Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rabbi, Where Dwellest Thou? Occupying Jesus around Dave's Birthday

The following, nonsensical reading of the Gospel of John is motivated by a few factors. First, I’ve been going back over the hermeneutic tradition of late, which means reading about biblical hermeneutics, which has inspired me to emulation. Second, I’m interested, in general, in how we can read histories of past social movements (like Jesus’ social movement) as a means of getting a read on ourselves as we Occupy. Third, I think that the ontology of sociality implicit in the Gospel continues to organize our present, particularly for how it debases the materiality of sociality in order to secure an incorruptible social being. (This is bad for Occupy.) Fourth, John’s key phrase “come and see” is near and dear to my heart for an entirely non-theological reason: for some reason, my best friends and I used to mobilize the phrase as a strange kind of joke, one that became funnier through its incessant citation. Functioning as a means of social-movement- and friendship-building, the phrase interests me for how it proleptically functions as a technology of mourning; how, by encoding sociality through the visible, it allows social worlds to live on as readable signs after their finite material bases have corrupted, vanished, died. No one wants to simply see the ones they love—one wants to be with them, to dwell with them, to dine and drink with them. And so I read with and against the Gospel to contest the work of mourning that relieves us of considering our material finitude by virtualizing the materiality of the social into the visual; to make us melancholic for (and so prepared to attempt to re-produce) the finite materiality that is Occupation; and, more personally, to apologize to Dave and Marci for not being able to drink and dine with them tonight as they celebrate their finite coming-to-be in the world.

The phrase “come and see” circulates throughout the Gospel of John, and, indeed, its movement through the text forms a peculiar circle. The circle of quotation is opened early, as Jesus begins his ministry (1:38-39); the circle of quotation closes with the closure of Jesus’ ministry in his final and grandest miracle, when an anonymous they tells Jesus to “come and see” where the deceased, and soon to be resurrected, Lazarus has been laid (11:33). The structural function of “come and see”—marking as it does the beginning and the end of Jesus’s ministry—suggests that co-presence (coming-with) in the mode of visuality (seeing) is the non-transcendable horizon of the social movement that Jesus inspires. Within the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, visuality organizes a) subjective certitude in Jesus’ ministry and b) evidentiary protocols for convincing others to reproduce this subjective certainty. (Thus, John the Baptist, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God” [1:34].) This prioritization of visuality programs reception of Occupy today: the spectacle of Occupy made/makes (the tense is necessarily screwy, insofar as, as we'll see, visuality en- and de-crypts what it shows in its showing) something (poverty, inequality) visible and legible for others. The problem, as I suggested before, is that the prioritization of what Occupy makes-visible over the fact of Occupation itself generates an indifference to the materiality and continuation of Occupy; Occupy becomes a mere sign, a mere producer of signs. I want to track this becoming-sign, this virtualization, throughout John.

The organizing function of visuality is not a given; visuality competes with, but always subsumes, alternative modes of accessing the radical sociality of being-with-Jesus. Consider the first appearance of “come and see”: “Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master), where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelled, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour” (1:38-9). Here, dwelling is a derived effect of coming and seeing, a derivation that is somewhat bizarre. Why, after all, would the spectacle of Jesus’ site of dwelling, that way it gives itself to be seen, take priority over dwelling itself? Dwelling-with is subordinated to the spectacle of the Master’s dwelling-place, and one only dwells after one has seen. Indeed, it’s in the repetition of coming-and-seeing, the way that the insistence on visuality unnecessarily insinuates itself into the text, that the emphasis on visuality becomes clear. Note the horridly tortured syntax: “They came and saw where he dwelled, and abode with him that day…” Dwelling-with is not prior to the visual—even though one might suggest that in addressing Jesus as “Rabbi/Master,” the followers already begin to dwell with the significance of Christ—but is rather an effect of a seeing.

Being-with is thus approached through the spectacle. This becomes clearest in Jesus’ final, most spectacular miracle. The scene of the miracle opens with Mary falling at Jesus’ feet, crying. We gain access to Jesus’ interiority through his processing of the visual spectacle: “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping…he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (11:33). Seeing weeping—not hearing, not being-touched-by-weeping in an affectivity irreducible to visuality. He then asks, “Where have ye laid him?” and is told, as we know, “Lord, come and see” (11:34). Jesus then cries, an affective performance which is interpreted visually by those gathered: “Then said the Jews, Behold how we loved him!” The passage’s emphasis on visuality reaches its apparent climax when Jesus’ ability to heal the blind is recalled: “And some of them said, Could not this man, who opened the eyes of a blind man, have caused that even this man should not have died?” (11:37). The speakers establish a structural parallel—one that, of course, runs throughout the Gospels—between being blind and being dead; restoring the capacity to see is analogous to the capacity to live. Life is coded as receptivity to the visual, to the spectacle. This definition of living-as-seeing becomes clearest in Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus: he approaches the tomb, a “cave, and a stone lay upon it”—the body is encrypted in darkness, hidden from the order of the visible (11:38). Jesus asks for the stone to be removed; Martha reminds him of another order of perception, declaring that Lazarus, dead for days, will “stinketh.” But the glory of God is indifferent to the materiality of the corruptible body, and Jesus chides Martha that if she “wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God” (11:40). The body is virtualized through an emphasis on visuality; the semiosis of corruption (to “stinketh”) loses its force because we are in a different, sanitizing order of perception. And so Jesus orders Lazarus to come, not to see, but to be seen: “Lazarus, come forth!” (11:43).

