The Politics of Embodiment

Let me suggest that we witness Luke's inclusion of an account of the circumcision ofJesus (coy as it is on details) and a spiritual reading of circumcision (rather than its physical inscription) in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries as political gestures (of different, maybe opposite kinds). They are accounts of the body of Christ that are grounded upon certain cultural assumptions about embodiment. Luke appears to be making a gesture of resistance to a cultural hegemony. The Christology outlined is one in which Christ is a counter-cultural figure, an ally of the poor, the sick, the destitute — all who are socially marginalised. Michelangelo, on the other hand, is inflecting a cultural hegemony in a different manner (after all, the marble bodies of neither David nor the resurrected Christ are Jewish, they are Hellenic). His Christology is one that emphasised Christ as the perfect form of human being. The cultural resources for envisaging such perfection were classical figurations of the young, athletic body. As classical statues were being excavated, rediscovered and collected, so, in what might be termed a historicist move, Michelangelo returns to figurations of the body evident in the time of Jesus himself. In this inflexion the Jewish body is rendered socially, politically, aesthetically and finally theologically invisible. A different cultural politics, a different cultural negotiation, is involved in both accounts of the body of Jesus Christ. Different theological statements emerge in different times, under different circumstances.

The accounts themselves issue from cultural assumptions about the nature, function, even telos of the human body. As I said at the beginning of this essay, these politics of embodiment are inevitable. But let me take this further. If the politics are inevitable how does theology handle the pragmatics of its own discourse? To clarify the issue: the recognition of the politics of interpretation must accept that knowledges are local and enquiries into such knowledges are likewise culturally situated. The body of Jesus Christ, for example, will be differently conceived and differently theologised in different cultures and in different times. How then does Christian theology retain its commitment in faith to the one Logos? It seems to me that two answers are possible, but I can only accept one for theological reasons. In the first, theology accepts a broadly nominalist and later Kantian metaphysics. That is, it accepts that God is totally unknowable, absolutely transcendent, wholly other, and thus all any of us trade in is symbolic exchanges. I would reject that answer for numerous reasons. The most pertinent of these are (a) the nominalist dualism (later the dualism of noumenal and phenomenal) cannot treat embodiment at all. The body in such a metaphysics is at best a machine activated by a mind; (b) the nature of incarnation is such that God does not remain absolutely transcendent, wholly other. The body of Jesus Christ understood theologically is, to use Derrida's term, a 'quasi-transcendental'41 and, to use Irigaray's term, a 'sensible transcendent'.42 (c) There is a subtle imperialism at play with the enunciating position of this metaphysics. From whence can the claim be made that God is wholly other and that human beings traffic merely in symbols for a transcendent reality which may or may not correspond with that reality? This first answer to the problem of theology's production of local knowledges avoids the politics involved in construction, the violence that is ineradicable in rhetoric, by shifting attention to the universal on the other side of the particular.

The second answer, the one I would wish to develop, is to embrace the inevitability of being implicated in a cultural politics; to accept that theological discourses on the body of Jesus Christ, for example, produce local knowledges — they are specific negotiations within specific socio-historical contexts. Both relativism and universalism can be avoided by developing a Christology that takes time and embodiment seriously.

This Christology would emphasise, on the one hand, the continual displacement or deterritorialisation of the body of Christ as it is inflected in this place and that, by this Church and that, by this atheist — even — and that. By these means the Christ-effect is disseminated endlessly but not, I would argue, arbitrarily. To return to the analyses of what drives the enquiry into

41 Derrida first uses the term 'quasi-transcendental' in Glas, trs. John P. Leavey Jr and Richard Rand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

42 See An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trs. Gillian C. Gill and Carolyn Burke (London: Athlone Press, 1993).

the body ofJesus Christ at the beginning of this essay, the dissemination is determined by an erotics, a participation, a relation. The relation holds — focusing all these disseminations back to that which has solicited and produced them: the actual physical body ofJesus Christ. As, in the eucharist, the body is broken and distributed by the Church but also beyond it.

