the possibility of entering into social media debates with known ones and strangers in which attributions are made, events are reframed, and the visual contested, while deferring, and even ignoring, the incarnate suffering of the victims and victims’ loved ones. My contention, and growing suspicion is that, the mediation of violence against black and brown bodies in which the viewers are unable to touch and be touched, correlates to a decline of empathy and therefore, the dying of black and brown, and queer lives become simultaneously a spectacle for consumption and the reality debated often bifurcated from the tragic. But this is not the end, such neo-lynching spectacles are also real death-dealing acts, and as result, in the face of such acts, justice-seeking ghosts become incarnated.

“Touching something implies proximity,” Rivera says. “Touching something requires being touched by it” (74). It is easy to see the ways in which touch will play an important role in the nature and quality of interpersonal relations. The senses of touch and smell, and parts of the body that experience touch and pain (hands, feet, face, mouth, genitals), occupy a significant portion of the brain’s cortex processing power. Scientists working at the National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin are making strides in explaining how the senses can trigger emotionally charged memories, with the implication that areas of the brain devoted to processing sensory data may also be responsible, at least partially, to storing emotional memories. When it comes to sensory memories, and touch in particular, the brain has the capacity to remember several touch sensations simultaneously. One more fun fact, central to the point I am trying to make, sensory memories and their affect are stored in the brain’s frontal lobe, the area also tasked with processing moral decisions. It seems then that a significant portion of the brain’s sensory processing capacity is devoted to information related to touch, that touch and being touched are essential to the moral life. This entails more than being touched emotionally, as in moved by some feeling, but acts of being physically touched and touching. Such processes of how touching someone, and the differences that become events when subjects are given an option to touch through an artifact, like a stick, or pulling a lever instead of using their hands, have been demonstrated in examinations of the formulation of the Trolley Dilemma. Joshua Green and colleges have discussed how human beings are more likely to justify pulling of a lever that, while causing someone’s death, will save the passengers of a trolley, than to actually do the pushing of a person for the same result (see also Cassani Davis, “Would You Pull the Trolley Switch?,” 2015).

If this is the case, then, the incarnation we performed for each other, and the being open to the vulnerability of touch, puts on display our capacity for moral action. However, in a digital age, the virtualization of reality shapes ethical horizons potentially devoid of such incarnations.

In section 3, “A Labyrinth of Incarnations,” Rivera places the following thought in our interpretative horizon: “Words about bodies create social relations. They link bodies to one another or set boundaries between them. Words organize the world. Imaginaries of body and flesh are woven into the fabric of society. . . . These words become flesh” (113). Rivera, interpreting Fanon, forces us to differentiate between the circulation of stereotypes and the ways in which they shape perception of others, and the socialization that shapes the ways in which we see the world and those around us; implied throughout is the capacity to touch, be touched, refrained from touching, touching without permission, touching to nourish, the killing touch (138).

Rivera reminds us that the data of our perceptions “is affected by sedimentation of social knowledge. Once race becomes included as a set of visible differences, it works tacitly though perception” (139). This perhaps is the danger of an increasingly mediated-age. Screen interfacings, and the resulting virtualization of slices of reality mean that, while some of our sensory apparatus are exposed to information about the world, “the being touched by it” is removed. The button with the square in our digital apparatus can by pressed, the tabs can be closed, and in so doing, the data disappears from our sensory memory. After all, sensory memory is often stored as short-termed memory, this is not so with the sensation of being touched. Neo-lynching spectacles remove for those shrouded by the safety of colonial/sovereign power the challenge of being touched, and therefore, to have their incarnation challenged by broken flesh.

Technology has provided a sense of immediacy to news of contemporary lynching. These neo-lynching now are captured in instant digital recording, instantaneously transmitted to a viewing public, but surprisingly, their veracity is not taken as given. As almost instant views of an event become possible, those not present at the scene are issued an invitation to be re-viewers of the damning moments when yet another life as snuffed under the pretense of security. While new technologies provide both a sense of witness immediacy and durable witness, since there is no touch but only mediated perception, their witness is open to contestation. Unlike the models under the canvas of Roche-Rabell’s paintings, touched and touching the artist, opening the experiences of tact, smell, breath, mediated experiences short-circuit enfleshments. On the one hand, there are justice possibilities by the digitalization of reality: replay, augmentation, evidence. On the other, serious drawbacks: emotional withdrawal, evasion, and growing suspicions that what is captured cannot really be what we are seeing, there must be more to it that justify those happenings.

