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.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

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

At the exact opposite end of history from Eden, we have the notion of the New Jerusalem, a utopian space carved out somewhere between a new heaven and a new earth. Revolutionary ideologies spanning the political spectrum from anarchical libertarianism and militaristic regimes of the far right to Marxist communal systems of the far left inform utopia as mode of becoming. It is within this mode that all good revolutionaries must operate and function toward some future goal. To paraphrase Romantic poet William Blake, these zealots cannot rest from mental fight, nor shall their swords sleep in their hands, till they have built this New Jerusalem not only upon the green and pleasant hills of England but everywhere else as well. For as we saw with the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, a utopia—even one distantly removed from its idealistic objective—within its own borders at the end of the day really is not fulfilling its destiny. This species of utopia must spill over their artificial borders and conquer the neighboring states for their own good. All such systems are born out of utopian visions of themselves, but all seem necessarily and thankfully doomed to failure.

A key factor within the construct of utopia is that of exile. God banishes man from both Eden and Babel. In this proto-Freudian expulsion from the womb, man’s fate seems always to be the laborious life of the refugee in search of a new home. This alienation (in which all of earth becomes an alien nation) is from both space as well as from time. Romanian-born writer and philosopher Emile Cioran sees history itself as alienation from the eternal present (102-4), and indeed, “In its general outline, utopia is a cosmogonic dream on the level of history” (107). In this view, utopia becomes a function of history in that utopianists work toward an end of history—to complete history—to end human progress, for the shift from becoming back into being, to an eternal present outside the shifting borders of time and history as well as of geography. Utopia seeks the atemporal, necessitating work around the clock and throughout the year for the final eradication of the twenty-four, the seven, and the three hundred sixty-five. Is it any wonder, then, that both our hexidecimal and sexigesimal, or base-12 and base-60, measurements of both time and space originated in Babel? From these early utopianists, we get, among others, our sixty-second minutes, sixty-minute hours, 24-hour days, twelve-month years as well as our 360-degree circles with which we measure the longitude and latitude of our globe.

These origins of our measures of time and space that keep us connected to the past in order to allow us to look forward lock us into a perpetual mode of becoming. Yet we moderns are more than just cursory heirs to the scientific and cultural legacies of Babel. Its metaphysical and philosophical paradigms still resonate with us today, particularly when we recognize ourselves in the standard definitions of Babel (“noise and confusion”) and its easily conflated twin Babylon (“a place characterized by great luxury and often corruption”). It is as if the metaphoric definitions supersede any acknowledgment of an actual historical and geographical entity. For in our very conception of time and space, we have also culturally constructed the idea of the end of time—that is, the achievement of paradise in the Final Judgment; the becoming in the passage of time would then be the being of utopia. It is even more fitting perhaps that the United States—itself an attempt toward a home to refugees from absolutely every other nation on earth as well as an archetype of both luxury and corruption—has taken upon itself the project of creating (or re-creating) utopia. It is this eternal struggle to rebuild Babel (which is, as we have argued above, itself an attempt to reconstitute Eden) with its hegemonic monoculture (Hollywood consumerism) and lingua franca (broken English)—in effect, to end progress itself via the “idolatry of progress” (Cioran 108)—that millennialist Americans hope to usher in the Second Coming, forgetting all the while that whatever brief respite there may be from the ticking of the clock, the Lord will once again come down to destroy the city—even if it is built upon a hill*—and scatter humankind abroad. And history, of course, will always already resume.

Urban historian Lewis Mumford articulates the importance of concepts, and argues that their histories are just as significant as the histories of actions: man is always working and building toward a conception of the ideal. The conception of utopia, therefore, should be on equal footing with the construction of utopia. To remove the concept is to remove an essential component of history itself. For Mumford, it is the limiting of possibility within the construction of utopia that leads to decline and death—the hubris of “we are the greatest” contrasted with “we are as great as we can possibly be.” Throughout history, we continually hone our ideals as we hone our work. It is this continual refinement and perfecting of utopian ideals that necessarily informs the construction and manifestation of utopia. Utopia, therefore, must always be open to the possibilities of becoming. And yet it can never become if it is not (that is, if it does not first be).

