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On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald

by Eric Santner
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006
216 pp. Paper, $20.00
ISBN: 0-226-73503-6.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology. Atlanta, GA 30332-0165


Creatures come in many different shapes and sizes, especially in the horror genre. In the Cold War era, low-budget "creature-features," there is a whole bestiary of liminal, monstrous beings —vampires, mummies, werewolves, witches, zombies, giant animals, and just plain blobs. Such creatures pose threats to the myriad boundaries that demarcate human cultural, social, and political activity (human-animal, natural-artificial, civilized-primitive, domestic-foreign, and so on). In other words, such creatures are created, and their creation implies a (sovereign) creator. In some cases the creature is a by-product of "nature," or rather, of the "revenge of nature." In other cases the creature is a more explicit creation, through occult powers (the golem), science (Frankenstein’s monster), or psychiatry (mental aberration). Creatures — those beings that appear repulsively non-human that exist in close proximity to the animal or the beast — are at the same time always created. Perhaps it is this strange "creativity" specific to creatures that at once threatens the various cultural, social, and political boundaries, and, which ultimately contributes to their re-fortification by the end of such films.

But the concept of the creature, as well as its relation to a whole set of terms — creation, creator, creativity — is not exclusive to horror film. It is, of course, a theological concept, one formulated at length in Medieval Christian theology. In the theological context, creatures are not aberrations but the domain of all that is created and living. This is also, it should be noted, a political-theological issue as well, for the relation between the creator and the created is also a relation between a sovereign power and subjects. If all creatures are created by a sovereign creator-God, then what is the relation of the creatures to God? Answering this question meant asking whether or not creatures — and in particular human creatures — contained some aspect of the divine within themselves. Do creatures take part in the singular, divine essence, or is the divine essence in each creature in its entirety? When laterally transposed to the political realm, such questions have interesting ramifications: Is sovereignty held over citizens, divided in parts among all citizens, or is sovereignty within each citizen? While few Medieval philosophers posed such questions this directly, the increasing formalization of the concept of the creature continued to be linked to ideas of political-theological sovereignty. By the time of Bonaventure and Aquinas, the derivation and dependence of creatures on a sovereign creator enabled a host of related concepts — the "Great Chain of Being," as well as the introduction of quasi-medical terminology of the "corruption," "pollution," and "pestilences" of the human creature.

Eric Santner’s On Creaturely Life deals with neither of these kinds of creatures. But this omission is itself noteworthy. The uniqueness of Santner’s book is to have articulated the contours of the space between the early modern, onto-theological creature, and the contemporary, cultural representations of the monstrous. To say that Santner’s book identifies the status of the "creaturely" in modernity only begins to get at the spaces that On Creaturely Life opens up.

In contrast to the Medieval-Christian tradition, in which the creature is always derived from and striving towards the divine, Santner focuses on a modern, German-Jewish, literary-philosophical tradition (Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, Rosenzweig, Celan), in which the creature is precisely the life that is exposed and rendered vulnerable. "For these writers…creaturely life — the peculiar proximity of the human to the animal at the very point of their radical difference — is a product not simply of man’s thrownness into the (enigmatic) ‘openness of Being’ but of his exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power and social bonds whose structures have undergone radical transformations in modernity."

In the opening sections of his book, Santner pays particular attention to the work of Rilke and Heidegger as they each engage the question of the creature. For Rilke, animals participate in what he famously calls "the open," that mode of uninhibited existence in relation to a surround. Humans, by contrast, are blocked from the open due to the mediations of consciousness, representation, and subject-object relations. Heidegger suggests that what Rilke fails to see is the way in which human beings are able to distinguish between "world" and "environment" — if animals only exist in an environment, then human beings inhabit a world in which individuated beings come to presence in their Being. Thus animals are, in Heidegger’s inimitable formulation, "poor-in-world," while humans are "world-building." Animals are captivated by a generalized exteriority to which they have no access, an "exposure to alterity" that remains opaque.

For Santner, the importance of the German-Jewish tradition he discusses is that this being "poor-in-world," this exposure to an opaque alterity, is rendered in an explicitly political light. Creaturely life is not simply animal life, and neither does it describe the dialectics of the human-animal boundary. Creaturely life is the (sovereign) creation of a poor-in-world within the domain of the human and that remains human — and yet captivated in a way that characterizes animal life.

The creature is bare life exposed before the sovereign exception. The creature is created by a sovereign creator, and creaturely life is what is in fact produced in this state of exception. If, using Heidegger’s terms, human beings are "world-building," then what is built is this exposure to an opaque sovereign power. "What I am calling creaturely life is the life that is, so to speak, called into being, ex-cited, by exposure to the peculiar ‘creativity’ associated with this threshold of law and nonlaw" (15). In a strange way, then, the "poor-in-world" that characterizes animal life is produced — created — within the human, in relation to the sovereign exception that forever remains opaque.

This process takes many different forms, and much of Santner’s literary exegeses are directed to the elucidation of creaturely life. In Kafka, for instance, the creature is subjected neither to God nor to a secular sovereign power, but to the distributed anonymity of the law, a law that is everywhere and nowhere at once (what Santner calls "sovereign jouissance"). Similarly, the contemporary German author W.C. Sebald offers an understanding of creaturely life as it is lived through the "spectral materialism" of urban spaces, discarded commodities, and media such as photography.

While Santner calls attention to the political dimensions of the ongoing creation of creaturely life, his project also aims at seeking out modes of intervening in that process — a kind of counter-creativity, "some way of uncoupling from the mode of subjectivity/subjectivization." It is in this context that Benjamin’s notion of "natural history" is central for Santner. Natural history "refers, that is, not to the fact that nature also has a history, but to the fact that the artifacts of human history tend to acquire an aspect of mute, natural being at the point where they begin to lose their place in a viable form of life (think of the process whereby architectural ruins are reclaimed by nature)."

Through Santner’s literary constellations, creaturely life is seen also to harbor within itself a form of resistance ("melancholic immersion in creaturely life and ethicopolitical intervention into that very dimension"). But it is ultimately tied up with the sovereign exception, and thus the entire pair is what must be questioned. The real dynamic in Santner’s proposition, therefore, is between memory and oblivion, and the real challenge is the dynamis of politics, a notion of change that is neither that of modernity (e.g. therapy, moving on, getting over, making progress) nor that of a critique of or dismissal of modernity (be it through nostalgia, immanent critique, or even nihilism).

On Creaturely Life will likely be read by those who have read Agamben’s Homo Sacer and The State of Exception, or Michel Foucault’s recently-published lectures at the Collège de France, or the recent translations of Carl Schmitt’s work. But I would argue that Santner’s book invites a much wider readership. The concerns of the creature presented here open onto other areas of interest, including the extensive and diverse writings on "animality," contemporary philosophy’s engagement with religion (Badiou, Taubes, Zizek), as well as the ways in which contemporary art engages the life sciences (including, but not limited to, "bio-art"). On Creaturely Life does, it is true, participates in an ongoing dialogue concerning the state of exception, sovereign power, "bare life," biopolitics, and so on. But by reframing this dialogue in terms of the creaturely, Santner asks us to think of question of sovereignty as inseparable from the question of animality, and to seek ways of critically intervening in what Agamben calls "the anthropological machine."



Updated 1st November 2006

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