Devotional Literalism and Medieval Fictionality

“As Often as His Heart Beat, the Name Moved”: Devotion and the “As if” in The Life of the Servant

by Rachel Smith

This essay considers an instance of medieval fictionality through the devotional text The Life of the Servant by the Dominican Henry Suso, specifically, through an examination of the “Servant’s” attempt to identify with Christ. Two forms of doubleness issue from this attempt, namely, the human servant seeking to embody the divine without remainder and his figuration as sinner and savior. Insofar as the text allows for a play between these polarities, the servant’s devotional practice can be understood as inhabiting the “as if,” or a kind of fictionality. The temptations of a devotional literalism—fiction striving to overcome its fictionality—is portrayed in the Life alongside a vision of devotion that retains the suspensions and play of the fictional.

The essay begins:

In the early period of his devoted apprenticeship to “eternal wisdom” while he was yet a beginner, the fourteenth-century Dominican Henry Suso (c. 1295–1366) writes in The Life of the Servant of how “the servant” inscribed the name of the beloved on his chest as “a sign of love that would give testimony as an eternal symbol of the love between you and me, one that no forgetting could ever erase.” As courtly lovers write the name of their beloved on their clothes, so he

threw aside his scapular, bared his breast, and took a stylus in hand. Looking at his heart, he said, “God of power . . . today you shall be engraved in the ground of my heart.” And he began to jab into the flesh above the heart with the stylus in a straight line. He jabbed back and forth, up and down, until he had drawn the name IHS right over his heart. . . . Kneeling down he said, “My Lord and only Love of my heart, look at the intense desire of my heart. My Lord, I do not know how to press you into me further, nor can I. Alas, Lord, I beg you to finish this by pressing yourself further into the ground of my heart and so draw your holy name onto me that you never again leave my heart.”
. . . The letters were about as thick as a flattened-out blade of grass and as long as a section of the little finger. He carried this name over his heart until his death. And as often as his heart beat, the name moved. (chap. 4)

The servant seeks here to become one with the prayer composed of the name of Jesus, to permanently wear the name of the beloved to whom he is devoted. It is an embodied strategy to solve the problem raised by the injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 to “pray without ceasing.” This inscription promises to overcome the predations of time, to deal with the anxiety of forgetting that “erases” the memory of the love between the soul and God, and with it, belief. It occurs following the first intense blush of love in which the servant enjoys two encounters with God and confidently declares to Wisdom, “Joy of my heart, this hour can never be lost to my heart” (chap. 2). However, despite the fullness of divine revelation in raptures that transcend time, the servant inevitably returns to the weight of the body and wonders what trace of these meetings with the beloved remained, how to realize such divine excess in a human life. By carrying the sign of this love in the flesh, the servant hoped he could not lose the beloved even while inhabiting the body. The scar was a permanent mark resting on top of the heart beating—keeping—time.

Inscribing and being inscribed by the name turned the servant into a book, his skin, parchment marked by letters from a stylus, available in turn for readers of the Life as a model for the spiritual path. This “certain Swabian friar” become the bearer of another name is fabricated as a living prayer and made available as an image of divine discipleship to those who encounter the text. The Life offers here another iteration in a chain of exemplarity textually transmitted, giving the servant’s life and body for the regard, consumption, and imitation of readers. The servant’s scarification echoes stories of figures as important as Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was included in the widely circulating thirteenth-century compilation The Golden Legend, where it says that the name of Christ was found not on but in the martyr’s heart, proving the efficacy of his “unceasing repetition” of Jesus’s name on the way to his execution. His heart and bones were said to be the only things untouched by the lions, and when his heart was cut open, the pagans saw the inscription “Jesus Christ” in gold letters.

