January 28. Rituals, beliefs, texts, ethnographies

This week we began developing working definitions of key terms for our critical toolbox this semester: ritual, text, belief, and ethnographies. We teased out meanings for them in singular and in plural; we rehearsed ways to understand the correspondences between them. We also inquired about their relation to flesh, bodies, Relation, myth, fiction, magic, divinity, humanity, diaspora, the prefix trans-, pilgrimage, identity, and migration, among others. We wondered how they contribute to the composition and interpretation of religiosity.

By Sunday at 5, please share your reflection on the larger scope of our discussion this week, or a question you had pending about a term or discussion, or a response to a question we posed and you remained pondering.

8 replies on “January 28. Rituals, beliefs, texts, ethnographies”

I’d like to post some rambling thoughts I’ve had about flesh as it relates to one of my research interests, so apologies in advance if there’s not much coherence to this.
Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Poetics of the Flesh is the way that flesh is often used to describe a way of reading Scripture in the early church. Origen, for example, the most influential biblical interpreter in the ancient world, talks about Scripture having a “fleshy” sense, a “soul” sense, and a spiritual sense. The fleshy sense is not bad, but basic. It is the one most available to the ordinary believer, and progress in faith is required to understand the soul and spiritual readings. Augustine, by contrast, describes how the Bible was a stumbling block to him until he learned to read it in a spiritual way rather than in a carnal way. While translators can generally be counted upon to translate Origen in a way that gets this across, there is much more inconsistency for Augustine, where the word “spiritualiter” (spiritually) is often translated as figuratively or allegorically, and the word “carnaliter” (fleshly or carnally) is even more frequently translated as literal or “according to the letter.” When we translate them this way, however, I think we lose some of the impact this would have had on an ancient reader. What did an ancient Christian think when they heard a reading was described as “carnal”? The discussion of how to interpret the Bible would not be one that took place (solely) on the level of literary theory, but in a more complex web of anthropological and theological concepts bound up in the “flesh.”

Body and Flesh

Flesh is always becoming…
They are intimately our own, singular and irreplaceable, and yet formed by and given to the world.
Mayra Rivera Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh, 2

So poetically stated, in my own thoughts, this is Mayra Rivera’s main thesis: the flesh in relations. Certainly, this is an important intervention in theology, particularly a Christian theology that views the flesh separately from spirit/the soul. “Flesh carries memories of theological passions,” Rivera describes (1). Whereas these memories can be that of a creative touch, divine love, as well as suffering, within Christian theology, it is much more prevalent that thinking of flesh will most likely bring forth images of sin, lust, and death (1). Separated from spirit, flesh therefore becomes inferior, sinful, and thus, it must be denied.

Reading Rivera’s theological interventions was beautiful, and thought provoking. The poetics of the flesh recognizes its materiality. “Words … becomes flesh. Words mark, wound, elevate, or shatter bodies” (2). Our flesh is our own, yet the ways in which we move into the world shape our flesh. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism may sound abstract, but they have real consequences on our flesh.

It is not solely the flesh though that is poetics. The world is also poetics/being in relation. Its opaqueness, elusiveness, and dynamics hide and tell stories that are marked with disruptions, displacement, irrecoverable loss. The poetics of the flesh, encountering the poetics of the world, creates transformation. This really speaks to the Catholic part of myself!

And yet… womanist theologians Kelly Douglas and Shawn M. Copeland’s understanding of the body and being also speaks to me. It speaks to me as a black woman who have learned to see my body, not my flesh, as hypersexual, undesirable, dis-eased, and shameful. It is something that I have worked on and still working on, unlearning.

The part of me that is a Vodouizan is thinking that my body (or is it my flesh?) is repository of spirits. My body in relation with itself is composed of two parts: the tibonanj and the gwo bonanj. The gwobonanj, the intellectual part of myself. The tibonanj—“this part cannot be describe; [I] know it, that is all” (42). It is the part of me that is a portion of God. A portion of the Divine. Thus for now, although I understand better the difference between body and flesh, I still find myself posing these questions: How is poetics of the flesh, different than theology of the body? What do we gain (what do we lose?) shifting from a theology of the body to poetics of the flesh? I think I can, but I am still not sure how, to best use poetics of the flesh outside of Christianity?

Mimerose Beaubrun. Nan Domi: An Initiate Journey into Haitian Vodou. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2013, 42.

