lectio difficilior

European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Santiago Slabodsky

Before starting my remarks,[1] I would like to acknowledge that I am one of the people who is today crossing the reified divide between AAR and SBL. So, I hope the reader is not expecting a critical engagement from a Biblical scholar because I will surely fall short. But I am writing this piece precisely because I am not a Biblical scholar. And because the work of Scholz, while very well anchored in the field, transcends what Afro-Caribbean thought has characterized as ‘disciplinary decadence’ and goes on to illuminate social, political, and epistemological problems, interrogations, and proposals that extend well beyond Biblical Studies.[2] While I, as a sociologist of global modern Jewish thought, may not be a priori the most logical respondent for a book on German and American feminist biblical studies, what Scholz has achieved in the book makes it possible for me to contribute my two cents. 

            Where is, then, the provocation of Scholz’s book? From the title and introduction readers can, it seems, recognize Scholz’s contribution very quickly. The Bible as Political Artifact is an attack against the essentialisms of both religious and positivist fundamentalisms. Instead of furthering classical readings, she employs feminist, post-modern, post-structuralist, and post-colonial tools in order to find a meaning in the redemptive power of interpretation, a move that will surely anger evangelical and scientific fundamentalists (pp. 1–11). And the attacks she has received from spaces inside and outside academia can only re-affirm her audacity.[3] The contribution Scholz offers is solid, innovative, persuasive and, above everything else, truly committed. There is no doubt, therefore, of the contribution she is making to the field of Biblical Studies.

            The contribution of Scholz, however, goes well beyond her primary field. While there are truly remarkable elements throughout the text, I believe that her interdisciplinary contribution shines in the very last chapter. In this chapter, Scholz develops what can be categorized as a ‘barbaric proposal’ (305). She raises questions that are as necessary to grasp as they are difficult and complex to answer. It is in this section that she not only challenges the religious and scientific fundamentalisms mentioned earlier, but risks going well beyond comfortable geopolitical boundaries in order to build a critical community of intellectuals with socially engaged communities who may not recognize her as part of their collective. And it is precisely this risk, this audacity, this creativity of her barbaric proposal that I would like to explore with you today.

            This last chapter is entitled “Barbaric Bibles: The Scandal of Inclusive Translations.” In the text Scholz explores the political eruption that followed an “inclusive translation” of the Bible (the BibS) in Germany during the first decade of the 21st century. This project closely resembles Scholz’s interpretation of the Bible as a political artifact as it is more interested in the meaning-creation of the reception than in literalist and positivist fundamentalisms. The project, perhaps expectedly, was furiously attacked by traditional forces that argued that the authors were confusing interpretation with translation. Furthermore, as Scholz very well points out they are arrogating to themselves the naturalization of their geopolitical location as the universal space from which to interpret the text basing themselves on a characterization of translation as a technical, apolitical task. In this way, the author argues, they wind up reproducing a very common “colonial hierarchy” by declaring that their apolitical technical task should be understood as “high translation” and discrediting as “low barbaric” the audacious attempts of meaning creation that employs tools beyond positivism and literalism (pp. 302–304).

            Since Scholz had already dismantled the narratives of a-politicism in Biblical interpretation earlier in her book, here she undertakes another task: she asks what to do with this accusation of “low barbarism.” This is where she makes a true contribution beyond Biblical Studies by studying different options that may amount to more provocative alternatives than a straight rejection of the accusation. One strategy, she argues, is to replace the accusation to the other side by accusing the accusers of barbarism (a strategy used by Marxists since the late nineteenth century). Another strategy, more in vogue today, is to deconstruct the accusation by analytically dismantling the binary (as Derridians and other post-modernists would do). She, however, prioritizes a third alternative that is a “decolonial” strategy employed by, among others, Afro-Caribbean Aimé Césaire and Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi: this strategy assumes the existing asymmetry of power, and takes pride in one’s barbaric role in disrupting the relation between Biblical misogyny and imperialism. So instead of replacing or dismantling the accusation of barbarism, they appropriate themselves of it, giving a positive connotation to the term and showing how alternative worlds can be created from the barbaric underside of history.[4] The Bible then becomes not just a book that shows a preferential option for the oppressed (pp. 304–310). Rather, in their reading of biblical texts, it is the oppressed who will bring their invisibilized traditions in order to give a meaning to the political artifact. In this way, and very provocatively, Scholz extends her hand as a German feminist in the U.S. to alternative Global South communities so that, together, they can build non-normative communities. This offers Scholz an excellent opportunity to create an epistemological alliance between German/US American feminisms and Global South decolonialisms through the reclaiming of a barbaric identity.