This scene introduces a section of The Life of the Servant that lasts for a lengthy nineteen chapters, in which the servant details the bodily and imaginative practices undertaken by him in order to compassionately identify with the sufferings of Christ and his mother. These practices include penitential offerings for the servant’s sins and his imitation of divine suffering. It is on these chapters that this essay will focus. Devotion, for the servant, is not the adoration of the beloved from a distance but rather seeks to unite with Christ such that the servant becomes him. Devotional identification here entails the inscription of the beloved on the body, whether through stylus, ritualized bodily practice assiduously repeated, or works of imagination. The essay will consider the structural features of the servant’s striving to identify with Christ. It will show that two forms of doubleness issue from this attempt to become the beloved. The first is the tension between the human servant—finite flesh—seeking to embody the infinite divinity without remainder. The second is the figuration of the servant as simultaneously a sinner and Christ the savior. The fascination of the text in large part arises from the ways in which it wrestles with these performative contradictions.

Insofar as the text allows for a play between finite and infinite, sinner and savior, I will argue that the servant’s ascetic practice can be understood as one of inhabiting the “as if.” In other words, as a kind of fictionality. This is not the fictionality of the modern English novel but rather a historically specific account of the fabrication (fictio) of the self through ritual practice that renders the subject both oneself and another. Suso’s portrayal of the devotional “as if” offers a vision for a practice and a theology of exemplarity that does not operate according to an allegorical structure, which would entail the imposition of a form upon a content in which the aim is the latter’s defeat; it does not model the dream of the transmutation of letter into spirit. A vision of the play possible within devotional identification is represented by means of portraying the possibility of such play in ascetic practice, yet also through the ultimate failure and renunciation of the asceticism of the first part of the Life. Chapters 4 through 19, I will argue, work out the futility of an allegorical logic through a dramatization of its temptations—the temptation of a fiction attempting to overcome its fictionality—culminating in its defeat in chapter 18, in which the servant hears a divine voice tell him to desist from his bodily mortification. The ground of such temptation is already apparent in the scene of bodily writing that opens chapters 4 through 19. The servant, seeking a union with the beloved that transcends time, carves the name of Christ on his body, thereby seemingly overcoming the distance between himself and Jesus through the permanence of a scar; the body is forever marked, the name never lost. The servant, it seems, attains perfect success in the quest for union at the outset of his journey. Such embodied literalism is, however, represented as increasingly dangerous—courting death—as the text portrays the servant engaged in the acts of violent ritual repetition required to overcome the fear of a loss of memory and presence that insistently asserts itself, despite the initial inscription that promised to transcend time. Literalism—the notion that to say “I am Christ” is a truth that can be wrought in the flesh—is shown to be an attempt to overcome the peculiar suspensions, play, and doubleness of the devotional “as if.”

In order to unpack the notion of the “as if” that I see as operative in the Life, I will turn first to a very different medieval figure, the twelfth-century Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux. The author of eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, in which he develops the allegory of the monastic soul as the bride of Christ, is not remembered for his life of self-denial. Bernardine views on asceticism were passed on to later medieval readers under the dominant note, Simone Roisin argues, of “moderation,” despite the fact that such a portrayal was not entirely consistent with his representation in sources like The First Life of Bernard of Clairvaux, traditionally known as the vita prima. In bringing together Suso and Bernard, I hope to show that, although there are crucial and telling differences between the thought and forms of life of the two men, there are also important continuities between them. A decidedly unbloody Bernard might help us understand the representation of the servant’s asceticism, and not only by way of contrast. In order to do this, I will look to Burcht Pranger’s study of what he terms Bernard’s poetics of artificiality. I will then turn back to The Life of the Servant and its portrayal of the servant’s self-mortification. At the end of the essay, I will briefly compare this medieval example with some modern notions of the fictional. I will argue that there is a contrast between the novelization of imagination and the explicit artificiality of this instance of the literature of exemplarity. The hyperrealism of Suso’s fictional practice, although it is a making that makes real what is formed through the work of ritual repetition, is not an expression of credulity; he works against credulity. The point of his ascetic practice is to meet Christ through artifice, the artifice of ascetic imitation rendered explicit in order to become a manual for others to follow. Continue reading free of charge for a limited time …

RACHEL SMITH is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. Her first book is Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiography (Columbia University Press, 2018). She is currently writing a book on mystical theology for Brill Publishers.

The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature

The Poetics of Prayer and Devotion to Literature: Introduction to the Special Issue Practices of Devotion

Available free of charge for a limited time

by Eleanor Craig, Amy Hollywood, and Kris Trujillo

 

In the introduction to this special issue, three of the co-editors explain that their goal “is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature … [and to] pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to move the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices.” 

