Giorgio Agamben’s Fable, or the Crib as a Historical Gesture – Take 2


What is the relationship of man to animal?  And what distinguishes man from animal.  This is a question which has interested philosophers since Aristotle who argued, in the opening book of the Metaphysics, that animals and men both have sensation and memory; but there is one key difference: man has the capacity for “experience” and lives by way of “the art of reasoning.”  Aristotle also notes that man differs from animal because, while animals may communicate, they do not have language (speech).

Giorgio Agamben is very interested in the relationship of man to animal.  We see this especially in his book The Open: Man and Animal.  We also see this concern in the essay I have been discussing “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib” (in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience).  For Agamben, the key to understanding the relationship between man and animal can be understood by way of a reading of the crib.  It relates to what Agamben calls man’s “decisive gesture”(142).  This gesture, it seems, separates man from animal.  It is a “historical gesture”(142).

Agamben articulates this difference by first quoting “Matthews Bible.”  He notes that to this bible “we owe the entry of the ox and ass into the iconography of the nativity.”  After this preface, he cites Matthew “The ox knows its master and the ass the manger of the Lord.

According to Agamben, this quote was the scriptural source for “one of the earliest descriptions of the crib” by Saint Ambrose who “counterposes the whimpering of the God-child, which is heard, with the silent lowing of the ox who recognizes his Lord.”  Agamben’s words suggest that both man and animal are making infantile sounds.  And this suggests that, in infancy, they are the same.  There whimpering and lowing sounds cling to silence. And, lest we not forget, this is a silence before the Lord.  This is what Agamben wants us to hear.

But he takes this mystical reading, which his words suggest, and suggests something else; namely, all in the nativity scene are secularized:

Objects, which enchantment had animated and made strange, are now returned to the innocence of the inorganic and stand besides man as docile implement and familiar tools. (142)

Following this, Agamben names all of the animals that can be found in fables (“talking hens, ants and birds, the goose who lays a golden egg, the donkey who shits money, etc”) and argues that “the crib must release all this from its spell.”  In other words, the Nativity Crib disenchants fable (even though fables continued on for centuries after the first nativity scene).   The crib makes them all into simple objects, things: “as food, merchandise or instruments…nature and inorganic objects are bundled up on the market stall”(142).

Man and animal are all disenchanted by the crib and the crib aids the spread of the economic function and capital.  However, Agamben doesn’t let the secularization of man be taken over entirely by the economic function.  He has us now behold “man.”

Man, too, whom the spell of the fairy tale had removed from his economic function, is now recognized to it with an exemplary gesture: the decisive gesture that severs the human world of the crib from that of the fairy tale. (142)

Agamben traces two genealogies to the crib: 1) the genealogy of the disenchantment that ends in things and 2) the disenchantment that ends in man and history.

To be sure, Agamben sees the “Nativity Crib” as the “decisive” historical gesture.  Regardless of why he would choose this as the decisive historical gesture, there is another problem.  Does the “historical gesture” take one out of the crib?  To be sure, Agamben says that the gesture is the crib.  Man, therefore, would be the gesture of the crib.  Agamben seems to be telling us that we, man, can’t totally leave the crib.  Man may enter history by way of the crib, but he can’t leave that gesture behind as it gives birth to historical man from his infancy.

This is the problem.

I will return to it in the next blog because, it seems that the man-animal relation hinges on his being in the crib.   That would imply that man is man so much as a man-child and not just man-animal. This is a point that Agamben doesn’t make explicit for reasons we will ponder in the next blog entries on this topic.   For, Agamben, the infant and the animals lull and whimper but they don’t laugh; and neither, it seems, does Agamben’s historically-decisive-gestural-nativity-crib-man.

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