Erin Runions, Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College
"Queering the Beast: The Antichrist's Gay Wedding"
On February 16, 2006 at the second Brown Bag Lunch Discussion held at ISS, Erin Runions, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College, presented ideas from a paper currently under review in the journal Sexualities, intriguingly titled, “Queering the Beast: The Antichrist's Gay Wedding”.
Runions noted that her presentation was somewhat in line with the concepts discussed in the previous ISS’s Brown Bag Discussion about depictions of the horrific catalyzing the process of scripturalization. Runions began by directing the audience’s attention to popular depictions of the Antichrist, which she placed into three categories-queer, inhuman, and Middle Eastern. Runions’ main thesis was the suggestion that, “certain texts and images about the Antichrist demonstrate the religious, sexual, and political desires that are permissible in the realm of the redeemable human, and those that tip over into fear of the irredeemable, inhuman, antichristic, beastly, and queer.” According to this set up, apocalyptic views make visible the suppression of desire that separates these depictions into what can safely be considered “human” and what can pejoratively be called “inhuman.”
Runions adds to that by stating that these images show us the difference between, “those whose lives are bound up with the imperialistic eschatology of the nation and those whose lives and desires are seen to flaunt that eschatology.” The most recognizable example of this is a pop culture depiction of Saddam Hussein as he was used by the writers of the 1999 film, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Hussein is shown as Satan’s lover and it seems as if the film’s writers are drawing upon what Runions categorizes as three cultural conventions: “1) the apocalyptically oriented designation of the political enemy as antichrist; 2) a certain conservative Christian belief that the antichrist is likely to be homosexual; and 3) Hollywood’s convention of orientalism.” In order to illustrate her point, Runions showed the audience several images from the film as well as from other media that shows Hussein in various acts of homosexuality.
Runions then went into more description about the first of the three cultural conventions she pointed out, the political enemy as antichrist. The main fear within this view is that the antichrist will form a world that is run by one political leader alone and thus erase the need for nations and national identity. This will, of course, do away with a U.S. hegemony. Triggered by this fear of losing U.S. dominance, the political enemy becomes resituated to be the antichrist. Runions exemplified this point by drawing the audience’s attention to a speech President Bush gave about the war on terror on October 6, 2005, in which Bush, without explicitly identifying the antichrist, paints the enemy as one that is apocalyptic and not human. The larger objective being that apocalyptic allusions and language is hidden, but not so hidden that it is unrecognizable, within U.S. foreign policies to form the enemy into the antichrist figure.
To expand her second point, depicting the antichrist as gay, the audience was directed to the Book of Daniel, particularly 11:37: “He [the proud ruler] will show no regard for the gods of his fathers or for the desire of women” (New American Standard Bible). This is taken by certain interpreters to mean that the antichrist will be a sexual pervert, whose perversion will most likely take the form of homosexual acts.
For Runions’ third point--queer as political enemy--she pointed out that many “secular” and often satiric websites show Osama bin Laden and Hussein as homosexuals. To elucidate this point, she showed several slides that illustrated this mindset. She argued the point about the anxiety registered in the depictions of these orientalized figures, Muslim/Arab figures, in terms of homosexuality/queerness. These representations depict Hussein and bin Laden as being in states of non-normative desire. Runions concludes her point by stating that the images discussed actually signify that the U.S. national identity is contingent upon, in this case, with “heteronormativity.”
Runions fleshed out her ideas more by using the work of Giorgio Agamben and his book Homo Sacer and the contrast between politics and “bare life” (“or between the judicial order and the state of exception”). “…raw sex can only move beyond the status of bare life, if it is brought into the good life of the polis, i.e. family and nation.” Thus, desire that does not fall in line with this paradigm of the “good life” remains categorized as “bare life,” and as such, is not considered to be part of a national identity dependent on the perpetuation of family, and is thus unnatural and inhuman, sometimes deemed antichristic.
In conclusion, it was Runions’ project to underline the logic of what inspires the depiction of the “enemy” as queer and how that is central to the categorization of what is human or what is inhuman. Additionally, she attempted to show how this works in dehumanizing those that have to withstand imperializing techniques.
Questions for consideration:
Is it possible to extend the idea of the antichrist as queer into an exploration of images that are diabolized by being made feminine? Can we discuss this comparatively? Can we translate it, for example, to the art of India, their sacred texts and the reasons the divine is commonly feminized there, if there are similarities and how the differences might elucidate the Western imagery?
Based on Runions’ discussion and the discussion about horror at the last Brown Bag discussion, apocalypticism seems to be a continuing central issue or phenomenon in our cultures. What does that mean? What does that tell us about us? Why do we make it so pervasive and necessary? What does it mean that the play with such a phenomenon is not to be found only in certain domains or sectors of cultures, or only in extreme and controversial depictions, but is found almost everywhere?
What does it mean that, for many, scriptures represent a storehouse of images and rhetoric for apocalyptic imagination? What does this do to the concept of "scriptures"?