The introduction begins:

Is there a place for devotion in criticism? What about love and desire? Recent attempts to historicize and parochialize critique as one method of interpretation among others lead to these questions. Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015) identifies love as a requirement for critique and turns “to histories of criticism, canonicity, literary history, and ‘heritage,’ and, above all, to the emergence . . . of new etiquettes of literary appreciation . . . so as to examine how it has come to be that those of us for whom English is a line of work are also called upon to love literature and to ensure that others do so too.” Rita Felski offers a different analysis of the field in The Limits of Critique (2015), positing and resisting as central to literary study a version of critique to which love is antithetical—that is, a critique that “highlights the sphere of the agon (conflict and domination) at the expense of eros (love and connection) [and assumes] that the former is more fundamental than the latter.” Despite their distinct formulations of the relationship between love and critique and the role each plays within literary studies past and present, Lynch and Felski both argue that love ought to be central to the discipline.

This newfound interest in love, desire, and affect echoes, in many ways, to the call voiced a decade and a half ago in the edited volume Polemic: Critical or Uncritical (2004). There Jane Gallop, Michael Warner, and others ask that literary scholars think with and about practices of “uncritical” reading and author love in order to understand the modes of subject formation to which these reading practices are bound. The “uncritical” reader, in particular the one who identifies too closely with characters, who invests too deeply in a plot, or who becomes a card-carrying member of an author’s fan club, remains a serious object of study, especially in light of theoretical developments in affect theory, digital humanities, and fan studies. Yet a slightly different argument also appears in the volume. This is the claim that religious readers, like Lynch’s literature loving readers, can be and in fact often are also critical readers. Michael Warner’s pious readers and Amy Hollywood’s mystical subjects have been joined in recent years by Mark Jordan’s convulsing bodies, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’s electric “copresences,” and Ashon Crawley’s stomping spirits. Yet despite the foundational role that religion plays in twenty-first century conversations about the history and value of critique, these religious figures seem largely to have disappeared from literary critical discussions of the issue.[v] Why are religious readers, particularly markedly embodied religious readers, absent from recent histories of literary criticism? Have they been forced to remain uncritical, scapegoats whose erasure enables other modes of putatively “uncritical” reading to be reclaimed as less excessive, credulous, or nonrational? Does postcriticism require a disavowal of the critical religious subject? These questions carry particular political relevance today, as the need for critical reading is ever more pressing and, simultaneously, the dangers of paranoia as the presumptive critical stance have become all too clear.

The essays collected here return to the questions raised in earlier scholarship about the interplay of love and the literary-critical enterprise by attending to the practices of devotion. Following Richard Rambuss’s claim that devotional texts “afford us a plethora of affectively charged sites for tracing the complex overlappings and relays between religious devotion and erotic desire, as well as between the interiorized operations of the spirit and the material conditions of the body,” the essays gathered here demonstrate the close relationship between literary reading, critical reading, and devotion. Attending to the intersections of devotional practices (among them, prayer, recitation, scriptural exegesis, meditation, and contemplation) and the rhetorical and literary arts (invention, poetry, and fiction), contributors explore the ways in which the reading, writing, and contemplative practices of Christianity contribute—both historically and in the present—to the training, cultivation, and disciplining of affective attachments to, investments in, and analyses of literature. Contributors also examine the relationship between religious devotion and the devotion to literature through analyses of the ways in which materiality and embodiment condition the connections between devotional practices and the textual arts.

The goal of this special issue, then, is to desegregate religious studies and theology from the humanities more broadly by reasserting religion’s significance to the histories of critique, theory, and literature. Most of the authors are scholars of religion, and we all work with the assumption that the putative secularity of literary study in English is largely a ruse. Rather, religious frameworks, sensibilities, and practices have been present in the study of English literature from the beginning, even at the moments when the literary was most strenuously attempting to differentiate itself from the religious. This is not only a more accurate account of contemporary critical frameworks and their evolution, but a signal of their limitations. Practices identified as the sole domain of a largely secular form of literary expertise may be more parochially Christian than their practitioners realize. Generalized understandings of literary devotion developed within these frameworks might inadvertently limit what is considered critical or rigorous, even literary.