In its purist possibility, utopia can be either total control where all social relations and functions are predefined, or absolute, anarchic freedom whereby the individual exists beyond any structure. Yet clearly either form of social organization would be far from utopian. In the former, humanity lacks any free will to follow its own desires; in the latter, humanity lacks all order and runs the risk of descending into chaos—hardly a perfect situation. The more control exercised on its citizens, the less possibility exists for utopia. According to Mumford, utopia is non-monolithic and non-essentialist: “Utopian thinking, … then, was the opposite of one-sidedness, partisanship, partiality, provinciality, specialism” (5). Cioran, however, in his caustic voice of reason, maintains that every impulse in humanity can be stifled except “the need for an Absolute, which will survive the destruction of temples and even the disappearance of religion on earth” (25). This need for such an absolute necessitates an eternal cycle of becoming, or working toward the absolute beyond purges and witch-hunts as well as economic restructuring.

* The envisioning of America as a “city upon a hill” originally comes from a 1630 sermon by Puritan Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop. President Ronald Reagan repeated Winthrop’s words throughout his political career, but most notably during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1984, in which he further expounded upon the idea of American exceptionalism.

Friday, June 19, 2009

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

Cultural notions of perfection in social organization find their origins in Thomas More’s Utopia, a text that inscribes on our collective cultural consciousness the very concept of utopia itself. More’s text offers the reader a view into the possibility of a utopian or perfect society. Unfortunately, though, as has often been said, perfection exists as something out of reach, something that exists only as possibility. At the risk of oversimplifying very abstract and complex notions, there seems to be at least two distinct tendencies of utopia, each having the ability to interact, problematize, interpose, and contaminate the other: utopia as mode of being and utopia as mode of becoming. Moreover, there is a necessarily disruptive interplay between the historicism of utopia and its concomitant desire for atemporality. Utopia seeks to be nowhere—literally beyond geography—in its drive to subsume all (of) space; its Greek linguistic origins simultaneously punning on the idea of “no place” and “good place.” It is this urge to be nowhere—as well as this urge to be in a good place—that forces us to seek a mode of being: an eternal present, essentially “now” and “here” (now/here vis-à-vis nowhere). Within the Western tradition, Eden is the paragon of utopia as mode of being, the measure by which all subsequent utopias are judged, and it is the quest to reclaim Eden as “now-here” that informs all social, cultural, political, and economic systems.

If Eden is the measure of utopian life, then we can read Babel—perhaps the first fabricated attempt to reclaim utopia insofar as our tradition tells us—as the measure of attempts at re-creating and re-fabricating the orginary utopia itself. From the very start, however, we find a qualitative difference between the utopia of Eden and that of Babel: in the Garden, man does not toil or labor, but one of the first references to Babel is the task of laying brick atop brick. And as we know, the denial of Eden—the impossibility of utopia—reasserts itself in the collapse of those very bricks. Humanity’s cyclical attempts at rebuilding the Tower remain forever foiled.

Historically, Babel is the locus where the duality of good and evil within Zoroastrianism infuses Judaism (during the Babylonian captivity) with apocalypse and teleology, the crucible in which the notion of Judgment Day (that is, the end of time) is transmitted from the Mesopotamian plain to the Western world. Henceforward, history and progress—both antitheses of being—becomes the principal characteristics of all things Western and all things modern. Moreover, Babel is monoculture par excellence. Its one common language with one sociolinguistic environment and heritage if not eradicated miscommunication then at least significantly reduced it. With a single language coupled with extremely isolationist policies, Babel is the first attempt toward a global village: “Come, let us build ourselves a city … so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). This plea not only shows the arrogance of seeking earthbound fame and glory but also contains a justification that is within direct conflict with God’s earlier pronouncement to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

The Tower of Babel was man’s attempt to re-create the cosmos by his own hands. Symbolically, the tower was to be the path or means by which the human can touch the divine, a second attempt at the crime of eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. But something had gone seriously wrong in their pursuit: man had confused the symbol for the thing it was to symbolize, much like alchemists becoming bogged down in chemistry and metallurgy instead of working toward spiritual transformation. The Tower of Babel, in this way, became mere idol when mankind began placing brick atop brick instead of working on the inner, spiritual tower that was the true path to heaven. As in the original banishment from the Garden, the divine must reassert its power by denying humankind the perfection it seeks. This literal confusion of symbols and the things symbolized leads to the confusion of tongues, and the tower is left in ruins. Man once again is exiled and is forced to wander from his utopia.

