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Manna is a Hermeneutic

In the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, God gives manna to the Israelites who, upon seeing the frost-like substance covering the ground, ask “what is this?” (Ex. 16:15) This question, transliterated “man hu” becomes the name for this sustaining substance.  Its very name is the question that gives rise to hermeneutics; it is the question that hermeneutics asks.

Odo Marquard has a pithy essay titled “The Question, To What Question is Hermeneutics the Answer?” in Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies.  In this piece Marquard poses hermeneutics both as questioning and as the interpretive movement which attempts to answer questions. He offers several “questions” as the provocations of hermeneutics.  These include 1) finitude 2) derivativeness and 3) transitoriness.  Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship), adroitly illuminates these hermeneutical provocations.  For the sake of brevity, let me say that Marquard poses hermeneutics as the human attempt to deal with our contingency.

Manna has everything to do with contingency.  It emphasizes our finitude: the Israelites receive it from the graciousness of God’s divine plenitude in their situation of lack, need, and hunger.  It shows us our derivativeness: the Israelites might have liked to return to the fleshpots of their former masters where—ironically and retrospectively—they felt more in control of their lives than during their desert sojourn, but they had to interpret their existence as a nation based on what appeared within their horizon of experience.  It emphasizes our transitoriness: the Israelites could gather up the manna only for one day (except before the Sabbath day), any surplus kept to the following day would become rotten and wormy.  And such it the fate of interpretation: (meta)narratives that become so self-satisfied with their universality and Truth that they forget to renew themselves daily in their own context will become rotten and wormy.

Hermeneutics will always be an attempt to place ourselves in a bearable relationship to our own contingency.  Manna, as a hermeneutic, shows us that our contingency is very real, it cannot be reduced or overcome, but our contingency exists in a dynamic relationship with God’s grace.

There is perhaps one more aspect of manna that commends it as a hermeneutic: it is placed in the ark of the covenant with the Law.  The Law and the stuff of interpretation, placed “before the LORD in safekeeping for your descendants.” (Ex. 16:33)  A constant sign unto the generations that as we remember that we have the presence of the LORD—as the Law, the Word, the Bread of Life –we must always ask, “man hu, what is this?”

  1. Katie Grimes
    February 21, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    love this, noel. thanks for posting.

  2. Noel Terranova
    February 21, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    thanks for the love, Katie!

  3. Cass
    February 24, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Friend Noel,
    If I happen to think something or other in response after reading (interestedly) the above, would you have me share it? Or would you have me, like Cordelia, “love and be silent”?
    Yours in Love.

    • Noel Terranova
      February 25, 2010 at 12:02 am

      Your thoughts are most welcome. I look forward to your comments. Peace, NT

  4. Cass
    February 25, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Thank you for the welcome. I hope I don’t wear it out. There are some interesting threads here. The threesome of finitude, derivativeness and transitoriness is a nice threesome, and profitable to consider in relation to both hermeneutics and our daily bread.

    But the main contention, though eye-catching and wonderfully mystifying, seems just unworkable. To say that manna is a hermeneutic seems much the same as to say that food is a process, or a particular mode of digestion. But it isn’t. Food is a substance on which digestion (a process or group of similar processes) acts, for health and benefit, within the organism of the assimilating subject.

    Consider, “Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship)…” (1) In what sense can a substance, simply by being, be understood to change an action by turning it into something else? (2) Isn’t “action” or “act” as a part of speech, already a noun? (What is more, isn’t its meaning already relationship-dependent, as it relates the questioning/interpreting subject both to other knowers and to the world of things?) Yet, if “noun” isn’t quite the right term, what then has the act (or, perhaps better—process?) of questioning really been turned into: a substance, or an object, or a thing?

    Do you want to say that ‘one particular cultural-historical mode of interpretation by an act of naming became, forevermore, identical with the substance manna’? Is that an intelligible claim? Or is manna not supposed to be a substance at all, but rather a mode of thought?

    The naming of “man hu?” does seem of great significance and I am glad to learn about it. My instinct though, would be to consider the “whatsit?” nomenclature rather a sign that manna, as substance, lies outside the creaturely scientific-proprietary domain. Men can neither get a handle on what it is (the scientific aspect of naming), nor stake any valid proprietary claims with respect to this heaven-sent stuff. It is beyond our powers both of understanding and of possession (hence the worms and rot when errant knaves tried to store it up).

    Manna is the stuff of mystery. It might be called food for thought. But I can’t agree that it is “a hermeneutic”, because I don’t understand (yet) what that means. Am I supposed to?

    Yours in peace.

