Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quaeritur: Aber ein Sturm...

How does a poet write history? I once began with this question. But after several years of focusing on the first part of my questionable query, I find myself now drawn more to the latter half: history--a story we tell ourselves about who we are, a narrative creatively employing the past tense, a systematic account of methodically documented or transmitted records.

Benjamin's assessment: "a pile of debris": Wo eine Kette von Begebenheiten vor uns erscheint, da sieht er eine einzige Katastrophe, die unablässig Trümmer auf Trümmer häuft und sie ihm vor die Füße schleudert. I'm rereading Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals in preparation for my spring course, Smith's translation: "Human history would be a much too stupid affair were it not for the intelligence introduced by the powerless" (I.7).

Rereading Nietzsche I've been struck by the dominance of language's seduction toward the domestic belief in a subject behind action, thought, and will. Is this the originary (modern) glimpse into the abyss, a sight unseen since Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaxamander? A lacuna of wisdom covered over neatly by Platonic ideals? Something immanently not there? Nietzsche speaks: "But no such substratum [as the subject] exists; there is no 'being' behind doing, acting, becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction imposed on the doing--the doing itself is everything" (I.13). I imagine Professor Luanne Frank pounding her fist on the table after reading aloud this line. But of course she would recite the original German.

Is there no subject then behind the movement of Benjaminian Katastrophe? No dwarfish hunchback beneath the table manipulating the chess-playing, hookah-smoking puppet in a fez who wins every game? History is after all a fiction, as evidenced by its aphetic, its pathetic story. Do we merely need to will forgetting this fiction, this noble lie upon which we base what we loosely call reality? Or do we simply need to stand back in utter passivity and allow for the forgetting to come on its own, outside all subjective control and desire?

As we no longer attempt to split the thunder from its crash, to separate the lightning from its flash, we already still (as yet) resort to our domestic tricks and techniques of history, reading and writing and rewriting that which writes itself outside of willing, released of the metaphysics of the subject as well as of the object. Pure processuality: es gibt Geschichte. Es gibt nichts.

Es gibt kein (Da-)Sein. Not even a there in which to find oneself at the end of one's own history. A history that writes itself in its unwriting as it unravels the metaphysics of narratology, of grammatology. It's like Carolyn Forché's book recommended by the philosopher who told me that philosophy does not care for or about history. And yet all the philosophers I care both for and about care both for and about history: Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, Blanchot. Even the historians who write philosophically: Herodotus, Thucydides, Procopius.

Benjamin, we always return to thee: who penned your most prescient words on history only days before succumbing to the end of your own history, before History caught up with you in the foothills of the Pyrenees, with half a handful of morphine tablets--after giving the other half to Koestler--by, as history tells us, your own hand. Smuggled manuscripts to Arendt, stolen kisses given to Bataille, who rendered them guiltless, treasonous. Even earlier: imprisoned for three months for existing in a state of statelessness in the telling town of Nevers.

If I could, I would write poetry like Miguel Murphy: "... The way the frame of his body went / slack to ruins. He knew what is dark and forgotten // rises in the body. Epilepsy / how a star is a struggle / of light. And we are very deep. And we are wounded // ...." And not just because he's beautiful and intelligent, but because his words matter. They are matter, the very material (of) language, (of) poetry, [of (even)] history. Hermeneutic lifeboats swirling about the dizzying eddies of meaning. Of meaninglessness.

How does a poet write history? How does a poet provide us access to something lost in the past, whether its our own personal story or the story of humankind? How does a poet bridge the chiasmus between the here and now and the there and then? History, that Agnostos Theos. Si deus si dea.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: Holday Gifts

The Gift of Travel
Saw the new Jason Reitman film (based on the Walter Kirn novel) Up in the Air Tuesday evening at the Plano Angelika with the great unwashed suburban masses. I'm not sure it's entirely unfair to hate a film because you share the experience with such despicable humans. Well, I didn't actually hate the film. It simply was not the film I wanted it to be. My friend Luis called it "a love letter to America," and I can see what he meant. That part I enjoyed: the traversing of vast geographical and emotional landscapes in order to find the center-most point called "home," the very essence of the ideatum of America. But there was just too much sentimentality, amplified exponentially by the audience gasping (when the enlarged photograph blew into the water) and the constant Hmm expressed by the affected woman to my immediate right every time there was an overly poignant scene, overly poignant line, or overly poignant situation. While I was driving Luis to the airport Tuesday morning I confessed that the happiest I had been in my life was when I traveled the most, while living in Japan and spending time in flight home or on my way to summers in Europe. Or even just traveling around Japan itself, with a surplus of hard cash, loads of free time to fulfill personal goals, and creativity to spare. The best moment of the film for me, however, was when Bingham "proves" the validity of his personal philosophy, his cosmology: by crashing into Goran's overwrought domesticity, which seems to be just the thing to get him back in the air, above the things and people who would only weigh him down. Ah, what I wouldn't give (up) to reach 10,000,000 miles and be able to say, "The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."

The Gift of Writing
Wednesday afternoon I finished watching the ninth and final season of Roseanne, a personal project I started a few weeks ago.I was a huge fan of the sitcom for most of the years it was on. And I always thought that the final episode was the classiest and most uplifting finale of all television, itself a real meditation on television, on loyalty and love, on creativity. I wasn't as sad to see it end when it went out with such style and guts. Many people have expressed disappointment over the last season, over the way it ended by rewriting itself, but I maintain that it only remained true to its original intentions by reinventing the metadiscursivity of not only the last season, the very last episode, but the entire series itself. We discover that Roseanne did finally become the writer she always dreamed of being, that she took that most difficult step of not just talking about what you wanted to do but actually doing it. Nothing is more positive or powerful. Sure, her narratives, especially from the last season, were tempered, restricted, and informed by blue collar television (i.e., wrestling, soap operas, other sitcoms, Roseanne itself), but therein lies the brilliance and humor of this most postmodern of postmodern narratives. Finally Phoebe Snow's voice wraps up the theme song and this quote from T.E. Lawrence is superimposed on Roseanne sitting on the couch we had thought was gotten rid of in the wake of the renovations: Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. I still feel like I can change the world. Or at least myself.

