Carnality and Difference
Plotinus, the philosopher of our times, seemed ashamed of being in the body. As a result of this state of mind he could never bear to talk about his race or his parents or his native country. Porphyry, Life of Plotinus
Traditionally, group identity has been constructed in two ways: as the product of either a common genealogical origin or a common geographical origin. The first type of figuring has a strongly pejoratized value in current writing, having become tainted with the name “race” and thus racism, while the second is referred to by the positive, even progressive-sounding, “self-determination”—in spite of the evident fact that either or both of these discourses can equally be used to justify acts of enormous violence. The negative evaluation of genealogy as a ground for identity can be traced to Paul, the fountainhead, as I am claiming, of western universalism. In his authentic passion to find a place for the gentiles in the Torah's scheme of things and the brilliance of the radically dualist and allegorical hermeneutic he developed to accomplish this purpose, Paul had (almost against his will) sown the seeds for a Christian discourse that would completely deprive Jewish ethnic, cultural specificity of any positive value and indeed turn it into a “curse” in the eyes of gentile Christians. As Augustine was to write:
This characteristic Augustinian text further enables us to understand the conjunction of Jews with women as the terms of a difference which is opposed to allegorical univocity. Just as the female body with its disturbing two-ness (both by being different from the male body and by being “a sex which is not one”) is the site of difference and fallen corporeality, so also the Jews, by refusing to be allegorized into a spiritual disembodiment, remain the site of difference and fallen corporeality.
Behold Israel according to the flesh (i Cor. 10:18). This we know to be the carnal Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably carnal.
Elizabeth Castelli has focused most sharply on the extent to which the drive for sameness was constitutive of Pauline discourse by analyzing the function of imitation and its political effects in his letters:
Castelli describes the personal will to power implicit in the Pauline rhetorical drive toward sameness. The same analysis can be applied, however, to the politics of group relations even after the apostle's death. What I am suggesting here is that as Paul became ultimately not an embattled apostle for one kind of Christianity contending with others but gradually the source of Christianity tout court, and as so-called pagans faded from the scene, the function of those who “stand in a position of difference” came to be filled almost exclusively in the discourse by the Jews, and the “coercive move” toward sameness became directed at the Jews. The place of difference increasingly becomes the Jewish place, and thus the Jew becomes the very sign of discord and disorder in the Christian polity. That this is so can be shown from the fact that as other “differences” appear on the medieval European scene—the Lollards, for example—they are figured in literature as “Jews.”  The association of Jews and women as parallel terms of difference throughout western discourse is a further example of the reduction of Jewishness to a diacritic, a signifier of difference per se.
The language of imitation, with its concomitant tension between the drive toward sameness and the inherent hierarchy of the mimetic relationship, masks the will to power which one finds in Pauline discourse. Paul's appropriation of the discourse of mimesis is a powerful rhetorical move, because this language identifies the fundamental values of wholeness and unity with Paul's own privileged position vis-à-vis the gospel, the early Christian communities he founded and supervises, and Christ himself. Here is precisely where he makes his coercive move. To stand for anything other than what the apostle stands for is to articulate for oneself a place of difference, which has already implicitly been associated with discord and disorder. To stand in a position of difference is to stand in opposition, therefore, to the gospel, the community and Christ. (Castelli 1991a, 87)
Paul's allegorical reading of the rite of circumcision is an almost perfect emblem of his hermeneutics of otherness. In one stroke, by interpreting circumcision as referring to a spiritual and not corporeal reality, Paul made it possible for Judaism to become a world religion. It is not that the rite was difficult for adult gentiles to perform—that would hardly have stopped devotees in the ancient world—it was rather that it symbolized the genetic, the genealogical moment, of Judaism as the religion of a particular tribe of people. This is so both in the very physicality of the rite, grounded in the practice of the tribe and marking the male members of that tribe, but it is even more so as a marker on the organ of generation, representing the genealogical claim for concrete historical memory as constitutive of Israel. By substituting a spiritual interpretation for a physical ritual, Paul was saying, the genealogical Israel, “according to the flesh,” is not the ultimate Israel; there is an “Israel in the spirit.” The practices of the particular Jewish People are not what the Bible speaks of, but faith, the allegorical meaning of those practices. It was Paul's genius to transcend “Israel in the flesh.”
Porphyry exposes with rare incandescence the intimate connection between the corporeality of the individual and his or her connection with “race,” filiation, and place and the neoplatonic revulsion from both. As Porphyry writes of his hero Plotinus, it was Plotinus's disdain for the body that led him to disdain as well race, parentage, and native country. The Pauline move, while considerably less extreme in every way than that of Paul's younger (by a century) near contemporary, was very similar in structure. I am proposing that Paul's there-is-no-Greek-nor-Jew grew out of substantially the same platonistic cultural themes that drove a Plotinus. This interpretation furnishes us a key to understanding the resistance of the Rabbis to platonism as well. If commitment to “the One” implied a disdain for the body, and disdain for the body entailed an erasure of “difference,” then commitment to such differences as race, parentage, and native country entailed a commitment to the body and to “difference” in general. The ancients certainly well understood the connection between notions of the body and ideologies of ethnic identity. As I will try to show, this issue is inextricably bound up in the feminist controversy on essentialism; now, just as in antiquity, the issues of ethnicity and gender are inextricable, and analogies between Jews and women can be pursued for productive purposes. There are ways in which gender is to sex as ethnicity is to race, an analogy that will, moreover, call into question both sets of oppositions.
As Etienne Balibar has argued, the very way that the modern individual is valorized in an opposition between universal and individual, on the one hand, and the particular and gregarious, on the other, reestablishes a hierarchy that performs exactly the same function as the old racism:
This latent presence of the hierarchic theme today finds its chief expression in the priority accorded to the individualistic model (just as, in the previous period, openly inegalitarian racism, in order to postulate an essential fixity of racial types, had to presuppose a differentialist anthropology, whether based on genetics or on Völkerpsychologie): the cultures supposed implicitly superior are those which appreciate and promote “individual” enterprise, social and political individualism, as against those which inhibit these things. These are said to be the cultures whose “spirit of community” is constituted by individualism. In this way, we see how the return of the biological theme is permitted and with it the elaboration of new variants of the biological “myth” within the framework of a cultural racism. (Balibar 1991a, 25 [emphasis original])
In other words, by placing a certain model (a Protestant, Paul-derived model) in a superior position as Culture vis-à-vis those cultures within which significant aspects of identity and practice are derived from the group, the ideology of individualism reinscribes the precise hierarchy of peoples (West and East, or North and South) that racism had. My point is not, of course, to argue that Paul and his modern posterity are somehow complicit with racism but rather to show that either ideology, in itself, can serve racist ends, understood as the organization of hierarchical structures of domination between groups. The insistence on the value of bodily connection and embodied practice emblematic of Judaism since Paul thus has significant critical force over against the isolating and disembodying direction of western idealist philosophies. This very critical force is, however, not devoid of its own dark and frightening aspect.