The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor

The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor

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In The Labor of Job, the renowned Marxist political philosopher Antonio Negri develops an unorthodox interpretation of the Old Testament book of Job, a canonical text of Judeo-Christian thought. In the biblical narrative, the pious Job is made to suffer for no apparent reason. The story revolves around his quest to understand why he must bear, and why God would allow, such misery. Conventional readings explain the tale as an affirmation of divine transcendence. When God finally speaks to Job, it is to assert his sovereignty and establish that it is not Job’s place to question what God allows. In Negri’s materialist reading, Job does not recognize God’s transcendence. He denies it, and in so doing becomes a co-creator of himself and the world.

The Labor of Job was first published in Italy in 1990. Negri began writing it in the early 1980s, while he was a political prisoner in Italy, and it was the first book he completed during his exile in France (1983–97). As he writes in the preface, understanding suffering was for him in the early 1980s “an essential element of resistance. . . . It was the problem of liberation, in prison and in exile, from within the absoluteness of Power.” Negri presents a Marxist interpretation of Job’s story. He describes it as a parable of human labor, one that illustrates the impossibility of systems of measure, whether of divine justice (in Job’s case) or the value of labor (in the case of late-twentieth-century Marxism). In the foreword, Michael Hardt elaborates on this interpretation. In his commentary, Roland Boer considers Negri’s reading of the book of Job in relation to the Bible and biblical exegesis. The Labor of Job provides an intriguing and accessible entry into the thought of one of today’s most important political philosophers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822392019
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/24/2009
Series: New Slant: Religion, Politics, Ontology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 503 KB

About the Author

Antonio Negri was formerly professor of political science at the universities of Padua and Paris VIII. He is the author of many books. Those available in English include Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State and The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics. Matteo Mandarini is a lecturer in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London. He has translated books and essays by Negri including Time for Revolution. Michael Hardt is Professor of Literature and Italian at Duke University. He and Negri are the authors of Multitude and Empire. Roland Boer is Research Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is the author of Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes, also published by Duke University Press.

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The Labor of Job

The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor

By Antonio Negri, Matteo Mandarini

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Bayard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9201-9


The Difference of Job

1 The Immeasurableness of the World

Is Job so far from modern metaphysics and rationalism as to be related to the problematics of contemporary humanity only via ideas of the "untimely," of mystery, and of irrationality? Some interpreters think so. Guido Ceronetti, for example, poses the question of the current relevance of Job and of Spinoza. In the appendix to his translation of the book of Job, Ceronetti affirms that Spinoza considered Job as alien to metaphysics (that is, to modern rationalism) as he might have considered Ariosto to be. It is not so. Certainly, to Spinoza Job is remote and speaks a barbarous language: "Ibn Ezra asserts in his commentary that it was translated into Hebrew from another language and that this is the cause of its obscurity." But acknowledging such a remoteness is quite different from implying that Job has an alien conception of being! To begin, in Spinoza there is nothing like the profound antipathy toward Job the blasphemer that characterizes the rabbinic tradition. There is, of course, a substantial difference between the two great authors of Judaism, but not one that can be summed up in the distinction between the ancient and the modern, the mythical and the rational. This difference concerns only the form of the movement of being, not its foundation, nor its tendency, nor our destiny. Let us pursue the question of this difference then. In all probability things will become clearer. Firstly, the book of Job is a provocation against the seduction of reason, the insolence of knowledge, and the euphoria of ethics—whatever the motives underlying them. Spinoza's thought, on the other hand, is touched by this powerful surface (the enchantment of being's power, the innocence of the highest egotism, a certain quiet Prometheanism, the faith in the great passion as a good in itself—"all this smells even more of Spinoza," says Nietzsche). Secondly, Job's world does not have the same metaphysical shell as that of Spinoza—that is, a flat surface of an extremely powerful substrate that is always on the edge of overflowing but that is always held back. Job, on the other hand, is from the start subject to a violent rupture of the mythical-metaphysical surface of existence. Thirdly, whereas for Job reason and imagination stand in radical opposition, for Spinoza the one exists within the other and vice versa—operating in a constructive crescendo (as, once again, Nietzsche reminds us: "'The Meaning of Knowing—Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere!' says Spinoza as simply and sublimely as is his wont. Yet in the last analysis, what else is this intelligere than the form in which we come to feel the other three at once?"). And yet, despite the sharpness of these differences, one feels in Job that same scansion of the ontological unity of experience that one finds in Spinoza. Neither in the one case nor in the other does difference lead to the ruination of the unity of being. On the contrary, once all idealist presumptions are destroyed, the different tensions weave themselves around the problem of an ontology of the human and the divine, of the drama of its construction and of the ethical significance of this process. Thus, the book of Job describes the path of the reconstruction of an ethical world once faith in God's justice has been deconstructed; and Spinoza's Ethics builds the salvation of humanity once all theological illusions have been removed (and revealed as the results of repugnant ignorance). They thus both work toward an ontology of the Messiah.