The Gift of Friendship
Yes, it's true: I deactivated my Facebook account. It is the most positive change I've made in my life in years. Even when compared to joining a training program and running a half marathon.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: Rings

  • I saved $50 dollars on my senior ring because I had a friend in the town over who had family who ran a jewelry store. All I had to do was pass out fliers for them at my high school to get the discount.
  • All I really did was slip a couple of them into some juniors' lockers. That was enough to ease my conscience about getting (to what seemed to me at the time) such a substantial discount. I was the only person who purchased my senior ring through my friend's family. Instead of actually saving $50 though, I purchased a ring design that cost about $50 dollars more than what I would've bought in the first place. It was a form of breaking even to my naive mind.
  • When I was a freshman in college I lost my senior ring one night while walking around a cemetery out in the country with some friends. Almost exactly a year later, I determined that I would return to the cemetery by myself in order to look for it. I found it within thirty minutes beneath the light of an almost full moon. I considered it fate.
  • Years later, and with the same level of determination, I decided I had to visit Mexico for Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. To this day, I can't recall why it was so important to me to go. I was driven mad to some extent about trying to impress a professor as well as claim my own fate as a world traveler, starting right then. I paid for airfare by maxing out my credit card. I drove around visiting ATMs in an attempt to trick them into giving me more money than I actually had in the bank. To some extent, it worked. I had several overdraft charges I had to deal with when I returned. Not knowing how I was going to pay for the hotel that I had had the gumption to call directly from my apartment and using my high school Spanish managed to reserve for my two traveling companions and me, I struck a deal with one of them. I sold my dignity and self-respect by agreeing to clean out her mother's garage after coming back. That was perhaps the only thing I did that wasn't really worth it, even in the end.
  • Determined to have slightly more cash on hand during this all-too-short trip, I sold my senior ring--the ring destiny thought I should have--to a pawn shop for less than half the price I had paid just a few years earlier. I would've gotten less money if I had wanted to return for it later and re-purchase it, but I decided on the spot to go for bigger cash and sell it for the gold. Goodbye, senior ring. Whispered: forever....
  • While I was in Mexico, my friends and I took a bus tour to Teotihuacan. Even though one of my friends purchased our two tickets with her credit card, she was never charged for one of the tickets. She agreed because of my situation that the free ticket would be mine.
  • And since this story is really about Shayne, we'll end with something about her and yet another miraculous sign from destiny that I was traveling down the correct path: my truck was parked at the airport for four days, and I had no idea how I was going to pay to leave. As we arrive back in Dallas, Shayne finds a $20 bill on the floor. And I make my last deal with destiny, asking Shayne if she could use that money to pay for parking. She agreed. With no strings attached, no mothers' garages to clean. And that's one of the many reasons why I love her: not because she freely gave me money that had randomly come her way but because she is obviously a vehicle through which destiny pushes me along on my own path.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: New York

  • I've now been to New York City four times: to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in November 1986, to enjoy spring break of 1989 with my cool friend Linnie, to celebrate my birthday with old (read: even older) friends in February 2009, and to support Stephen as he ran the marathon a few weeks ago.
  • The first time I visited New York City, we stayed tethered to the touristed sites: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the Rockettes' holiday show at Radio City Music Hall. And of course Christmas shopping at Macy's. I have a photograph I took of the World Trade Center from the Liberty Island Ferry.
  • After one hellacious semester at my undergraduate alma mater, my friend Linnie and I decided to head to New York for spring break. It promised to be a great trip, especially since Linnie had lived there before, and she had a friend who had offered to let us stay with him. It turned out he was an RA for a college on Long Island, so we ended up living in a dorm while most of their students were celebrating spring break in warmer climes. Taking the train into Manhattan every day was part of the excitement.
  • Linnie is an older African American woman I became friends with over the fall semester when we worked together in the basement costume shop under the proscenium stage theater. Our sewing machines were on the same table, so we faced each other every time we worked on a project. And we talked and talked. We had the same taste in music at the time. So while on vacation we hit as many hot spots as we could in Harlem: one night a blues bar, another night a small jazz ensemble. And reggae was provided by the one Bahamian student who stayed in the dorm with us. We saw Mike Tyson and Arsenio Hall at amateur night at the Apollo. We saw the musical revue Black and Blue on Broadway.
  • While riding the subway one afternoon, a homeless man boarded. Linnie leans over and whispers in her thick Black Southern accent, "I smells a CHUD." There was a time when this story was part of my repertoire during small talk at parties.
  • Now I don't remember if that was on the same day as the "Long Island Iced Tea Incident" or not. While ordering a meal at a fancy restaurant, I asked for an iced tea. I have spent most of my life in Texas after all. The waitress clarified: "A Long Island Iced Tea?" Knowing that I was on Long Island, I assumed it was just a local variety of "iced tea". It tasted a bit strange, but I didn't mind. It wasn't until I stood up to leave that I felt the effects of the alcohol. You must remember too that at that age I was quite a lightweight when it came to drinking. I remember slurring something like, "I think my tea had some alcohol in it" to Linnie, who laughed and explained to me what I had drunk. The subsequent subway ride was a blast.
  • I stayed in touch with Linnie for many years after that. But we lost touch with one another after we last spoke on September 12, 2001, the day I was scheduled to move to Warsaw.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Days for the Dead


Holiday wishes to all those who celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. This is a photograph I took about a year-and-a-half ago in Austin from the Congress Street Bridge. The Mexican fruit bat colony was leaving for the night when I snapped this, capturing some bats in flight as well as reflections from the Colorado River below. I like how it looks completely tweaked in Photoshop, but aside from a slight contrast adjustment, the photo is untouched. And as you can readily notice, I didn't even try to crop out anything.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: Words

  • I somehow managed to pass the 10,000-word mark on Chapter Two this afternoon. That was my goal when I sat down several weeks ago to work on my dissertation. I figured five chapters of about 40 pages each would put me around a 200-page final product. Now I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this topic. I need to relearn how to be done with a project, even a smaller project that's part of a much larger one.
  • Last night at the re-dedication ceremony for the Caelum Moor sculptures I grew increasingly annoyed with the wordy speeches by the self-congratulatory politicians who worked so tirelessly for the community and for public art. All I could think of was why did you allow this piece to be packed away at the water treatment facility in the first place all those years ago? Then none of us would be out here freezing our asses off while you stroke your own pathological ego.
  • Word on the street is that I'm running eight miles tomorrow morning after getting up at 4:00 AM. It will be my longest run ever. I'm amazed that I've gotten this far in my training program, but tonight the word buzzing about my brain is anxious. I need a small vacation from working so hard both on my dissertation and on my training. Then giving up my early mornings, Friday evenings, and Saturdays won't seem so painful.
  • I wonder if there will be any interesting poetry readings or events in New York while I'm there next weekend. There's something very appealing about hearing words spoken by professional wordsmiths in the capital of the world. Word.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: Yoghurt

