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Levi’s Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s Words Amended

Blessed Be the…

I don’t really like writing on religious-sensitive topics, largely because the discussion that flows from them is often far from interesting (more heat, less light, as some say); but Larval Subjects has a unique interpretation of the Life and Teaching of Jesus, such that he feels Jesus challenges us let go of our Imaginary relations of wholeness, while at the same time disbanding the Symbolic order as well. (Levi is a lapsus  Lacanian, and has recourse to Lacanian concepts now and again, sometimes in unorthodox creativity, sometimes with orthodox, near bible-thumping fervor.) It is a kind of anti-Imaginary, anti-Symbolic call that would lead us all to a “strange kind of new community”:

In short, the social and political vision Christ seemed to envision was that of a form of social life beyond the Lacanian dimension of the Imaginary. The “Imaginary” here does not signify the “illusory” or “imagination”, but rather is the domain of “…wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity” (Dylan Evans 1996, 82). The Imaginary is the domain of self-identity, of being identical to oneself, and of social relations based on similarity. Moreover, it is the domain where we take ourselves to be masters of what we say, where we think of meaning as being defined by our intentions (psychoanalytic practice being premised on the thesis that our words and actions always say more than we intend and that meaning is bestowed by the Other, not our intentions). Lacan associates the domain of the Imaginary with that of narcissism insofar as the Ego or self-identity is produced through narcissistic identification. Most importantly, it is a realm characterized by rivalry and aggression, insofar as we see our mirror counter-parts as contesting our own identity and therefore threatening o[u]r sense of wholeness and completeness or our belief that we are master’s of ourselves and of meaning. Whenever you protest to another “but that’s not what I meant, you’re twisting my words!” you are thoroughly immersed in the domain of the imaginary.

Throughout all of his teaching and more importantly his practice, Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary. He contests the domain of imaginary identification with the Other in proclaiming that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). As Levi-Strauss demonstrated, the incest prohibition and the structure of kinship relations is a matter of the symbolic and symbolic identifications, not a matter of the danger of producing five headed children. In contesting kinship relations the point isn’t that we should follow Jesus and God above all others, but that in the name of this new community we should undergo a subjective destitution where we refuse our Imaginary tribal identifications in the symbolic order. Kinship structures are organized around the dialectic of sameness and difference, the same and the other, such that they are designed to maintain the identity of the One or the Same against the other.

Now, at the surface of it this seems like a profound observation. There is something so radical about Jesus’s message that it defies both the Imaginary and Symbolic orders of Lacan. But I am most interested in the idea that “Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary”. Perhaps, but what does this mean? Levi tells us that the Imaginary dimension is where narcissism and aggression is born, where we encounter others as threatening our sense of wholeness. Do we have to be Lacanians to buy this understanding of Jesus? Further, as proof of this interpretation he cite’s Jesus’s call to hate your family members (in contrast to your love for him), a sign that Jesus is not only against the Imaginary, but also against the Symbolic order. But then he specifies, the imaginary that we are supposed to fore go, are the Imaginary “tribal identifications in the symbolic order”. Is this is the same thing as “challenging the dimension of the Imaginary” itself?

The Imagination Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Its hard to tell, because when I tried to get some more precision on just how Levi arrived at his conclusion I ran up against a very interesting mode of “defending” it, rather than explainingit. Rather than using the citation that Levi selected to exemplify the core of Jesus’s teachings, I suggested the rather more commonly understood distillation:

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).

And I asked, is not Jesus’s essentialization of the Law here one great mode of Imaginary identification? It seems to be broken into both an identification with God and with your neighbor. Instead of challenging the “dimension of the Imaginary” it seems that Jesus is employing it to its fullest, creating a wholeness of world and conduct. What is most odd is how Levi responded. First he says that this is just how the “figure of Jesus” speaks to him. Fair enough, but then adds in regard to the way he had selected biblical quotation,

Personally I think Scripture is a bit of a rorschach, why not make alternatives available?

Later to say, 

Why is that [my] interpretation any less valid than an interpretation that privileges one particular line in Leviticus or Revelation?

This is what I don’t get, or even appreciate. People, particularly intellectuals, spend a lot of time arguing forcefully against the kinds of inventive, almost deadly-whimsical textual games fundamentalist Christians play with their sacred scriptures, making up (finding) the message they want to hear. Levi seems, when asked to explain his interpretation, actually appeals to this unique kind of authority. Scriptural passages are inkblots to him. One can get really radical about Jesus’s message if one selects the right lines (and he does advocate something of the cut-and-paste Bible of Thomas Jefferson). His turn towards the hatred of one’s family looms large in the mutal defeat of the Imaginary and Symbolic realms. But Levi’s call is a political call, a call for a kind of strange community, and political calls are not usually made from inkblots and should be examined.

I do not deny that Jesus’s message was (and is) radical, but what I wonder about is its relationship to the dimension of the Imaginary. In a sense, the very wholeness of our Being is an imaginary process of identification, one recognizing another as oneself. And it is to this concept of wholeness that Jesus appeals.

Spinoza and Jesus: Who Would’a Thunk?

These thoughts on Imaginary relations are not idle, as for sometime I have been working through the role of the imaginary in the thinking of Spinoza, someone who has a strong reputation for arguing against imaginary relations – he relegates them to the third form of an inferior kind of knowledge (with rationality and intuition ascending above it). Spinoza’s position on the imaginary though is problematic and perhaps inconsistent. There can be no doubt though that upon close examination Spinoza actually places very important imaginary processes at the core of both sociability and the pursuit of blessedness.

