Ktismatics

15 July 2007

Castrating the Big Other

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:35 am

But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. (Galatians 5:11-12)

We back up a little more in our investigation of Galatians to savor this rhetorical flourish from Paul. Wouldn’t you say that circumcision is a symbolic or metonymic castration? It’s a perpetual reminder not to enjoy yourself too much or else. But Paul says the real stumbling block, the real skandalon, isn’t forbidden desire but rather the cross.

The cross isn’t meant to function as an even more intensified warning — if you don’t stop giving in to your desires you’re dead, just like Jesus. Here’s a guy who follows the Law to the letter, and what happens? He gets killed anyway. Wouldn’t you infer that the Big Other who stands behind the Law isn’t playing fair? And you’d be right, because the crucifixion demonstrates that the power behind the Law isn’t God but the social order that derives its power from enforcing the Law. Jesus did what the Law specified, but he antagonized the priests and the rabbis and the Jewish political leaders. They’re the ones who punished Jesus, holding out the threat of castration or worse for anyone who fails to acknowledge their authority.

And from where do the leaders of the Jewish community derive their authority? They would have you believe that they’re stand-ins for God himself, temporal representatives of the Big Other. But Paul says it’s not so. So where do they get their authority? From those who allow themselves to believe that the authorities represent the Big Other. Back to Galatians 4:17 — They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out so that you will seek them. The leaders derive their power not from God but from the people they dominate, from the community that assembles itself around and beneath them. The rulers can rule only if they can seduce people into following them. And people are willing to follow, because they want someone to tell them precisely what God demands of them. Paul warns the Galatians: don’t let them get away with it, don’t give in to your own desire to enslave yourselves.

This is how the rulers get off: by seducing the heirs into being slaves, by proclaiming rules and punishments, by issuing warnings and threats, by commanding respect — by positioning themselves as the Big Other. If that’s what makes them hard, says Paul, then they ought to cut their own dicks off.

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25 Comments »

  1. Well, we can all think of current political, religious and cultural “rulers” upon whom we would wish this practice; maybe that is just an expression of desire for their power arising from resentment of one’s own lack of power against the greater and lesser slights of life?

    What then is a “good” ruler? How should Paul’s audience act when they are the rulers? Are good rulers only saints who act selflessly, or do you judge a ruler by the efficacy of their actions, regardless of their motivations?

    Comment by Pykoman — 15 July 2007 @ 8:14 am

  2. Being generally leadership-averse it’s difficult for me to respond. I’ve been thinking about Galatians in terms of what makes a good therapist, but eventually the question comes down to self-management. I can establish a kind of “law” for myself: define a set of goals and objectives, then make myself achieve them through action plans, timelines, to-do lists, etc. Or I can discover what I want to do, then allow myself to do it out of love for others.

    So what’s the implication for leadership? Help those you lead figure out what they really want to do, then enable them to do it for the sake of others?

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2007 @ 10:32 am

  3. Yep, I see…Is the therapist necessarily the “leader” for the participant? Maybe “enabler” (in the non-perjorative sense)is a potential role, facilitating the development of a richer human experience for the participant.

    I suppose it is comforting for the participant to think of the therapist as a leader. The therapist knows the appropriate therapeutic path, applies it to the participant and the participant is better/healed/happier. Ultimately, it seems the participant has to accept the responsibility for making change themself, even if they initially conceive of the therapist as subject and themselves as object. I suppose that presumes change is a desirable outcome of a therapy.

    I like the latter of the two approaches you suggest, but it requires a certain amount of faith that you will arrive at a productive consequence. The former gives comfort that you are making progress by completing tasks, which is fine if the end point is determinate.

    Comment by Pykoman — 15 July 2007 @ 12:55 pm

  4. “Wouldn’t you say that circumcision is a symbolic or metonymic castration? It’s a perpetual reminder not to enjoy yourself too much or else.”

    No, I wouldn’t say that at all. The folks around the Jews who were doing it before them…it was a symbol of fertility, of opening one’s self to the fertility gods, if you will. Of course, with Yaweh it has a different meaning…but the previous one gives a context that helps, I think.