We use the term “devotion” in its broadest sense in order to question and undo the epistemological restrictions generated by sharp distinctions between the secular and the religious. These essays pursue connections between devotional practices, literary production, and contemplative or intellectual labor so as to turn the intellectual project called Religion and Literature away from an emphasis on thematics and toward an investigation of practices. We follow Niklaus Largier’s proposal that those writing the history of Christian mysticism and secular modernity move away from identifying persistent motifs and intellectual paradigms shared by medieval mystics and modern intellectuals and, instead, toward an interrogation of the ways that practices of reading shape sensation, perception, and what he calls “a poetics or poiesis of experience.” We ask not only how religious practices are organized around literature but also how these practices are transmuted into putatively secular forms of devotion. How might one be “religiously devoted,” for example, in a political (devotion to candidate, cause, state), epistemological (devotion to methods and objects of disciplinary formation), or aesthetic (devotion to artistic pursuits, modes of experimentation, or artifacts of popular culture) sense? To what extent can we demarcate religious and nonreligious devotion, and what is at stake in attempts to do so?

Most importantly, perhaps, these essays demonstrate that the work of devotion is as much about the transformation wrought through it as it is about the specificity of its object. Moreover, as these essays show, this emphasis on transformation was already in place in the Christian Middle Ages. We collectively are interested in devotion not as a stance of subservience before a divine or human other, but as transformative practice. Devotion does not merely—or uncritically—receive, follow, and reinscribe predetermined patterns of thought or courses of action. The ends or outcomes of its critical performances are not fully known in advance, even when they are animated by identifiable desires. The essays in this issue thus read for textual accounts of devotional practices as well as the ways in which the text itself delivers or demands particular forms of practice. Read the full introduction free of charge …

ELEANOR CRAIG is Program Director and Lecturer for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights at Harvard University.

AMY HOLLYWOOD is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School and a member of the Committee for the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

KRIS TRUJILLO is Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

On Memory and Memorials

Memory and Memorials in a Contested Age

(Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture

Wednesday, December 2 | 5pm PST | Online

UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities presents an event featuring Representations board members Stephen Best and Debarati Sanyal.

Recent conflicts over the politics of historical monuments suggest that we are living through a crisis of shared memory, and they remind us how complicated the processes of remembering and memorializing can be.

At a time when conversation across political and racial lines seems both fragile and necessary, it is crucial that we begin to reimagine a useable past. The humanities and arts, as disciplines deeply invested in the practices of memory, can help begin this reconsideration.

This conversation will ask questions about how we remember, now. How does art shape our memory and our sense of history? What types of historical representation matter in the current moment? How are we to approach the past during the pandemic, when the very practices of everyday life have been put on hold?

Stephen Best (UC Berkeley English) is a scholar of American and African-American literature and culture. His books include None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, which probes preoccupations with establishing the authority of the slave past in black life.

Debarati Sanyal (UC Berkeley French) is a scholar of modern French and Francophone literature. Her book Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Memory examines the transnational deployment of complicity in the aftermath of the Shoah.

Andrew Shanken (UC Berkeley Architecture) is an architectural and urban historian whose book 194X examines how architects and planners on the American home front anticipated the world after the Second World War. He is currently writing a cultural geography of memorials.

This event is part of the series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture, which examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us.

Click here to watch the livestream.

For more on memory and memorialization, see the following special issues of Representations from the archives:

Speaking of Law and Literature

Law and Literature: A Virtual Symposium

  

Join UC Berkeley’s English Department, School of Law, Center for the Study of Law and Society, Division of Arts and Humanities, Rhetoric Department, Jurisprudence Social Policy Program, and Townsend Center for the Humanities for a virtual symposium on the intersections between law and literature.

Register here to receive a personalized Zoom link to join the webinar.

Participants include Representations authors Marianne Constable and Julie Stone Peters and Representations editorial board member Samera Esmeir.

