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Unveiling to Know Avail: Revealing the Wariness of Womanhood

“[T]hey raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind it…Perseus wore a magic cap that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters.
-     Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx
I no longer want to write on the veil, do you hear, right on the veil or on the subject of the veil, around it or in its folds, under its authority or under its law, in a word neither on it nor under it…Go and see if I’m lying.
     - A Silkworm of One’s Own, Derrida
The ‘war on women’ is performed upon cruelly crafted stages[1]. In the ideological drama continually reinventing simulacra of phallogentrism the most basic rule of warfare has been violated; a prince/ss ought not engage in war upon multiple fronts. At home Americans battle to capture the appeal of women, while in Afghanistan American women engage in war as women, against women, and for women simultaneously. In January the U.S. Army launched a new “elite cultural support team,” a cohort of women soldiers trained to assist special operations forces for what the military calls ‘gender appropriate engagement’ (Zucchino). These women don both prosthetic helmets fit for cyberpunks and traditional Burkas, veiled revelations of pious faith.
While much has been written about the figure of the Afghani woman portrayed as a victim of the veil, the introduction of the veiled American female fighter complicates the plot of previous polemics. This essay attempts to critically assess, explore, and compare the differences in approach between a more traditional, Marxist method of ideological critique and the more generative, deconstructive style of Post-Feminist. In order to demonstrate the ways in which understandings of women & war and virtue, vice & the veil have become truly ‘special operations forces,” this essay tries to interpret, analyze, and undo the rhetorical/ideological grammars of David Zucchino’s L.A. Times article, “A counterinsurgency behind the burka” (Zucchino).
     While there are many ways of being a Marxist[2], this paper will expound upon a more traditional Marxist interpretation; in practice this means adopting a basic base/superstructure framework of analysis, assuming ideological phenomena are necessarily reducible to class, and maintaining the distinction between ideological criticism, which is historical and scientific, and moralism, which is a crass and utopian socialism[3].
Marxist criticism is a method of ideological critique that is premised upon a materialist understanding of the production of rhetoric. Marx & Engels most dogmatically state the materialist thesis in “The German Ideology:”
[W]e do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and…we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process… (Marx & Engels, 154). [4]

