The Uses of Language: Julia Kristeva and Kenotic Love

Language is the medium in which we live and move, and what we make of or do with language, is determinative of the reality in which we live. In this post-theological age, it may not occur to us to consider that we have an orientation toward or within language. Psychoanalysis, or the talking cure (as Freud described it) is nearly the last realm in which what we do with words, linguistic exchange (even in dreams), how we linguistically constitute ourselves towards others and ourselves (transference and countertransference), is an object of study.

Psychologists have noted that young children pass through a fundamental depression just prior to acquisition of language. Julia Kristeva describes the passage into language as an abandonment by the mother or the narcissistic paradise in which all needs are met, and entry into the symbolic world of the father. “The child must abandon its mother and be abandoned by her in order to be accepted by the father and begin talking … [L]anguage begins in mourning …”[1] Both death and abandonment and the establishment of the self are implicated in language acquisition.

In the description of G. W. F. Hegel, language brings simultaneous awareness of death and its refusal. As he describes, inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.”[2] The “faculty” for language and the “faculty” for death arise together, but of course the peculiar faculty for life, at least in the Christian understanding is interwoven with this “faculty” of death and language. Which is to say, this focus and enquiry into language is first and properly the domain of theology.

As Kristeva describes, the work of the cross is to address us at this most basic and deep psychological level: “The ‘scandal of the cross’, the logos or language of the cross … is embodied, I think not only in the psychic and physical suffering which irrigates our lives … but even more profoundly in the essential alienation that conditions our access to language, in the mourning that accompanies the dawn of psychic life. By the quirks of biology and family life we are all of us melancholy mourners, witnesses to the death that marks our psychic inception.”[3] Yet it is through this passage, from out of blissful narcissism, that we discover the other. We form connections, not simply warm support in an extension of the life in the womb, but the possibility of love and hate, life and death, self and other, through entry into language. Kristeva depicts this slightly hellish condition as precisely the place in which Christ meets us: “Christ abandoned, Christ in hell, is of course the sign that God shares the condition of the sinner. But He also tells the story of that necessary melancholy beyond which we humans may just possibly discover the other, now in the symbolic interlocutor rather than the nutritive breast.”[4]  Language is for finding the other, for recognizing and negotiating mortality, and yet it can also be deployed as a refusal of this reality.

The matrix of language can be made to constitute its own reality, and can act as an obstacle rather than a bridge. In this understanding, attaching ourselves to the law, the immovable symbolic order, is simultaneously a means of inscribing ourselves into stone (becoming immortal) but the stone is an epitaph. Meaning attached to language per se, to the occurring of the sign, mistakes the letter of the law for its meaning. Kristeva raises the example of Chinese reification of the word: “In classical Chinese (for example, the I Ching), ‘to believe’ and ‘to be worthy of faith’ are expressed by the word xin, where the ideogram contains the signs for man and speech. Does ‘to believe’ therefore mean ‘to let speech act?’”[5] In the case of Japanese, being a speaker of the language conveys the spirit of Japanese identity. Much like the Jew, marked by Hebrew speaking and law-keeping, attachment to the sign conveys an immovable essence, which Paul characterizes as deadly. The reification of the word seems to be the universal tendency.

The philosopher often uses words much like the mathematician employs numbers, as a coherent symbol system which is or produces truth. In this understanding, language works within a closed system, in which words and symbols constitute their own reality. Thinking is being, as the thought contains the essence of reality. Rather than language leading from death to resurrection, we can be haunted by negativity, rejection, castration, death drive. In the language of the Apostle Paul, we can be caught between wanting and doing, between the law of the mind and the law of the body, and we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the ego, that ungraspable “I” in the mirror. The ego cogito is ever allusive, and yet pursuit of the ego poses as salvation.

To pass from death to resurrection requires a relinquishing of the ego. What Paul describes as kenotic self-giving love, is a relinquishment of stasis, being, and position, so as to reach out to and exist with and in the other. This kenotic lover does not insist upon his status or position in the symbolic order. This deadly attachment to law, is a futile attempt to have existence within the self – to establish the self-image as distinct from and not subject to the other. The ego is preserved at the cost of love. In the description of Graham Ward:

To be redemptive, to participate in the economy of redemption opened and perfected by Christ the form of God’s glory, our making cannot be in our name. Our making cannot, like the builders of the Tower of Babel, make a name for ourselves. Our making cannot reify our own autonomy. Such making is only death and idolatry. Our making must be in and through an abandonment to an operation that will instigate the crisis of our representations. Our making has to experience its Passion, its descent into the silent hiatus.[6]