This exile is much more than an a-topic denial of place: it functions as the denial of productivity as power, for we can also view the Tower as phallocracy, the masculine thrust heavenward toward or into the divine. But its name reveals more than just hegemonic sex drive and will to power: Babel (or Bāb-ilu in the ancient Akkadian) is “gate of God.” The feminine portal or entrance is present within the masculine tower. The literal phallus becomes symbol of the womb, a literally trans-gendered entrance into heaven itself. It is this merging of the two sexes that gives Babel its procreative efficacy. But these interpretations become much more interesting when we analyze Babel as an analogue of utopia itself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Naming the Unnamable: A Commentary on 9/11 (Part II)

In an attempt to keep the open dimension of language indeed open (à la Foucault), I offer this late, preliminary, and provisional commentary on "9/11."

9/11 is an American quasi-logo denoting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which becomes in its use an ideogram in which we continually re-inscribe the Twin Towers. Lower Manhattan is the public face of those attacks: the destruction of the World Trade Center and the ever-present absence of those towers, which since have been temporarily replaced with columns of smoke, light displays, and nothing.

Throughout history, major events (read: battles) have always been site-specific and therefore marked geographically: Carthage, Troy, Waterloo, Crimea, and the Alamo. Even in our Christian teleological worldview, the battle at the end of history (the battle to end all history) is geo-positioned: “Armageddon” is the Latinized-Anglicization of Mount Megiddo in modern-day Israel. However, in our naming 9/11, we seek to remove it from the realm of merely human, merely earthly events, displacing its geographical specificity (that is, New York, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania) and assigning it instead a place in history. 9/11 is, after all, a historical date.

Derrida reminds us that “referring to an event with a date automatically gives it historical stature: it monumentalizes it” (Borradori 148). Yet it is a date on the Gregorian calendar, a calendar with its origin in Roman Catholic Europe. So, when we write 9/11, we not only inscribe the World Trade Center again and again, we too denote our own Christian and European heritages as Americans (as well as perhaps deny our indebtedness to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, as well as Latin America). The use of the month before the day, however, specifically indicates the style typically employed in the United States. Thus, 9/11 is also an inscription of American exceptionalism and difference. But every date on every calendar repeats every year; therefore, we cannot completely extract the marker of those events, dispersing them into pure timelessness and monumentalization. September 11 will repeat, even if that particular September 11 is over and done with.

9/11 too denotes the fragmentary and fractional—a literal fraction (nine-elevenths): a whole unit minus and missing two pieces—the Twin Towers. Most significant, however, is the fact that despite all the rhetoric of us (Americans) versus them (the Muslims or the Arabs), we Americans use what is commonly referred to as “Arabic numerals.” Considered an important milestone in the development of mathematics, these numbers were developed around 400 BCE in India and were later transferred via the Persians to Western Europe. Therefore, 9/11, in this way, also exposes our reliance on Eastern “others,” including Arabs, for the development and advancement of our science and technology sectors that would come to create skyscrapers and jet airliners in the first place.

Ultimately, there could be no “us” without “them.” 9/11, therefore, inscribes as well as denies a common world heritage and a common world event.

If you found this essay interesting, you might also like these related posts: Whose Tragedy is it Anyway? and Photographing the Disaster.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.

Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration.” Dimensions of the Holocaust. 2nd ed. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1990. 5 – 19.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Naming the Unnamable: A Commentary on 9/11 (Part I)

The quintessential moment in the history of names, at least insofar as the Western/Judeo-Christian tradition goes, is perhaps the account in Genesis 2 of Adam giving names to the various animals. However, the name “Adam” itself is just as, if not more, significant. “Adam” is composed of three Hebrew letters: aleph [א], daleth [ד], and mem [ם] . Air, or the breath, is the attribute most often ascribed to the letter “a,” and “dam” is Hebrew for “blood.” Therefore, Adam is literally he who is formed by blood and breath.

This word not only denotes a proper name but also is the term for both the concrete noun “man” as well as the universalized, collective singular “humankind.” This direct correspondence between the thing and its name is indicative of the condition of primordial language (cf., e.g., Benjamin).

In pointing out the difficulties of words and the “things” those words indicate, Michel Foucault, in his discussion of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, admits that “it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say” (9). Similitude seems to be one of the things Adam gave up when he chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. With knowledge, language becomes dispersed—even more so at Babel—as a consequence of human disobedience.