  • While I was visiting Berlin in 1996 after conducting my thesis research, I stayed with Andrew. How did I know the architect Andrew and then manage to meet up with him in Berlin? Well, that’s a long story: he was the American ex of a Czech ex of a Swedish ex. I guess that story wasn’t really so long after all. But how we actually met again in Berlin was funny: after arriving in the former Western exclave, I headed to the community resource center and asked about clubs in the city. I told them I liked techno and wanted to dance, and they directed me to a techno/sex club. There I was, fresh off the Polish farm, seeing things deemed illegal in most American states right before my eyes. In public. It’s easy to get mesmerized in such situations. You’re stunned, you’re turned on, and you don’t want to just leave after paying a hefty cover fee. I was standing in the corner, minding my own business, when Andrew passed by. He remembered me from a couple of months ago when we had met in Prague, and he invited me to stay with him while I was in the city for the next few days. I left the hostel in the morning, making my way by foot across the city. We got along very well, which is surprising even to this day. You see, I don’t tend to like other Americans, especially those I meet overseas. I’m an arrogant snob like that. Plus I have incredibly high standards, barring hanging out at techno/sex clubs. One morning before Andrew left for work, I was browsing through a cookbook in his kitchen, and I saw a recipe for yoghurt. I couldn’t believe that people could actually make such a thing from scratch. So I determined that I would start making my own yoghurt as soon as I returned to America. I eventually bought a yoghurt maker—an incubator of sorts—and made yoghurt over the course of the next several years. But making yoghurt is not nearly as fun as eating yoghurt. And having to add your own flavors instead of just peeling back the foil top of a store-bought yoghurt cup became a hassle. We finally got rid of the machine, and I’m certain the people who saw it in the Goodwill store had no idea what this contraption was used for.
  • Today I ate skyr for the second time. The first time was a few nights ago. It was deemed “Icelandic style yoghurt,” but technically it’s a soft cheese. It’s too sour for my tastes. Give me the Greek-style yoghurt any day, which tastes just like soft ice cream.
  • I’ve tried many different kinds of yoghurt dishes: drinking yoghurts, tzatziki, and raita, among others. But I prefer regular yoghurt. (Actually my favorite is the soy yoghurt.)
  • Writing about yoghurt is boring. I can only imagine how boring it is to read about it. Even with the techno/sex club thrown in.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bullet-Point Friday: The Bewitching Hour

  • When I still lived in Kansas all those years ago, I would wake up in the middle of the night terrified out of my skin because of the witch sitting in the chair next to the bookcase in the hallway that connected my room to my parents’. Her profile was unchanging; she seemed frozenly slumped there. Yet I knew she would reach her bony hand out to grab me should I try to walk past. The only thing I knew to do was to scream for them to wake up and come rescue me. But I too was scared that the witch would take hold of them if they came for me in the night. I could only stare fixedly at her profile. Unblinkingly. Trying to sense just when she would twitch a foot or tap a finger or softly clear her throat. Then all bets were off: I would most definitely scream. But sometimes I couldn’t wait that long. Shrieking, I would take my chance that my parents’ magic was somehow stronger than the powers of the witch frozen in the hallway shadows.

  • A few years ago a friend, who was beclouded by personal problems and anti-depressants, killed himself. I’ve been thinking about Theo lately because the fifth anniversary of his death was a few days ago. The rainy, overcast sky of early October—as well as the sounds and smells of the Texas State Fair—reminds me of the knots in my stomach when Stephen told me he was dead. Thinking of bewitchment in general reminds me of the ritual burning his seven (or “several”) sisters performed a few months after his death. Gathering together photographs of his estranged wife-cum-widow, they threw them into a barrel leaping with flames. I refused to participate: not because I wanted to defend someone I really didn’t know or care about but rather because I didn’t want to dilute the magic his family was effecting on their own. My feelings for this woman was nothing compared to theirs. I didn’t want to water down the blackness of their magic with my meager toss of her photo into the fire.

  • At 19 Lukáš was busily cruising for men several years his senior around Hlavní nádraží, the main train station in Prague. It was the summer of 2001—the season after Timothy McVeigh was put to death for the “worst terrorist attack in American history” and just a few weeks before what came to be known as the “worst terrorist attack in American history”—and I was studying political and economic theory at Charles University through a disreputable and ideologically-driven program through Georgetown. My colleagues and I referred to our economics course as “Fat Bastard Economics” because it was after all taught literally by a fat bastard of a professor who was only interested in indoctrinating his students in the fallacies of “free market” capitalism. In fact, one of his insipid graduate assistants had a tattoo of the significantly uninteresting supply-and-demand graph on his shoulder. Needless to say, after I suffered through finals and the compulsory social gathering that evening, I escaped during the middle of a conversation with Miruna from Bucharest with a “I’ll be right back.” I immediately headed for the elevator and ran as fast as I could as soon as I got to the sidewalk. I was in the all-night club district for the next several hours, drinking and carousing my way across this golden city of a hundred spires. Finally sometime around 4:00 in the morning, I started heading back to the subway, knowing that the trains wouldn’t start running for a couple more hours. That’s when I caught sight of Lukáš standing above me on a pedestrian bridge. Because our eyes met, he started to follow me. Down the hill and over to the east side of the train station commonly known as a park where both straights and gays cruise. When I walked through, I saw one heterosexual couple fucking next to a tree. He kept following me. When I finally entered the station to try to catch a little shut-eye before a train could return me to the dorms on the outskirts of town, he walked up to me and said something in Czech. I responded in Czech that I didn’t speak Czech, that I was an American. Then I switched to Polish, knowing that my Polish was considerably more fluent than my self-taught Czech. He couldn’t follow much of what I said, but somewhere during the halting conversation we figured out that we knew about the same amount of Ukrainian, so that became our lingua franca of the early morning. We shared a bag of chips and a Coca Cola. He gave me a tiny photograph of himself with bleached hair. Eventually I started hearing the trains rumble beneath the dingy Art Nouveau ticket hall. We shook hands—we hugged—goodbye. Things more bizarre than an American and Czech stranger having a conversation in Ukrainian have happened in Prague. I’m almost certain of it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Shall Die

One of the first concerts I attended was a Peter, Paul and Mary reunion tour through Dallas in 1986. I remember listening to them as a child, long after they had already stopped recording together. It seems I've always known them, always had some song of theirs in my head.

But it wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school when I heard Mary Travers sing a song based on a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that I really connected with their songs and their activism.
"Conscientious Objector (I Shall Die)"
(Edna St. Vincent Millay /Lee Holdridge)

I shall die
but that is all
I shall do for Death

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall
I hear the clatter on the barn floor
He is in haste
he has business in Cuba
business in the Balkans
Many calls to make this morning
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth
And he may mount by himself
I will not give him a leg up

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip
I will not tell him which way the fox ran
And with his hoof on my breast
I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp

I shall die
but that is all
that I shall do for Death
I am not on his payroll

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my enemies either
Though he promises me much
I will not map him the route to any man's door
Am I a spy in the land of the living
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me
Never through me shall you be overcome

I shall die
but that is all
I shall do for Death
Since then I've seen Auschwitz and Babyn Yar. I've seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I remember this song in each new place I visit where humankind has attempted to destroy itself.

