Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tolerance and Religion

Mary Beard has an interesting post on A Don's Life about the British Library exhibit Sacred and its motto “Discover what we share” (Beard's short answer: according to the exhibit, it's prayer books with indecipherable scripts and abundant gold leaf). Her objection to the motto?
The trouble is the “Discover what we share” line gives a very cosy view of inter-faith relations. And it tends to paper over the cracks of what is equally important -- that is, what makes them different. So there was no mention here of (for example) the Crusades, which were raging on when a number of the lovely manuscripts on show were produced? And what about anti-semitism? Never mind what horrible things the rival strands of Christianity have done to each other. This problem came out strongly when it came to the role of women – who by and large, historically, have not done well out of any of these faiths. Apart from a couple of rich female patrons behind the manuscripts, the only place that women were really visible in the exhibition was in a trio of wedding dresses (including, bizarrely, Jemima Khan’s outfit representing Islam). The idea, I guess, was to show that women get dressed up in funny clothes to get married in all three faiths. But as one of the panellists pointed out last night, marriage is actually a very different institution in these religions: a sacrament in Christianity, for example; a contract in Judaism. You need to know that too.
She concludes the post with a meditation on tolerance:
I found myself reflecting how double-edged even the most virtuous of virtues are, when it comes to conflicting religions. Take the attitude of “tolerance” that we all think we should admire. Isn’t “tolerance” just another side of the problem, I mused out loud. After all, you only show “tolerance” to religions you disagree with and don’t much like, but have magnanimously decided not to persecute. It is, in other words, an alternative version of power and control – capable of being withdrawn at any minute (“I’m not tolerating this any longer”) and inherently unstable for that.

You can’t build world religious peace on tolerance, when it’s practised by those who “know” that those they are tolerating are “wrong”. Conflicting ideas of truth and falsehood are what’s at issue here.

Or is tolerance, as another panelist objected, at least better than intolerance?

What do you think? Do you believe that tolerance is possible? Desirable? What's the alternative? Have you ever seen this bumper sticker? Can the imperative "coexist" mean something broader and more fundamental than the noun tolerance? Doesn't coexist at least make judgment irrelevant to the question of living with?

PS Since we are talking divinity again, see also this post by Nicola.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dead. Like Lindow Man.

You have read on this blog already how Lindow Man caused Kid #2 to have her first intimations of mortality. She even insisted on stopping by the British Museum just before we left London so that she could say good-bye to him, and this time not cry. Yet this encounter with a corpse has stuck with her in interesting ways -- most notably, as a new aphorism. Shortly after returning to DC, we were taking a family walk when Kid #2 came across a squashed beetle on the road. "It's dead," she declared, "Dead like Lindow Man." That weekend, as we moved Uncle Paul to the assisted living center, she heard her brother state flatly that the elderly enter the place when they don't have much longer to live. "Yes," Kid #2 agreed. "Soon they will be dead. Dead like Lindow Man." And so on.

I'm afraid she is doomed to be looked upon as a strange child, courtesy of Lindow Man.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

De falsis diis, medieval version

Yesterday's post has me thinking about how one culture dreams the falsity of another's gods, or -- a more vexed project -- the falsity of their own gods, divinities in the process of being replaced. How do you convince yourself and those around you that the world has room enough for only one god, and that he isn't at all related to the figures your dad and mom adored, the figures to whom your brothers and sisters might be offering the occasional oblation? How do you explain how so many people for so many years were, simply, mistaken -- and how do you do so in a way that doesn't cast doubt upon the new god whose truth you are promulgating?

I offered a few thoughts on the subject a decade ago via my book Of Giants. Note the dated and clunky Lacanian bent. I'd compose these passages quite differently now, but they are an attempt to analyze how some Old English texts imagined the confluence of false gods with a true one.

In the long post-colonial moment that occurred on the island as the Roman church extended the sphere of its epistemological hegemony, Christianitas was continuously promulgated as a unifying principle, as a point of identification strong enough to overcome the constituent differences that kept "Anglo-Saxon" England fragmentary, in order to effectuate a newly totalizing identity. The Two Fathers become part of an ideological fantasy that covers over the radical alterity, the incommensurability, of the northern (pagan) and Latin (Christian) worldviews -- a difference in symbolization so fundamental that it extends all the way to their foundational myths, their cosmogonies. Under the new regime of signs, the Father of Prohibition becomes that divinity who reconfigures the symbolic order through his resounding NO, the Father who cuts off access to the riches of heaven by immuring behind strong walls what treasure it holds. The Father of Enjoyment, on the other hand, is he who for whom enjoyment was once possible, the one prior to or outside of this foundational Law, celebrant of the flesh and the enemy of the divine. Conveniently, that figure is the giant in both traditions, and so this monster was a natural point at which to begin the translation of early northern myth into the exegetical lingua Christianitatis. Within the new symbolization of the ordo mundi precipitated by the meeting of the Latin and northern cosmogonies, both Anglo-Saxon fathers became coincipient, mutually constitutive. Since God and the giants were entwined in a new moment of origin, both figured within a widespread cultural narrative of how the world received its primal ordering. In fact, whenever a problem of origins is approached in early medieval England, the giant lurks nearby, never far from the threshold of whatever architecture is being built in order to erect an interiority against a wilderness, in order to give a human form to history.

Late in the ninth century, King Alfred the Great reworked Boethius' sixth century philosophical treatise De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy ) into Old English prose, the first of two English monarchs to translate the Latin work. His contemporaries may well have found the consolatio promised by the title as they read the work in its new vernacular edition. Medievalists are apt to value it more highly, however, for the insights contained in the numerous glosses to what Alfred considered difficult or obscure passages. For example, the somatic transformations worked by a sorceress in the Odyssey are connected in a short Boethian meter to inner morality and outward appearance. The Latin speaks obliquely of dux Neritii (Ulysses) and pulchra dea solis edita semine (Circe). In the course of explaining the second allusion, Alfred writes:

At that time there was a daughter of Apollo, son of Jupiter; this Jupiter was their king and had pretended that he was the highest god; and that foolish people believed him, because he was of royal blood; and they knew no other god in that time, but worshipped their kings as divine. Thus Saturn, the father of Jupiter, had likewise to be a god, as well as each of his sons. One of these was Apollo, whom we just mentioned. This Apollo's daughter had to be a goddess; her name was Circe.

