Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Saturated Phenomena and the Nativity of the Christ

I am not as sanguine with Jean-Luc Marion's signature concept of the 'saturated' phenomenon as perhaps I should be. It seems to me, that to start, Marion suggests the analogy that simple objects are to saturated phenomena as occurrences are to events. And while I might very well be manufacturing that analogy as a grappling hook to tame the complexity in Marion's thought, I do think that getting a hook into this concept is worth some effort.

Though this blog post is likely to be little more than notes to myself, I do not hesitate to spill out some of my thoughts on this interesting matter. So, if Marion is describing some kind of inversion of intentionality and intuition when one moves from objects to saturated phenomena I come up with something of a 2-term dialectic:


The play is in the dotted line, of course, and the porosity of terms speaks to their own excess.

Because saturated phenomena are immense (and by this I mean immeasurable, unquantifiable), their very excess mocks intentionality, which is overwhelmed, deluged, and can do nothing but spill over in response to what is given to intuition. Objects do not overwhelm intent, but lend themselves to sequential evaluation, even summation.

Yet, the concept of saturation also contains a sense of limit, a sense of decreased possibility, a decrease in valence, a decrease in the number of points of interaction: this is certainly present in the idea of saturation in chemical properties. Beauty becomes gaudy, flavor become cloying: more is less. I find this an interesting paradox within the paradox of saturated phenomena.

The saturated phenomenon as event seems to approach the aporia of limit and excess. Merold Westphal, taking Marion's lead, has looked at the Synoptic Transfiguration pericopes as exemplifying a saturated phenomenon ("Transfiguration as Saturated Phenomenon," in the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, 1:1, 2003), and his discussion is provocative and illuminates Marion's concept. In this same vein, I would consider the Lucan nativity narrative in  terms of saturated phenomenon as event.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. [Luke 2:4-7, NIV]

Verse 7, in the GNT, captures better the texts sense of limit on space:

διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι

The phase can be rendered in English as 'because there was no place for them in the lodging', or more loosely as 'there was no space for them at the table.'

We can imagine a place too small to contain what must have been a large influx of people. Confusion, crowding, and the inability of of the town to contain the birth of a child, cause its parents to spill over into the setting of a manger and nearby fields where shepherds work the night. Mary and Joseph overwhelm Bethlehem's capacity, saturated, as it were, with Davidic travelers coming home for the holiday. Though they believe they migrate in response to the needs of a census, they could have hardly understood that they were called to bring forth a great progeny of a promise long held and hoped for.

This event harbored in Bethlehem's bursting excess is the precipitation, out from the saturated town, of the Nativity, the realization of the Incarnation and the Kingdom. From messianic expectation abuzz in the city of David emerges the Messiah in the flesh. Unlike Peter (experiencing the Transfiguration), who, as Westphal has noted, "wants to prolong this event"(29), the shepherds receive the event as event, find the child as the Angel of the Lord told them they would, and do not tarry but instead, hand down the gospel [Luke 2:17-18]. The shepherds thereby invert the movement of excess from manger to 'all who heard,' ostensibly those who found a place at the table in the town.

It seems to me, upon some reflection, that Marion's saturated phenomena meet Caputo's criteria for the event. Both thinkers are bound by the middle voice in which the response to a call makes a difference.

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