The world is a better place because of Mary Travers. And I am a better man because of her. Rest in peace.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tongues of Fire: Articulations of and against Terror (Part II of IV)

Question 1

Is terror-power the same in all cases, or is there a qualitative difference between terror-power employed by a state and that employed by a non-state actor? Are there different terror-powers?

On Monday, April 17, 2006, twenty-one-year-old Palestinian suicide-bomber Sami Salim killed himself and nine others outside a falafel stand in Tel Aviv, Israel. Most democratically-elected governments quickly responded with condemnations. The most unique aspect of this event, however, was the official response from Hamas, who called it an “act of self-defense.” This, of course, would not be quite as shocking if Hamas were still merely a terrorist organization and its political wing had not recently won a majority share (with 76 out of 132 seats) in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas, too, was democratically elected. This fact problematizes quite a large measure of Western/American political rhetoric that claims that democracies and acts of terrorism are mutually exclusive. We like to believe that we are not like them, that democratic processes like free elections negate such violence (or the need for such violence) by offering both a voice as well as political efficacy to “the people.” But when a majority of the people elects those who we see as terrorists, it is time for a reassessment of our own convictions regarding terror, power, and the deployment of both.

In her conversations with Habermas and Derrida shortly after September 11, 2001, Giovanna Borradori tries to sort through a related issue regarding legality and tyranny. She reminds us that the two great tyrannies of the twentieth century—Stalinism and Nazism—were not lawless regimes. In fact, both were based on inexorable laws that dictated a specific response from their respective populations (7). Moreover, each was informed by what it saw as a higher legal or moral system—the Nazis had their laws of nature and racial superiority, and the Soviets had their socio-economic laws. Despite terrorists’ claims for a higher moral order (by way of a radical, ideologically driven fundamentalism, for example) or for specific political concessions (such as the call for US troops to leave Saudi Arabia or for an independent Palestine), Borradori, however, argues that terrorism is not like a chess game in which distinctions between legal and illegal moves exist (2). Because we still maintain these distinctions, though, a sharp division, as far as Borradori is concerned, remains between them and us.

Chomsky, on the other hand, does not differentiate between terror and power per se. His conflation of what we do in the name of freedom and what they do in the name of terror (according to us) is radical to say the least. For him, 9/11 is informed by a somewhat traditional view of history. By that, I mean the terrorist attacks in the United States are “simply” retaliation for past military actions (or inaction): “That’s the way the imperial powers have treated the rest of the world for hundreds of years” (13). The only thing new about this event was that the casualties were predominately American. He maintains, “This is a historic event, but unfortunately not because of the scale or the nature of the atrocity but because of who the victims were” (ibid). Whereas contemporary (read: postmodern or post-structuralist) philosophers and thinkers are often criticized for their perceived nihilism and calls for relativism, Chomsky’s standpoint remains unequivocal and adamant:

When you try to get someone to talk about this question, they can’t comprehend what your question is. They can’t comprehend that we should apply to ourselves the standards you apply to others. That is incomprehensible. There couldn’t be a moral principle more elementary. All you have to do is read George Bush’s favorite philosopher [Jesus]. There’s a famous definition in the Gospels of the hypocrite, and the hypocrite is the person who refuses to apply to himself the standards he applies to others. (29)

I do not see how anyone can call this perspective “relativist” when he cites a fundamental, universal moral standard as well as legitimizes it with the New Testament. Because of this strategy as well as because of his almost ultra-pragmatic approach to politics, Chomsky remains in a class by himself among the other thinkers dealt with here.

Chomsky continues by describing “the entire commentary and discussion of the so-called War on Terror” as “pure hypocrisy” (ibid). At the risk of being labeled an apologist for terrorism, he contends that every crime contains “elements of legitimacy” that should be considered before retaliating:

It’s just a matter of sanity. If you don’t care if there are further terrorist attacks, then fine, say let’s not pay any attention to the reasons. If you’re interested in preventing them, of course you’ll pay attention to the reasons. It has nothing to do with apologetics.” (15)

The US government and mainstream society, however, see the threat more as disobedience or a failure to conform (16); therefore, Chomsky’s criticisms are often misread (if read at all). It is easier to lump him in with the terrorists than to appreciate the intellectual work he offers in attempting to solve America’s problems with terrorism. His accusation that the US carries out as well as helps other nations carry out “massive state terror” (19) is perceptive if only for its logical solution: “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: Stop participating in it. That alone will reduce the amount of terrorism in the world by an enormous quantity” (19-20). Such a simple solution is much more appealing, I think, than trying to find a logic behind the several arguments by Bush administration officials that international human rights laws somehow constrain our efforts at fighting terrorism. What Chomsky refers to as US-sponsored terrorism (for example, certain military actions in Vietnam) is, as far as the American media and public are concerned, not important. It is as if the “atrocities you commit somewhere else don’t exist. . . . [If terrorists] do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it’s so normal, why should we even talk about it” (17-20)? For Chomsky, the height of American hypocrisy was the arbitrariness of the term “war crime” during the Nuremberg trials: “there was a very explicit definition, and it was conscious. It was not hidden. A crime is a war crime if the Germans committed it and we didn’t” (21). In fact, if it could be proven that Allied troops performed the same action (bombing densely populated urban centers, for example), Nazi war criminals were freed. The only distinction, therefore, between them and us is the ethical standard we apply because, after all, our actions are indistinguishable.

In his short essay “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” which was widely distributed immediately after 9/11, Žižek takes a similar view. He proposes, “Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence” (np). In effect, he is arguing that the terrorists are much more closely related to our true selves than we would like to admit. But while Chomsky would most likely argue that the US has, if not a greater power, than at least an equal amount of power and force to respond to 9/11, Žižek classifies the US as impotent if we retaliate against Afghanistan:

Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world…. However, WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, bringing us full satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest power in the world will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant [sic] barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? (np)

By deploying our power, we end up negating it because of the overwhelming asymmetry of our power versus theirs. (In his conversation with Borradori, Habermas refers to such asymmetry as “morally obscene” (28).) Perhaps Žižek is arguing that by engaging in such an unfair and imbalanced act, the US will then become the terrorist, merely reflecting the essence of the terrorism against which we allegedly are waging war.