The explanation does more than elucidate a difficult Latin phrase. It provides a myth of origin for the gods of classical antiquity. The pagan divinities are dismissed as prideful, all too human monarchs and their families, for whom deification is something of a fad: once the man named Jupiter succeeds in convincing his credulous subjects of his immortal blood, his father, sons, and even grand-daughter insist upon their place in the new pantheon. The story validates Christianitas over pagan error while explaining to the curious how anthropomorphic pseudo-divinities entered the world.

The linking of the deities of classical mythology to mortal or demonic impersonators is a commonplace in early theological writing. Justin Martyr in the Apologia and Augustine in De civitate dei were among the many patristic writers to reiterate the belief. Isidore of Seville summarized this exegetical tradition in his influential Etymologiae (VIII.xi), "De diis gentium":

Those whom the pagans worship as gods were once human and lived among men, such as Isis in Egypt, Jupiter in Crete, and Faunus in Rome … They were formerly mighty heroes [viri fortes ], founders of cities; when they died, images were erected to honor them … Persuaded by demons, posterity esteemed these men gods, and worshiped them.

These deceiving viri fortes were first described by the Church fathers as fallen angels, then with a shift in the exegesis they became powerful, evil men, often said to be descended from either fratricidal Cain or Noah's mocking son, Cham. In Anglo-Saxon England, the viri fortes became gigantes. Oliver Emerson argues that the early Christian writers enabled this myth by building on the conflation of the giants of Genesis with the classical stormers of Olympus by the Jewish historian Josephus ("Legends of Cain," 905). No doubt this conjoining was enabled through the moralizing of the biblical giants already well under way by the time of the Jewish apocrypha. The Book of Wisdom characterizes these monsters as corporeal signifiers of overbearing pride, destroyed as a rebuke to that primal sin: "from the beginning when the proud giants perished, the hope of mankind escaped on a raft and .. bequeathed to the world a new breed of men" (14:6). The biblical passage underscores the giants' historicity: these monsters predate the flood, which was sent to cleanse the earth of the evils they embody. By simultaneously reading the body of the giants as allegory, however, the Book of Wisdom suggests a continuity with the giants of classical tradition, likewise condemned as monstrously prideful in their failed attempt to pile Ossa on Pelion in order to steal from the gods the immortal home of Olympus.

After describing the demise of the giants, the passage from Wisdom explains how later in world history "tyrants" devised idols in order to deny the fact of the body's mortality (Wisdom 14:15-21). The story entwines loss (a father mourns his dead son with an image that others worship as a god), pride (despots [tyranni] thinking themselves greater than human order their statues venerated), the alluring power of the visual (the idols elicit awe because of their "ideal form," an artistically induced numinousness), and the reifying power of the law (the longer the idol is worshipped the more natural such action appears, so that through repetition a reality is materialized for divinity). As in the Lacanian Mirror Stage, a jubilant image becomes a trap for the gaze, a lure that catches the unwary subject in an estranging identification -- here, one that produces a false deity rather than an embodied ego.

In the Latin church, wicked men rather than inhuman monsters were invariably held to be those tyranni responsible for the sin of embodying divinity within human corporeality. For Anglo-Saxon writers, however, these primordial deceivers were always the giants. The Book of Wisdom unites the giants and the "despotic princes" only by narrative proximity, but in early medieval England the two episodes in salvation history (the destruction of the giants, the promulgation of idols) became conjoined into a newly hybrid foundational narrative that bridged classical, biblical, and northern traditions. The homilist Ælfric explicates this myth of origin in the Passio Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, as an elucidation of why Peter should have called Jesus "son of the living God" [lifigendan Godes]:

Peter said 'of the living God' to distinguish the lesser gods, who deceived the heathens with various heresies. Some believed in dead giants, and raised up precious images, and said that they were gods because of their great strength; nevertheless their lives were very sinful and unclean.

The giants are an ancient, vanished race whose fossilized remains are not mysterious bones or odd topography, but the lingering worship of their iniquity. The references to constructing idols and deifying the sun and moon which follow make it clear that Ælfric has both biblical and classical deities in mind. By describing the genesis of the false, mortal divinities of the Greeks and Romans (along with those of the Babylonians, Canaanites and wayward Israelites), Ælfric is repeating a connection frequently made in Old English literature between the opprobrious giants of Christian tradition and the gods of classical mythology.

Etiologic myths linking biblical exegesis with Greek and Roman literature were a favorite of erudite Latin culture throughout the Middle Ages. Yet there is something distinctly Anglo-Saxon about this fascination with giants conjoined to the formation of alienated, human identities. In the course of one of the many homilies collected by Napier, a discourse on the early power of the devil over humanity leads to an excursus amounting to a full creation myth for the numerous gods of old:

the devil ruled men on earth, and he strove against God and God's people; and he raised himself over all, so that the heathens said that the gods were their heathen leaders; such a one was the giant Hercules and Apollo, who left the glorious God; Thor also and Odin, whom the heathens greatly praise.