SCHEDULE:

9:30 – 11:00 am

Peter Goodrich (Yeshiva)
Bernadette Meyler (Stanford)
Julie Stone Peters (Columbia)
Marco Wan (Hong Kong)
Chair: Marianne Constable (UC Berkeley)

11:15 am – 12:45 pm

Elizabeth S. Anker (Cornell)
Poulomi Saha (UC Berkeley)
Jeanne-Marie Jackson (Johns Hopkins)
Mona Oraby (Amherst)
Chair: Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley)

1:45 pm – 3:15 pm

Susanna Blumenthal (Minnesota)
Bradin Cormack (Princeton)
Simon Stern (Toronto)
Rebecca Tushnet (Harvard)
Chair: Christopher Tomlins (UC Berkeley)

3:30 – 5:00 pm

Marlene Daut (Virginia)
Desmond Jagmohan (UC Berkeley)
Beth Piatote (UC Berkeley)
Eric Slauter (Chicago)
Chair: Samera Esmeir (UC Berkeley)

 

Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher on the New Grand Narratives

Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now?

An online conversation sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities
Thursday, Oct 29, 2020 5:00 pm PDT

 

Every previous major disaster in human history, from the Black Plague to the Great Depression, has elicited a reimagination of the world, a reinvention of collective life through culture. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The arts and humanities — two areas of inquiry that focus on value and meaning — provide crucial resources for reconceptualizing our lives together during, and after, our current crisis.

The series (Re)making Sense: The Humanities and Pandemic Culture examines the utility of the arts and humanities for helping us navigate the ethical challenges and practical reinventions that lie before us. Top scholars, writers, and artists at UC Berkeley discuss how their disciplines, and the skills and abilities fostered by their fields, can help in our efforts to reimagine and rebuild.

In the second event of this series, Anthony Cascardi and Catherine Gallagher discuss Changing the Narrative: What Stories Can We Tell Now? Two decades ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced that in the postmodern era, the “grand narratives” that had shaped culture and ideas — Marxism, positivism, psychoanalysis — were dead. His statement has proven true, both inside and outside the university. Philosophical systems, canons of knowledge, even essential ideas of national history seem to have eroded over the past several decades.

Anthony Cascardi is dean of arts and humanities and the Sidney and Margaret Ancker Distinguished Professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. His book Cervantes, Literature, and the Discourse of Politics won the Renaissance Society’s Gordan Prize for best book of the year in Renaissance studies.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English. Her 2018 book Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction examines narratives of events that never occurred — such as the South winning the Civil War, and JFK escaping assassination. The book won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society. Gallagher is a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

Click here to watch the livestream.

Transimperial Colloquium

Sat Oct 24, 2020, 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM Pacific Time

Online via  Zoom. Registration Required. All are welcome!
Contact John James johnjames@berkeley.edu for registration and Zoom information.

 

A roundtable of international scholars considers the work of Sukanya Banerjee on the occasion of her recent addition to the UC Berkeley English Department. Professor Banerjee’s 2018 Victorian Literature and Culture essay “Transimperial” will serve as the touchstone for a discussion ranging across the various topics and fields addressed in her recent work.

Pdf of “Transimperial” will be provided. Attendees are invited to submit questions beforehand or to use the Chat/Q&A function during the colloquium.

Moderator: John James (UC Berkeley)
Speakers: Alicia Mireles Christoff (Amherst College)
Ian Duncan (UC Berkeley)
Elaine Freedgood (New York University)
Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand)
Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis)
Nasser Mufti (University of Illinois, Chicago)
James Vernon (UC Berkeley)

Debarati Sanyal on Black Struggle

The Social Contract and the Game of Monopoly: Listening to Kimberly Jones on Black Lives

A short essay by Debarati Sanyal posted on In the Midst, blog of the journal Critical Times, June 29, 2020

In the piece, Sanyal discusses an impromptu monologue by activist Kimberley Jones that has since gone viral. She writes, “Jones challenges us to examine a social contract that has always been rigged, that remains grounded in property rights instead of human rights.”

Debarati Sanyal is professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. The author of The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form (2006) and Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (2015), translated in French as Mémoire et complicité: Au prisme de la Shoah (2019), she is completing a book on borders, race and aesthetics in the European refugee “crisis.” Her essay Calais’s “Jungle”: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance appeared in Representations 139.