The recognition of mortality, forsakenness, alienation, is the first step toward life. According to Kristeva, “It is because I am separate, forsaken, alone vis-àvis the other that I can psychologically cross the divide that is the condition of my existence and achieve not only ecstasy in completion (complétude: reunion with the father, himself a symbolic substitute for the mother) but also eternal life (resurrection) in the imagination.”[7] She is specifically thinking of life in Christ as completing the journey to love. ”For the Christian believer the completion of faith is real completion, and Christ, with whom the believer is exhorted to identify, expiates in human form the sin of all mankind before achieving glory in resurrection.”[8] The passage through death with Christ enables, through tarrying with the negative, kenotic love.

As Slavoj Žižek explains I Corinthians 13, this love necessitates self-emptying:

the point of the claim that even if I were to possess all knowledge, without love I would be nothing, is not simply that with love I am ‘something’ – in love, I am also nothing but, as it were, a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack. Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves: we love because we do not know all. On the other hand, even if we were to know everything, love would inexplicably still be higher than completed knowledge.[9]

Žižek’s negation rests upon an atheistic reading of Hegel, but the Christian Hegel sees negation, not as an end in itself, but as the merging of the infinite and finite. The infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[10] As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[11] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. God in Christ emptied himself, not of deity, but of the presumption of infinity. “He existed in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Php. 2:5–7). Paul is recommending Christ as the model for the Christian, who obviously cannot empty themselves of deity, but they can “have this attitude” of self-sacrificial giving. They can “hold fast to the word of life” (Php. 2:16) in taking up this self-emptying Word.  

Language is made for love, for connection to the other, such that all true dialogue is an act of love. Speaking as a reaching for the other is a relinquishment of the isolated ego. All true discourse is an act of love. According to Kristeva, “The speaking subject is a loving subject.”[12] But at the same time, “Love is a death sentence which causes me to be.”[13] As Ward explains, “All representation is a kenotic act of love towards the other; all representation involves transference – being caught up in the economy of giving signs.”[14] We gain access to both God and the neighbor through transferential (mutually indwelling) discourse of the kenotic Word. The task of theology, the work of the Christian, is to recognize how it is that the language of Christianity shapes us according to a different order of desire – (as Hans Frei describes) the unique “cultural linguistics of the Christian religion.”[15] In the vivid explanation of Ward:

As such, Christian theology is not secondary but participatory, a sacramental operation. It is a body of work at play within the language of the Christian community. Our physical bodies are mediated to us through our relation to other physical bodies and the mediation of those relationships through the body of the signs. Thus we are mapped onto a social and political body. The meaning of these signs is mediated to us through the body of Christ, eucharistic and ecclesial, so that we are incorporated into that spiritual body. Transcorporality is the hallmark of a theological anthropology. [16]

The deep grammar of the body of Christ inducts into an alternative linguistic community, in which lack and negation become the opening to love and entry into the corporate body of Christ, sharing a body, indwelling one another, through the “transcorporality” of Christ.

[1] Julia Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Colum[1]bia University Press, 1988) pp. 40. Cited in Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 207.

[2] According to Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Translated by Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) xii.

[3] Kristeva, 41.

[4] Kristeva, 41.

[5] Kristeva, 35

[6] Ward, 215.

[7] Kristeve, 35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute  — Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London/New York, Verso 2000) 147. Cited in Ward, 264.

[10] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019), 12.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[12] Kristeva, 170.

[13] Kristeva, 36, Cited in Ward, 212.

[14] Ward, 212.

[15] Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 20. Cited in Ward, 217.

[16] Ward, 217-218.

The End of Naïve Evangelicalism: Exposing the Word of Death

With the storming of the Capitol building, it is clear that we have reached the end of a naïve era: a four-year long indulgence of right-wing politics, and a decades long linking of evangelical religion to nationalism. The exposed underbelly of this religion has shown it to be antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The President’s deployment of his Christian base and the fact that it serves his strategy, indicates the shape of the religion that would serve him. It exceeds guilt by association, as the very possibility of association (with white nationalism, the KKK, or the raw grab for power) is a blasphemous implication of the Prince of Peace in violent nationalism.

