Connecting Word and Flesh
An interview with Mayra Rivera
By Eloise Blondiau
Harvard Divinity School Professor of Religion and Latina/o Studies Mayra Rivera’s latest book, Poetics of the Flesh, explores how conceptions of the body have evolved in Christian thought and their ethical, political, and theological implications. Eloise Blondiau, a former student of Rivera’s, sat down with her to discuss the book.
What were your intentions with the new book?
First let me say that—at least for me—the intentions for writing a book become clearer toward the end of the book. I did have some pointers to start with, and one was a concern with how to think about questions of coloniality and the body. On the one hand, I was concerned that a lot of the academic conversations around the body seem to be about the recovery of a kind of knowledge that was more personal and could miss the political. Considering the political was very important to me. On the other hand, literatures on postcolonial theory that I had been working with for a long time reduced conversations about bodies to discussions about how bodies are represented (so how ideologies portray bodies), and I wanted to think more about how bodies are shaped by political questions.
Later in the process, coming toward the end of the book, I realized some of the more existential questions that are at the heart of it: thinking about the colonial history of Puerto Rico in particular, but also more broadly about the Caribbean. I have said often that it’s not so much issues of representation—even though that’s part of it—rather I was concerned with practices like medical experimentation, the contamination of the soil by military bases, the criminalization of sustenance agriculture, and the use of Agent Orange in the rain forest. All these things are common knowledge, right? But they inform my own take on postcolonial theory, wanting it to be more material in that sense, but also wanting to think not only about how these structures of power affect bodies negatively, but also to begin to think about what people do, intentionally, to push against that. That’s really, I think, at the heart of the project.
How do you see this book in relation to your first, The Touch of Transcendence?
I think this book begins where The Touch of Transcendence ends. They share the sense of trying to think about theological ideas and philosophical ideas in a more grounded way. At the end of The Touch of Transcendence, I propose a way of thinking about transcendence as interhuman—I call it “relational transcendence.” In the conclusion of that book I talk about an embodied sense of transcendence, and at that point I started to ask myself, “What does it mean to talk about an embodied sense of transcendence?” In Poetics of the Flesh, I started to try and address that question, realizing that I needed a more rigorous and complex engagement with bodies—not simply talking about bodies, but asking the question, “What do we mean by bodies?” I come at the question of transcendence again, but with a very different language.
How did you think about form in relation to content while writing Poetics of the Flesh?
This was a really big part of the project: how to write it. I started with a concern about how philosophers describe Christian thought and how often the philosophers who discuss what Christianity means by incarnation reduce it to a kind of formula. I remember one philosopher who would say, “Well that’s about something that doesn’t have a body becoming a body.” And you want to say, “Yes!” But that’s so reductive, so formulaic. So part of what I wanted to do was to highlight the ways in which religious texts—like literary texts—work in different ways than a metaphysical formula. Poetics suggests a way of writing that is philosophical but also has other dimensions to it.
Also, I’ve been influenced by Édouard Glissant in many ways, and I was interested in how his writing, like the writing of some other Caribbean writers, is able to incorporate the literary, and the political, and the philosophical, without having to parse them out. So I went in with those two things: wanting to challenge the reductive way of reading Christianity in some philosophical works, and having Glissant as an example of how to do that.
When I started writing, I began to wrestle more consciously with the process of reading. What does it mean to be attentive to the poetic dimensions of the text, and what responsibilities does that impose on someone writing about them? I realized this required a different type of engagement on my part, not only for the book as a whole but for each chapter: it is not the same thing to read the Gospel of John as it is to read the letters of Paul. They’re very different genres. And then, to read Maurice Merleau-Ponty, or Frantz Fanon, who have very different positionalities, not only in their genres of writing, but also in their subjective positions. So part of what I did was to try to let myself be affected by what I was reading and to be very conscious of the voice in each of the chapters.
The two chapters that most reflected the positionality of the writer were the Merleau-Ponty and the Fanon chapters, and in both cases I started to use strategies that I’ve heard creative writers use, such as reading my own writing out loud, especially when I was using the first person. So my decisions about when to use the first person and when not to use it, when to be distant and when to write as someone who is immersed in the very reality she is describing, were very intentional, sentence-by-sentence decisions. It was a difficult and rewarding process, but it required exposing myself to being affected by the texts I was reading, in such a way that I could respond from that position.
One last thing I should add is that reading Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception also helped me think about how to write about the body, because he is explicit about the academic/philosophical tendency to imagine oneself as distant from what one is describing. He says that we often identify this, but as soon as we’re done saying it, we forget it and go back to writing as if we were looking from outside. In his Phenomenology of Perception—and in a lot of his work—you have the sense that he is trying to describe phenomena, but he is writing as someone who is experiencing it, which also means that he only experiences it from his own body.
Could you give an overview of two Christian visions of flesh that you’re engaging with in your book, one being somatic (Pauline) and the other carnal (Johannine)?