New Issue, Representations 148

NOW AVAILABLE

Representations 148, Fall 2019


 

  • Field Notes

      • Upcoming in Representations 149: ALINE GUILLERMET on Vera Molnar’s computer paintings; ANDREW COUNTER on Wilde, Zola, and Dreyfus; KENT PUCKETT on the RAND Corporation ; PETER DE BOLLA, RYAN HEALEY, EWAN JONES, PAUL NULTY, GABRIEL RECCHIA, and JOHN REGAN on the uses of genre; and an Untimely Review of Epistemology of the Closet by Whitney Davis. (Coming in February.)

Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: An Ethnography

The Ethos and Telos of Michoacán’s Knights Templar

by Claudio Lomnitz

After a brief introduction, the essay begins:

Aporia of the “Cartel”

Since the drug war’s inception in 2006, organized and disorganized violence has claimed approximately 200,000 lives in Mexico, and more than 30,000 people have “disappeared.” In the thirteen years that have transpired since then, more people have been killed in Mexico’s war than in the US invasion of Iraq, and more have been forcibly “disappeared” than during Argentina’s Dirty War. Illegal economies have been revolutionized along the way, in processes that Natalia Mendoza has called “cartelization,” which started with the privatization of trade routes for illegal border traffic, most notably of drugs and migrants, and with the development of a bureaucracy within the illegal economy. Contrary to the general prejudice, “cartels” are not reliant on trade in illegal drugs in any transcendental sense; they rely essentially on the armed privatization of public space, the ransom of public liberties, and the forcible appropriation of public goods.

Because cartelization depends crucially on exacting tribute in exchange for protection, cartels can be seen as the privateers of deregulation, and in Mexico they are involved in the regulation of activities as diverse as drug running, undocumented migration, mining, fishing, logging, commercial agriculture, street vending, prostitution, illegal gasoline traffic, construction, arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. They are known as “drug cartels” because the vast wealth that poured in from drug trafficking in the 1990s helped leverage a diversification of activities, most notably in the business of transnational migration, but drugs are not indispensable to cartelization. Protection, territorial control, and the credible fear of unbridled violence are. Indeed, territorial control is an essential requisite for cartelization, but local entrenchment brings with it a core tension, that is, a tension between protection and extortion.

This antinomy between protection and extortion is expressed in social-organizational form as ambivalence between the representation of the cartel as a ruthless business and as a family-like guardian against, or coldly indifferent or downright hostile to, outside forces (such as the government). This tension between bureaucratic and familistic paradigms is inherent in the process of cartelization itself. Indeed, once cartelization sets in, the opposition between the “social bandit” and the regular unmarked brigand gets deeply complicated, because these two modes of criminal self-fashioning must be strategically juggled by the cartel and by individual operators at all times. This is because gaining territorial control requires some degree of redistribution such that a patriarchal rhetoric of protection naturally develops, but the final aim of cartel control is amassing unrestrained translocal organizational power and freely circulating private wealth. As a result, the contradiction between the familistic “man of the people” and the “strictly business” conceits of criminal self-fashioning is an aporia that runs through the whole of the so-called narcoculture. Indeed, the new cultures of criminality that are emerging in Mexico are forged in the space of precisely this contradiction.

The Pledge of the Knights Templar

In what follows, I focus on the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) and, tangentially, on La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacano Family), the organization from which the Templarios stemmed. These two drug cartels are often seen as exceptionally “bizarre and deadly” because they developed what has been characterized as “religious” and “messianic” components. Their exceptionality, however, has a strategic component that reflects and reveals a cultural logic that transcends the Michoacán case.

Michoacán has long been a marihuana producing state, and its Tierra Caliente region has also produced opium poppy since the 1950s. When Colombian cocaine started to be channeled to the United States through Mexican middlemen in the early 1990s, however, the value and scale of Mexico’s drug business surged. The much-galvanized cartels that emerged from this process had their home bases on or near the border, and one, the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel and its “praetorian guard,” Los Zetas, took notice of Michoacán as a valuable asset. This was because Michoacán’s city of Lázaro Cárdenas is Mexico’s largest and most modern port on the Pacific Ocean, and a rail line had been built connecting Lázaro Cardenas to Texas, passing through Mexico’s burgeoning automotive and aerospace manufacturing region in the Bajío. In addition, Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente was home to experienced drug producers and runners, along with a thriving but relatively weak local crime organization known as Los Valencias. Given this tempting combination of factors, the Zetas decided to oust Los Valencias and take control of the state.

