By Jan Rabinowicz
Shia Labeouf appears to be davening, bending forward at the waist first to one side, then to the other, chanting along with a crowd of people massed in front of what seems to be a surveillance camera, “He will not divide us. He will not divide us. He will not divide us…”
At the moment I’m not aware that I’m looking at a (Jewish-identifying!) movie star, or that this is the surprise kickoff for the Albuquerque run of the eponymously titled performance art piece, the latest in a series of collaborations between Labeouf, British artist and writer Luke Turner, and Finnish artist Nastja Ronkko. I’m here because of an emergency protest responding to the ICE raids, the looming deadline at Standing Rock, and the whole rising tide of swiftly-multiplying horrors we’ve become so quickly used to imbibing over our morning coffee. I’m just registering as one more surreal fact that the star of Transformers has inspired a resistance slogan in this badly-scripted dystopian ’90s sci-fi movie we seem to be living in now.
We shouldn’t let the crude mis-directions of the powerful hypnotize us into the temporality of “guess what, now what.” The election was not some incomprehensible catastrophe out of the wild blue yonder, but the consummation of a long decline. All of the invective had been heard before (more or less coded), all of the tactics had been applied elsewhere in his empire of gold-plated fakery. The one substantial truth he uttered, against taboo, was that the system as we know it is already crashing.
Telling one truth doesn’t mean the solutions proposed aren’t just as much as gibberish as the competing fascisms swarming in its wake, but it does beg the question of just how deeply rooted the crisis is.
“He will not divide us” – what exactly does this linguistic gesture accomplish? I thought of a diagram I saw a young Diné philosopher chalk on a board recently to express, as he saw it, a basic difference between the worldviews of his ancestral culture, and of the culture that had marched his ancestors to the Bosque Redondo death camp. To one side, the Diné cosmos: a stick figure inside four nested circles, humanity within the all-encompassing structures of existence; on the other, the Western: a stick figure alongside a circle; not the body but humanity ‘itself’ next to, outside of, the world.
This worldless human, the protagonist of the West and its epic history of brutality, is necessarily individual, first of all, since other people are found in the world. It could not have acquired the prominence the Enlightenment first formally claimed for it without having been first empirically produced in the destruction of traditional cultures, in the separation of peoples from their traditions and homelands.
This fundamental separation can be mapped onto all differences, from which it follows that the ‘generic’ human individual that Western civilization takes as its basis has always been by default European/’white’, male, heterosexual, etc., biases hidden by its universal projection. In this paradigm, duality is always read in terms of an absolute Other who must be destroyed, a hateful urge all the more frantic for the fundamental ambivalence it betrays: the protagonist must conquer the Other completely, but without Others, without everything stolen from them over centuries of colonization, who could he even imagine himself to be?
Our ancestors wrote their land on the skin of a deer and bore it with them as their law. Its earliest section tells of two trees, a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death, that have structured the world since the beginning. What the people said to each other was that the two trees were really two sides of one Tree whose branching structure underlies everything.
Everything faces in two directions, everything powerful can harm as well as help, and everything must be brought into balance: this basic tenet organizes the traditional metaphysics of Judaism, of the Diné, of nearly every society besides the capitalist culture that has colonized the globe.
“He” – the singular, patriarchal subject, the protagonist of Western civilization, brutally gripping a tottering throne – “will not divide us” – cannot fundamentally rend the plural, polymorphous existence that we necessarily already are, the whole flux of being from which we only occasionally step out as individuals.
The individual subject does not float outside the world in a void, but in a sea of words, ideas and opinions, which he keeps firmly on his side of the great divide. Perhaps this is why he lies so shamelessly; it is his ‘free speech’, his ‘locker-room talk’, his online echo chamber.
Our tradition teaches that the world was spoken into being and that the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are as fundamental to the structure of reality as we know it as modern physics understands the ‘fundamental dimensionless constants’ (which most physicists now agree number somewhat less than 25) to be in shaping the cosmos.
The Talmud warns against malediction: “One does not open one’s mouth to the Adversary.” In what colonizers regarded as childish gullibility, there are many tragic stories of indigenous people totally blindsided by white men’s lies, shocked that anyone would just stand there and lie to their face like that, as if the whole world couldn’t hear them.
Our tradition teaches the long view. Subject and object, linear history and cyclical myth, idea and substance, are warp and woof of an infinite fabric. The artist-activists may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope: they rightly set the symbolic gesture back into the world, which I would sooner take as the starting point of a renewed hermeneutics of power and representation than as another pretense to project our images into the world.
Let’s take them at their word, though. The Narrow Place is the empire of division; the Messiah to which Pesach tradition repeatedly alludes is not an individual, but the human figure of awakening from the long nightmare of history. With kneading bowls wrapped under our cloaks, with plagues of death, darkness and blood sweeping over the land, let’s prepare our own Exodus.