Apollo, the classical pantheon, and even the semi-divine Greek hero Hercules are not the only divinities invented by megalomaniacal giants. Thor and Odin, the most familiar gods of Northern provenance, also become originary entas. Even after the Vanir and Aesir had been replaced by Christian monotheism, traditions of giants lingered. As erudite culture displaced the more indigenous, heathen tradition, this Old Order of giants became conflated with the vanished gods whom they had aided and battled so that both could then be denigrated as deceivers and impersonators, validating the superiority of Christianiatas as a homogenous, erudite, right-thinking culture. The northern, mythographic propensity to utilize giants in a drama of etiology was adapted to the formation of a new scholastic myth through which the Germanic cosmology could be restructured and subordinated beneath a new set of master signifiers.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

In support of false gods

Washington DC is a city filled with protests -- and with good reason. Citizens of the United States and citizens of the world have much to disagree about, especially when it come to governance and foreign policy.

A small protest, catalyzed by a small event, has caught my eye, and I want to share it with you. I'll make it relevant to the medieval themes of this blog in two ways by saying: (1) ITM is a space more polytheistic than the actual geographies studied by most of us who participate in its conversations (that is, the blog follows Sheila Delaney and Steven Kruger's caveats in not making an easy equivalence between "religion in the Middle Ages" and "[dominating forms of] Christianity"); (2) if John Mandeville could be tolerant of those whose creed revolves around many gods, why can't we? I could also add a more personal third reason: as those who read my posts regularly know, I worship at the altar of many idols, including a certain Tiny Shriner. The classicist in me believes that we all need our lares et penates, household divinities.

So here is a terse article about a recent Hindu prayer recited in the US Senate, the prayer's disruption by three protesters who called it an "abomination," and the entire religion's condemnation by Operation Rescue/Operation Save America as placing "the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ." The disruption and condemnation could, I suppose, be dismissed as the work of such a small number of people that neither event is significant. Yet what bothers many people and organizations is the lack of anything much in the way of support for the Hindu chaplain and the prayer from the senators who witnessed the disruption.

Hindu Groups Ask '08 Hopefuls to Criticize Protest

Friday, July 27, 2007; Page A04

U.S. Hindu organizations are urging presidential candidates to denounce the protesters who disrupted the Senate as the first-ever Hindu opening prayer was being delivered this month.

Ante Nedlko Pavkovic, Katherine Lynn Pavkovic and Christan Renee Sugar -- identified in the Christian media as a couple and their daughter -- were removed from the Senate floor and arrested by Capitol Police on July 12 after they began shouting, "This is an abomination," and asking for forgiveness from God.

The three, from Davidson, N.C., were arrested and charged with disrupting Congress, a misdemeanor.

A brief prayer was then delivered by Rajan Zed, a chaplain from Reno who was invited by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Several Christian organizations spoke out against the prayer, before and after it was delivered. The American Family Association circulated a petition, urging its members to contact their senator to protest the prayer. "This is not a religion that has produced great things in the world," it read. The Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue/Operation Save America issued a statement saying the prayer placed "the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ."

Although the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington issued a statement July 17 saying its members were "deeply saddened" by the interruption, no senators present spoke out against it publicly, according to the Hindu American Foundation and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

Both organizations said they are disappointed with the legislators, and they sent letters this week to presidential candidates and senators, asking them to condemn the incident.

"We call on you to follow the example set by [Reid] and take a stance in defense of religious freedom and equality, in the face of opposition from extremists and fundamentalists," the ISKCON letter said.

A focus of the Christian organizations was the perception that Hindus are polytheistic. "Our national motto isn't 'In gods we trust,' " Janet L. Folger, president of Faith2Action, said the day before the Senate prayer.

However, the U.S. Hindu groups say this criticism reflects ignorance of the monotheistic underpinnings of their faith. Hinduism has many deities, all manifestations of one god.

Although there were only three protesters, said Ishani Chowdhury, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, "if you look at it as a reflection of a larger number of people . . . we need people to condemn what happened and highlight the need for dialogue."

According to the foundation, there are 2 million Hindus in the United States.

New blog motto: In gods we trust. Meanwhile, if you are a US citizen, consider contacting your senator or favorite presidential hopeful.

Oh yes, if you are wondering Alcuin-like "What has Krishna to do with Christ?" -- or are curious as to where I obtained the image of the two gods in a celestial frolic -- go here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism

In light of Jeffrey's recent trip, avec petit fils, to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and with regard to our recent discussions on the links between human-ness and animal death, and on the curatorship, or is art?, of the dead bodies of the past, I thought I would share here an excerpt from and link to the complete essay, "An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism" [forthcoming in BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory] written by my colleague and great friend, Michael Moore, who is a scholar of early Frankish history. As I was undertaking the final copy-editing of this issue, I could not help but stop and be astonished, at more than one moment, in my re-reading of Michael's essay, which is both breathtaking in its elegance and poetry, and brave for its courage in advancing a defense of forms of medieval and early modern humanism that many would like to see put to rest forever. Which is not to say that Michael's argument in his essay represents some kind of unreconstructed and nostalgic bid for a traditional and "old" humanism that would never be able to account for or own up to its "evils" ["evils," moreover, which Michael purposefully confronts in his essay]; rather, his objective in wishing to revive certain "old" humanisms by way of the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, stems from a concern with the ethical relationship between the singular self who is always held in singular present [modern] moments and the memory of others always already lost to the past. As he himself writes, "The defeat of the opalescent notion humanitas threatens to leave us without a legal subject of rights, and perhaps without a subject of history or literature as well. The problem is acute for historians, who want to validate their continued moral and intellectual preoccupation with the dead, their constant efforts to handle their belongings and books, and their efforts to preserve and understand their ephemeral voices."