     In essence, Marx & Engels look at what wo/men do, not what they claim to do. This statement may seem to indicate the idea of rhetorical criticism has no place in the Marxist struggle, so how can the two projects be reconciled? As Foss astutely notes, Marxist ideological criticism is “a way of analyzing cultural products in terms of the social and economic practices and institutions that produce them” (Foss, 212-3). The Marxist method of criticism is deduced from the theoretical assumption that rhetorical artifacts are necessarily constituted by and constitutive of the specific historical and material circumstances out of which they emerge, rather than being the mere imitation of eternally perfect forms or ideas, as idealists presume, or as a free-floating structure of representation, as some structuralists contend. All of history is the history of class struggle. Thus, political economy furnishes the stage upon which the dramas of history unfold, and culture, the state, and rhetoric reflect the alienated condition of a civilization wallowing in the mire of ‘false consciousness.’
Marxists employ a dialectical method which seeks to unearth the contradictions between a text’s ideological content, rhetoric as a distilled mystification of proletarian estrangement, and its actual content, the totality of social relations concealed, yet present, which testify to the universality of class struggle. The Marxist worldview is necessarily totalizing, the model of base and superstructure argues that the control and development of the modes of production determine social relations in all of their variegated manifestations. Only criticism which aims to expose the concrete situation of society in relation to the totality of economic history can de-mystify ideology. Although any artifact can be criticized through a Marxist approach, Marxists approach texts merely to prove what they already knew, that texts are evidence of capital’s precarious contradictions. Marxist critics’ ultimate aim is to raise class-consciousness, but it remains to be seen whether they are as competent conjurers as their bourgeois counterparts. 
Post-Feminism: écriture feminine
Feminism is a cacophony not a chorus[5]. Many forms of feminist criticism have proliferated since the days of the suffragists. While, political equality is a necessary and laudable end, second wave feminists sought not mere equality in political representation or pay, but to undermine and even flip the structures of patriarchal privilege, challenge the representation of feminism as a single, unified movement by attending to race, class, sexuality and identity, and politicize the personal. Flipping the binary or revising the history of physical anthropology only proved the ruse of the form – decentering masculinity only proved the center’s absence.
Third wave feminists deconstructs “the false theatre of phallocentric representation” that presents man/woman in an andocentric and oppositional binary by writing through the body, by inventing grammars, syntaxes, andthe impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes,” and  (Cixous, 886 & 884 respectively). Largely influenced by French feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous post-feminism critiqued not just the reified representations of man and woman as forms of symbolic violence but sought to undermine the supplementary, associative binaries subtending the power infused fields of gender’s everyday textuality[6].  Post-feminists deconstruct binaries such as: Phallus/Lack, Presence/Absence, Speech/Writing, Nature/Culture, Mind/Body, Reason/Emotion, etc… The point is not merely to equalize the two terms, but to implode the logic of violence subtending the oppositional system itself. By working from “within”[7] language itself - through what Cixous termed écriture féminine or “women’s writing” or similarly through Irigaray’s playfully mimetic writing - critics can open up the effervescence of the third, a space beyond the despotism of the binary’s dual structure (Cixous, 887 & 875 respectively). Women’s writing, however, was not confined to women as defined according to an essentialist biology. In fact, Cixous thought that not all women could engage in women’s writing but that some men could[8].
Women’s writing is a mode of writing which resists the ideology of patriarchal society by exploding the strict division of the social into neatly defined binaries. Traditional feminists seek to unearth the ways in which an artifact is constituted by and constitutive of gendered assumptions. Since second wave feminists argue that the ‘personal is political’ and post-feminists believe that ‘there is no outside the text’ any artifact is open to criticism. Post-feminists saw rhetoric as the primary means of patriarchal repression. Thus, feminine liberation required the invention of new rhetorics that let gendered differences be. This mode of writing is often very performative – challenging the strict adherence to linear reasoning, switching between exuberantly emotional and overtly rational voices, and blurring the divisions between genres and figurative and literal language. Post-feminists differ from their ideological counterparts in that they do not merely map an artifact onto a static grid of intelligibility, but perform the process of writing through body, of singing the song of the woman, and of becoming feminine outside of an economy of life and death struggle.
Voice! That, too, is launching forth and effusion without return. Exclamation, cry, breathlessness, yell, cough, vomit, music. Voice leaves. Voice loses. She leaves. She loses. And that is how she writes, as one throws a voice—forward into the void (Cixous and Clement, 173).