Within this scene, the production of the spectacle is a means of avoiding melancholia—or, we might say that becoming-alive through becoming-visible, becoming-apparent, is a technology of successful mourning. When Lazarus appears, when he comes forth, no more tears! Indeed, this process of virtualization-as-visualization, the way in which a stinking dead body becomes alive through becoming visible once more, by being de-crypted, prefigures the way in which Jesus will himself achieve ideality through leaving the non-virtual body behind. Seeing names the process by which a sign detaches itself from its material preconditions and achieves an exorbitant, excessive virtuality—that is, it names the process by which a body becomes a sign, a word, an idea. This becomes clearest in Jesus’ empty-tomb scene, where this new technology of mourning (virtualization) transforms Jesus’ co-dwellers (minus Magdalene) into semioticians. Mary, approaching the tomb, sees signs of its disturbance—the stone was taken away. She doesn’t enter; rather, she runs and informs Peter and another discipline, who race to the tomb. They enter the tomb, and see Jesus’ absence through a series of sartorial signs: “the linen clothes” lying there, and “the napkin, that was about his head…wrapped together in a place by itself” (20:5, 7). The absence of Jesus’ body registers positively in these little traces. They leave—the presence or absence of the body as such does not matter, because matter doesn’t matter. Only Magdalene lingers, melancholically attached to the tactile, to Jesus’ material body, to—let’s say it—finitude. She weeps for the body, a weeping that attracts a resurrected Christ, whom Magdalene eventually recognizes. And then Jesus says, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father”—as if, in between the lines, we can see Magdalene rushing to embrace him. At stake in Jesus’ words is a wholesale ban on touching: if Mary cannot touch him now, she certainly won’t be able to touch him after his ascension. What Jesus preserves is his own virtualization, his own becoming-spectacle—it wouldn’t do to reinscribe the visual figure of Jesus within a more rambunctious economy of sensation, of alternative modalities of being-with-Jesus. Henceforth, one can only be-with Jesus in the mode of the visible; one can only develop a reading practice that recovers traces of Christ (a napkin, a cloth) in the matter of history. One becomes with Jesus by de-crypting history for traces of Jesus. Look, but don’t touch (you can’t touch, anyhow). Come and see.   

Thus, the prioritization of visuality that opens Jesus’ ministry proleptically enables his movement to manage his death. (One could even say that the ontological priority of logos [in the beginning was the word] prepares the de-cryption of Jesus-as-sign at the moment of his death. In this case, the whole text exists to manage the disappearance of the body as the appearance of a disembodied logos.) It is thus interesting that when Jesus appears for the final time to his disciples he does not urge them to “come and see” him—they’ve already done that. He says, instead, “Come and dine,” and the company dines on fish and bread (21:12). It’s an odd moment—does the post-resurrection Jesus eat? It’s a point at which the group’s sociality is defined through embodied acts of consumption, of eating-with. There are many more, but this one is important insofar as eating is already cast under the sign of allegory; indeed, this eating will immediately be virtualized when Jesus orders Peter to “Feed my sheep” three times. Eating already appears as not-eating, as a sign called “eating” that in fact indexes an entirely a-material mode of being in the world. But we might, like Magdalene did, refuse to let go of materiality, refuse to virtualize bread and fish into, say, something eucharistic, and insist on the non-virtualizable, finite action of eating-with.

I’m not sure what this refusal would do for Christianity, nor do I really care. I’m more concerned to suggest that we need to enact this refusal in terms of our post-Occupation Occupy. We have to risk melancholia in order to hold onto the non-virtualizable, finite fact of our revolutionary coming-together. To successfully mourn our material co-presence—the way we amassed together, slept together, dined together—would be to relieve ourselves of the need to reproduce these modalities of amassing. And we need to re-amass. In other words, we above all have to avoid becoming a sign, a spectacle-that-was, a de-cryption of the past that doesn’t “stinketh.” (Might we not assume our purported stench as the ineffaceable trace of Occupy’s materiality? Come and smell!) We have to keep our eye on the task of mattering and materializing together. Of coming together and dining. 

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