In Poetics of the Flesh, Rivera traces a Western European (including its unwilling heirs in postcolonial settings) history of ‘flesh’; a concept with a conflicted history within Christianity. In this quest, Rivera uses several thinkers that have highlighted the centrality of the flesh, starting with early Christian figures such as the author of the Gospel of John, the Apostle Paul, and Tertullian, and ending with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. The selection of sources is surprising since they straddle disciplines that usually do not interact; however, methodologically, that is precisely the point: flesh creates the space for academic cross-pollination due to its quotidian ever-presence. Theology, philosophy, and the rest of academic discourse still take place because of flesh, both literally and figuratively.
“Flesh carries memories of theological passions.” The very first sentence of the introduction clearly shows the book’s impetus, argument, and telos. Flesh is both a locus and a vehicle. It encompasses memory (as in the noetic) and affect (as in the bodily). As theological, it is porously limited by norms of sin and suffering, and aporias of the divine and the human. In simple terms: theology begins and ends with flesh. In addition, for Rivera, flesh is ‘poetic’: it is not only constantly creating itself, it is in itself also creative. The application of a poetic scheme (‘relation,’ from Glissant) to justify or develop a theological and/or philosophical stance is ingenious, since at the very least it provides the reader with the possibility of a theological source beyond religious text, reason, and tradition, and, in Rivera’s case, with a theological lens for reading postcolonial poetry.
According to Rivera, “Poetics of the Flesh elaborates a view of corporeality woven by its carnal relations to the world — spiritual, organic, social — describing the folds of body and flesh, flesh and world, body and word” (10). The tripartite structure of the book is evident here: flesh is surrounded by body, world, and word. These distinctions are further subsumed into each other as theological, philosophical, and sociopolitical as one becomes aware that discussions around flesh cannot occur in disciplinary silos as disconnected prerogatives. In other words, the Word-Made-Flesh (as the author of the Gospel of John poetically wrote) cannot, indeed must not, disengage with Body(ies)-as-Flesh and World-in-the-Flesh…the crude reality lived by human bodies in this world. As the Latin American scholar Enrique Dussel, among many others, has shown us, philosophy does not exist in a vacuum. It is imperative to go, as he wrote, “beyond”—a call that Rivera answers by going beyond flesh to its relation with body, world, and word.
Part One looks at how the early Christian theologians understood flesh. For Rivera, to understand Jesus one needs His ‘fleshiness,’ which stands at the center of His life (and death); this fact, introduced by the author of the Gospel of John in the famous Prologue Paul occluded and Tertullian rescued. Perhaps unwittingly, Paul created an enduring schism between the material (flesh) and the spiritual (glory), the former lower and human, the latter higher and divine. According to Rivera, Tertullian represents a contrary view — flesh as integral to God’s plan. She shows that Tertullian uses flesh ‘poetically’: referring to earthly or ‘fleshy’ events around the Incarnation, such as Jesus’s birth, transforms flesh into a site of love, contact, and memory— all very relatable to human subjects, both created and ever-creating. These early Christian thinkers attest the conflicting conceptions surrounding flesh, even in a world where it was much more easily decided from the start. Bringing the three together works well for Rivera’s argument here: even as flesh was downgraded, it was still emerging throughout theological discussion.
Part Two turns to the philosophical. For Rivera, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes flesh “worldly” — relevant to everyday concerns as an inescapable middle ground to human engagement with the world. He does this, for instance, by his use of the Incarnation, that refocuses the self from the interior to the exterior; it is a challenge made to philosophy in general, for as Merleau-Ponty writes, “the Incarnation changes everything” (62). But this connection between exterior and interior must remain absent even while foundational (and transformational) to our presence in the world: our body changes the world, but is also changed by it; an exchange produced on, and by, flesh.
Rivera then serves up critiques by Foucault, Nancy, and Irigaray to Merleau-Ponty’s expositions of flesh in particular, but more generally to Christian ones. She questions their injunctions that flesh is a category, thus reducing it to irrelevance, by countering their thought with Merleau-Ponty’s and her own elucidations. For example, the notion of equating flesh with femininity that still plagues tradition, be it religious or academic, especially in the Eurocentric world, she deconstructs and further explores in the next part. Perhaps the phrase “I can never fully grasp flesh” (110) best summarizes Part Two.
Part Three explores the socio-political dimension through the practices of discourse: how bodies are conceived and received by their innate interactivity, for example, ‘in the name of’ race or gender or in the con-‘text’ of colonialism, an exploration Rivera pursues drawing upon the seminal work of Fanon, Césaire, Alcoff, and others, again in the light of Merleau-Ponty. Rivera is Puerto Rican (one of the oldest colonies in the world), a woman, and phenotypically white, and has probably experienced the complex dynamics associated with ethnicity, gender, and race (Fanon’s “epidermal schema”, 122). Here I see also a continuation of her previous endeavors, such as A Touch of Transcendence (2007) and Planetary Loves (2011), in which Derrida and Spivak, among others, held center stage. In all of them she describes the liminality of being politically part of one nation but culturally of (an)other(s); part of all and wholly of none (in her case, Puerto Rico is, at best, considered marginally Latina/o while a U.S. territory). To summarize, here Rivera argues that flesh is a process, part of socialization itself for good or, unfortunately many times, for ill. Thus, for example, using the work of Alcoff on sociality and perception, she claims that materiality and corporeality are still social, not individual: body is composed by other bodies, and flourishes with them even through the travails of life. I am reminded of the raw physicality of Isasi-Díaz’s “en la lucha”: flesh both provides the space in, and becomes the tool with which to negotiate daily existence in the world.
All this and more is laid out masterfully in the conclusion, from which this quotation comes: “A poetics of the flesh deploys negations to counter reifications” (158). Flesh resists and multiplies, approaches and defies. It never ceases to learn and teach…such is the challenge it offers, and Rivera responds.
Rivera’s transparent writing is a rare find among theological and philosophical treatises in general: deep while copacetic, rich while accessible, enlightening while defiant.
Of course, Rivera is tackling a rather large concept through long eras, so sometimes the argument flow seems disconnected from one part to the next; for instance, Parts Two and Three form a much more cohesive unit without Part One. In addition, the migration of relevant terms from one chapter to another sometimes seems contrived: concepts such as flesh, body, skin, carnal, and others have had complex social lives for two thousand years. For instance, earth (the soil, the planet) has gone through enormous transformations in the last 500 years alone. By the same token, it can be quite a stretch to transpose flesh in the second century CE to flesh in the mid-twentieth; history, religion, and science have marched forward, and Tertullian surely had a different conception of flesh than Merleau-Ponty. One can only imagine what differences would arise around the word ‘incorporation,’ for example.
On a different note, I would have liked to see Rivera explore more than tangentially flesh as literally written record of a life journey. Many cultures, especially non-West European, use skin to intentionally mark the passage of time: cuts, drawings, tattoos, and even wrinkles serve as remainders, not only reminders, of troubles shouldered, sorrows negotiated, and joys experienced. Flesh is a book full of poems…a non-Western perspective is surely needed here. Even so, Poetics of the Flesh straddles several disciplines effectively and accomplishes much as it is. I have no reservation in giving it my full recommendation as it represents an important milestone in theology and philosophy for the contemporary reader.
University of Chicago Divinity School