Koritha Mitchell says that “lynching as an anti-black form of political terrorism was a distinctly post emancipation phenomenon. Whites suffered financial losses whenever a slave died, but once blacks were no longer chattel, there was no incentive to avoid killing them” (87). Mitchell’s comments are directed towards exposing racism in American theater, where social dramas are put in display. “It is no coincidence,” Mitchell says, “that the American stage would prove as suitable for killing African Americas as for portraying them in dehumanizing ways.” In contrasts, black-authored lynching plays present mob violence more as a crime against households than against bodies. The audience are given glimpses of home-spaces where widows and children suffer, the scripts barely describe physical violence, and in so doing the genre suggests that “the brutality continues long after a corpse would have deteriorated” (89).

Perhaps, this is the situation into which we find ourselves: inhabiting dichotomized spaces where racist perceptions doubly silence a life, first by a killing touch, second, by contesting the account of such violence. What your marked body represents as the receiving vessel of racist knowledge-ways, simply put, is that your body will remain suspect even in death, stripped of civil and biological existence. As Colin Dayan argues, “The negation of civil existence requires that a person be made ‘superfluous.’ To be made superfluous is to be outside the pale of human empathy” (Law Is a White Dog, 72–73). To fall outside of the pale of empathy is to be declared not a friend, and therefore, killable. But death is not always the end, echoes of life, remnants that refuse extinction may live on to haunt for justice. If Rivera is correct in saying that “in this world of social representations we see ghosts, fantasies, and dreams—not only crude perpetual facts or biological data. Past histories and mythologies haunt us” then, the historical stage is creating conditions for a massive haunting (156). Speaking of ghosts and their claims on the living, Charles Lemert concludes that “ghosts are beings without bodies. When they appear, they are more than the living. They visit with impunity, by their own pleasure. The living cannot easily shake them off because even the courageous would rather not hear what they have to say” (Durkheim’s Ghosts, 6). Ghosts disrupt the social order, they touch even those who wish to evade the challenge such touches bring through sidestepping touching the living. Lemert also warns that “whoever conjures up the ghosts—whether it is the living searching for what they lost or the dead refusing to go away until their stories register—ghosts haunt the living for some good reason” (6).

Sources

Cassani Davis, Lauren. “Would You Pull the Trolley Switch? Does It Matter? The Lifespan of a Thought Experiment.” Atlantic, October 9, 2015, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/trolley-problem-history-psychology-morality-driverless-cars/409732

Dayan, Colin. The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Kindle ed.

Greene J. D., et al. “The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment.” Neuron 44.2 (2004): 389–400.

Hobbs, R. C., and Anderson Gallery. Arnaldo Roche-Rabell: The Uncommonwealth. Richmond, VA: Anderson Gallery, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1996.

Korsgaard, C. M. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Lemert, Charles C. Durkheim’s Ghosts: Cultural Logics and Social Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Massey, D. S. Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in an Urbanizing World. New York: Norton, 2005.

Mitchell, Corinne. “Black-Authored Lynching Drama’s Challenge to Theater History.” In Black Performance Theory, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Kindle Ed.

Roche-Rabell, Arnaldo: “Yo lo encontré primero.” (2002) https://bodegonconteclado.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/arnaldo-roche-rabell-10.jpg

Santos-Febres, M. Fé en Disfraz. Doral, FL: Santillana, 2009.

———. Pez de Vidrio. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1996.

Waheed, Nayyirah. Salt. San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace, 2013.

  • Mayra Rivera

    Mayra Rivera

    Reply

    Response to Ortega

    Touch and flesh seem inseparable.

    Merleau-Ponty’s slow, attentive study of the experience of touching and being touched—of touching as inseparable from being touched—guide his vision of how human flesh and the flesh of the world interlace. And the dynamics of touch ultimately informs all senses. Seeing does not keep me safely protected from what I see. Seeing is like touching—it also transforms the seer.

    Media, as Ortega suggests, complicates this, because we cannot assume the visibility of the seer. The computer screen seems to work as a shield. This requires more analysis. (Ellen Armour’s Signs and Wonders will be indispensable for this.)

    I would say even when mediated by technology, seeing transforms the seer. Looking at videos of violence against men and women of color are rituals that shape perception—in troubling ways. And the effects of the racializing gaze accumulate, shaping subsequent perception, which in turn impacts the levels of surveillance to which certain bodies are exposed. Changing the ways in which our perceptual habits have been shaped requires making them visible and developing alternative contemplative practices.