    • Noel Terranova
      February 26, 2010 at 1:07 am

      Thanks for your remarks. I’ll respond to one point and then give a more general response.
      You ask: “Do you want to say that ‘one particular cultural-historical mode of interpretation by an act of naming became, forevermore, identical with the substance manna’?”
      No, manna is not *one* interpretation of life the universe and everything. That would make interpretion singular and, therefore,totalitarian. Manna is interpretion itself because it is the question “what is this?” Interpretation asks questions. Manna is itself a question. Hey presto, hermeneutics. Nothing too fancy. If you don’t like it, I don’t mind.

      I get the sense that perhaps most of your points arise out of a difference between how you and I would like langauge to behave. I kind of like it when interesting words and ideas start to break down a strict and formal correspondence between signifiers and signifieds and open up a more metaphorical web of linguistic relations. You say that Manna-as-hermeneutic seems “unworkable” and you ask:
      “In what sense can a substance, simply by being, be understood to change an action by turning it into something else?”
      That’s a very analytic question for my very continental brain. I’ve read your comments about 10 times and I’m not sure what you’re asking or how I might answer. So…, I’ll leave it here. Thanks for tuning in. Love, peace, and hair grease.

  5. February 26, 2010 at 1:43 am

    I think this is probably our best post so far.

  6. Cass
    February 26, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I still can’t tell whether that “thanks for tuning in” implies “perhaps it is time for you to tune out now”. (Like Gandalf being variously “good morninged” by Bilbo.) I haven’t disappeared yet (though there appears by degrees more of difference and less of commonality than I initially supposed) because there is something in these conversations, and those conversing, that I find compelling.

    I am not an analytic philosopher. Though I can see that some of the borrowed phraseology above might suggest something along those lines. But, too, I am probably nearer to that than a possessor of a “continental brain”. (Heavens! Is that a satisfactory self-description? Or was it simply the transitory delectation of a derivative metaphor?)
    I dislike and vehemently oppose most of what passes as analytical philosophy, and I am so smitten with the gloriousness of metaphor that I very nearly have made a sort of private Kabbalah on the basis of it, which I take with me everywhere I go, including to mass and across the reaches of the internet.

    But I know enough about language to (1) understand and (2) confidently declare that Metaphor depends on Meaning. If semantics and syntax are forgotten, thought and conversation let go all loosey-goosey, any which way the wind blows, the underpinning and necessary structure of metaphor itself will have been wiped out as well.
    The nonsense of Edward Lear is contextually comprehensible. The further one gets from the verbal and rhythmic context whence it sprang, the less intelligible (you don’t like that word, right?) it becomes. The final stage of the breakdown is sound altogether bereft of meaning, mere babble.

    But perhaps that–as I try to articulate it–is incomprehensible already from the other side of this (sad) divide.

    No hair grease, thank you. The image does not appeal to the would-be recipient.
    Cheers. And God bless, of course.

  7. Cass
    February 26, 2010 at 10:36 am

    The more I reflect on my last ‘comment’, the more it sounds to me almost like a patronizing tirade, and I am not happy with that. I think that is indicative of one of the difficulties, and always threatens as one potential danger, of disagreement. It is something that I am trying–in my near-old age–to acquire both the skill and the habit of avoiding. But I haven’t, as of yet, quite mastered the knack of that particular habitual grace.
    The more I reflect, too, on your post and reply, the more I see the possibility of a different approach I might take. Still disagreeing–mostly/somewhat–but less ideologically strident, and so perhaps more accessible ‘across the divide’.
    Would it be okay for me to try again later with that second, hopefully better, approach?
    Sending just a dab of hair grease back at you, as I presume you like that kind of thing. in X, C.

  8. Cass
    February 27, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Manna is interpretion itself because it is the question “what is this?” Interpretation asks questions. Manna is itself a question. Hey presto, hermeneutics. Nothing too fancy. If you don’t like it, I don’t mind.
    You say, to simplify, “Manna [and here you seem to have in mind pellet-like thingies, reported to have appeared like hoarfrost in the desert, reported to have been gathered and eaten by the People of God during their desert sojourn] is a question.”

    Well, what if I were to say, “Ursa [having in mind my friend’s friend, Ursaline a twenty-six-year-old med student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore] is a bear.”

    Nothing too fancy there either. (And I might cop an attitude and add huffily “If you don’t like it, I don’t mind.”) But, to oversimplify, it isn’t true. It isn’t factual. It is pretty near nonsense. After the marijuana-high of “Man. That is mind-blowing. That is SO deep.” has worn off, it turns out to have been hardly worth saying at ll.

