The Apocalypse of John is an affect-intensive text. What Revelation reveals above all is an immense loathing for Rome, and it aims to infect its audiences in turn with disgust for that intimate Other. Impelled by Sara Ahmed’s work on the cultural politics of emotion, this article reconceives Revelation’s “great whore” as a circulating (sex) object that is supremely “sticky” or saturated with affect. It explores how Revelation’s affective economy works by sticking “figures of hate” together like Jezebel, the whore, and the beast. It argues that Revelation’s impossible project is the vomitous ejection of a loathsome alien entity (Rome as Jezebel) that has somehow gotten inside, but in whose monstrous body (Rome as Babylon) one is also somehow contained. It explains why the expulsion or annihilation of the intolerable Other is contradictorily combined with its incorporation or ingestion: the devouring of the whore; the ghastly “great supper of God.” It also ponders why nauseous food (“sacrificed to idols”) taken into the (social) body figures the fear of contamination in this book, and why the intimately encroaching empire is figured in intensely sexualized terms: the intolerable cultural closeness of Rome requires representation in ways that evoke intimate contact felt on the surface of the skin.
David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Robson Classical Lectures; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Classical Culture and Society; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Dana LaCourse Munteanu (ed.), Emotion, Genre, and Gender in Classical Antiquity (New York: Bristol Academic Press, 2011). Comparable titles in biblical studies are considerably harder to name. See, however, Stephen Voorwinde, Jesus’ Emotions in the Fourth Gospel: Human or Divine? (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005); idem, Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels (New York: T&T Clark International, 2011); Renate Egger-Wenzel and Jeremy Corley (eds.), Emotions from Ben Sira to Paul (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Yearbook; Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2012). See further nn. 5 and 45 below. An SBL program unit titled “Bible and Emotion” has also been formed.
Cf. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 2: “As the notion of the individual gained in strength, it was assumed more and more that emotions and energies are naturally contained, going no farther than the skin.”
See especially Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). The emotions or passions already constitute a fracturing force in Descartes’s philosophy of the cogito, as Terada notes (pp. 3, 8–9, 22–24), following Derrida.
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 25. She continues: “I am hence departing from the recent tendency to separate sensation or affect and emotion, which is clear in the work of Massumi …. Certainly, the experience of ‘having’ an emotion may be distinct from sensations and impressions, which may burn the skin before any conscious moment of recognition. But this model … negates how that which is not consciously experienced may itself be mediated by past experiences …. [E]ven seemingly direct responses actually evoke past histories, and … this process bypasses consciousness, through bodily memories” (p. 40, n. 4; cf. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, pp. 27–28). Ahmed develops this argument further in her The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 230–31, n. 1. My privileging of Ahmed over Massumi in what follows, however, rests on pragmatic rather than philosophical grounds.
Cf. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 92. For an incisive excavation of the themes of shame and shaming in the Apocalypse, but especially in its representations of the woman Babylon, see Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 14–19. Burrus’s book frequently draws on the psychological affect theory of Silvan Tomkins.
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 13. In effect, this is Ahmed’s affective restatement of E. M. Forster’s famous proto-narratological pronouncement: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot” (Aspects of the Novel [London: Edward Arnold, 1927], p. 86).
Ditmore, “In Calcutta, Sex Workers Organize,” p. 171. See also Wendy Chapkis, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), who describes sex work both as “erotic labor” and “emotional labor.” Avaren Ipsen reads biblical texts with contemporary sex workers, finding some texts to be sex-worker positive, but not the Apocalypse: “The whore metaphor is just all around bad news to prostitutes” (Sex Working and the Bible [Bible World; London: Equinox, 2009], p. 170).
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, pp. 86–87. “Like the skin that forms on milk” is an allusion to Kristeva, Powers of Horror, pp. 3–4: “When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation ….”
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 84. Many of us might well feel that we could come up with personal exceptions to Ahmed’s generalization – recalling or imagining objects so unequivocally repulsive, so abysmally awful, as to shut down any temptation to sneak a second look, touch, taste, or sniff – but her pronouncement holds true for Revelation, as we shall see.