Thomas Rainer

fiat: between myth, politics and technology

The idolatrous shadow of the creator and his signature

It may seem peculiar to begin an essay on the works of Thomas Feuerstein with a contemplation of the artist’s signature. A process tried and tested in art history, style analysis or graphology seems to fail when addressing an artist who rejects the bourgeois association of pathos with genius, and who seldom signs his work. Nevertheless, creation and signature play a key role in the fiat series. The word fiat, Latin for 'let there be', 'let there be made', which begins the book of Genesis and the biblical history of creation, is the command for the materialisation of the divine word in the world, and thus forms a bridge between code and life. It is the key to the divine name, to a universal recipe of life. Its decoding is the goal the cabala and gene technology are equally striving for. Since every complex creation is a dynamic process, whose unforeseeable course threatens the autarchy of the creator, fiat possesses a double structure, which simultaneously features as title of the beginning and as signature at the end of creation. With fiat, God consequently sets Himself at the beginning of everything, a strategy that blocks our efforts in attaining direct access to His conceptualisation. Nothing remains for analysis but to turn to the flow and substantiality of the divine handwriting. Feuerstein offers two variants. In the first, the word is shot onto the wall with a gun, visible through the shot-holes. In the second, cancer cells cultivated in bioreactors form the letters. Script and material of the signature edge their creator into a shifty light. Is Feuerstein a gun-happy cowboy, or, even worse, a bioterrorist? First of all, a Lucky Luke who is able to pull his gun so fast that the bullet penetrates his own shadow on the wall before the shadow can imitate the action of shooting. The creator wipes out his duplication through the speed of the fiat. The slow motion of this stilus, which Feuerstein conveys with the shotholes, allows us to grasp something that can be regarded as the suppressed ur-substrate of creation. They are the daemons of a jealous self, which accepts its shadow only as something that is made and thus destructable.

According to Jewish tradition, these daemons are embodied in the form of two beasts: Leviathan and Behemoth, two complementary beings, whose fate is determined by the divine fear of rivalry with the created. Leviathan is a prodigious sea monster upon whose fins – as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms in the 13th century wrote – the entire world rests. Medieval miniatures show him as Uroboros, the serpent biting its own tail. In myth, a thus convoluted Leviathan bears the universe, a similar creature propels its mechanical image, the throne of Solomon. Leviathan symbolises the clockwork, the machina of the cosmos, its perpetuum mobile, its self-organising power. The mutinous wrath of the terrible sea monster as a revolt against God, an act of autopoiesis by creation in the throes of nascent independence, is conquered by the complementary 'might of entropy': since God fears the idolatrous worship of Leviathan, He creates a second being, Behemoth, a bull, the only creature to match it.

Leviathan becomes a toy in the hand of the creator, whose fate is sealed at the coming of the Messiah in the circus. For the amusement of the redeemed, he must compete against Behemoth. Leviathan stabs Behemoth with a fin, the bull gores the sea monster with his horns. The meat of the dead animals serves the chosen people as a feast at the eschatalogical banquet; history comes full circle, creation is at an end. But what does the self-annihilation of God’s idolatrous shadows mean for man? In order to grasp the social implications, let us turn to an argument of the Greek philosopher Xenophanes of Kolophon. Rejecting the anthropomorphic gods of the Homeric epics, Xenophanes writes: 'If cows and horses or lions had hands and made works of art like men, the horses’ gods would look like horses, the cows’ like cows.' In a word, the images of the gods say more about the constitution of their creator than about the actual object being rendered. If this is true, what does the biblical idol say to us of man? Since – according to the biblical creation myth – man was made in the image of God – an idea that turns Xenophanes’ argument upside down – we could say that his idols show something of human nature that it shares with God: the suppressed shadow of the creator, which will be commited to self-butchery in the messianic age.