    I don’t like the analytic philosophers either–by and large. By and large, I consider them a lot of wankers. They are working the mechanics toward futile ends, and the more they over-manipulate mechanics without relating them toward meaningful ends, the emptier and drier the machinery gets, till it is finally rendered useless.

    But, that doesn’t mean–even with the loveliest ends in view–it is possible to skip the mechanics all together and yet arrive at a happy consummation. Things just aren’t set up to work that way.

    Really, really, really sending lots of love smack at you in our own dear Christ.

    • February 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm

      Cass, you’re missing a really basic point here: the name is nothing but a question. Manna literally means, “what is this?” That makes it nothing remotely like your example, “Ursa is a bear.”

      Commenting on posts to say that, though they might sound “deep,” they’re actually “pretty near nonsense,” is not a good way to make friends—or make it seem worthwhile to respond.

  9. Noel Terranova
    February 27, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Brian, thanks for the intervention. Cass, I’ll try to respond as directly and substantively as possible. This time, I’ll try to be more comprehensive.

    So, you’re not buying “Manna is a question” and you demonstrate the non-sense of that proposition by comparing it to “Ursa is a bear.” Veeeery interesting. You’re making sense when you’re trying to make non-sense! Manna is a question etymologically (I take this to be irrefutable). I’m sure your friend Ursaline is a lovely person with excellent table manners and far less hair than a bear, but etymologically… well…

    But suppose I should say “Ursa is a toaster oven.” No, no, certainly she is not a toaster oven. Not even etymologically. “Ursa is a soft boiled egg.” What balderdash. “Ursa is Cass.” Heavens, no. In you’re words, “it isn’t true, it isn’t factual.” Fair enough, we cannot just abandon language and its correspondence to reality. Intelligibility matters. In one of your comments, you question whether I like intelligibility. I’m not sure how to take that, so I won’t take it personally but I will take it to task.

    Let us begin anew. What is Ursa? Ursa is not a toaster oven, not a soft boiled egg, not Cass, not a bear in a strict sense (although I would be reticent to extract her from the noble, beautiful, mythic associations of her lovely name). But, does that tell us what Ursa IS? Can words tell us what things ARE? I think maybe that’s where we differ. It seems to me that you are looking for a correspondence between language and objects (and not only objects, but everything) that give us something that is TRUE and FACTUAL. I don’t think that is how language behaves. The correspondence between a signifier and signified is not a correspondence of essences but a play of differences. There is no essence of a toaster oven that defines it top to bottom. We know a toaster oven as a toaster oven because we know it as different from a pizza oven, a grill, a stovetop, and on and on. This contention does not abandon intelligibility, but it does very seriously question structuralist semiotic essentialism.

    So if you were to say “Noel is a theologian” and “Noel is a toaster oven” I would say yes to first and no to the second. But I can only say yes to the first because of a series of differences that tells me what a theologian is. And, in saying yes to the first, I cannot hold on to it too much as a fact, a truth, or an essence because “theologian” (and so also, “human” and “Christian”) has more to do with a dynamic process of becoming rather than a static essence of being. And, perhaps in some ways, I am NOT a theologian like I am not a toaster oven. And very certainly I am not ONLY a theologian.

    Now for the “so what?” question: what does this have to do with hermeneutics? Hermeneutics is interpretation. Language interprets our experiences. Language looks at stuff and attempts to describe it and name it in a way that is useful. Every moment of language is an attempt to answer the question “what is it?” (man hu)

    This brings us to manna. You seem to assert that manna cannot be anything other than what it is. Manna is manna. For you, manna is not a question, that would be unintelligible. Likewise, manna is not a hermeneutic, also unintelligible. I suppose I’m inviting the reader, on etymological grounds, to see manna as the theological site of the questioning that is at the root of all language.

    So I meet your resistance to this invitation in two ways: First, on the argumentative level I challenge you to rethink the semiotic presuppositions that preclude you from accepting this invitation. I have outlined that challenge above. Second, on the literary and personal level I would point out that my invitation is also a beckoning into a realm of metaphor, a place where our demands of intelligibility and strict semiotic correspondence tend to relax just a bit. This relaxing doesn’t even necessarily require a haze of marijuana smoke. And if you find yourself unable to meet me there I think I would be somewhat sad… sad both for you and for those of us who luxuriate there.