            If the West, as Scholz argues, insists on the hidden misogyny and coloniality by rejecting and repressing the interpretation of the Bible as a political artifact, intellectuals committed to interrogating this invisibilization can find a common ground in rejecting any politics of recognition from the West. Instead, they can engage in what Latinx thought has categorized as “epistemological disobedience.”[5] This refers to the possibility of thinking from different words that have not been subsumed into the totality of a patriarchal system of modernity/coloniality. It is precisely this defiance that can create a true network of interpreting solidarities instead of trying to negotiate their epistemologies with those who have repressed them. This proposal is truly illuminating.

            But there is a problem here, and Scholz is well aware of it. What is the problem? She lucidly points it out: “The problem is that global South Barbarians do not always recognize German barbarians as barbarians” (p. 311) And she is right. Absolutely right. While there are a number of Euro-American intellectuals who have been thinking from other places and were welcomed to decolonial communities, many times decolonial trends put in question the direct assimilation of Euro-American critical theory to the concert of decolonial epistemological disobediences.[6] But this is the moment when my reading of Scholz’s text ends, and I intend to follow Scholz’s example by beginning to create meaning with her. The problem of course, as she herself points out in the above quote, is recognition. But I still do not know whether the issue is the lack of recognition or that we are still aspiring for recognition. What I am arguing here is that in order to construct an alternative decolonial space for conversation we need to start questioning the hierarchical role of the struggle of recognition in Western thought in general and left-wing Hegelianism in particular. After all, the decolonial project revises the strategies of a left-wing Hegelianism that is still trustful of totalitarian projects of thought. Of course, for all of us trained in critical Western thought, the idea of creating alliances, even supposedly horizontal alliances, without the possibility of recognition, is disorienting. Yet, if recognition implies, as it generally does within some of our more radical Eurocentric frameworks, imbalance of power, epistemological privileges, power of coercion, power of invisibilization, and, in the master-slave dialectics, even struggles to death, we may be able do without it.

            Scholz is right again. She has renounced to the possibility and even the intention of obtaining recognition from both fundamentalisms, the literalist and the positivist. It is time to take Scholz’s line of thinking even further and start exploring transmodern projects where the need for recognition is not necessarily part of the equation.[7] So, a few questions follow this statement: what could be a project of epistemological subversion with conversations where the possibility of recognition is not a goal? How does abandoning the necessity for recognition constitute a decolonial and feminist epistemological disobedience? What are the implications of abandoning the necessity of recognition as a prelude for a truly horizontal conversation among different barbarisms with different levels of privileges, struggles, and oppressions? What would it look like when we transform our epistemological commitment into social justice actions? And finally, what criteria do we need to unlearn in order for the barbaric conversations without recognition to take place?

            At the end, after reading, enjoying, and learning from The Bible as a Political Artifact, I am left with a true urge for action. And this action can take different forms, but in my review I want to make one request not only from Scholz but from all of us. Her project is too provocative to be reduced only to scholastic discussions. Others can revise it; I want to push it forward. Just as she abandoned the intention of recognition from the West, I am proposing that we abandon the logics of recognition as a political tool altogether. In other words, I am asking Scholz and all of us to be more Scholzian by taking her challenge and moving it beyond the limitations of our own imaginations. In other words, what Scholz has done with the Biblical text is to create meaning well beyond traditional interpretations, without aspiring for recognition from either the literalist or positivist fundamentalism. So, let us take Scholz’s work and push forward our own meaning-creation beyond the necessity of recognition to build communities toward a different future.

[1] At the 2019 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Carol Dempsey gathered a provocative group of diverse scholars to engage with the work of Susanne Scholz.[i] It was an honor for me to participate in the panel and now to revise my comments for publication at Lectio Difficilior.

[2] Lewis Gordon, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[4] I am proud that Scholz here cites my own work, Santiago Slabodsky, Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking (New York: Palgrave, 2015). 

[5] Walter Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom” in Theory, Culture and Society 26.7–8 (2010): 159–181.

[6] Among the decolonial trends, decolonial Feminisms have been particularly insightful on this regard. Some of the best examples include Maria Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism” Hypatia 25.4 (2010): 742–759 and Houria Bouteldja, Whites, Jews and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (Boston: MIT Press, 2017), 73–99. 

[7] The potentiality of transmodern projects of conversations can be found in Enrique Dussel, “Transmodernity and Interculturality,” Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1.3. (2012): 28–59.

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Santiago Slabodsky, Ph.D., is the Florence and Robert Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University, New York. His area of research is modern Jewish thought and culture, decolonial theory, critical theory of religion, and inter-cultural conversations. His is editor of the trilingual journal Decolonial Horizons (Pluto Press), Co-chair of the Liberation Theologies unit (AAR) and among his publications his title Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking received the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award granted by the Caribbean Philosophical Association. He can be contacted at santiago.slabodsky@hofstra.edu.

© Santiago Slabodsky, 2021, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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