Named and caught

In the comments to the last post, Rachel wrote:

Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described.

and I then speculated that

the liminal position occupied by John [might be]… a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ … John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

I went on to say something about how we might say that John escapes this suspicious reading:

The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile…

But thinking about Rachel’s point makes me realise that my response is facile. John, after all, performs his function in the Gospels in part because he ‘fits into certain patterns and expectations’, because he can be ‘described’ (‘as it is written’…). And yet clearly John is not in any straightforward sense simply the expression of that which is written: he exceeds it, simply by virtue of having concrete existence. I have that itch on the back of my neck that you get when creeping through a deserted mine, realising that one should have bought some decent social theory with you… The contrast between the activity of ‘describing in existing categories’ which perpetuates the existing symbolic order, and the eruption of the decisively new that re-makes that order, is clearly too blunt: ‘existing symbolic orders’ are always changing, always being deployed in new ways, always being inhabited differently. The contrast between the ‘process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates’ and ‘something else, something other…becoming visible’ is a childish one – all too closely related to other contrasts between inwardness and externality that I’ve been taught to eschew. I’m on the wrong track. Ho hum.

2 Thoughts on “Named and caught

  1. Hmmmm. Well, I might as well try and dig us in a bit deeper.

    First spadeful: Is it worth pausing for a minute on a distinction between “John” in the text and John in the desert, even though that’s going to be taken apart later? This because “John” could be written in very “standard” binary ways to perpetuate the existing [etc], while John in his particular existence exceeded that description. And then presumably we’d be getting at something like “literal sense” if we said that we wanted to read “John” as pointing to John – with all that implies about the links between the literal & “resistance to use”, etc. And we might want to look for oddities in the “John” description, ways in which it _doesn’t_ fit him to what’s expected, that point us towards John-in-the-desert.

    Second spadeful: But, coming back to your original point, it must matter that John is in the desert, eating raw food, etc. (What I’ve said so far could apply equally to anyone). I’m wondering about the “extreme” character of his bodily existence. It’s not strange that he should be written about like this, he’s not altogether an odd character to have in this story (he “fits a mould”, negatively or positively); but the physical presence of him would still be strange. I’m trying for something more than a generic claim “body exceeds text” – locust-eating wilderness-surviving John is weird in a way that your average city-dweller wouldn’t be weird – but something less than “John doesn’t fit any categories”.

    But not sure I’m getting there.

    Any views on why he has a leather belt?

  2. Other than “to hold his camel-hair clothes round him”, I mean 🙂

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