    Finally, I’ll extend this already too long reply with a post script about your contribution to our blog. It seems that you write often and much about your tone. Some of your replies are just self reflective posts about how you may have come across in your last post. Your salutations and valedictions are quite embellished, sometimes apologetically, sometimes affectively, sometimes attempting to retract some of the bite that has already bitten in your forgoing sentences. Please understand that I do not doubt your sincerity or good manners and I am always happy to see that you ultimately offer peace and love in your valedictions. What I am try to say is I would be grateful to you if you would spend less time writing about your tone and more time attending to it. I would also consider it a kindness if you would interpret my casual remarks with charity. “Thanks for tuning in” was not meant to dismiss you and “love peace and hair grease” is not much more than a rhyme. Still and all, let’s keep it feisty because I think everyone likes that. In the end, I do thank you for your contribution to this blog, as it seems you devote more time to reading and writing on it than I do. Keep commenting! I just regret that I will not be able to respond as comprehensively as I have here.

    • Cass
      March 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm

      N: “Ursa is a bear.” Veeeery interesting. You’re making sense when you’re trying to make non-sense!

      C: Ursa, the med student, complete with Latin meaning, is a fictional character, a mere invention to help illustrate a point. That point, your post ably addresses. Thank you!
      N: …I’m inviting the reader, on etymological grounds, to see manna as the theological site of the questioning that is at the root of all language.

      C: The above is admirably intelligible. It is articulated with a precision that conveys to both writer and reader the finished (or nearly finished) product of intellectual labor spent to some purpose. I objected to “Manna is a hermeneutic” not because I am the least bit loathe to enter the metaphorical realm or to follow your enticing invitation above, but because I didn’t understand what you were saying. That could be because I am not the sharpest tool in the shed, and/or it could be because “Manna is a hermeneutic” does not distinctly and definitely convey the sense of an invitation “on etymological grounds, to see manna as the theological site of the questioning that is at the root of all language.”
      For example, someone used to understanding the word “is” as necessarily alluding to traditional concepts of being, substance, entity and identity, et cetera and the interplay between such concepts and reality–or phenomena–as close as human experience enables us to get–would be confused by the “is” proposition, but helped–or at least far less confused–by the longer proposition.
      C: A key question your elucidation above leaves me with, specifically “the theological site” is a question as to the function/meaning of your use of the definite article. “The theological site” could mean “principle theological site” or “prototypical theological site” or, it could mean “one among many such theological sites, chosen at random, no less or more significant than any other.”
      To pin down which would require a further drill down attainable only at the cost of additional intellectual labor. (And time, which, as this a website and not a dissertation, might simply not be available to invest. Completely understandable.)
      N: …Can words tell us what things ARE? I think maybe that’s where we differ.
      …my invitation is also a beckoning into a realm of metaphor, a place where our demands of intelligibility and strict semiotic correspondence tend to relax just a bit…

      C: I think we do differ, but I also think there is a great deal of common ground. Not sure either/both of us will find opportunity, here, to explore that fully, let alone to meet at last in a friendship of perfect accord.
      The one teensy hook&line I’ll throw out now from my “little rented boat” (E. Bishop) is that I think the key to a tenable ontology might (perhaps) be understanding ontology as dependent on, deriving from, prolepsis. I don’t think Plato, with his forms and stuff, or Aristotle in his Physics, or Saint Thomas, or anyone who has taken ontology as a serious starting point, a first philosophy, a total metaphysics, ever did suppose possible the kind of exact rapprochement between signifier and signified that modern anti-essentialists disparage.
      I think ontology always has meant something else altogether; and I think the English word “is” IS inevitably, and for the lifetime of the English language, bound up with ontology. Using it as if it weren’t will usually amount to misusing it, whether intentionally or no.
      But who knows?
      And I have to admit that my own mental grasp on the above (about ontology and prolepsis) is–as yet–almost as fuzzy as a marijuana haze.
      Peace and fleece, or green peas and dead fleas.
      with love in X, C.

  10. Cass
    March 1, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Noel, very quick, because this is already two days old: Thank you for your last post! Very helpful and instructive.
    The last paragraph is beautifully written and absolutely apt. The faults you name I recognize: that’s me alright (and darned annoying, infuriatingly irrelevant). “less time apologizing and more time attending” is the mark I shall strive for heretofore! (Only, am imperfect and have decades of bad habit to rid myself of–so charity may still be required as I struggle toward improvement.)
    Will add another response soon-ish. But, apart from reading and commenting on your blog–which seems to have been my number one hobby in the past couple weeks–I do have the rest of my life to keep up on.
    in X, sincerely as you suppose.

  11. Cass
    March 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

    uhhh..not “heretofore”, but “henceforward”. oops. (less time correcting and more time attending…a high mark to hit!)

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