The Messiah, movement, and ascesis. Immensity [smisurato] then? Hegel accuses Spinoza at the very moment that he exhibits the most fetid presumption of controlling everything through the dialectical mechanism of Spirit—within its "measure." Spinoza is an exemplary case of the flight from this—exemplary par excellence: "Spinoza's mode, like the Indian principle of change, is the 'measureless.' The Greek awareness, itself still indeterminate, that everything has a measure—even Parmenides, after abstract being, introduced necessity as the ancient limit by which all things are bounded—is the beginning of a much higher conception than that contained in substance and in the difference of the mode from substance." Spinoza's world, then, is that of the "immense" [smisurato]. There could be no more profound analogy with Job's horizon! And what tragedy and how much wealth this world is able to contain! But Hegel will not admit that the world refuses to be vampirized by the system. He denounces this refusal for being the confession of metaphysical immobility, and that tragic struggle within the immeasurability of the world he makes slide into indifference—the consequence of which is annihilation. The Jewish Spinoza and the oriental Job stand in perfect continuity. That is how an irritated and impotent Hegel describes these two philosophies—with their repeated genealogy of immense [smisurato] resistance to all norms of homologation.

Thus, Hegel is right when—from his point of view—he links Spinoza and Job. And yet this commonality, whether one understands it negatively like Hegel or positively as we do, does not resolve the problem. Let us reconsider the problem in the light of the discussion so far. We have seen some superficial differences; we have also noted the same condition of ontological immeasurability and the breadth of its effects. Can we, however, on a second examination, discover any ontologically qualified subtle differences? Let us compare Job and Spinoza once again. When we put them on the same logical level and identify the same ontological foundation, the difference between them is revealed with such ethical intensity and as so epistemologically radical that it puts their similarities in the shade. The intensity of Job's question dramatizes the ethical situation more than Spinoza's and radically informs the order of its exposition. Let us adopt the basic assumptions of a materialist ethics: the project-drive of existence; the indefinite dynamic of the project of the construction of sense; the collective constitution of values; the principle of responsibility and cooperation; a radically inductive epistemology; a genealogical subjectivism in the constitution of the world and of the definition of reason.... To compare this materialist horizon with Spinoza's philosophy is merely to confirm it. In contrast, we will recognize in the superior intensity of Job's question a qualitative metaphysical leap—despite the substantial homogeneity of the problematic fields. This slight but consistent difference should be noted. Because the book of Job is not only a provocation against the seduction of reason—it is the phenomenological discovery and the metaphysical announcement of the disaster to which instrumental reason leads. The tragedy invests being and pain affects its most intimate fibers. The immense [smisurato] cannot be numbered—and when tempted to do so reason folds back upon itself and goes mad from its attempt. Tragedy cannot be experienced, subjected to manipulation, and dominated. It dominates all perspectives. It impedes all escape routes. It demolishes all instruments of salvation. This is what Job shows us—and it is truly a difficult obstacle to remove. It is perpetually renewed in history and aggravated by the present. How can one believe in reason after Auschwitz and Hiroshima? How can one continue to be a communist after Stalin?

