Charlie Hebdo and Neighborliness

Today, I began reading David Nirenberg’s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, and the attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the all-too-expected violence against Mosques provide an unsettling and imminent backdrop for what is otherwise some light research reading. Even if I were not horrified by these propagating acts of violence, my professional interests would already be raised in light of Salman Rushdie’s invocation of a “medieval form of unreason” as a way to describe Islamic radicalism. As many others have noted, the labeling of something as “medieval” is a comforting fantasy of casting the present (and our own responsibilities to it) into the darkened past. See this piece for an excellent take on it.

Of course, this event has brought back “The Clash of Civilizations” (as if it ever left). As a perfect example, Senator Lindsay Graham has stated that “Our way of life doesn’t fit into their scheme of how the world should be. If you stopped talking about radical Islam, if you never did a cartoon again, that’s not enough. What people need to get is they can’t be accommodated. They can’t be negotiated with. They have to be eventually destroyed.” It’s them or us.

These stark terms and boundaries, boldly-colored in lines of a rather cartoonish portrait, obscure the interdependence of Christianity and Islam. Nirenbeg describes this interdependence as “coproduction,” that religions coproduce each other in a dense network of identification and dis-identification. Another phrase he uses here is “ambivalent neighborliness,” an array of responses to the neighbor “ranging from love and toleration to total extermination” (2).

Senator Graham and many others would do well to heed Nirenberg’s analyses concerning the interrelationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:

My goal in them [the ensuing chapters] is simply to convince you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have never been independent of each other: that is as neighbors, in close relation to one another, that they have constantly transformed themselves, reinterpreting both their scriptures and their histories. Their pasts are not discrete, independent, or stable, and neither are their presents or their futures. (12)

Total annihilation–or the rhetoric of total annihilation–can never be good public policy, and most importantly, it’s a blood-tinged fantasy that ultimately seeks to forget how much our neighbors mean to us, even (and sadly, perhaps especially) when we kill them.

Kalamazoo paper, in closing

After returning from Kalamazoo and resurfacing from final grading, my head is starting to clear enough to put up some blog posts. What follows is the final paragraph to my paper called “Prosthetic Neighbors: Enabling Community in the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” In this paper, I endeavored to read Ragnelle alongside two different theoretical considerations: the political theology of the Neighbor and some recent work in Disability Studies. I’m trying to work out some of the ways the Neighbor and Disability might complement each other. This will be my primary summer project, so expect more here and on Modern Medieval.


In closing this essay, I want to briefly consider Lennard Davis’s recent book, The End of Normal, where he revisits the notion of dismodernism. He reviews criticisms of his challenge to a disabled identity, and he updates his work in light of his encounter with both critics and other philosophers, mostly notably for my purposes, Giorgio Agamben. Davis observes that “the primary exclusion that creates the state is bare life that also could be defined as barely human… The state historically has been founded on the exclusion of the severely disabled” (29). He goes on to argue that “if I had read Agamben ten years ago, I might have said that dismodernism advocates the defining of the posthuman by the inclusion of the abject, bare life, the disabled– in other words, including the imperfect, the interdependent, the nonideal in the very sphere of the polis, the agora, and so on.” For Davis, the exclusion of the bare life of the severely disabled enables the inclusion that communities are formed on. I might suggest that the loathly lady allows for the exclusion of the bare life of her extreme deformity, thus bringing forth the bonds of community based on inclusion, in this case marriage. However, what I really think that Davis needed here is not so much Agamben’s state of exception, but rather he should look to the political theology of the neighbor. For me, dismodernism makes explicit some of the ways in which the neighbor constitutes the social. As Reinhard suggests through a reading of Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, “To destroy the relation of the neighbor is to eliminate the breathing space that keeps the subject in proper relationship to the Other, neither too close nor too far, but in proximity, the ‘nearness’ that neighboring entails.” [In reading disability through Agamben, Davis also makes exceptional the subject-position of the disability, which I would suggest blunts the force of  his original conception of dismodernism.] Before the entrance of the neighbor, Arthur exists in an atemporal world, one of constant feasts and hunting, but also one where the disenfranchised is simply absent, and history seems nonexistent. The incursion of the stranger into the Arthurian world may bring tragedy in the end, but it also forces Arthur to confront his neighbors, and to attempt to redress political wrongs. The neighbor-encounters in the poem embody what Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick in their joint essay “Bodies Together: Touch, Ethics and Disability” (2002) would call a “becoming-in-the-world-with-others,” an openness of two bodies to alternate modes of being, and to a futurity promised but not yet apprehended (62). To fully understand neighbor-love, I argue, it must be understood in the eventfulness of an encounter that brings two or more bodies together, not into a simple joining but rather an interdependent openness to difference, and an embrace of a more just futurity.