 I cannot help but link recent events to an emptying out of the religion, which Faith and I have witnessed personally, since we returned to this country 15 years ago. We came back to work for a Christian College here in Moberly, and it was there we recognized that the religion had morphed into something unrecognizable. The microcosm of the rule by fear and intimidation witnessed at the national level, we witnessed in this institution. The misogyny and maltreatment of women, the commitment to a hellish Christianity built upon fear, and the commitment to a violent God and violent faith, produced systemic abuse which we did not encounter in twenty years in Japan. The forms of violence directly pitted against the rule of law in the Capitol, in this little institution were pitted against basic humane and legal treatment. The same forces that put up a JESUS sign during the storming of the Capitol, the forces that put Donald Trump into office, have transformed what is called “Christianity.” The religion has been turned inside out, along with the nation state, set to destroy what it is meant to uphold and protect.

 In other words, the deployment of the religion in support of the nation state is imploding. The endless sex scandals, the attachment to the cult of personality, the commitment to consumerism over principle and ethics, describes both church and state. It is as if the worst elements of the religion have come to a head in this political period, and the religion connected to the political right has been exposed for the misshapen anti-Christianity that it truly is. The lawlessness of the rioters on Wednesday did not arise in a vacuum, as they were clearly egged on by the President, but this President has been egged on by religious supporters and advisers.

I have pointed to the broad, two-kingdom sort of theology which enabled national socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and which is embraced by American Christian nationalists (here), but I think there is a more specific element in Nazi ideology which coincides with American evangelicalism. The escapism, the “going to heaven when you die,” the otherworldly nature of the American form of the faith, allows death and alienation to reign here upon earth. This was accomplished for Germans in many ways, but archetypically by Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger, the premiere philosopher of the Nazi period, might as well have been declared “Official Nazi Theologian” for his subtle separation of the insights of the Christian faith from the tenets of the teaching of Jesus. He deploys key vocabulary of the New Testament in a negation of the religion. This negative Christianity, instead of trading in resurrection life, presumes the primacy of death and the strategies that deal in death. The religion and philosophy might be summed up in Heidegger’s conclusion that the defining characteristic of humans is death:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought. It can, however, beckon us toward the way in which the nature of language draws us into its concern.[1]

Heidegger’s linkage of language and death may be a flash of insight worth dwelling upon – he continues to dwell upon it and little else – but left in isolation this focus supports and coincides with one of the most destructive periods in human history. At the same time, Heidegger’s singular focus reveals the shape of a Christian theology which allows death to stand in this life as the controlling factor.

Heidegger’s singular link of death and language, which is certainly serious and worth developing, is only one instance of an infinite number of similar links with language. “Humans are they” who can experience life as life because they speak. Humans are they who can tell jokes because they speak. Humans are they who can experience sex as more than mere animal copulation because they speak (etc. etc. ad infinitum). Certainly, humans appear as “mortal and speaking” but they also appear as liars and speaking, as jokesters and speaking, as lovers and speaking, and as potentially immortal and speaking.

The point is not to trivialize the link between language and death but to recognize the many faceted nature of this relation so as to draw out what it must mean to be “constantly delivered to death” (2 Cor. 4:11), or to defeat death through the peculiarity of the Christian orientation to the word.  Heidegger seems to picture deliverance to death as a one-way street, but Paul is here recognizing and moving beyond where Heidegger stops short. More than that, he is describing an impetus behind language – to take up the word and speak – where Heidegger seems to make the case for silence. Paul is describing a reconnection to the world, to human relationships, which is not obstructed by death, due to participation in the death of Christ. The power of the word of the cross is the power of fellowship, the power for life, the power for preaching.

In contrast, a faith which pictures the cross as a death to benefit God (divine satisfaction, penal substitution) or a deliverance from hell, and not a defeat of death and an opening up of the world, leaves death and violence as a world orientation and strategy. Heidegger and evangelicalism share a singular, flat link to death. Heidegger maintains that death is the main thing about humans and evangelicalism allows this singular emphasis to stand.  

Paul is suggesting that all of life is opened up in rightly understanding the link between the word and death, not because the orientation to death is denied, but because it is displaced. In one instance (in both Paul and Heidegger) language and being human might appear deadly and death dealing but in the other (the Pauline alternative to Heidegger), every facet of life, including death, takes on the aura of revelation. Christ’s death defeats death, baptism inaugurates this victory for all, and communion in the body of Christ describes a life that continually overcomes death. As Paul describes the Christian life: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). The Christian embrace of immortality is not meant to be an escape from the connection to death, language, and the world, but it is meant to reverse the sinful orientation to death and to open up life and love in the world.  