    In addition tracing negative effects of material practices on human flesh—with which I started my response—I also attend to the articulation of alternative visions. This is poetics as intentional practice.

    Ortega’s references to the drums—as sound and texture, movement—brought a smile to my face. I often thought about drumming and dancing as I was thinking about practices by which people transform their bodies, countering negative social inscriptions. Intentional actions might shape us otherwise. Copeland also invokes dance. Although my main example of such practices is writing, I love to imagine the rhythms—of poetry and music—are still there.

    In Poetics of the Flesh, I wanted to emphasize the embodied effects of such practices—especially those that engage the imagination and affects. Rather than reading the writings of Caribbean poet’s like Césaire as naïve in their positive articulations of the body’s relation to the world, I read them as engaged in the work of remaking the body and the world. Ortega leads us to think with musicians and visual artists as well as sociologists and neuroscientists, expanding on the affective dimensions of thought and practice.

    In Poetics of the Flesh I refer to Édouard Glissant’s suggestion, “To oppose the disturbing affective standardization of peoples, whose affect has been diverted by the processes and products of international exchange, either consented to or imposed, it is necessary to renew the visions and aesthetics of relating to the earth.” Indeed, after Poetics of the Flesh, I have found myself turning to discussions of life itself—particularly inspired by Caribbean thinkers, for their attention not only to the devastating effects of biopolitics, but also the responsibility of developing alternative “rituals of existence,” other genres of being human (Wynter).

Jacob J. Erickson

Response

Atmospheric Flesh

 

“Flesh is so many forms of earth.” – Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (48)

In 1964, another theologian at Harvard asked a question about faith and language. “Does the Christian community,” Arthur C. McGill wrote, “have any need for poetry?” 1  The question seems innocent. But poetry constructs and performs the unruly realities of life.  In asking the question, McGill fundamentally wondered if theology might speak with—or allow itself to be confronted and constituted by—scandals of particularity or the beautiful mess of enfleshed bodies.  Such language might lure theology into unforeseen ecologies.

McGill wrote his book on the poetic work of certain laureled male poets (T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens).  In even this limited field of poetic play, the theologian answered his own question in the affirmative; McGill titled the book The Celebration of Flesh: Poetry in Christian Life. He argued, “In the kingdom of God men [sic] are created with flesh, reconciled through flesh, and glorified as flesh.  To hide from the flesh for the sake of the spirit is to miss the Christian life.  It is this danger that gives special meaning to the enjoyment of poetry.”2 The poetics of language might serve, McGill noted, to constantly reorient transcendental escapisms in Christian thought. Enfleshed life is precisely where theology resides and aims.

What might be only a conceptual intuition scrawled in masculinist and human-focused language in McGill receives a kind of constructive due in Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh.  We move here from simple anthropocentric theopoetry to an enthralling cosmological theopoetics.  Rivera’s tracking of the various stylizations of Christian flesh in biblical-theological, philosophical—especially postcolonial— discourses is an enlivening and vital contribution to theological reflections on embodiment and politics.3

With these interpretive styluses in mind, my writing reflects from a rich ecopoetic implication in Rivera’s writing: the possibility of conceptualizing the flesh of atmosphere entangled in the flesh of the earth.  That is to say, I want to constructively reflect on Rivera’s work (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) as it relates to planetary flesh in the time of anthropogenic global warming.  My hunch is that the “tendency to separate bodies from flesh” arising in the somatic strand is mirrored on a planetary scale with a tendency to anthropocentrically remove the human body from the relations of planetary flesh. (12) What Rivera’s work offers, I think, is a non-anthropocentric way of taking flesh seriously that devalues neither social nor planetary justice.  And that view might help us respond with an ecopoetics we so desperately need.

And ever do we need them.  In his book The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity, Willis Jenkins writes that, “Adequate responses to climate change elude us in part because atmospheric powers outstrip the capacities of our inherited traditions for interpreting them.  Insofar as the problem requires moral competencies that we lack, climatic change reveals humanity as ill adapted to the conditions of life that its powers are making.”4  The myriad ecological devastations of our time—centralized anthropocentric powers, global warming, climate refugeeism, fracking, plummeting biodiversity, ecological imperialism, environmental racism and more all begin to tear the fabric of our moral and religious imaginations, practices, and poetics.  We find ourselves lacking the resources to conceptualize the planetary situation we find ourselves in, and ancient theological traditions could never have anticipated our contemporary situation.  We find ourselves in the midst of what ecocritic Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”5 and what many in the environmental humanities are calling the “Anthropocene,” the time of a planet geologically shaped by human power, a power that imagines itself separate from the intricacies of planetary life.6

