Introduction: Babylon and the Crisis of Sovereignty
The introductory chapter provides the biblical background to the image of Babylon; it gives a sense of the wide prevalence and malleability of this image in U.S. culture and politics; and it theorizes the work done through allusion to Babylon. It shows that conflicting reactions to Babylon (love and hate) come through an original biblical ambivalence that has made it an excellent figure for representing and managing the centering and decentering tensions of a biopolitical capitalist polity. Babylon is used to reinforce a diminishing U.S. sovereignty through war and sexual regulation, and simultaneously to promote many of the conditions of economic globalization that undercut that very sovereignty. References to Babylon enable, manage, and occlude these contradictions; they cut across secular, religious, and political lines, revealing interdependencies of political positions, as well as the religious shaping of the entire political field.
1. From Babel to Biopolitics: Josephus, Theodemocracy, and the Regulation of Pleasure
Chapter 1 looks at how the Tower of Babel becomes a facilitator of biopolitics. It traces contemporary interpretation back to the Jewish historian and Roman apologist Josephus, writing in the first century of the Common Era. Josephan themes and their Greco-Roman philosophical underpinnings still resonate today. Allusions to the Babel story can be heard in U.S. partisan politics, from the Republican tea party to Barack Obama’s Democratic big tent. Both sides of the partisan divide use the story to promote what Runions terms theodemocracy: a required faith in the Christian God, democracy that distinguishes between civil and economic equality, and heteropatriarchal sexual regulation. Faith, democracy, and sexual regulation work together to promote the biopolitical subject of interest and to secure the free flow of capital.
2. Bellicose Dreams: Babylon and Exception to Law
Chapter 2 explores allusions to Babylon and Babel in relation to law and the drive to war. Runions tracks references to the secular discourse of the neoconservative movement and in the religious, conservative discourse of theonomy. Despite significant philosophical and religious differences, a similar affinity for making exception to the law surfaces in both sets of writings, through the tensions, slippages, and alternating values placed on unified social action and diversity. Suspicious of political and philosophical unities, such as non-U.S. empires or secular humanism, both favor decentralization and individualism that can go beyond the law. These discourses nonetheless insist on unified truth, presented in strongly imperialist terms. Read alongside Carl Schmitt’s genealogy of the exception in Political Theology, a clear picture emerges not only of their violent aspirations but also of the scripturalized structure of exception to law in U.S. liberal democracy.
3. Tolerating Babel: Biopolitics, Film, and Family
Chpater 3 analyzes D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance: Love’s Struggle through the Ages, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. Both films articulate a wish to rebuild Babel: They propose cinema as a tolerant universal language. While advocating tolerance, they sexualize and negatively appraise the otherness of Babylon in ways that uphold the normative sexual relations of the white heteronormative family. The ambivalence of these films toward their central metaphor is also consistent with the overlap between disciplines and regularization in biopolitics. Together, they reveal how Bible, film, family, and tolerance discourse all work together to normalize biopolitical divisions of populations and to model subjects of interest that are free but not too free.
4. Revenge on Babylon: Literalist Allegory, Scripture, Torture
Chapter 4 analyzes the use of the Bible in torture. The song “Rivers of Babylon”—which sets the biblical Psalm 137 to music—was played at ear-splitting volume in the attempts to break prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Examination of this generally overlooked detail reveals much about why torture has been considered both permissible and necessary in the war on terror. The use of this particular psalm as a form of torture—ending with revenge as it does—calls for an interrogation of the relationship of revenge to torture. The chapter traces the interpretive tradition that promotes violence and revenge toward Babylon. It explores the apocalyptically inflected, literalist-allegorical form of biblical interpretation that allows this text to be used as torture. “Rivers of Babylon” at Abu Ghraib reveals how allegory, scripture, torture, and revenge are used to establish the truth of U.S. sovereignty and to diminish any threat to it in the future.
5. Who Lives in Babylon? The Gay Antichrist as Political Enemy
Chapter 5 explores places where the war on terror and sexual regulation explicitly overlap. It looks at apocalyptic images of political enemies as homosexualized antichrists and at secular images of homosexualized Muslims. These images provide an entry point into thinking about the way in which exception to law is bound up with notions of sexuality and the human. The apocalyptic reasoning that produces the homosexualized enemy as antichrist is the same future-oriented logic that is central to the delimitation of the in/human that enables the imperial project’s dehumanizing techniques. The chapter argues that legal attempts to ban gay marriage from U.S. polity are integrally related to U.S. disregard for international law (the state of exception) that allows for torture overseas; both draw boundaries around the human in ways that accord with apocalyptically oriented desire.
6. Babelian Scripture: A Queerly Sublime Ethics of Reading
Chapter 6 considers how biblical texts can be approached differently. Based on the Babel story, it outlines a reading practice that values liminality and impossibility. It looks for an interpretive process that can instill the politically productive feeling of the sublime instead of the bellicose feeling of terror. It combines a deconstructive literary approach to religious narratives proposed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak with the African American artist Charles Gaines’s writing on the sublime as social connectivity and with queer theorists Lee Edelman’s and Tim Dean’s thought on the impossible rupture and connectivity of antisocial queer desire. The chapter draws to the fore Near Eastern mythological filiations between Christ, antichrist, and Whore. It rereads the antichrist and the Whore of Babylon as queer figures that disrupt the transcendent grounding for political decisions, making room for the sublime singular encounter with the political other.
Postlude: Roads to Babel