Although there does seem to be a large number of people, especially within the US, who believe that an ontological (if not downright metaphysical) wall separates state-power from terror-power, we can see from the above example with Hamas that those categories are not so easy to delineate. State-power can indeed be terror-power when a state (democratically elected or not) exerts overwhelming force upon others, including its own citizens, as in the Benjamin case. I certainly do not mean to imply here that this first constellation of questions has been sufficiently answered; instead, more complex philosophical as well as political questions arise, such as, how should the US handle the moral dimension of its foreign policy after 9/11, and is there a pragmatic response to the attacks that would not utilize any form of terror-power? Perhaps the only conclusion we can reach at this point, however, is that state-power and terror-power, though not always necessarily the same, are related enough to engage the other; that is, terror-power will always react to state-power and vice versa. These two powers seem to be like binary stars caught in the gravitational pull of its twin.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

CFP: Levinas and Asian Thought

I am thrilled and proud to be a part of this edited volume. Here are some links to our call for papers for Levinas and Asian Thought:
If you have any questions or concerns about submitting a paper, please feel free to contact me.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tongues of Fire: Articulations of and against Terror (Part I of IV)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, written during the spring of 1940, Walter Benjamin writes,

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable. (257)

Can we say the same of terrorism in the twenty-first century? Is it simply our view of history that we somehow have gotten wrong? In this essay, I approach the issue of contemporary terrorism and its affect on knowledge by examining the philosophical discourse of terror as well as exploring the possibility that terror is yet one more articulation of power itself. Arguing against the humanist tradition that would split knowledge and power into separate spheres, Michel Foucault asserts, “knowledge and power are integrated with one another” (52). Moreover, he argues, “nothing is more material, physical, corporal than the exercise of power” (57-58). Still, terror, much like Foucault’s notion of the State, is dispersed: individuals are merely nodes, or articulations, of power confined within a closed, yet nevertheless ubiquitous network (98). For Foucault, the exercise of power is never wholly negative: although one aspect of power is repressive, power nevertheless does generate new knowledge. But there seems to be an ethical disconnect in comparing terror-power to state-power: would Foucault himself even be able to maintain that the exercise of such terror-power cannot only be in negative terms, particularly to Benjamin, who was literally fleeing the “negative exercise of power” of the Third Reich as he penned the thesis cited above?

Benjamin implicates our previous view of history in the production of fascism. Furthermore, he seems to be suggesting—much like Foucault—that with a complete shift in our understanding of history and knowledge, a new power might be possible. But the usefulness of a terror-knowledge appears flawed at best. Is a terror-knowledge something we (should) want? In his analysis of denotative and prescriptive language games, Jean-François Lyotard moves toward addressing the ethical issues surrounding power/knowledge and its articulations. He contends, “It is one thing for an undertaking to be possible and another for it to be just. Knowledge is no longer the subject, but in the service of the subject: its only legitimacy (though it is formidable) is the fact that it allows morality to become reality” (36). If knowledge is truly in the service of a subject, then that subject, insofar as Lyotard seems to be arguing here, has a certain amount of agency to deploy knowledge in hopes of realizing and substantiating morality. In addition, the possibility that terror can ever be an acceptable form of interaction does not exist for Lyotard; terror itself “lies outside the realm of language games” (46). Both denotative and prescriptive language games are played by participants who agree to keep within the prescribed rules of a particular game. The only goal is to make a better move, thereby successfully extending the game as well as the social bond it creates. On the other hand, with terror, the threat to eliminate an opposing player negates the efficacy of any force: “Whenever efficiency (that is, obtaining the desired effect) is derived from a ‘Say or do this, or else you’ll never speak again,’ then we are in the realm of terror, and the social bond is destroyed” (ibid). He reaffirms this definition later by noting that terror is not purely the force to eliminate but also the threat to eliminate: “By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing)” (63-64). According to this perspective, when one utilizes terror-knowledge from a position of agency and power, other participants are silenced and their own agency is effaced.

Within this process of morality becoming reality (à la Lyotard), and within the process of power itself as it is dispersed across its own language game, it seems that an interrogation of terror-power (even if that terror-power is the selfsame state-power, as in Benjamin’s case) would be a possible means of understanding both Foucault’s and Benjamin’s conflicting notions of resistance as well as their views on any efficacy of an agentic subject contained by that resistance. For the purposes of this project, I hope at least to move toward an answer to these more abstract questions by first attempting to answer three preliminary constellations of questions that address the following issues: the nature and ontological category of terror-power, the possibility of a terror-knowledge, and the problem of resistance.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Byzantium/Old Istanbul (A Translation)

Byzantium

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.


Old Istanbul

The cluttered impressions from the sun’s domain pull away;
The Sultan’s army dreams its liquored-up dreams.
Echoes of the moon grow silent, the tramp’s dirge
Takes its cue from the chiming of the church;
This bell-shaped canopy—with its astral? lunar? twinkling—looks down upon
Everything mortal,
Everything overly complicated,
The bile as well as the bog of man’s mesh.
An impression hovers in my sight, person or appearance,
Façade exceeding face, supplemental icon for idol;
Because Cehennem’s coil tethered to an embalming shroud
Might straighten the twisted trail;
A dry orifice that cannot inhale
Gasping maws might beckon;
My ego salutes the Übermensch;
Its name: thanatobios, biothanatos.
An act of Allah, sparrow or precious embroidery,
No less an act than sparrow or stitchery,
Seeded on the precious limb of night,
Able to kukuriku like Hell’s rooster,
Or made mad by Luna’s vocal disdain
In majesty of steel that will not change
A familiar sparrow or rose’s leaf
And every complication from the mortal bog.
When the clock raises its hands to the crescent moon, on the Sultan’s sidewalk flashes
An inferno nourished by no fuel, illumined by no sword,
Against which no tempest rages, a fire-born inferno,
Someplace sanguinary specters draw near
And rage’s every convolution abandons.
An expiration pas de deux,
Excruciating voodoo,
Such fiery pain unable to immolate a single thread.
Saddled atop a seafaring beast,
Specter following specter! The forges disturb the deluge.
The Sultan’s precious forges!
Tiles from the discothèque
Disrupt convolution’s acrid annoyance,
Icons that hitherto
Give birth to unspoiled reflection,
That seabeast-sliced, chime-challenged deep.

I've managed my way through several graduate translation workshops, suffering from a lack of stimulation and gasping for some sort of theoretical framework like precious oxygen. Instead, I was stifled with lame assignments such as writing essays about authors' biographies and historical contexts as well as "English-to-English" translations. Here is one such assignment I completed a couple of years ago in defiance of academic mediocrity and a lack of intellectual merit. Just how Byzantine can one go?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part IV of IV)

Throughout his later work, Heidegger carefully divests us human beings from our subjectivism, our techno-productionist views of the world, as well as our various forms of humanisms; that is, he allows no room for the privileging of the human being, particularly that over being itself. The human being—the only being that being languages—has his or her dwelling in being concealed by language. This essence of the human being alone counters any argument that Heidegger somehow privileges human beings over other beings. How could the homelessness of the human being indeed assert a privileged position? Instead of just such a reassertion of the primacy of human beings, Heidegger seeks the human being outside metaphysical systems that confuse being with beings. He has no need for systems which define human beings simply in contradistinction to plant, beast, and God (“Letter” 246). One of the problems with humanism is that it comes to us by way of a Latin worldview; a Roman (mis)understanding of late Greek culture mediates our knowledge of Greek civilization (as well as of being). All humanisms—whether Roman, Marxist, existentialist, or Christian—“agree in this, that the humanitas of homo humanus is determined with regard to an already established interpretation of nature, history, world, and the ground of the world, that is, of beings as a whole” (“Letter” 245). But for Heidegger, being, on the contrary, is the openness wherein the essence of the human being unfolds. Our entry into that openness is language, the “clearing-concealing advent of being itself” (“Letter” 249). Being, as the clearing from which all physis arises, dwells within language. Language is not a purely objective phenomenon, however; it can be manipulated, surrendering itself “to our mere willing and trafficking as an instrument of domination over beings” (“Letter” 243). As being arrives in language, it does not simply become yet another being among beings. Instead, the ek-sisting human being—the one who stands out in the clearing of being—guards, preserves, sustains, and takes into “care” the clearing of being.

