Some Seasonal Thoughts on the Passion of Torture: A Response to Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World

The first response in our book event on Adam’s The Prince of This World is by Bruce Rosenstock, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I’m beginning to write my response to Adam Kotsko’s wonderful new book, The Prince of This World, in the midst of my preparations for Passover, Pesach in Hebrew. It’s one of the strange coincidences of our so-called Judeo-Christian heritage that the Septuagint transliterates Pesach as Pascha, creating a proper name with the accidental appearance of having a root in Greek, found in the verb paschein and the noun pathos, meaning “suffer” (Latin patior -> passio). Although Pesach in Hebrew is derived from the verb pasach, to skip or limp, and has nothing to do with suffering, there is nonetheless a clear thematic connection between the festival of Passover and suffering: the “cry” of the Israelites under the lash of the Egyptian taskmasters reaches God and prompts his redemptive response. pid_23793The Book of Exodus does not represent the suffering of the slaves as a punishment, nor does it seem intended to have an educative purpose. To be sure, the Book of Deuteronomy does enjoin Israel to remember their historic suffering in Egypt when, every Sabbath, Israel releases slaves and animals from their painful burden of forced labor. Prompted by his “knowledge of the soul [nefesh] of the slave,” the Israelite householder was supposed to imitate the redemptive action of God. He was supposed to lift rather than assume the burden of pain. Suffering, in other words, was not thought to be in itself redemptive. Action, not passion, redeems. That, arguably, is the message of Passover. The rabbis mentioned in the Haggadah as spending the whole night recounting the Exodus were, in fact, plotting an action against the Romans, one whose end was to lead to the martyrdom of the most famous member of the that group, Rabbi Akiba. His skin was flayed by iron combs (pectines). This is a point that Adam makes: action and passion reverse redemptive valences when the human body is unmade through the machinery of torture. This is the theme that I want to develop in my comments.

Adam’s first chapter traces the transformation from suffering as only prompting God’s redemptive action to suffering as necessary for redemption. The first stage in this transformation sees suffering as a necessary correction or punishment for Israel’s disobedience. After undergoing a time of suffering, Israel earns redemption. This is what Adam calls the “prophetic paradigm.” The second stage in the transformation sees suffering as so extravagantly out of proportion with any conceivable prior act of disobedience that its only possible meaning is to prompt a divine response that brings about the final redemption of Israel. This is the “apocalyptic paradigm.” In this paradigm, suffering becomes not merely necessary for redemption, it becomes the sine qua non of redemption, the voluntarily assumed means for “storming the Kingdom.” Israel’s “saints” (as the book of Daniel refers to them) expose themselves to painful disfigurement and torture in the conviction that their bodies will “shine in splendor like the stars,” restored to them as (or in) glorious garments of light. Meanwhile, their torturers will suffer bodily torments far exceeding those that they themselves were forced to endure. Adam argues persuasively that the image of the Devil in the West emerges at this time, in this fantasy of torture-induced bodily glorification. On the one hand is the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, the self-styled “Epiphany” of God on earth. He is the original master of torture and rebel against God. On the other hand are the “saints of the Most High.” It doesn’t matter whether these Torah-observant Jews really suffered the kinds of torture that are recounted in the First and Second Books of Maccabees. The suffering of these pious Jews was cast as part of drama of bodily torture that shaped not only the ensuing theological imagination of the West, but its political imagination as well. What Adam shows is that we continue to live under the spell of torture. Torture has become the business of the West. The Antiochus/Devil figure begins by designing forms of torture that are perverse parodies of the Temple sacrifice (fiery pans to roast the living flesh of the saints), but by the end of the political-theological drama we find that it is God who keeps the flames of torture stoked. In the great epic of late medieval Christianity, the Inferno, Dante presents us with tableaux of bodily torture that provide a backdrop to the beatific vision of the saints’ paradisiacal existence. After the Last Judgment, when redemptive action is no longer called for, the only remaining divine action is, Adam tells us, torture. Secularizing this realm does not remove the reality of torture; it only installs it as the energy driving the apparently automatic pilot of history, the causa sui of the capitalist production-consumption machine. Giorgio Agamben, Adam reminds us, traces a line from the heavenly “glory” of God and the transfigured saints to the glory of the “sphere of public opinion” where, for example, the (phallic-)Mother of All Bombs is the icon of a new Pax Americana.