Reading Behind, Beyond, & (in) the in-between of the Burka[9]
     On the one hand, comparing these two methods appears to be a simple and discrete process of evaluation since they are based in very different basic assumptions about the nature of rhetoric, Marxism from a materialist framework and Post-Feminism from a deconstructive background. On the other hand, the engagement with a particular artifact births the realization that comparison necessarily occurs on the limits, where a text speaks in multiple tongues, and where what is at stake is precisely what remains, as if, un-said.
     David Zucchino’s article offers a promising specimen for analyzing the resonances and discontinuities between Marxist and Post-Feminist interpretation because it narrates the contradictory intersections between the masculine drive for mastery and profit, invulnerability and presence and the implicitly opposed converse, the feminine as nurturing and fragile, veiled and absent. But if one reads more attentively one may meet another possibility, “a process of different subjects knowing one another and beginning one another anew only from the living boundaries of the other: a multiple and inexhaustible course with millions of encounters and transformations of the same into the other and into the in-between” (Cixous 882). One may don Marx’s accursed cap and reveal the magic of bourgeois alienation’s mystification or one may embody the more than naked fragility of the veil – the veil in all of its supple, playful, yea-saying to “erotogeneity” (Cixous, 889).
         Crucial differences between the two methods manifest themselves most explicitly in the ways in which the role of the critic is understood. Criticism for the Marxist is a world-historical task of de-mystifying the totality of social relations and raising class consciousness. The Marxist assumption that a text’s true meaning, purpose, and effects can be objectively distinguished from the phantasms of ideological sorcery denies the deconstructionist premise that a text’s meaning is ambiguous to the point of undecidability. For Cixous, women’s writing is precisely not about arriving at a singularly defined conclusion. Rather it is a “process of becoming…As subject for history, woman always occurs simultaneously in several places. Woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (Cixous, 882).
         With the Zucchino piece, a Marxist would call attention to the historical and material impetus for the text’s production. For example, Marxists might criticize Zucchino’s intention to represent the U.S. Army’s objectives in Afghanistan as a humanitarian, civilizing mission as ideological window-dressing mystifying the contradictions between the espoused ideals of U.S. Exceptionalism and Neoliberalism’s violent underbelly of cultural effacement. A Marxist would emphasize the dialectical nature of Zucchino’s article, exposing the ways in which the alienated and contradictory nature of reality is distilled within the text itself. For example, the article begins with the tragic tale of the program’s first female death. The fact that household bombs are destroying even the more culturally sensitive women is evidence for a Marxist critique of the ways cultural imperialism mystifies the root causes of conflict; capitalism is most insidious when it dons the human face for its veil.
         In contrast to the dogmatic rigidity of the Marxist approach, a post-feminist critic would approach the text not from ‘without,’ wielding critique as an infallible weapon or absolute barometer of truth. Nay, beyond the self-comforting fictions of class determinism, deconstructive feminists unravel, diminish, and undo a text’s concealed ruins and ruinous concealment, as if, from ‘within’ the artifact itself. A third wave feminist might begin with the title, “A counterinsurgency behind the burka,” by proceeding to play ‘in’ its ambiguity. In just the first five words a multiplicity of meanings emerges that exceed the iron grip of the Marxist vanguard. One example is the indeterminate status of behind, does it mean “to the far side of (someone), typically so as to be hidden” meaning a counterinsurgency veiled by the object it seeks to reveal (New Oxford American Dictionary)? Or “in a line or procession” or  “after the departure or death of” as if the counterinsurgency must wait and follow after the burka (New Oxford American Dictionary)? Or “in support of or giving guidance to” as if morally backing the burka or using the burka as a sign of authority (New Oxford American Dictionary)?
         Disclosed within this singular example is all the difference in the world. “[T]o touch “that” which one calls “veil” is to touch everything. You’ll leave nothing intact…as soon as you take on the word ‘veil’” (Derrida, 24). While Marxists might contend that you cannot ‘play’ your way out of poverty, post-feminists are likewise justified in arguing you cannot produce your way out of patriarchy. What would Marxists make of this line for example, “‘We're kind of a third gender,’ she said. ‘The men don't worry about looking weak in front of us.’” (Zucchino)?  M-C-M circuits need not apply. A post-feminist criticism is at least a necessary supplement to, if not an outright more promising grammar of textual encounter than Marxist criticism for exploring the elisions, fissures and excesses which constitute the stuff of any oikonomia.
                  But these two methods are not merely talking past one another[10]. For example, Zucchino tells about one woman’s recollection of why she joined the team, “when the Army asked for volunteers for the new cultural teams. ‘I knew that was my calling,’ she said. ‘I thought it was the coolest thing ever’” (Zucchino). This vignette is a prime example that encapsulates the ways in which subjects are ‘hailed’ by the call of Ideology (Althusser). Althusser’s post-Marxist conception of Ideology without a history evinces the need to think beyond the impossible desire to transcend, escape, or overcome Ideology completely[11]. One can never get outside of Ideology. As Althusser writes, ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality)” (Althusser). The logical conclusion of the Marxist ideological critique of naturalized conceptions of the subject is the dialectical undoing of stable categories of gender. As Althusser puts it, “individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects” (Althusser).[12] Althusser’s post-Marxist approach offers a more fruitful way of communicating between the dogmatic tendencies of orthodox Marxism and the sometimes overly ‘romanticized’ radicalism of post-feminism.
Out of conceiving the category of the Subject as Ideologically interpellated Rhetoric emerges in a new light. Rhetoric forms the sinews of connections, the sensitive surfaces of subjects’ nervous skins, and the intoxicating milk of seduction’s dance with desire – rhetoric emerges as the inter- of interpellation and the in of the in-between. Without a voice thrown into the void Althusser’s policeman remains mute. Without the first laugh of Cixous’ Medusa there would be no Ha in the Hail.