But this lost similitude is not a complete linguistic break from the world, nature, or the material reality behind words: language “still continues … to be the locus of revelations and to be included in the area where truth is both manifested and expressed” (36). Instead of merely removing the transparency of language to get at truth, however, as Foucault goes on to argue, the “function proper to knowledge” becomes interpretation (40). The proliferation of commentaries, of commentaries of commentaries, opens language itself to a re-interrogation of its role in approaching the truth:
Perhaps for the first time in Western culture, we find revealed the absolutely open dimension of a language no longer able to halt itself, because, never being enclosed in a definitive statement, it can express its truth only in some future discourse and is wholly intent on what it will have said; but even this future discourse itself does not have the power to halt the progression, and what it says is enclosed within it like a promise, a bequest to yet another discourse. . . . The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed.” (40-41)
This open dimension of language enables us to speak in the face of unspeakable tragedies, and to create a site for language specifically where language itself fails us.

Using language to approach such events is a complicated process, no less so because ethical concerns pervade and necessarily affect other aspects of tragic discourses, particularly ones which are replete with descriptions such as “unimaginable,” “unthinkable,” “inexpressible,” and “unspeakable.” For example, despite a long career as an author of Holocaust texts, Jewish survivor Elie Wiesel asserts, “One cannot write about the Holocaust” (9). To write is to fail not only in adequately representing the “unrepresentable” but to fail also the process of writing itself.

Maurice Blanchot refers to events such as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima collectively as “disaster.” For him, disaster is “the limit of writing” for any attempt to describe it will “de-scribe” that which is written (7): “When all is said, what remains to be said is the disaster. Ruin of words, demise writing, faintness faintly murmuring: what remains without remains (the fragmentary)” (33). He continues, referring to disaster as “the improperness of its name and the disappearance of the proper name” (40). However, despite the impossibility of language in the face of disaster, silence is never an option, for the weight of obligation to testify, to speak, and to act as witness is ever present in the absence of language. The only meaning that can be found within disaster is some attempt toward a reclamation of selfhood by way of language. Wiesel himself challenges the survivor, “Anyone who does not actively, constantly engage in remembering and in making others remember is an accomplice of the enemy” (16). Blanchot concludes similarly: “One must just write, in uncertainty and in necessity” (11).

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are but one more event that not only problematizes language itself but that also must be approached discursively. We immediately see the difficulty of this approach when we try to name the event itself—although “9/11” appears to be the most common term thus far despite official US government resolutions and declarations designating it “Patriot Day.” But as Jacques Derrida points out in his conversation with Giovanna Borradori shortly after 9/11, in this situation, “we do not use language in its obvious referring function but rather press it to name something that it cannot name because it happens beyond language: terror and trauma” (147). Although their dialogue took place merely six weeks after the attacks, Derrida and Borradori were already aware that the use of the term “September 11” was already a citation (Borradori 85):
But this very thing, the place and meaning of this ‘event,’ remains ineffable … out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation … that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way. . . .” (86)
Despite this “not knowing,” the naming convention of 9/11 is extended and reapplied in subsequent terrorist attacks around the world: the March 11, 2004, attacks in Madrid become 3/11; the November 9, 2005, bombings in Jordan become 11/9; the July 7, 2005, London bombings become simply 7/7. This non-knowledge reasserts itself with every inconceivable event, further removing language from the “reality” behind the words. Yet by remaining unaware of the hidden genealogies of words, we naïvely (but not innocently) “iterate a number of normative assumptions” about not only those words but the nature of reality as well (11).

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Sense of Community: Political Implications of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

“State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” – Zarathustra

Most readings of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy concentrate on his aesthetics, which offers an analysis of Attic tragedy and its subsequent cultural implications. Differentiating between what he sees as the two art impulses of nature—the Apollinian and the Dionysian—he demonstrates how these impulses “run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance” until by the metaphysical miracle of Hellenic will they united in classical Greece to give birth to the tragedy (1:33*). This distinction is not simply between characteristics and attributes of the two namesakes but an entire host of cultural material as well. Nowhere, however, does Nietzsche privilege any one aspect of the Apollinian nor of its counterpart. Within this “neutral” classification system, he matches each Apollinian phenomenon with an equally important and valuable Dionysian one:
Sculpture/plastic energies
Dreams/illusions/mere appearance
Principle of individuation (principium individuationis)
Olympian (Zeus)
Homer/Epic (epos)

