Witnessing: Barth, Cixous, and the Art of Writing


“Witnessing means pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another. Witnessing is thus service to this other in which the witness vouches for the truth of the other, the service which consists in referring to this other…Standing in this service, the biblical witnesses point beyond themselves…One might recall John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Crucifixion, especially his prodigious index finger. Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely (‘he must increase, but I must decrease’)…This is what the Fourth Evangelist wanted to say about this John, and therefore about another John, and therefore quite unmistakably about every ‘John.'” Karl Barth, CD I.1.4.3, 109-110 [112].

So much to say about this painting–but we are only following one path here, the path to which Barth points us, the path of pointing away. Follow the prodigious finger.

To go ahead and say it: the phallic finger. Prodigious–extraordinary in size, abnormal, a miracle perhaps. Or a monstrosity. Perhaps all–that prodigious finger is not an end in itself. What it is–abnormal, excessive, monster, miracle–comes not from within, but from without. From where it points. Or, to whom. But Barth is right: it is a prodigious finger/phallus.

The object of desire, the one to whom the finger points: the monstrosity of (as) Christ. The prodigy, prodigium, Latin for monster. Or omen. Christ, the prodigy, the monstrous omen. “The prodigy is not only prewarning, but activation of the calamity at hand” (__Greek and Indo-European Etymology in Action: Proto-Indo-European *aǵ-__, Raimo Anttila, 114). The prodigious finger pointing away, pointing to the prodigy, the calamity at hand, the death of Christ.

Here we enter into the undoing. The phallic finger does not inscribe itself. It is not the goal, or object of attention. It exists in the painting as a sign, as a witness, as something to move past. It is magnified, enlarged, made prodigious so as to draw attention to its shrinking. Above the finger, it is written: he must increase but I must decrease. Enlarged, to draw attention to its shrinking. To his shrinking. To he shrinking.

Let us turn from shrinking and look at the large–and grotesque–feet of Christ. With the nail through the center, and blood dripping off the individual toes. The feet must have died first. They look ashen; even more than the rest of the dead, diseased, broken, bloody body. (I remember stories, in the Bible, about covering feet, and laying at the feet, and recall: a euphemism). Prodigious, dead feet.

Jesus’ hands are also unusual. His fingers point–not to another person in the painting, but to the one absent, God, above. If there were time–I’m trying not to ramble…–we could examine those hands. One other person imitates those splayed fingers–Mary Magdalene, the smallest figure in the painting. Also, the only other one (besides Jesus) who isn’t standing on her feet. The prodigious finger, pointing away from itself, towards the one with opened, uncontrolled, grasping hands. And thoroughly dead feet. (He came in the likeness of sinful flesh…).

“Writing is a passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me–the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live–that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?–a feminine one, a masculine one, some?–several, some unknown, which is indeed what gives me the desire to know and from which all life soars. This peopling gives neither rest nor security, always disturbs the relationship to “reality,” produces an uncertainty that gets in the way of the subject’s socialization. It is distressing, it wears you out; and for men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat, something intolerable” (Cixous, Sorties, in __The Newly Born Woman__, 86).

The permeability, the vulnerability, speaks of the end of self-mastery. Christ is the end of self-mastery. The death of human autonomy (self-government); the shriveling up of the enlarged…feet. For men, this is a threat. He must increase, I must decrease. The object of desire–the one to whom John’s prodigious finger points–the crucified Christ. The death of the “phallogocentric” economy. Desired. Desirable. Lovely and teeming with life.

Cixous emphasizes writing; she performs a new writing, one not intoxicated by the desire to contain, conquer, control. Free from self-mastery, which involves (by necessity) an opposition to others: I, not you, am master. Beyond mastery, a different space, another way to write, another way to live, another way to relate. She thinks she’s merely dreaming.

“Without the ambivalence, the liability to misunderstanding and the vulnerability with which [preaching] takes place, with which it is itself one event among many others, it could not be real proclamation” (Barth, 91 [94]). God speaks–the event of God’s Word occurs–not in spite of, but through the weakness of our proclamation. To be a witness is to be weak. To be a witness is to have one’s whole life amount to the task of pointing away, of highlighting not the self, but another. Not any other, either. But the Wholly Other–the Weakest Other, God in flesh.

Barth sometimes downplay the importance of the human form, the style of the presentation (“dogmatics does not seek to give a positive, stimulating and edifying presentation,” p. 80 [82]). But he fundamentally recognizes its importance. The form does not guarantee that God speaks. God speaks always out of God’s freedom. Nevertheless, one can point to Christ in a way that actually points to oneself (the kingdom of the Selfsame, in Cixous’ terms). One can witness to one’s strength; which means one can point away from Christ, and thus, even in the form of witnessing, one can fail to witness at all. The form matters. The way we write matters. It displays who we think we are, and, by God’s grace, the one to whom we point.