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation)." Althusser, Louis. "Lenin and Philosophy" and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press, 1970.
Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement. La Jeune née. Paris: Union General Editions, 1975.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-893.
Derrida, Jacques. “A Silkworm of One's Own.” Derrida, Helene Cixous and Jacques. Veils. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 39.
Dictionary, New Oxford American. "Behind Entry." New Oxford American Dictionary. n.d.
Engels, Frederick. The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1902.
Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism Exploration and Practice. Ed. Fourth. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 2009.
Hart, Roderick P. and Suzanne M. Daughton. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. New York City: Pearson, n.d.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Das Kapital Volume 1.” Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York City: Norton & Company, 1978. 294.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. "The German Ideology." Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York City: Norton & Company, 1978. 154.
Zucchino, David. “A counterinsurgency behind the burka.” L.A. Times 2011 йил 11-December.

[1]“a drama manglingly restaged, to reinstate again and again the religion of the father. Because we don't want that. We don't fawn around the supreme hole. We have no womanly reason to pledge allegiance to the negative. The feminine (as the poets suspected) affirms: ". . . And yes," says Molly, carrying Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing; "I said yes, I will Yes" (Cixous, 884)
[2] Marx’s name remains a specter that haunts the left’s obsession with the ‘true’ Marx, as we saw in our class reading of Althusser’s attempt to separate the humanist, early or young Marx of the Manuscripts from the scientist of Das Kapital and as Derrida artfully demonstrates in Spectres of Marx. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony adds some nuance to the concept of ideology; whereas ideology is represented as a more coherent and abstracted representation of the ruling classes consciousness contained within popular ideas, hegemony seeks to flesh out the contradictory aspects of more varied social classes in their everyday, partial and incomplete manifestations. Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature clearly illustrates the distinction: “Hegemony is then not only the articulate upper level of  'ideology', nor are its forms of control only those ordinarily seen as 'manipulation' or 'indoctrination.' It is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values-constitutive and constituting-which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming (Williams, 111).”
[3] Most notably Marx’s attacks on Fourier and Proudhon in The Communist Manifesto & “The Poverty of Philosophy.”
[4] If one looks at what Marx & Engels did one need not read very far to realize they incessantly invoke literary figures, fictive characters such as ‘Mr. Moneybags’ or rely upon histories which are nothing more than narratives – such as the historian Thucydides. The opening Perseus quote shows Marx’s use of mythology to make an argument. Some might contend that though allusions abound, literature per se was not the basis for deducing economic principles and this may have some merit. Marx & Engels’ objects of criticism in the quote from “The German Ideology” were classical economists and ‘German Sociologists’ who often invoked the figure of Robinson Crusoe to explain economic principles, Natural Law Theorists who alluded to man in the ‘state of nature,’ or religious conceptions of man as made after God’s own image.  
[5] “[M]ake the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language” (Cixous, 885).
[6] “to transform directly and indirectly all systems of exchange based on masculine thrift” (original emphasis, Cixous, 882).
[7]“If woman has always functioned "within" the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this "within," to explode it, turn it around, and seize it;” (Cixous, 887).
[8] Dr. Davis noted this in class, but I still haven’t been able to find the cite, but can be deduced from “The Laugh of the Medusa” more generally; “there is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman. What they have in common I will say. But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can't talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes…(Cixous, 876).
[9]  “[W]riting is precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death” (Cixous, 882).
[10] There are entire schools of feminist thought which are based in a materialist framework, largely influenced by Engels The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State which isolates the first divisions of labour as between male and female and criticizes marriage as a form of bourgeois prostitution and the nuclear family as an unnatural derivative of the transition from feudalism to industrial production. Yet the work is also criticized for basing its argument largely on biological assumptions about natural selection and for reifying gender understood as the man/woman dyad. “It is one of the most absurd notions derived from 18th century Enlightenment that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man” (Engels, 60).
[11] “[O]ne of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology” (Althusser).

[12] Capital’s necessary tendency toward expansion inevitably leads to the new social arrangements of identity in order to adapt to the needs of developing the modes of production Engels saw the first manifestations of, and predicted the continuance of the downfall of bourgeois marriage as a response to growing productive needs.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Confessions of a Rhetorician: 'Increasing and Multiplying' Augustine's Interpretive Sacrament

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Window of St. Augustine...
In the Spirit of Easter and Rhetoric I have chosen Saint Augustine’s Confessions to trace, erase, critically re-assemble and deconstruct. Augustine proves to be the ideally, impossible ascetic.