    “Wouldn’t you infer that the Big Other who stands behind the Law isn’t playing fair? And you’d be right, because the crucifixion demonstrates that the power behind the Law isn’t God but the social order that derives its power from enforcing the Law. Jesus did what the Law specified, but he antagonized the priests and the rabbis and the Jewish political leaders.”

    If the power behind the Law isn’t God, then God didn’t actually give it to Moses on Sinai. Jesus didn’t antagonize the pharasees and saducees for following the law, but for being hypocritical and not having a heart for God. On top of that…Jesus was antagonized himself not because he was casting a vision of hierarchy-less-ness, but because he was casting himself above the pharasees and saducees, who were abusing their power unjustly and worrying a whole heck of a lot about gnats while ignoring the stampeding camels.

    “So where do they get their authority? From those who allow themselves to believe that the authorities represent the Big Other. Back to Galatians 4:17 — ‘They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out so that you will seek them.'”

    What if “they” refers not to the “Big Other” who imposes the merely-symbolic Law and behind whom in Reality stands…who knows what…but what if “they” simply refers to some hypocritical and power hungry men who were trying to enforce a specific rule (of circumcision) upon the people out of the sinful self-grasping for that central place in the cosmos in their hearts? RATHER than the Cross, which displaces us from the center?

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 15 July 2007 @ 1:04 pm

  5. “what if “they” simply refers to some hypocritical and power hungry men who were trying to enforce a specific rule (of circumcision) upon the people out of the sinful self-grasping for that central place in the cosmos in their hearts?”

    I can tell none of this Galatians stuff is working for you, Jason. You might want to read the Book of Galatians — it’s not very long.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  6. John…I’ve already read the book, of course. Unless, of course, you meant something else by “read.” But you seem to be bringing some a priori meanings to the text yourself, sir. Just different ones from mine.

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 15 July 2007 @ 3:14 pm

  7. What a prioris do you detect?

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2007 @ 3:48 pm

  8. Pykoman – I definitely don’t see a therapist as a leader. Lacan says that the analyst’s job is to get the client to the point of realizing that s/he is the analyst — I kind of like that.

    “Ultimately, it seems the participant has to accept the responsibility for making change themself, even if they initially conceive of the therapist as subject and themselves as object.”

    The client assumes that the analyst too is a representative of the Big Other, knowing how to “fix” the client, etc. The analyst’s job is to disabuse the client of that assumption and to accept the responsibility, as you say. That might be change enough for most people.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2007 @ 3:55 pm

  9. I did some intense work with Galatians a year ago, and I came to the conclusion that Paul’s concept of “flesh” in Galatians is often cross-referencing circumcision; I suspect “the flesh” Paul has in mind may be foreskin. Jason wrote; “The folks around the Jews who were doing [circumcision] before them…it was a symbol of fertility, of opening one’s self to the fertility gods, if you will.” It would be interesting to better understand what ancient Jews considered to be happening through circumcision. From Galatians I get the impression that perhaps it has to do with a kind of sexual desensitization – perhaps even a lessening of “desire.” At the very least, I think circumcision has to do with a constellation of practices (also including such things as kosher laws) that would “mark” people of the Mosaic covenant as being set-apart and different from their neighbors. I also suspect it became important during the time of the exile as a way of maintaining a separate, distinct identity that would resist Jewish assimilation into Babylonian society. (Does anyone know whether neo-Babylonians did or did not practice circumcision?) I don’t think circumcision would be a symbolic castration since castration deals with the procreative side of sexuality while cicrcumcision, from this viewpoint, would deal with the pleasure principle.

    Comment by Ron — 15 July 2007 @ 7:50 pm

  10. “I don’t think circumcision would be a symbolic castration since castration deals with the procreative side of sexuality while cicrcumcision, from this viewpoint, would deal with the pleasure principle.”