To write in a way that embraces the dead, prodigious, monstrous, saving omen of Christ. And his dead feet. A challenge. Joyful, exhilarating, and terrifying. “For men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat.” The threat of losing control. “She lets the other tongue of a thousand tongues speak–the tongue, sound without barrier or death” (Sorties, 88). A beautiful picture of the feast we celebrated two weeks ago–Pentecost. Life beyond the dead feet. Come, Holy Spirit.

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10 Responses to Witnessing: Barth, Cixous, and the Art of Writing

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nick Barrett said, Tim, good thoughts. The more I engage Barth, the more I am convinced that his ideas on witness and attestation were his greatest contribution.I am surprised to see you engaging a piece of art–theologically. Didn't you tell me that you question the benefit of aesthetics because they presuppose, "a communal practice of judgment and hierarchical arrangement that has been, in modernity, explicitly linked to the racial ordering of the world." For someone with an aversion to aesthetic methodologies, or at least methods that presuppose an "analogy of being," your engagement with Barth and this piece don't seem to affirm your previous aversion. I enjoyed it.

  2. Nick,Thanks for the comments. The aversion I have is not to art or to the intersection of art and theology (my wife would give me a hard time for that, as an artist herself!), but to the way theological aesthetics can function as a kind of "natural theology" or build from the analogy of being. I don't believe my post presupposes a form of the analogy of being, but if you think so, please share.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nick said, Tim, while it is correct to say that your post doesn't explicitly presuppose an analogy of being, it may be fair to say that your theological interaction with this painting works from a degree of "natural theology." You are in fact using this painting to draw analogies to Christ. While the painting does not offer Revelation or attestation as scripture; it does offer–like other works of art, culture, and nature–a type of witness, a type of revelation. In a sense, by observing the artistry of this piece, and its ability to "illustrate" something about the nature of God, is to do what many of the Patristics did with art–namely: to draw analogous correlations between the "form" in the art and the "form" of Christ. Iconography is not far removed from this practice. In a similar way Icons attest and point to something beyond themselves. Clearly this is where I depart from Barth (or at least early Barth).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Nick Barrett said, To clarify… To suggest that a piece of art, product of culture, or nature itself, offers revelation of the same caliber as scripture would be a fatal mistake. That was precisely Schleiermacher's error, yet until that point, I would contend that Schleiermacher's ideas on sense perception, emotion, and the intuited religious experience were actually quite profound and–dare I say–accurate (cf. Speeches to the Cultured Despisers, ch. I-III). During an aesthetics seminar, a friend of mine joked accurately, that Schleiermacher's theology makes more sense to the Christian because the Christian has already put stock in the revelation via scripture, or the revelation to which it points (to use Barth's language). Nevertheless, my point here was to suggest that art, culture, and nature does offer a type of mitigated revelation, a type of mitigated attestation, a type of mitigated witness, beyond the simplicity of "illustration." Further, it seems that the writers of scripture want to suggest the being and agency of God's "in-breaking" through a form of "theological aesthetics" as well. My thoughts always move to speeches in Job, inditement charges in the prophets, and Paul's rebuke in Rom 1.