At the beginning of Book IV, about half way through the autobiographical portion, Augustine tells us:
“I used to teach the art of rhetoric. Overcome by greed myself, I used to sell the eloquence that would overcome an opponent…Without any resort to a trick I taught them the tricks of rhetoric, not that they should use them against the life of an innocent man, but that sometimes they might save the life of a guilty person. God, from far off you saw me falling about on slippery ground and in the midst of much smoke (Isa. 42: 3) discerned the spark of my integrity which in my teaching office I manifested to people who ‘loved vanity and sought after a lie’ (Ps. 4: 3) (Conf. IV: ii [2]).

St Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine’s torturous, yet joyous relationship to rhetoric and the polysemous nature of truth is narrated in depth throughout Confessions. While the first 9 books are a retelling of his past sins and path to faith, the last 4 books turn to a present expounding upon the nature of the subconscious, textual interpretation, the Manichees and the book of Genesis. Though Augustine narrates his struggle to find faith ‘on slippery ground and in the midst of much smoke’ as a story of overcoming, even in the penultimate chapter of his confession, even with eyes aimed on the light of the sun itself, Augustine's rapturous enchantment with rhetoric remained.

In Book XII Augustine seriously engages the question of the proper interpretation of the Bible, of God’s Word as disclosed through God’s servants on earth, most notably Moses and the meaning of Genesis. From the very first sentence, ‘In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth,’ a multiplicity of interpretations abound, surrounding what Beginning means for a God existing outside of Time, or what making means, whether something was made ex nihilo, or if there was the creation of unformed matter and then later formed. After considering many interpretations Augstine writes:

After hearing and considering these views to the best of my weak capacity…I see that two areas of disagreement can arise, when something is recorded by truthful reporters using signs (Conf. XII xxiii [32]).

The translator’s footnotes this sentence writing: “Augustine was very aware that words mean different things to different people; the ‘signs’ which are words are ambivalent. His theory of signs enabled him to integrate principles of biblical interpretation with ideas about grammar, rhetoric, and logic; but biblical signs convey sacred mysteries and therefore are particularly open to varied interpretation” (Fn. 22).

Augustine sets up a binary between the truth of a text and the intended meaning of its author. He writes:
It is one thing to inquire into the truth about the origin of the creation. It is another to ask what understanding of the words on the part of a reader and hearer was intended by Moses” (Conf. XII xxiii [32]).
So with biblical interpretation can the distinction between the plain meaning of a text and its intended meaning hold? From this binary Augustine claims he will not doubt either the truth of the text nor associate with those whom entertain the thought that Moses could have said anything untrue. Could the binary itself ever even hold as an analytic category for theological interpretation?
Among many truths which are met by inquiring minds in those words which are variously interpreted, which of us can discover your will with such assurance that he can confidently say ‘This is what Moses meant and this was his meaning in that narrative’ as confidently as he can say, ‘Whether Moses meant this or something else, this is true’?”

Augustine reconciles the apparent contradiction between the eternal, immutable Truth of the Word of God and the plurality of truths it yields through interpretation by means of another binary: that between a private truth and a public truth. Critics whom claim that their interpretation is the truth to the exclusion of another interpretation “love their own opinion not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they would equally respect another interpretation as valid.” And furthermore, “anyone who claims for his own property what you offer for all to enjoy…is driven from common truth to his own private ideas, that is from truth to a lie. For ‘he who speaks a lie’ speaks ‘from his own’ (John 8: 44).

Yet directly following this critique of interpretive audacity Augustine writes:
“Listen, best of judges, God, truth itself, listen to what I say to this opponent, listen, Before you I speak…Listen to what I say to him… ‘If both of us see that what you say is true and that what I say is true, then where, I ask, do we see this? I do not see it in you, nor you in me, but both of us see it in the immutable truth which is higher than our minds. If then we do not quarrel about the light from the Lord our God, why should we quarrel about the ideas of our neighbour, which we cannot see as clearly as the immutable truth is seen. If Moses himself had appeared to us and said, “This is my meaning”, even so we would not see it but believe. Therefore “let no one be puffed up for one against another beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4: 6).

A lot is happening in this passage which seems to unravel the clear binary oppositions Augustine had set up between the Truth/Intention, Private/Public, Truth/Lie.

Firstly Augustine claims that his interpretation of how to interpret texts on a meta-level is correct, nay is superior to other more particular and exclusive interpretations of how to deduce the truth of a Biblical text. By means of a subtle trick, Augustine raises his particular methodological interpretation of texts to the status of a universal, by affirming all interpretations of the text as true. While his interpretation of the Bible affirms the others as true in themselves, his interpretation does come at the exclusion of other interpretations that claim to exclusively true.

