In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God (John 1:1)
In the end was the dance, and the song was with Her, and the song was Her (She ∞:∞)
The power of the Word is inescapable and defining. As a woman born into the Christian tradition, the Word wrote me into the story before I knew how to speak. And now, years later, as I reach for the pen, I seek to understand the linguistic violence done to me and my sisters, each in the unique handwritings of the religious forefathers. As I begin to rewrite myself, re-speak myself (Maracle), I am struck by the specific employment of Biblical language that has systematically harmed women in countless ways, but especially in our relationships with our bodies as knowledgeable, pluralistic, and sexual/sexuaplicitous. In this paper I argue for a concept of female sexuality that is vast, non-confining, and diverse in possibility and expression, a concept I will henceforth refer to as sexuaplicity. Through Biblical language, our bodies are contextualized, racialized, and specifically sexualized across time and space. What are the linguistic mechanisms and structures permitting Biblical language to be weaponized in such a fashion, particularly regarding the body as a source of knowledge and as sexuaplicitous? I fully recognize the historical and ongoing violence that the Christian institution has brought upon people, especially women, through rape, murder, linguistic theft, role definment and confinement, dislocation, and so on. The Christian institution is a weapon of colonialism in the clearest sense. These violences are multiplicitous and intersectional, emerging from a range of motivations and worldviews. The focuses of this paper will be to understand one small facet of the ongoing project: the mechanisms that allow for Biblical language, particularly the text of the Bible itself, to be utilized in such a way that disembodies, or narrowly defines the range of possibilities for women as embodied and sexuaplicitous. As aforementioned, this is a complex process, and by no means do I suggest that every woman’s embodiment is the same nor her experiences as a sexual being are in some way universalized. Instead I seek to explore possible understandings of language, as informed by various traditions, that might then explain what mechanisms are operating at the linguistic level to perpetuate this harm. I begin with Analytical approaches to Philosophy of Language, venture into Continental Philosophy’s approaches, and end with some ingredients for a new world where I might be a woman, reconnect with the sexuaplicitous body I was taught to despise, and, should I desire, keep some spiritual commitments that might align with the Christian tradition. Again I recognize the limitations of this endeavor. As an educated, middle-class, white American woman, the harms I have experienced are in no sense true for all women; likewise, the ingredients for a new world attempt to provide a pluralistic, rich space that might both accommodate the unique needs of women suffering in different ways in some manner related to Christian language and Biblical language interpretation, and allow for a spirituality or faith that maps onto aspects of the Christian tradition, but these attempts may fail. For other sisters who may find this endeavor useful, I hope that through the burning of Christian hegemonies, there may be a renewal, something to salvage, such that in order to feel connected to your sexuaplicitous, knowledgeable bodies, you do not have to abandon your Christian faith, should you choose. I am not intent upon taking that from anyone. To all the Christian women who have come before me, I both thank you and weep because of you. Some of you showed me the movement I needed to remember I was alive, a flesh, not just a sanitized, empty vessel for the Holy Spirit. But many of you were the most lawful enforcers of the Word. You shamed me, taught me that my body, my love, is expendable, already the property of a jealous God and a saintly, innocent future husband. You clenched the pen with demure ferocity; writing on my body the places to hide, the places that would be invaded, and the places designed to bring me to the fulfillment of self: motherhood. Sisters, the power of the Word is a violent fork-tongued one, and many of you are the mouthpieces of your own bodily destruction, and of your sisters’ and daughters’ destruction. It is time to sing, to dance, to scream. Through this philosophical exploration, the gathering, discarding, and altering of tools, and the building of worlds, I need to speak myself, to write myself, communicate myself as a spiritual, embodied, sexuaplicitous woman. It is time to sing, to dance, to scream.
va de monte
a monte. Desde los olivos,
será un arco iris negro
sobre la noche azul. ¡Ay! Como un arco de viola,
el grito ha hecho vibrar
largas cuerdas del viento. ¡Ay! (Las gentes de las cuevas
asoman sus velones) ¡Ay!
Before unpacking possible tools, I find it necessary to mention the relationship and mutual contributions between the Western philosophical tradition and fundamentalist Christian ideology, particularly regarding the body. Rene Descartes laid metaphysical groundwork for a dualistic understanding of human beings existing as physical and mental. The materiality of the body is reducible and ultimately decays, while the mind is infinite; thus, the notion of a soul trapped in earthly flesh is reinforced and philosophically supported. While the exact nature of the relationship between body and mind proves complex, especially considering consciousness, Cartesian dualism nonetheless persists through consistent philosophical entrenchment–a process I admittedly just performed as well–and continues to shape Christian body ideology (Robinson). “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Plato also pursued a philosophical explanation for the soul’s imprisonment in the flesh. He argued that the body is a transient, imperfect reflection of the eternal Forms. “These Forms not only make the world possible, they also make it intelligible, because they perform the role of universals,” (Robinson). This notion of eternal universality as a locus for intelligibility perfectly complements Christian treatment of the Bible not only as the divine Word of God, but subsequently the source of spiritual, faithful intelligibility. The meaning contained in the pages of the Bible dictates the intelligibility of faith, of spirituality, of God’s own Word. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). The power of these words is remarkable, and they have consistently worked for religious Christian leaders to disembody the spiritual being from her flesh, stripping her of her physical knowledge–or, at least, taking away the words that render intelligible this bodily knowledge–and sexually limiting her to the role of pure virgin.
Analytical Philosophy’s Approaches to Language and Embodiment
Traditional Western approaches to understanding language and the transmission of meaning lie in a foundational desire to understand reality and truth. In Philosophy of Meaning, Knowledge and Value in the Twentieth Century, analytic philosopher Aloysius Patrick Martinich outlines the historical scope of the rise of Philosophy of Language in its truth-seeking endeavor. While the desire to objectively explain reality and truth extended beyond the realm of earlier philosophies, science thus far was struggling to articulate reality and truth in the empirical, objective manner that it suggested it could deliver. The challenges of other disciplines inspired Western philosophers at the turn of the twentieth century to seek other avenues for understanding, thereby considering language a source for truth and reality. The inspiration for this pursuit rested in a notion that language itself must “reflect reality”; thus, understanding language would unlock the truths of the universe as it existed. “Since language reflects reality, discovering the structure of language would reveal the structure of reality,” (Martinich, 9). The shift in focus from the sciences to language did not actually abandon science; rather, science, math, and logic were applied to language, forming the basis of various theories of language, including Logical Positivism, Semantics, and Pragmatics. “The original logical positivists were the philosophically oriented scientists and mathematicians who formed the Vienna Circle under the leadership of Moritz Schlick” (Martinich, 13). Logical positivists granted some sentences as expressive and value-laden, but the focus for most logical positivists involved the cognitive, logical sentences, through which truths emerged. This capacity rested in the correct utilization of logical syntax, from which meaning would come. According to this approach, when empirically verifiable and deploying appropriate syntax on the grounds of logical, grammatical structuring, language reflects reality, thus fulfilling the initial goals of Western sciences and philosophy. However, logical positivists faced serious challenges and inevitably would have to concede that in some cases, sentences would be syntactically and logically true but impossible to verify or simply not true reflections of reality. Since the pursuit was to show that language could perfectly reflect reality, many philosophers abandoned Logical Positivism and sought answers in Semantic and Pragmatic approaches, spearheaded by original Vienna Circle member Rudolf Carnap. Arguably, Carnap salvaged aspects of Logical Positivism, while demonstrating that this approach was not exhaustive of meaning. The relationships between lexical items, i.e., syntax had meaning, and so, too, do the words themselves. Through the arrangement of words, the specific meaning of the words themselves, and, on occasion, the related context necessary for understanding–as is the case with pronouns–one could derive meaning, truth, and reality. The locus of meaning is still the sentence, but this sentence is more complex than Logical Positivism allows. Through the layering of Semantic meaning on top of Logical Positivism, Carnap distinguishes the meaningful capacities of language as expanded, yet still complete, objective, logical, and universal.
