Sex, Violence, Art, and Religion

What inspired you to write Ecce Homo?

As part of a completely separate research project, I stumbled across Wilson Yates’ article on the religious significance of Francis Bacon’s paintings which led me to a reproduction of Bacon’s Painting (1946), which led me to catalogues of Bacon’s work. I was absolutely enraptured by their difficult beauty. I was curious about my reaction to them, about why I was so taken by these paintings when many friends had strong negative or simply neutral reactions. I also needed to figure out why I felt so certain they were doing something important politically and ethically that had some relationship to Christian theology. So, I knew I had to spend some time with the paintings to figure that out. (Strangely enough, I no longer find Yates’ treatment of Bacon particularly inspiring or insightful.)

There were other chance encounters: reading Georges Bataille’s Erotism for the first time and being utterly blown away. The release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (and the almost complete absence of gender in commentary on the film). And, of course, wondering why so few people share my passion for reading Freud and trying to give an account of why I think he remains valuable to thinking about gender and sexuality—and religion.

The book was largely inspired by—and shaped around—my idiosyncratic obsessions and my intuition that there was some relationship between them and that they all spoke to each other, to dominant cultural fantasies about masculinity, and to Christianity. I had this sense that there was something to be gained by paying close attention to representations of the male-body-in-pain—across psychoanalytic discourses, across action films, across Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, across Francis Bacon’s paintings, across Bataille’s work, across Christian theology.

I had a sense that these works that seemed so very closely aligned to cultural fantasies about the legitimacy of masculine power actually revealed the desperation of a futile grasp for power, and someone needed to pull back the curtain on the wizard.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Read Georges Bataille. Read a lot of Georges Bataille: his novels and his theoretical works. Read Bataille because he is an underappreciated, often overlooked author of keen, subtle ethical and political insight.

Of course, this message, the one that truly drove the book, the one I struggled with the most as I was writing, is mostly implicit in the final product. Although I do hope that I treat Bataille in a way that will send people back to his texts, and to some of the wonderful texts about his work: Jeremy Biles’ Ecce Monstrum, Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasy, Alexander Irwin’s Saints of the Impossible, Shannon Winnubst’s Reading Bataille Now.

The message I develop more explicitly in the book has two parts. First, representations of the suffering male body have a complex relationship to cultural understandings of masculinity and its relationship to power. Such representations sometimes subvert claims to masculine power and sometimes sustain them, and often it is the representations that seem most subversive on first glance that are most supportive—and vice versa.

This means, of course, that we need to learn how to pay very close attention to representation: of bodies, of gender, of violence. I return, in various ways, throughout the book to the suggestion that it is the crucified body—the one that has been seen as a glorification of violence and vicarious suffering—that represents the greatest challenge to fantasies of the masculine self as whole, capable, self-sufficient and powerful. The resurrected or triumphant body, on the other hand—celebrated as representing hope, healing, transformation—represents a male body capable of overcoming trial, tribulation and torment. I’m firmly convinced that a Christianity without resurrection—or with a radically different understanding of resurrection—would have a very different relationship to systems of gendered and sexual power.

Second, the subversive edge of these representations—their political and ethical insight and value—depends on their revelation of a shared vulnerability that we all possess. Progress is to be made, I contend, in piercing the illusion that we are capable, autonomous, rational, self-sufficient beings, in reminding ourselves in uncomfortable, shocking ways that we are always already fractured, lacerated and coming undone.

The vision of justice and political progress that reigns in American culture and progressive religious circles is one of restoring the individual’s dignity, which imagines the individual (even as a member of a community) as somehow whole. This vision of wholeness, however, often has to function differentially: for my wholeness to be meaningful, then someone somewhere, if only imaginatively and fantastically, has to be understood as lacking wholeness, as needing restoration. Replacing a vision of bringing those who don’t possess full humanity up to full humanity, I offer an ethical, political and theological vision that emphasizes that “humanity” is riven with trauma, fracture, loss, and pain. Recognition of a shared vulnerability, a mutual laceration, a “universal” crucifixion, I contend, has the power to disrupt mechanisms of comparison and differentiation that fuel and foster violence.