It is on a positive note, surprisingly, that Adam ends his melancholy though brilliant and erudite narrative of how the Devil’s role of master torturer comes to be played by God Himself. Adam writes about the resistance to torture that remains an unmasterable remainder within the living and suffering body of the tortured human being. This unmasterable remainder is, from the divine torturer’s perspective, only “unruly” and “demonic.” But, Adam writes, the unmasterable remainder that exists within the tortured body, so long as it continues to breathe, “is the ungovernable power of life itself” (192). Adam’s final pages suggest that we in the West who are complicit in operating the machinery of torture have the resources to imagine a world that is not built on the necessity of suffering. We do not need to believe that our redemption requires that somewhere someone is being tortured. Redemption only requires faith in the “the ungovernable power of life itself.” We may wish to call this a faith in the passionless resurrection of the body. (Here is where Adam makes his most powerful intervention against Agamben’s torturocentric, if I may be excused the ugly neologism, theology of inoperativity.)

Quite understandably, Adam ends his book not with a fully worked-out theology, but with a call to imagine other paths toward redemption, perhaps even one that may include the Devil himself. (I would encourage Adam to write about P.K. Dick’s amazing retelling of the Exodus, The Divine Invasion, as one version of this.) Adam does not claim to be a theologian, and neither do I. But I would like to think along the lines that Adam suggests in his final pages. In particular, I want to build on his suggestion that “the ungovernable power of life itself” may be the site of resistance to the regime of torture that seems to have warped the history of the Christian West and whose origin lies in the persecution of the “saints” under Antiochus Epiphanes. To do justice to the imbrication of biblical monotheism, redemption that is dependent upon the torture of the human body, and “the ungovernable power of life itself,” we would need, first of all, to more fully understand the meaning of divine embodiment in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps it is here that the “power of life itself” most consequentially reveals itself as, in its essence, the redeemer of the body in pain. If so, then Adam’s history traces the logic of a reversal so profound as to constitute an assault on life itself. I take it that this is the point Adam wants to make.

Despite its strictures against graven images, the Hebrew Bible and the prophets speak of God as a being fully able to experience bodily suffering. I mentioned God’s redemptive response to the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. To hear and respond to the cry of the sufferer is to be vulnerable to at least to the imagination of pain. The prophets take God’s vulnerability to pain much further. This topic has been addressed famously in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets as “the pathos of God.” Heschel, however, does not go so far as to make corporeality one of the predicates of the God of the prophets. It is perhaps tempting to say that this is the peculiar innovation of Christianity and its equation of Jesus as both tortured paschal lamb (in a parodic inversion of the sacrifice whose infliction of death was intended to be swift and painless) and agent of redemption. From then on, the passion-action binarism flips vertiginously back and forth across Roman instruments of torture, the cross being only one, until the torturer is a bloodless God and the tortured body is the Devil immobilized in Hell. This is the story that Adam so ably tells, but it leaves both the action and the passion of torture somewhat hanging in the air, so to speak. Adam does try to bring it back to real bodies in history by connecting it to the “racialization of humanity” (141) that turns the slave, Aristotle’s “living tool,” more machine than sentient organism, into a body born only to suffer the heavy weight of tortured corporeality. But if the “ungovernable force of life itself” has a role to play in this story, it cannot only serve as the bare, blank page on which is inscribed the emblems of a political theology whose roots lie in a provincial Temple-state of the declining Seleucid empire. We need to consider the possibility, hinted at by Adam in places throughout the book, that the story is about life and the consciousness of life as it comes to expression in the human being.