Think here, again, of my previous reference to Helen Keller (here), who pictures her entry into language as an opening to the world on the order of a divine revelation.  “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” For the first time Helen experiences “water,” “earth,” “teacher,” “baby,” and some 30 odd things she names in an afternoon. Language acquisition, for Helen, is on the order of divine revelation, but what Heidegger demonstrates is the human barrier to this equation. There is a link between language and death which may characterize people and which is spelled out in philosophy and psychology, but the point of Christianity and even the possibility indicated in language is the opposite of this stunted link.

 I do not mean simply that people have the possibility for future eternal life, but that there is a specific orientation to law and language which is deadly and death dealing and that there is an alternative orientation implied even in this stunted negative orientation. Christian engagement with death is aimed at defeating this deadly orientation here and now.  The point of Christianity, the power conveyed through resurrection faith, takes us beyond he word of death to the word of life.

Heidegger does not note the necessary positive side, which makes the negative appear. He only recognizes the negative aspect, the absence and negativity, and he imagines this absence and nothingness is final ground. Heidegger’s philosophy concludes to a pure negativity and nothingness, which presumes with Hegel that to be human is to be founded on negativity. Heidegger is following Hegel, for whom the human is a negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.” He is a “placeholder of nothingness” as death is definitive. I would suggest, Heidegger and Hegel are partly correct in their assessment. Absent a Christian reorientation to the law of sin and death, humans are driven by death as if it were the force of life.

Paul presumes death, like the word, holds out a series of links and possibilities. His understanding of the truth of death, is that death, like language, is peculiar for humans because it holds out a different, an enduring, possibility. Just as mortality is constituted by the possibility of immortality, death is only death where it is presumed to be something other than ground or end. What I mean here is not that death is necessarily linked in reality to immortality, I just mean that human death is constituted as death because the peculiarity of language necessarily opens up another possibility.

Paul is describing a reorientation to both death and language in which neither is presumed as its own end, and he is presuming upon this inherent possibility within language. This might be taken as a trivial reference to a future possibility, but Paul is describing a present actuality, in which death threatens but this very threat opens the mortal to the immortal. He is linking the inherent possibility of language to the realization of a different reality. Certainly, this is realized through Christ, but this should not be separated from everyday life. Paul is describing the “mortal flesh,” the feeling of being “abandoned,” of being “destroyed,” or of “slowly dying,” with the life of Jesus being revealed. As he puts it, “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Paul is focused on both sides of the valence of the word – it is joined with death in one instance so as to be joined to life in the other instance.

What Heidegger misses, is that while death and mortality appear as primary in human orientation, it is on the same basis that their opposites also “flash before us.” Immortality, too, is not a consideration for unspeaking animals and it is precisely this possibility that constitutes the peculiar human experience of mortality and death. Death taken as life, immortality folded into mortality, or the enchantment of religion lent to nationalism, describes the human tendency to immortalize the tomb and the religious and “secular” systems which worship the tomb. In a pervasive but bizarre reversal, death takes on the patina of life and immortality, as the human condition is not simply bent to death but to immortality – to immortalizing death. What the Bible calls the covenant with death and links to the lie of the serpent and the lie of idolatry, Heidegger identifies with Dasein, with the house of language, with “being there” or waking up to being, which only death and nothingness can make shine. Heidegger is selling his philosophy on the basis that death and nothingness serve in place of life.

This is not simply the accomplishment of a subtle philosophical mind, but I believe it is the articulation of the human condition outside of Christ. It is the reality that is left standing, one way or another, where death is not dethroned as the point of life. A Christianity focused on the problem of God, the problem of hell, the problem of the law, and which misses the way in which the world is entangled with the lie oriented to death, lets death have the last word. It has failed to enact the reign of the living word.

The sign that authentic Christianity has been traded for a counterfeit is the violence this entails, as violence is the necessity where death reigns. As Heidegger’s philosophy fits national socialism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, in the same way evangelicalism is a fitting theology for American nationalism and the death of hundreds of thousands sacrificed to Mammon, as both transfer the glow of life and truth to death and violence.

As Hitler needed Heidegger and German Christians, so Trump is dependent on evangelicals to lend a religious aura to his violent grasping after power. Heidegger was Hitler’s favorite living philosopher precisely because of his nihilistic embrace of violence and death. Nazi Christianity (the German Christians who embraced Hitler and the Nazi party as opposed to those who did not) was shown up as hollow and empty, just as the religion which led to the storming of the barricades at the Capitol is now exposed in its promotion of death and violence in place of life and peace. This exposure of the religion, spent as it has been on the coin of the realm of a deadly nationalism, is clearly an empty word, a bankrupt form of the faith.  

[1] Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, (trans. Peter D. Hertz, New York, 1971), 107-108.