Although BABEL had what might be called its "official" founding moment at the Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2004, and its earlier more "unofficial" beginning at a bar in Asheville, North Carolina in the fall of 2003, it was being propelled even before that in my conversations with Michael, who inhabited the office next to mine in the basement of Peck Hall at Southern Illinois from fall 2003 to spring 2005, and who was always urging upon me the importance of a medieval studies that would be more contemplative and ethical with regard to what might be called the "dignity" and "freedom" and "happiness" of individual persons, and that would also focus more intently on friendship and amity as a disciplinary concern. Indeed, in the essay he contributed to our Palgrave volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants" [which looks at the Bush White House legal memos on the torture of "enemy combatants" in light of medieval laws of outlawry] he wrote,

The poet Goethe once declared that national hatred has a peculiar quality: "You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture." Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. Nationalism has formed the crucial backdrop to the legal atavism and return to more primitive forms of law described here. The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. While pondering the theme of this essay, I went on retreat to the monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the peace of the monastery to study torture and terrorism inside the walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame. We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, "to which the whole of political life seems directed." In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then "new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality."
It would be impossible to overestimate the influence which Michael's thinking has had on my own these past few years. There has definitely been no love lost between Michael and "high" postmodern theory, and he can be unswervingly sentimental [he has been known to cry when reciting Milosz's poetry by heart to his students]. For these reasons, I initially worried that we would never be able to agree on our approach to medieval scholarship [except for the sentimental part, to which I say for myself as well, "guilty as charged"], but happily, I was so wrong. I would have to credit Michael for demonstrating to me, that in this "work" we do, whether of a more traditional historicist or postmodern theoretical bent, we should not be reticent about making claims for the value of the study of the dead as a mode of affective contact across time, and also as an aesthetic art that aims at a type of beauty in the present that could be said to be recuperative of persons both living and dead, however silly that may appear to some. I wonder, too, in my most recent reading in the most recent books in medieval studies but also more modern studies--including work published by Steven Kruger, Carolyn Dinshaw, JJC, Jodi Enders, L.O. Fradenburg, D. Vance Smith, Leo Bersani, Jorge Estaban Munoz, Elizabeth Grosz, John Caputo, Judith Butler, Michael O'Rourke, Michael Uebel, among others--if that idea of that kind of scholarship hasn't already begun to take root in a more widespread fashion. In any case . . . .

I leave you here with an excerpt from Michael's essay, and if you are smart enough to know you want to read the whole thing, go here.

* * * * * *

Humanism and the Flowers of Evil [second section of Michael E. Moore, "An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism"]

In 2000, the critic George Steiner was invited to look back over the twentieth century, in an interview with the French weekly L’Express. He pointed to the barbarism of a century marked by death camps, torture, deportation and famine, extending from 1914 to the terror-regime of Pol Pot and the Rwandan genocide. The twentieth century proved to be the defeat of civilized culture, according to Steiner: “Education: philosophical, literary and musical culture, did not impede the horror. Buchenwald was situated a few kilometers from the garden of Goethe” (qtd. in Simonnet). Jorge Semprun, who was himself interned in Buchenwald, later remarked in his memoir Literature or Life on the geographic and moral irony of this conjuncture. Semprun observed the terrible coincidence that brought Léon Blum, socialist, Dreyfusard, and author of the Nouvelle conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann, as a prisoner to the Ettersberg forest: “the quirk of fate that led Blum as a prisoner of the Gestapo to the very place where the conversations between Goethe and Eckermann occurred” (96; see also Blum).

The original Conversations with Eckermann are a monument of the maximal period of humanistic education and of a classicizing, humanistic love affair with the ancient world. The Antike was an ideal artistic realm that could be permanently reawakened and emulated. As Goethe remarked, commenting on the nature of Greek tragedy, its subject matter was “humanity in its whole extent” and so we should always study great writers, but “above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks” (149–50). For Goethe, as for Schiller, the world of classical Greece was a beautiful world. As viewed from Weimar, all things in ancient Greece sparkled and were more worthy (see Bruford 86). For Semprun, in contrast, the experience of radical evil cast doubt, not only on such enthusiastic ideals, but on the continued possibility of literature, and his memoirs record his endeavor to fight his way back out of these ruins.

George Steiner strongly implies that the proximity of Buchenwald to the Oak of Goethe was far more than a coincidence: this happenstance illustrated the fact that the ideal of humanity developed during the Enlightenment, and expressed in the political ideals of the Eighteenth century, had completely failed to humanize the world. The inhabitants of Weimar who became Nazis and built the camps were in some way the heirs of Goethe and Schiller. Moreover, according to Steiner, the so-called humanizing effect of the liberal arts also seemed doubtful in the extreme. The humanities have become an isolating preserve in which the real world is kept at bay. While reading King Lear or the Fleurs du Mal, Steiner remarks, “I do not hear the cry in the street” [“je n’entends pas le cri dans la rue”] (qtd. in Simonnet). His best student, Steiner declared, was the one who completely rejected his teaching and went off to become a doctor, serving the poor in China. The anecdote reflects the skepticism of an old professor whose life had been wagered almost entirely on literature, and who arrived at the end of a terrible century marked by a sense of futility about the isolated contemplation of the scholar in his or her study. But Steiner’s criticism of literature, in the course of his own profoundly literary life, also brings to mind a saying of the anti-modernist and aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila, that “there is no humanism that does not carry with it a critique of humanism” (197). No mature and fully developed humanism can fail to incorporate the edge of critique, or fail to examine its own false paths. We can reflect that Steiner’s criticism is humanistic in its deepest orientation, as well as in its sense of rebellion and disquiet.

The question raised here is whether it is possible to discover a path for humanistic scholarship adequate to contemporary existence, yet still capable of offering the ressourcement provided long ago by medieval and classical humanism. As Robert Torrance has noted, we live in an era that has been defined as “not only post-structuralist and post-modernist, but post-humanist and indeed even post-human” (168). The possible collapse of literature, experienced with a sense of horror by Semprun, has become for many scholars an occasion for playful adventures in the ruins of old systems.