Here is where I am going: I would like to suggest that the conjoined themes of God’s corporeality and the tortured human body deserve a wider contextualization, one suggested by Adam’s own reference to “the ungovernable force of life itself.” Whether Adam is willing to acknowledge it or not (I think he would), this language inherits a vitalist tradition that has been most insightfully studied by the historian of science George Canguilhem. Canguilhem argued that there has been a tendency in the modern world to interpret life on the model of the machine and that all such efforts flounder on the fact that the machine is, in fact, a prosthesis of the living body. The living body is not even a “cybernetic” structure, with a “governing” (related to “kybernos” in Greek) center keeping the organism in homeostatic balance. The organism knows “tricks” or “artifices” [Greek mechanai] that are not preprogrammed. The organism, one might say, has incalculable “degrees of freedom.” Vitalism, Canguilhem argues, responds to the reversal of values between organism and machine, whenever the machine takes precedence over the organism and provides the explanatory framework for understanding the living being. But Canguilhem takes his analysis of the historical roots of vitalism even further than this. He argues that vitalism itself is part of the human organism’s repertoire of artifices by which it interacts with its environment. The many different expressions of vitalism in the modern period “translate life’s permanent distrust of the mechanization of life.” Vitalism, Canguilhem argues, is life itself trying to “put mechanism back into its place within life” (Knowledge of Life, 73). He claims that vitalism inspires the conception of natura medicatrix, that is, the idea that in a time of emergency (disease) life itself has the power to meet the new exigencies threatening the body. Vitalism is faith in life’s self-healing powers. “Vitalism is the expression of the confidence the living being has in life, of the self-identity of life within the living human being conscious of living” (Knowledge of Life, 62). Canguilhem does not make the connection explicitly, but it is clear that vitalism is, in its very nature, “faith in the unseen.” Since Canguilhem proposes that vitalism takes many expressions and is a permanent feature of human self-consciousness, my suggestion is that we read the Hebrew Bible as a vitalist text. Like Henri Bergson or Hans Driesch, to name two of the twentieth century’s premiere vitalists, the authors of the Hebrew Bible sought to overthrow the primacy of the manufactured artifice (the graven image as model of God) over the creative artificer (inimitable by any rule-governed technique). One can certainly understand Schelling’s project in his Philosophy of Revelation as an attempt to offer a vitalist biblical theology. But I think that Schelling’s vitalism has been too profoundly colored by the action-passion dialectic of torture to offer us a reliable way forward.

Far more relevant than Schelling, I think, for any attempt to offer a vitalist alternative to the action-passion dialectic of a theology based upon torture (i.e., the tendency of divine redemptive action in response to torture to invert into a permanent agent of torture) is the work of Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain. Most people who are familiar with the work have read the first “Unmaking of the World” part of the book. Fewer have read the book’s second part, the “Making of the World,” where Scarry offers a brilliant and innovative vitalist reading of the Hebrew Bible. Scarry does not describe herself as a vitalist, but she draws significantly from the vitalist tradition. Her most fundamental claim is that technology and the artifact are responses to the exigencies of the pain-prone living body. The chair relieves the body of the burden of supporting the body’s weight; clothing and shelter protect the body against the rigors of cold. This conception of technology as the projection or objectification of the pain-prone organism into a remedial prosthesis goes back, as Canguilhem explains, to the late nineteenth-century philosopher Ernst Kapp and his Philosophie der Technik. (Canguilhem, of course, did not know Scarry’s work, and Scarry does not refer to Canguilhem, but the points of overlap suggest she at least shared a knowledge of works like Kapp’s and others in the philosophy of technology.) Scarry links this theory of the artifact/tool as an “organic projection” with the phenomenological theory of consciousness as always object-oriented (i.e., intentional). Pain, she argues, deprives consciousness of its intentional structure by “engulfing” it within its own overmastering bodily reality. (The same argument was made earlier by Kurt Goldstein in his phenomenological philosophy of medicine, The Organism, a text to which Canguilhem reverts on numerous occasions.) The recuperation of consciousness’s outward-turning intentional structure takes place through imagining a healing artifact. Pain, in other words, prompts redemptive action. The mediator of redemption is the empathic imagination. The artifact is the expression of human imagination as the vehicle of Canguilhem’s natura medicatrix.

