Code-Meshing and the Stretch Course as Anti-Racist Pedagogy (Conference Script)

July 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

Code-Meshing and the Stretch Course as Anti-Racist Pedagogy

Roger K. Green, Metropolitan State University.

Below is a draft of a conference script for a presentation at the CCCC Regional Conference in Denver, CO on July 20-21, 2018.

One of the great benefits of Stretch courses is the ability to move both our pedagogy and our students’ writing habits beyond the inoculation theories of writing embedded in the set and setting of liberal and neoliberal institutional models.  Especially for first generation students and students acclimating to U.S. education systems, Stretch courses allow us the time to give students the tools to confront the cruel optimism of meritocratic thinking and archaic social myths of upward mobility.

Cruel optimism is a term that Lauren Berlant uses to describe the affective nature of historical evental framing.  Put simply, “Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (Berlant 24).  Berlant describes cruel optimism as “a deictic – a phrase that points to a proximate location,” saying that cruel optimism “attends to practices of self interruption, self suspension, and self abeyance that indicate people’s struggles to change, but not traumatically, the terms of value in which their life-making activity has been cast” (27).

While on a daily basis I think of the ways people attend to the work of composition-rhetoric itself as cruelly optimistic, inoculation theories being but one instance, in this paper I want to focus on some of the theoretical approaches to my pedagogical decisions in the Stretch course itself.  A more practical follow-up will occur tomorrow in a talk with my colleagues Jane Chapman-Vigil and Jessica Parker on the first-year writing program at MSU Denver.

In my Stretch courses, first semester for me is about community-building and trust-building through transparency and anti-racist approaches to writing.  We begin overtly discussing issues of race and code-meshing, usually via Vershawn Ashanti Young’s argument against preserving “Linguistic Double-Consciousness” with in the first two weeks of class.  We have explicit and often uncomfortable discussions about race.

I find Lee Mun Wah’s What Stands Between Us: Racism Conversation Flashcards particularly helpful early on.  It’s useful to play this in the first few days of class, before students know each other. As a moderator, I do not participate, but I let students know beforehand that at the end they are able to ask me my personal thoughts on any of the questions, so I am not free from having to engage but am able to open a transparent dialogue about my own presence and the power relations between students and professors. While uncomfortable at first, students usually respond that it makes class feel “real.”[1]  Many mention they never discussed race in high school.

I begin illustrating code-meshing with Hip hop with readings from Jay-Z’s Decoded.  This echoes Jessica Parker’s strategy of that using Hip-hop as a vehicle for students “to reflect on and acknowledge their own identities and how these identities inform their readings of and writing about African American texts” (195).  And while I do use Hip hop overtly in class, Hip hop pedagogyas KRS-One describes it in The Gospel of Hip Hop (and other places) emphasizes community.  It is important to me that my course is framed argumentatively from the start in terms of current discussions in composition-rhetoric and that I am inviting my students into this discipline.  Students do not have to buy the argument, but we do approach the class as an experiment related to current composition theory discussions.

To confront ill-informed concerns about code-meshing, I am transparent with my students that in my class we work with current scholarship in our field and that other professors on campus may not be clued into that scholarship, just as you would expect to get current scholarship from a genetics course. This means the students may have to either negotiate or choose not to negotiate with their other professors regarding language conventions.  This implies some agency on their part and active concerns with what they want from their writing instead of an abstract implementation of Mainstream United States English (MUSE).

First semester is also about deep inquiry into the rhetorical concepts of framing, ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, and exigence and building a set of analytical tools that emphasize constant reflection. Anti-colonial theory is one of my main strategies to teach why framing matters.  Part of anti-colonial strategy is to turn the colonizing gaze back upon the colonizer, and in my classroom this means overtly owning up to the historically white supremacist legacies that imbricate my own being in ongoing inequity.  I self-identify to my students my whiteness and my masculinity and note the blinders that come with my social positioning.  I stress that students may self-identify as they wish, but as we know with DACA students, some of us would like to keep certain aspects of identity as private as possible.

Owning up to white peoples’ role in colonial oppression is to be distinguished from a narcissistic performance of white guilt, yet as Frantz Fanon noted half a century ago, decolonization is always violent.[2]  In Tinker’s American Indian Liberation, he actually gives a list of actions for white folks that I use as a handout.  One point states: “it will be critical for amer-european (White) people to complete a task largely ignored until now, namely, to identify amer-european (White) culture.  And once Whiteness is carefully identified, it then should be a target for destruction” (161).

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes white rhetoric as four frameworks of rationalization to perpetuate existing inequality: 1) Abstract liberalism 2) Naturalization 3) Cultural racism (4) Minimization of racism.  Of these, abstract liberalism is often the most difficult to see as upholding white supremacy in the U.S.  Let me put some of this into pedagogical context of my Stretch course through narrative.

Part of building trust and community means my students have input for course reading subjects during second semester.  Last spring, my students were interested in reading about schizophrenia and mental illness.  I was reminded of Tanya Luhrmann’s ethnographic work in her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, which draws on a career of work on ecstatic states and the long history that psychology has had associating so-called “shamans” with mental illness.

Wanting shorter readings, I turned to an edited collection by Lurhmann titled, Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia across Cultures, and particularly an essay by Amy Jane Sousa titled: “Diagnostic Neutrality in Psychiatric Treatment in North India.” Sousa argues for the benefits of the technique some Indian doctors use of not labeling patients with the taxonomic designations of the DSM-V, an argument that builds upon an earlier reading we had done from Ethan Watters’ book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, which had a chapter on “The Rise of Anorexia in Hong Kong.” That reading had related to a body-image theme my students were interested in, and it was directed at a more popular audience than Luhrmann, so we were able to discuss genre differences too. Putting it first meant we could talk about scholarly versus popular writing while still addressing their interests as well as drawing on anti-colonial themes I had introduced first semester.

My classes meet two days a week, and during second semester day one is always a group discussion led by a group of students on readings that align with their interests.  Everyone discussion-leads at least twice, and extra credit options are available for folks who want to jump in and help out if other students are absent.  I use Critical Discourse Analysis, a technique introduced in semester-one inspired by anti-racist pedagogy in the race cards discussion.  I take notes attentively for class.  Discussions, which I describe as a skill to be learned in community, need to last at least 45 minutes. What we are doing is practicing strategies of invention and rhetorical reading more than trying to get really specific knowledge.  Texts must be dense enough to require a bit of digging and collective effort.  After discussion, I feed-back what I heard and answer any clarifying questions, which includes the students’ chance to ask me point blankly my opinions about anything that came up in discussion.

Then we reflect back on the conversation itself, and with community awareness we ask how we could make our discussion the next week even better.  On the second day of the week during semester two, we collectively develop topoi for essay assignments, then rationales for how the assignment we write directly connect to the Student Behavior Learning Outcomes on our syllabus, then the evaluative criteria and percentages for how I am to assess their writing.  This last step allows us reflective time to consider what our priorities are as writers and the assumptions we tend to have about linguistic performances.

During the week of the schizophrenia articles, my students began to connect the idea of diagnostic neutrality to ways we think about grading writing.  Kathleen Yancey has argued for the rhetorical importance of reflection: “Reflection is a process we use to make meaning and make knowledge, a kind of meaning and knowledge unique to reflection given its intersectionality, its insistence that only through bringing the human and the world together to theorize can reflective knowledge and meaning be made” (303-304).  Regarding connection and transfer, she has drawn on Schwartz, Chase, and Bransford to remind us that “teachers should be mindful not to overuse the typical tell and practice (T&P) format for learning” (in Yancey 26).  Teachers benefit from student reflection as well.  For example, my students’ discussion about diagnostic neutrality occurred about the time the CCC’s call for this conference was due, and so my students’ intellectual interests and discussions are themselves a shadow text underwriting my presence here today.

Besides reflection, I believe an overt presencing of code-meshing recurring throughout the year long class is necessary rather than a brief exercise or unit, since decolonizing static and transcendent notions of monolingual English must be routinely practiced by all of us. During first semester I often introduce Aja Martinez’s discussion of counter-narrative into discussion to show how so-called “academic writing” can employ creative genres reflectively, something Doug Hesse argued for in terms of “essayistic reflection” and “the modesty of authors leaving traces of themselves in their writings.”  Although Martinez, Yancey, and Hesse are not explicitly discussing code-meshing, similar thought-moves apply – even though we don’t often talk about them through the racialized assemblages that occur with code-meshing.  Such assemblages are an overt part of discussion in my Stretch courses through anti-colonial pedagogy and identification of whitely rhetoric.

Hip hop scholarship has been a rewarding way to concretize such discussions.  For example, I’ve found a Hip hop unit helpful when students are particularly interested: Students read about Kara Jane Lombard’s “From Subways to Product Labels: The Commercial Incorporation of Hip Hop Graffiti.”  We discuss graffiti as writing and its genre conventions. Then I move to Todd Fraley’s study of Hip hop, authenticity, and whiteness in relation to Eminem’s use of AAVE. We then look at regional variations and subgenres of Hip hop (Sigler and Balaji).  From there we move to more professional linguistics studies of English varieties such as Bloomquist and Hancock’s excellent comparisons of southern regionalism versus urban usages that reflect the influence of the “Dirty Third.”  From linguistic varieties within the U.S. we then turn to studies of globalization of English through Hip hop.  For example, Jamie Shinhee Lee looks at the penetration of AAVE borrowings in Korean Hip hop, and Wale Adedeji has analyzed localized forms of hybridization in Nigerian music used to maintain distinct African musical and linguistic identities within hip hop frames as a means of resisting the globalizing effects of U.S. media hegemony.  Both sonic examples and resources like allow students more concrete engagement and open up ideas of open sourcing and user-generated criticism.  In order for reflective pedagogy to work in the sophisticated ways with code-meshing in second semester of Stretched composition, I stress that it requires building relationships of trust from first semester rooted in anti-racist pedagogies.           

In taking up the motivated term, “anti-racist pedagogy,” I am instantly in the position of pairing writing pedagogy with ideas of social justice and equitability.  Too often, however, the term “social justice” invokes whitely notions of transcendence and eternity.  As I turn toward the theoretical part of my argument, I want to distinguish this point in relationship to an article that Dr. Jessica Parker sent my way.  Jerry Won Lee’s “Beyond Translingual Writing,” describes linguistic social justice as “confronting the inequitable discursive economies that afford disproportionate amounts of social capital to certain language practices over others” (176).  Lee argues for “translanguaging assessment” as a method to move beyond “assessing translingual writing.”  He gives three interrelated principles to support his efforts: 1) negotiating linguistic and institutional expertise; 2) individualizing evaluative criteria; and 3) attenuating the translingual-monolingual binary (177).

With respect to Lee, and building from his work I want to qualify my argument with a friendly critique of what I see as the “shadow text” – a term I take from literary critic Perry Nodelman – of dogmatic liberalism and neoliberalism underwriting Lee’s discursive analytics to promote linguistic social justice. I particularly see dogmatic liberalism at work in the verbs “negotiate,” “individualize,” and “attenuate” – verbs which to me indicate not only liberalism, but Protestant Christian theological modes that are part and parcel of euro-christian capitalist culture (i.e., “I recognize a savior who saves me and await a return”). While I generally agree with Lee’s argument, I suggest that approaches to translingualism and code-meshing need support from overt pedagogical critiques of liberalism and antiracist pedagogy. My hope is that, even if one disagrees with my critiques, I can open a discussion more pointed to toward the value of linguistic social justice that I believe Lee and I both share.