Self-forgetfulness/self-oblivion/unification of men/unification of man & nature/higher community
Titanic (Kronos)/barbarian
Archilochus (personal, satiric poetry)/Folk
Considering that the main argument of this book concerns these two art impulses, it would be easy to dismiss Nietzsche as being only interested in aesthetics here. However, by extrapolating his argument a bit further, one can begin to approach its contribution to political philosophy. In Nietzsche’s 1888 self-assessment Ecce Homo, he describes The Birth of Tragedy as “indifferent toward politics” (1:726), yet with a little work, one can indeed ferret out a concomitant politics from among the aesthetics.

The way to approach the political dimension of The Birth of Tragedy is to take into account what Nietzsche refers to as the principle of individuation. Nietzsche has set up a theoretical schematic that fluctuates between not only the Apollinian and Dionysian but also between the individual and the community. By way of the Apollinian principium individuationis, humans are capable of experiencing the joy, wisdom, and beauty of illusion (1:36). This illusion, however, is a veil hiding the true nature of nature itself, and as is clear from the above table, only half of the story.

To those trapped within this world of mere appearance, the ecstasies of Dionysian revelers appear as “folk-diseases” à la St. Vitus’ dance (1:37). Such ecstasies, nevertheless, are the reaffirmation of the union of person with person as well as the reconciliation of humanity with nature. The Apollinian principium corresponds to a Dionysian “higher community” in which the individual is subsumed under both a convergence of all of humanity and of nature: “Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity” (1:37).

Within the Dionysian, there is only the community; it is within the Apollinian that nature is dismembered into individuals (2:40). A society that accepts Dionysianism would have no problem with social games such as the “orgiastic Sacaea”—a Babylonian festival in which slaves rule their masters and a criminal is given all royal rights before being put to death at the end of the five-day celebration (cf. n. on pp. 36-37). Despite the eventual return to Apollinian order, the Dionysian allows for a more sublime appreciation of that order by turning it on its head, if only for a few days. In addition, recognition of the illusory nature of the Apollinian is liberating: “Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or ‘impudent convention’ have fixed between man and man are broken” (1:37). However, the pure Dionysian is not privileged either. Nietzsche warns against the “most savage natural instincts” and the “horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty” (2:39). It is the constant fluctuation between the Apollinian and Dionysian as well as between the individual and unified community within nature that gives life its meaning and not the choice of one over the other.

Nietzsche’s conception of community, therefore, is necessarily political, yet he is not automatically pro-democracy. Instead, his attitude toward democracy is markedly ambivalent. Perhaps this ambivalence is tied to what he sees as democracy’s origin and its relation to the Apollinian drive and the subsequent herd. In his 1886 “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” he ties democracy to “a leveling mediocrity” (6:25). This appraisal of democracy, however, is not unique and certainly cannot be read as essentially Nietzschean or postmodern. Plato himself—the founder of political philosophy—decried what he saw as little better than mob rule and often ranked democracy below other, less free forms of government.

To get at what he might mean by democracy’s mediocrity, one only need look elsewhere in his work. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche posits that only the good have a sense of community because all interaction—even that with an enemy—is predicated on (the possibility of) repayment: “the community … stands to its members in that same vital basic relation … of the creditor to his debtors” (II:9:507). But the conception of evil can ruin any tribe: “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’ … in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world” (I:10:472-473). Apollinian individuals, therefore, can form a type of inferior community—one based on ressentiment which prevents any true community from forming: “With the growth of the community, a new interest grows for the individual, too, and often lifts him above the most personal element in his discontent, his aversion to himself…. All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness: … it is the instinct of weakness that has willed the herd” (III:18:571-572). Hence, we have Nietzsche’s “herd” where others might use the term “democracy.”

