Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Mystical Foucault

Foucault's The Order of Things, is not only stylistically beautiful, inspiringly lucid, and downright poetic, but elegantly argued and bitingly original. The profound point in Foucault, I think, is not simply that power is always already present or that power rules through discourse and, in turn, nothing exists outside of discourse, but that power does not require a subject to wield it or an object upon which to be exercised. Power rules the ruler and the ruled alike, ruling their very possibilities of thought- their aspirations, desires, anxieties, beliefs-the whole gamut of our existence. I find this idea incredibly mystical. To me, this post-modern critique of sovereignty, tells us that there is always something else, something beyond (or between), something hidden. Power may be a post-modern rendition of Providence. And yet, like the scholastics, who found a way to reconcile providence and freedom, I see a way for us to retain some measure of autonomy in the face of Power. This autonomy comes about through action.

Theoretically, Foucault is quite accurate. The beauty, however, is that there are moments in our life, moments in history, in which we can choose! Perhaps, this too, is a myth conditioned by the microphysics of power. Or perhaps, phenomenologically, in the words of Wallace Stevens, there are things "too actual," that " any imaginings of them" become "lesser things." If Stevens and the lyric poetry tradition carve out a space free from the law of non-contradiction, we can say that in certain sublime moments "sense exceeds all metaphor," or to put it in blunt, philosophical (Levinasian) terms, (ethical) experience ruptures the Totality and brings us before the Infinite.

Some might argue that Foucault still does not allow enough room for freedom or personal choice in the common sense understanding of these terms. But, Foucault is dialectical and we should be cautious. I think that Foucault is probably one of the most dialectical thinkers I've encountered, though in a completely different way than the dialectical tradition from Hegel and Marx to Adorno. As a result of Foucault's implicit dialectic, at once apparently nostalgic for a medieval, primitive past and condemning of all human societies from time immemorial, it is difficult to pin down what role he grants to choice or freedom. If power is always constitutive of our existence, then choice seems problematically constricted. But if the conditions of power change and can be seen as progressing or, most likely, regressing, then responsibility would be implied. Take for example, the History of Madness, in which Foucault proposes a historical moment in which reason subjugated un-reason. The oppression of the insanity ward is something that modernity can be held accountable for. Holding an age accountable is no less problematic than holding a people culpable. But I don’t think Foucault is a relativist; I think he simply cautions against seeing one’s own judgment as autonomous, omniscient, atemporal. The courage to condemn is something that has to be taken on with nuance and humility. Foucault’s affected nostalgia is his attempt at critique of the present. Nostalgia and critique go hand in hand, but nostalgia seems a more tentative way of lambasting the now. The “Fall” of the Bible, like the Falls described by Foucault from an Aristotelian naïveté to a Baconian obsession with positivism and domination make up our given conditions, our “throwness.” But what Foucault and other critical thinkers aim to do is show that such Falls are not predetermined and necessary, not part of the logical progression of the World-Spirit, but moments, which in retrospect take on the appearance of necessity, and with that, cement us into narrow worldviews that can only be liberated and expanded when we rethink our origins as contingent, and thus imagine other possible worlds. Contra Leibniz (a Hegelian before Hegel), who claims this world as the best of all possible worlds, Foucault challenges us to throw our foundations into question. His critiques, however, are far less pernicious and indicting than Adorno and Horkeimer’s and I feel like his protests can have room in a liberal society, more so than orthodox Marxist critiques. For Foucault would have his own critiques of any and all societies, and in this capacity, we should not see him as “an enemy of the open society,” but as its Socratic inner voice, constantly reminding us, “know thyself.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Word of God

Just as God spoke and worlds came into being, so, when we speak, realities are born. Thus, the word of God is at once the word which comes out of the divine mouth and the word which goes into it. The word of God is at once the word emanating from the Holy One’s lips and the word ascending from our own lips about God. Revelation is not, then, God’s pure unconcealment before us, but the shared effort of God and humanity to undress each other. Just as lovers, in the midst of interpenetration, forget whose arms and legs are whose, being “flesh of one flesh,” so with God, it is impossible to know when one of us speaks, whether it is we or the Master of the Universe who says, “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land.” Even when Nietzsche told us that “God is dead,” it was hard not to hear this as the Riddle of Riddle’s own beatific statement, a revision of the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.”

Humans are the elements of God’s subconscious, while God is the mind who orchestrates and contextualizes our chaotic, finite, lives. Some of us are God’s passions, some the voice of divine reason. Some are the Merciful One’s suppressed drives; others are the Judge’s deepest anxieties. God passes through moods, and this passage means, oftentimes, our death. But God always remembers, at some point or other, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, God’s former selves. When God does, we are resurrected. Just as when we go back to our childhood home or see an ancient photograph or gaze upon a once favorite toy and excavate memories from these shards, so does the Almighty return to the deity’s former lives every time God studies the Torah!

God has never been a physically strong God. The miracles in Egypt did not come easily. God, whose image we are forbidden from depicting, is a fairly emaciated hunchback. This is why we are disallowed from crafting any idol or bobble-head of him. But there has never been a reader with such sensitivity to text as he. So magnificent are his exegetical powers, that when God stares at a page of Talmud, the letters leave the page and sing. Every now and then, God’s insights are so imaginative and compelling, that the physical universe contorts so as to make room for ideas which had been hitherto incompatible with it. Thus, in the beginning, light was only one color; there was no ROYGBIV. But when God gave the midrash of how God made a rainbow appear as a sign of his covenant that he would never destroy the world, the physical nature of light actually changed.