What’s wrong with liberalism?  For my purposes here, ‘liberalism’ and its more nebulous offspring, ‘neoliberalism,’ both name a whitely rhetoric imbricated within euro-christian (largely Protestant) culture that presents notions of transcendence to manufacture seemingly “objective” positions of inquiry, discourse, and justice.  The Rawlsian veil (which Lee refers to) is but one famous example of this manufacturing at work, where “justice as fairness” means supposing a “veil of ignorance” with respect to questions of inequity.[3]  The “original position” / “state of nature” always performs a kind of leveling to theoretically proceed from a more equitable base.  In that sense, it often acts as a fictional tabula rasa.[4]  Such a veil is an example of a liberally utopic space or “state of nature” whereby we may press an atemporal “reset button,” a replaying of the cruel optimism of liberal secularization theories that seek to disavow ‘religion’ while remaining part of an ideologically euro-christian social movement.

Much of this has not been interrogated enough in Composition Studies and its turn toward civic engagement, although Deborah Brandt has explicitly argued, “A weak civic tradition for mass writing means that courts these days find it easier to uphold the free speech rights of corporations than free speech rights of individuals who work for them” (164).  Writing as unacknowledged labor, whether in the corporate world or on Facebook is of great concern when we think of code-meshing as an actuality of daily communication instead of a marginalized way to talk about linguistic varieties in our classrooms.  Drawing on Vershawn Young and Suresh Canagarajah, Vivette Milson-Whyte has argued for the linguistic resources made available by code-meshing approaches (117), but there is something more pointed in my argument here.

With respect to anti-racist pedagogy, perceiving a “pure” form of English or even MUSE is closely tied to conceptions of utopic spaces that risk perpetuating andminimizingexisting racial inequities that arose during the early modern primitive accumulation of capital that worked through the invention of a racialized “other.”  In the same ways, “post-race” rhetoric is motivated by relegating inequities like its racial others to categories of extinction and cultures without histories, to a past that progressive society has “overcome” and a liberal utopic basileiaor kingdom.[5]As Aja Martinez has noted, Critical Race Theory has sought to place racism as a social constant rather than a solvable problem, a constant that must be confronted even if it will not be solved. Such theory challenges liberal racial progress narratives.

With respect to both race and religion, Osage historian of Native traditions, Tink Tinker, often expresses the sentiment of colonized people in phrases like: “white people often want to get rid of their own constructions of race, now that they don’t serve them anymore, just as they want to steal the spiritualities of indigenous peoples now that they’ve stolen everything else they had…too bad.”  I take from Tinker my categorization of euro-christian, presented in lower case letters to remind us of the historical power still at work in those terms.  As I often must explain to my white students (who like many white Christians appropriate rhetorics of inclusivity to bemoan their marginalization),[6]an anti-racist pedagogy is not anti-white; it is anti-white-supremacist, and so drawing attention to legacies of what George Lipsitz has called the “possessive investment in whiteness” becomes part of any classroom promoting anti-racist pedagogy.  The important rhetorical point here is that an anti-colonial and anti-racist pedagogy that names the colonizing forms of whitely rhetoric rather than simply “including” variants into neoliberal multicultural rhetoric allows us to see white supremacy at work in ways that reveal the appropriation of once progressive rhetorics employed to give marginalized citizens more democratic representation by white nationalist appeals to their marginalized traditions and their rights to be racial supremacists.

Translingual approaches, as Lee notes, attack the “ideology that contains languages from contact with each other, associating language mixing with contamination and lack of proficiency” (178).  Lee points to Vershawn Ashanti Young’s arguments for code-meshing as a strategy for addressing linguistic double-consciousness[7]among African American Vernacular (AAVE) speakers as well as Canagarajah’s work on global Englishes.  Lee notes that “it is important that translingualism locates spaces for language practices that are generally pathologized in institutional contexts such as academic writing, including those of multilingual writers.” Yet Lee also correctly points to the cruel optimism at work in code-meshing approaches that do not avow the historical inequities and the critiques made by “pragmatist position” occupied by Lisa Delpit and Richard Scott Lyons (179). One of the risks of the idealistic position, which foregrounds code-meshing in the classroom is “linguistic tourism.”  I would argue that the necessity to combine anticolonial pedagogy with concepts of code-meshing are necessary to address both issues and can be employed pedagocically by using the classroom space as research-informed and thesis-oriented.  My Stretch students know very well the ways they’ve been marginalized.  Against the pragmatist’s claims, I do not think I am offering a panacea or alter utopia.

I am particularly sensitive to Lee’s discussion of linguistic tourism, echoed in Milson-Whyte’s call for “legitimation” rather than “valorization” of language varieties[8], since I use Hip Hop actively in my Stretch courses. Especially for non-AAVE speakers, reading Jay-Z’s Decoded as an example of a literacy narrative can be a trip into othering fetishism. This depends, of course on one’s perspective of popular culture.  In one sense, the celebrity status of Jay-Z allows a class to discuss concepts of ethos not readily available to them by beginning with Aristotle.  In another sense, ethical approaches to Hip hop’s emergence from Black and Puerto-Rican communities in the South Bronx makes white scholars of Hip hop “guests in someone else’s house,” to use a metaphor of my colleague, Jessica Parker’s.

One mistake I hear in concerns about code-meshing from my composition theory students usually begins, “If I allow code-meshing in my classroom, then what about…”  For me, it is not about whether we “allow” code-meshing; it is about the fact that, as Young says, we are already code-meshing.  I don’t have the power or authority to allow or disallow linguistic phenomena.  It is a matter of being attentive to the richness of register in the languages we already use and choosing when and where to bring our community knowledge to our classroom work against monolinguistic forms that imagine a transcendentally “pure” form of language.  If MUSE speakers code-mesh less, it is a cultural and linguistic deficit rather than a privilege.  It is only privileged by white supremacist attempts to naturalize monolingualism.

Attention to code-meshing implicitly demands attention to the rhetorical situation, which takes us out of the individual performance in writing and moves toward the conceptual tools university students need to compose across mediums and in a variety of rhetorical situations, and indeed to moments of communicative failure that can be learning situations, such as when white male students in my literature courses feel entitled to call Sherman Alexie’s work “uneducated” when it does not present as linear narrative, yet call Lautréamont’s Chants of Maldoror “different” in their lack of narrative because they are attempts at “pure” language, never minding  the fact that we’re reading English translations of French.  Contrast this with Young’s persevering approach to his term, “code-meshing” : “too many teachers still on the one hand praise African American students for their creative voice and renderings of black rhetoric when they write poetry but then condemn those same students when they both un-self-consciously and strategically employ those same features when speaking to non-black people, particularly white people, or to professionals of any race, or when they produce critical, academic, or journalistic writing” (“Keep Code Meshing” 140).

Addressing code-meshing centrally instead of peripherally means different things for students with different backgrounds and bring attention to the existing social inequities associated with particular linguistic performances.  It requires MUSE speakers of English to become aware of other variations and give up any sense of linguistic superiority.  It requires all students to recognize the very real fact that people dojudge others based on linguistic performances but that we have some agency as a community, together to strategically address inequity when we can by relying on our scholarship.  It requires pointing out when whitely rhetoric presents itself as “natural” or “universal” or simply “better.”  For me, code-meshing as a strategy ought to be framed within both arguments such as Young’s, which are indeed liberal and optimistic about creating a secularized yet presumably infinite space of inclusion in the midst of fear-based retreats into nationalism and limited territorialism. But I would say we should not stop there.

As Alexander Weheliye has eloquently argued in his book, Habeas Viscus, modern European constructions of ‘Man’ seek to both deracialize and assimilate racial and gendered “others” into whitely notions of citizenship and legal notions of humanness in which to “become a fully human citizen” is to become “white.”  Indigenous people know this danger very well, as Glenn Coulthard has eloquently argued in his amplification of Fanon, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.  Weheliye describes habeas viscus as, “The conjoining of flesh and compound habeas viscus brings into view an articulated assemblage of the human (viscus/flesh) borne of political violence, while at the same time not losing sight of the different ways the law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not (habeas)” (11).

To ground this within the writing classroom and build on Lee’s call for attention to translingual assessment, we might ask how the language of habeas viscus might me made primary in composition classrooms rather than something “other” which is “included.”  In other words, how might we centralize the viscus interior body of language that code-meshing expresses as opposed to one externalized monolingual performance? Such work is not the work if ever-new neoliberal identity categories of individuation but the socialized memories of the ancestries and affective conditions that gave us these bodies.  Although this perhaps implies a more critical view of liberalism than Young’s argument in Other People’s English[9], as well as the liberal qualities I see in Lee, it does not reject them outright.

The materiality of the habeas viscus metaphor might help us see the “trans” qualities of translingual not in the terms of a globalizing condensation of languages so much as the embodiment of ethical correctives to flawed systems that can only answer their limitations by appealing to infinite transcendence, whether as the transcendent Langue for the immanent paroleor English and englishes.  It is, in Hortense Spillers’ notion of “ungendering” (not a “degendering”) as Weheliye summarizes, a refusal to accept the genders and monolinguist categories that expect to deracinate humans by making them into post-racist subjects.

I have suggested that the space of the Stretch classroom is an opportunity to build communities in which these issues are explored by both teachers and students.  It is that community element, core to Hip Hop pedagogy whether or not students discuss Hip Hop in the classroom.  Grounded in the historical ownership of past oppression rather than a whitely rhetoric of exclusive exceptionalism, such an approach would help alleviate the cruel optimism of seeing certain linguistic performances as gateways to individualistic professional achievement that so many worry about with respect to code-meshing. Beyond the politics of integration alone, it would signal attention to a reframing of the “runaway slave,” as Ruby Sales recently notedat with respect to maroons, as political activist who started a social movement rather than a “fugitive.”[10]


A Sample Stretch Course Layout

Semester 1: Rhetorical Analysis

Community Building

  • Overt discussions about race early on
  • Invitation to engage with current debates in composition studies (i.e., Young)
  • Discussions of code-meshing along with NCTE’s Students Rights statement (while Jay-Z is an example, it is important to stress that we all code-mesh regularly)
  • Song and ethos exercise (each student brings in a 500 word statement with a song that tells something about their identity.This is a balance for those who don’t listen to hip hop. In one case a conservative Islamic woman wrote a response about why she did not listen to music and did not bring a song, but explained how her religion was part of her ethos…another Islamic student in the same class brought in Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”)
  • Colonial history and anti-colonial theory (i.e. Frantz Fanon)
  • Critical Discourse Analysis followed by Reflection on how our conversations could be better, more engaged, etc.
  • Sharing low-stakes writing regularly
  • Always follow Critical Discourse Analysis for students to engage me as a peer
  • Inclusive rhetoric versus exclusive (“whitely”) rhetoric (i.e., “my family never owned slaves” – an inclusive answer might be: “people have done horrible things to each other in the past, knowing that history is our history, how do we confront and remember those problems so they don’t happen again?”)
  • Transgenerational approaches to rhetorical framing & history
  • Ask students to write you a statement about what kind of feedback they find helpful on their work

Major assignments

  1. Literacy Narrative (Jay-Z’s Decoded chapter 1 is an example text)
  2. Rhetorical Analysis of a Visual Text (Sheldon Wolfchild’s Doctrine of Discovery helps teach anti-colonialist framing)
  3. Rhetorical Analysis of a Written Text (I have increasingly been using the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples along with other course readings)
  4. End of the semester reflection and projection


 Semester 2: Argumentation

  • Build reading assignments based on students’ discussions and suggestions in their reflections (for me, many of these are scholarly articles so that we may gain genre knowledge for the kinds of research writing students will do in ENG 1020)
  • Practice rhetorical reading strategies from semester one (i.e., identifying a thesis, identifying rhetorical situation)
  • Introduce argument model (i.e., Toulmin, also fallacy discussions)
  • Day 1 of week student groups lead discussions of articles, everyone writes reading responses which practice summary and reflection
  • Day 2 of week students develop their own writing assignments and justify their topics and genres with respect to our student behavior learning outcomes. Students write three 4-5 page papers and are encouraged to differentiate writing goals and genres
  • Students make rubrics to articulate how they should be graded, including a percentage break down
  • Have overt discussions about why we value what we value in our rubrics when it comes to writing (attempt to demystify knee-jerk claims about “grammar”)
  • After spring break begin discussing and showing multimodal compositions (i.e., video essays and podcasts)
  • Assign digital essay with loose parameters of “digital” (it can be as simple as a PowerPoint or as complex as a video or song)
  • Have the students adapt the argument from one of their three previous essays into the digital format along with an argument outline
  • Build a mock conference for presentations of digital essays, each 7-10 minutes long (a loose translation of 4-5 page essays), let students create taxonomies to determine presentation schedule
  • Presentations begin two weeks before the end of the semester, allowing for spill-over into the day of the final if necessary


Works Cited

Adedeji, Wale. “Negotiating Globalization through Hybridization: Hip Hop, Language Use and the Creation of Cross-Over Culture in Nigerian Popular Music.” Language in India, vol. 14, no. 6, 2014.