…Carnap extended the meta-language to include expressions that stand for semantical relations, such as the various designation relations that hold between the expressions of an object-language and the entities they stand for or designate. The primary goal of such a meta-language is to define the semantic notions of truth and falsehood—and the notions of logical truth and falsehood as well—as applied to the sentences of the object-language…(Cocchiarella, 37).
Though Semantics was able to account for broader notions of meaning in language as well as address some of the primary challenges leveled against Logical Positivism, philosophers of language started to concern themselves with not just what language is, but language does, thus inspiring the Pragmatics approach. While some Western philosophers argue that Pragmatics has roots in the alleged birthplace of philosophy, ancient Greece–see John May’s “A Brief Sketch of the Historic Development of Pragmatics–the Modernist and Post-Modernist periods of Western history introduced John Langshaw Austin, John R. Searle, and Herbert Paul Grice, linguists and philosophers often considered the seminal scholars of Pragmatics. Austin and Searle proposed the study of Speech Acts, again seeking to understand how language functions and what it does. Suddenly the Western tradition expands language and meaning to involve speech acting, and subsequently, the context and relationships between communicators–often narrowly considered to be just a speaker and listener (Korta and Perry) Grice drew attention to a limitation in Semantics through his theory of Conversational Implicatures; essentially Grice demonstrated that meaning is not always able to be ascertained through the lexical items and their semantic meanings as in the case of implied meanings that rely heavily upon the utterance’s context and quality of relations between speaker and listener. The classic example of Grice’s implicature is dialogue: “Alan: Are you going to Paul’s party? Barb: I have to work” (Davis, par 3). Alan and Barb know one another and Alan is able to see Barb’s implication that she will not be attending the party because she has to work. However, a Semantics approach could not explain what is meant in Barb’s response, as such a response would be considered nonsensical. Thus Grice is able to expand upon aforementioned philosophical approaches to language in order to explain additional spaces and influences on linguistic meaning that extend beyond mere syntax and lexical items.
Understanding dominant theoretical approaches to language prevalent throughout Western traditions beyond just communication, influenced by and influencing multiple aspects of this culture does grant one possible explanation for the treatment of Biblical text in Christian institutions, particularly fundamentalist ones. Like the original Logical Positivists, staunch advocates of this religious ideology like the ever-popular Ken Ham argue that the Bible is a reflection of reality and truth. In fact, Ham asserts that the Bible is a historical and scientific document that must be treated as such. From Genesis and 1 Chronicles the entire history of earth, beginning with the seven days of creation and Adam and ending with Christ, is recounted, which mathematically makes the earth around 6,000 years old. To question this erodes the believability of the entire Bible, the clear foundation of the Christian faith. If one were to dispute the meaning of the word day as anything other than a 24 hour period, Ham suggests that all other linguistic meaning is disputable; this means Christ dying, an essential part of the story, is also disputable. “Ultimately, the controversy about the age of the earth is a controversy about the authority of Scripture. If millions of years really happened, then the Bible is false and cannot speak with authority on any issue, even the Gospel,” (Ham). The centrality of the text itself as the source of meaning, as the accurate reflection of the reality of the world, and as the locus for Truth is arguably a Semantics approach to language. The text is the authority because the text holds meaning. In other words, the centering of the lexicon itself is clearly in line with the centering of logical syntax in the development of philosophical approaches to language in the Western analytical tradition, a center from which other ideas expand but nonetheless preserve. Therefore, whatever the Bible says a woman is, can, and should be simply is.
What is this fear that rages inside of you?
That you must know the universe, so that you may name it, control it,
Lest should you be named instead?
What are you so afraid of?
That reality must be defined, known,
So that you might know yourself?
Name or be named, know or be known, eat or be eaten, write or be written, speak or be spoken.
God already spoke you into existence,
So are fighting against this?
Or are you acting in divinity,
The mouthpiece of God-speaking others into existence and calling it the pronunciation of truth?
Your faith is an earthquake,
The text you clutch, the focus, from which seismic waves of beliefs radiate.
Swallow or be swallowed in the infinite,
Do you not see that your fearful building
Towers of Babel,
The Hangman’s trees,
Anything to cling to as an epicentric structure in the multiverse,
Blinds you, confines you,
Contradicts you who then writes God into manageable existence?
How lost you will be one day,
And oh, how beautiful.
While the historical development of Logical Positivism and Semantics illuminates the systematic deification of text as the source of meaning, Pragmatics provides another lens for teasing apart the multifaceted employment of language in the Biblical tradition, particularly against women and their bodies. Recent analytic philosophers of language like Mary Kate McGowan have utilized Pragmatics to explain the harms speech incur as seen in her 2012 contribution to Speech & Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech. McGowan argues that racist hate speech is a form of exercitive speech act, or utterance that exerts force, be that through altering the possibilities for relevant conversation, rendering unintelligible various utterances in the scope of the conversation, or changing the permissibility factors, linguistic and otherwise, in a given context. “Standard exercitives work via the exercising of the speaker’s authority over the realm in which the enacted permissibility facts preside. Such utterances also typically communicate the content of the permissibility fact enacted” (McGowan, 128). Such exercitives can be direct like declarations of rules or marriages, as well as implicit, covert, or indirect: not explicitly stating an entity as impermissible, but nonetheless rendering the impermissibility. McGowan attempts to show that because racist signs that say “Whites Only” for example, are clear acts of discrimination and are illegal as they attempt to alter racial permissibility in a given space, so, too, should racist hate speech be considered illegal and not protected under the First Amendment, as it discriminates in a similar fashion to the sign: as a form of exercitive speech act. McGowan outlines key ingredients for a successful exercitive: an utterance, specific circumstances, intentions, and some level of authority. Blended together, the very speech act can alter the permissibility of a situation, i.e., have material effects. Though McGowan is not clear about the exact nature of these ingredients, she does highlight that a harmful utterance involves multiple factors coalescing in a specific manner, aspects of speech previously not considered before Pragmatics emerged and cultivated some inertia. While her project is limited, not necessarily successful, and seeks to explain the harm of racist hate speech in terms that would render it intelligible for law practitioners and others who need to see a logical argument for why racist hate speech should not be protected under the First Amendment, McGowan does potentially provide a tool for understanding Biblical language as exercitive. The roles of women in the Bible are constrained if mentioned at all. Furthermore, purity of heart, mind, and body are paramount to the Godliness of women.
- “To be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:5)
- “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—” (1 Peter 3:1-3)
- “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21)
- “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body…”(1 Corinthians 6:18)
These are just a few of numerous charges to be sexually pure and submissive. In order to be a Godly woman, she must be self-controlled, bear cognitive supremacy over her sinful flesh, submit her body to God and to her husband, and, of course, be delightfully heterosexual. Otherwise, she “falls from grace”; according to Saint Jerome: “‘I will say it boldly: though God can do all things, he cannot raise a virgin after her fall’” (Jerome qtd in Burrus, 41-42). From these verses emerged “complementarianism,” the idea that women and men are equal in the eyes of the Lord, but different, thereby complementing one another in the roles they play: men lead, women support. Each of the verses, and the repetition they receive from church leaders and members alike, I argue act as exercitives. Suddenly the permissibility of conversation regarding sexual interest must instead follow as lust, a trial against impurity. The Biblical Word bears the ultimate authority as it the word of God Himself. This Word determines. It acts. It dictates what a woman can be, should be, and how she views her body. Conversation about Christian women’s bodies become these best-sellers:
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The rules of permissibility have changed by way of the ultimate authority of the Word, the Biblical text. I cannot argue with a Bible verse; this means arguing with God Himself. How I define, use, perceive, and recognize my body has been written.
