Erin Runions, The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Erin Runions (ER): Living in New York City in 2001 and after, I was involved in the anti-war movement that protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wanted to understand what compels people in the United States to accept war, occupation, and torture. Religion is one such driving force. The Bible provides much of the religious narrative that shapes opinion and debate in the United States. People may have a vague sense that the Bible drives politics, war, homophobia, attitudes toward law and governance, and other issues, but not always precisely how, nor how these things are religiously connected.
The ancient city of Babylon is, of course, situated in Iraq. So Babylon provided an easy religious handle for events in the Iraq war, especially since in the Bible, the Babylonian empire is the conquering enemy of the chosen people. Babylon is also the figural site of ancient and contemporary Christian apocalyptic elaboration, which means it comes to represent spiritual enmity as well. I began to analyze the deployment of allusions, texts, allegories, and images associated with Babylon. These include references to the ancient empire of Babylon, the Tower of Babel, the Whore of Babylon, and the putative ruler of Babylon, the antichrist. This constellation was used to talk about Middle Eastern enemies (Iraq, Saddam Hussein, terrorists in general, and even Osama bin Laden). It became the touch point for a re-writing of power relations, in which the United States becomes the victimized chosen people, oppressed by the spiritually evil enemy.
As it turns out, references to these figures occur in a much wider set of contexts than just the Iraq war. Babylon appears in both secular and religious debates about war, sexuality, and political values. In the manner of many orientalized figures, Babylon is hated and feared as a model and source of tyrannical empire and imposed unity; conversely, it is admired and emulated as a powerful civilization with great achievements and ability for unification. At the same time, with the mythic story of the creation of languages at the Tower of Babel, Babylon becomes a symbol of diversity, sometimes loved, sometimes feared. It is an incredibly flexible symbol that can serve a variety of political purposes. It points to a larger theopolitics at work in forming political opinion and action in the US.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ER: I analyze secular political discourse, popular culture, and (mostly conservative) Christian religious teaching. I pay attention to the way Babylon is deployed in three arenas:
- War (including the philosophical position for war as well as its enactment in the war on Iraq and the war on terror—in exception to law, torture, and extrajudicial killing);
- Sexuality (homophobia, family values, racialized hypersexualization);
- Governance (policies and positions relating to empire, democracy, economics, unity, and diversity).
Throughout, I theorize how the Bible facilitates biopolitics. Biblical interpretation feeds into the way populations are produced, regularized, and classified as different kinds of human capital. Biblical narratives and interpretations are used to caution, cajole, or inspire US citizens to take their respective place within capital—in short, to form them as political subjects. Biblical thinking also affects how people are hierachized on a global scale according to valuations of raced and classed bodies, citizenries, or migrant peoples.
Along the way, I lift up the precise mechanisms and traditions of interpretation that allow the Bible to have political potency. The Bible is never just the Bible. I show how political and philosophical discourses about war, sexuality, and governance are layered onto the Bible, making it that much more powerful. Biblical images increase the authority and emotional power of secular political ideas; likewise, accepted secular ideas are used alongside the Bible to give it further moral weight.
J: What is the argument about sovereignty in the book? How does it relate to sex and war?
ER: Many other people have argued that nation states are no longer actually sovereign. Transnational corporations call the shots. But there is still a push and pull around sovereignty. US administrations and citizens still try to shore up a sense of sovereignty. I show that they do so partially through evoking religious fears and going to war, and partly through “protecting” the family (all of which amazingly is done with reference to Babylon). At the same time, US policy actively works to create access to those very markets that undercut nationalism. Babylon, war, and family values all make an appearance in the promotion of unregulated capital as well. References to Babylon enable, manage, and occlude these contradictions around sovereignty.
J: Do you make any proposals in the book, or is it all critique?
ER: Yes, the final chapter is devoted to thinking about how the biblical text could be read differently. I interrogate how categories of good and evil (especially evil) are produced literarily, and suggest a mode of interpretation that resists hierarchization and the transcendent authorization of oppression. Drawing on the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Charles Gaines, Lee Edelman, and others, I model reading in a way that keeps at the center the ungovernable, queer, sublime impossibility of knowing truth, or evil.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
ER: All of my work has been concerned with theoretically elaborating the ways in which the Bible is used to interpellate people into particular political positions. I am fascinated by how certain ideas can take hold so strongly and how biblical texts shape political subjects.