Bloomquist, Jennifer, and Isaac Hancock. “The Dirty Third: Contributions of Southern Hip Hop to the Study of African American English.” The Southern Journal of Linguistics, vol. 36, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-27.

Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy.  Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Hesse, Doug. “Reflection and the Essay.” A Rhetoric of Reflection. Utah State University, 2016, pp. 288-302.

Fraley, Todd. “I Got a Natural Skill…:Hip-Hop, Authenticity, and Whiteness.” The Howard Journal of Communications,vol. 20, 2009, pp. 37-54.

Lombard, Kara-Jane. “From Subways to Product Labels: The Commercial Incorporation of Hip Hop Graffiti.” Visual Communication Quarterly, vol. 20, 2013, pp. 91-103.

Luhrmann, T.M., and Jocelyn Marrow. Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia across Cultures. University of California Press, 2016.

Martinez, Aja. “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story vs. Counter-story Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 65-85.

Parker, Jessica. “Writing and Unwriting Race: Using Hip-Hop in Writing and Literature Classrooms.”  Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. Ed. Vershawn Ashanti Young and Frankie Condon.  University Press of Colorado in 2017.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Belknap, 2005.

Sigler, Thomas, and Murali Balaji. “Regional Identity in Contemporary Hip-Hop Music: (Re) Presenting the Notion of Place.” Communication, Culture, and Critique, vol. 6, 2013, pp. 336-352.

Tinker, George E. “Tink.”  American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. Orbis, 2008.

Weheliye, Alexander.  Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. A Rhetoric of Reflection. Utah State University, 2016.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Teacher’s College Press, 2014.

[1]It’s also interesting to play the game again early second semester when students know each other to compare discussions.


[2]I struggle daily with my role as a “functional liberal,” initiating young people into discursive situations that exploit them through debt and promises of social mobility.  I am speaking of economic liberalism here, not left-right party distinctions. Despite support from my director of composition and department chair, I do not feel institutional cohesion around my pedagogical approaches and so always feel a bit “rogue.”  I am generally pretty skeptical about claims to “transformative pedagogy” unless by that we mean changing the ways we teach rather than “liberating” our students.

[3]In A Theory of Justice,Rawls describes his “original state” as like the state of nature and even claims that, “[c]ontract theory agrees, then, with utilitarianism in holding that the fundamental principles of justice quite properly depend upon the natural facts about men in society.  This dependence is made explicit by the description of the original position” (159).


[4]See also, George “Tink” Tinker, “John Locke on Property,” Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins, Louisville, WJK P, 2011, 49-60.

[5]“The synoptic gospels’ metaphoric paradigm for the good, the goal of all life, the basileia tou theou (the so-translated kingdom of God) is consistently interpreted in individualistic terms. The basileia, we are told, has to do with the individual’s relationship with God or with the individual’s call to decision.  Any communitarian notion of it being many people together, or all peoples, or all of creation, is little mentioned” (Tinker 77).

[6]This rhetoric is more strongly employed in the traction of ideas such as The Benedict Option, which makes a cameo appearance in Patrick Deneen’s recent book Why Liberalism Failed. In this line of argument, religious conservatives see themselves increasingly in line with religious conservatives from other faiths. So, for example, Christian conservatives seek “multicultural” or “interfaith” alliances with conservative Islamists and Jews because they share a common fear that a culture of “secularization” has made us devoid of moral values. My critique of liberalism comes from a wholly different direction in which I see secularization as an extension of a euro-christian social movement; indeed, I see the very concept of ‘Religion’ as Christian invention.  For scholarship on this view see: David Chidester’s Empire of Religionand Savage Systems; Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions; Jeremy Schott’s Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity; and Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion.


[7]See also Vivette Milson-Whyte’s discussion of Kachru and Nelson’s “attitudinal schizophrenia” with respect to Jamaican Creole (in Milson-Whyte 119).

[8]See also Paul Kei Matsuda’s critique of “feel-good liberalism” in “It’s the Wild West Out There” (132).

[9]Compare to Vivette Milson-Whyte’s concerns with sameness and difference in Young (123).

[10]From Wikipedia:The American Spanish word cimarrón is often given as the source of the English word maroon used to describe the runaway slave communities of Florida and of the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, on colonial islands of the Caribbean, and other parts of the New World. Lyle Campbell says the Spanish word cimarrón means “wild, unruly” or “runaway slave”.[1] The linguist Leo Spitzer, writing in the journal Language, says, “If there is a connection between Eng. maroon, Fr. marron, and Sp. cimarron, Spain (or Spanish America) probably gave the word directly to England (or English America).”[2] The Cuban philologist José Juan Arrom has traced the origins of the word maroon further than the Spanish cimarrón, used first in Hisapaniola to refer to feral cattle, then to enslaved Indians who escaped to the hills, and by the early 1530s to enslaved Africans who did the same. He proposes that the American Spanish word derives ultimately from the Arawakan root word simarabo, construed as “fugitive”, in the Arawakan language spoken by the Taíno people native to the island.[3][4][5][6][7]


On Charles deBrosses, Fetishism, and Religion

November 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Please check out my latest post on the Political Theology Today blog.


Relation vs. Possession: Responding to the Divine and Liberal Conceptions of Ayahuasca Religions

October 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Again, and in some ways “part two” of my last post, this is a conference script for October 7, 2017. I’m posting it for attendees to better follow my sources, so it’s a temporary post. 

In yesterday’s talk, I argued that ‘Ayahuasca’ has in many ways reoccupied and carried on the notion of the fetish, especially as people argue for the recognized religious status of ayahuasca religions.  I argued, following William Pietz, that the fetish ought to be anchored within the European imagination, and that it shifted under the Protestant Reformation as slave traders rationalized the Black body as an economic commodity to be traded freely outside of any recognition of humanity.  This was a calculated rationalization and no mere “mistake” on the Europeans’ part.  As we know from papal bulls such as the 1493 Inter cetera which perpetuated the Doctrine of Discovery, the rationalization carried over into the right to claim any land not already occupied by a “Christian prince.” A drama ensued about the “Book of Nature” and “God as Author” of that book, in which Europeans and later Euro-Christian Americans claimed the ability to decide which humans existed merely in a “state of nature” and thus only had the same right of occupancy to land to other animals that might be found there.  It was in this context that the colonial missionary situation helped to spread the knowledge and use of ayahuasca out of its localized and presumably ancient use in the lower Amazon throughout all of Amazonia.  Today, the global spread of ayahuasca religions and new age ayahuasca “healing” and medical practices allows us to unpack the ways Euro-Christian Protestantism, especially in the U.S. and U.N., possesses and haunts the concept of religion as it is employed in law.  Even in its tainted form, the U.S. has now signed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which affirms “that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

In this paper, I want to discuss some ethical problems with respect to entheogens and liberalism in New Religious Movements (NRMs).  I argue for the recognition of cultural texture as set and setting of efforts to depart and return from liminal spaces and the persistence of cognitive architecture or apparatuses at work in efforts to “reach beyond” or to resist “what is.”  For those familiar with psychedelic theories, I am countering what I see as the naïve claim that psychedelic experiences necessarily push one beyond “culture.”  If I am right, then the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism put indigenous cultures at risk, especially when globalizing enthusiasm riffs on a liberal past where psychedelics were associated with counterculture.  This paper focuses specifically on theories of recognizing NRMs against what I argue is the neoliberal “economic” view of thinkers like William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark.  I argue that we must theorize beyond neoliberalism to account for psychedelic NRMs.  To accomplish this, I draw on discourse of Cognitive Liberty and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Perspectivism as it applies to Amerindian thought.

It is ethically important, whether considering institutions claiming to be ayahuasca “religions” or appealing to the legal protection of religious freedoms in order to use ayahuasca, to recognize and track how this sensibility continues to impose genocide on indigenous peoples, even while claiming to “respect them,” “tolerate them,” or, more abstractly minimizing in its construction, to “respect the wisdom of the plant medicine.”  The final clause of my last sentence is likely to either create cognitive dissonance or stir trouble outright with New Age communities.  Let me qualify this argument by contextualizing it within the recent legal gains of ayahuasca religions.  On June 5, 2017 Health Canada granted the Santo Daime church exemption status to import and distribute ayahuasca to their congregations. In their announcement, they include the following disclaimer:

While through our efforts we have made it possible, in principle, to obtain an exemption, this exemption does not mean that the use of Ayahuasca or Daime is legal as such in Canada. Each legitimate organization must apply to Health Canada for their own exemption, and for all information regarding the exemption process. Any importation or activities conducted with Ayahuasca/Daime without a Section 56 exemption from Health Canada will be considered illegal by the Canadian government.[1]

Here we see the recognition of religion qualified under biopolitical governing factors.  The situation is similar with União do Vegetal in the United States, who won a Supreme Court Case in 2006 allowing them to use the ayahuasca sacrament, but they must fix their recipes to provide standard dosages.  Exempt status for many Santo Daime communities followed soon after there as well.  While it is important to recognize these legal successes are indeed progress for these groups in terms of liberal rights, and I applaud them for that, they are not necessarily successes for indigenous groups or for the rich variety of uses of ayahuasca in the Amazon and abroad that do not qualify as “legitimate organizations.”

With an ear toward this diversity, my concerns are with the liberal underwriting that grants a state the right to recognize a ‘religion’ as such.  Moreover, when it comes to regulation or deregulation, those concerned with ayahuasca must also attend to the massive amount of rhetoric appealing to the therapeutic and medical benefits of ayahuasca use, which again look to the state for an authoritative opinion.  I call the therapeutic or medical rhetoric a biopolitical rationale in the sense that it appeals to governmental control of a population in terms of its overall “health.”  In this sense, it is okay to use ayahuasca or similar substances so long as it “heals” us in some way. This language saturates the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism, and indeed can affect and frame the set and setting of one’s ayahuasca experience.  For those seeking ayahuasca experiences, one must ask, “what exactly am I being healed from in my ayahuasca experience?”  If the answer has to do with overcoming one’s alienation, working on the “split self,” etc. there is nothing particularly liberating or progressive about this.  It is rather a reinforcing of global capitalist neocolonization itself, not a transcendent and unifying recognition of brotherhood but an emptying out of the space of sovereignty that appears at first to be transcendent and universal.  In psychedelic aesthetics more broadly, I have termed this the problem of the perennial, a tendency liberals have to seek archaic revivals, manifesting primitivism to support individualistic exploratory experiences.

The globalization of ayahuasca experiences might seem at first to be a progressively cosmopolitan move beyond the confines of the weakened nation-state.  I think this is very much part of the current vogue for it.  Olivier Roy has characterized this with respect to radical Islam and evangelical Protestantism as a declaration of “holy ignorance,” in which deterritorialized religiosities divorce themselves from culture in order to affirm something more religiously pure or essential.

