Vy a Duck? Vy a Snake?

I’m finishing up my course, Intensive Biblical Hebrew. The book I use (Allen Ross, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew) gives students the chance to read real biblical Hebrew in its final chapters. It takes them through chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, and the verses in which the snake is cursed by God (3:14 and 3:15) prompted a student to ask: “Why is the Bible telling us about why snakes slither on the ground and why snakes and humans don’t get along? There surely must be something more going on here.” The student had a point, I thought. We have just been given a narrative about the origin of our shame at being naked, the very basis of our sexuality, and our becoming “like God (or like gods) knowing good and evil.” Why are we now being told a “just-so” story about snakes like the one Kipling tells about “how the leopard got his spots”? Is this just an intrusion of a folk tale or a piece of folk wisdom (snakes and humans are natural enemies) into the narrative, or can we somehow understand the human-snake relationship as constitutive of the human condition, at the same level as shame, and maybe somehow related to shame?

The student’s question reminded me of something I had just read in the New York Times about a recent discovery of 91 special neurons in the pulvinar region of the primate brain that are, evidence suggests, uniquely set up to detect snakes. The pulvinar receives messages from the eyes, and these 91 supplemental neurons in the primate pulvinar fire only when pictures of snakes are presented to monkeys in an experimental setting. (Actually, the experiments are ongoing to determine if other predator images may elicit responses from these neurons, but for the moment we can be sure that snake pictures do.) Other earlier experiments showed that snake detection by primates occurs even when the primate has never seen a snake.  The researcher who discovered the supplemental pulvinar neurons, Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at UC Davis, has argued in a 2007 book that “the vision of primates became much more powerful so that they could detect snakes lurking in the foliage” of the trees in which they spent most of their time.

So, back to Genesis. If we can say that “seeing snakes” requires the ability to distinguish the shape of an animal that conceals itself by appearing to be a branch in a tangle of leaves colored like it is colored, we can say that seeing snakes is the skill of an animal that understands dissimulation and is capable of disambiguating appearance from reality. The snake is represented in the bible as the dissimulator par excellence. In an article I wrote about nakedness, revelation, and incest (which is described as “revealing the nakedness of …”) in the bible, I argued that the snake’s capacity for duplicity is shown in the fact that he has a skin that covers his skin, in other words, a nakedness to conceal his nakedness. The duplicity of the snake is reflected in the word play in the verse where he is first introduced as “the most subtile of all the creatures of the field” (3:1). The word “subtile” is aroom (ayin, resh, waw, mem; except for the waw, all the letters are part of the root of the adjective). In the immediately preceding verse, the human pair are described as “naked and not ashamed.” The word “naked” is aroomim (ayin, resh, waw, mem, followed by the plural suffix “im”; for this word, only ayin, resh, and waw are root letters). Now while these two words are really different, they appear exactly alike in both verses, with their difference only being that one is a plural form and the other a singular form. The word play reveals the identity of the snake: ambiguously naked and therefore capable of deception, subtile. Snakiness is a matter of self-concealment. It takes not only normal vision to disambiguate the snake’s deceptive trickiness, it takes a capacity to read between the lines, or better: to read two lines together and see the word play. Being blind to the snake means that you will be taken in by appearances. After eating the tree of good and evil, the human pair’s “eyes were opened.” Now they saw each other differently, and they saw themselves through the eyes of the other: the simplicity of the body is now caught in the objectifying gaze of the other. Shame results. The question that arises when the human pair (with supplemented pulvinars) learns how to detect deception as a strategy of a predator is this: will I in turn make ambush (attack at the heel from behind) my mode of existence, or will I face the other and “cover” his/her nakedness with mine, so that our two skins become a source of mutual protection?

Friend/enemy: The snake and the human are “enemies,” says the bible. Why? Because, as the poet Theodor Daübler says, “The enemy is oneself in the shape of a question” (unsre eigene Gestalt als Frage). The snake is the human in the shape of a question: use duplicity as an opportunity for seducing/tricking the other or for being open to the other (because only a self-concealing being can be “open”).

The friend/enemy question is posed precisely by the figure whose name is derived from “heel” in Hebrew: Jacob. Jacob is “Snake-Man,” therefore: his strategies for prevailing are those of the ambusher. Except when he is “doubled” at the river “Jabok” and wrestles with “a god.” “I have seen god face-to-face,” he declares. The next day, he faces his brother and extends his hand with a gift. “Hand” and “face” and “gift’ are the repeated key words in that narrative.

And now recall the trick that Jacob plays on his blind father against his brother: putting one skin over his own to seem to be his brother.

Israel, then, becomes the human in the shape of a question, posed to itself: Is my blessing acquired by reversion to the strategy of the snake or the non-strategy of the gift of/to the face?  Israel/Snake is the condition of possibility of blessing. And that is our curse.