This is the very shadow that strides towards us in the work Behemoth as Heifer: the human body is combined with the red-coloured head of a calf, the creature which as 'Golden Calf' embodies the primal image of all biblical idolatry. Name and colour of the heifer hybrid betray its origin. It alludes to the mother of the calf, a flawlessly red heifer. The sacrificial dictates in the Bible (Num 19, 1-22) decree that only the ashes of such a red heifer, sacrificed and burnt outside the pale of the Israelite camp, hebr. Parah Adumah, can cleanse anyone made unclean by contact with the dead. The ash of the red heifer should be dissolved in water and used to sprinkle the unclean as an act of expiation. 'Consider this analogy', writes Rabbi Aibu in the Pesikta Rabbati (16th cent.) as an explanation of this mysterious sacrifice: 'There was a maidservant’s child who polluted the king’s palace. The king said, ›Let his mother come and wipe up the excrement.‹ In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ›Let the mother of a calf come and atone for the deed of the (golden) calf.‹' In this tradition, the red heifer of one colour becomes a sacrificial animal, which redeems the idolatrous transgression of the calf. As offspring of the red heifer, the blotting out of the calf's idolatrous character is written into the apocalyptic sacrifice. The sacrifice of the red heifer plays an important role in rabbinical tradition concerning the eschatalogical course of time. As with the biblical beasts Leviathan and Behemoth, its history is fulfilled with the advent of the Messiah. The sacrifice of the red heifer is imperative for the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. Only after expiation through the ashes of the red heifer can the devout enter, in eschatalogical time, the holy place of God’s dwelling that was taken from the Israelites after the Romans destroyed the temple. Since the rabbis date the last birth of a flawlessly red heifer in the time before the destruction of the temple, its future coming is seen as a sign portending the advent of the Messiah. In medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the red heifer is portrayed as a messianic sign, and is closely linked to Leviathan and Behemoth. Thus, it is no coincidence that a red-coloured Behemoth appears next to Leviathan above the eschatalogical banquet of the redeemed in the famous Hebrew Bible of Milan. Its colour, which the Bible does not mention, spans an associative arch, from the self-butchery of the idolatrous rival of the creator in the eschatalogical final struggle, to the sacrifice of the red heifer.

Both ideas are inherent in Feuerstein’s Behemoth (as Heifer). It appears as a messianic sign – but for what age? Cowboy boots, banker’s suit and laboratory coat destroy the romantic illusion of the faraway Middle Ages. The Heifer is more than a long-buried myth. It is the suppressed shadow of an image of a contemporary god, the mirror of a citizen of our time: the allegory of man elevated into creator god.

In order to demonstrate the presence of the Heifer in our times, we only need to take a look at the Internet. The pages of the Israeli Temple Institute show reddish-brown cows grazing peacefully on American meadows, selected to be flown to Israel to support a breeding project to produce a red heifer of one colour. The text states that its sacrifice shall empower the rebuilding of the Jewish temple on Temple Mount. Two journalists, Lawrence Wright of New York and the Israeli-American author Gershom Gorenberg, have been researching a project, started in the late 90s, to breed a flawlessly red cow of one colour in Israel. Behind this plan was an American cattle breeder from Mississippi, Clyde Lott, who was entrenched in the evangelical movement – its most prominent devotee being the current American President – and an ultra-orthodox rabbi, Chaim Richmont, who came from Massachusetts to find his political and religious haven in the nationalistic Temple Institute at the far right of the spectrum of Israeli politics. In the red cow, they saw a means of rebuilding the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, thus to a certain extent artificially provoking the end of history.

One may write off the whole thing as a quirk of two fundamentalists – politically hazardous as regards the Middle East conflict and the struggle between Israel and the Palastinians for the control of the Temple Mount (a columnist of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz called the red heifer, not without hype, the 'four-legged bomb'), but without any further significance for our time in a society that is, after all, regarded as predominantly secular. However, when we have a look at the concrete measures for implementing the breeding project we will see the truth.*

The realisation of the ambitious plan broke down owing to financial inconsistencies. The cooperation of Lott and Richman collapsed in quarrelling, and what had been a dream of Israel as a cattle paradise ended in bankruptcy. The trail to the promised land, where bulls bursting with beefy vigour could have been auctioned off as the draught animals of a pulsating market, came to a premature end.

This is where earlier works by Thomas Feuerstein, such as Roundup Ready, touch on Behemoth (as Heifer). He shows the realisation of the 'frontier spirit' as it is embodied in food industry technology, the rodeo of gene technology for breaking in untamed life, and where the striving to find the perfect steak drives science to boldly go where no man has gone before. The Red Heifer throws light on the theologically tinged sub-interface of these modern myths in a fully overt religious symbol, which otherwise only covertly evokes her secular counterpart, the bull of Wall Street and his clan, one of whom is the Red Bull on the drink of the same name.

A picture by the American painter and caricaturist William Holbrook Beard takes us back to our starting point, the self-butchering struggle between Leviathan and Behemoth. Beard's picture of 1879 bears the title 'The Bulls and Bears in the Market', and shows Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange as a stage for a fight between bears and bulls, the symbols of the speculators setting their stakes on rising or falling prices, who are tearing each other apart. To the fore of the panorama of animal slaughter stands a solitary bull, a reddish-brown Red Angus steer. Does the meaning of the raging stock exchange bull- and bearfights lie concealed in the apocalyptic circus?