Besides talk about air quality or air pollution, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that most traditional theologies or theopoetics tend to neglect the complexities of atmosphere due to the problems Jenkins poses: the complexity of atmospheric, geological, and climatological science, the experience of environmental despair, a matrix of ethically overwhelming decisions, or classical ecological apathy.  Even contemporary ecotheology, in all of its beauty, is only really beginning to turn to atmospheric composition.  And yet, climate change, global warming, weirding, and the whole host of monikers growing to describe our contemporary situation, still demands such reflection.  We tend to forget the air, so to speak, because its composition or materiality is somewhat ungraspable to our contemporary moment.7  And yet, atmosphere is a material consequence and intimately of material consequence to everyday lives and geologic histories.

I would like to propose here, that the language of flesh deployed by Rivera might empower us to better reflect on that configuration, on our atmospheric flesh, the flesh we feel so weighty these days. We might practice thought experiments about atmospheric relations and enabling capacities that incarnate the planet.  We might imagine the planet’s flesh composed of chemicals, exchanges, if we know anything about climate change it is that it is caused by the anthropos in a gross abuse of planetary flesh by capitalist and colonialist power in the global north—in short, the emission of carbon.

Atmospheric flesh emerges with a bit more texture here:  carbon emissions, fossil fuels, or other delicate ecologies with “natural resources” that humans with coercive planetary power use for their own benefit. Consider the reality that theological ethicist Michael Northcott points out in his A Political Theology of Climate Change, regarding coal, “This stored carbon represents the activities of millions of plants and other creatures which in the Carboniferous geological era gradually sank into the earth’s crust.”8  What we call carbon is the burning of the literal flesh of creaturely life, viewed over long spans of geologic time.  When fossil fuels enter the picture, Rivera’s concept of flesh offers a kind of terrifying precision of descriptive language.  What are fossil fuels but the ecological transformation of the decomposing flesh of organisms into sources of energy? The preponderance of CO2 in our atmosphere is the direct result of the burning of the transformed flesh of the organic world.

And here’s where Rivera’s reflections on the beauty and ambivalence of various Christian configurations of bodies and flesh become even more vital in theological reflection on climate change.   We might imagine or identify problematic configurations of the body of earth and the flesh of the planet.  In one popular problematic, one might imagine the body of earth an enclosed body, unchanging or dead matter (dead flesh) to be manipulated without much consequence.  As Northcott observes, “The earth-invasive techniques and extensive tailings associated with coal-mining fostered the cultural belief in the earth as spiritually ‘dead’, which played out seminally in European philosophy.”9  Interestingly and compellingly, Northcott finds an ally in the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” in reclaiming the earth as vitally alive. Such ideas were motivated by Christian theological imaginaries, like that of dominion, and the spread of certain orthodoxies.  The body of the human earth before God, this tragic option argued in practice, was to be used at will, unaffected by the various interdependences that compose its flesh.

Or, we might tend to imagine the local flesh of our planetary life—birds, animals, plants, minerals—unaffected by the larger transcendent, ephemeral planet that offers its atmospheric and solar life in carnal exchanges.  How could the planet, transcendent, ever be so thoroughly affected by the ongoings of tiny human creatures?  The planet couldn’t be in peril, from its own systems, could it?  Or, as many a climate denier has said, “Isn’t God in control?”  All of these options separate the body from the flesh on a tragic planetary scale.

Incarnation, a poetics of the flesh—especially atmospheric flesh—might be instructive for challenging these dispositions, taking climate change seriously, and empowering real imaginative practices of attention.10  For Rivera seeks to re-enliven “carnal interdependence, vulnerability, and exposure” and “follows ‘flesh’ as it unfolds from a Christian poetics of incarnation.” (7, 10)

In Rivera’s gorgeous poetic-prose, incarnate flesh becomes another name for possibilities of implicatedness, the depths and limits of planetary intimacy.  She writes, “Flesh weaves bodies and the world.  Flesh twists and turns, constituting realities that never exhaust it.  Flesh is constitutive of my body and of the world.  Yet it does not belong to me and it does not belong to you.” (85)  The flesh of the planet twists, folds in creatures, elements, emissions, rays, sounds, hopes, and imaginations. Those imaginative turns politically shape and constitute the lives of humans, plants, animals, and others, for good and ill.