This week’s exercise of producing a working definition for some of our key terms has haunted me: rituals, beliefs, texts, ethnographies. As I look again at my notes, I see how much my struggle to articulate a clear definition around these commonly-used terms has stayed with me and unsettled my categories, in good and generative ways. What do I mean when I use these words? What do I want to mean? Toward the end of class, I noted a question in my notebook that I have been pondering this week: How is it that an ethnography can occur in the pages of a religious book—i.e., the story of the bleeding woman as it is contained in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? As I recall, the class discussion then turned toward an extended meditation on the details of that ancient biblical story concerning a desperate woman who had endured bleeding over 12 years, but who had dared to reach out and touch the robes of a holy man (Jesus) and discovered herself immediately healed. Jesus does not know who touched him, only notices that “power” has gone out from him, and stops an entire procession to discover the cause. Was the crux of the story the sick woman’s faith, the power of her belief, or the tremendous power of Jesus to heal—even without his express intention? The fact that the text leaves this important point ambiguous is critical to its value as a source of on-going questions and faith. The story is one that I have a personal and intimate connection with, one that I have found over the years to have affirmed the bodies/flesh of women, the sacred valence of sickness and suffering, and human agency in relation to the divine.

Over the years, my research interests in the area of Hebrew Bible have taken me deeply into the arena of ritual (and the texts that support ritual) for ancient Jewish communities living in diaspora. But I have not had occasion to return to this story of the bleeding woman in a very long while. As I think about the story now, in relation to Rivera’s consideration of “flesh” and Pena’s invoking of ethnography in the diasporic development of sacred space, I find myself engaged in a different way. I think of the ritual aspect of the bleeding woman’s fixation on the “edge of his robe” (where the knotted ritual fringes or tassels on a prayer shawl may have been: was this what she wanted to be in touch with?), the social and religious function of cleanness and uncleanness in Jewish law with regard to menstruation and the regulation of bodies/flesh, and I think now of its value as “ethnography”—an oral story told by communities of men and women, eventually written down by the communities of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with a life of its own, inspiring new rituals, beliefs, and texts.

I don’t have much to conclude with here, except to say that this last class discussion has been richly provoking. It’s made me ask questions of my own experience, and the ways I have categorized those experiences in my scholarly work, and whether there might be more “bleed” in the way that I think through my work in this class this semester.

While reading the Introduction of Mayra Rivera’s “Poetics of Flesh”, my mind immediately wandered around to think about the different terms used in my mother tongue (Telugu) to denote flesh. I began recollecting several terms used to describe multiple forms of flesh but also was reminded of a poem written by Dalit (meaning “broken/scattered” used by social reformers to denote former untouchable castes) poet Gurram Joshua who describes the agony of caste(discrimination and violence):

“In Vyasa’s divine discourse
That gave birth to the four Vedas,
Can Madigas (an untouchable caste) be found?
Alas, untouchables in
Flesh and blood are primitives it seems!” (Translated by Padma Rao, 2015)

The bodies of the formerly (politically correct to use but they are “currently”) untouchable castes who perform their hereditary duties of manual scavenging and disposing of dead bodies (human and animal) are considered “impure”. Joshua through his poems vehemently questions the impurity of his ‘untouchable’ body in relation to the divine.

When Rivera talks about the “poetic approach”- indispensable for marking histories marked by disruption, displacement and irrecoverable loss (pg. 8), I find a deep resonance of this in the poetry of Joshua. I’m afraid if I’m imposing or over-interpreting Rivera’s conceptualization of the “poetic approach”. I was also wondering if I’m conflating the term “flesh” with “body”. Joshua in my view used a “poetic approach” in order to question the divine/scriptural sanction of the untouchable body as impure, at times attributing it to the Karma of their previous birth. Joshua in his acclaimed poem “Gabbilam” (Bat), weaves an imaginary conversation with the Bat and writes:

“Selfish religious bigots silence me
Declaring my misery the result of my sins of the birth previous
Ask your god to explain what this incarnation is And why it bears a grudge against me?
When you are hanging upside down in the temple
Quite close will you be to Shiva’s ear
Narrate the story of my suffering to Him,
Making sure that no priest is around.” (Translated by Chinnaiah Jangam, 2014)

He laments at the lack of his access to the temple as an untouchable, whereby, he requests the Bat (commonly found in old Hindu temples in the Telugu region), to demand an answer from the God Shiva to the question the existence of his “untouchable body”.

