Kanye West and Sketches of a Radical Theological Anthropology


Have you lost your mind?
Tell me where you think we crossed the line,
No more drugs for me,
Pussy and religion is all I need,
Grab my hand and baby we’ll live a hell of a life.

Coming out to some degree in the thudding, Sabbath-interpolating brilliance of Kanye West’s Hell of a Life is something of an elaboration of the co-implication of sex and religion and the anthropology that connects the two. “Pussy and religion is all I need.” A remarkable lyric, if ever there was one. Not “Pussy is my religion;” not “religion instead of pussy;” but both/and. West will have his “cake” and “eat it.”

One can imagine and place this both/and relation within a wider religious history, stemming from the fetishisation and pathologisation of bodies and sex organs and what is done with them, apparent in church history and its fathers (Origen, Augustine, and the like), up to the present day. This history and its theological rendering of humanity and its behaviours involves, creates, and perpetuates a subjectivity of shame, guilt, unhappiness, and repetitious and self-reinforcing failure based on a narrative of “fallen-” and sinful-ness. A narrative, it should be noted, now most commonly and neurotically applied to and associated with “promiscuity,” sexual before marriage, and masturbation.

Following a certain radical theological genealogy, we may take up and apply Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation, in his Letters and Papers, of Christians manufacturing problems to which they alone provide the answer, to this history and the anthropology it promotes.

The history of the church in regards the bodies and the practices it comes to classify as other, more than broadly fits this paradigm. The popular function of all of this is manifest with telling ease in the 2013 film Don Jon, which follows a porn-addicted, sex-obsessed man who, among many other things, regularly visits confession to be told of the number of Hail Mary’s and Lord’s Prayer’s he must carry out in repentance, following his admitting how often he masturbated and/or fornicated that week.

One is led throughout Don Jon to simultaneously ask and think, “This is stupid. Why is he doing this? Why do so many people do this?” Insofar as we might connect the two, Don Jon and West could be said to be related, as this film appears to highlight for us a certain rendering of how “Pussy and religion is all I need.” One that seems to be working itself out – via the character of Don Jon – through a weird coincidence of pride, embraced failure, and shame.

In this way, beyond Bonhoeffer, the functioning of all of this can be elucidated more clearly in Slavoj Zizek’s deployment of Jacques Lacan’s concept of the big Other. It is not just that the church has gone about the business of cynically creating problems only it can solve; but that there exists a deceptive social compact that aims to hide these problematic misbehaviours from someone who, it has been determined, should not know about them.

The problem, from a radical theological perspective, then, is not that God is more lenient than the church lets on, and the people shouldn’t know because social life would implode; it’s that the people know the secret, “the big Other doesn’t exist,” but do not wish to act upon it.

Don Jon exists within this compact. He lives without any identifiable trace of religious commitment, beyond observance of its ritual aspects. Of the church, no less can be said: there is no seriousness to its moral principles, beyond the administration of ritual. Both he and the church he visits want to hide from the big Other Jon’s moral failings – and have made it easy and formulaic. Both need God to permit and legitimate their existence and sexual escapades. Both cannot go further and accept the total responsibility admitting to the big Other’s inexistence would require – as such they have found their place within religion’s anthropological narrative and seek to enforce it.

However, to return to West, I believe here we seem to encounter some dissonance with the above compact. Unlike Don Jon, West seems unwilling to agree to the game and play it to come out on top. As he writes in a later section of Hell of a Life:

We headin’ to hell for heaven’s sake,
Well I’mma levitate, make the devil wait.

Insofar as this co-implication of “pussy and religion” exists, West seems to accept and embrace it, all the while mocking it as a cynical and deceptive set of relations, thereby throwing the legitimacy of the entire anthropological narrative into question:

Make her knees shake, make a priest faint,
Make a nun cum, make her cremate.

West appears to accept that while sex and religion have formed some sort of historical moral unity that have affected human self and ethical analysis, he is simultaneously unwilling and unable to meet the demands of this analysis. Instead, he owns his damnation, resisting it with a magical act of self-assertion/levitation.

In this way, it can be observed that the lyrics of I’m In It, from Yeezus, highlight a way by which West intends to take both us and himself beyond this religious/anthropological feedback loop:

Pop a wheelie on the Zeitgeist,
I’m gonna start a new movement,
Being led by the drums,
I’m a rap-lic priest,
Getting head by the nuns,
They don’t play what I’m playing,
They don’t see what I’m saying,
They be balling in the D-League,
I be speaking Swaghili

In this we might say that West aims to establish a new set of anthropological and unapologetically sexual relations. Insofar as language forms a boundary of what can and cannot be spoken of or imagined, and insofar as the Christian religion established one such boundary in its anthropology and sexual ethics, West appears to propose a new language, a new set of definitions, a new boundary to what should and should not be done. He aims to achieve this through a new movement of which he is the priest of all who speak “Swaghili.”

Further, on Yeezus, West has identified the basis on which this is possible: self-divinisation. A self-divinisation that is commensurate with an embrace, we might say, of the big Other’s inexistence. In his I Am a God West observes:

I am a god
Even though I’m a man of god
My whole life in the hands of god
So y’all better quit playing with god

Further claiming, in a later verse:

I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “Shit I’m chilling
Trying to stack these millions.”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high

What West sounds out here is the contours of our need to claim the responsibility and authority of divinity. West has located and taken up his position as a god in regards his celebrity. Thus, what is to be done as a furthering of this is to suggest that all claim their divinity – wherever they are. In this way, the most adequate response to West, when he writes:

I am a god,
So hurry up with my damn massage,
In a French-ass restaurant,
Hurry up with my damn croissants.

Would be to say, “No, I’ll take my god damn time!” For the anthropology advanced here is an unalienated one that is thoroughly committed to one’s desire.

As such one concludes that one does not have to levitate based on one’s perceived feelings and behaviour – the conclusion is that one was never falling. One begins to speak Swaghili and embarks upon the creation of a new free form moral, ethical, and sexual anthropology and history that rejects the fetishisation and pathologisation of bodies and sex organs and what is or is not done with them. Swaghili would then go beyond banal warnings regarding “promiscuity” and the like, endorsing a new anarche ethics of responsibility that forms itself as each engages in a sociality of interactive self-determination.

In this way, the “pussy and religion” dialectic is negated, with the cancellation of religion; in the name of an undifferentiated, radically theological, anthropological self-understanding.