  5. Nick,Interesting, but I still don't see any reason to think through what I'm doing on those terms. I'm using the painting (Christian art) in the same way I'm using Cixous' writing (secular, Jewish, p/m feminism): I'm "reading" them theologically, in the way Barth and Bonhoeffer interact with music and writers like Nietzsche. For example, Bonhoeffer says: "God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts–not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint…Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limit. The two are 'undivided and yet distinct'…May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana?" (Letters and Papers, 303). The reflection on music proceeds Christologically and always on the basis of the freedom of God in Christ. Through the Incarnation, all things human (and non-human!) are now ordered to Christ. This does not mean any of them provide an essential presupposition to the revelation of Christ, but that through the freedom of Christ, all things can be pointed to Christ. It is analogical, but as Barth makes clear, it is the analogy of faith, not of being. Its presupposition rests in Christ, not in the structure of worldly being or human culture. "We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10:5; see also Col. 2:8). This does not lead us to isolate ourselves in a kind of Christian-thought ghetto but establishes our freedom to engage, draw from, and turn all forms of human thought to Christ. The basis for this work is not our position within a higher ("ecclesial") culture that can analogically read cultural difference and organize these differences in a peaceful and fruitful hierarchy (Milbank) but our faith that all have died with Christ, and thus Christ is already present to and at work in those we meet.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Nick Barrett said, Well… this might be where the Barth and Brunner ships pass in the night. I follow your sentiment, but it seems to me that when we interact with a piece of art (including a piece of writing), we are implicitly using aesthetic methods while developing or constructing our fides quaerens intellectum. In other words, as Von Balthasar says, "Besisdes examining God's beauty by examining God's actions in his creation, his beauty would also be deduced from the harmony of his essential attributes, and particularly form the Trinity. But such a doctrine of God and of the Trinity speaks to us only when and as long as the theologia does not become detached from the oikonomia, but rather lets its every formulation and stage of reflection be accompanied and supported by the latters vivd discernibility." Von B, then goes on to offer two dinstinct ways of methodologically reflecting, "If this is so, then theological aesthetics must properly be developed in two phases, which are: 1.) The Theory of Vision (or fundamental theology): 'aesthetics' in the Kantian sense about a theory about the perception of the form of God's self-revelation.2.) The Theory of Rapture (or dogmatic theology): 'aesthetics' about the theory of the incarnation of God's glory and the consequent elevation of [humanity] to participate in that glory." (Von Balthasar,_The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, vol., 1_ 125ff.).Following suite, Von B contends that the two theories are inseparable both in God's "venturing fourth" to us and our "venturing fourth" to God. In a sense, we may understand this inseparable construction as the road, or the outworking of the intellectus quaerens fidem. Simply put, your interaction with the Grunewald (at least in the first half of your post), stimulates the imagination to consider the form of God in Christ through–ironically–the operative mechanics of art. That is, the art portrays something conveyed in the scripture. The art recreates that portrayal, and now functions as "a witness to the witness to the revelation," so to speak. The piece itself offers a mitigated revelation. :

  7. Nick,Thanks for pushing me on this (I'm enjoying the challenge, as it's only in the last year that I've become more skeptical about theo. aesthetics–I had previously read David Hart's book enthusiastically, at least what I understood…). I do think you are right that we are here at the divide between Barth and Brunner, the analogy of being (nat. theology). For me, what is at stake in the debate is that, at the end of the day, the analogy of being ends up elevating a particular cultural form as the universal human form (and hence the form which must accompany revelation). If you accept the MacIntyre/Hauerwas/Post-modern/Pre-modern consensus that terms like "beauty" and "goodness" only have meaning within particular, historical communal traditions and practices, and then add to this claim the idea that the world's "beauty" reflects the "beauty" of God, then one is committed to upholding that God's beauty can be seen within the world through the aesthetics of a particular culture (all claims to "human nature in general" also only have sense within a particular cultural tradition, and thus the claim that God's beauty is available/perceptible by all is also only made and only has meaning within a particular tradition). Thus, only a particular culture can see the universality of natural revelation; and given sin, some (or many) cultures no longer see this. Accordingly, the presentation of the Gospel involves bringing people into a particular cultural form/tradition. A particular tradition begins to mediate Jesus (Jesus seen most clearly and properly in and through this culture/tradition). Without this proper culture, Jesus will be absorbed into the more sinful ("worldly") cultural forms, and thus the missional project of the Church is the expansion of a particular ecclesial cultural tradition that accompanies their proclamation. Historically, this "ecclesial cultural tradition" has been identified as the Christian West; the fact that non-Western voices are now free to articulate themselves within it is simply another permutation within Western culture (multiculturalism: everyone can be white!).I wish I was just being extreme or overly cautious, but this is exactly what happens in Milbank. Barth disrupts this practice precisely by removing a human point of contact for revelation (God's freedom in revelation produces the point of contact, it is not inherent in any cultural form, and thus no culture/tradition–not even the church–can claim to be necessary for God's revelation). (I should confess that though I am speaking firmly, I'm writing this out for the first time, so I don't know if I actually agree with it. I would like to rework it, but don't have the time at the moment).On the art piece (briefly): the interaction with the art piece was like interacting with any piece of exegesis; my interaction, or the art piece, only functions as a kind of revelation in virtue of Christ's freedom to speak through it. The painting does offer an analogy of Christ, but one based within the analogy of faith, not the analogy of being.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Nick Barrett said, Tim, thanks for letting me push without getting frustrated. I admire your patience. I think I understand your position a bit more clearly and I think your concern is warranted especially considering the history of tradition and the "ecclesial cultural tradition." Further, your aversion to aesthetics on the grounds which you have supplied do lead to the claim that aesthetics functioning contingently on one's cultural or ecclesial milieu presuppose and privilege communal judgments, which, inevitably lead to triumphalism or something of the like. I offer some thoughts on this at the end. However, if these grounds are the only grounds upon which Theological Aesthetics can function, you would be correct. However, I would suggest it is not, and further, that aesthetics on Millbank's (or RO's) terms may have reduced–more recently–the whole enterprise of theological aesthetics to the inter-theological and ecclesial practices of a particular tradition. More broadly speaking, Theological Aesthetics (TA) do not, and have not, been utilized historically the way RO has been using them. The enterprise is more broad and seeks to understand and ask larger questions of Beauty, goodness, and truth, on the one hand, and imagination specifically in relation to God on the other. To be sure, one could also suggest that TA deals with meaning, experience, intuition, emotion, and "form" in relation to the divine. First, Von B, Barth, Navone, and Evodokimov for example, suggest that "Beauty" is objective. In fact, a good deal of Theological Aestheticians would see Beauty as something objective. For Barth and Von B that is Christ. Second, the conversation in TA–at least in the writers I mentioned would follow a dialectical notion of Beauty following Kierkegaard. The beauty of God is–in the present age at least "incognito" and is hidden and contrary to our general "rhetorical" notions of beauty (e.g., Schleiermacher). The goal is not to order the world according to an ideal "form" of God, or provide, or even affirm a specific "form" as contributed from within a particular cultural milieu over and above others; but rather, to understand the way human beings can understand and imagine God at all. Even if we attempt to leave TA off the table altogether, we are still engaging the divine through "aesthetic" portals. If we read a biblical text, or hear a sermon, or whatever it may be, we imagine, reflect, and intuit the divine from within those textual fields. Nevertheless, who is Christ? No TA should not or could not really have any leverage over the revelation of Christ. Indeed, God is free. TA doesn't claim to have any privileged insight here, instead it seeks the operative means through which we arrive continuously at fides quaerens intellectum. The medieval methodology is problematic on the grounds you supplied, but not totally irrelevant, and still proffers helpful methods for this operative reflection. Contemporary TA should strip them down, purge them, and then take whatever good is left and build forward. Last, even Barth was subject to his own dispositions and subjective tastes. Barth's theology is contextual and situational. We may find treasures in it, but his work can never function in a sterile and disinterested vacuum. Barth like any other is a product of his culture and likewise, so is his theology. In that sense, Barth's theology too may presuppose a cultural hierarchy through which he privileged certain values and judgments implicitly.