    That sounds right: the Law imposes restrictions on pleasure-seeking; circumcision is a kind of external reminder. Freud (a Jew, of course) said this: The custom of circumcision, another symbolic substitute for castration, can only be understood as an expression of submission to the father’s will. I think the second half of this statement is right, and corresponds with the use of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant. But if it was a symbolic castration, then the possibility, the implicit threat, of a real castration would no longer exist. The explicit threat was that Yahweh would cut off the uncircumcised male from the people of God. Then the procreative threat comes into play, since being cut off means that one’s progeny are also cut off.

    It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to associate circumcision with castration. Clearly they were associated in Paul’s mind, as evidenced by the graphic nature of the wish he extended toward those who through circumcision would subject the Galatians to the covenant of the Law. (Cf. Galatians 5:3 — I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole Law.)

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2007 @ 9:53 pm

  11. Paul himself was forced to bring converts for circumcision as a sort of peace offering to the reight wing believers in Jerusalem. The principle of unity overrode at least temporarily his hatred for everything that the demand for circumcision implied.

    I’m not sure at all that ‘flesh’ can be limited in any of Paul’s thinking to just this or just that. The concept is complex and he uses these ‘technical terms’ in many ways and with a rich cloud of meanings.

    The rulers can rule only if they can seduce people into following them. And people are willing to follow, because they want someone to tell them precisely what God demands of them. Paul warns the Galatians: don’t let them get away with it, don’t give in to your own desire to enslave yourselves.

    One of the somewhat underestimated effects of the internet is that information is pretty readily available to the non-scholar.

    From what I can see, ordinary folks like us are putting the web to good use and are learning, and automatically also questioning.

    The development of critical thinking in any form, is certainly going to change the face of the world’s religions, for the ‘leaders’now have no stors of hiden knowledge an mystery in which they can wrap the packages that they are trying to promote.

    Comment by samlcarr — 16 July 2007 @ 2:07 am

  12. samlcarr:

    “The development of critical thinking in any form, is certainly going to change the face of the world’s religions, for the ‘leaders’now have no stors of hiden knowledge an mystery in which they can wrap the packages that they are trying to promote.”

    I think this is true for (a minority of) the people with the inclination and intellect to challenge dogma. Unfortunately, many people accept the position of leaders unquestioningly, even after the emperor has been shown to have no clothes.

    Comment by Pykoman — 16 July 2007 @ 10:59 am

  13. Sam — It’s like that link you gave me to the guy whose observations on the Creeds got cut out of the conference proceedings for being doctrinally suspect. Did that stop him? No, he put it up on his blog anyhow. He also, by the way, put a link to the same paper at Church and Postmodern Culture. That doesn’t fully allay my suspicions of the collective ethos. He did post his paper in places where he expected a supportive audience.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 July 2007 @ 11:12 am

  14. The net can be a subversive influence. i wonder how much of e.g. the emerging church movement, has in fact been net driven?

    I think back to my evangelical days, and there were a standard set of authors who were considered ‘trusted’, and their books, commentaries etc. were available but nothing else. I had to get all the way to India and be forced to spend a few months in a ‘liberal’ seminary before i realised that ‘liberal’ was a misnomer and that not everything nonevangelical was necessarily satanic!

    Comment by samlcarr — 16 July 2007 @ 1:16 pm

  15. Not necessarily satanic — I like that qualifier.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 July 2007 @ 1:38 pm

  16. “What a prioris do you detect?”

    “‘Law and repressed desire are one and the same.’ – Lacan” – you, from your “Freedom From Desire” post/conversation.

    And…circumcision isn’t pleasurable, temporarily…but but I meant to refer to it as a sacraficing of a part of yourself to open to something beyond. I mean, yes, an ancient Jew was cut off from Isreal if he wasn’t circumcised…but circumcision was also a kind of way in. So far as castration goes…in my mind…corresponding to sacrafice…”Loose your life for my sake, and you will find it.”

    I’m on vacation…in an internet cafe…I’ll be out of the loop for a while.

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 July 2007 @ 2:52 pm

  17. I have no a priori commitments to these ideas. What I’m doing is re-investigating Galatians through an alternative lens to see what meaning emerges, and whether that meaning remains true to the words of the text as written.