We have arrived at the core of the issue thrown up by Feuerstein's work. What is the relationship of this image of the powers unleashed by the free market to the vision of the Hobbesian state, whose symbolism is infused into Feuerstein’s Jellyfish of the State. First of all, it suggests a portrayal of the natural state of man as described by Hobbes, a representation of the struggle of individuals, each against the other, an image of man as a wolf to man: homo homini lupus. But the setting contradicts this. The theatre stalls of the stock exchange, in Beard’s painting Wall Street, the street in front of the temple of the market, is like a stage - the bear- and bullfight is a tournament, a show - not a show of the natural state of man, but a circus performance that stages it.

This performance is at the end of the dream that the Hobbesian state founded. Imitating the fiat of divine creation, Hobbes' state is evolved as a 'mortal god' of man, who casts out and destroys any idolatrous rivalry to his being as an artificial construction, as something made.

But what kind of god is it that bears the name of the biblical sea monster Leviathan? According to Hobbes, He is conceived as an image of man, who is himself an image of God. The reciprocity of God, man and state, of creator and created, leads to an internal struggle, which Giorgio Agamben describes in his fundamental book Homo Sacer as an expulsion process of 'bare life' from the borders of the artificial construction of the state's creation. The 'machine anthropologique', which is reaching its final stadium these days, stages a performance of bare life at the heart of artificiality, puts it in the arena for the show fight, in order to nullify itself. No new victor emerges from this struggle of the free elements; man as creator god directs the idolatrous shadow of his own, uncontrollable, bare life in a game that ends up with him tearing his own self apart; a game played in the laboratory and the stock exchange.

The show fight presents the human creator god with his true face, a face that seems appeased only after the eschatalogical wrestling match has ended. If we think we can now see a vision of a radiant god, as in the Hobbesian eidolon, an almighty Zeus, we are completely offtrack. Like the redeemed, who share the banquet table in the famous Hebrew Bible of Milan, the creator god strides to the fore as a hybrid: with human body and face of a beast. A Dionysian Minotaur that is illustrated by André Masson in Bataille's journal 'Acéphale' in front of a panorama of life, which is eternally reproducing and destroying itself. Feuerstein's Heifer is like this Minotaur; both were born in play out of their self-destruction.

Only those who know this dual figure dare look without an uneasy heart at the creator's idolatrous shadow in Feuerstein's fiat. Artificially bred cancer cells are what form bare life.

*Instead of blind, religious zeal, we find a fully operational plan for reform, one could even be malicious and say for a 'hostile take-over' of the antiquated Israeli meat industry. Lott, one of the leading cattle breeders in the south-east of the United States, dreamed of flying up to 50,000 Red Angus cattle – widespread in America's meat industry and, incidentally, reddish-brown in colour – to selected 'host' farmers in Israel, so as to form the nucleus of renewal within Israeli cattle breeding. Functionaries from the agricultural associations of Israel and the United States took part in the project development. Financing was to come from donations collected from the evangelical and associated movements and directed to a non-profit company with the name 'Canaan Land Restoration of Israel, Inc.'.

The company reserved the right to keep calves newly-born in Israel that qualified for the breeding of a flawlessly Red Heifer at the host farmers. The cattle were bred to meet the latest livestock standards, whereby the methods normally used for improving the quality of the meat aimed at fulfilling the sacrificial dictates decreed by the Bible. Clyde Lott, with his long experience as a livestock breeder, was fully aware that in the process the American cowboy rather showed the face of a laboratory technician. As though endorsing the techno-futurist vision of a blooming and booming Canaan, manufactured with artificial insemination and gene technology, he developed a project of freezing hundreds of embryos of perfect cows, so that after the apocalypse they could populate the paradisiac meadows of a renewed Israel.


On Leviathan, Behemoth and Red Heifer in the Jewish tradition cf. Marc Michael Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

On Clyde Lott's cattle-breeding project: Lawrence Wright, Forcing the End, in: The New Yorker, July 1998, pp.42–53, and Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days. Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, New York 2000, pp. 7–29.

On the graphic works of André Masson and the contemporary development of the Hobbesian state: Giorgio Agamben, Das Offene. Der Mensch und das Tier (The Open Issue. Man and Beast), Frankfurt am Main 2003.