She continues, if I might quote at length,

“It is an element—like water or air—on which we all depend and to which we all contribute.  Because the elemental web that gives rise to and sustains my body precedes and exceeds my life, because the flesh of my body interlaces with the flesh of the world, I cannot fully represent it.  Yet each of our bodies has its history, rhythms, and textures—its own way of encountering and incarnating the flesh of the world.” (85)

The “elemental web” of flesh, in its provocations and movements signals the flesh of bioregions, symbiotic microbes, ecosystems, energy systems, and, yes, atmospheric energies.  The elemental webs we inhabit are performative, indeterminate, lamentable and wondrous.  To turn to those locales and energies, not as disembodied from our everyday lives or isolated communions, but as our fundamental implicatedness, yes, as atmospheric flesh might empower the ecological attention and action we so desperately need in the new planetary flesh of climate change.  Carbon, atmospheric multiplicity, and creaturely life dances and shares in our own fleshy vulnerability.

We might, then, finally rephrase McGill’s opening words here, that to hide from flesh for the sake of the spirit, to hide from the vulnerabilities of planetary flesh and act as if our atmospheric commons isn’t rending apart is to fundamentally miss not just the Christian life, but creaturely life everywhere.  We will never be fully able to represent it, but we may begin to listen to the expansiveness of geologic history, the slow rhythms of climate violence, and the textures of ecological resilience and justice.


  1. Arthur McGill, The Celebration of the Flesh: Poetry in Christian Life. New York: Association Press, 1964: p. 11.

  2. Ibid., p. 5

  3. See my full review of Poetics of the Flesh: Jacob J. Erickson “Carnal Theology” in The Christian Century. April 28th, 2016.

  4. Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, p. 17.

  5. Timothy Morton, Hyperobject: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

  6. I am aware of the complexities of using this term. I use it as a placeholder for the complexities of what is also being called the “capitalocene”, the “pyrocene”, the “plantationocene.”  It has become convention for scholars in this current moment to argue wildly over which one is more accurate.  I think this is reductionistic and foolish, actually.  The diagnosing functions that each of these terms provides are equally important and I argue in forthcoming work that we need the pluralism of the terms to prismatically diagnose our conditions.  To argue that one term is the only right term or most important term actually commits a mistake in trying to reduce the complexity of global warming to a singular kind of origin and solution. We know the planet is in too much trouble for that kind of singular argumentation.  There must be an interdependent pluralism of names.

  7. I’m, of course, borrowing language from the philosopher Luce Irigaray.

  8. Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013: 50.

  9. Ibid., 51.

  10. I think also of two brilliant theologians of incarnation: Sallie McFague’s The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. McFague offers another “organic model” of the earth as God’s body, “not a body, but all the different, peculiar, particular bodies about us…not because all creatures are transparent images of God but because each in its own peculiar, idiosyncratic, special difference is a wonder to behold” (211) . Laurel Schneider’s concept of “Promiscuous Incarnation.” She argues that, “The coming to flesh of divinity completely disrupts the smooth otherness of the divine, its separateness from the changeable stuff of earth, its abhorrence of rot, its innocence of death, and its ignorance of life or desire” (232).

  • Mayra Rivera

    Mayra Rivera

    Reply

    Response to Erickson

    Erickson’s proposal to develop the idea of the “flesh of the world” to attend specifically to “atmospheric flesh” moves us in this direction of renewing visions and aesthetics of relating to the earth. I agree with his suggestion that the “‘tendency to separate bodies from flesh’ arising in the somatic strand is mirrored on a planetary scale with a tendency to anthropocentrically remove the human body from the relations of planetary flesh.” And I am particularly interested in the way the idea of atmospheric flesh conveys the dynamic exchanges and transformations of flesh, while underlining the textures of the atmosphere. I think his carnal ecopoetic captures the sensibilities of the book and begins to lead us toward much-needed areas of elaboration.

    There is much more to be said and I am honored for the opportunity to respond to such thoughtful and engaging reviews. Let me close by referring to the cover of the book, an image of Wangechi Mutu’s piece: “Non je ne regrette rien” (“I don’t regret anything”), as my humble tribute to an amazing artist, and a way to express my gratitude to Jade Brooks and Heather Hensley, from Duke University Press, for rich conversations about the art.

    The image captures for me the coming together of elements in the becoming of flesh. A serpent evokes imaginaries that link flesh to sin, the plant-like parts evoke the complex relation between flesh and soil; there is also a machine-like piece. But they all seem to be just coming together, not quite done, not predictable. And not simply a description, but an invitation to imagine what may yet emerge.

     

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