Heidegger, however, is not purely anti-humanism. Instead he offers an extreme humanism “that thinks the humanity of the human being from nearness to being” (“Letter” 261). This extreme humanism depends on thinking the truth of being which in turn “depends upon this alone, that the truth of being come to language and that thinking attain to this language” (“Letter” 261). Every language, though, is always already a metaphysics. Existing in the namelessness, for Heidegger, is a move beyond the metaphysics of language (toward an anarchical arche before the concealment of being within language): “But if the human being is to find his way once again into the nearness of being he must first learn to exist in the nameless” (“Letter” 243). Heidegger’s own discarding of his key terms “hermeneutics” and “phenomenology,” he confesses to a Japanese interlocutor, was “in order to abandon [his] own path of thinking to namelessness” (“Dialogue” 29). Perhaps here Heidegger is pointing toward a way of being more originary than the myth of Genesis, prior to the naming of the “lower” animals which established human beings as superior, thereby naming us their lords (instead of their shepherds). Perhaps this is the lesson we can learn from dumb animals: if we humans can learn to exist in our own namelessness, then maybe we can somehow make the leap (Ursprung) past all shoddy humanisms throughout history and even past metaphysics itself to Heidegger’s own extreme humanism which thinks the human being from within the nearness of being and as always already with all other beings.


Works Cited

Atterton, Peter. “Face-to-Face with the Other Animal?” Levinas & Buber: Dialogue & Difference. Eds. Peter Atterton, Matthew Calarco, and Maurice Friedman. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2004. 262-281.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Scribner’s, 1970.

Heidegger, Martin. “Anaximander’s Saying.” Off the Beaten Track. Ed. and Trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. New York: Cambridge UP, 2002. 242-281.

---. “A Dialogue on Language (Between a Japanese and an Inquirer).” On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 1-54.

---. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

---. “Introduction to ‘What is Metaphysics?’” Pathmarks. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Ed. William McNeill. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. 277-290.

---. “Letter on ‘Humanism.’” Pathmarks. Trans. Frank A. Capuzzi. Ed. William McNeill. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. 239-276.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part III of IV)

At first glance, the abyss separating human beings from animals within Heidegger’s work seems to allow for the greater possibility that human beings can be seen as privileged subjects and that they remain in a dominant position within a hierarchy of beings, thereby reestablishing the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic creation mythology. The reestablishing of such a hierarchy, however, runs counter to Heidegger’s call to deep thinking about being and our experience of dwelling within the truth of being in the world. Within his thoughtful delineation of the human being’s existence, Heidegger emphasizes, “The proposition ‘the human being alone exists’ does not at all mean that the human being alone is a real being while all other beings are unreal and mere appearances or human representations” (“Introduction” 284). Rather, Heidegger questions the questionability of such a hierarchy throughout his lecture course, insisting that even amoebae are no less perfect or complete than elephants or apes: “Every animal and every species of animal as such is just as perfect and complete as any other” (Concepts 194). Any difference that may exist between the human being and the animal, especially with an attribution of some specific difference to the human being, abandons “the human being to the essential realm of animalitas (“Letter” 246). As far as Heidegger is concerned, we are on the wrong track if this is our method. Instead, he wants to think humanism while not privileging the human, especially over being. The human being is not the animal which has logos (as logic) but rather the (animal) being that lets him- or herself be gathered by logos (as legein). Just as Buber is aware of how easily the mutuality of I-Thou can collapse into the instrumentalized I-It, Heidegger too considers how easy it is for the human being to stray away from his or her destiny of being. He warns that if we human beings do not allow being to in-form us, we deform into something less than animal: “However ready we are to rank man as a higher being with respect to the animal, such an assessment is deeply questionable, especially when we consider that man can sink lower than any animal. No animal can become depraved in the same way as man” (Concepts 194). Human beings can become deformed when we privilege our grasp of information as if objective information were an unconcealing of the truth of being. If indeed “knowledge is the remembrance of being” as Heidegger reminds us in “Anaximander’s Saying” (263), then, the memorization of mere information (as so-called objective fact) is the being’s forgetting.

We human beings also tend to forget the fact that our being is always already a being with. Heidegger defines the human being as one who is able to transpose him- or herself into the being of another human being. Even asking the question whether a human being can transpose into another is “fundamentally redundant”:

Insofar as human beings exist at all, they already find themselves transposed in their existence into other human beings, even if there are factically no other human beings in the vicinity. Consequently the Da-sein of man, the Da-sein in man means, not exclusively but amongst other things, being transposed into other human beings. The ability to transpose oneself into others and go along with them, with the Dasein in them, always already happens on the basis of man’s Dasein, and happens as Dasein. For the being-there of Da-sein means being with others, precisely in the manner of Dasein, i.e., existing with others. (Concepts 205)

It is the misperception of a gap that needs to be bridged between (and among) human beings that leads philosophy astray into metaphysics and a calling for(th) empathy—a seriously flawed concept that posits a lone, solipsistic, singular subject who is isolated from others (Concepts 206-7). Here Heidegger pulls back from explicitly defining the Da-sein of the human being as a being also with other non-human beings, but he leaves an opening into that possibility by “not exclusively” ruling out a transposition into the dumb animal. Is this “amongst others” a gesturing toward the possibility of a co-mingling of the human being’s world and the partial world of the animal? Can the misperceived gap between human beings not also point toward a misperceived abyss between human being and animal?