  9. Nick,Thanks. Barth himself would admit that his theology is contextual and situational, both by default (human writer) and by intention (he is trying to address the problem of the church/christianity as he sees it being displayed in Germany at the time). What I take issue with is the idea of trying "to understand the way human beings can understand and imagine God at all," at least in so far as this question is asked or thought answerable on the human level (meaning, by pointing to something in us, known by us, and hence, in our control and possession). Barth is struggling to strip from us any kind of self-possession, any ability to define ourselves, to say who we are outside of apart from our dependence on God's Word (which, through being spoke, creates our situation of dependence, and therefore we dependent on God's freedom to keep speaking it anew). I think some of the tension you see expressed in my own thought is the way I am trying to work through both Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bon. correctly sees that Barth sometimes misses the value of the merely human; that is, the judgment of God in Christ not only relatives our human existence and claims, it actually frees us to embrace fully and wholeheartedly simple human existence. Knowing that we can never know if our actions are right or good, but confident in God's mercy in Christ, we are free to risk action in the world. Art, like dogmatics, takes place within this human sphere, and thus can be embraced fully (and loved fully) on this Christological basis. Where I want to abandon TA is at the point it claims to offer something more than just merely human, always possibly sinful, act; where it wants to position its vision/optics/aesthetics as the proper form of human receptivity of the divine, as the place of divine contact, etc. Barth is helpful in clearing out this human presumption; Bonhoeffer, however, is helpful in making sure the necessary act of clearing out the presumption doesn't try to clear out the earthly, human element as well. I appreciate what you say about the "icognito;" in fact, I think you can point to the painting in this post as a great example of both the hiddenness of the divine beauty and the judgment against "rhetorical" notions of beauty (the object of desire, the one to whom the finger/phallus points: the diseased body of Christ). But again, this judgment does not usher in a new art free from these problems but alerts us that all art, even Christian art of the highest grade, stands under this judgment. Thus, we are free to enjoy and love art (dare I say) for art's sake!

  10. Pingback: Theology, Beauty, and Race (a couple thoughts) | veeritions

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