Humanism has been criticized along the lines of Steiner’s views at least since the end of the Second World War, in a Europe which had seen, in Steiner’s words, “the triumph of the inhuman at the heart of the century” (xi–xii). Traditional ideals could be maintained only with tremendous effort, or abandoned as no longer pertinent to the human condition. As early as 1951, for example, the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss argued that Europeans of the Enlightenment, who often spoke of humanity, did little more than project their own values and aspirations as a universal ideal of civilization: “the concept of an all inclusive humanity, which makes no distinction between races or cultures, appeared very late in the history of mankind and did not spread very widely across the globe” (Finkielkraut 2000, 5-6; see also Finkielkraut 1995, 55). The ideal of humanity therefore, despite its universal claims, was destined to remain a narrow European concept with limited impact on world consciousness. This has been one of the most devastating arguments raised against humanist traditions. So now, in the cultural conditions of “postmodern pluralism” as Gianni Vattimo argues, the very concept of humanity and study of the humanities seems suspect, unphilosophical, or undemocratic (3–5). In the 1960s, the ideal of humanism (along with the concept of the Rights of Man) was dismissed as a feature of petti-fogging bourgeois ideology (Judt 565). Thus we arrive at Foucault’s derisive comment that “Man is an invention of recent date” (387). If the constraints and disguises inherited from classical thought could finally be discarded, the early Foucault believed, then the unwelcome notion of humanity would at last be “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (387; see also Nehemas 170–73).

The most negative and vitriolic statement of this anti-ideal is that of Lacoue-Labarthe: “Nazism is a humanism in so far as it rests upon a determination of humanitas which is, in its view, more powerful” (95). Torrance is right to remark that nothing could be more anti-humanistic than this phrase. Lacoue-Labarthe’s strange saying was not intended to decry Nazi ideology so much as to sweep away the last crumbs of humanism from the respectable tables of the intellectual world, thereby to create more room for Heidegger and Heideggerian anti-humanism. Lacoue-Labarthe thus evidently shared Foucault’s revulsion at “the moralizing swamp of humanistic sermons” to be heard in post-war Europe, and Foucault’s anti-humanistic reaction to those sermons (Finkielkraut 2000, 28). It is equally interesting to note, in this connection, the contemporary turn from humanism in the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, in favor of what Barth termed the “humanism of God,” meaning “God’s friendliness to man as the source and norm of all human rights and human dignity” (125). In contrast, however, Foucault’s perspective neither provided for a heightened awareness of justice, nor awakened energy for a greater engagement with the world, nor offered a defense of human dignity. There was an element of dandyism in Foucault’s reaction against what appeared to be a thoroughly exhausted humanism. Postwar efforts to pick up the threads of humanism often seem feeble in retrospect.

In his desire to find a path back from the horrors of the twentieth century, the Prussian historian Friedrich Meinecke famously suggested that “Goethe Communities” should be created in postwar Germany, so as to encourage the reestablishment of the spiritual life of Germans by “turning again to the altars of our fathers” in respect to religion. Meinecke hoped to bring about for his fellow Germans “an intensified development of our inner existence,” by looking back to the period long before Hitler’s Germany, when the generation of Goethe “strove for and to a large degree realized the ideal of a personal and wholly individual culture. This culture was thought of as having at the same time a universal human meaning and content” (113, 115). Meinecke’s humanist project is so well known in part because it appears so woefully inadequate to the situation of post-war Germany, and because it suggests a feeble and unrealistic reply to the monstrousness of the war and the radical evil unleashed by the Nazis. Moreover, German high culture and Bildung were not above reproach, since these values were held up as a fetish even by the Nazis, whose officer corps continued to wipe tears from their eyes at productions of Beethoven in the wartime concerts of the conducter Wilhelm Furtwängler.

So the question remains: is it still possible to explore “the opalescent notion humanitas” in the phrase of Ernst Kantorowicz, by means of deep study in the human tradition (1957, 451)? As the Carolingian scholar Alcuin explained, when we turn our attention to mankind, we discover a complete amalgam of dignity and abjection. If we wish to understand why humanity was created, the repulsive side of man should be put to one side, and “we should consider the nobility of the interior man” (col. 1101). Alcuin, the illustrious scholar of Charlemagne’s court therefore imagined a transcendental, universal human identity, based on the concept of the invisible soul and its likeness to God. The medieval and Christian roots of the figure of humanity are evident throughout the periods of scholarly and theological transit from late antique to later Renaissance and Enlightenment images of humanity. However, in the modern era, even long before WWII, such ideas began to lose their lustre. Under the impact of anthropology, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the wide examination of human types and human cultures had begun to dethrone those venerable medieval assumptions. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, for example, after comparative research on the mentality of archaic societies (which he ordinarily termed “primitive”), concluded that there was no “identity of human nature” (75–79). According to Lévy-Bruhl, “since we have rejected the philosophies of history which provide a unifying principle in the form of theological or at least teleological ideas, the conception of humanity as a whole escapes us” (qtd. in Cazeneuve 24). Thus we really must ask whether it is still possible, or meaningful, to propose a humanism in the absence of a clearly defined essence of humanity.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

At the Holocaust Museum

As I mentioned in the comments section a few days ago, last week we moved my spouse's great uncle to an assisted living center down the road from us. At 95 Uncle Paul is remarkably lucid, though he can't move around as much as he would like. Both our kids are fond of him, having known him via trips to Florida their whole lives.

With so much time on his hands and nowhere in particular to go, Uncle Paul spends much of his day time traveling while seated on his couch. He was born in Vienna, a city he loved until the Nazis came to power. He has unpleasant memories of abuse endured at their hands: being made to scrub a filthy sidewalk with a small brush, for example, while a crowd smiled, clapped, jeered. Most shocking to him was how customers from the shoe store at which he was employed -- men and women who formerly treated him with respect -- could find so much joy in humiliating him. Uncle Paul did in time flee to New York (via Italy), and was able after long labor to bring his wife, brother and sister over as well. A sorrow he now lives with every day, though, was his inability to convince his mother to flee. She vanished into a concentration camp, and he does not know where or when she perished. We assume that she, like most victims, was robbed, psychologically abused, stripped, gassed, and cremated. We suppose that many other women and many children died with her, in fear and in pain. Uncle Paul tells the story of his failure almost every day now, and cries each time he speaks the lines "I did not save her." We can't convince him that he could not.