In order to recognize you as a member of our community, a believer of Christ, please accept the following requirements of faith.
Your Hometown, Cedarville & the University
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Unpacking Biblical language within the context of analytical Philosophy of Language has provided some useful explanations for how the language is operating, be it as a cognitive, objective, universal, centering of syntax from which truth and meaning springs, or as exercitive speech acts actively constructing the rules and roles of women and their relationships to their bodies. However, this tradition does not give me tools to dismantle, rebuild, and reconnect with my body within a Christian tradition. In fact, I argue that the analytical approach further perpetuates a disembodiment in language in general. By centering the lexicon itself and defining lexicon as a purely cognitive endeavor, the body as a source of knowledge, meaning, and communication not only falls out but also gets reinscribed such that the text dictates the body’s role and experiences. Continental philosopher Julia Kristeva critiques along similar lines in her book Revolution in Poetic Language: “Instead, as agents of totality, in positions of control, science and theory intervene to make such discursive instances intelligible…linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, and psychoanalysis reveal that the thinking subject, the Cartesian subject who defines his being through thought or language, subsumes within that being and the operations which supposedly structure it…” (Kristeva, 14). When words fail to articulate a physical pain I may suffer, for example, the pain is either not real, or only real within the confines of words I may be later graciously given by the medical community. Rather than the body as source of multitudinous “truths” and knowledge and meanings—nevermind the land as a similar source dueting with humans, and nonhuman animals for that matter—the text usurps this position. Language is the tool of communication and expression to which bodies must ascribe and are thereby expressed and communicated themselves. My body does not speak; the text speaks my body. “ What we have encountered is, of course, not actual “flesh” but rather more words-words which are, however, more revealing of the elusive flesh, representing the utterance of that flesh” (Burrus, 50). So, not only does this tradition fail to do more than merely explain one potential utilization of language within Biblical religious institutions but also this tradition reinforces the violent disembodiment and limiting retextualization of women.
(She sings it best)
(Halsey-Castle | I do not own this song nor video)
Continental Philosophy’s Approaches to Language and Embodiment
In contrast, various contributors to Continental Philosophy have taken up the very task of reintroducing the body back into language. I turn now to the Continental Philosophy approach, specifically the work of French Psychoanalytic Feminists Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray who both offer possible tools but, I argue in agreement with philosophers Judith Butler and Elena Ruíz that ultimately Kristeva and Irigaray fail to bring the body as a pluralistic, intersectional wellspring of communication and expression in a useful relationship with language because of a centering and upholding of Western conceptions of language as necessary for meaningfulness and intelligibility, onto which the body is contorted. In other words, the body is defined to fit Western conceptions of language such that the language can account for the body, rather than decentering this linguistic conception and expanding, adding, cutting, reintroducing, and challenging it to map onto the communicative needs of the body, the land, the spirit, and the blending of them all in synchronized dance, each informing, supporting, relating, and pushing one another. Generally, Continental Philosophy already provides a broader account for linguistic mechanisms by acknowledging the definitive relationship that individuals have with a context already set and constructed. Hermeneutics calls this preset backdrop the fore-structure which is already acting before birth and introduction of an individual into the space and time (Ruíz, lectures). I was born into a world, a context, entirely outside of my control. I did not choose this fore-structure, and now I am left to try to see it for what it is and what it has done.
The Coffee House of the Lord
Theologian and professor Virginia Burrus delves into the historical underpinnings of women’s bodies being written as virgins or harlots in her piece “Word and Flesh: The Bodies and Sexuality of Ascetic Women in Christian Antiquity.” Burrus traces process by which women’s bodies and sexuality were systematically and intentionally written so as to “construct an orthodoxy.” The effect was twofold: control women’s bodies, and through metaphorizing versions of women’s bodies and their sexuality as paradigms of a holy congregation or as dangerous, worldly characters to be avoided and feared, control the church.
Closely linked with the construction of orthodoxy, the figure of the virgin is frequently contrasted with the figure of the heretical harlot, in language that seeks to delineate the boundaries of acceptable theological reflection while also creating a sharp distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders.” At the same time, the constructed opposition of virgin and harlot functions to limit and control the intellectual, social, and sexual behavior of Christian women (Burrus, 31).
Burrus is clear, the motivation of church leaders and writers of the post-Constantinian church needed to fortify their hold on the populace against the siege of “popular culture,” and so they turned to a glorification of the pure virgin as symbolic of the righteous church and the vilification of the sexually promiscuous harlot who not only physically entertains the whims and inclinations of “unchristian” culture, but who also is ignorant, unintelligent, and worst of all, “notoriously indifferent to the authority of her male superiors” (Burrus, 36-37). She states: “The culturally dominant androcentric construction of virginal sexuality, which crystallizes out of the distinctive needs of the fourth-century church, functions to create and defend new communal boundaries and to reassert and strengthen the gender hierarchy; in the process, it rewrites women’s bodies with an almost violent disregard for the physical knowledge and experience” (Burrus, 51). I argue that this rewriting is not with “an almost violent disregard” but with a very much violent and intentional disregard. She outlines three factors that contribute to this violence: firstly, building male superiority into the fabric of the community structure, secondly, attempting to bring together one dominating ideology to counter the threatening worldly culture, and thirdly, to subvert the ascetic traditions that threatened their control over female sexuality (Burrus, 44-45).
…the introduction of a decisively male-dominated political model for Christian community… the anxious concern to establish a unified and well-defined catholic orthodoxy…the need to come to terms with the disturbing influence of various ascetic movements in which traditional social institutions and the gender roles undergirding them were profoundly challenged. The men who struggled to construct an imperial, catholic orthodoxy were drawn again and again to the problems of boundaries and social order-above all the order of the relations between men and women. Within this context the well-bounded and constrained virginal body came to carry much of the weight of ecclesiology…(Burrus, 44-45)
Unsurprisingly, Mary becomes the ultimate symbol of the righteous Christian woman; she is obedient, prayerful, dutiful, eternally virginal, and pure in heart, spirit, mind and therefore, body. In fact, some writers during the post-Constantinian era, on which Burrus focuses, write away any aspect of Mary’s materiality unconnected to her sexual purity. According to Ambrose, bishop of Milan, “the virgin bears us not with physical pain, but with the rejoicing of the angels…a virgin has given birth to us without groaning…” (Ambrose qtd in Burrus, 40). She, the holy virgin, is physical only insofar as she bears the divine, universalized abstraction of sexual purity. Not only does she feel no pain in her service to the Lord, but then her body is merely an empty vessel, waiting for divine impregnation, and certainly not a source of meaning, knowledge, or truth. Furthermore, women’s sexuality is thus written into only two possibilities: the virgin or the harlot. The realm of possibilities for women’s sexuality is confined to pure virginity before and yet still within the sacrament of the marriage bed, or a unfettered, promiscuous heretic who cannot inherit the Kingdom. Burrus brilliantly uncovers the misogynistic disembodiment of women and the fierce sexual control that stemmed from the aforementioned historical factors, as well as, she suggests, a persistent, intense obsession with desiring a woman’s flesh. Instead of developing and teaching self-discipline, men controlled women’s bodies and sexuality. This continues today.
Direct Quotes from My Church Childhood | Only Now, Far Removed Can I Speak Back
“Ladies, be modest. Do not tempt your brothers-in-Christ.”