Liberal attempts to use existing legal apparatuses so as to deregulate controls over psychedelic or entheogenic substances appear at first to be very useful in progressively challenging oppressive forms of governance masked in the so called “War on Drugs” and mass incarcerations that have followed from it.  Indeed, psychedelic use can appear as an ethical and even civic duty to break the law so that one might transcend the authority of the nation-state.  In the tradition of the counterculture this has certainly been seen as a mode of resistance.  But of course, we have witnessed in recent years a rhetoric of healthy-living accompanying the deregulation of controlled substances like marijuana, or what some psychedelic religious enthusiasts call, “the lesser sacrament.”  Organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are seeing success in attempts to deregulate MDMA for therapeutic models.  All of this amounts to a biopolitical domestication of these substances, not a resistance to such regimes.

In contrast to obsequiousness to the state’s authority to “recognize” and regulate official religious status or determine public health policy, legal scholar Charlotte Walsh has argued instead for a cognitive liberationist approach to drug policy.  In doing so, she has returned to a more classical sense of liberalism where “the state should only deploy the criminal law where an individual’s actions demonstrably run a high risk of causing harm to others.”[2]  Reviewing ten years of the European Convention on Human Rights  (ECHR) and the U.K.’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, she argues that “that privileging the ‘sacred’ over the ‘profane’ is philosophically an untenable distinction: accordingly, the possibility exists for crafting a range of constitutional exemptions.”[3] She further argues:

Whilst judicial recognition of the impingement of the prohibition of (certain) drugs upon cognitive liberty – and, indeed, upon liberty itself – may be a distant reverie, successfully drawing upon the ECHR to win incremental gains in the spheres of drug-taking as a form of self-medication or as a religious sacrament seems more conceivable.[4]

As other scholars have done with respect to drug policies, Walsh invokes international Human Rights acts as a plea for a reassessment of legal interpretation based on ‘soft’ law.  Still, from my perspective (and from later talks by Walsh[5]), it appears that, while a cognitive liberationist approach to ayahuasca may be more ethical than the legal channels of what I call the “dogmatic” liberalism of appealing to existing legal apparatuses, especially where indigenous rights are concerned, this alone does not go far enough to protect indigenous peoples.

While I do not have the space to trace the genealogy of human rights concepts to liberalism here, I want to situate cognitive liberty within a broader history of classic liberalism.  Walsh draws on psychedelic enthusiast, Andrew Weil, to define ‘cognitive liberty’ as “the right to choose one’s own cognitive processes, to select how one will think, to recognise that the right to control thinking processes is the right of each individual person.”[6]  In a more recent article, Walsh traces the unsuccessful defense of Peter Aziz in England, who sought exemption for ayahuasca use both on the grounds that English Law was ambiguous with regard to it as a controlled substance and that it fell under his religious freedom according to ECHR, Articles 7 and 9.  As she notes, “The primary question that arises is whether or not shamanism – especially a transplanted Westernized version of such, a New Age variation – would be deemed to constitute a religion in English courts.”[7]  Importantly, she cites a Rastafarian case – Taylor (2001) – where religious use was trumped by the “public health threat” of the potential to distribute cannabis. She contrasts this with cases in the U.S. and Holland where religious status trumped health concerns. Eventually, Santo Daime had an ambiguous win in England when charges against leaders were suddenly dropped.  Suffice it to say that when it comes to legislation, one cannot easily separate either the regulative impulses of both religiosity or therapeutic use of entheogens.

Following John Stuart Mill, Walsh notes the ironic imbrication of “legal moralism” in “religious puritanism,”[8] and she adds that, though unlikely to be taken seriously in legal arguments, ayahuasca use ought to be defended by appeals to cognitive liberty.[9]  In fact, she adds that, with respect to English Law and the interpretations Misuse of Drugs Act, “the prospect of exceptions being extended to those wishing to imbibe ayahuasca in the name of cognitive liberty, or simply because they want to, seems little more than a pipe dream.”[10]  Thus, any such appeals to cognitive liberty  for entheogen use must continue to appeal to broader human rights apparatuses such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While I find Walsh’s arguments helpful, we must also go beyond the liberal roots of cognitive liberation by attending to Amerindian philosophical thought, treating it as seriously as we place Hegel in philosophical history.  Perspectivism flips the script with respect to liberally accepted notions of multiculturalism.  According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[11]  The accepted language of multiculturalism, on the other hand, assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[12]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive from the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[13]

We must push the idea of cognitive liberty beyond the limited and ethnocentric notions Mill ascribed to it, if we are to take it seriously on defenses of entheogen or psychedelic uses.

Recognition of cultural texture for the widely accepted notions of multiculturalism remain laudable but insufficient for the dynamic nature of twenty-first century globalization.  While the traditional liberal notion of tolerance also remains important, we must question the inherent notions of cultural superiority imbricated within liberal politics and legal frames. Referring to cognitive liberty alone is not enough, because at heart such a defense protects individuals instead of collectivities.  Counterintuitively, liberal notions of education need to move beyond merely seeking something “outside” of experience that is sought only with the intention of assimilating it into experience.  This means, in a way, a resistance to “newness” that must simultaneously be a resistance to traditionalist and nostalgic conceptions of culture.  Indigenous people have no direct link to an archaic and “forgotten” past.  They continue to exist in the face of hundreds of years of colonialist attempts to wipe them out.  If Western seekers only look to their ayahuasca experiences to form “new tribes” or to heal the alienation of liberal subjectivity through Freudian-influenced psycholitic therapy, they are not resisting but rather perpetuating Christian colonialism in its older and broadest sense.

[1] Jessica Rochester, “Important Announcement,”, June 6, 2017.

[2] Charlotte Walsh, “Psychedelics and cognitive liberty: Reimagining drug policy through the prism of human rights,” International Journal of Drug Policy 29 (2016) 80.

[3] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 439.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joe Friendly, “Horizons 2015 Psychedelic Drug Policy Activism, Cognitive Liberty,”, 11 October 2015,

[6] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 433.

[7] Charlotte Walsh, “Ayahuasca in the English Courts: Legal Entanglements with the Jungle Vine,” The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies (Vitality of Indigenous Religions), Ed. Beatriz Caiuby Labate; Clancy Cavnar; Alex K. Gearin (2016-09-01).  (Kindle Locations 6266-6267). Taylor and Francis,2016, Kindle Locations 6266-6267.

[8] Ibid., 6373.

[9] Ibid., 6476.

[10] Ibid., 6505-6507.

[11] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, 59.

[12] Ibid., 59.

[13] Ibid., 58-59.

Fetishism and the Erasure of Indigeneity

October 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is a draft for a paper I’m delivering at the University of Denver on October 6, 2017 at the conference entitled Speaking (or not) Speaking of God. I’ve posted it for the attendees to follow along with dense quotations and to see my sources. I hope to have a published, final draft available in the near future, and this post will disappear.


Although having a Latin etymology in the verb, facere (to make), the English word, ‘fetish’ is directly derived from a colonial trading relationship with South America and the Caribbean, coming from the Portuguese word, feitiço. Drawing on the recent analyses of Charles de Brosses 1760 book, Du culte des dieux fétiches – the book that informed Marx’s conception of the fetish – this talk will attempt to distinguish a broadly “African” “spiritual” impulse spreading through the Caribbean as Voodoo but in Brazil as Candomblé and America as “hoodoo” from Amerindian traditions, particularly as described by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro with the term, “Perspectivism.”  I particularly want to note the African dimension in the Haitian revolution as contributing to the success of revolts in England and North America, and its continuity within African American forms of Christianity, but I also want to argue for more attention to Amerindian sensibilities distinguished from that.  I will echo Viveiros de Castro’s argument that Amerindian Perspectivism must be treated as seriously as Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, exploring how perspectivism reverses the multiple epistemological approach of multiculturalism and rather calling for a mono-epistemic and multiple-ontologies approach to embodiment, which blurs the creaturely status present in Western conceptions of humanity.


In his book Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes ‘abstract liberalism’ as one of the frameworks rationalizing perpetual inequality from white, colorblind perspectives.  Christian theologian, Willie James Jennings, has argued[1] that the development of the modern concept of religion is itself intimately tied to the development of modern conceptions of race during the early modern economic explosion fueled by European enslavement of Africans.  As George “Tink” Tinker says, “Colonialism is Christianity. Christianity is colonialism. They go hand in hand so that the violence of colonialism is the violence of Christianity.”  By parsing out the European and African historical drama that produces the term “fetishism,” this essay hopes to create a critical space for understanding Indigenous perspectives that do not fit into discourse about ‘Religion,’ with the implicit assumption that when Indigenous peoples are required to defend traditional practices in Western legal frames that use the category ‘Religion’ or “religious exemptions” as concepts, those requirements enact ongoing colonial injustice and erasure.  My large assertion is that when people from Euro-Christian backgrounds praise the Indigenous qualities of hybrid “religions,” especially ayahuasca “religions,” they often mask the ideological domination of Indigenous people by both European religiosity and European-idealized African religiosity.  I will, in the end, argue that ‘ayahuasca’ has come to occupy much of what used to be termed the “fetish.” The focus at the outset must necessarily deal with European and African concepts.

Charles de Brosses’s Du culte dieux fétiches (On the Worship of Fetish Gods), originally published in 1760, was translated into English for the first time this past summer of 2017.  While William Pietz has exhaustively traced the etymology of the term ‘fetish’ within Latin Christian Theology and Law, as well as Portuguese language, de Brosses’s book coined the term, ‘fetishism,’ and was the touchstone for most major European thinkers, including Hegel, Marx and Freud.  A lesser member of the Enlightenment, de Brosses exemplifies an early comparative approach to religion, employing cultural critiques of different peoples of the world living during his own time period and then comparing them with ancient civilizations.  Although echoing both Hume’s and Rousseau’s reliance on historicized “Natural” religion, “de Brosses emphasizes the distance that separates fetishes from later, anthropocentric gods.”[2]  Rather than psychologizing fetishism, de Brosses sees the phenomenon as “a forceful reduction of all power to the material realm, creating the fetish as a tangible object that can be addressed and manipulated through a variety of actions”; or “direct worship, rendered without figuration.”[3]  Basing his analysis on linguistic observations, he sees fetishes like interjections: “just as interjections are ‘something more’ than words, fetishes are not mere signs or symbols, but rather objects of attachment.”[4]  In this way he associates fetishism with the first words of infants.  Figuration is a kind of curse.  While de Brosses historicizes religion moving from fetish to polytheism to monotheism, “The desire to obscure, idealize, or erase the origins of religious belief in primitive fetishism leads to a proliferation of new allegories that eventually enshrine reason itself as the agent of history.”[5]  Figuration “serves to enhance cultural prestige, defend the interests of the priestly classes, and legitimate colonial and imperial expansion.”

Discourse on fetishism is vast.  While it was disavowed as a useful concept in early twentieth century anthropology, it came to inform other disciplinary approaches and was even re-appropriated by postcolonial and poststructural discourses.  To exemplify, let me point to a rather dense quotation from anthropologist, Michael Taussig, on the concept of the fetish:

Like the Nation-State, the fetish has a deep investment in death – the death of the consciousness of the signifying function.  Death endows both the fetish and the Nation-State with life, a spectral life, to be sure. The fetish absorbs into itself that which it represents, erasing all traces of the represented. A clean job. In Karl Marx’s formulation of the fetishism of commodities, it is clear that the powerful phantasmagoric character of the commodity as fetish depends on the fact that socioeconomic relations of production and distribution are erased from awareness, imploded into the made object to become its phantom life-force.[6]

Taussig’s words, bound in the drama of the nation-state, mark the fact that the magic of colonial power is framed within European conceptions of power and magic that have little to do with Indigenous “American” perspectives.  In this, he is reaching back toward conceptions of magic, witchery and maleficium in Latin Christian law.