My son has been haunted by these Holocaust stories, especially because they come from a person he loves. We decided yesterday that he and I would visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum together so that he could learn a little more about the event. Because our family has a membership in the museum (we are charter members, in fact), Kid #1 and I did not have to wait in line for admission tickets -- meaning that for the first ten minutes of the building's opening we had the dark exhibition to ourselves. I've visited the place perhaps four times already, but something about the elevator clanging shut to convey visitors to the start of the displays on the fourth floor gets to me every time. The doors open ... and you are staring at a huge photograph of dead bodies in stacks. That's the first time my son began to cry. Many more times followed.

I won't go through the minutiae of the exhibit, but I will say that these things struck both of us:
  • very often it was the absence of the dead body that was most moving (an exhibit of shoes, of concentration camp uniforms, of abandoned toys ... all these items stand in for the lost life in a way that is individuating and painful almost to the point of being unendurable)
  • nonetheless, to look upon the dead in all their numbers was agonizing
  • most horrible was the enjoyment evident in the photographs of ordinary citizens demeaning Jews or making Nazi salutes. How can people love their hatred to such excess?
A horrible thought that struck me, and that I did not share with my son, was that in raising our children as Jews my wife and I are also endangering them. Ridiculous, I know, to think that ... but to see the chronicle of a world where Jews had gone from citizens to aliens in a few short years inspires such rumination. (And not that anyone was much better off being gay, disabled, or Roma in that world where myth masqueraded as science.)

At the age of ten Kid #1 is probably too young for the museum, but I don't regret taking him. We talked about what we saw during the day, and we both knew as well that there were times when we should stop talking and do something dumb (like go to my office and shoot elastics at the Office Manager, unlucky enough to be in that day).

ITMBC4DSoMA commences August 8

The In the Middle Book Club for Discerning Scholars of Medieval Arcana (ITMBC4DSoMA) will instigate its group read and communal blogging of Heather Blurton's brand new book Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature in two weeks. Your three co-bloggers will be joined by two real scholars: Asa Simon Mittman and Susan Kim. Heather Blurton has agreed to compose and post a response as the discussion concludes (approx. 8/15).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Also from the mailbag

JKW sends these from Fountains Abbey. I sheepishly admit to finding them amusing. (And perhaps, having spent the day at the Holocaust Museum with Kid #1, that's what I needed).

Can titles sometimes be TOO clever?

You know, not everyone is as quick witted as we dessicated PhDs. Shockingly, the reading public -- small in number as that community might be -- even contains literalists. B. B. sent me notice of this customer review at Amazon, posted by a purchaser of Karma Lochrie's Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy:
Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Warning - This book has nothing to do with covert operations, May 27, 2006
This book should be titled "Perversity, Gossip, and Women's Issues in the Late Medieval Period." It has nothing to do to with covert operations. Perhaps it is the only way the author could sell the book. Imagine spending $50 and expecting a serious discourse on medieval espionage, sabotage, spies, and assassins and receiving instead some feminist diatribe about gossip, sodomy, and other perversions. Unbelievable waste.

Alas, so far as I know the great tome on medieval Special Ops (with emphasis on spies and assassins) remains unwritten. In the meantime, Karma's feminist diatribe gets kudos from me: it's an excellent work.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jumping the Shark, or is it a Cow?: Reply to Jeffrey

Without wanting to "jump" the bracing "Slovenly Slavoj" discussion, I thought I wound return us at the same time to Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde and to JJC's provocative questions there,
What's the difference between the skulls of history in the Museum of London and Hirst's aesthetically overloaded display of bone? Can curators be artists? Should they be?
And also to his further commentary,
The sacrifice of the animal is part of the power of the artwork. Again, if there were a mania for these things such that no living room were complete without a shark preserved in a tank, I'd have problems -- the same problems I'd have with a hundred green bioluminescent bunnies mass produced rather than one that remains anomalous. I also wouldn't buy the artwork (or sharkwork if you will). In fact I don't particularly want to even see it. But it doesn't seem wrong to me to have produced it, especially the sacrifice was -- at least in my perhaps too generous understanding -- acknowledged and in fact mandated by the conceptual piece, which yoked the loss of life to the challenge it attempted to mount.
All of the comments following the original post are very provocative to thought, and I myself expressed the concern there over what I would term "useless" or "unnecessary" deaths, to which JJC posted the comment just above. I find myself wanting to be very cautious when making so-called ethical pronouncements, I must admit, so as to not be hypocritical, I suppose--I eat meat, by the way, but live with a vegetarian who won't let me do so at home--but also because being ethical, for me, doesn't mean never doing "wrong," but is more a habit of being that strives to be attentive to all the ways in which each one of us is deeply flawed while also desiring to be "better" and trying very hard not to hurt others and being mindful as much as possible of others' feelings and life wishes, etc.