In order to do this, they relied on the leadership of a number of Michoacano operators, some of whom later staged a rebellion against the Zetas, forming an organization that differentiated itself by stressing their own local roots and commitments. This was the origin, in 2006, of La Familia Michoacana, whose identitarian strategy for seeking local support against the Zetas lies at the origin of the apparently exceptional familistic and religious bent of both La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, which emerged in 2011. The Templarios’ principal innovation was its code of honor. Thus, whereas La Familia portrayed itself loosely as an organization of Michoacanos pledged to protect the interests of the population of that state, the Caballeros Templarios thought of themselves as sworn members of a quasi-religious order with strict rules of induction for its members.

The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán (Código de los caballeros templarios de Michoacán) is a twenty-three-page document composed of fifty-three articles, chivalrous illustrations, and the text of the “Templar’s Oath.” It establishes in article 5 that no one who has not been inducted through the proper ritual and sworn to uphold the code may be admitted to the order, and in article 7 it imposes a vow of silence on all its members. Knights Templar must also believe in God (article 9), struggle against materialism (article 10), and fight against injustice and in defense of the values of society (articles 10-14). They must value freedom of expression and freedom of religion (article 15), foment patriotism (article 18), be chivalrous and courteous (articles 19 and 21), be respectful and protective of women (article 22), be sober and good humored (article 30), observe hierarchical discipline (article 31), abstain from killing without approval of the council (article 41), and forfeit their lives and that of their families if they betray the order (article 52).

Despite its punctilious effort at regimentation, and despite its belabored parallels both with the medieval order of the Knights Templar, or perhaps with the Freemason Lodge that existed with that same name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural significance of this effort of turning an extremely violent crime organization into a chivalrous order is anything but transparent. Indeed, even the code’s practical significance within the organization is murky. In part, this is because the Knights Templar had only a brief flourishing, from approximately 2011 to 2014, which is hardly long enough to consolidate a knightly ethos. The moral code of the Knights Templar was thus more a project than a well-established ritual order.

Moreover, we still know comparatively little about just how much of an effort the Knights Templar actually invested in shaping a unified ritual system. It is true that the writings of Nazario Moreno, who was the guiding intellect of the Knights Templar, were widely distributed amongst members of the organization and that Templar culture and propaganda was on show in the regional capitals of Uruapan, Morelia, and Apatzingán, but we don’t know the degree to which these displays were complemented by a routine drilling of new recruits or whether the distribution of publications was instead oriented to shaping a public image and, as such, was simply a part of the Templario propaganda machine.

To these considerations—insufficient time for institutional consolidation and insufficient information on the operative uses of Nazario Moreno’s key texts—I must add still a third, which is that, like all other drug organizations of this period, the Caballeros Templarios arose and declined in the midst of a war. They expanded rapidly for a time, then contracted and are now dispersed. To consolidate a knightly order under conditions of competitive recruitment and changing allegiances isn’t easy, and it seems likely that the Templars had only limited time and space for the indoctrination of newcomers, especially once the group began to expand into territories beyond Michoacán. Indeed, there is an inherent disconnect between the creation of a knightly order and recruiting an army, which is what the drug war demanded. As a result, the moral code of the Knights Templar was only briefly and unevenly implemented, while the degree to which it was adopted by the organization’s rank and file is still very much in question. Even so, the fleeting phenomenon of this cartel’s moral project provides a useful vantage from which to interrogate the connection between changing mores and Mexico’s narcoculture. Continue reading …

In this essay, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz  mounts an ethnographic exploration of the ethos and mores of Mexico’s contemporary drug culture. He shows that Mexican drug organizations, in their dedication to the business of privatizing public goods, are thus at the same time parallel state structures and trust-based organizations of brothers working to build a collective future. The essay emphasizes the cultural elaboration of competing communitarian and bureaucratic organizational forms and ideals in order to explore the leadership style and moral codes of honor of the Knights Templar, underscoring the centrality of transnational movement in the invention of an acutely gender- and class-based culture of violent domination and caste formation.