“Think of your future husbands, and how sad they will be when you have shared yourself with other men. Wouldn’t you rather be able to give him all of you? To be able to look him in the eyes and say he is the only one?”
Assuming I get married, and to a man, I’m sure he would be since he’d lose some control over that which was never his.
“You, daughter of Christ, are a rose. The more you give away your petals of love-emotional and physical-the less you become, and the less you have to give to your future husband, and to your God.”
I am maelstrom of possibilities. I can rain for centuries and the water will always be with me, return to me.
“Sisters, masturbation is a tool of the devil, a most devilish sin. To think impure thoughts and to touch yourself sullies your purity, your relationship with the Lord, and will ruin your relationship with your future husband.”
Thank you for teaching me to fear my body and my sexuality. I’m so glad my husband will know what to do because I surely don’t.
“Wow, you’re living in a co-ed dorm in college. So, are you, like, going to get pregnant now?”
Yes, because I have absolutely no self-control and wild sexual desires only kept at bay by the rules and walls that prevent me from accessing male bodies. Project much?
“You know, sex is like a bag of Doritos. You’re saving it to share with someone you care about during lunch. Someone in the hallway asks if they can have one. You decide sharing one chip won’t hurt. You give a chip here, a chip there, and pretty soon you realize when you get to lunch that you have run out chips and there are none left for the person you had originally planned to share them with.”
Good thing I’m allergic to Doritos.
Considering now Kristeva and her piece Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva seeks to reintroduce the body into language using Freudian-inspired psychoanalytic understandings of human development of self. She levels very similar critiques of analytical, Western approaches to language, arguing that “…[thoughts,] static products of a leisurely cogitation removed from historical turmoil, persist in seeking the truth of language by formalizing utterances that hang in midair, and the truth of the subject by listening to the narrative of a sleeping body—a body in repose, withdrawn from its socio-historical imbrication, removed from direct experience…” (Kristeva, 13). Kristeva elaborates on the non-exhaustive nature of these accounts in terms of what language is and does, as well as the complexity of a self, deeply connected to a time and place and a history. Because of her background in psychoanalysis, Kristeva is, in some sense, bringing the materiality of the body into realm of language as Freud did through the subconscious and conscious interacting with the body. “By attributing ‘pathologies’ in behavior to psychic structures, Freud established a link between the mind (psyche) and the material body (soma)…” (Ruíz, Revolt…, 73). Kristeva expands on the psychoanalytic role of the body and meaningful communication through what she calls the semiotic: “the affective dimension of language that facilitates its energetic movement. The semiotic is the materiality of language, its tonal and rhythmic qualities, its bodily force” (Zakin, 4.2). The drives and movements of the body, Kristeva argues, are able to disrupt the symbolic, or the formalized language of intelligibility in a particular social culture. The symbolic is necessary for rendering intelligible and meaningful the drives of the semiotic within the norm-governed culture, without which would be nonsensical babbling. The relationship between the semiotic and the symbolic is an inseparable connection between two distinct entities. She asserts: “…speech is always more than speech acts, that the symbolic realm of signification is always already vested with semiotic drive charge and oscillating bodily motility that cannot be altogether fore-closed, and the symbolic is always under threat of a ‘reversed reactivation’ by poetic language” (Ruíz, Revolt…, 68). Poetic spaces might allow the semiotic to break forward and disrupt the symbolic, Kristeva claims. The introduction of the semiotic is Kristeva’s introduction of the body into language, and contributes toward another goal of her project, to account for a complex, fractured, developing, fluid, non-static self. This self is still reliant upon the symbolic, but, in contrast to the previous theories of Jacques Lacan and Charles Strauss, the self is not suddenly unified and complete (Zakin, 3). Rather, “…the onset of the subject does occur upon its entrance into language, [although] it is never unified, unaffected by forces that existed prior to the mirror stage” (Ruíz,Revolt…, 76). This transition into language, or Kristeva’s thetic break, keeps the prelinguistic drives and “pre-mirror stage” history as focused in the material body even while these drives get transcribed into a meaningful linguistic expression within a social-cultural context. She describes this process as deeply maternal: the baby’s semiotic experiences in the womb are not lost upon birth—the thetic break—but rather continue to inform and influence the child as the child enters into a linguistic culture (Zakin, 3).
Kristeva attempts to retextualize the body by arguing for the constant semiotic influence the body propels into language. At first glance this is appears to be a useful strategy for embodying language and could therefore “give back” women’s agency to speak with their bodies that previous theories and approaches more or less tried to take. In fact, in some sense Kristeva centers the body, though she ultimately states the necessity of language to make the body’s knowledge meaningful and intelligibile. As aforementioned, Kristeva criticizes analytic and psychoanalytic approaches to language on the very grounds that these approaches disembody language. Kristeva thereby draws attention to this concern I raised regarding Biblical language; Biblical language seems to be understood as purely symbolic and actively encourages linguistic communication that disembodies thereby obfuscating bodily knowledge. Kristeva attempts to bring bodily knowledge “into the conversation” as informing and sometimes disrupting the symbolic, structured language of a given culture. The fluid, multiplicitous self is desirable and therefore potentially useful to conceive of women as pluralistic beings; perhaps through semiotic drives, women can respeak themselves, subvert, and challenge the narrow confines of self as woman as written into the Bible. While certainly an improvement upon previous approaches and theories, several critiques of Kristeva explicate her project as problematic and arguably unsuccessful. Philosopher Judith Butler notes that Kristeva universalizes and upholds the symbolic. “Though she effectively exposes the limits of Lacan’s efforts to universalize the paternal law in language, she nevertheless concedes that the semiotic is invariably subordinate to the symbolic, that it assumes its specificity within the terms of a hierarchy which is immune to challenge” (Butler, 105). Furthermore, Butler exposes Kristeva as “naturalizing” through biological essentiality a notion of maternity that is narrow, of a particular culture which she universalizes, and which ultimately opens the doors for “cultural unintelligibility of lesbianism” (Butler, 104). I agree with Butler and recognize Kristeva’s work as failing to account for female sexuaplicity. Philosopher Elena Ruíz launches similar critiques, highlighting that “the idea that this representational doubling prefigures language use, however, is built on the assumption that language is indeed a representational or modeled on subject/object principles” (Ruíz, Revolt…, 76). Ruíz agrees with Butler that Kristeva ultimately places the symbolic above the semiotic and in a manner that extends across all contexts and cultures; but this universalization of the symbolic is not just an abstract structuring. Ruíz draws attention to Kristeva’s understanding of the symbolic as a Western grammatical conception of language. “Structurally, Kristeva needs to posit a symbolic realm that is characterized by subject-predicate grammar because only in this way can (semiotic) poetic language break up or destabilize the symbolic…Kristeva is not attuned to the ways literacy, textuality, or even the alphabet can be a source of oppression because she identifies with a Western European cultural context that is Byzantine…” (Ruíz, Revolt…, 80 & 82). Again I agree with Butler and Ruíz that while certainly an improved understanding of language and the body relationship to it as communicative compared to previous impoverished, disembodied, limiting approaches, Kristeva’s dependence on Western grammar and syntax to make meaningful and intelligible the knowledge of the body, and her limitations for female sexuaplicity leave her project lacking. The semiotic is not enough. Taken up in Biblical contexts, the semiotic could be reabsorbed into the cultural narrative, leaving religious women stuck in the bounds of what constitutes pure bodily drives and how these may inform her spiritual becoming, still linguistically defined and confined in relation to Western lexicon.