On the other hand, one would also have to emphasise in such a Christ-ology how the body of Jesus Christ, as it operates upon and within and as the social and political body, the ecclesial and sacramental body — in what I have called variously its displacement, expansion, fragmentation and dissemination — participates in the unfolding operation of the Triune God with respect to creation. The politics of interpretation, the endless figurations of the body of Christ are, then, that which constitutes the very participation of the human in the divine, such that in each historical epoch, as in each distinct geographical-cum-ethnic location, something new is expressed, revealed, produced in a divine/human cooperation about the body of Christ. We are called to make meaning in God. That is, Christian theologians have to render visible the operation of the Word, the body of Christ. Nicephorus, the ninth-century apologist for icons, wrote in his Third Refutation that following the resurrection Christ's body, although it appears in a most visible and divine form (theoeidestaton), remains a body. It does not change itself into the divine essence (ousia theotetos).43 The fact that Christ is no longer known after the flesh (2 Cor. 5.16) does not mean he has abandoned or rejected embodiment. It means he has been released from physical constraints — or physical constraints that have become viewed as such following the mathematical approach to understanding the world.44 Theological reflection upon that embodiment is itself a participation in that extended embodiment as it moves through time and space and redeems the material. Christian poiesis is itself political, for the Logos is not frozen; orthodoxy is not a frozen Logos. The Logos is person and operation. Christology is not a timeless holy grail handed down from fathers to sons in the purity of its form. No doctrine is. A constant shaping takes place in the interstices between human making and theopoiesis. What issues from the accumulation (Nyssa might call it skopos) of paradoses is the profound mystery of embodiment itself; not just the embodiment ofJesus Christ but the ineffable nature of each human person and all forms of embodiment. For the mystery continually exceeds our local constructions of what it presents. What we discern, and the early Church Fathers discerned, about the

43 3.39. Quoted in Kenneth Parry, Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 113.

44 See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, pp. 46—77.

body of Jesus Christ becomes a meditation on the human person created imago dei and as such being the priest of the created order around them. As priests the human vocation is then to voice the mystery, which becomes a doxology, of materiality itself.

Such a Christology and theological anthropology do not get theologians themselves off the hook for producing racist or sexist bodies ofJesus Christ. The reflexivity involved in embracing the cultural politics implicated in every discursive production requires a moral responsibility (and a humility on the part of the theologian) that is sensitive to how others might receive what has been produced. Some conflict is inevitable, as some violence is inevitable in all rhetorics of persuasion. But in accepting, as Augustine once taught in De Civitate Dei, that it is both necessary to make judgements and equally necessary (pending the last and final judgement) to admit ignorance, then all accounts of the body of Jesus Christ remain open for correction, critique and supplementation. None of them is beyond contestation.

To conclude, then, by returning to what I set out at the beginning of this essay. What both Luke's account ofJesus's circumcision and the Renaissance theologies of the circumcision reveal is how theological discourse is part of a much wider cultural politics. Accounts of the body of Jesus Christ draw upon assumptions about both the nature of embodiment and what is valued and/or denigrated with respect to the representation of that embodiment. This involvement in a cultural politics renders theology public in the sense that it cannot ever (logically) simply talk to insiders about the nature of what is believed. It always transcends its implied readership. The language of theology and the categories for its thinking extend its discursive practices far beyond its own sectarian interests. In continually engendering the Christ figure, theological discourse is implicated in the production of bodies, in the bio-politics of such a production. The realisation of this must make theologians responsible to the wider contexts of their productions, more reflexive about the politics and rhetorics of their accounts and claims. Furthermore there are good theological reasons for this reflexivity — to wit, being so implicated is to participate in the unfolding of the Godhead with respect to creation. To accept, reflect upon and work within the cultural politics of any one time and place is an incarnational act itself, a theological materialism in which the body of Christ is constituted. As such, theologians reflecting upon the embodiment of Jesus Christ help to raise the question of the politics of embodiment itself. In doing this those politics become not simply a cultural but a theological issue. There is a politics of faith.

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