If we were to keep this possibility open—that being is always already a being with all other beings—then one can perhaps ask an even more difficult question: is there something human beings can learn from dumb animals? Can we begin to understand better our own (concealed) nest in being by thinking toward the animal’s nest? If a transposing into the animal is possible, how do we “translate” ourselves across the abyss in order to relate to our animal relations? Would such a transposition lead to a new elation (a new ecstasy vis-à-vis ek-stasis) due to a closer relation to animals, a relation in which we human beings divest ourselves of our prelate positionality? Buber suggests that we can indeed learn something from animals:

The eyes of an animal have the capacity of a great language. Independent, without any need of the assistance of sounds and gestures, most eloquent when they rest entirely in their glance, they express the mystery in its natural captivity, that is, in the anxiety of becoming. This state of the mystery is known only to the animal, which alone can open it up to us—for this state can only be opened up and not revealed … . This language is the stammering of nature under the initial grasp of spirit, before language yields to spirit’s cosmic risk which we call man. But no speech will ever repeat what the stammer is able to communicate. (144-5)

We human beings may indeed be separate from animals, and animals may indeed be mute and unable to respond to language’s call. But despite this, we nevertheless are responsible for animals—that is, we have in a Lévinasian sense the ability to respond to animals, to realize a response to them even within their muteness. We allow animals to enter into relation with us within language—the house of being we share with all other beings. Our responsibility for animals heuristically mirrors our responsibility to being. Human beings are the shepherds of being. “Shepherd” is informed by nature, by the nature of sheep. The shepherd is he or she who gathers together the dispersed herd of sheep, the human being who gathers together that which disperses itself, namely, being (as physis). Our proximity to (the presence of) dumb animals offers a heuristic opening to the (absence of the) gods who speak the truth of being.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part II of IV)

World comes to the fore within Heidegger’s exploration of the humanity of human beings. Significantly, the etymological origins of world tend more toward time and historicity (as in “the age or life of man”) than the currently standard conceptualization of location and positionality (as in “citizen of the world”). In Heidegger’s use, however, world is never merely the earth as opposed to the heavens or the realm of the spirit; it does not indicate a realm of beings at all but rather “the openness of being” (“Letter” 266). This use is not quite the same as that in his lecture course, where he proposes, “Let us provisionally define world as those beings which are in each case accessible and may be dealt with, accessible in such a way that dealing with such beings is possible or necessary for the kind of being pertaining to a particular being” (Concepts 196). If world is defined—no matter how provisionally—according to accessibility of beings to other beings, then the dumb animal is not entirely deprived of it:

If by world we understand beings in their accessibility in each case, if such accessibility of beings is a fundamental character of the concept of world, and if being a living being means having access to other beings, then the animal stands on the side of man. Man and animals alike have world … . The animal thus reveals itself as a being which both has and does not have world. (Concepts 199)

This tension among human beings, animals, world, and language/silence is not unique to Heidegger. But whereas Heidegger limits the animal’s access to language (“they lack language”), Buber opens up the possibility of standing in relation with dumb animals within language—or within the dialogue, to keep within Buber’s terminology. In fact, Buber opens up the dialogue for all of nature—be it stone or tree—as well as the supernatural (the divine). Here, however, I limit the scope of my discussion to dumb animal as distinct from the languaged human being.

Buber begins his text with a description of the world: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude” (53). This twofold attitude mirrors the two basic word pairs that he can speak: I-Thou* and I-It. While I-Thou can only be spoken “with one’s whole being” (54), I-It establishes a subject-object dichotomy and hierarchy where the subject is privileged, thereby leading to the alienation of modern human beings. A subject I cannot expand into its fullness within the fullness of its relation to an other (who is also fully expanded within the self-same relation) if everything other is only objectified and treated or encountered as mere object (as an It).

For Buber, there is no difference between “being I and saying I” (54). But is Buber’s inter-subjectivity (that is, the I-Thou relation) yet another shoddy humanism that keeps human beings from the destiny of their being? From my understanding of Buber’s text, he does not resort to the anthropocentric fallacy of privileging human beings over other beings: the Thou expands beyond the merely inter-personal to include nature, works of art, as well as the divine. Furthermore, Buber posits an ontology based solely on relation: “All actual life is encounter” (62). In this way, he too dismisses subjectivity by favoring neither a subjective I nor a subjective Thou. Instead he privileges the mutuality of the relation between the two subjects, all the while aware that this ideal mutualism can degenerate into the monologic objectification and instrumentalization of an I-It. I expands because Thou is boundless and (in a Levinasian sense) wholly other (as opposed to being merely the other of the I). The I does not exist except insofar as it is in relation to either a Thou or an It.

Buber maintains that the first sphere of relation is life with nature: “Here the relation vibrates in the dark and remains below language. The creatures stir across from us, but they are unable to come to us, and the [Thou] we say to them sticks to the threshold of language” (56-7). In the 1957 Afterword to I and Thou Buber expands his notion of threshold beyond language to that of mutuality:

Animals are not twofold, like man: the twofoldness of the basic words I-[Thou] and I-It is alien to them although they can both turn toward another being and contemplate objects. We may say that in them twofoldness is latent. In the perspective of our [Thou]-saying to animals, we may call this sphere the threshold of mutuality. (173)

Peter Atterton clarifies this expanded notion in his 2004 essay “Face-to-Face with the Other Animal?” Atterton explains that Buber

sought to distinguish the relation to nature from the relation that exists between persons through the introduction of the term threshold (Schwelle). The plant and mineral world (“from the stones to the stars” [IT, 173]) were said to be at the “pre-threshold” (Vorschwelle) of mutuality; the animal at the threshold; and the human at “over-threshold” (Überschwelle). (263-4)

Only between human beings is complete mutuality possible, but everything in nature has some capability for mutuality: “it is clear that the regions of nature—from rocks to plants to animals—are still defined in terms of their capacity for mutuality, and that is presumably the reason why Buber felt he could simply revise the twofold ontology of I and Thou [in his Afterword] rather than abandon it altogether” (264). If this is the case, then Buber’s dialogic ontology cannot be limited by the merely anthropocentric notion of dialogue, just as Heidegger’s language is beyond the merely linguistic. But is Buber’s threshold ontologically different from Heidegger’s abyss? Can Buber’s threshold serve as a bridge between the human being and the animal, or between the world of the human being and the tentative world of the animal? How is it that Heidegger is so eloquent a thinker when it comes to how human beings are able to stand in relation to architecture, poetry (poetizing), works of art, and even to being itself, but he seems unable or unwilling to address the issue of human beings standing in relation to other living beings—much of the focus of Buber’s work?


* I use Atterton’s “I-Thou” (Ich-Du) instead of Kaufmann’s “I-You” in order to maintain consistency.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Extreme Humanism and the Name(d): A Leap over the Threshold of Language (Part I of IV)

What is the nature of language? What is the language of nature? Is it solely language that distinguishes human beings from animals, or is the difference between the two more substantial? Eschewing both Aristotelian empiricism which sought to define human beings as animals with reason and the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition in which YHWH as creator-god placed human beings (created in the image of the divine) in a superior and dominant position over dumb beings (who in turn received their names from their newly created lords), Heidegger instead seeks liberation “from the mechanistic conception of life” (Concepts 189) as well as from the foundation offered by the Western philosophical tradition. The key differences between human beings and animals for Heidegger are the interrelated concepts of world and language. Heidegger considers three specific beings in his discussion of world and language: stone, animal, and human being. This discussion accounts for approximately one-third of the text of his 1929-30 lecture course published as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. The wordlessness of the stone reflects its own worldlessness. Moreover, the animal that stands with human beings on the side of world is nevertheless deprived of that world. Heidegger further problematizes the relationship between animals and human beings in his 1946 “Letter on ‘Humanism,’” where he contends that dumb animals are ambivalently related to human beings: “on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other they are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss” (248)—itself a “bottomless” world, a world with neither ground nor substance. These essential traits make dumb animals “the most difficult to think about” (248). Yet the human being’s own relation to being (by way of language) is not necessarily any easier to grasp either. Human beings both have a world and are world-forming, but this ability to form worlds cannot be reduced to the typical metaphysical relationship: that is, the human subject does not merely impose a form upon his or her objective world. Rather, the world for Heidegger is the clearing of being itself. The worlding of the human being grounds him or her within being, in-forming the human being’s own being.

