The Babylon Complex

Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty

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Erin Runions
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , April
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While the so-called crisis of the humanities has left experts in medieval textiles or Roman lyric poetry alone to labor in obscurity, the academic biblicist these days must cope with a running cavalcade of pseudo-scholarship, ignorant malfeasance, and hasty headline grabbing. The Bible's persisting influence and the rise of the non-scholarly "expert" have left our discipline in a curious, awkward position: forced to bear witness to its own cultural eclipse. Perhaps nowhere was this problem more acutely felt than in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq. Scholars of the Bible and the ancient Near East cringed when, in 2003, the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's "Camp Alpha" in Baghdad was built on the grounds of the archaeological site of ancient Babylon. In what would become a recurrent tableau, military strategy, the urge to capture and exploit a potent historical symbol, and a callous indifference to cultural heritage converged to provoke a crisis to which the global scholarly community could only bear witness.

Against this fraught background, Erin Runions has written a closely argued, verbally incandescent, and deeply insightful study: The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty. Her project is to trace the complex and contradictory set of interpretive frames that surround the figure of Babylon, illustrating how its invocation sustains claims to sovereignty and shapes the potential for critique. In the process, she stakes out a new, activist role for critical scholarship wherein analysis ranges widely from ancient text to contemporary interpretive context, tracking the conspiracy of power and knowledge production to condition the political field.

Broadly speaking, Runions treats two interlocking phenomena in The Babylon Complex. The first, which she terms "theodemocracy," is a process by which bodies and political subjects are regulated within a system that is only nominally democratic. Like the Bible on which an oath of office is taken, biblical traditions shape the conditions under which authority is exercised in American democracy. Where Babylon is concerned, this involves a complex set of associations that are at once sexual, patriarchal, military, and ethno-national. Invoking Babylon thus authorizes anti-democratic and illiberal behaviors that exist beyond the legal framework that defines our political association.

The second phenomenon treated in this book is one Runions terms "scripturalization." In her understanding, there is no stable or uniform hermeneutic of engagement with Babylon in contemporary American culture. Rather, it is at once a "site of identification and an object of intense counteridentification." Babylon is at times a positive locus and, at other times, a cautionary, aversive image. Its range of biblical associations allows it to be used as evidence for a healthy, primordial tolerance for diversity, while, in other contexts, it can be cited to valorize the overarching sovereignty of God, who “babbles” peoples’ speech and disperses their polities.

Runions tracks the complex interrelationship between theodemocracy and scripturalization through a series of case studies. These develop a philosophical apparatus which informs her critical mode of reading, and demonstrate, through accumulation, Babylon’s complex polyvalence. In what is probably the book's most potent and memorable section, she discusses the perverse irony of deploying Boney M's tune "Waters of Babylon"—itself an anodyne, reggae-inflected recitation of the non-genocidal section of Psalm 137—as a mechanism of torture in the infamous U.S.-administered Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib. Runions rehearses the complex associations and motivations behind the use of this (and other) musical references to Babylon during forced interrogation and torture. In the end, she wonders if the unrepresented genocidal residuum in the psalm is the unvoiced pretext for the song's misuse in torture. As with many of the topics she addresses, Runions's argument has the quality of illuminating a real and dangerous incoherence at the root of Babylon's operation within American political logic.

Runions's final chapter attempts to model for her readers how this complex set of ambivalent and internally contradictory interpretive practices might be untangled and overcome. In a discussion which is deeply informed by the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, she develops a mode of "detranscendentalizing" reading in which textual reflexes of Babylon are not treated as self-sustaining metaphors, but are read as metonymic reflections of our own contemporary political attitudes and beliefs. She advocates a mode of "queer" textual engagement which draws attention to the contingency of interpretations even as it forces awareness of the concrete relationships of political domination and othering that undergird seemingly potent engagements with textual and literary symbolism.

This is at times a difficult book. It is theoretically informed and deeply invested in laying bare its own operating assumptions. At the same time, Runions's work is impelled by a pedagogue's optimism. She defines critical theoretical terms, situates the philosophers with whom she is engaged, and develops her analytical vocabulary in a way that seems perfectly calibrated to overcome the entrenched logic of existing discourse. I found myself wishing she had been more programmatic in her discussion of "scripturalization," since it seems that she has here a real contribution to make on the use of biblical traditions to sustain unsystematic and internally contradictory political positions. Implicit in her argument, I think, is an idea that a canonical textual matrix allows for adherence to incoherent political and philosophical positions that would not stand were they considered analytically. The significance of this insight goes far beyond the contemporary treatment of Babylon. I hope this is not the last we hear from Runions on this topic.

At the same time, the book is curiously selective in its treatment of the Bible as a historical document. Runions very forthrightly and insightfully discusses the historical context for the initial development of the antichrist in the context of Roman Imperial and early Christian politics, for example. But her treatment of the Hebrew Bible is far less historically informed. Surely the historical figures who suffered beneath the weight of Mesopotamian empires and who struggled to offer a coherent politics which sustained overt submission while cultivating subjective autonomy are the Bible's original (and originating) subalterns. These Israelites and Judeans remain Erin Runions's mostly silent and unacknowledged interlocutors.

This criticism should not diminish from Runions’s significant accomplishments with this book. Her advocacy for a literary engagement with scripture that allows for its complex multivalence and that foregrounds the subject position of its interpreters is a useful corrective to the discipline's legacy of uncritical positivism. The sort of scholarship Runions engages in here would not have stopped the U.S. Marines from transforming an archaeological site into a triumphant military camp. It does, however, help us understand why a political performance of this sort took place. It empowers us to critique it. Ultimately, it develops a vocabulary by which scholars could enact other sorts of political performances, ones that could interrupt triumphal displays and advocate for a culture respectful of human autonomy, particularity, and diversity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Silver is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wellesley College. 

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erin Runions is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at Pomona College. Her previous books are Changing Subjects: Gender, Nation, Future in Micah and How Hysterical: Identification and Resistance in the Bible and Film.


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