Another contribution to the Continental sphere of feminist philosophy is the work of Luce Irigaray. She, too, was a psychoanalytic, deeply criticizing Freud and his treatment of the female sex. Irigaray takes up the same argument as Kristeva, but insists on the gendering of language as a crucially unrecognized aspect of discourse. Specifically in her piece Speculum d l’autre femme, Irigaray notes the “non-neutral” subject in discourse as actually masculine to which women are held in deficit, negation, or deviation from (Irigaray, 69). She calls attention to the pervasive effects of this “economy of the Same” that reduces the female sex to a non-speaking object caught in relation only to the masculine: “The teleologically constructive project it takes on is always also a project of diversion, deflection, reduction of the other in the Same. And, in in its greatest generality perhaps, from its power to eradicate the difference between the sexes in systems that are self-representative of a ‘masculine subject’” (Irigaray, 74). Irigaray seeks to capitalize on sexual difference in direct response to Freud’s phallocentric, universalization of the masculine subject as human, i.e., what she calls and his sexual indifference (Irigaray, 72). Throughout her work, Irigaray outlines the various spaces and mechanisms that uphold the phallocentrism of human experience and discourse. She argues that women are forced into a phallocentric economy in which the structuring of language, time, space, and knowledge all are designed around the male (Ruíz, lectures). Time as a linear construction affects discourse which then makes difficult the propensity for discussing past traumas in meaningful, intelligible, and present-affecting ways; “architectonics of the text, or texts, confounds the linearity of an outline, the teleology of discourse, within which there is no possible place for ‘feminine’ except in the traditional place of the repressed, the censured…” (Irigaray qtd in Wolfson, 87, & qtd in Ruíz, lectures). Furthermore, physical spaces, grammars, logic, and knowledge as mastery all reflect a masculine perspective as human perspective; therefore, discourse obfuscates female knowledge and her ability to speak as subject within the confines of masculine, gendered language (Irigaray, 75). Not only this, but, like Kristeva, Irigaray pushes against the static nature such theories of Freud and Lacan suggest for human beings. Irigaray suggests that by drawing attention to the between of sexed difference, or a duplicity of human nature, the feminine may be recognized as subject and not merely in negative relation to the masculine.
If human nature is two, and always divided, Irigaray argues, then civil identity is also two and divided; the two of nature needs to be brought into the two of culture. The one is an illusion of patriarchy, while the two threatens the phallocentric order and challenges the supposition that universality must be singular. The scandalous idea of a feminine subjectivity means that the universal must be doubled. Doubling the universal does not, for Irigaray, mean merely replacing a neutral universality (something that holds true for all human beings) with two wholly distinct and separate truths. A universal that has been doubled has also been split or divided from itself, no longer one, and Irigaray sees in this the possibility for cultivating sexual difference and overcoming a culture of sexual indifference that is dependent on the idea of the generic human. (Zakin, 4.1)
Through this deliberate splitting of human nature, the phallocentric economy, according to Irigaray, is interrogated and subverted. She argues for a valuing of sexual difference, but her body of work is unclear about exactly what this valuing is doing. She appears to push against essentializing the feminine and the idea of an equality of the sexes as Simon de Beauvoir suggests in The Second Sex. However, Irigaray’s work seems to vacillate between pushing against these ideas and simultaneously upholding them. “The idea of a between-two does not mean a singular path that is shared by both, but rather indicates, in addition to the value of a specifically feminine sexual identity and a specifically masculine sexual identity, the ethical path of an intersubjective relationality that allows them to appreciate and value one another” (Zakin, 4.1). Though vague, Irigaray builds out, proposing several methods for disrupting phallocentrism. Firstly she argues for a breaking up of the continuity and coherence of discourse by interrogating the conditions that make the continuity unfold, unquestioned (Irigaray, 74). In other words, challenge the the discourse itself, and question what allows discourses to obfuscate, limit, or gaslight speakers, particularly women. She suggests the tactic of mimicry to subvert traditional masculine discourses and play with the roles women are assigned in such a way as to draw attention to the gendering and harming of phallocentric language. “One must assume the feminine role deliberately…whereas a direct feminine challenge to this condition means demanding to speak as a (masculine) ‘subject,’ that is, it means to postulate a relation to the intelligible that would maintain sexual indifference. To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it” (Irigaray, 76). Like Kristeva, maternity takes a significant role in Irigaray’s work which, she argues, must be recognized and fostered. “This forgetting of the mother supports vertical and horizontal relations between men but leaves women unrepresented in language (as subjects) and incapable of achieving representation in the body politic (as citizens)…Irigaray believes that this type of self-determination is barred by the exclusion of mother-daughter genealogies, an exclusion that works to assign woman to a maternal destiny (as mothers of men)” (Zakin, 4.1). Finally, Irigaray advocates for a women’s only language because the current grammars—which, like Kristeva, she does not identify as Western constructions—are masculine and therefore inadequate for women to speak as subjects. While not especially lucid, Irigaray does explore the possibilities of this “women’s language” in her work The Sex Which Is Not One.
As I seek an understanding of language that allows me as a embodied, sexuaplicitous woman of a particular time and place to speak with knowledge and meaning against the dogmatic confines of religious doctrine, Irigaray brings to the forefront the influences of gender and false universalization of the male in discourse. In this respect, her project seems promising. Though I remain unconvinced that Irigaray successfully does so, she explicitly attempts to dismantle the complementarian view of the sexes by exploring the rupture between sexes rather than upholding one as the mirror or complement to the other. This is potentially useful for disrupting the very same notion of complementarianism in Biblical interpretations previously mentioned. However, I agree with critics of Irigaray that she commits to the type of essentialism of the female sex, though she considers this strategic essentialism in order to get to a place of female subjecthood. Nonetheless, emphasis on the maternal and material differences between the two sexes appears to essentialize some aspect of the female. Furthermore, this essentialism, strategic or otherwise, ignores the other multifaceted aspects of the female experience as a gendered body that is also a racialized, classed, sexuaplicitous, colonized or colonizing body, as critics like Gayatri Spivak have noted. Such factors sometimes preclude the ability to speak at all, according to Spivak. Spivak argues in her work “Can the Subaltern Speak?” that Western language and textualization functions by erasure and obfuscation, specifically of voices calling attention to coloniality and imperial violence. “Perhaps it is no more than to ask that the subtext of the palimpsestic narrative of imperialism be recognized as ‘subjugated knowledge’, ‘a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualifIed as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity” (Spivak, 76). These knowledges beneath are what Spivak calls the subaltern. She asserts that Western discourse is part of the colonial project that keeps knowledges and peoples below the level of intelligibility such that then language cannot allow for the subaltern to speak. Irigaray and Kristeva both commit to language as a source of power for women to “respeak themselves” as subject, but Spivak draws careful attention to the simple fact that not all women, not all peoples, can respeak themselves, thanks to colonial discourse. She draws upon her experiences in colonialized India to draw attention to this epistemic violence:
Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat. According to Foucault and Deleuze (in the First World, under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital, though they do not seem to recognize this) the oppressed, if given the chance (the problem of representation cannot be bypassed here), and on the way to solidarity through alliance politics (a Marxist thematic is at work here), can speak and know their conditions. We must now confront the following question: on the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak? (Spivak, 78, my emphasis).
Her answer in the final paragraph of her essay is a simple no, the subaltern cannot speak (Spivak, 104). By showing that Western language intentionally erases certain voices, continues colonialism, and prevents interrogation of the structures, Spivak offers a profound critique of Irigaray and Kristeva’s narrow conception of woman that is nonetheless universalized and their intense commitments to language as a tool for self-determination. For Irigaray in particular, her suggestion that disrupting phallocentric discourse can transpire through interrogating the conditions that allow for coherence and linguistic flow drastically fails in light of Spivak’s criticism precisely because the subaltern cannot interrogate, cannot speak, cannot be intelligible, within the colonial framework.