One of my favorite texts on this subject, which I think I've mentioned before, is Neil LaBute's play The Shape of Things, in which a college art student, Evelyn A. Thompson [code for: Eve, and also "e.a.t.": hint, hint], appropriates another student, Adam, as her master's thesis. Without telling him what she is doing, she woos him and slowly gets him to "shape up"--lose weight, get a nose job, change his clothing, get rid of his old friends, etc. The play culminates in the public presentation of the thesis, at which Adam is given the shock of the realization that Evelyn has been "using" him all along, whereas he thought they were in love and that everything he did was out of that mutual love [although much of what he did was downright ethically bad, as opposed to purely selfless: he gave up his friends, who had done nothing wrong except displease Evelyn, he rejected his own "natural" style and personality, he betrayed a friend by sleeping with his fiancee, etc.]. One of the arguments that Evelyn makes to Adam at the end of the film is that if he thought he was in love, even if she did not love him back, then what he felt was "real" at the time and nothing can change that. Furthermore, everyone's ethics are in direct proportion to how much you think you can get away with at any given moment, because all that really matters are "the surface of things, the shape of things" [so, as Adam got better looking, for example, he sensed the possibility of being able to sleep with his best friend's fiancee, and when he had the chance, he did it--something he could not have even imagined himself doing when he was an overweight, slovenly geek]. In other words, ethics are for people who can't, even if they wanted to, sleep with their best friends' wives or shark hunt. When Evelyn accuses Adam, sneeringly, of wanting her to be a "good person, like you" [implying: you are not good, and I proved that already], he replies, "no, just better" [implying that ethics is not, as I would agree, about achieving a state of perfect goodness but about simply trying to be better than you are--all very Aristotlean, actually].

Well, that was long-winded, but I love that play and teach it every year alongside Paradise Lost [for, I hope, obvious reasons]. I love Evelyn's and Adam's confrontation at the end because it is impossible to choose sides--to a certain extent, they are both right: their "love" was never "real," as Adam avers, although since he thought it was at the time, it was real, as Evelyn avers. The surface of things really do matter most of the time versus what is "inside," as Evelyn argues, and for most of us, ethical principles really are easy to wave around like sticks when we ourselves can't get away with much of anything. Although it wouldn't hurt, as Adam argues, to try to be "better" nevertheless, and to try, as hard as possible, not to "use" others, especially under the excuse, "I'm an artist and the only responsibility I have is to my art," as Evelyn says. You can't entirely gloss over some of LaBute's misogny in the play, since it is Evelyn's unbridled sexuality and provocative exhibitionism that prove to be Adam's main undoing, but I try not to let that unpleasant fact stand in the way of what I think is a brilliant meditation on art, ethics, and human relations. It's relevant in my mind to our discussion here, especially as JJC initially framed it in relation to commerce and the "superagency of lucre" and to a consideration of whether or not the display of once-living bodies and body parts is a type of de-sacralization that we should worry about. Well . . . .

of course money has something to do with all this, although, like JJC, to say that art hasn't always had something to do with money would be ridiculous [although just because art and commerce have always been connected doesn't mean anything goes if someone will pay for it, in my mind--it's just, the presence of money does not necessarily "taint" the artwork, although I do not believe, as some free market advocates do that the market is inherently impersonal and therefore morally neutral]. I made this exact same point in my essay, "What Counts is Not to Say, But to Say Again" [published in the Old English Newsletter], in which I tried to assuage the fears of certain Anglo-Saxonists over Anglo-Saxon artifacts being sold on eBay, and where I wrote that,
If it weren’t for the voracious collecting endeavors of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century antiquarians such as Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Robert Harley, who purchased books and artifacts with the zeal of black market scoundrels (Cotton was even briefly jailed in 1629 for owning state papers deemed seditious by the Crown), the British Museum would have lacked its chief founding collections.

I further wrote:

I would argue that it is precisely the cultural artifact’s free market circulation through the global agora that ensures the best possible forms of its future survival. This circulation allows the artifact to be freed from the traditional (and sometimes stifling) constraints of provincial, and even, nationalist “boxes” that ultimately limit the fullest possible range of its cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, without which the item is often either “dead on arrival” or placed into the service of suspect accounts of hegemonic historical memory that often gloss over the messy social relations inherent in the transmission and replication of material culture. I do not want to imply here that museums and libraries (whether private or state-funded) have not done an excellent, even heroic, job of rescuing, preserving, conserving, interpreting, and making publicly available important cultural treasures in a manner that allows us, quite literally, to both read and write history (to “see” the past, as it were, and to place it into meaningful critical and social dialectics); rather, I want to argue that we need a more nuanced understanding of what we think we mean by “original” cultural context, and why we think it is so important that we must worry over its displacement. Furthermore, if we are going to have a vigorous discussion about claims of ownership of the past, I would ask that we commit ourselves to a rigorous theoretical examination of how medieval artifacts circulate in the world both as “things” and as bearers of “cultural meaning.” This will mean joining a theoretical discussion regarding “cultural appropriations” long in progress in the fields of ethnography, sociology, archaeology, historiography, art history, and cultural studies, but also among medieval scholars in fields other than Anglo-Saxon studies. It will also mean recognizing, as Claire Sponsler has argued, that “[t]he tendency of medieval scholars to approach their task as one of salvage has privileged the ‘artifact’ as the focal point of study rather than the ‘process’ of cultural creation and transmission.” Additionally, if we want to talk about “original archaeological contexts,” then we are also going to have to talk about what we think we mean by cultural “origins,” and we will need to pay some attention to the debates over “ethnicity” and “ethnogenesis” that are currently raging among historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers of the proto-historical and early medieval periods. And as long as we are talking about ethics, I would also ask us to spend some time considering the ways in which our insistence on the maintenance of material artifacts within tightly-controlled cultural (and often, ethnically-defined) contexts unwittingly contributes to a process of historicism whereby extremely dangerous political movements—such as Nazism and Serbian nationalism—are able to use these “pristine” cultural objects (and the academic discourses built upon them) as powerfully creative tools for constructing specious collective identities, which identities are then deployed in the service of cultural destruction on a mass scale.
And a little further on:
The fact that the question of the “original context” of the artifact is always inextricably connected to multiple frames of reference and identity—personal and public, psychic and social, material and non-material—brings us right back to ethics. The Anglo-Saxon artifact sitting in its glass case at the British Library may seem fairly benign, and we would be hard pressed to imagine a controversy erupting over its supposed provenance and meaning, or its habitation in a national museum, partly because those who had the most to gain and lose from it are so far removed from us in time. But we would do well to consider the ramifications of some recent controversies over who should own and control the physical objects of the historical past. An illustrative case in point is the bitter international dispute that erupted in the spring and summer of 2001 when Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust museum, removed from a house in Drohobych, Ukraine five fragments of newly-discovered murals, depicting scenes from Grimm’s fairy tales, painted by the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who was shot to death by an SS officer in Nazi-occupied Drohobych (then part of Poland) in 1942. Many in Poland and Ukraine objected strongly to Yad Vashem’s removal of Schulz’s work, which they feel is a part of their living Polish and Central European Jewish heritage, but Yad Vashem insisted not only that Schulz’s work more properly belonged in their cultural and moral purview, but that they would also make the more able curators. It is often said of Schulz that he “was born an Austrian, lived as a Pole and died a Jew,” but to the representatives of Yad Vashem who defended the removal of the mural fragments, because Schulz “was a Jewish artist—forced to illustrate the walls of the home of a German SS officer as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, and killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew—the correct and most suitable place to house the wall paintings he sketched during the Holocaust, is Yad Vashem.” Given Drohobych’s anti-Semitic history and the fact that the town contains no markers or monuments denoting its most famous son, perhaps Yad Vashem was right to take the murals; nevertheless, the debate raged through the fall and winter of 2001 and into the spring of 2002, with twenty-four American scholars of Central European history, art, and literature arguing in The New York Review of Books that Yad Vashem’s removal of the frescoes “represents an unconscionable statement of moral and cultural superiority” that is “an insult to the people of Central Europe,” as well as “doubly damaging to the local Jewish population which has remained in Drohobych.” Most important, these scholars worried that Yad Vashem’s actions were a dangerous assault on the history of both the artist’s and the region’s “pluralism,” and since all of his work is set in Drohobych, “is it not the best homage to him to salvage some part of the world he loved, in situ?” Here we see both the concern for honoring an “original” local context, as well as an attention to the multi-dimensional and “plural” nature of the historical artifact, which, perhaps, should not be “boxed in” too tightly, but how compatible are these objectives? Can the artifact, much like the individual who creates it, ever sit still? The answer is both “yes” and “no.”
So, I'm hoping that we can see some of the relevancy of what I was trying to say there, in relation to our discussion about Hirst's shark and those skulls in their glass case at the museum in London, although what I was discussing in my OEN essay were artifacts like belt clasps and helmets, not human or shark bodies, or parts thereof. And I think our consideration of whether or not it is okay to display grave remains in museums requires slightly different parameters than the ones I sketched out in my OEN essay, although they are hinted at with my example of the controversy over the Schulz wall murals, which has something to do with what we might call the curator-ship of memory, individual and more broadly cultural.