William Pietz, the great scholar of the intellectual history of the fetish, notes:

Derridean post-Marxists would locate the fetish in semantic indeterminacy and the ambivalent oscillation (hence no dialectical resolution) between contrary determinations, a ‘space’ where codes and their logics break down in a materiality that is conceived in terms of pure difference, contingency, and chance.[7]

Glossing a complex discourse here, one might claim that the postructural tendency was to note how the idea itself can become the fetish object in a very real inversion of common metaphysical descriptions of reality.  In a postmodern way, this hypereality would become reality itself in the same way that the notion of transcendent reason had been psychologized by the Protestant underwriting of Kantianism to produce a kind of rational transcendence that would be a zero-degree for Euro-centric claims to the neutrality of “civilized” space.  As Pietz notes, for de Brosses, “the fetish the was essentially a material, terrestrial entity; [and] fetishism was thus to be distinguished from cults of celestial bodies (whose truth might be a sort of proto-Deist intimation of the rational order of nature rather than a direct worship of natural bodies themselves).”[8]

In Hegel’s conception, the fetish resists entrance into History and Aufhebung, a resistance to sublation picked up by Marxism, modern art, and psychoanalysis – but also appearing, according to Pietz, in Deleuze’s schizo-analysis:

The fetish is, then, first of all, something intensely personal, whose truth is experienced as a substantial movement from “inside” the self (the self as totalized through an impassioned body, a “body without organs”) into the self-limited morphology of a material object situated in space “outside.”[9]

Pietz notes that for Deleuze, “The fetish is the natural object of social consciousness as common sense or recognition values,” in other words as repetition in Difference and Repetition.[10] I want to go further and connect this to the abstract liberalism, which Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as a feature of whiteness and colorblind ideology.

Although I must constantly emphasize that the fetish is the product of European imagination, the taking-up of the concept by postcolonial thinking potentially informs important ways to think about race and religion.  Let me take the Haitian revolution as an example.

The flight of the runaway slave, as Ruby Sales noted earlier this year, is a revolutionary movement. Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below points out that the 1791 insurrection was not spontaneous, but rather carefully planned by slaves.[11]  Fick notes that most sources point to a particular voodoo ceremony performed a week before the event, which has since transformed into legend.  The secret ceremony, which involved sacrificing a pig and passing its blood around, was apparently performed during a storm by an unnamed “high priestess” and Boukman Dutty, an early leader in the revolt.  In one account, Boukman is reported to have proclaimed, “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.”[12]  While the story has historically taken on the amplifications of lore, and scholars debate its accuracy, Fick notes:

The “Eh! eh! Mbumba” voodoo invocation dated back to at least the mid-eighteenth century in colonial Saint Domingue, when, as part of the initiation ceremony for a neophyte, it was a call for protection against the dreaded forces of those who had enslaved them and, as such, a form of cultural and spiritual protest against the horrors of the New World environment. On the eve of the slave insurrection, however, in the midst of what would be a difficult and dangerous liberation struggle to actually rid themselves of their enslavers, the incantation must have taken on a more specific, a more political, if still fetishistic, meaning; for the individual rebel would need now, more than ever before, a great deal of protection and, perhaps even more, luck in the annihilative measures that lay ahead.[13]

Fick’s use of the phrase ‘still fethistic’ stands out to me, like Hegel’s conception of the fetish existing in the moment just preceding History.  When we compare Fick’s work with Rachel Harding’s work on alternative spaces of Blackness in Brazil, or perhaps more recently, in Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús’s Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, it is easy to see the persistence of spiritual revolt and the use of “dark forces” against oppression.  For example, Beliso-De Jesús argues that in Cuba, “Afro-Monteceros […] are produced through a complex historical interaction between self and cityscape.”  Much like gradients between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santería in the U.S., which move toward more intense uses of “dark magic,” Mantanzas Santería “darkens” with its geontological relationship to slave resistance and revolt.[14]  Additionally, she continues, “[o]ne might say that ‘trance’ of copresences renders Santería’s transnationalism as possessed by multiple interconnected assemblages of power.”[15]

Beliso-De Jesús’s term, ‘copresencing,’ offers another way of conceiving fetishism in the trajectory of Deleuze to which Pietz points.  Beliso-De Jesús argues for attention to copresences, not only in the sense that an anthropologist ought to leave room for the phenomenological experiences of devotees who perform rituals to question the dominance of rationality and objectivity, “but also to emphasize how these spheres are interrelated.”[16]  She goes on:

Among the spirits of the dead slaves, Santería priests, and ethnographers, what has been written also haunts us.  Reading Santería copresence through ethnographic diffraction, then, might allow us to see that anthropology is also constructed through muertos.  Indeed, even the spirits of anthropology might be conceived of as possessing us similar to the electrifying oricha who mount the bodies of practitioners.[17]

This thesis, grounded in the discipline of anthropology, also speaks to both the larger field of Religious Studies and western academic methodology in general, echoing in resonance with Luis Leon’s work on religious poetics, anthropologists such as Michael Taussig and Elizabeth Povinelli, and affect theorists such as Lauren Berlant.  What it adds is the deathspace of the past, of which academic work plays a part.  Beliso-De Jesús’s method in support of this thesis relies on anthropology “of the body and phenomenological theories of race and sexuality [which] are helpful in decentering particular forms of Cartesian consciousness by shifting elemental awareness and attending to bodies as primary locus of experience.”[18]  When combined with the historical persistence of the fetish in Fick and Harding, we can resist any facile claims that the attention Beliso-De-Jesús gives to phenomenological method is merely subjective.

As Carolyn Fick’s work hints and Beliso-De Jesús’s expands, intertextual experiences come to not only shape subjectivities, but also to persist over time.  Rachel Harding notes something similar in A Refuge in Thunder when she connects the orixá Exú and the “Devil of the mines.”  In 19th century Brazil, she writes: “For Exú, the streets and crossroads of Bahia become the sacred spaces in which slaves and others act out their apperception of the insecurity of their social position and make gestures toward the resolution of circumstances in their own circumstances.”[19] Indeed, the street and especially a crossroads became the ideal place for offerings to Exú.  If the fetish is the “still present” enchantment that Fick notes with respect to the ceremony that initiated the first Haitian revolt, then it is arguably the Black spaces and the crossroads work with Exú that Harding describes as spaces of resistance that evokes the revolutionary power of the fetish, over and against white, abstract liberalism.

In this reading, concerning revolutions, the fetish would be a persistent core, not a lingering or “leftover” form of superstitious enchantment; nor would it be simply a “spell,” feitiço.  The process and the fetish itself cannot be divorced from one another; it is the very making of poiesis as in León’s concept of religious poetics. Speaking, like Beliso-De-Jesús, in terms of anthropology, Michael Taussig closes his book, The Magic of the State with a meditation on pilgrimage, predicting:

For the task of cultural anthropology, no less than of certain branches of historiography, has been, and will increasingly continue to be, the storing in modernity of what are taken to be pre-modern practices such as spirit possession and magic, thereby contributing, for good or bad, to the reservoir of authoritative, estranging, literalities on which so much of our contemporary language is based in its conjuring of the back-then and the over-there for contemporary purpose if not profane illumination.[20]

With respect to the diaspora of African spiritualities during the colonial era, Rachel Harding’s study of nineteenth-century Brazil, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, has amplified the revolutionary power of the fetish by building on Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism and the work of William Pietz.  She writes: “For Pietz, ‘fetish’ originated from, and as a term remains specific to, the problem of the constructed social value of material objects ‘as revealed in the situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems.’”[21] Harding then applies this to the bolsa de mandinga, which, “like the original concept of the fetish is a ‘crossroads’ object with a meaning that encases and expresses the tensions and values of its interstitial location.”[22] Although Harding is writing about Brazil, African-inspired religious textures in north America, such as hoodoo, conjure, or rootworking, often focus on the material presencing in mandingas as well:

At the level of materiality, the meaning of the mandinga is contained in the object itself. It is not a representation of a transcendent reality; rather, its value, function, and meaning are present in its construction from elements which speak to the perils of slave life and attempt to provide magico-religious efficacy in negotiating freedom, or at least a form of refuge or defense.[23]

 The mandinga, like crossroads work, presents a renegotiation and an inversion, the out-fetishizing work of the maleficium.  Taussig says of “Maleficium; the bad-making”:

The maleficio, in other words, brings out the sacred sheen of the secular, the magical underbelly of nature, and this is especially germane to an inquiry into State fetishism in that […] the pure and the impure sacred are violently at odds and passionately interlocked at one and the same time.  It is to this ability to draw out the sacred quality of State power, and to out-fetishize its fetish quality, that the maleficium – as I use it – speaks.[24]

The malady, the evil-eye of the inversion impulse, the perversion of the revolt in its overturning impulse is importantly an upturning of soil.  What is at work is not so much a cleansing as a tilling of the soil that allows it to breathe.

The fetish concept as it arises from the Euro-Afro encounter is different, however, than that mixing of blood and breath, as Barbara Mann describes it with respect to Native American cosmology in her recent book, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath.[25]  In Mann’s description of Turtle Island cosmology, sustaining balance between blood and breath is central, rather than a fetish of state power or ‘Religion’ as itself a fetish-concept.  To the extent that current ecological millennialism attaches itself to Indigenous movements, such as those against the Dakota Access Pipeline last year, an Indigenous perspective might claim that “Western” activists need to divest in Euro-Christian trappings that inform “revolutionary” sensibilities.  It is fundamentally not about the fetish, but the fascination with the fetish continues to tint the perspective of those who gaze upon Indigeneity, especially in terms of spirituality and ‘religion.’

There must, in other words, be another way of approaching being in the world than Hegel’s Aufhebung, either in its sense of uplifting – what Heidegger might later on call “enframing” [Gestell] – or in its sense of sublation or negation.  This other way is best addressed (for the moment) in terms of what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls Amerindian Perspectivism.  According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[26]  In contrast to the accepted language of multiculturalism, Perspectivism assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[27]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[28]

Rather than occupying a “zero degree,” a liminal space between subject and object, conscious and unconscious, immanent and transcendent, etc., perspectivism advances an interspecies recognition of personhood.[29]  This does not mean that Amerindians are somehow incapable of noticing differences in species.  This is emphasized by Viveiros de Castro’s description of the work of the so-called “shaman”:[30]

Amerindian shamanism could be defined as the authorization of certain individuals to cross the corporeal barriers between species, adopt exospecific subjective perspective, and administer the relations between those species and humans.  By seeing nonhumans as they see themselves (again as humans) shamans become capable of playing the role of active interlocutors in the trans-specific dialogue and, even more importantly, of returning from their travels to recount them; something the “laity” can only do with difficulty.[31]

While I remain suspicious of the Eliade-esque language of journey and return here, the example elucidates my point concerning the constant epistemology and varying ontologies.  As Michael Taussig’s work has long argued, the idea of the shaman as “wild man” owes more to the attitudes of Romans well before contact with Amerindians than to anything culturally specific to them.  We must, however, add the concept of the fetish to that very same history, as Pietz does, while duly noting Pietz’s work on the entanglement between African and European that produces the fetish in its modern form.

One important place to note the premodern history of the term is in the development of the Christian concept of the soul.  Pietz points to this through Tertullian, Augustine and the development of the Theodosian code.  Augustine’s discussion of eunuchism distinguishes between facticium – “he who was made a eunuch by men” – and voluntarium – “he who had made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” out of free will.[32]  In contrast to Manichaeanism, Augustine argued that the soul was created ex nihilo by God and therefore was neither of the same substance as God, nor was it of the same substance as the body: “in the Cristian worldview, plants and animals do not have immortal souls: being animate, they must have souls, but the substance of these souls is corporeal rather than spiritual.[33]  Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Perspectivism, while certainly intriguing, needs to be read critically with this Christian metaphysical history in mind.