Again like Kristeva, Irigaray fails to consider a broader multiplicity of the female subject, relying on some form of essentialism; the role of the maternal blurs how necessary this role is to women, thereby flirting with a reading that might link woman-subject with motherhood. Does Irigaray’s account allow for trans-women, women without reproductive capacities, or women who simply do not want to have children? Perhaps, but she is not clear about the ramifications of her “strategic essentialism” that might lead to a less-than-savory response to this question. Finally, Irigaray falls into the same trap as Kristeva by upholding the notion of language as the point of entry into a social space and necessary for intelligibility, and specifically, a type of language that is Western. As Spivak says, not everyone has language. As Elena Ruíz notes in her work on hermeneutic violence, whoever owns the definitions of words like violence determines discourse and the intelligibility or unintelligibility of experiences of violence. “Must be nice to be able to have words to speak, to be intelligible, to be heard” (Ruíz, Understanding…). The necessity of language for self means that Irigaray must use it to speak the woman’s body much like Kristeva. “…Irigaray attempts, through discourse, to reconstruct women’s bodies and their sexual pleasure” (Berg, 53). Moreover, even though Irigaray appears to fight against this very conception of language, denouncing it as inherently phallocentric, she nonetheless universalizes the concept of language itself. By arguing for a women’s only language, she suggests that all language as it exists is phallocentric, thereby completely ignoring the languages of non-Western and Indigenous peoples that do not all ascribe to a phallocentric grammar. Numerous critics, including Education professor and artist Yuen-yi Lo, point to Irigaray’s ignorance by pointing to such languages like nüshu, a Chinese script used and practiced exclusively by women. “Nüshu, translated from Chinese Mandarin, means women’s script. Being a phonetic system of writing derived from the local dialect, nüshu is believed to be created and practiced by the women mainly in the township of Shangjiangxu in the Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, China” (Yuen-yi, 398). Thus, Irigaray and Kristeva both seek to provide far more than previous accounts of language in ways that draw attention to the role of the body and the female body in particular, how she may speak as subject, but ultimately these writers tend to essentialize, universalize, and ignore the intersectionality of woman as a multiplicitous self. The tools of Kristeva and Irigaray are still not adequate to account for women’s bodies and sexuaplicity, nor do they sufficiently dismantle the linguistic structures working against women in Christian institutions. I agree with Spivak that Irigaray and Kristeva do not consider the intersectional positions of the subaltern who by the very mechanisms of language cannot speak.
Sweet Honey in the Rock: Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. I do not own this song nor video.
Building The World: The Ingredients
I want to be recognized as multiplicitous, uncontained, to feel sexy without shame,
I want to talk about my physical hurt, and have the doctors hear my pain,
I want to proudly show my figure without scorn, resentment, assault,
I want to explore my sexuality without regret, remorse, or guilt,
I want to not have children, and still be considered woman,
I want to wear my hair short and get big biceps, without being called butch, unattractive, unfeminine, masculine.
I want all this and to have you–the Church–support me,
I want to maintain a relationship with a higher being, and be part of a version of this spiritual community.
That might be too much to ask…
If I want to be part of some faith-based community with beliefs that align with aspects of Christianity, I need a world where my body is present, knowledgeable, sexuaplicitous, and spiritual, and where I might speak from the space. Thus, I need an understanding of language that tears down the oppressive Biblical language that silences me, confines me, sexualizes me in a very specific manner, and teaches me to fear, deny, and ultimately hate my very flesh.
“ What we have encountered is, of course, not actual ‘flesh’ but rather more words-words which are, however, more revealing of the elusive flesh, representing the utterance of that flesh,” (Burrus, 50)
In the end such a world may not exist and I will need to forego my membership to such a community. So be it. However, through the combining of ingredients I will propose a vision for the Christian community that may be a step in the right direction, though certainly not an exhaustive, complete solution. The best solution very well may be to burn it all to the ground. As aforementioned, the Church is a fortress of colonialism, settler futurity, and material and epistemic violence that moves across gender, race, class, sexuality, and so on. If fire is the only answer, I will raise the torch. Still, if there are ways of re-imaging (Maracle) the church to preserve whatever is positive and enriching while tearing down the rest, I will gather the tools and do what I can to re-construct. Here I now investigate possible tools for construction and alteration that might address the primary needs on which I have focused in this paper.
I have tasted the bitter draught of vacancy.
The intoxication of intoxication.
The lack of solace, sobriety, self.
Trying to be the blank canvas, so that you may write upon me.
What a pungent brew.
Sisters, we, who are vast, both deep and wide in body, heart, mind,
We who find ourselves floating, or wedged into small spaces,
We. Are. Galaxies.
But often, we are compressed, forced, without luxury or recognition of choice,
shedding ourselves of ourselves.
And So we drift…
through the chaos of the cosmos, the movement of the multiverse, the song of the sun,
A whispering, (an alternate murmuring),
We might know our intergalacticality despite the stealing of our speech.
Listening to the voices without voices,
Feeling the sinews of our knowledges scream.
Supernovas, scintillate your selves. Deploy your brilliances.
Blind, illuminate, swallow the telescopes, the instruments of the gaze that seeks to name you, contain you, deny you recognition of the knowledge
that the galaxies we are, are too precious, vast,
to be just a star.
Leading wise men.
I have already gestured to Gayatri Spivak’s elucidation of language operating to erase, uphold epistemic violence, and prevent interrogation as a useful tool for understanding the Biblical language role in this project within, though certainly beyond, the Church. I think Spivak reveals, among other things, the flaws of Western language structures. This tool informs the limitations of Biblical language and compels me to consider other strategies for communication, knowledge transmission, and community engagement. I will outline the following strategies and considerations that together might construct a more liveable world for women in the Church, bearing in mind that these are certainly not exhaustive, may ultimately fail, and likely do not account for all of the needs of women writ large considering the forces on her existence are pluralistic and not uniform across all women’s experiences. These are as follows:
- Situating the self in a dynamic relationship with the past and future;
- Decentering the text in favor of oral story-telling;
- And by doing so, dismantling the Church hierarchy to dissolve patriarchal knowledge bearers as exhaustive and absolute;
- Recognizing other forms of spiritual knowledge and expression, like the body needing to speak and to heal;
- Encouraging other embodied languages of music and dance;
- Re-building physical spaces that reflect the aforementioned notions, allow for movement, decenter text, and decenter pastors as the knowledge-keepers.