Secondly, while Augustine denounced those that would claim possession over their interpretation, he begins expounding upon his personal interpretation by claiming possession, asking, even begging, to be listened to, ‘Listen to what say to him’ and so on. Ought he not do away with the entitlement and claim rather that we ought to listen to the Word of God, to the scripture, to the text itself? But that would be just as ambiguous would it not? We’d be left in the same place, no?
St Augustine of Hippo

Thirdly, how can Augustine know what the intentions of his fellow interpreters are? Augustine claims that ‘the ideas of our neighbour…we cannot see as clearly as the immutable truth is seen.’ If the meaning of the immutable truth is already opaque and uncertain and our neighbours’ meaning is even more indeterminate how is it possible to interpret the intention or even plain meaning of an interpretation of a text that is the translation and interpretation of God’s word by another neighbour.

One aspect of deconstructive criticism is to read with the grain of a text or author, which is also what Augustine attempts to do and I think that this might perhaps be a good place to do so.
Perhaps Augustine’s trick is not really such a trick, just like the curricula of his rhetoric classes. Perhaps he is merely multiplying the Truth of God from singularly confined and contained essence into an immanently unfolding play of many truths.

Yet on the other hand Augustine writes:

“God has tempered these sacred books to the interpretations of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths...If I myself were to be writing something at this supreme level of authority I would choose to write so that my words would sound out with whatever diverse truth in these matters each reader was able to grasp, rather than to give a quite explicit statement of a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views-provided there was no false doctrine to offend me.”

While earlier Augustine claims that we cannot deduce whether the writer of God’s word had proper intentions here he asserts that the writer has autonomy over what sort of words he would use to convey God’s Word. Furthermore, while earlier he asserts a claim to possession a certain mastery over language to be able to discern between words that “sound out with whatever diverse truth” versus “a quite explicit statement of a single true view.” Yet earlier he claimed there were no statements that had an explicit or singularly true interpretation. And finally he claims he would not exclude any other views so long as they did not offend him in their falsity.

One of the origins of the problems Augustine sees in others’ interpretations is that:

“When they hear ‘God said, Let there be that, and that is made’, they think of words with beginnings and endings, making a sound in time and passing away. They suppose that after the words have ceased, at one there exists that which was commanded to exist, and have other similar notions which they hold because of their familiarity with the fleshy order of things…in their state of weakness they are carried as if at their mother’s breast by an utterly simple kind of language.”

The words of God exist in a world unknown to man. Augustine notes that there is an impossible gap between the language of the divine and the language of the ‘fleshy order of things.’ Because of this impossibility of pure resemblance within symbolic language there are a number of techniques, stylistics devices, and linguistic inventions (such as the depth of figurative language) that mark this ‘difference.’

In Book XIII Augustine speaks of the resemblance and difference contained within figurative language:
To whom can I communicate this? How can I speak about it? For it is not about literal places where we sink down and rise up. This symbolic language contains a resemblance, but also a difference…In this still uncertain state of human knowledge, you alone mark thedifference between them and us. You test our hearts (Ps. 16: 3) and call light day and darkness night (Gen. 1: 5). Who can distinguish between us except you (Conf. XIII, emphasis mine)?

It is precisely because of the uncertainty and finitude of human knowledge that man must appeal to a divine source which makes and marks the differences between self/other, truth/lies, day/night.

Furthermore, the authority of divine scripture is multiplied as a result of the death of its mortal authors.

Your divine scripture has more sublime authority since the death of the mortal authors through whom you provided it for us…Indeed, by the very fact of their death the solid authority of your utterances published by them is in a sublime way ‘stretch out’ over everything inferior.

The increased power relegated to the textual is a move that in some ways oddly mirrors the increased relevance granted to the discursive in the wake of post-structuralists’ ‘death of the author.’ Post-structuralists are referring not to the literal death of the author, but to the death of the assumption of possession or mastery granted to the author’s claim of authority over a text. Nonetheless, the literal death of the divine messengers has the same effect of denouncing man’s claim to transcendence achieved by means of language. The translator notes that the reference to the stretching out of a text like a skin symbolizes ‘a remedy for our mortality.’ Which is similar to the insights of Phenomenology or Deconstruction, that language is a Pharmakon, a contradictory and ambivalent bearer of both life and death, a remedy and a poison. We are condemned to language unto death, life and death have meaning only in so far as the limits of our languages, grammars, and syntax allow.