God’s textual abilities have not always helped us. None of the puns in God’s imagination was strong enough to put an end to the gas chambers. And sometimes God is so busy teasing out the ten thousandth meaning of a phrase that he forgets that its first meaning is “there is famine.” Still, for all God’s incapacities, we must be grateful that the book he reads is the Book of Life and that we, mere fragments of the All-Knowing, provide the horizon of meanings from which the divine draws.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The City of Refuge

What does it mean that one ought to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest? The high priest is the intermediary between the people and God. His existence affirms the connection between the High Judge and humanity. According to Philo, Special Laws III.XXIV, the high priest is the common kinsman to all members of the people Israel, ensuring justice even for those who do not have relatives to avenge their deaths.

At least two possibilities open up from these preliminary reflections.

1) The death of the high priest, that is, the death of a relative common to all parties, represents the death of a shared basis for justice. As such, the manslaughterer must be released so as not to fall victim to the arbitrariness, indefiniteness and partiality of the law, which comes into effect when human authority is thrown into question. (What happens to justice between the death of one high priest and the succession of another?) What relation can the new high priest possibly have to events which preceded his rise to power, to justice carried out under the domain of a potential rival?

2) The death of the high priest, although he will be replaced by another, represents a temporary death of God himself—in Martin Buber’s terms, an eclipse of God. In the previous interpretation, the death of the high priest represents a breach in the possibility of unanimous consent. The implicit view of justice expressed is positivist. In this interpretation, however, the death of the high priest signifies a more radical problem. We are not concerned with the practicalities of justice, but with its very essence. Without God, there can be no justice at all. Even assuming unanimous consent on the part of humans to appoint a priest/judge in their lives, without the Judge who sees all, any form of arbitration will be, to some degree, arbitrary. If, according to Buber, the Holocaust is an example of a time in which God’s face became totally hidden from the world, it is no coincidence that in Nazi Germany at large as well as in the concentration camps justice became impossible.

The high priest protects and condemns the guilty, but with his death, either as the death of a shared reference point or as the death of an absolute standard (ayn sof has no standards), the city of refuge becomes temporarily meaningless.

The life-term of the high priest, like the life-term of the Supreme Court Justice, aims at creating the space for “impartial” and fair justice system. But in the case of the high priest, this is especially so. For we know that the task of the high priest was quite dangerous and that every year on the Day of Atonement the high priest, if corrupt or unlearned, would die. In other words, in times of political and ethical turmoil, when the average life-term of the high priest was a single year, the life-sentences to the city of refuge were also quite short. For how could justice exist in a world in which the judges were themselves unjust? This, the Torah knew.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


At dawn the king awoke, but he had forgotten that he was the king. In fact, he had forgotten everything. He looked around and felt disoriented by the gold and jewels adorning his abode. He bolted frantically out of his palace, through the many gates of the royal city, until finally he arrived at the sea. The king had never seen water before and did not know what to do. When he saw the royal search party, he grew afraid, not knowing why they were after him and why they were calling him, ‘Your Majesty.’ Stepping into the sea, it parted miraculously. (The miracle was not that the sea opened up, but that it did so the very moment the king stood desperately before it). The search party followed.

The king has made it to the other side, but we remain in the split sea, unsure if we’ll be swallowed by its stark indifference or guided by its animate concern. Some hope, others believe. Many drown themselves. A few tell stories.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

History: Modern Sorcery

The following ideas come from my extended understanding of Levinas' essay, "Desacralization and Disenchantment" in Nine Talmudic Readings:

According to the Torah, one becomes impure through contact with the dead. But, because there no longer exists a temple, the whole world is impure.

Surely the prohibition against encountering the dead does not forbid us from remembering the dead. No, rather, we are disallowed from communing with the dead, from necromancy. We cannot ask the dead for advice. We cannot be weighed down, mortified, by the past. We cannot be historians.

And yet...we are. In exile, in modernity, in catastrophe, nobody is exempt, not even the high priest, from making contact with the dead, even if indirectly. To live in exile is to live in temporality, to dwell in the shadow of death.

Only in a redeemed world will we cease from our sorcerous engagement with the past. We won't have to worry about the dead, because the dead will be resurrected.

The return from death into life is the return from history into now. In redemption, all "not yets" and "no longers" are subsumed by an eternal yes.

Still, just as we are commanded to care for the dead, so we are commanded to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. The reminder of our limitations through both mitzvot, bears more meaning than redemption itself. Because, in redemption, we know God. But in history, we love God. The sages tell us that carrying out a divine commandment in this fallen world is sweeter than living care-free in heaven.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holy, Holy, Holy!

God sits on his throne in heaven, wearing purple robes and a crown so heavy as to weigh him down and make it impossible for him to move. So divine is his kingly outfit, an outfit which surely only he could don without collapsing under its great weight, that he is entrapped. From his throne, he can see only the shadows of the earth below, but not the events from whose womb they emanate. God’s rule stretches only as far as he is able to see, but seeing not much farther out of his heavenly window than we see out of our windows, God has become severely limited by his divinity. God could throw off his heavenly robes and remove his crown in order to see all and rule, once again, but doing so would immediately deprive him of the very Godliness which gives life to the possibility of seeing and ruling. For God could once again be free, but only at a price: he would cease to be.