The Vitality of Vitalism

Let me put my claim simply: The “new materialism” is neither new nor materialism. It is, in fact, the old vitalism. Now I don’t mean to disparage the new materialism when I say this, or to position myself as some old Wise One who goes around proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. What I want to do is actually make a point that the historian of science Georges Canguilhem makes in his book,  Knowledge of Life (Fordham 2008, orig. 1965). He says that vitalism’s great flaw is its “excessive modesty.” Instead of arguing for the “originality of the biological phenomenon” as a sort of “islet” within the larger empire of the inorganic, vitalism should rather situate the “science of matter” within “the activity of the living.” So what I want to say is, let’s call the “new materialism” the “new vitalism.” When someone like Karen Barad says that matter is a “congealing of agency,” she is returning to the vitalist tradition. Everyone knows that Henri Bergson is one of the great theorists of vitalism, but there are others who have been undeservedly forgotten. There is Hans Driesch, a great embryologist who gave up research for  philosophy around 1900 and was one of the very first thinkers to link Husserlian phenomenology to a vitalist philosophy of the organic body (decades before Merleau-Ponty).  There is Helmuth Plessner, another largely forgotten figure who wrote a “philosophical anthropology” that drew on Driesch and phenomenology for an analysis of the fundamental structures of human “positionality.” And there is Hedwig Conrad-Martius, a student of Husserl who did some of the most interesting work in a phenomenological ontology of life.

So, what is my bigger point? That the new materialism is deliberately running away from its vitalist origins and therefore failing to fulfill the mission that Canguilhem held out for vitalism, which was to assert the claim of life against the machine. Canguilhem thought that “knowledge of life” had a political significance that includes but is not limited to disrupting the techno-scientific power that capitalism exploits. He says, and you can hear how Foucault was influenced by him, that vitalism is a knowledge that expresses “life’s permanent distrust of the mechanization of life.” Vitalism is a response to a “biological crisis within the human species.” Vitalism is a knowledge with revolutionary power. The new materialism runs away from this revolutionary power and embraces instead desubjectified agential matter. Barad certainly is in favor of practices that disrupt the capitalist exploitation of human biopower, but there is a danger that she thinks that matter by itself is already revolutionary. What the old vitalism of Driesch, Plessner, Conrad-Martius and Canguilhem knew was that consciousness matters. To say this is not to endorse the idea that humans are the telos of life. It is to say that the knowledge of life (in both the objective and subjective senses of “of”) is not only about unpredictable forms of  “intra-activity” but about how to release life from what Driesch called “the suffering brought on by embodiment,” the suffering of the living conscious being. Driesch spoke about the inherent yearning of all life for redemption. It is one thing to proclaim the agency of matter. It is another thing to seek redemption for the passion of the body.

On Starting to Read After Finitude

I just finished page 34 where Meillassoux has concluded his demolition of the ontological proof, but where he still wants to find an “absolute that is not an absolute entity” which can be the condition of possibility of what he calls ancestrality (a world logically prior to the intentional structure of consciousness, logically prior to the for us).   I’m obsessed with the importance of the Kantian pre-critical text On the One possible demonstration of the existence of God. Kant there looks for exactly this absolute, and it turns out not be an entity, but sheer self-positing will. 

Continue reading “On Starting to Read After Finitude

The Political Theology of Lincoln and Melville

It’s hard to think of any historical moment that more deserves political theological reflection than the American Civil War, yet a very quick Google Scholar search turns up only one book (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis) that uses the phrase “political theology” (once, in passing) in its discussion of the event. Why is the Civil War so richly deserving of entering the ranks of privileged political theological points of reference (along with Schmitt’s and Benjamin’s focus on the European Baroque with its doctrine of absolute sovereignty, or Agamben’s camp and the Musselman, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to name a few)? Consider the constellation of factors: the crisis of sovereignty, the friend-foe decision, the state of emergency, the status of the human reduced to bare life, and, not the least significant factor, the claim made by North and South to be waging a battle for the future of Christendom. And there are two texts from the period that I think deserve a place in the canon of political theological thought from Paul to Augustine, and from Hobbes to Arendt (I rank her Human Condition as one of the 20th century’s top political theological works). The great thing is that they are both short, even shorter than Epistle to the Romans. One of them is amazingly short: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other is a little longer: Herman Melville’s Supplement to his Civil War poetry collection, Battle Pieces. (Here is a PDF link to Melville’s collection; the Supplement begins on pg. 178.) I want to talk a little bit about both texts, starting with the second.

Continue reading “The Political Theology of Lincoln and Melville”

On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 4, “Christianity, Religion, and the Secular”

In this chapter, Daniel Barber exposes the logic of what could be called “universalizing supersessionism,” a logic at work in the construction of Christianity in relation to Judaism and other “religions”, and then again at work in the construction of secularism in relation to religion. Barber describes the way the logic works this way:

In each case, what is at stake is the construction not only of a position of judgment, but also of a plane of reality in which such a position becomes normative. In other words, it a matter not only of asserting the dominance of a particular position—whether Christianity or secular—but of involving this position within a broader plane of reality, such that the dominance of this particular position is mediated by its full congruence with the plane itself. (100-101).

In a quotation from Gil Anidjar in which this logic is connected with the construction of “white” as the universal, supersessionist position in the category of race, Anidjar calls “white” the “unmarked race” (111). The reference to the “unmarked” position in the category of race offers us a way to understand in other terms the nature of the logic that Barber is describing. The logic of universalizing supersessionism is deeply embedded within the very structure of language itself. Continue reading On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 4, “Christianity, Religion, and the Secular””

Announcing: Catholic Studies Position at University of Illinois

The Department of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign invites applications for a position as Visiting Assistant Professor, Visiting Lecturer or Visiting Instructor of Catholic Studies, depending on qualifications and experience, for the 2011-2012 academic year. Continue reading “Announcing: Catholic Studies Position at University of Illinois”