Joshua’s poetry is one such example of countless Dalit poets attempting to understand the impurity of their flesh in relation to the divine. By employing a poetic approach, they attempted to construct a theology of discrimination, humiliation, agony and suffering in their own language. There are multiple instances of these articulations even in Bhakti poetry. A Bhakti saint, Kanakadasa (belonging to a lower caste) writes:

You say
I am of low caste.
Tell me, brother,
What caste is the soul?
Swamp-born lotus
You offer to God.
Brewed-in-cow’s-flesh milk
Is good for the twice-born (Brahmin).
Animal-exuded perfume
Makes maiden’s body fragrant.
Once you taste the Grace
Of Keshava of Kaginele
Caste is an outcaste, brother (translated by Rama R. Rao, 1991)

Like Rosy, I am struck by our exercise of working through definitions for “rituals, beliefs, texts, ethnographies. I’m especially thinking about the shift that occurs when we take these terms from singular to plural and vice versa. Mayra Rivera draws from Sharon Betcher in saying, “the body fosters an illusion of completeness and wholeness easily naturalized, normalized, and deployed as part of cultural systems of representation” (Rivera, 7). Instead, flesh represents something more fragmented, eluding our categorizations and in excess of legibility. I’m wondering if the discussion about body and flesh might have a metaphorical relationship to these first four terms. When left singular, ritual, text, belief, and ethnography stand as coherent categories with particular, excluding standards that often subjugate and dominate any kind of scholarship or practice deemed outside its boundaries. However, making these categories plural immediately opens up possibilities for multiplicity, change, and perhaps even incoherence and transgression. Inspired by this week’s class, I’m looking forward to tracking how often scholarly projects in theology and religious studies use these terms in the singular versus plural and how that impacts the claims made by their project. The categories and standards of our guild(s) often make it difficult to speak about violence in a meaningful way. It seems we can at least loosen the monopoly on meaning implied by each of these singular terms by acknowledging, like Rivera does with “flesh,” the limits and problems with invoking categorical “integrity” and instead acknowledging their inherent plurality, contradictions, and openness to transformation.

“‘The body’ names the physicality of human existence. It is invoked as a solution to the devaluation of flesh and materiality and yet ‘the body’ is also described as an effect of arrangements of power, an artifact produced for social control. It is described as ‘natural’ yet shaped by social practices and representations—biological and ideological. Both flesh and not” (Rivera 7).

Rivera, in focusing on the sociological and ontological opportunities which the flesh provides us, also reveals the false narrative which surrounds our concept of the body itself. Namely, that the body, whether biologically or politically, is a sedimented or closed form. Rivera contrasts the body as something perceived as “an entity complete in itself and visible to those around it” while the flesh, in contrast, is “formless and impermanent, crossing the boundaries between the individual body and the world” (Rivera 2). However, as we understand the demarcation between the flesh and the body is a dichotomy only realized discursively, it also important to ponder how the body is, in fact, flesh and visa versa. In class, we discussed the way that skin, like the flesh, draws its strength and its vulnerability from its porosity and therefore its relationality to the outside world. It is also striking to me that skin, like the body, is often read as a fixed marker of identity when, in fact, we understand that the skin reflects the most complex materializations of our biological diversity. In short, we assume the skin reflects a strict visual schema that defines who we are, but such markers are always changing, shifting, and reshaping how we see and understand ourselves and our relationship to the world. Rivera writes that her project aims to avoid “rejecting flesh on the basis of its association with sin” and to instead “revalue the disavowed traits [of the flesh] as integral to corporeality—including its links to the material elements, its vulnerability, and changeability” (Rivera 12). From this line, I am wrestling with the notion of vulnerability. Thinking about to Clooney’s notion of diversity and the religious other, that which makes the project of Comparative Theology so uncomfortable, despite its ability to deepen one’s own intellectual and spiritual practice, is the fear that learning from the religious other may destabilize entrenched traditions which have come, for many cultural groups, to define not only their faith but their personhood itself. This fear extends from the reality that acknowledging and wrestling with the religious other is something which requires immense vulnerability, however, such vulnerability (as is humility I suppose) is required for acknowledging the complex ways that our relationality to and with the world is seldom a fixed dynamic.