Within Augustine’s Greek inspired metaphysics of Christ God is not merely revealed to man and woman through a translated text, but is a text even to Angels in the ‘heaven of heavens.’

Your angels…have no need to look up to this firmament and to read so as to know your word. They ever ‘see your face’ (Matt. 18: 10) and there, without syllables requiring time to pronounce, they read what your eternal will intends. They read, they choose, they love. They ever read, and what they read never passes away. By choosing and loving they read the immutability of your design. Their codex is never closed, nor is their book ever folded shut. For you yourself are a book to them and you are for eternity (Ps. 47: 15) (Conf. XIII).

What to make of such peculiar ways of understanding God as a text, a codex, a design, and a book? In a footnote the translator explains:

For Augustine the method is justified by its edifying results, and is in principle a working out of the correspondence or analogy between the physical and ‘intelligible’ worlds. The multiplicity of symbols answers to the restlessness of the human heart and mind, continually desiring change. But these symbols, in which scripture is so rich, point to eternal truths. Allegorical exegesis is the sacramental principle applied to scripture (Book XIII, Fn. 22).

Or again in a later footnote:

Visible signs and sacraments are a necessity because of the fallen nature of humanity. Signs are required by sinful people, but truly spiritual Christians look higher, beyond material means (Book XIII, Fn. 24).

And as Augustine eloquently puts it:

But while the truths of these things remain the same, their embodiments in the physical realm are both many and varied. One thing grows out of another, and so, by your blessing, God, things are multiplied. You have relieved the tedium for mortal senses by the fact that what is one thing for our understanding can be symbolized and expressed in many ways by physical movements (Conf. Book XIII xx 27).

The analogical correspondence between the physical and the intelligible worlds, between the realms of the fleshy order of textuality and the divine Word of God emerges from and is displayed in the depths of the Bible’s ‘figurative words.’

I do not see what objection there is to my thus interpreting the figurative words of your book. I know that at the bodily level one can give a plurality of expressions to something which in the mind is understood as a single thing, and that the mind can give a multiplicity of meanings to something which, at the physical level, is a single thing….at the bodily level it is expressed by numerous sacraments and in innumerable languages and in innumerable phrases of any particular language…Cannot this bear many interpretations, not including misleading errors, but true interpretations of different kinds? In the same way the offspring of human beings ‘increase and multiply’.

“If, therefore, we think of the natures of things not allegorically but literally, the word ‘Increase and multiply’ applies to all creatures generated by seeds. But if we treat the text as figurative (which I prefer to think scripture intended since it cannot be pointless that it confines this blessing to aquatic creatures and human beings), then we find multitudes in the spiritual and physical creations…

“In all these things we find multitudes and abundances and increases. But only in signs given corporeal expression and in intellectual concepts do we find an increasing and a multiplying which illustrate how one thing can be expressed in several ways and how one formulation can bear many meanings...because of the fertility of reason, I interpret the generation of humanity to mean concepts in the intelligible realm. …By this blessing I understand you grant us the capacity and ability to articulate in many ways what we hold to be a single concept, and to give a plurality of meanings to a single obscure expression in a text we have read (Conf. Book XIII).

Humanity’s blessing to multiply the meanings, corporeal expressions, and conceptual forms of intelligibility of a ‘single obscure expression’ is an unlimited endowment that extends beyond Augustine’s intended limits. Even in this turn of phrase, “we find multitudes in the spiritual and physical creations…” we find so many possibilities for interpreting the differing meanings of the spiritual which extend beyond Augustine’s finite glimpse into the heaven of heavens; eyes trained upon the sun don’t know the self-annihilating seduction that knowledge imparts; when one becomes so attached to the stars is when dis-aster is the most painful.

Humanity’s fate is sealed but also saved by the emergence of the sign; the fall unto sin necessitates language. Without the slippery, leaky, surprising play of language the uncertainty between truth and untruth, good and evil, would cease to exist. Without the play of language there would be no need of, nor would there be a possibility for, repentance, confession, or redemption.

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