Finally, I am trying to make a methodological point. By turning to Hollywood action films, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Francis Bacon’s paintings, I’m showing that we need to think much more expansively and creatively about where we locate religion and religious discourses as scholars of religion and constructive theologians. Looking in these unexpected places, we begin to see the aftershocks of Christian theological discourse—for good and for ill. Or, as Mark Jordan has been so helpful in helping me understand (through both his written work and his friendship), the only way to talk about Christian theology in a historical moment when theological language is so tainted with a history of cruelty and inhumane violence is by addressing it indirectly and obliquely. Or, to say it much less elegantly, I didn’t want to write a book that bored me. This methodological point is also more implicit than explicit, more performative than propositional.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Where do I start? It would have been interesting to give attention to depictions of women by considering Freud’s writings on female sexuality, female action heroes, Bacon’s paintings of women, Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Lisa Lyon. I would also like to have discussed Bacon’s and Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits—how they treated their own bodies and subjectivities using the stylistic gestures I discuss.

I wish the book had more illustrations and that the illustrations in the book were in color. I wish I had the patience to write a chapter that explicitly and carefully addressed feminist theologies of the cross—or one that reviewed various interpretations of the resurrection. (Although the book is very interested in Christian theology, it serves as a provocation to the work of others more than its own fully developed proposal. I sketch in great detail a particular insight or framework for future work. I hope someone with a different set of passions will take up that challenge.) I wish I’d had the space to engage more recent action films.

Given that this is my first book, I learned a lot about what it means to write a book-length project as I proceeded. I had to keep reminding myself about the central questions that were driving this project. For a while, I even had an index card taped on my wall with what I understood as the book’s thesis written on it. Whenever I felt lost, I would look up and remind myself what the book was about. I wasn’t writing a study of Francis Bacon’s work; I wasn’t writing a history of the Hollywood action genre; I wasn’t writing a contribution to systematic theology. Each of those negations helped the book come into being. It’s amazing how much has to be left out to create a coherent piece of work. And many readers, if they had been the author, might have made different decisions.

What’s the biggest misconception about your topic?

I’ve often been asked about real suffering bodies even though I state very clearly that I’m interested in representations of suffering male bodies. The first chapter discusses what I think can be gained by focusing on representations rather than reality, images rather than facts—or, to say it differently, I try and suggest what is lost and limiting by too quickly turning to history when we try and understand violence. The book tries to show how paying attention to representations of suffering can, possibly, prevent the reality of suffering, but people often want to conflate the two or privilege the latter. I contend that our inability to look at representations of suffering—including representations of historical suffering—and to think about how they make meaning and create affects actually perpetuates genuine suffering.

Given that I argue for the value of fantastic self-loss or self-rupture, I’ve had people suggest that my argument only works for those who already occupy a position of privilege; i.e., those who already have a culturally reinforced sense of self. As noted above, however, even if some subjects’ sense of self is assaulted by racist, misogynistic and homophobic discourses, the goal of attaining a self is held out to all subjects in our culture. Even if we are positioned differently vis-à-vis having attained a self, most of us have given into the temptation that acquiring selfhood, in a particular fashion, is the endgame. This, I think, is a genuinely dangerous conception, and I try to sketch an alternative vision found in the work of Bataille and Kaja Silverman.

And, of course, because I describe the project’s politics as, in part, feminist, some people wonder why I’m discussing only representations of male bodies. To think that critiques of masculinity aren’t absolutely essential to a feminist political project, or that the fate of feminist political struggle isn’t completely bound up with cultural representations of the male body, is, to my mind, also quite short-sighted.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Yes. Me. As much as I shouldn’t say this during a moment when public universities generally (and humanities departments specifically) are the site of budgetary struggles, and are attacked for offering nothing worthwhile to the public at large, I am quite clear that I wrote this book for myself. Although I tried to write clearly and coherently, I have never, ever thought of myself as writing a book that will be accessible to a general public. As noted above, I had a specific set of questions and intuitions and I needed to clarify my thinking and articulate a self-satisfying account of a certain set of obsessions and suspicions. I also have a small circle of friends whose opinion matters to me, and I wrote with them in mind. I can name the people who were my imagined audience. I have their numbers in my cell phone.

There are, of course, lots of other people I would invite to eavesdrop on this solipsistic soliloquy. I’d like Bataille scholars to read the book. I’d like people who’ve never heard of Bataille to read the book. I’d like feminist and queer theologians—and those scholars who study queer theory—to read it. And if a serious scholar of Bacon’s or Mapplethorpe’s work read it, and liked it, that would make me happy. Then, of course, there are the people I can name whose numbers aren’t in my cell phone: Murat Aymedir, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, Amy Hollywood, Kaja Silverman, Ernst van Alphen, to name a few.