CLAUDIO LOMNITZ teaches anthropology at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to the Mexico City press.  He is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico (Zone Books, 2005) and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014), among other works.  His most recent book is Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018).

Good Pain?

“No Pain, No Gain” and the History of Presence

by Shigehisa Kuriyama

The essay begins:

If you think about it, “No pain, no gain” is a very strange saying. It exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. Pain is arguably the barest, most primal experience of the bad; and yet “No pain, no gain!” enthusiastically lauds pain as a good to be actively pursued, promoting it even, as the sole source of the good. Which seems not only odd and paradoxical, but also almost willfully perverse—and makes us wonder how such a saying came to be so widely recited as common sense.

Bodybuilders in 1970s America were among its earliest champions. “No pain, no gain” became known as the motto of the celebrated muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and appeared regularly in advertisements, as the catchphrase, for example, of Soloflex weight training machines. But the saying soon spread beyond devotees of muscle sculpting and was adopted by countless other Americans aspiring just to be healthy and fit. For vast legions of joggers and exercise enthusiasts, the “No pain, no gain” motto voiced a diffuse but earnest faith in the need for a certain strenuousness. Any exercise worthy of the name, any truly effective workout, had to hurt a bit. “Feel the burn!” Jane Fonda urged the sweating and panting followers of her popular aerobics videos. “No pain, no gain!”

There were critics, to be sure. Although “No pain, no gain” was championed as a mantra of fitness, it had scarcely caught hold when it was denounced, intriguingly, by precisely those experts who knew the body best. Physicians called it a foolish misconception, “macho nonsense.” “Physical pain,” one doctor wrote, “is the body’s way of saying that what you are doing goes beyond its limits.” It was a message, nature’s warning against harm, and by ignoring pain aspirants to fitness actually risked serious injury.

Athletic trainers, too, were critical. “Learn to listen to the body,” one counseled:

The “no pain no gain” philosophy is wrong and suited only to masochists. If any activity causes pain, reduce the intensity of the workout or stop the activity altogether, at least for a while.

To ignore pain is foolish, to embrace it is a perversion. The belief that gain demanded pain, that one could enhance the body only by making it hurt, declared a trainer in 1986, was “the most damaging myth in athletics and fitness.” Articles debunking the myth were common, and “No pain, no gain” was cited far more often in condemnation than in praise.

And yet, the belief persisted—and still persists, as witnessed by the criticisms, which also persist. This is what is strangest. Although doctors and athletic trainers regularly attacked “No pain, no gain” as dangerous folly, their need to keep repeating their attacks bespoke the appeal and resilience of the idea. “No pain, no gain” is one of those primordial certainties that mere science cannot easily shake. The arguments against overexertion—the need to heed pain as a warning and the wisdom of moderation—all sound sensible and are backed by expert opinion. But they somehow fail to reach the roots of conviction. Somehow, the tie between pain and gain just feels true, despite the ostensible oddity of seeking the good in the bad, despite the risk of lasting bodily harm.

I want to excavate the archaeology of this deeply felt truth. Once a saying gains common currency, we often cease to reflect on how or why it became common, or even what it really means. Yet if ever there was a notion that called for serious reflection, it is surely the idea of good pain. Few of us would claim that all pain is good, and most of us would probably agree that most pain is bad. But the popularity of “No pain, no gain” suggests that there is a special kind of pain that is widely considered a definite and necessary good. I want to probe the nature of this exception, and trace the history of how and why this pain became special. Continue reading …

“No pain, no gain” exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. It promotes the idea of good pain. In this essay, cultural historian Shigehisa Kuriyama excavates the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of good pain and situates the modern slogan in the context of a profound change in the experience of presence.

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. His book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999) received the 2001 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. His recent work includes studies on the history of distraction, the happiness of happenings, the transformation of money into a palpable humor, hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine, and the web of connections binding ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG.