Chapter 2: Bodies Becoming World

Breaking open alternative ontological possibilities still leaves a lot of assumptions intact. One may wonder about the use of divine for naming an ineffable call that whispers throughout the ruins of the logic of the One. Is not burying the description of divine within the logic of multiplicity not just another way to signify what exists beyond and outside the infinite unfolding of possibility, to name the space imagined by god-talk and God-talk and everything they try to name? Is this divine? Is that a helpful description or just a more postmodern way to tip one’s hat at a totalizing idea and then feel good because it was acknowledged? Where else might this conversation lead if indeed it is still going? Perhaps it is worth asking about what it is that pushes us to the limits of language. Why explore the edges and boundaries of human articulation as they relate to what should be done and why? I suggest that whatever it is that attracts us to those edges will not let us name it but leaves its residue in the struggles of our linguistic failures to name what sparks a hope beyond hope. This tension and its ethical resources travel among the faint recognition of an ethereal perhaps exposed in the confrontation of human limits and the persistent nagging of what could be substantiated by what is not.

This next section will continue building a framework for further constructing ethics, the theological, and a Christianity independent of the transcendental assumptions outlined in the previous section. I will further nuance and press the work of the theological beyond God-talk. I will show how it traces and explores the movements and forces that impose, perform, prompt, shift, poke, and tug at the agonistic arrangement of human bodies that signal ethical resources. The way embodied subjects (and not only bodies; other things, too, interact as subjects and weighty presences) interact, press against each other, and the spaces between forces that leverage the various constitutions of those bodies together compose significant sites for theological and ethical reflection. By embracing the possibility of ontology independent of the logic of the One in the previous section, I will continue pressing the edges of the human linguistic capacity to name what is going on so that I can inadvertently bump against the residual traces left among the ruins of that ever-failing attempt. Through an intentional, perceptive, and imaginative vulnerability to hearing, seeing, and sensing the impulses, voices, and urgings demanding justice from the unseen, inexpressible spaces that connect, pull-on, urge, and weigh on dis/embodied subjects, humans, us, I imagine a way of knowing and knowing what to do that influences a way of being in the world with others.

To move forward in this section, I turn to Mark L. Taylor’s reading of Jean Luc Nancy, which establishes a context for thinking about bodies that comprise space and world. Taylor in conversation with Nancy explores the way bodies weigh in on each other and the world. However, this sense of feeling the weight of another body, of sensing the way they fit in the world cannot be theorized simplistically. For example a person’s rage might burst into the space I comprise by pressing on me in a way that disrupts the ease with which I fit until that moment. How do the demands and protests emanating from Ferguson, MO affect space and the way I belong in the world? What do the palpable emotions of anger, rage, and confusion pulsating from Missouri push against me in Tulsa, Oklahoma? These types of questions assist in understanding world as bodies together and the way a body weighs in or against the world of bodies it helps constitute. A body is never just a body, but demarcated as a body comprising a body, a world. A human body, an embodied subject, can sense another body or bodies as weight, “a sense of a persisting connection intrinsic to shared humanity being disrupted, of a copresence to one another.”[1] My body fits in, negotiates and adjusts space in order to comprise world in tension (good and bad) with other bodies.

Nancy, according to Taylor, presses this idea of world further than just how bodies arrange space. Summarizing Nancy, Taylor writes, “world is a ‘totality of meaning.’ This totality is ‘of meaning’ because the totality in question is not just a location that envelopes or situates us along with other people and entities; it is also something in which we are interested. There is not only a sense of location in the totality, but also a sense of belonging to it.”[2] However, it should be noted that this understanding in Nancy’s work is not a totalizing totality. World, for Nancy, is not a place composed of bodies that belong by excluding those that do not quite fit and subsequently squeezing them out of the composition of world. This is the opposite of world. World, for Nancy, comprises space as a totality of meaning where bodies belong and tension among them is adjusted for the inclusion of all bodies, or not. Nancy writes: “All bodies weigh on one another, and against one another, heavenly bodies and callous bodies, vitreous bodies and corpuscles…Bodies come to weight against one another, such is the world. The non-world (im-mundus), and intolerable, is the presupposition that everything is weighed in advance.”[3] In other words, Nancy is not saying that the arranging of bodies to include or exclude, to squeeze out or fit in is predetermined to inform a teleological expectation of what the world’s shape should be; instead, he argues that this give and take, the pressing against and in, the shifting and making room keeps becoming, emerges always, and is continually, infinitely worked out. Bodies exist in dance(s).

Taylor concludes, “World, then, is labile. It is a set of spacing and balancings that can shift in their character and form.”[4] This shifting determines world as a place of belonging for bodies or a “non-world,” a spacing, where bodies are squeezed out and excluded, in which bodies infused with power construct world and arrange it for their belonging, predetermining the weight of things, bodies in advance. It is here that the focus of weight gains significance. In the construct of world, “weight is a play of forces and of balancing pressures, moving in many directions to keep tensively in place the manifold and teeming bodies…in which there is a tense interplay of intimacy and distance between bodies.”[5] When bodies exercise a disproportionate advantage in order to adjust the arrangement of space by leveraging the forces in the spaces between bodies to exclude other bodies the totality of meaning that comprises world begins a harmful movement toward a totalizing, homogenous understanding of what it means to exist together with other bodies. For example, when white bodies operate out of the favorable forces of racism, the presuppositions of an already-weighed body, that exist in the spaces between and in bodies that deem black bodies unworthy of space, they shift the spacing of world. This forces a heavy weight on the excluded bodies and squeezes them from belonging. The point to notice is the leveraging force of a presupposition, a preferred snapshot of the dance(s), that wedges its way into the world displacing bodies predisposed to its exclusionary power, its force. But these bodies do not cease to exist, to have weight. They are not pushed out of existence; they are pushed into concentration. They are no longer related in “extension,” a term Nancy uses to refer to the balancing of pressure of bodies in relation to one another; rather, they are weighed in advanced and forced into zones of concentration by the force of presuppositions that outweigh them.[6]

Consider the disproportionate number of black bodies in prisons, confined and concentrated in tight space. Think about the black bodies forced into ghettos and cutoff from essential resources that make for life. What about native peoples shoved into spaces marking them off from the totality of meaning being overrun and totalized by a particular type of body, a forceful presupposition about what body mattered for meaning making? Each of these examples represent the shifting weight of bodies that changes world and disrupts the delicate balance and spacing that composes a totality of meaning where all bodies belong, where all bodies matter. But who is to say what bodies belong? Or what does it matter if world is arranged in a way that excludes some bodies and opens space for others?

The above questions intensify the ethical dimensions of Nancy’s theorization of world and prove useful for uncovering the resources needed to trace the ghostly remains of human language’s failed attempts at naming the source of a persistent hope against hope. Perhaps if bodies were actually excluded from existence, world could continually reconstitute itself and the totality of meaning could become a closed and particular system over and over. But excluded bodies do not go anywhere. They remain. They concentrate. They continue to weigh into and against other bodies that have adjusted to forget them. And forgetting is not possible. Memories stay around too. This shift in weight changes world as a place of mutually beneficial spacing and belonging for every body into what Nancy terms unworld, which concentrates and offsets space in such dramatic ways that no body can belong without the stress of disproportionate weight misshaping its existence, without “the absence of that sustaining intimacy and distance of the world’s bodies related in extension.”[7]

The sagging weight of concentration pulls apart social spacing that is arranged by exclusion and the dominant force of presupposition. Dead bodies concentrated into piles of bad memories eventually tumble over and into the social orders that stacked them out of the way. Concentrated spaces build with explosive pressure. Eventually bodies compressed, excluded in concentration, rage and press back. From the suffocating spaces amid the concentrated wreckage of unworld, these bodies express, enact, and embody a powerful, at times artfully wrought, counterweight dense with the memories, the pain, the cries, the marks of injustice of all the bodies pressed into the spaces that cannot hold them. Or as Nancy puts it: “Symmetrically, no Death/Resurrection follows upon the here-lies of this body: but this dead one remains, a ghostly space coming back to our community, and sharing its extent.”[8]

Following Kelly Oliver’s work in The Colonization of Psychic Space we can frame Nancy’s theory of world with the language of subjugation and oppression and the effects these forces have on the colonized. Being “pre-weighed” for Nancy, is understood through Oliver’s work in her claim “that the colonized are oppressed by the preformed stereotypical image of themselves propagated by the colonizer…They are not only thrown into a world of meaning not of their own making, they are thrown there as those incapable of making meaning, as those whose meaning has already been defined as abject and less than fully human.”[9] In other words, they have been pre-weighed, presupposed as a weight already, deemed incapable of “being weighed.”[10]

Oliver’s work also highlights the weight of psychic space, which I understand to name the space of unconscious communication taking place between the formation of subject identity and bodily expression—movements enacted for meaning-making, to weigh-in to world. Narrative power also traffics within psychic space, explaining the way in which normalizing stories of the way things are can carry weight and wedge into the world and cram bodies into concentration. This psychic space contributes weight to world, pressing alongside and into bodies that are pressing alongside and into other bodies being pressed by psychic space. “The colonization of psychic space,” argues Oliver, “is the occupation or invasion of social forces—values, traditions, laws, mores, institutions, ideals, stereotypes, etc.—that restrict or undermine the movement of bodily drives into signification. The metaphor of psychic space helps delineate the intimate connection between bodies and culture.”[11] The weight of psychic space complicates further the weight of bodies comprising world. It is the space used to leverage the way in which colonized, subjugated bodies are pre-weighed.

To make Taylor’s helpful reading of Nancy’s world applicable for ascertaining a type of ethical orientation, the cultivation of particular ontological sensibilities and epistemological vulnerabilities to the “weight of the world” becomes important. I am describing here what Taylor refers to when he writes, “To have a ‘world,’ and to think and interpret within it, is to be in a ‘body of sense’ with meaning(s) continually circulating through world’s extended or concentrated bodies.”[12] This approach does not lend to us a neat system of knowing that references a pre-weighed, pre-ordained composition of world, but acknowledges the elusive ethical task of interrogating the ever-shifting weight and complicated intersection of bodies and the contents of the psychic space they inhabit that both make for and frustrate the possibilities of world as a totality of meaning. This world is not a predetermined product that yields a relentless and rigid teleological ethic. It is a world ever-becoming, being weighed and not already weighed, that demands an ethic oriented by an (un)knowing and vulnerable to the twists and surprises of reimagined ontology.

Of course, this practice of ethical sensing slips from human grasp, quickly escaping, always on the move to avoid the totalizing grip of one’s closed fist. This approach takes risk. Pinn writes, “There is no foundation for moral action that guarantees individuals and groups will act in productive and liberating ways.”[13] Struggling in this tension positions us to address the questions that opened this section. Why spend time traversing a theoretical landscape littered with the failed attempts of language to describe and name that foundation? Because, in the process of bodies arranging space, the shifts toward concentration are not perceived by those bodies privileged by the linguistic ontological frameworks that make space for them. And by rummaging through the wreckage of frameworks unable to support the weight of world, one will ultimately confront a specter of what they could not bracket out of existence. Such an encounter startles one into the awareness of ontological possibilities beyond the linguistic borders commissioned to mark off reality.

With a variety of performances that manifest in poetics, artistic expression, music, memory, storytelling, and other creative activity those bodies predisposed to spaces of concentration shift toward the delicate and complex spacings and balancing needed for world. Because they have been pre-weighed, cut-off from meaning making, these bodies erupt in artistic acts of resistance to haunt the subjugating edges of language and signal beyond the limits of words where world as a totality of meaning is threatened. In the recurring adjustments of bodies between world and unworld, these acts shift in content. Bodies write and rewrite themselves against compressed and concentrated weight. Here it is helpful to quote Mark L. Taylor:

They write not just for their bodies. They write their bodies. They seek, from within a place where bodies are squeezed and concentrate, a re-creation of world, one sustained in part by a memory or a hope of world as that sustaining interplay of mutual relation and distance. The re-creation is a process that makes ‘freedom’—and the emphasis for Nancy is on freedom as having to be made or created, not something that can be presupposed or shown to have a ground.”[14]

An ethical orientation in light of Nancy’s world and shifting weight evades naming and resists capturing in language the product of its pursuits. It is ever becoming and re-creating depending on the embodied scripts emerging in its midst. Ethics becomes about the flexibility of our ontological sensibilities, always contemplating, interpreting, responding, and open to the multiple ways bodies write themselves to re-create world.

It is within the exploration of this shifty ontological sensibility that the theological conversation proves useful. But why the theological? Something stirs in the name God. Again, the formulation of an ethical orientation does not require anchoring one’s moral choices or way of living in a transcendent God (big G). Yet the narrative of God continues to impact the shifting between world and unworld. The conversation of God, God-talk, has indelibly shaped history and the arrangement of bodies. Taylor comments, “even those who reject [God-talk] must work in the ruins of its failure.”[15] The debris and obstructions of God-talk have to be picked up, moved aside, reworked, explained, contextualized, and repurposed as one traces and explores the powers, bodies, presuppositions, and discourses constituting the world’s shifting weight and the consequences for those bodies that comprise “this ontologically constituting, agonistic dimension of human thought and practice.”[16] Something stirs in the name of God. Taylor argues then,

“The theological is a discourse that discerns and critically reflects upon the motions of power in this agonistic dimension. More particularly, it traces and theorizes the ways that persons and groups rendered subordinate and vulnerable by agonistic politics and its systemic imposed social suffering nevertheless haunt, unsettle, and perhaps dissolves the structures of those systems.”[17]

Anthony Pinn agrees, “The human body exists within a framework of mutual dependence that must be addressed theologically.”[18] Of course, this theological pursuit is not dependent on “the consequence of a grand plan; it, instead, requires simple human creativity worked out within the context of vibrant flesh in touch with other pulsating lives in the world.”[19]

The theological, god-talk after God, does not engage, then, in conversations that describe and manage the ontological assumptions of an absolute Being grounding and ordering human be-ing. The theological, rather, struggles after “not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.”[20] There are stirrings amid the shifting weight of bodies that incite an impassioned confrontation with unworld. There is something going on that promotes a resistance of counterweight force against shifts that compress and concentrate. And God-talk misses what is astir within this resistance by naming it God and organizing it within a stable, complete construction of thought. And yet, god-talk still honors the transcendent available in the immanent. This idea points to what William Connolly terms a mundane transcendence, which he understands as “any activity outside a nonhuman force-field or human awareness that may then cross into it, making a difference to what the latter becomes or interacting with it in fecund or destructive ways.”[21] The theological stays open to the influences and forces at work beyond the known and seen, susceptible to the unexplainable mysteries at work without relegating them to a transcendence categorized exclusively within an ontology informed by supernature.

The theological follows along the named unnamable of God-talk, chasing after “the event that is going on in words and things, as a potency that stirs within them and makes them restless with the event.”[22] Those conversing in the theological enact what John Caputo calls a “spectral hermeneutics.”[23] When world shifts toward unworld and rage imposes certain demands in the name of God, what is it that stirs in that name?  What possibilities for world harbored in the name of God haunt the current state of affairs with “the fragile ‘perhaps’ in things?”[24] In the next chapter, we will take up these questions and the way they ask us to reckon with ghostly figures that signal crushing shifts toward an unworld of compressed and concentrated bodies.

 

[1] Mark L. Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 37.

[2] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 38.

[3] Jean Luc Nancy, Corpus (New York, Fordham University Press, 2008), 93, 95 (emphasis his).

[4] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 39.

[5] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 40.

[6] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 40.

[7] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 42.

[8] Nancy, Corpus, 97, (emphasis his).

[9] Kelly Oliver, The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 26.

[10] Nancy, Corpus, 95.

[11] Oliver, The Colonization of Psychic Space, 43 (emphasis hers).

[12] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 47.

[13] Anthony B. Pinn, End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 114.

[14] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 46.

[15] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 11.

[16] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 9.

[17] Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 9.

[18] Anthony B. Pinn, Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 143.

[19] Pinn, The End of God-Talk, 77.

[20] Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo, After the Death of God (Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture), ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 47.

[21] William E. Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 74.

[22] Caputo, After the Death of God, 50.

[23] Caputo, After the Death of God, 51.

[24] Caputo, After the Death of God, 51.

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