Situating the Self in a Dynamic Relationship with the Past and Future
Black feminist epistemologists and Indigenous scholars alike have argued for the importance of a dynamic reflexivity that situations the self in a fluid relationship with pasts and futures. They push against a static understanding of histories and presumed mysterious futures that pervade Western culture. Philosopher Kristie Dotson and writer Toni Morrison both describe a reconstruction of the self through creative imagination. While their projects are specifically employed—for Morrison, she seeks to uncover the interior lives of her enslaved ancestors who did not write themselves, and for Dotson a demonstration of a multifaceted mode of thinking to counter claims for “intellectual diversity” in the academy—the process of creative imagination is insightful and arguably advocates for a sense of self inextricably linked to pasts, presents, and possible futures. Dotson’s key ingredients of creative imagination are cathected proximities, imaginative pathways, and embedded futurities. “Cathected proximity, here, is understood as a relation (or set of relations), spatial or otherwise, to others that are invested with emotion. These proximities generate imaginative pathways, which become sites for reconstruction and exploration” (Dotson, 127). Creative imagination requires a self that recognizes the self’s relations to others. Her next ingredient, imaginative pathways, are made possible by the cathected proximity the self recognizes. “Imaginative pathways, here, refers to visceral sites of creative and/or intellectual exploration and reconstruction that are opened up by our relations to others. Through imaginative pathways, we exercise our imaginations towards reconstruction and exploration of precisely those parts of our worlds that are other-facing” (Dotson, 127). Already Dotson is calling attention to deep, affective aspects of imagination that might reconstruct a world, and a self within it. Her final ingredient is then the embedded futurity that utilizes relationality and viscerality to understand the self in the present, and eventually build the self as part of a future. Morrison’s project of creative imagination to understand the interior lives enslaved ancestors is evident in her novel Beloved, in which character Denver holds a cathected proximity to former slaves, namely her mother, thereby having a visceral relationship to that history even though she herself had not experienced this captivity. Through cathected proximity, she develops imaginative pathways through which she explores the experiences of her mother and her dead sister, and understanding herself in relation to these experiences. From here she might imagine and build possibilities of future interactions, future selves, and future worlds in light of these knowledges (Dotson, 130-133). Again, these projects and their use of creative imagination are distinct and profound; I suggest that creative imagination is a possible strategy that women in the Christian community might undertake. Through reflexivity and visceral relations to one another presently and in the past, women might reconnect with each other, but also reimagine the Biblical narratives that are treated as objective histories and that seem largely void of bodily experience and knowledge. Understanding the self as a nexus in a web of relations to Biblical figures and emphasizing the emotional connections one might cultivate could serve an informed future that disrupts the synchronized march of linear objectivity strangely disconnected to an emotional, complex past. This may prove useful for such women to situate themselves in a complex historical tradition. For example, give me back Thecla, the feminist warrior ascetic who was rejected by Paul, and instead protected by women, a lioness, and her own might, both spiritually and personally. She baptizes herself. The story of Thecla is often inscribed as another centering and uplifting of Paul and an obsession with virginity. Perhaps through creative imagination, Christian women might generate relationships with Theclas. Creative imagination is not just useful for these women. The implied message is clear: identity rests in relation to collective memory. “Creative imagination, then, aims at detecting signs of renewal and displaying those signs as part of a process animated by collective, intergenerational memory, including the relations with each other and the land that these memories imply, that produce imaginative pathways that open sites for reconstruction and exploration of our world” (Dotson, 129-130). Overall I would argue that the Church has strategically forgotten. “This kind of thinking assumes that their [colonizers] current occupation of our [First Nations] space is justified by patterns of colonization set in the past, that what happens now is not connected to the past, as though time and space could be rearranged according to the settlers’ illusions…” (Maracle, 122-123). The treatment of the Bible as an immutable, objective truth somehow consolidates and serves as the memory, ignoring or mis-remembering the Church’s violence and coloniality, that has been changing, growing, adapting, and transforming across different cultures, times, and places. A collective memory that is intergenerational and not strategically sanitized is an important element toward the construction of futures that still maintain Christian identity but, hopefully, without the atrocity. Indigenous writer Lee Maracle mentions this very process: “The uneducated Europeans who moved to North America remained Christian. In the course of their moving Christianity transformed. But even the transformation of Christianity did not diminish Christendom. Holding onto cultural memory makes us both radical and conservative” (Maracle, 120). Scholars like Burrus are necessary contributors to a remind and re-infom the collective memory. Indigenous philosopher Kyle Whyte writes about a similar fluidity of past and future to inform the present in a what he calls spiraling time:
Experiences of spiraling time, then, may be lived through narratives of cyclicality, reversal, dream-like scenarios, simultaneity, counter-factuality, irregular rhythms, ironic un-cyclicality, slipstream, parodies of linear pragmatism, eternality, among many others. The spiraling narratives unfold through our interacting with, responding to and reflecting on the actual or potential actions and viewpoints of our ancestors and descendants. They unfold as continuous dialogues (Whyte, 229).
I argue that the Church actively tries to disconnect with many of its ancestors, and preserves in amber the Biblical text as the ancestors whose words are immutable. Instead, I suggest that the Church take up the practices of creative imagination and spiraling time to once again relate and connect to a rich but violent, embodied historical memory to situate itself, recognize itself for what it is, and to hopefully construct a future that ceases to embed the same narrative, the same colonial, misogynistic etc. identity.
Decentering the Text in Favor of Oral Story-Telling
Next I urge the Church to decenter the Biblical text as the source of spiritual knowledge. I have already presented various cases against textual centrality, discussed in the problems with analytical philosophy of language, and the certain type of text which centers a Western universalized grammatical structuring of language to which Kristeva and Irigaray unfortunately commit. In order to incorporate pluralistic knowledge and contributions of multiple, diverse voices in spiritual knowledge-making, the body as a source of knowledge and the collective experiences, emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual and otherwise are necessary. One possibility for both pluralizing and shifting text-focus is Indigenous practices of oral story-telling. While Lee Maracle writes extensively about the numerous importances of orality and story-telling for Indigenous communities, I am especially interested in the adaptability of oral story-telling that text does not allow. She says “Indigenous people were oral. Knowledge keepers were trained rememberers. They were educated to recall the significant in what what is said or done. If an action occurred, which might impact the generations to come, rememberers were schooled to recognize it, track its history, identify its direction, and commit it to memory” (Maracle, 119, my emphasis). Excusing for a moment the fact that Maracle might be generalizing and universalizing indigeneity, her writing about oral story-telling demonstrates oral story-telling’s flexibility in the structuring of knowledge. Oral stories preserve what might be significant and informative for the future, and these stories can adapt and change over time. No oral story is told the same way twice; the influence of the material in inflection, timbre, gestures and the versions each individual might share captures the significance of the story while infused with individual experience. Some details might fall out or change, but if the aim is to serve the needs of the community through an informed and active relationship to prior histories, memories, knowledges, then this keeps the past alive and disperses sources of knowledge both in terms of more community members contributing and reintroducing the body in knowledge production and transmission. I do not suggest that the Bible be burned or never read, but ought to instead be treated as one of many sources of knowledge, embedded in a history and a culture that cannot perfectly dictate present experiences.
In the same vein, I argue for dismantling the Church hierarchy to dissolve patriarchal knowledge bearers as exhaustive and absolute. Pastors and priests are perceived to be divinely-guided knowledge keepers and spiritual translators—nevermind the consistent, timeless abusiveness and raping these men have so often committed. The history of the Church structure as Burrus and others have acknowledged, is deeply misogynistic, sexist, dogmatic, and another example of Christian men trying to control women’s bodies and fight against popular culture. Bring down the gates of spiritual knowledge and intelligibility of which so few seem to be capable according to the Church, and instead through communal oral story-telling, invite more contributions of spiritual knowledge from the collective as knowledge keepers themselves.