The political implications of Nietzsche’s aesthetics are problematized further when he refuses to offer a new foundation for politics, an alternative neither to the herd nor to the continual flux. However, he is willing to entertain the notion that by staying in flux, politics can become utterly superfluous in an almost post-dialectical sense: “As its power increases, a community ceases to take the individual’s transgressions so seriously, because they can no longer be considered as dangerous and destructive to the whole as they were formerly” (II:10:508). By allowing its penal system to become more moderate, a strong society can eventually overcome itself by attaining “the noblest luxury possible to it—letting those who harm it go unpunished … mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful” (II:10:508-509). Until that time, however, we are left to fend for ourselves against one another as well as against the cold monster of the state that lies and tells us we are a part of it.

In this way, the political institutions and sociopolitical order can be read as the necessary Apollinian aspect that attempts to reign in the terror of the real world, expressed by Dionysian anarchy and terror itself. On an institutional level, how are we to deal with individuals as individuals when the artificial order of politics ignores the “primal unity” of all people as well as the Dionysian “community” outside that order? With Euripides, we see the privileging of mere appearance above reality, the privileging of the individual above the community. In this way, tragedy serves as an analogue of reality as well as an analogue of society itself—a merging of the individual and the communal. After the death of tragedy, the simulacrum of the theater reflects the artificiality of society; appearance reflects back mere appearance until all has been reduced to pure image. Even the gods atop Mount Olympus merely reflect the Greek social structures. Nevertheless, beneath the surface of illusion and beyond the principium remains the primordial Dionysian terror and ecstasy. All good Apollinian citizens still will cling to their stable sociopolitical institutions, but they will only be making themselves more vulnerable to those instances when the veil of illusion is lifted to reveal the chaos and terror behind it.

* Citations from The Birth of Tragedy and Ecce Homo include both section number and page number; citations from On the Genealogy of Morals include a preceding Roman numeral indicating the essay number.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism. New Edition with an Attempt at a Self-Criticism. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 15-144.

---. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 671-791.

---. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 449-599.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nothing To Say

Two strangers hired to stomp around my attic in hopes of repairing the AC circuit board that was fried by lightning three weeks ago. The cost of the replacement board: $550. Too bad they have to shut the AC off during their repairs. I’m starting to sweat just sitting at the dining table typing.

Yesterday during my first Pilates class I was drenched in sweat during the first five minutes. I was out of breath soon afterwards. My core muscles—or lack thereof—are all vying for attention, wanting me to drop another hit of acetaminophen and skip tomorrow’s class. I was the only person who showed up yesterday. I hope nobody else shows up tomorrow.

Watched a documentary on John Cale the other day, one I recorded a few weeks ago off Ovation. I found myself mesmerized by his voice and his string arrangements and his composition for the Nico ballet. And bizarrely enough, by his lightened hair. I couldn’t find Dance Music on iTunes, so I instead purchased the first Velvet Underground album, the one with the Warhol banana. I figured that was as good a place as any to begin. I can’t wait to spend the afternoon with Lou and Nico and the old gang.

My recent trip to Germany was great and quite relaxing considering the amount of walking I did and the quantity of pollen I inhaled while walking. My sinuses are just now starting to get back to normal. When I’m in Europe, especially during my most recent trips, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time wandering among Roman ruins. It still amazes me that these people were so powerful and important just slightly more than 1500 years ago. And there’s some beautiful symmetry about every time a new Marriott Hotel is being built, we stumble upon an old amphitheater or forgotten Mithreum. I laugh that in 2000 years, while the people of the future are excavating for their own buildings, they’ll discover the ruins of a Starbucks or Pier 1.

Last night I was feeling particularly embittered about recent events and relations, so Stephen took me for a walk around a recent development out here in the suburbs of the suburbs. Even though it was surrounded on most sides by undeveloped prairie, I felt nauseatingly trapped by the hegemony of chain restaurants and shops and big box department stores. The world is too flat for such as you and I. I hope I never return there.

Afterwards, while eating our double-dip cones in the Braum’s parking lot, I reflected on that personal/professional goal I had all those years ago that drove me to be the kind of person I am today despite the fact that that goal was unreachable: to be a diplomat. I haven’t been the kind of person to wear a wristwatch in several years, but I promised myself an expensive and elegant watch as soon as I got my first diplomatic posting overseas. I studied all those languages, all that history, all that political theory. And I lived overseas; in fact, one of the main reasons for my stint in Japan was because I thought time in a non-European setting would set me apart from other wannabe diplomats. Sure, I’m an interesting person, but I still do not wear a watch. And I’ve basically given up that dream for the loftier aspiration of being a philosopher.