I always want to think about how the Bible can be read differently as well: how it can be used to cultivate more, not less, equality; how it can be read in ways that disrupt the oppressive, hierarchizing formations of people and capital.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ER: The book is intended primarily for anyone interested in the connections between religion, culture, and politics, including scholars, emerging scholars, undergraduates, and the general public. I also hope it will be of help to intellectually curious religious people who might want to rethink how the Bible is interpreted and how categories of good and evil are produced.
The ideal impact would be threefold: to increase awareness of how biblical interpretation affects policy and opinion in the United States; to disrupt the production of religious fear about terror, tyranny, difference, and sexuality; and to help construct an intellectual scaffolding for thinking beyond oppressive hierarchies.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ER: My next book takes up many of the same issues in relation to punishment. I am looking at the intersections of prisons, punishment, torture, biblical interpretation, political subjectivity, economy, and the cultivation of life for capital.
Excerpts from The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty
From “Introduction: Babylon and the Crisis of Sovereignty”
The “war on terror” and a renewed fear of sexuality have marked the years following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. War and sex feed into a general sense of moral panic that creates assent for new kinds of political, economic, and military policies and actions. Torture becomes a necessity. Economic interests take precedence over human well-being. Sexual expression and domestic arrangements become constitutional matters. Military action, economic policy, and sexual regulation are frequently given authority in the United States by means of the Bible and, more particularly, by popularized and sometimes secularized modes of Protestant biblical interpretation. This book argues that invocations of biblical authority smooth the way for the continual attempts to reassert US power in a world where national sovereignty must bow before the transnational circuits of capital and power. Yet in the contradictory way that power is networked throughout the population—heterogeneous yet homogenizing, conscious and unconscious, strategized and unplanned—biblical interpretation discordantly authorizes US sovereignty and at the same time undermines it by participating in the larger transnational networks of power and capital that organize populations, markets, and political relations on a global scale The moral panic associated with terror and sexuality may be symptomatic of a loss of national power and the concurrent national insistence on the very market forces that produce this loss.
These political currents, although sometimes muddied by the speed at which they seem to travel in opposite directions, become visible in the freeze-frame of one composite biblical figure—Babylon. It is a figure that has surprising ubiquity as an icon and metaphor in US culture and politics. What better book to name and ease moral panic than the Bible? Biblical interpretation is a powerful means by which to express and manage tensions between national sovereignty and economic spread.
The power and the contradictory uses of the symbol are produced, in part, through a tradition of interpretation that has conflated the various and conflicting biblical depictions of Babylon. These include the Tower of Babel, that enviable collective human achievement disrupted by God to produce cultural and linguistic diversity; the conquering yet seductive empire of Nebuchadnezzar II—with its architecturally stunning city of Babylon—that takes Israel into exile and destroys the temple; the alluring, genderqueer, bloodfiend Whore of Babylon as an allegory for Rome; and the mostly nonbiblical, charismatic yet frightening non/human antichrist who is said to reside in Babylon. When its component parts are kaleidoscopically recombined, as they tend to be, Babylon comes to serve a remarkable number of rhetorical needs.
The United States has a Babylon complex: Babylon becomes a site of identification and an object of intense counteridentification. Great city, successful empire, queenly Whore, ambitious building project, united charismatic power, and failed achievement, Babylon is both vilified and glamorized. It is condemned (as immoral, undemocratic, inhuman) and imitated (as sensational, titillating, tolerant, diverse, and unifying). Babylon appears in shifting configuration in debates over the individual and the collective, law and exception to law, liberty and equality, moral control and economic expedience, tolerance and assimilation. In the war on Iraq, Babylon is the site of literal destruction. In Hollywood, it becomes a symbol for the film industry and cinema’s potential, as well as of the excesses and perversities of success. Although Babylon’s appearances are highly labile and seem to indicate contradictory affective responses (fascination, admiration, self righteousness, revenge), there are consistencies: Babylon and the Bible are used to authorize military action and policy in war, shape the population via sexual regulation, and negotiate the meaning of social collectivity and democracy in ways that are consistent with globally expanding free markets.