    Comment by ktismatics — 17 July 2007 @ 4:43 pm

  18. If I would be in Pauls time, I would feel disgusted from the absense of justice. I wouldn’t be able to write this down, I would use a language that is metaphorical.
    I would maybe think something like: “crucification is the worst!” “Maybe if you romans were circumcised, we would be better off.”

    Comment by Odile — 19 July 2007 @ 6:29 pm

  19. I’m back!

    “I have no a priori commitments to these ideas. What I’m doing is re-investigating Galatians through an alternative lens to see what meaning emerges, and whether that meaning remains true to the words of the text as written.”

    That makes sense. But that also fits well with your aknowledged agnosticism, no?

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 21 July 2007 @ 11:08 pm

  20. Perhaps. It would be ironic if only agnostics are able to open up Scripture in this particular way. It would also be sad if believers discount what I see in the texts just because I’m agnostic. Maybe it’s important to know whether or not the interpreter claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    Comment by ktismatics — 22 July 2007 @ 7:37 am

  21. Did the Holy Spirit say that s/he was exclusively going to inspire “believers”?

    Comment by samlcarr — 22 July 2007 @ 7:57 am

  22. That wasn’t my point. I’m suggesting that you agnosticism seems to, for example, lead you to build an exegesis with the important component of not distinguishing from desiring and coveting. How can there be a distinction between the two if there’s (maybe) no God who is superior to my desire to determine the difference between what is mine and what is not? I’m not discounting everything your saying on biblical exegesis from the get-go just because your agnostic. I think there’s a lot of value to your basic way of approaching the text, actually. You bring things with you that many folks are missing, I think. Major example: “But the self is part of the creation; the self takes on its meaning in the context of the larger reality in which it’s embedded.”

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 22 July 2007 @ 8:51 am

  23. “I’m suggesting that you agnosticism seems to, for example, lead you to build an exegesis with the important component of not distinguishing from desiring and coveting. How can there be a distinction between the two if there’s (maybe) no God who is superior to my desire to determine the difference between what is mine and what is not?”

    In my “Freedom from Desire” post I cross-referenced Paul’s discussion of coveting in Romans 7:7-8: “The Greek word translated as “covet” here is the same word that’s translated as “desire” in Galatians 5.” It’s in the Biblical text. Did you think I was saying that covetousness is good and natural? That’s not my point at all. I’m trying to understand why desire, which we tend to think of as a natural instinct, is deemed bad by Paul in Galatians 5. I’m saying that maybe our understanding of what Paul means by “desire” is wrong, that maybe Lacan sheds some light on the Pauline distinction between a natural instinct to seek pleasure and “desire.” For Paul “desire” and “covetousness” are part of the same nexus, the same distortion of pleasure-seeking which results from an intrinsic mismatch between human nature and the Law. This I think is the overall thrust of Galatians 4-5.

    Comment by ktismatics — 22 July 2007 @ 9:16 am

  24. “an intrinsic mismatch between human nature and the Law.”

    There’s only such an “intrinsic” mismatch if the Law is “imposed” from outside, as discussed in the quote I provided elsewhere from Weigel.

    And Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law and prophets, but to fulfill them. Which isn’t really in Galatians, but I don’t think you can parcel Galatians out from the rest.

    And no I didn’t think you thought that covetousness was good and natural. I was pointing out that your lack of distinguishing between desire and covetousness in your specific translation of the passage in question is leading you to say that “desire, which we tend to think of as a natural instinct, is deemed bad by Paul in Galatians 5.”

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 July 2007 @ 11:12 am

  25. 1. The Law as imposed from outside is the topic of Paul’s discussion here and most other places in his writings.

    2. “I through the Law am dead to the Law” (Gal. 2:19) is Paul’s general premise. The Law lives on, but I’ve died to the moral regime in which the Law rules. Paul says that if you’re led by the Spirit then you’re not under the Law (Gal. 5:18)

    3. The translation that equates covetousness with desire isn’t mine, but Paul’s. And it’s Paul who says that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Paul says that through the cross you’ve crucified the flesh and its desires and passions, and you’ve also died to the Law.

    Comment by ktismatics — 23 July 2007 @ 1:07 pm


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