This vitalist phenomenology of pain and the healing imagination may not seem like fertile ground for reconceptualizing a theology beyond the passion-action dialectic of torture. But it is precisely to break free of our culture of torture (Scarry’s first part of The Body in Pain reveals the near universality of torture as a means for giving reality to the illusion of power that many political regimes depend upon) that Scarry offers her reading of the Hebrew Bible. Scarry argues that the God of the Hebrew Bible is one of the human imagination’s greatest artifacts (she calls him the Prime Artifact). The God of the Hebrew Bible is the artifice in which the imagination does not merely project a healing power corresponding to one or another pain-prone organ of the body. The God of the Hebrew Bible is the power of healing corresponding to the pain-prone human body in its entirety. In projecting a bodiless God, the human imagination has created a perfect embodiment of itself, that is, redemptive consciousness awakened to action by pain. In Scarry’s analysis, the New Testament is not merely built as a renarration of the major events of the Hebrew Bible—creation, exile, rescue, as she says—but a refocalizing of it in its entirety. The New Testament is a retelling of the Hebrew Bible “from the point of view of sentience” (Body in Pain, 217). Scarry’s analysis may sound at first supercessionist, but it is the very opposite. It asserts that there is only a single story, the story of the empathic imagination of the sentient human itself, told from two perspectives. Scarry concludes that by “authorizing” human sentience and the human imagination as the source of creation and rescue (when God becomes Man) the New Testament, more directly than the Hebrew Bible, “invites humanity to recognize themselves as, although created, simultaneously creators” (Body in Pain, 217). Whereas this invitation is certainly a liberation of the healing imagination, it can also function as “the license to remake sentience to be free of the original limitations of mortality” (Body in Pain, 219), a particular temptation in the context of the realized eschatology which frames the New Testament. The attempt to remake sentience to be free of its pain-prone corporeal limits is only possible through torture. Let me explain.

Inspired by Scarry’s reading of the Hebrew Bible, I have suggested that it can be viewed as a vitalist text in the line of Canguilhem’s “knowledge of life.” (One might recall that, in fact, “knowledge” in the Hebrew Bible is a vital action and not an abstract modeling of an object; indeed the primary goal of this vital knowing is the “living God.”) The Bible’s strictures against graven images are intended to protect what Canguilhem calls the “exigency” of life, that is, its unpredictable capacity to respond to pain in moments of crisis. No fixed representation can render “the ungovernable force of life itself.” The imaginative power of consciousness has its source in life’s exigency and cannot be technologized. To attempt to technologize life is tantamount to driving it back into its source, holding its power at bay. This assault upon life is necessarily an assault upon the imagination, or upon God if we use the language of the Hebrew Bible. And the assault upon the imagination/God can only succeed if living human consciousness is deprived of its intentional structure by first reducing consciousness to a single, objectless experience: pain. Then at some ecstatic moment of transfiguration, pain itself disappears together with pain-prone sentience. Sentience is wholly absorbed into the instrument of torture. Describing the scene of torture, Scarry writes: “Absolutely everything but the prisoner himself stands present as a weapon, and ultimately he, too, is assimilated into the perceptual strategies of agency” (Body in Pain, 45). Torture is the attempt to replace living consciousness with a machine. Descartes believed that no one would respond to the cries of a machine, and therefore no one should feel obligated to relieve an animal’s pain, as Derrida points out in his own vitalist manifesto, The Animal that Therefore I Am. When Scarry says that the eschatological refocalization of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament provides the license to “remake sentience to be free of the original limitations of mortality,” she is saying that the primary means for “unmaking” the world of a sentient being—torture—is the necessary means for “remaking” a sentience no long subject to pain. The martyr may hope for a transfigured and glorious new body, but today we imagine posthuman cyborgs, whether in dystopic or utopian forms, as our future. Hell or Heaven, as Adam points out, it makes no difference: it is the same perversion of the empathic imagination whose authentic purpose is not to desensitize sentience but to respond to it. I give Scarry the last word, commenting on the scene of another, earlier preparation for Passover:

The scriptural attribution to God of a body confers spiritual authority on human sentience but conversely requires that human sentience becomes authoritative: the Jesus who cries to his disciples in the garden, “Could you not watch one hour” (Mark 14:37) and who in these final scenes asks them to “see better” and to know what it is they “touch,” is a God asking for heightened, more acute, more responsible acts of perception. If the exquisite acuity now required of the senses has something in common with hurt, it is not in the passivity of hurt that they are to discover him, for he continually heals their hurt. Sentience is no longer the passive surface on which the weapon’s power of alteration inscribes itself but is instead relocated to the other, active end of the object and becomes responsible for controlling and directing that power of alteration. In this shift [the very opposite of the one that Adam traces—Bruce], weapon becomes tool [swords beaten into plowshares—Bruce], sentience becomes active, pain is replaced by the willed capacity for self-transformation and recreation, and the structure of belief or sustained imagining is modified into the realization of belief in material making. (The Body in Pain, 220; emphasis added)

(Begun on the day before Pesach, concluded on the day before Easter.)


Bruce Rosenstock, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

4 thoughts on “Some Seasonal Thoughts on the Passion of Torture: A Response to Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World

  1. Thanks for this characteristically thoughtful and fascinating response, Bruce. I will try to put together something more worthy of your intervention later on, but for now I’m really intrigued by the way you are connecting me with the vitalist tradition, which I come by very indirectly at best. The original version of the “ungovernable force of life itself” argument actually connected the souls in hell to the psychoanalytic theory of the drives, and the more proximate source of the current version was Weheliye’s critique of Agamben from the perspective of black studies. Somehow the vitalist tradition is not something I have engaged with, more out of the contingencies of my reading habits than out of any real disagreement or disinclination. Now I see that I probably should dig in a little more.

  2. Yes, I like Weheliye’s critique very much. He actually refers to Scarry, but criticizes what he takes to be her claim that the tortured body is deprived of language, and thus he puts her in the Agamben camp as silencing the flesh. I don’t think Scarry needs to be read that way. I’d like to hear more about the role of the theory of drives that you want to draw upon. Anyway, I look forward to further engagements.

  3. Scarry is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never got around to — you’ve prompted me to move it up on my list.

    I’m not sure that the psychoanalytic drives are exactly the right point of reference, which was why it didn’t make it into the main text of the book, but what I like is the unruliness and inherent unmanageability. Every functional psychic structure is a more or less workable truce among the various drive formations, one that can always break down — for Freud, there is no “normal” psychic structure, just more or less functional or adaptive pathologies. This influences the way that I am talking about political theology in more recent work: politics and theology are homologous because they are both attempting to fix an unfixable problem.

  4. I know that vitalism makes some people worry about reifying some purposive “entelechy” at work in the unruly phenomena of life. Certainly, Deleuze’s vitalist impulse is designed precisely to resist the teleological capture of life. The vitalism that I find in Scarry is grounded on a concept of the exorbitance of life, that is, the over-abundance of proliferating structures that cannot be captured either by teleology or mechanism. Her analysis of the “internal structure of the artefact” emphasizes the excess of the artefact over the mere labor of its production and the possibility of its re-use over time and by many different agents. (She links this with a Marxist understanding of labor power). This artefactual structure is the embodiment of the imagination, itself a power to objectify the human living being in shareable forms of expression (words and deeds). If we think about Freud as himself inheriting vitalist biology, then his Eros is perhaps his way to capture this exorbitance.

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