Invariably allusions to Babylon touch on the dangers of sex, the necessity of war, or the problems of governance. The heterosexual family, the military, and limited democracy are promoted as necessary forces for life, morality, truth, and economics; these institutions are used to stimulate the economy and govern its unruly aspects. A motivator for such political necessities, Babylon represents what might be considered central fears within US liberal democracy: that sexual, moral, ethnic, or political diversity will disrupt national unity or, conversely, that some totalitarian system will curtail freedom and force homogeneous unity. These conflicting fears, over too much diversity and too much unity, appear in debates about the nature of governance and democracy, about sexual morality, about truth, and about the role of the US military in the world. It is precisely within this complex of contradictions that allusions to Babylon can represent and assuage the crisis of dwindling national sovereignty in the process of a highly promoted economic globalization.
From Chapter Four: “Revenge on Babylon: Literalist Allegory, Scripture, Torture”
As much as the fictional Babylon might generate markets, sensual aspirations, cinematic ambition, and overall consumption, the actual place has been subjected to brutal violence. Less than two years after Hollywood Babylon was celebrated as a modern marketplace in the opening of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Los Angeles with its Babylon Court, the ancient city of Babylon was being destroyed in the war on Iraq. As noted in the introduction, troops occupied and seriously damaged the ancient city, beginning in 2003. The war on Iraq makes patently clear that an admired Babylon is only a place of fantasy. The actual ancient Babylon is treated as though it is of no real worth. Worse, ancient Babylon becomes a symbol of all that threatens the Western market—it becomes the birthplace of terrorism. The disparity between Babylon Court in the LA mall and ancient Babylon in the Iraq war betrays an underlying orientalism. Babylon is to be desired only insofar as it stimulates consumption that favors US markets. Fantasy Babylon is to be desired but not actually valued. Its main role is as a foil in the project of producing US superiority.
In fact, Babylon makes an appearance in relation to US torture of Iraqi prisoners. Haj Ali Shalal—the Iraqi prisoner whose testimony matches the now-iconic photo of the hooded man on a box—told a conference on war crimes in Kuala Lumpur about his experience at Abu Ghraib. Among many other cruelties there, he was forced to listen to loud and constant repetitions of Boney M’s version of the song “Rivers of Babylon” (Kent 2007; Shalal 2009). The lyrics of “Rivers of Babylon” are biblical: They repeat the first part of Psalm 137, in which the psalmist expresses agony over the Babylonian exile of the Judean elite in 597 and 586 b.c.e.
Central to my concern in this chapter is how the Bible comes to be used as torture, and how biblical interpretations circling around Babylon come to make torture unexceptional. It is remarkable that, of all the biblical songs that could be played as torture, the one chosen alludes to one of the most troubling passages of scripture. In the last few verses of the psalm, the psalmist entertains a potent and disquieting revenge fantasy: “O Daughter of Babylon…happy is the one who repays you for what you have done to us; happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” These lines were not explicitly voiced at Abu Ghraib because the song “Rivers of Babylon” itself excises them, focusing instead on the Reggae desire for future freedom. But for anyone versed in scripture, these violent sentiments haunt any citation of the psalm. The use of this particular psalm as a form of torture—ending with revenge as it does—suggests we might well interrogate the relationship of revenge to torture.
From Chapter Five: “Who Lives in Babylon? The Gay Antichrist as Political Enemy”
If, in the biopolitical gradation of populations, “good life” (life worth protecting) is controlled and arranged within the nation by means of the virtuous non-Babelian family, outside of the nation, in the war on terror, “less-good” Babylonian life is shaped through pain.... In this chapter, serious and nonserious renderings of Babylon’s prince, the antichrist, point to a heteroteleological national eschatology that encompasses and hierarchizes life within and outside the boundaries of the human in ways that affect the relative value of law.
In a disquieting manifestation of contemporary US anxieties about security, sexuality, and the end of the world, a politically malicious, homosexualized antichrist emerges from the mystic realm of Babylon in pop culture, political humor, and Internet religious reflection. After 9/11, the “enemy” of the United States, that potential harbinger of apocalyptic chaos, has been named “terrorism” in general and localized for a time in the persons of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In a culture given to apocalyptic fantasm and homophobia, Hussein and bin Laden were predictably associated with Babylon and portrayed as antichrists, as gay, and, on occasion, as both.
This pastiche apocalyptic figure...calls attention to the relation between desire and apocalyptic temporality in US delimitations of the in/human, especially as they relate to exception to law....References to an apocalyptically constructed antichrist are particularly instructive for decoding a continuous logic that held together the George W. Bush administration’s seemingly disparate projects of trying to legally enforce a “culture of life” at home, while refusing any legal restriction in fighting the war on terror abroad.
[Excerpted from The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty, by Erin Runions, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 by Fordham University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here or here.]