Frail Identity, Part II

As we have looked at before, the bifurcating logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty are simultaneously constituted in a given symbolic system. This is no less true for the religious, especially for peoples of the Book. Only on this account it is logicizing between abomination and the sacred. In the tradition of what I’m calling the “peoples of the Book” impurity is always what departs from the symbolic order, or divine precepts in this case. Of course the anthropologist or psychoanalyst would way that there is nothing impure in itself; “the loathsome is [only] that which disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system” (Powers of Horror, p. 92).

For the religious, impurity generally becomes a metaphor for idolatry and immorality. Therefore, whatever has no immediate relation to the sacred is excluded from the given symbolic order. Holiness then is the struggle individuals face in attempting to become subjects to the Law. By logically conforming with the established taxonomy of pure/impure distinctions the subject is protected from falling outside the bounds of religious orthodoxy.

The great threat to identity is intermixture. If we might think of purity as a symbolic oneness then defilement is that which unsettles boundaries between the pure and impure. Therefore idols in particular are those objects that erase the differences between strict identities and introduce confusion and disorder to the prevailing symbolic establishment.

However, the prophets of the Hebraic tradition revealed the inescapable and inseparable abjection of our selves. “The impure is neither banished nor cut off, it is thrust away but within—right there, working, constitutive” (p. 106). To put it otherwise, the abject is interiorized. This logical complicity with abjection in fact permeates the entire Bible and is found in such notions as “leaven” in the Old Testament and “tears” in the New. What happens in Christianity is precisely a new arrangement of differences; the impure/pure topological demarcation remains but is reversed from being an external logic to an internal one. As Kristeva puts it, “Christian religion is a compromise between paganism and Judaic monotheism. Biblical logic remains nevertheless, even though it is inverted (the inside is to blame, no longer the outside): one uncovers it in the persistence of processes of division, separation, and differentiation (116-7). In other words, “the threat comes no longer from outside but from within” (p. 114). The internal danger, which was previously an external threat, is a heterogeneous and a potentially condemnable self. The self no longer is characterized by unity but is internally, contradictorily split. He is tormented from within rather than from without. Jesus’ pronouncement, following those of the prophets, is that man is defiled by what comes from within, rather than by what surrounds or enters him. This means for Christians that they are always divided, incomplete and lapsing in respect to the ideal Christ sets forth. In this internalizing move the boundaries between pure and impure become much more porous and an unsurpassable heterogeneity arises.

The sort of ambiguity is further confounded in another insight of Christianity, the origin of sin. The fall of man [sic] usually belongs to the feminine temptation to eat the fruit of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden which promised an epiphany of knowledge. It was Eve’s enticement of Adam that implanted the power of sin within the flesh.

And yet, the tale of Adam’s fall opens up two additional channels of interpretation throwing light on the ambivalence of sin….Man would thus accede to divine perfection only by sinning, that is, by carrying out the forbidden act of knowledge….It takes only one further step to suppose that the invitation to perfection is also an invitation to sin….In that instance, the fall is the work of God; founding knowledge and the quest for consciousness, it opens the way to spirituality (pp. 126-7)

These two currents on the ambiguity of the flesh engender a hermeneutical plurality on the constitution of sin. Furthermore, it also seems as though defiling sin is the proper condition for remission. Sin appears with law which appears with grace.

By the same token, abjection will not be designated as such, that is, as other, as something to be ejected, or separated, but as the most propitious place for communication—as the point where the scales are tipped towards pure spirituality….abjection becomes the requisite for a reconciliation… (p. 127)

As a final example, blood carries a particular ambiguity when it comes to pure/impure demarcating strategies. Menstruation was clearly a defiling element that targeted women in Hebraic societies. But while it indicated the impure, blood also signified a vital element to life. Not only did blood represent death, but it also referred to the assurance of life and fecundation. “It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together” (p. 96).

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2 responses to “Frail Identity, Part II”

  1. Josh W says :

    Hang on though, isn’t the system more complex than that?

    In judaism, there is the clean, the unclean, and the holy. It may seem obvious that the holy is just a more exptreme version of the clean, but both can actually operate as contaminants: Something can be offered to God, try to make an exchange and they are both offered, holy things can make other things holy by association.

    Even weirder, things can be devoted, basically the same as holy, while also being otherwise associated with being unclean, when they are things devoted to destruction.

    In christianity the holyness also contaminates things, as can be seen by the children of children being made holy. And more importantly, in Jesus there is the biggest contamination of all!

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