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  • On the Impossibility of Saying "I":Epistemological paradigms and poetic paradigms in the work of Furio Jesi
  • Giorgio Agamben (bio)
    Translated by Kevin Attell

Inversive Waw

I have before me a translation of the Haggadah read during the Jewish seder, the ritual meal celebrated in the first two evenings of Pesach. Every gesture and every word of the participants, just like every element of the meal—from the matzot, the unleavened bread that recalls the sudden flight that left no time for the bread to rise, to the maror, the bitter herbs symbolizing slavery—in some way evoke an aspect, detail, or event from the day that Yahweh freed the chosen people from Egypt, the fourteenth day of Nissan, exactly 400 years after the birth of Isaac. But the festival of Pesach does not only look back to the past. According to rabbinic teaching "in Nissan they were redeemed and in Nissan they will be redeemed"; the festival also looks forward to the messianic redemption. And if it is true that for the Jews messianic time always means a conversion of past and future (which Scholem, playing upon a category of the Hebrew verb, will speak of as the "time of the inversive waw"), then the time of this festival—of every festival—entails a transformation of time in which complete and incomplete, past and future exchange roles. This is perhaps why, in April 1922, Walter Benjamin—who did not have a religious upbringing but for his whole life worked on an interpretation of messianic time—told Scholem of his desire to attend, in the home of Moses Marx, a seder "celebrated according to strict Jewish ritual."

The Anthropological Machine

Even though Jesi, for reasons we can perhaps guess, dealt with Jewish materials only marginally in his work on mythology, the question of the festival—of the time of the festival—is nevertheless of absolutely central importance to him. Indeed, in the two essays that introduce and conclude the collection La festa (1977) the festival is presented as the preeminent question for anthropology: specifically, the question of the possibility—or impossibility—of the festival, of its knowability or unknowability. Here, in a survey of the anti-festive tradition of the [End Page 1047] modern period, from Proust to Musil, not only does the festival appear as something to which we no longer have access—in Keréyni's words, something "dead, grotesque even, like the movements of dancers for those who have gone deaf and can no longer hear music"—but in the end it emerges unexpectedly in the ethnographic observation of the festival of "others" as the ethnologist's "need for a gnoseological insight into one's own "I" and its relationship with one's peers." The festive is here no longer something real, something that from its proper place—among primitives, others—comes to meet the ethnologist halfway so that he may recognize himself in them; it is, rather, the situation into which the ethnologist places the others so that he may find in them a solidarity with his peers and, at the same time, free himself from his own "I." It is not by chance that these are precisely the two texts in which Jesi fully elaborates his most characteristic epistemological paradigm: the "mythological machine." Just as there cannot be, for the scholar of myth, a substance of myth but only a machine that produces mythologies and generates the tenacious illusion of hiding myth within its own opaque walls, neither is there for the anthropologist a "universal man" who is true and real in and for himself—beyond or before the "I" of others, peers, or strangers—who would find in the festival his privileged epiphany, where "at its maximum concentration, humanness paradoxically coincides with the peak of otherness."

On Writing Novels

For Jesi, the mythological and anthropological machines are not merely epistemological paradigms. Two plans for the preface to the collection La macchina mitologica (1979) that were recovered among Jesi's unpublished papers tell us about the particular way in which he thought of his model and about the vital significance it had for him. Indeed, the machine is not a neutral paradigm situated between the...


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