Pietz goes on to note that the original conception of idolatry had to do with religious practice as opposed to inner faith.  Superstitio, on the other hand, dealt with “improper religious attitudes.”[34] Religio “referred to a person’s sense of how rightly to achieve a true bond with divine power, the fundamental definition of superstitio” and thus Lactantius noted, “religio, very cultus est, superstitio falsi (“religion is the cult of the true [God], superstition that of the false”).  Pietz also notes that the use of relics and saints were accepted without being considered idolatrous.  Pope Gregory I “authorized the use of art for anagogic value,”  which then created the need for “a clear theory regarding true and false sacramental objects.”[35]  Later in the Middle Ages, under Christian law as opposed to Christian theology, a conflation of idolatry with superstition occupied was superimposed onto the term feitiçaria and the heresy of witchcraft.[36]  But whereas Theodosian code (438 c.e.) were developed to penalize paganism of Roman senators resisting Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, this concept of feitiçaria was “minimal” in West African because the law’s initial concern was to preserve the State against “divination” or “evil deeds” – maleficia, which threatened it.  Initially speaking, West Africa was not seen as under the jurisdiction of a Portuguese state, so maleficium would have made no sense.  It would only come to make sense under colonization when, as “a legal category, maleficia entailed the religious crime of sacrilege.”[37]  Jerome’s Vulgate conflates venificium (poison, sorcery) with maleficium (divination) and King James’s Bible translates both as witchcraft.[38] While this later, Protestant conception appears in Charles de Brosses’s denigration of figurism, it was, according to Pietz, the emerging economic conception of the fetish object in the context of maritime trade that loosened the hold the pope had on material goods.

We can see the commodification of African “fetishes” as concurrent with the idea that Africans had “no organized religion”[39] as part of the “lifting up” of the Black body itself into the commodity par excellence of the slave trade.  It was that they neither belonged to the Pope as Christian subjects – and thus lacked humanity – nor did they as commercial objects need to be shared with the Pope.  They could be therefore uprooted as if “naturally.”  Pietz goes so far as to note that by the 1640s, when the Protestant Dutch had ousted the Portuguese Catholics from African coasts, Akan fetissos were described as Catholic “paternosters.[40]  According to the emergent Protestant perspective, “African fetish worship (and hence African society) was thus revealed to be based on the principles of chance encounter and the arbitrary fancy of imagination conjoined with desire.”[41]

What this drama obscures in its conflation of witchcraft and divination is the theology of the soul by which “true religion” might be distinguished from “superstition,” a question of inner faith and external practice of idolatry.  This became an obscure distinction between facere (“to make”) and voluntarism in which external making either fused (and therefore evidenced) external work with internal election or dichotomized external fetishism (and therefore evidenced) lack of internal faith.


The attempted erasure of Amerindians within the colonizing consciousness, whether Protestant or Catholic, owes much to the history of fetishism itself, but that history needs to be, as William Pietz has argued, placed within the drama of the early slave trade on the west coast of Africa, before contact with Amerindian populations.  Conceptually, it ought to be placed with Michael Taussig’s descriptions of shamanism and the wild man as existing within the fantasies of the “old world.”  Closely related, Taussig’s connection of ‘fetish’ to ‘maleficium’ in works such as The Magic of the State and The Nervous System remains appropriate historically insofar as it is dealing with the “health” of the State.  But properly speaking, neither the ‘fetish’ nor the ‘shaman’ appropriately describe Amerindian thought and therefore risk the perpetuation of Euro-Christian colonization.  Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Amerindian Perspectivism has potential as an analytic concept by which Euro-Westerners (Amerindians don’t need to be told how they think) might recognize the limitations of their own thinking.  However, critical attention between perspectival multinaturalism and Christian traditions which either deny Indigenous peoples full human participation by relegating them to a “state of nature” – as in the 1823 U.S. legal decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, does – or grant them souls only to exterminate their bodies and send them right on to “heaven” – as Junípero Serra, among others, did.  The odd rationalization that Indians were a “lost tribe” of Jews merely grounded the longstanding idea that they are people who ought to be relegated to “the past.”

Perhaps the most prominent example of the perpetuation of the ‘fetish’ for Amazonian Indigenous cultures is the growing interest and diaspora of ayahuasca and ayahuasca “religions,” which often vie for recognition on the basis of Indigenous and “traditional” use.  In the fecund iterations of the term ‘ayahuasca,’ whether as religion, as “healing,” or as tourism, there is a constant reduction of diverse practices, recipes, plant-combinations, and gendered attributions of spirits.  The economy in Iquitos, Peru has embraced western infatuation with the ‘ayahuasca experience’ as a kind of nationalist updating of indigenismo that has little to do with the plights that Indigenous peoples face.  As Westerners are enticed into pondering the Indigenous “authenticity” of their experiences and seeking traditional knowledges as vocational self-buffering and “enlightenment” – at times with a sincere disgust at the emptiness of capitalist life – ‘ayahuasca’ comes to signify both resistance and re-ordering, a kind of reset button for mass consciousness.  Ayahuasca, comes to occupy and signify the contemporary incarnation of the fetish itself.  As the veneficium of its questionable legal status combines with its New Age embracement of liberal capitalism and the deterritorializing seekers who wish to escape capitalism signal a kind of maleficium, caught up in the tremendous inequities that south Americas suffer under American Empire, there is a collapsing and condensing of what ‘it’ is.  Ayahuasca is the true meeting between what William Burroughs called ‘junk’ and ‘soma.’  Ayahuasca is the fetish, and despite any ancient roots of practices with multiple varieties of the vine and numerous other plants, little of the fetish has anything to do with Amerindian perspectives; indeed, the fascination perpetuates the erasure of Amerindians.

[1] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

[2] Daniel H. Leonard, “Fetishism, Figurism, and Myths,” The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea, Ed. Rosalind C Morris and Daniel H. Leonard, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 30.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 138.

[7] William Pietz, “Fetishism and Materialism,” Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Ed. Emily Apter & William Pietz, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

[8] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring, 1985), 7.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 13

[11] Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990, 91.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 104-105.

[14] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, Ibid. 118-119.

[15] Ibid., 220.

[16] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 62.


[20] Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State, New York: Routledge, 1997, 199.

[21] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 29.


[22] Ibid., 30.


[23] Ibid., 31.


[24] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 129.


[25] See Barbara Alice Mann, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


[26] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, 59.


[27] Ibid., 59.

[28] Ibid., 58-59.


[29] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectivism,” Cannibal Metaphysics, Ed. And Trans. Peter Skafish, Minneapolis, Univocal, 2014, 57.

[30] This problematic term is used in general in work on Amazonian Indians.  I am following Viveiros de Castro’s language here.


[31] Ibid., 60.


[32] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring, 1987), 27-28.

[33] Ibid., 29.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 30.

[36] Ibid., 31.

[37] Ibid., 32.

[38] Ibid., 33.

[39] Ibid., 37

[40] Ibid., 39.

[41] Ibid., 43.

On DACA and Child Sacrifice

September 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

Each month I write an article for the scholarly blog, Political Theology Today. An editor at the blog asked me to respond to recent works of theory in philosophy, religious studies, and theology.  This month I wrote on issues related to DACA.  You can read it here:

Thanks for reading.

On Mark Lilla’s Recent Book

August 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Please check out my recent article on the scholarly blog, Political Theology Today:

Denver’s Divinatory Poetics (Rough Version / Conference Script)

July 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is a rough conference script for listeners today. The finished version will appear soon.

Like Ghosts from an Enchanter Fleeing

Divination has roots in augury. It is not just the interpretation of omens; it also implies perceiving when it is acceptable to inquire concerning the health of the state.[1]  Reading the flight lines and entrails from birds, the office of the augur in ancient times related specifically to the public good.  In his recent book, Politics of Divination, Joshua Ramey argues:

neoliberal market fundamentalism—the view that markets alone can resolve the problem of how to construct social life in the face of unforeseeable contingencies—is a perverse and disavowed colonization of archaic divination rites, the rituals through which human cultures, on the basis of chance, have perennially sought for more-than-human knowledge.

Ramey calls for more nuanced approaches to divination that do not fall under such “market fundamentalism.”  While we can certainly look to the late 1960s and early 1970s for the shift to virtual markets, or the break from the gold standard, which Maurizio Lazzarato locates as the “making of indebted man,” what so many philosophers lack is attention to aesthetics and arts which have been dealing with this constantly since that period.  By way of Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of Nietzsche, Lazzarato argues that “[t]he capitalist machine has gone off the rails, not for want of regulation nor because of its so-called excesses or the greed of financiers.”[2]  Instead, he claims it is due to the collapse of finance: “the consequence of the failure of the neoliberal program (which has made business the model for all social relations) and the resistance mounted by the subjective figure it has aimed to promote (human capital or entrepreneur self).”[3]  In simpler terms, yet historically occupying the same space, the birth of the “scriptor-reader” at the so-called “death of the author” already poeticized this economic shift.  Literary theory and practices since the 1960s have had dynamic discussions of fluctuating and calling into suspicion the nature of subject-object relationships.

A recent literary trend in Denver has continued these discussions in what Selah Saterstrom calls “divinatory poetics,” as articulated in her forthcoming book of essays, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, which recently won the Essay Press Open Book Contest.  This paper looks at three writers associated with Denver, including Saterstrom, in order to examine how they illustrate variations of divinatory poetics in their respective works.  It simultaneously discusses my own relationship to these authors and their works as I have recorded and provided musical accompaniment to them.  I particularly believe these writers have been pointing to more nuanced interpretations of divination that would be useful to the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies.

Anne Waldman, Eleni Sikelianos, and Selah Saterstrom all write from the space of a hollowed-out sovereignty, or what Saterstrom at times calls the forked tongue.  In doing so, their respective works critique neoliberalism by emphasizing the opening up of liberal subjectivity, or what some philosophers call the “empty throne” of sovereignty and identity.  It is not so much that as writers they need readers and listeners in order to complete their work as some sort of dialectical reception and synthesis.  By emphasizing spaces of liminal transfer, often entangled between life and death, they invite the working over the world reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s meditations on disaster.  Each of these writers, however, does this in her own unique way.

One mark of the impulse toward divination occurs in the linguistic move toward the imperative, an imperative that gives commandments so seemingly inconsequential that they call into question their own validity and thus simultaneously demand adherence and commitment.  The imperative assumes context without exposition or description, therefore inciting a situation.  Selah Saterstrom’s novel, Slab, records in two acts the lingering thoughts of a woman as she performs on the theater of a slab of concrete that once held a home in the wake of a hurricane, literally a disaster.  Simultaneously, a preacher – whose name is Preacher – sermonizes to Pelicans 40 miles away.  The dramatic situation of Act I mainly involves the young woman, Tiger, who smokes a cigarette in one flip-flop, jean-shorts, and a tank top that reads I “heart” GRITS (Girls Raised in the South), retelling multiple idiosyncratic memories, at times imagining herself being interviewed by Barbara Walters.  Among the Southern recipes that Tiger divulges to Barbara Walters is the recipe for “Red Velvet Classic.”

Red Velvet Classic

Get a thorn from a white rose bush.

And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix.

Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if

you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup. And bowls:

two small, one large, glass, and clear.  We shall need a

towel too.  Petition that the dram correspond to the nine

conditions, and a bench, of chapel length, and a man’s bed.

Warm the wax.  Form one portion of the wax into

the shape of him.  Form one portion of the wax into

the shape of you.  Bake the red velvet cake using

black hen eggs.  After it springs from the pan, knife the red,

steaming bread and slip in a dead relative’s lock of hair.

Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole,

With birthday candles on top burning.  Balm, enough to

coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash your slips in blue

water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after

you have done these things, all these goddamned things,

you will be done with it, you will be done.[4]


Read closely, these lines exist in a state of context-collapse: “dram”? “nine conditions”?  There is at once something imperative, expository, and conversational about these lines.  They are not impersonal, but they are directive to an initiate.  She follows a few pages later, offering “a recipe every Southerner knows” and the lyrics to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  At the same time these recipes instruct, as the hoodoo saying goes, when invoking an Eshu / Legba character at the crossroads, “You do not have to believe.”  Rites work, even work upon us, from another level.  They are the opposite of “by faith alone,” though these rites themselves are not to be confused with magic exclusively.[5]  Though Saterstrom is a practicing rootworker, her knowledge was transmitted within the tradition of the Spiritual Church Movement.  It was not until she moved out of the South that she realized that not all Christians read cards and do conjure work.