When we begin to read the book of Job, these are the confused and weighty problems that mount up, raising new questions and renewing ancient ones—from within the long trajectory of the metaphysics of refusal within modernity, from Machiavelli to Spinoza to Marx. We have not answered the question of evil, nor does theodicy appear an obsolete doctrine. Indeed, the ancestral character of these times and problems takes nothing away from their force today. The fact that we no longer speak of God or Satan, nor of Man as an abstract entity, and that we have swept away all theological references with Spinoza's broom, removes the mystified and authoritarian solution to the problem but does not remove the problem itself. It merely requalifies it. Why do we produce evil? How can we find our way in a world in which every dialectic has shown its revolting ineffectiveness—where killing and the destruction of values have reached the immeasurable and where absolute non-being, that is, the nuclear, absolute destruction of what exists, is for the first time at the disposal of Power? And what is salvation?

All the certainties that we have inherited and the values for which we have fought are up for discussion. We would willingly accept this discussion if only it were a case of a logical or moral debate. The history of philosophy has accustomed us to methodological crisis, to its warnings, and to its provisional morality. But this is not a game. The confrontation takes place on the edge of the abyss from which the smell and sound of death rises up. Sometimes the pain is unbearable. But there is no other way than confrontation. We are Spinozists, but if we want to confirm our rational faith, we must accept Job's challenge. We pass—ascending? descending?—from the moral terrain to that of ontology. Myths, horrors, and monsters await us. "My soul is consumed by doubt and terror." The disarticulation of the paths of being does not simplify matters. How can Job guide us if being is senseless? And how can being not be senseless if reason fails to enlighten us and if our pain denounces its eclipse?

2 The Negative Ontology of Labor

The problem of salvation is all the more important for those who have been Marxists. The reference to Job is central, above all, for those who were convinced that truth was rooted in the power of labor, more than for Spinoza or other materialist or revolutionary thinkers. An almost obvious consequence arises from confrontation with the question of labor and its value, from the encounter with the crisis that this undergoes both doctrinally and in terms of praxis today: labor has ceased to be a value, it has become a problem—and that is all. This is the immediately contradictory articulation of value that one also finds in Job.

That value emanated from labor; that the extraction of value constituted, on the one hand, production and, on the other, exploitation; that, from whatever angle one approached it, the distribution of this value founded the social order; and that the transition to a different, more just order and a path of emancipation was to be constructed on the struggles against the mechanism of the production of value and the reproduction of its social division—all this not only constituted the core of Marx's critique of political economy but was a truth that was advanced everywhere, becoming part of the consciousness of millions of people and almost a commonplace of social theory. Little of this remains in place. Perhaps none of it. To begin with, the theory of value is, as far as its use goes, so much scrap iron. Today it is impossible to quantify production on its basis. Moreover, one is no longer able to distinguish what is productive from what is not; no longer able to tell the tale of the transformation of commodities through the different components of production and reproduction. "The theft of alien labour, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation," said Marx. The productivity of work has now overtaken the temporal rule of value. But no one could have predicted that Marx would have buried his own theory. In reality wealth, accumulated value, forms the horizon within which we operate, the second nature that constitutes us. But precisely because this common genus is so widespread, there is no longer any space left for its specific difference. Value has become immeasurable at the same time that all measure fails. Of course, the fact that the criterion of measure is lacking does not remove the measured phenomenon. The suffering of the man who labors, who sacrifices himself and sacrifices to wealth—the pain and misery remain. But where is the antagonism that used to characterize this situation? Where is Marx's fortunate paradox that transformed the classical theory of nature and of value into an instrument to identify the antagonism that constituted it and into a weapon for the destruction of exploitation? We are thus thrown into a world in which exploitation is shown to be simply the effect of strength. We are forced into the peripheral or simply cruel spaces of the exploitation of labor. The most productive labor, the most refined and powerful, the most intellectual and abstract, seems to repeat the course of development of slave labor, of unpaid female labor, of forced labor. Pain has become "immense" [smisurato] at the very same time that its causes, its rules, and its measure have become incomprehensible.