I am posting this response—once again—primarily as a reminder for myself and also somewhat as an extension of one of the lines of thought in my last response.

During my first encounter with Chidester two weeks ago, I had noticed a then still fairly abstract relation between imperialism and the dialectic in the notion of not only the structures of colonialism—but anti-blackness in particular. I was also thinking about the ways in what I perceived to be a proximity between African spirituality and Blanchot’s notion of le neutre in the way in which they are both excessive of the dialectic.

This connection became somewhat uncannily concrete to me in my second encounter with Chidester and his engagement with Leo Frobenius. Frobenius’ insistance on the purity of language, culture and tradition—specifically in an African context—reminded me of the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin. Hölderlin was one of the key figures of German Romanticism (which Frobenius was somewhat accusatorially suggested to having been influenced by) and one of his key ideas was that there are certain qualities that are proper to a “people” and that they therefore cannot develop them much further in their poetry and therefore have greater potential for developing another quality that is foreign to them. He suggests that what was proper to the ancient Greeks was what he refers to as the “fire of the gods”—a Dionysian quality of excess that influencing Blanchot’s conception of le neutre. He therefore proposed that the Greek developed the Apollonian side of poetry to perfection—which is more on the side of the dialectical. In this way, Hölderlin suggested that the Apollonian was proper to the Germans of his time and that they must therefore develop the fire of the gods.

I am wondering of Frobenius thought of the South Africans as exhibiting this “fire of the gods” (as problematically as he did render this)—which would be an interesting angle for me to approach this proximity that I perceived between le neutre and African spirituality.

I haven’t actively engaged historical dimensions in my work thus far and certainly not ethnographical ones, which makes me very excited to see these links that I wasn’t accustomed to take into account before—and I’m grateful for this class for giving me an opportunity to ”interdisciplinize” my already interdisciplinary approach to scholarship.

Addendum: shoutout to Ariel’s thoughts about skin—if I hadn’t chosen to elaborate on my thoughts from last week, I would have written about that. Much food for thought.

My comments this week anticipate Unit. 7 on Blackness–on both an ontological and scholarly register: that is, what difference does Blackness make when we want to think/read/theorize comparatively? More precisely, how does our (not) accounting for Blackness (as a singularity) dis/enable our capacity to theorize–comparatively or otherwise? These questions stem for me from reading Rivera’s brilliant text–which I’ve had the pleasure to read before. For all of its sophisticated and valuable meditations, I found myself wondering (again): where is Hortense Spillers? In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”–published over three decades ago (*1987*) in the prestigious journal of critical theory, /Diacritics/–Spillers inaugurates a radical path of black feminist theory by positing the distinction between “body” and “flesh” as foundational to modernity’s grammar. For Spillers, the former names the the “liberated” subject position whereas the latter names the “captive” position: i.e., the position constituted in/by racial slavery. It is through racial slavery’s “high crimes against the flesh” that marks it as the “zero degree of social conceptualization” organized around (gendered) bodies. Spillers argues that racial slavery “ungenders” the captive flesh, enabling the protocols of civil society through the gendered division of labor and the symbolics of kinship. All of this is to observe how the thematics of Spillers’s essay directly concern Rivera’s self-professed foci, yet Spillers only gets mentioned secondarily and in passing via a footnote acknowledging the relevance of Alexander Weheliye’s book /Habeus Viscus/, which was published too late for Rivera to incorporate into her monograph. Of course, not everyone can read everything, and Rivera covers a lot of heterogeneous ground in her book–but the lacuna of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” seems symptomatic of the very point Spillers is making in her essay: that the ungendered (female) flesh provides the very grammar for the modern World, which, as Frank B. Wilderson III observes, goes unspoken precisely because it enables the labor of speech (i.e., theory). Thus, as much as I appreciate Rivera’s text for what it offers, I am simultaneously troubled by its effacement of Spillers’ (singular account of) black female flesh, which enables Rivera to (parasitically) suggest that the flesh envelopes all bodies (however stratified) while a radical black feminist stake has already been “claimed” over the singular status/zone of the flesh in Blackness (or, alternatively, as we’ll encounter in Week 7 with Calvin Warren’s reading of Spillers, that Blackness is a condition of “bodies without flesh”–though, regardless of how one reads Spillers, the singularity of Blackness on this matter is what demands our attention).

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