Saterstrom has done more than any other writer to theorize and lodge divinatory poetics in practice, incorporating the concept into courses on creative writing and hermeneutics at the University of Denver, though at least one of her students has refused to do her writing exercises, claiming they were “black magic.”  Her forthcoming book, Ideal Suggestions, is advertised: “By employing various “divinatory generators” (instructions, methods, trances), the essays in Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics genuflect to practices that celebrate engagement with uncertainty while cultivating strategies through which one might collaborate with both rupture and rapture.”  The book is a nod to Henry Wood’s 1899 book of New Thought, Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography, which William James cited multiple times in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience.  Act II of Slab follows the story of Preacher’s initiation into the vocation of preaching through exposure to card-reading and mediumship, intercut with his sermons providing hermeneutic analyses on the New Testament.  Although the book is not a direct reference to hurricane Katrina (it appears to be set in the 1980s actually), the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, in which Jerusalem is figured as a woman, remains important intertextually as well, revealing Saterstrom’s training in biblical hermeneutics.

I began my own hermeneutic project a few years ago in which I used music as a method to read texts, to use ears as eyes as a similar exercise in collaborating with rupture and rapture.  Of course, this is impossible.  Ears do not track like eyes, nor do they trap like eyes.  There is something we experience as instantly available to the eyes, which makes them quickly constellate and at times too quickly to discern.  It makes sense when we read about early modern people who thought of the eyes as beaming headlamps or the penetrating grey eyes of early modern women.  Using ears to “read” disrupts the constellating process, introducing a liminal transfer and re-subjectivating the listener by calling him or her into being.

This is why I am immediately reminded of Maurice Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster and of the ongoing relationship Blanchot had with his interlocutor, Emmanuel Levinas, and the idea of ethics as first philosophy.  Blanchot writes: “The disaster, unexperienced.  It is what escapes the very possibility of experience – it is the limit of writing.  This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.  Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual.”[6]  The disaster is not about the field or the territory or the beyond of the territory.  It is a force, a force, Blanchot says, of writing.  I read this as the force of liminality in the process of signification, and when we move from the scopic mode of reading into the auditory, something in the process of the transfer of senses acts a membrane between reception and interpretation, a truly hermeneutic process.  On some level, it is about maintaining fidelity, as philosophers such as Alain Badiou might say, to the event.  But this is not the Protestant sentiment of “by faith alone.”  It is about a charge of spirit that occupies us rather than us “occupying” another space.

One quickly sees in Saterstrom that ‘religion,’ ‘spirituality,’ and ‘divination’ cannot be easily separated. Guy Stroumsa’s 2005 lectures, collected in English under the title, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, situates interiority-exteriority through the move from blood sacrifice to writing, arguing that the seeds of religious interiority can be found in Judaism during the period of the second temple and intensifying after its destruction in 70 C.E.  In other words, the destruction of the earlier temple in 586 B.C.E. precipitates a cultural shift to the development of texts.  Stroumsa argues: “Religion, including religious worship, is above all a meditation on texts, with a central place granted to texts dealing with the individual, with the individual sinner, in particular the Psalms, a meditation that the Christians learned from Second Temple Judaism.”[7]  Stroumsa thematically contrasts his research with Foucault, even titling a chapter “A New Care of the Self,” a double entendre on the religious innovations of late antiquity and the limits of Foucault’s thinking.  According to Stroumsa, Foucault got it only half right.  He was right to focus on the Jewish emphasis on the interior move toward individual responsibility but wrong with respect to an emphasis on self-annihilation in Christianity in monasticism.

Stroumsa argues that Christianity “enlarges the limits of the self, rather than narrowing them.  The Christian self does not disappear into the community; it becomes, on the contrary, emblematic.”[8]  Stroumsa says Foucault was misled by “the ambiguous status of reflexivity developed by Christian thinkers” and “the disappearance of sungenia [kinship] between the human and the divine world,” a world in which the separation of humans “prevents a narcissism of the self” and invites the moral reform of the self. This moral reform was heightened in the non-elite who were not philosophers who “naturally” possessed the insightful sungenia with the divine.  This democratization and enlargement of the common person’s self is then materially reflected in the rise of the codex and the book – the media by which Christianity spread.  Stroumsa notes that Christian community is centered within the translational efforts of the Septuagint during the 3rd century B.C.E.[9]  According to him, Christian culture differed from Jewish culture in its tendency to emphasize translation into different languages, thus democratizing and disseminating through writing the blood sacrifice of the ancient Hebrews.  Biblical hermeneutics and midrash were both an outcome of this shift.

There has been much talk of spaces and temporalities of exceptions and miracles in recent political philosophy, at times provoking claims of our “postsecular” moment.  Divinatory poetics might seem at first to merely offer a kind of “re-enchantment.”  I see something more directly practical about its appearance in these writers, whose personal traditions go deeper than a fad for Gnosticism or mysticism.  For example, while it may seem as crazy to read with ears as to make love to a photograph or painting, attempting such a task as blurring the senses has the possibility of re-experiencing sense in an overstimulated world.  It offers a tangible study of human exteriority in the era of the posthuman.  It is a way of making an encounter matter.  What I offer here is not so much a politics of how to listen as it is a projection of the internal reverberations of my listenings to these writers.  I’m thinking of it as literary criticism but am also willing to admit one could also simply say I’m doing piggyback art.

Ethical questions arise.  Is it potentially risky to make a rite out of a poem, to give one’s self over to it?  Does it not amount to a political instantiation of aesthetics? Do I not mistake what reception is about, making a clearly subjective reaction? What does it mean to invest such authority in a poet, even if we recognize in her work an ethical call?  Is it not uncritical, affective impulses that have given rise to the recent surges of “far Right politics”?  I believe this is why I say my work is performing literary criticism and theory.  In Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad traces the historical distinctions between emotions and passions.  He notes Marcel Mauss’s grounding of the ritual in embodiment.  Western society, he says, saw with the emerging Reformation the interiorization of the “Book of Nature” and the mutation and ascription of ritual practice into “belief.”  Ritual was a challenge to direct faith and became associated with “less literate” societies, despite its original place as a function of writing:

Clearly, there is a fundamental disparity between a “ritual” that organizes practices aimed at the full development of monastic self and a “ritual” that offers a reading of a social institution.  We may speculate on the ways in which the increasing marginality of religious discipline in industrial capitalist society may have reinforced the latter concept. [10]

We read claims that people were surprised at Chaucer because he looked at books silently, that silent reading was considered an active withdrawal into privacy.[11]

What I am discussing in terms of hermeneutics is different than a spectacle or going to a live poetry reading or calling for vocalic linguistic performances.  Nor is it merely about the metric and rhythmic qualities of poetic incantation, since delivery and reception will affect and fold such claims.  It is, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari, an anti-oedipal deterritorialization of sense that opens itself to the literary event.  This is exactly what Foucault was reacting to in his analyses of Oedipus in On the Government of the Living.  Rhythms are present as identities and negation, but as Deleuze tells us, repetition is not the same as difference.  Difference is an affirmation that forms outside of identity.  Silence, as John Cage taught us, is not negation; it is death and therefore beyond experience.  We are not, so long as we are in being, in silence.  In an anechoic chamber, we hear the high pitch of our own nervous systems and the low rumbling rush of blood through our veins.  Beats may create structures of habitation, but they are acting upon the persistent hums of our already active nervous systems. The hermeneutics of listening that I am stressing does less to stage the poet and allows for more intimate and collaborative interaction between the listener and the writer, by attempting to find a mode of encountering the work.  As the poets divine, we divine them.  We are entangled with them.

Once, after accompanying Eleni Sikelianos at a reading, a poet from the audience remarked that he was “pleasantly surprised,” since he had been accustomed to thinking that when writers perform with musicians it is distracting to the work.  This reduction of life to subjects and objects, writers and readers, has much to do with the problems of this world.  In the multiple ways, being is framed for us, moment by moment.  We are often so distracted by channels of power that we forget the illusion of sovereignty itself in our longing for less fragmentation.  Many long for what Anne Waldman calls a “decider.”  Amid gridlocked bipartisanism, recent pushes toward “executive orders” on both the right and the left evidence this.  We are also oppressed by mediatized frames, but as Walter Benjamin tells us in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.  We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.  Then we shall clearly recognize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.

Divination works amid the state of emergency – not in isolation, but in acts of commitment with readers, and there is no reason to suppose that it will always work in line with one’s particular politics.  What is this more real state that Benjamin is after?  When Jonah’s companions draw lots to decide who to throw from their boat, we catch a glimpse of cultural variety in the ancient world and a respect of others’ gods.

I suggest that hermeneutic listening gives us a way to engage in the folds of what Anne Waldman addresses as “Entanglement.”   Waldman writes:

Entanglement is my ransom / She is my mother, author, locator / Lifting off in libations / Trips to Iceworlds / Hammurabi’s code woke her / The two as one, born together / Separated / Perfect dimensions for the spider, the fly / She leaves me split, she is my other, she is my unknown / Wed, she abandons me / She abandons me; she never abandons me / Entanglement I think will always sleep with me

Waldman is often seen as one of the last of America’s Beat poets, and although this lineage is certainly significant, her recent work has often been overshadowed by the broader legacy of the beat movement.  Her involvement with Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche in founding the Naropa Institute and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics forgets the fact that she has continued to be involved in its trajectory for more than forty years.  Waldman’s poetry is truly psychedelic, in the sense of the term as ‘mind-manifesting.’  Her ‘I’ moves in a dissipating and reconstituting way throughout her work integrating and disintegrating the various instance of ego life.  Locations become points of associative acts.

Waldman’s poetry emphasizes liminality.  Again, in “Entanglement” she does more than merely offer an ontological description.  Notice the un-sentenced movement in the following lines:

Entanglement is the complicated mother / Born together, fall apart / Broadway in my fair city was once a deer and mountain lion trail / Wedded to the past, it keeps happening / How not become our own volcano? / Visit the ring of fire / volcanoes were entangled / Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere / down here with the slime molds / Entanglement eschews boundaries / politics of sonorities / Agamben counts the animals / All the organs collapse / I am a dithyramb again / Ornette was in my dream of entanglement / He counts and he is a gift of augury.

Entanglement is itself generative.  It is personified as mother.  Then the fragmented next line, “born together, fall apart.”  Aspect without subject.  This is followed by another sentence: Broadway was once a trail.  Then, “Wedded to the past, it keeps happening” – a complex sentence, but the antecedent of “it” remains ambiguous.  Is it “Broadway”?  Entanglement itself?  The local and the abstract conflate with one another.  “How not to become our own volcano?” expresses itself as an internal thought but it also addresses a collective body, “our.”  By the time we get to “Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere / down with the slime molds,” there is an imperative repetition at work.  What authority enforces these repetitions?  Is this Rimbaud’s impulse toward the slummy?  The voice does turn into a dithyramb “again.”

