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  • Read Yourself!The Griffn Condition on the Day before the Last Day
  • Kathleen Biddick (bio)

Biopolitical Reading Machines

In his introduction to Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a skilled scholar of Greek and Latin, unexpectedly rendered a well-known Latin maxim, nosce ipsum (know yourself), as an English imperative: read yourself! The printer used italic font to set off the Latin and its English translation typographically. In other words, this imperative, "to read," mattered optically.1 Some 350 years later, in his critical study of biopolitical reading machines, The Open: Man and Animal (2004), Giorgio Agamben evocatively returned to this imperative of Hobbes and implicated it with the optical machines of the time.2 According to Agamben, such optical machines induced Carolus Linnaeus (1707–78), a generation after Leviathan, to view the species Homo as merely a diffraction of an ape and to relegate Homo to the order of the primate (to, 27). Click, it's an ape; click, it's a human.

As a medieval historian unfamiliar with the kinds of early modern optical machines to which Agamben alludes, I sought out an [End Page 77] example for study in the mathematical impresario, Jean François Niceron (1613–46), a contemporary of Hobbes. During his exile in Paris, Hobbes had access to Niceron's salon, where he entertained visitors with shows of his anamorphic images. Hobbes also knew Niceron's published treatise (1638), which featured plates illustrating the diffractions.3 Further, we know that Hobbes mobilized Niceron's mathematics in his analysis in Leviathan.4

It surprised me to observe that Niceron's anamorphic machines worked just like a mechanized, souped-up version of Christian typology, the dominant reading protocol from late antiquity, which enjoyed its heyday in medieval Western Christendom across different public and academic media (manuscript illumination, stained-glass windows, sculptural ensembles, civic plays, university textbooks). Christian typology posits the theological supersession of the Christian church over Israel. The Hebrew Bible and the Jew become a "type," fulfilled by the "figure" of the Christian Gospel and Christ. Jews thus become the "dead letter"—zombies that can only be vivified by their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The superimposition of the type (Jew) and figure (Christian) clicks into messianic time.5

Niceron constructed one of his most spectacular anamorphic images along such typological protocols. His sixteen views of the Ottoman sultan's head comprised fragments that resolved into the image of King Louis XIII (1601–43). The Muslim "dead heads" are fulfilled in the Christian king. Put another way, the optical machine spat out Muslims. As scholars of Christian typology have incisively demonstrated, however, this typological wheel of fortune can spin counterclockwise,6 meaning that the Christian king would be the dead head and the Muslim sultan his fulfillment. I think that it is precisely this potential of typological reversibility that manifests in Agamben's anxious discussion of Linnaeus, who intuited the undecidability of typology, and thus humans, supposedly the fulfillment of apes, could also be their dead heads. What decides such threatening typological undecidability? It is only the theological belief in supersession: Christians fulfill Jews, humans fulfill apes.7

Agamben's uncanny entanglement in such Christian typological thinking and its belief in supersession of Christians over Jews surfaces in his lament over historical reading machines, such as those, [End Page 78] he contends, operated by Hobbes and Linnaeus. He accuses (rightly) how these historical reading machines spat out the Jew, the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, "figures of an animal in human form" (to, 37), and yet, caught in the mechanical thrall of typological reading, he passes over the Muslim. In intoning a litany of the detritus of Western reading machines, the gears of Agamben's own typological reading grind like Kafka's sewing machine and start reinscribing what Gil Anidjar has called "the dividing lines of the theological-political … that finds its source in medieval Christian theology."8

The violently constructed divides of the Abrahamic, to which Anidjar refers, come into view when we remind ourselves of crucial thresholds in forging sovereignty in medieval Western Christendom. In 1063 Pope Alexander II declared that Catholics could spill the blood of Muslims without pollution of blood or...


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