Once labor is no longer subject to the rationality of measure, it becomes evil. That is, evil and not simply irrational; practically evil, and not merely lacking rational sense. This is all the more true insofar as labor is no longer one activity among many others in a society that leaves open various other vital spaces—it is life itself. Neither is society definable other than as a general productive synergy that draws together all the singular times that cross the circle of life along a value tangent. The only figure able to coagulate this senseless circulation, the peak of absurdity and emptiness, is money. Instead of being the measure of value, it is now the numéraire, the rule of immense indifference [indifferente smisurato]. Where can one fix not measure but a measure, a definition of labor? That relationship of force that could be the brutal and crude but effective element by which exploitation could be identified disappears in the mystification of money. Not those who are exploited but those who do not make money; not those who are subordinated but those who do not work; not the worker but the marginalized—this is how the panoply of exclusion appears and, at least in part, has been redefined in reality. Exclusion is evil. It is a chasm into which one falls—an indefinable dimension. All social relations reflect this primal evil.

Once measure is removed, labor works without an end—more precisely, any apparent end is removed and is assumed to operate in technologically neutral and transcendent fashion. The law that sustains it is that of second nature, which is a confused determination until it is shown to be an implacable law and a destructive nature. The relationship between labor and its product is completely indeterminate. But in this way labor tips precariously between the inessentiality of its ends and the tragedy of events. The tragic event arises from the multiplicity of ends thereby expressing its inessentiality. The tragic arc of reality reveals itself suddenly as the filigree of events. Once again Hiroshima and Auschwitz are the indices and results of technical knowledge, of labor directed to the realization of the inessential. Once again a murky and definitive tragedy is revealed. Labor is technology, is senseless instrumentality that does not reveal value—instead, it exhausts it.

Thus labor becomes something soft and hard: soft and pervasive like communication, hard and senseless like the tragic destiny of instrumental reason. And the one articulates the other, so that no one can distinguish the two except in the abstract; the attempts of those philosophers to present communication as the fabric of the pure transcendental are entirely useless (where does truth end and falsification begin?). In reality communication is the fabric upon which unfree human activity communicates. To the permanent falsification of the means are added the pain of the senseless and the tragedy of a destructive destiny.

We are faced with the topicality of the book of Job. In it the senselessness of action is fully demonstrated. Labor is dominated by absolute heteronomy. There is no experience that allows one to justify the world, other than the discovery of a pain that is so profound and irresolvable that it is, in an extreme reversal, the negative cause and end of the world. The world is the result of a negative labor, the projection of a tragic mechanism, the definition of a negative theology.

But is this pain the Promethean point of a subjective revolt? This is laughable. There is no Prometheus here, because there is no universe of values, which "fire" represents, to sustain the heroism of man. And yet there is the possibility (were it not entirely rhetorical to speak of it in the abyss of sadness) of an ontological resistance, of a refusal as profound as the pain that one has endured: an ontological refusal that follows an ontological pain.

3 Liberation as Beginning

There is a moment in the history of thought—and even more so in that of labor—in which liberation is a push that comes at the beginning of the phenomenology of being. Liberation is not an end but a beginning. The book of Job is, in this light, the book of the discovery of the most abject misery that explodes toward the light. Job is the symbol of the Messiah.


Excerpted from The Labor of Job by Antonio Negri, Matteo Mandarini. Copyright © 2002 Bayard. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword: Creation beyond Measure / Michael Hardt vii

Preface to the 2002 Edition xv

Introduction 1

1. The Difference of Job 5

2. Of the Absoluteness of the Contingent 18

3. The Adversary and the Avenger 31

4. The Chaos of Being 48

5. The Dispositif of the Messiah 63

6. The Constitution of Power 79

7. Ethics as Creation 95

Commentary: Negri, Job, and the Bible / Roland Boer 109

Bibliographical Appendix 129

Index 133

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