The first of these I have recently discussed in other contexts and has received some attention in terms of its place in Spinoza’s political reasoning. It argues a fundamental imaginary and affective bond between my person and another person imagined to be the same:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

The second of these is quite neglected in Spinoza studies, for it comes in the highly excelerated Fifth part of the Ethics as Spinoza intensely speeds towards the Intuition of God:

E5,Proposition 13 – The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

This proposition culminates a short sketch of imaginary powers which proceeds from the previous two:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

I have previously argued for a Spinozist advocacy of metaphor (as oxymoronic as that sounds) on the strength of this proposition: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination . Briefly, Spinoza posits a kind of imaginary path towards an intution of God which is predicated upon associated images to our clearest understanding of things. This is to say, taking the two imaginary references in hand (E3p27, E5p13), we find the Spinoza proposes that the imagination of other persons intimately seen to be “the same” as us and the creation of imaginary images (one supposes that he has in mind God) which have the greatest number of other images associated with it, puts human beings not only within the social, but also well on the track of clear and distinct knowledge which empowers the many. I would suggest that Jesus’s two commandment distillations are precisely of this Imaginary process, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Levi “Translates” the Bible for Us

Further on in the comments section (and Levi has since posted a heavily Lacanian theory-laden treatise on Jesus which I have not read, nor likely will, given his unfortunate propensity to expound rather than communicate), Levi tells us that he “translates” the word “neighbor” as “stranger” such that Jesus’s message is “love thy stranger”. After being pressed with the problem that the Greek word is “plêsion” and strictly means “the one near you,” he retreated, telling us that his “translation” is not a philological translation at all, but something of a Heideggerian one. That is, he feels that he has come to understand the “truth” behind the word enough to change it completely.

He deleted my objections to this kind of “translating” from the comments section, but they are worth repeating here because they go directly to my claim that Jesus’s teaching and practice are not against the domain of the Imaginary, but rather gainfully employ it. What I would like to emphasize about the word “plêsion” is that this proximateness is much in keeping with what seems to be a coherent message of proximate love over abstract love. When Jesus offers the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the proximity of the “neighbor” that he is right there before us, in an encounter (and not that he is a “stranger”), that qualifies the tale. Personally I find this message of contact-lead love quite present in the figure of Jesus as he is not only physically close to those he engages with, but repeatedly defies abstractions of either class, kind or object. The imaginary processes advocated in his dissolution of the law are immediate and always in terms of vital connections based on identifications of wholeness.

Levi says that in past posts he has declared that it is unfortunate that Jesus used the word “neighbor” as if Jesus (or our approximate historical construction of him) didn’t quite know what he was saying and that the Lacanian-aided Levi has figured it out better. Perhaps though when reading the text we should pay greater attention to what actually is said, rather than creating inventive “truths” which we graft upon the text in translation.

This brings me to another thought as to the standing of the text we approach when we treat words some take as holy. If we are not going to take a distinctly religious approach, how are we to judge Levi’s claim that interpreting Jesus is like reading inkblots on paper: one can just see what one wants to see, and that’s that. During the discussion some emphasis turned to the old scholarly issue of the imagined “Q” document, something proposed to contain the “real” teachings of Jesus, while devaluing as simply projective much of the others. Personally I think it a mistake to think that at any time we are attempting to get at exactly the truth of Jesus, stripping away the extraneous. Rather, we have to understand the figure as constructed, layered through the centuries, because this very process of sedimentation is the one that brought “him” into tremendous importance. As such, the “Q” Jesus only stands in historical importance due to the “non-Q” Jesus. All the strands must be taken into hand. If we want to talk of the core “teachings and practices” of Jesus, as someone like Levi would like to, this is fair, but I think it a mistake to presume some aspects of the Gospels as NECESSARILY less vital, simply because they do not fall into the “Q” category. We do not know the oral traditions and priorities of vision which either preserved or invented these aspects, and at best Q statements must live within their non-Q contexts, within a kind of dialectic. Clearly the authors of the Gospels, no matter who we count them to be, expressed a synthesis of meanings all concordant with the supposed Q elements, and there is no authoritative way to trace out the roots of this concordance. Historical force alone, the weight of the centuries pressing down, insure that we take them together if we are to speaking meaningfully about the meanings of these texts. This is not to say that we cannot make distinctions, but our distinctions should remain observational. I do not know if the (non-Q) Good Samaritan was spoken by Jesus or not, but it remains a meaningful illustration.

Lastly, I hope that it is the text itself that we deal with most specifically when attempting to identify the meanings therein. And if Jesus had the misfortune to speak the Aramaic word which was most readily translated into “plêsion” it is only with great abuse that we venture to, in Heideggerian aplumb and Existentialist Procrustian bedmaking, “translate” it into “stranger”. It is in all likelihood, as far as we can tell, that Jesus meant “the one near” and not “stranger” (in fact the concept of “stranger” I would suggest did not exist at the time). It seems to me that like Spinoza, who has a reputation against the Imaginary Domain, Jesus’s message of proximate love and love of God, involves deep imaginary processes of identification, the lived construction of wholes, both locally built up from the nearby, and circumfrentially deploys inwards from an imagined limit.

The importance of grasping the imaginary processes invoked is exactly that suggested by Levi, that the imaginary vision of wholeness and authority of meanings, while at many time is curative and inspiring, also holds the possibilities of its shadow, the fears that the wholeness will be threatened from the “outside” under some projective external force. The sometimes, perhaps often brutal history of religious violence speaks vividly about the shadow of these imaginary divisions, but it is important to see that the imagination itself is both part of their production and their possible healing. It specifically is not that Jesus’s message is/was “challenging the imaginary dimension” but employing as fully as possible the powers of imaginary identification, very much in the same way that Spinoza proposed as well. We must recall that Spinoza was an active Collegiant associate, and one imagines likely attended quite a few bible study-like events, an image we do not regularly call to mind.

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