Are you hoping to simply inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I certainly hope there’s pleasure to be gained in reading this book. I hope I’ve been able to capture a tiny fraction of the pleasure (or, the ecstasy, which is a much more complicated admixture of pleasure and pain, joy and anguish) that I experienced when encountering the texts, the films, the paintings and the photographs that comprise the book’s materials. I note in the final chapter that the works themselves are the book’s argument and my commentary is only so much static: my greatest anxiety about the book is that it fails to reflect the beauty of the materials on which it relies.

More than informing or convincing or persuading readers, I want to reorient their vision. I hope when readers next go to the movies, or attend a liturgy, or watch a favorite television show, or listen to a political speech, or read a novel that they’ll experience it in a different fashion, that different features will light up. I hope my readers will develop new sensitivities and new suspicions.

And, I really hope that I never write a book with the intention of pissing people off. I definitely disagree with people in this book. I disagree, in very clear and forthright ways, with some very smart, very careful, very well-regarded scholars. (This would be another source of significant anxiety about the book.) But, as contrarian as I can be (ask anyone who has ever been to a dinner party with me), I always want my work to leave open breathing room, so that people feel invited to a conversation.

Questions about gender, sexuality, violence, religion, power and their relation to each other are simply too important—we need to figure out ways to meet each other in the middle of the messiness.

What alternate title would you give the book?

I probably wouldn’t give it another title. Ecce Homo fits the wide range of materials incredibly well, and I weave references to it throughout the book. Lama Sabachthani, with the same subtitle might work. Or, I could go with the provocative option: Paul was Wrong: How the Resurrection Mucked Up the Christian Gospel.

How do you feel about the cover?

I adore the look of my book. And, its look really mattered to me. Roland Barthes once responded to a Tel Quel questionnaire that to finish writing a book one must be able to imagine it as a physical object. From very early on, I knew that I wanted Bacon’s Lying Figure in a Mirror on the cover; I’m very grateful that University of Chicago Press and my book designer, Matt Avery, made that happen. (There was the darker fantasy of having Mapplethorpe’s Bill King on the cover, but one doesn’t want to spook the horses.) I also love the way that the title and subtitle are laid out and the way that the chapter titles are formatted. (If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have asked that the words “Works Cited” be formatted to mirror the two-word chapter titles.)

On this front, I want to note that it takes an awful lot of people to produce a book. In my acknowledgments, I thank my editor, Doug Mitchell, by name and offer thanks to all the people who worked to produce the book, many of whom will remain forever nameless to me. I’m keenly aware that there are factory workers, truck drivers, office managers and unpaid interns who are responsible for this book coming into being who will always be strangers to me. There’s something deeply moving and humbling about that fact. At the same time, without slighting anyone I am not mentioning by name, I want to acknowledge my copy editor Joel Score. He had an uncanny ability to improve my prose without trammeling the character of my voice. The book looks much better due to his contributions as well.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? 

I wish I’d written Lee Edelman’s No Future. It’s a brilliant, provocative, generative ethical and political polemic, with a raw beauty and fierce wit. I also wish I’d written Dennis Cooper’s My Loose Thread. It’s one of the most haunting novels I know. And I’ve long nurtured the fantasy of being a novelist. And the Hunger Games trilogy. For the cash, and the opportunity to meet Kristin Chenoweth.

What’s your next book?

I’m currently trying to decide if my next project is one or two books and, if the latter, which should come first. I’ve been thinking for quite a long time about the formal and stylistic similarities between certain Christian mystical texts and certain avant-garde pornographic novels—Sade and Hadewijch, Dennis Cooper and Pseudo-Dionysius, for example.

Exploring the relation between apophaticism and eroticism as they appear textually will help me develop my understanding of the relation between desire, representation and subjectivity. As I think about these questions, though, I keep returning to the work of certain queer theorists—Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, Teresa de Lauretis and Lee Edelman particularly. I’m very curious about their agreements and disagreements, and their relation to—and failure to engage seriously—the work of George Bataille. Not only are there important political and ethical insights to be gained from giving careful attention to this body of work, but staging a conversation between these thinkers could demonstrate the strong family resemblance between queer theory and certain forms of Christian theological discourse, especially in its apophatic mode.

I’m realizing that this project probably needs to come first as a kind of prolegomena to the engagement with mystical and pornographic literatures. (And since I’ve been using that word to describe it, I keep trying to think of a title that would riff on Kant’s Prolegomena: there’s a clue into how my mind works.) Both projects, like Ecce Homo—and like the three other book projects simmering in the background—circle around the political and ethical insights to be gained from representations that foster a disruption to the sense of a bounded, discrete, autonomous, coherent self. I’m also working with Jeremy Biles to pull together an anthology on Bataille’s importance for the academic study of religion.

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