The dithyramb is inherently Dionysian, opposed to the Apollonian paean.  Waldman’s speaker becomes multivocal.  And though these wild choruses were made of female devotees, she also reflects, in a way, Shelley’s optative will to be de-subjectivated in “Ode the West Wind.”  When Shelley attempts to conjugate with the west-wind muse, saying, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!” is he merely wishing for a writer’s immortality?  I don’t think so, but even if he is, it is certainly an impulse beyond the subject.  The Romantic period saw the birth of political “liberalism.”  In many ways, the romantic subject was the politically liberal subject.  A simple etymological search on the term ‘liberal’ will show an early nineteenth-century origin for the use of the term here.  In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey speculates on the potentially immortal character of the first druggist to sell him opium.  Rimbaud, following Baudelaire, intentionally sought to desubjectify himself and become scummy in ways that became codified scripts for 20th century bohemianism.  “I is an other,” claimed Rimbaud, already in critique of the romantic subject, struck by the lightning of inspiration.  It is not his fault, he says: why blame the wood with which a violin is made?  Is divination merely inspiration…the enthusiasm of the divine blowing the writer up like a balloon?  This is old hat, but it also informs the impulse toward divination in the contemporary writers that I am discussing.  Divination in Shelley is a sacrifice to the disaster of the west wind that occupies a hope, a constellation that in an optative mode wishes for dissolution, to become part of the event – and it was a disaster, of course, that took his life.  How do we respond as readers, as hearers?

Hermeneutics has a theological lineage.  The field of religious studies often flirts with aesthetics in shifts toward “material religion” while remaining suspicious of it, especially when it becomes too ritualistic.  At the same time, widely read continental philosophers inform both literary studies and religious studies.  Tyler Roberts, in Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism, tracks the difficulties some theologians have with poststructuralist notions of infinite responsibility as expressed in philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Simon Critchley.  Both Critchley[12] and Alain Badiou[13] have used modern poetry to exemplify where philosophical thought ought to be in terms of a response to the world.  However, the Christian scholar, John Milbank, for example, claims that adherence to infinite responsibility in some of these thinkers over-determines sacrifice and erases “the Christian promise of resurrection, thus ‘secularizing’ the Christian message.”[14]  Yet Roberts argues there is something subtler at work in poststructuralist accounts of responsibility and its aporetic functions. Following this line of thinking, aesthetic works operate between a timeless – and therefore careless – desire for immortality and crass materiality or death drive.  One thing the philosophical-theological debate misses in its deafness to poetry is that about forty years before Nietzsche announced the death of God, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, expanding on a theme of the crucifixion present since Plutarch’s observations in Of the Oracles that have Ceased to Give Answer, wrote:

Wailing wide across the islands,        

They rent, vest-like, their divine!        

And a darkness and a silence 

Quenched the light of every shrine;            

And Dodona’s oak swang lonely       

Henceforth, to the tempest only.         

                        Pan, Pan was dead.

In Religious Experience Revisited, Ann Taves, following Lee Palmer Wandel’s work, notes the formation of Protestant conceptions of magic developing in 16th century debates over the Eucharist and differing notions ritual efficacy.  These distinctions, she argues, still underwrite and inform academic study of religion.  They will also underwrite skepticism about divinatory poetics.

It seems to me that aesthetic sensitivity and hermeneutics of listening could help the disciplines here, in addition to their common engagement with continental philosophy.  For example, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among the first in a Victorian literary trend to cast Pan as alluring rather than horrifying, she was also at the forefront of a movement that domesticated paganism.  As Patricia Merivale points out, Browning, in a letter to John Kenyon in 1843, says,

Certainly I would rather be a pagan whose religion was actual, earnest, continual…than I would be a Christian who, from whatever motive, shrank from hearing or uttering the name of Christ out of a ‘church’ …What pagan poet ever thought of casting his gods out of his poetry?[15]

As the benevolent Pan emerges throughout the 19th century, Pan becomes a figure, rather than the feeling of panic that we see carried over in E. M. Forster’s “Story of a Panic,” resonating with coded queerness.  The Victorian “revival” of Pan put him into contestation with the figure of a “dying” Christ, enabling a widespread ability for writers to casually allude to him and expect readers to understand Pan “as a useful symbol for cultural history, to be equated with whatever the author thinks of as typically Greek.”[16]  Merivale quips: “The benevolent Pan in prose fiction was simply the logical development of the whole pastoral, Arcadian tradition in English literature – its final, if not its finest, fruit.”[17]  This richness is lost on many thinkers in religious studies and theology, but if we are to take scholars like Taves seriously, we must address the material, not in terms of a preset category of ‘religion’ but in the ascription that the adjective ‘religious’ comes to play with respect to an experience of specialness.  Divinatory poetics recognizes such specialness, even in mundane forms.  Taves thus undermines both the binary of sacred and profane and the binary of subjective “experience-based” approaches to the study of religion in the tradition of William James versus the “scientific” category of religion as a thoroughly social object of study.  Surely what Barrett Browning is expressing runs deeper than a mere “process of secularization.”  She is speaking to the ways that Christianity does not speak to her.  Both Anne Waldman and her niece, Eleni Sikelianos, in the tradition of Barrett Browning’s longing for pagan poetry, take upon the necessities of re-enchantment, and in doing so require the reader / listener to engage with the “postsecular” world.  It is a later historical moment indeed, but adhering to Barrett Browning’s longing helps accentuate a theme.

Although I dislike the recent use of the term, ‘re-enchantment’ is an appropriate theme in the Sikelianos family, which makes up a large area of poetic content for Eleni Sikelianos.  She is Granddaughter of Nobel prize nominee, Angelos Sikelianos, and Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, who together in 1927 decided to reinstate a Delphic Festival in Greece that included a staging of Prometheus Bound.  In You Animal Machine, Eleni Sikelianos meditates on the matriarchal line and the assemblages of story that connect family:

Story is not the right word. History is too vague.  This is a net of family giftings, woven in darkly luminous filaments, the shirt daubed with Nessus’s blood that scorches the skin, wounding the susceptibilities.  But what is the key that turns the lock of the poison dress? Who is us? (Me and my mother)[18]

Her family history is also the story of what the Greeks call the Great Calamity, of 78s on which family members sang rembetika, the Greek blues.  She transfers this feeling to blues jukes in America where her grandmother, Melaine Marko, “The Leopard Girl,” among many other names danced.[19]  She traces the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of family.  Sikelianos weaves myth and family so tightly one cannot discern in terms a genre or externalized concept.  She asks, “Can there be a proliferated sense of mirroring unmirroring?”[20]

In The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, Sikelianos performs more subtle examples of divinatory poetics than both Saterstrom and Waldman.  Against both of them her lyricism is immediately more personal and sensual.  If Waldman’s ‘I’ hovers around the very nature of being instantiated within being in this world and Saterstrom conveys the medium-like, channeled voice of ancestors, Sikelianos is supremely concerned with relationality.  Sometimes that relationality is familial, sometimes it is ontological – as in her extinction poems from Make Yourself Happy, which moves back and forth between a meditation on the seemingly trite but quickly get more complex.  They evidence a hollowing out:

who did the blue school

who bruised the wound

who had the goddess of love in her lap

to make herself happy—make

a village of love for your shadow

to live in so that

your shadow and your shadow’s friends may be

unlonely living with all other ombres

I’m giving away all my belongings

in language      to make myself happy      must start

with “my language”     then find

chains of correspondence

for the world’s every articulate hand and finger

(it’s what touches the world)

a shadow hombre shows me the way toward the deepest umbers

like having an orgasm in your


Sikelianos’s work is more immanent and less abstract. Definitely more of a personal ‘I’.  But in comparison with Saterstrom’s Slab, we see a crossover flirtation with New Thought movement.  There is something similar in Make Yourself Happy to Ideal Suggestions through Mental Photography.  Sikelianos also importantly works with the idea of fetish:

I bought something, it was

A fancy thing.  The man called me madame and

Opened the door with a swish.  I was sure I had never been

So happy to buy something, my

Feet felt happy even though

The thing was for my wrists.

Although having a Latin etymology in the verb, facere (to make), the English word, ‘fetish’ is directly derived from a colonial trading relationship with South America and the Caribbean, coming from the Portuguese word, feitiço.  Marx drew his concept of the “commodity fetish” from Charles de Brosses 1760 book, Du culte des dieux fétiches. That materiality had much to do with cultural misunderstandings Europeans made of African slaves.  Oftentimes, in the pejorative climate of Protestantism, people confuse rites and fetishes.

Liberal democratic representation already lays out the guts of sovereignty and decisionism, creating a crisis in representation.  Its difficulty lies in the faith of others.  It is not, exactly, as Simon Critchley calls it, in The Faith of the Faithless, a call toward the poetics of a Rousseau’s general will.  Alain Badiou echoes this in The Age of Poets.  It’s not just about making the space of immanence a totalization of all that is expressible, or a rejection of European transcendental notions of freedom.  Divinatory poetics is a rejection of the notion of freedom as negation (freedom from), which means that it is an affirmation of freedom as more than lack (freedom to), or what Levinas calls a Desire that is more than lack.  Badiou, in The Age of Poets, wants to reduce poetry to the performance of philosophical thought – as if the brilliance of Wallace Stevens determined poetry for all times. Philosophy does not fire-fangle the feathers of birds.  He wants to Platonize the becoming of poiesis in order to lay claim to the interpretation of the event.  What the writers I am discussing here show is that Badiou is too much in the tradition of Wordsworth’s emphasis on inspiration collected in memory.

Divinatory poetics calls us into being and emphasizes our relation to the Other as a ground from which we come to think about being.  In being called into being – the “Here I am” of hermeneutic listening – I am called upon to acknowledge the ethical relationship to the poet.  This is, in a sense, a modeling of what Levinas calls responsibility to the Other.  In Levinas’s terms, responsibility to the Other is being hostage to the other, it is a condition that precedes awareness of the I and therefore prioritizes ethics over ontology.  Before I can even discuss this or think “what does it mean to be?” I have already been in relation to the Other.  This relation is more than merely precognitive or pre-linguistic for Levinas.  It is also more than the mere physical dependence on the sociality of my parents and the sexual act that may result in conception.  Responsibility to the Other in Levinas’s terms is more fundamental than identity.  What Levinas means, in other words, is more than what Heidegger means by the phrase, “language speaks us.”  Heidegger is right, however, in the description of subjugated expressive capacity with respect to language, which by definition exceeds the individual.

When Roland Barthes, in Elements of Semiology, inverts Ferdinand de Saussure’s taxonomy in The Course on General Linguistics that linguistics would fall under a broader science of semiology, he emphasized that even when we begin to speak of semiotics we are doing so through language itself.  At the same time, he concretized the linguistic materiality of meaning in a way that greatly broadened what we might consider the “text.”  This liberated textuality from the bourgeois notion of literature, extending the political project of creating a “zero degree.”  Writing “degree zero” was about the recognition that there were deeper forces framing meaning and political subjectivity than the intentional content or tenor an individual writer injected into a linguistic vehicle.  It was simultaneously a rejection of the rational citizen, or the distinction between civilization and the state of nature.

While philosophers in recent years such as Alain Badiou, in The Age of Poets, or Simon Critchley in Faith of the Faithless, have at times turned to poetry so as to make sense of the current situation, the bulk of such praise comes from reading poetry as a sophisticated kind of philosophy-in-action.  In other words, what’s so great about modern poetry is its ability to perform thought.  While I appreciate these thinkers’ engagements with poets, I am unconvinced that poetry is merely the performance of thinking, or that poetry helps us to think.  Surely poetry is capable of doing this, but that alone is not its function.









[1] Cassell’s Latin Dictionary points to Cicero for this.

[2] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man, Trans. Joshua David Jordan, Pasadena: semiotext(e), 2012: 181.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Selah Saterstrom, Slab, Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2015, 76.


[5] See my discussion of Taves below.


[6] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, Trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 7.


[7] Guy Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 22-23.


[8] Ibid., 25.


[9] Ibid., 44.


[10] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, 78.


[11] See, for example, Leonard Michael Koff, Chaucer and the Art of Storytelling, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, 67.

[12] See Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

[13] Alain Badiou, The Age of Poets

[14] Tyler Roberts, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 161-162.


[15] Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969, 83.

[16] Ibid., 115.

[17] Ibid., 134.

[18] Eleni Sikelianos, You Animal Machine, Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2014, 2 .

[19] Ibid., 6

[20] Ibid., 98.