Recognizing Other Forms of Spiritual Knowledge and Expression, Like the Body Needing to Speak and to Heal
“Western society, in general, accepts the estrangement of the spiritual belief from emotional wellness and physical existence, and knowledge and intellectual development are divorced from the spirit” (Maracle, 135). As I have argued already, the body is a source of knowledge, and like Maracle states, Western culture has in many ways disembodied Christianity and the body’s capacity for spiritual knowledge. Furthermore, women’s bodies have been systematically severed, limited, essentialized, sexualized, and controlled (and racialized, colonized, and on and on) in the Church. Indigenous scholar Dian Million articulates the ways in which Indigenous women in Canada spoke into discourses rich, experiential, emotional knowledges which served as an impetus for change against the violence of the Indian Act (Million, 54-56). She writes at length about the felt aspects of colonialism as knowledge that Indigenous women utilized to talk about their experiences, have some catharsis, and bring the domestic and private into the public and political spheres. She argues that “…academia serves as a gatekeeper, challenging alternative forms of knowing. Because the emotional knowledge of our experience is an alternative truth, it is challenged ferociously” (Million, 64). I agree and see a parallel with religious institutions denying the truths of the body, particularly women’s bodies. She cites Cherokee author Betty Louise Bell who shares the process of women telling their truths in a similarly reflexive manner as was aforementioned in creative imaginations, spiraling time, and oral story-telling: “As far back as I remember, I belonged to a secret society of Indian women meeting around a kitchen table in a conspiracy to bring the past into the present…they heard, and they taught me to hear, the truth in the things not said. They taught me to listen, in the space between words” (Bell qtd in Million, 64). This process pushes against objectivity of discourse so often glorified in Western traditions and instead invites a felt, embodied knowledge into the realm of discourse; “the Native narrative cannot be ‘objective.’ But what is objective except Western science’s own wet dream of detached corporeality?” (Million, 73). Quite so.
Encouraging Other Embodied Languages of Music and Dance
Alongside Million’s felt theory of embodied language, I suggest that the Church incorporate other transmissions of knowledges that take the form of embodied languages like art, music, sign language, and dance. While I certainly recognize that music is still very much a central part of Christian services, and even sacred dance has become increasingly incorporated, I argue that the selection of musics and movements that are considered spiritually appropriate and intelligible, and how the congregations engage with these musics and dances are both reflections of a centering of a particular Westernized formalization of art, an argument I detail more robustly in a paper “Beyond Mere Form: Multiplicity of Meaning in Music.” Furthermore, the ways in which these arts are engaged are often rigid and emblematic of audience-performer dynamics seen on Western stages. I want to be careful here because I have entered black baptist churches that very much do not subscribe to this rigid dynamic. For the many other Christian congregations who do though, I say, move! Sing! Dance! Clap, stomp, shout, harmonize! Like oral story-telling, these other meaningful embodied languages require collaboration, a give and take between speaker and listener. Too often are these languages sanitized, formalized, and in pursuit of a unified sound. I could speak extensively on the Western choir’s obsession with a unified sound that discourages vocal individuality. The unique qualities, timbres, inflections, colors of the voices must be stripped to create a pure sound. Again, I do not argue that this practice should be entirely abandoned, but it cannot be situated as central, “correct” and exhaustive of proper, spiritual music. I need artists and artistry to speak their knowledges, express their spiritualities, and allow for a multifaceted, sexuaplicitous self. I need Sweet Honey in the Rock. I need Maya Angelou.
“Wade in the Water” by Sweet Honey in the Rock | I do not own this song nor video.
“Still I’ll Rise” by Maya Angelou | I do not own this poem nor video.
It was a bright day. I was in seventh grade. We were assigned to find a poem, write about the author, and analyze the poem. I don’t remember how I can across Maya Angelou’s Complete Collective Poems, but I was seated in the library and read one poem, I think it was “Still I’ll Rise,” and I felt a fracturing in the walls built to staunch my sexual identity beyond pure and virginal. I blushed at her bold sexuality, but she was water, and as she flooded, the crack widened. I gulped down her entire collected works in that day. She broke something, hydrated something I didn’t know was parched. I asked for the book for Christmas, and from then on I began to try writing poetry in addition to my obsession with fiction stories. I ask for poetry every year; Maya Angelou laid that foundation.
Re-Building Physical Spaces that Reflect the Aforementioned Notions, Allow for Movement etc.
Lastly, I suggest that the physical spaces of churches need to be re-conceptualized and designed to reflect the aforementioned notions, particularly regarding movement. Plenty of work has been done to explain the history of church architecture and its reflection of politics, culture, spirituality, and Christian interpretations; I suggest that for future constructions, such reflections continue, but of the ideals that do not recapitulate violences. I imagine nonintrusive spaces that incorporate themselves into the environments, upholding many of the ideas of Indian writer and scholar Rabindranath Tagore who, when building his school in Santiniketan said that no building should be taller than the trees (see https://bit.ly/2nSN7rl for more on Tagore’s philosophies of education and architecture). I envision circular spaces with no “head” no upraised platforms, and nothing in the center. Traditionally, the pastor or priest locates himself at the front which the pews face; in efforts to disperse sources of knowledge, a circular space creates a sense of unity and collectivity and the ability to see everyone’s faces, bodies, beings. I imagine seating, perhaps like floor pillows, that let people sit, or stand, or dance, move, though I recognize physical limitations of human bodies and would not want to build an ableist space.
Through the exploration of language, its mechanisms and demployments, I have sought to understand how Biblical language in Christian traditions often operates in ways that harm women, their bodies, and their relationships to their bodies as knowledgeable, sexuaplicitous, and spiritual. During this exploration I have attempted to cultivate useful tools and strategies for re-imagining a Church that does not perpetuate this specific violence. I recognize the limitations and the dangerous possibility of essentializing or universalizing women in a religious context; this project may have failed. Furthermore, this project does not address the sexual violence, assault, rape, and murdering of women by way of “Godly men” and the Church. I acknowledge this as profoundly significant and a definite gap in this narrative. This project is ongoing and could benefit from expansion on these issues and the Church’s relationship to colonial textual violence. As it is, this project seeks to be another thread woven into the fabric of a larger movement as well as an affirmation to the women caught in the Christian tradition by choice or by force, who might need to know that they know, that they are more, that they are galaxies.
Permission to be featured given by Ellery Grace Mills-dancer on December 10th, 2018. Photography by Taylor Elyse Mills.
Works Cited | Works That Influenced:
Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise.” The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, Random House, 1994.
Anzaldúa, Gloria, and Carmen Valle. Borderlands/ La Frontera. Capitán Swing, 2016.
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Burrus, Virginia. “Word and Flesh: The Bodies and Sexuality of Ascetic Women in Christian Antiquity.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 10, no. 1, 1994, pp. 27–51.
Butler, Judith. “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva.” Hypatia, vol. 3, no. 3, 1989, pp. 104–118. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3809790.
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Dotson, Kristie. “On intellectual diversity and differences that may not make a difference,” Ethics and Education, 13:1, 2018, 123-140, DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2018.142871
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Kristeva, Julia, and Leon Samuel Roudiez. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller, Columbia University Press, 1984 .
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2015.
Maracle, Lee. Memory Serves: Oratories. NeWest Press, 2015.
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McGowan, Mary Kate. “On ‘Whites Only’ Signs and Racist Hate Speech: Verbal Acts of Racial Discrimination.” Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech, edited by Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 121–147.
Mey, Jacob L. “A Brief Sketch of the Historic Development of Pragmatics.” The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, by Keith Allan, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 587–612.
Million, Dian. “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 53–76., doi:10.1353/wic.0.0043.
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Ruíz, Elena. Lectures. Continental Feminisms and the Politics of Revolt. PHIL 820 Seminar in Continental Philosophy, 2018, East Lansing, South Kedzie Hall.
Ruíz, Elena. “Revolt and the Lettered Self.” New Forms of Revolt: Essays on Kristeva’s Intimate Politics, by Sarah K. Hansen and Rebecca Tuvel, SUNY Press, 2018, pp. 67–83.
Ruíz, Elena. “Understanding Structural Violence: An Integrative Approach.” University Interdisciplinarity Colloquium. 30 Nov. 2018, East Lansing, International Center, Spartan Rooms.
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Yuen-yi Lo (2013) She is a Fragment and a Whole, Australian Feminist Studies, 28:78, 398-416, DOI: 10.1080/08164649.2013.857384
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