Language, for Heidegger, is closed to the experience of dumb beings: “Because plants and animals are lodged in their respective environments but are never placed freely into the clearing of being which alone is ‘world,’ they lack language” (“Letter” 248). Animals are always already at home—lodged—within being; they do not stand out in the clearing of being like human beings do. Heidegger defines language as “the clearing-concealing advent of being itself” (“Letter” 249). But if there is no clearing for the animal in which to stand out (ek-sist) in the first place, then the concealment of being by language becomes an unnecessary appendage or useless adjunct to the non-human animal: “living creatures are as they are without standing outside their being as such and within the truth of being, preserving in such standing the essential nature of their being” (“Letter” 248). Being has always already arrived for the animal; there is no need to announce its advent by way of language. Heidegger further explicates his notion of human ek-sistence—the standing out in world, or the clearing of being—in his 1949 “Introduction to ‘What Is Metaphysics?’”:

The being that exists is the human being. The human being alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but he does not exist … . The proposition ‘the human being exists’ means: the human being is that being whose Being is distinguished by an open standing that stands in the unconcealedness of Being, proceeding from Being, in Being. (284)

Putting aside the question of domestication and enculturation of animals—which is outside the scope of this essay—an exploration of Heidegger’s conception of world would be useful in attempting an approach toward the difficult thinking necessary to understand just what he sees as the nature of the abyss as well as the nature of the kinship between animals and humankind. One wonders if it is possible to begin to close this gap. To this end, I would like to take up Martin Buber’s own ontological understanding of the relation between human beings and dumb animals in his 1923 I and Thou as a way of rethinking the fundamental Heideggerean question about language and non-human animals.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Utopian Time & Space: De/(Con)structions of Babel (Part III of III)

Even More seems aware of these shifting borders as he attempts an analogous, albeit rhetorical, configuration throughout his text. First we have More as author, here to relate the tale of Utopia. Then we have More as character. This second More seems to serve as an Everyman (or at least as a generic European of the time) who listens attentively to Hythloday’s account about the distant island.

Despite More’s attempts to confound the public in regard to the veracity of just such a place, its ultimate artificiality becomes apparent. The utopia of the island (there) is fictional in the same way that any utopia (here) is improbable if not impossible: the learned (in this case, Hythloday) knows that it is useless to try to advise the king. The distance to both is just as great. The decentered and displaced rhetorical devices throughout Utopia extinguish any hope of utopia (either here or there) because of this preposterous interchange between the historical More and the unreliable narrator of the text. In fact, the real More seems just as unreliable when we examine the various techniques he used to convince the public that this book was an account of an actual voyage. In asking who are we to believe, we cannot conclusively believe anyone due to More’s overwhelming ambivalence.

More scholar Alistair Fox suggests in his analysis of the textual production of Utopia that More began to sense that the perfection he was attempting to create carried within itself its own imperfections. The rhetoric of Book 2 where he describes Utopia in practice becomes increasingly complicated, suggesting, perhaps, that More himself realized, as he constructed Utopia, the near impossibility of a perfect social order existing at a particular moment in time. More’s description of Utopia begins simply enough and perhaps even convincingly. However, as he develops his ideas and offers the reader more details about the island’s structure and operations, the potential flaws in his perfect society begin to reveal themselves. Fox argues that “Utopia is in a constant state of evolution” (43), and thus, as we have argued, utopia can exist only in a mode of becoming and never in one of being.

One can simply compare the industriousness of these utopias to the lack of toil and labor necessary to maintain Eden to get at the heart of this push, this urge, this drive to do the good work not for its own sake but for the totalizing and universalizing sake of all, and in particular, for the sake of utopia itself. Yet the further we move (in time and conceptually) away from Eden, the closer (in time and conceptually) we come toward Armageddon. Utopia becomes contaminated, infested with apocalypse, so much so that not only do we see off in the distance a new heaven and a new earth but a new hell as well. Our drive toward one is ultimately a drive toward the other; hence, the canon of utopian literature becomes overrun by dystopia.

The construction of any Edenic (or Zen/Taoist) utopia of being, in which the eternal present constrains both valorization of the past and the articulation of schemes to construct a future state of being, would necessarily throw a regime back into a state of becoming, for in a true state of being, history is sloughed off as easily as any grand narrative of the future. There can be no Edenic policy of communism, democratization, globalization, Nazification, New World Order, or even a War on Terror, for all such policies are necessarily policies of becoming. To be in a state of being, we must be “ruled by an eternal present . . . a time forged in opposition to the very idea of time. In order to conceive and aspire to it, we must execrate all becoming….” (Cioran 99). The only true approach to a state of being would involve acceptance of the present moment itself, as it is right now, outside or beyond any linear, teleological paradigm or construct. No goal could be admitted into such a state, and by the sheer fact that this state lies outside the dualisms of past and future, good and evil, us and them, this post-dialectical Eden would remain immune from accusations of stasis and stagnation. Cioran asks, “Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom, of that fear which will always make us cherish the novelty and the spice of disaster, and prefer any misfortune to stagnation?” (Cioran 109). If we answer no, then we must ask the more difficult question: “How are we to embark upon our own nevertheless doomed voyage toward utopia?” But if we answer yes, however, then we too must acquiesce that any attempt to create utopia will necessarily always be a working toward some final destruction; and that every earthbound utopia is always already a suicidal drive toward Armageddon.

Co-authored with S. Harding and presented at the “Imagining the Future: Utopia, Dystopia and Science Fiction” at Monash University, December 6 – 7, 2005, Melbourne, Australia.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The New Jerusalem.” In Immortal Poems of the English Language. Ed. Oscar Williams. New York: Washington Square P, 1952.

Cioran, E.M. History and Utopia. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Seaver, 1987.

Fox, Alistair. Utopia: An Elusive Vision. New York: Twayne, 1993.

More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Trans. & ed. Robert M. Adams. Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

Mumford, Lewis. The Story of Utopias. New York: Viking, 1968.