One of the concerns I had when I started to write was that I wanted to recover the idea of flesh as materiality, as a nexus of connection, and I was working against the sense that flesh means something negative, that it’s about sin, that very often it’s about sexuality. And the more that those negative elements are highlighted, the harder it is to see the other elements that were also part of Christian traditions of thinking about flesh. I have to push against this understanding of flesh as sin, because otherwise I will not be able to get my message across. So trying to distinguish between these two strands of Christian imaginaries of flesh was a way to try to do that.
Yes, there is a tradition where flesh is something related to sin, even if vaguely. That’s what I call the “somatic,” because Paul talks about other types of bodies that are not flesh—spiritual bodies, for instance. The category that Paul is more interested in—at least in relation to salvation—is the body, what survives in resurrection. So I wanted to distinguish that from what I see as Johannine-inspired Christian imaginaries where flesh is not sin; flesh is most importantly the site of the incarnation. In Christian traditions, these imaginaries are mixed with each other very early on, which my third chapter on Tertullian shows. But I was hoping that if we started by distinguishing them, we could track trends and not lose sight of the most promising elements of flesh.
You write about the importance of under-standing what we mean by “flesh” and “bodies” in order to face urgent issues of our time. Did you have any specific issues in mind?
The examples I chose for the last chapter are, I hope, illustrative. Terry Tempest Williams’s essay, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,”1 brings together how political discussions that might seem detached—like the issue of whether to go to war or not somewhere very far away, and questions of national security—have direct effects in peoples’ lives, not only immediately but through generations. We need to think about those decisions in ways that prompt us to ask what’s going to happen to real bodies and to the earth. What’s at stake in these decisions? I think we can foreground more how we are distributing resources for life unequally.
The Tempest Williams essay is about war, which we would associate with life and death, but there are other decisions that may not seem at first sight like decisions to do with life and death, like economic decisions, decisions about how we structure cities. What I would hope is that when someone starts a discussion about how we organize cities, we quickly begin to ask the questions about what bodies are put in a position of precariousness, and how that differently distributes what people need in order to live. My concern is to think ethically about this intertwining between politics and (biological) life.
Another example I give in the book is stress in communities that know themselves to be exposed to random acts of violence. Not only is the exposure real, and you can actually die, but living under threat has implications for how your body is shaped and how a person’s offspring is rendered more vulnerable, just by news of threat.
More than just naming instances in which laws and policies affected the materiality of bodies, I was interested in ways to change our perception, to help us sense the connections between ideas and materiality, between words and flesh. Empirical data and analytical arguments are only part of the task. I sought to offer a way of thinking about, envisioning, sensing bodies that would take seriously how they are shaped in relation to social arrangements—which are always also material—to take bodies seriously by understanding them deeply, and reflecting on their ethical implications.
Do you see your book as a call for social justice and action by the reader?
Yes, by offering a lens through which we can see what we are often taught to not see. We develop habits that blind us from seeing the connection between a politician talking about zoning and the bodies that are dying. If we had a different lens, we would be able to see these connections and, perhaps, be moved to action. And also we would begin to see differently what people who are fighting against these patterns are really fighting for. They’re fighting for life.
How does science come into this conversation about bodies, in an otherwise philosophy- and theology-heavy book?
That also came to me, weirdly, later in the writing. My undergraduate degree is in chemical engineering and my research was in biotechnology, so I had already thought quite a bit about the relationship between bodies, technology, and the representations of bodies in technology, but of course from a vastly different perspective. The decision to include some references to science in this book was partly because some of the images I was thinking with came from science. Very interesting work is being done at the intersection of social sciences and natural sciences, especially biology, to think about the interaction between the social and the biological, and their co-constitution.
We very often think of biology as this shell—as this fundamental ground of what it means to be a person or a body—and yet, in scientific discourses, we see all the ways in which what we consider the most fundamental biological elements like cells are affected by their environment (not only the material, but also the social environment). So I wanted to read through that literature a little bit and try to find alternative images and ideas that could in some way address the older, popular assumption from genetic science that our bodies are isolated. I hoped to offer another set of discourses that might add to our ways of thinking. I have a lot of interest in this kind of work, precisely because I think it is the way to address questions about what society can do to protect communities, to help communities flourish.
Your inclusion of disability studies in the book seems to be important to this.
As I say in the introduction, disability studies was crucial in helping me to think about why it was that I felt something was missing in academic writings that use the body. Reading Sharon Betcher’s work and engaging her in conversation enabled me to understand why something wasn’t working for me in that material. The whole field of disability studies pushes us to question our own assumptions about what bodies are, what bodies should be, and what life is.
If your reader could take one main lesson from Poetics of the Flesh, what would it be?
I think that social ideas shape our bodies, and, by shaping our bodies, they distribute the possibilities of life, but they distribute them unequally. My main project was to try to offer ways to see that.
Eloise Blondiau, MTS ’16, recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School where her area of focus was religion, literature, and culture.