It doesn't take me too much effort to understand that the shark in formaldehyde or those human skulls, diamond-encrusted or not, have little to do with the living "persons" that once moved and expressed themselves by means of those bodies and body parts. In this sense, they are inanimate objects whose presence--whether at the bottom of an ocean in a shark graveyard or underneath a hillside somewhere in England or in a glass case in a museum--does nothing to "disturb," as it were the human and other living selves who once lived within their material "skins," and who can no longer be harmed. It is more to the question of memory that I believe we should direct our ethical concerns, or non-concerns. To those living in past histories, or even in present "alter-human" spaces like the sea, or to those, like a Barry Lopez, who take it as a personal concern to consider the sanctity of those species who cannot articulate, through speech or gesture, their own possible sacred-ness, and for whom the placement of the dead in particular places did, or does, matter, we might imagine--as historians but also as the artists of history--how some may have wished to have been left behind, in a certain place, close to their ancestors, their tribe, their home, etc. Obviously, everything is in motion all the time, and no one is safe from disturbance--from being moved from one place to another, and with no living representative to advocate otherwise, the question who cares? becomes significant. Which is kind of like another version of the old adage, "why should I care after I'm dead"? Which is another way of also saying, "now that the shark is dead, does it really matter where he ends up?" But does this mean our ethical considerations only ever extend to the question of who, sitting beside us or standing off to the side, in the present, might be hurt? Levinas once wrote that we do not have the right to leave anyone alone at his or her death, but what about after?

UPDATE: I hope that no one will think from the foregoing ruminations that I am of the unreconstructed viewpoint that no one and no thing culled from grave-sites is ever an appropriate object for an artwork, which might also be a museum exhibit. I am not. But I think the context matters a lot. So, if you dig up some Egyptian mummies and put them on display in the British Museum as artifacts of "antiquity," supposedly of interest to antiquarians, Egyptologists, and the like, and the idea behind it all is something like, "gee, weren't the Egyptians really neat?", I'm not sure I'm in favor of that, but if a group of Tibetan monks in Cambodia decide to artfully display mounds of skulls of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge in their temples and invite visitors to view these and think about their history, as well as about the souls of their former possessors, or if the curators of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC decide to have, as one of their displays, a mound of shoes taken from German and Polish Jews as they were being herded into a concentration camp, and the purpose of this display, which is both art as well as historical testimony, is to call to the viewer's mind the memory of the singular persons who once wore those homely shoes, and to reflect upon their violent and untimely demise as well as upon the small and ordinary material things that "add up" to a person, whether alive or dead, then I can live with that. Indeed, these are examples of museum-ship as the maintenance of the sacred in history.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What do you do with a slovenly Slavoj?

First join the discussions on one of Eileen's projects and then mix it up with Jeffrey on art, commerce, and the aesthetics of death here.

Stuart Klawens, the film critic for The Nation, is the butt of a lot of jokes in our household. Even though I like his work, I have to recognize the justness of ALK's everlasting pique with Klawens for his inaccurate review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When I start to tell ALK about a Klawens review, ALK likes to imagine herself Klawens and reinvent its plot: I'd give an example, but today she's at the Transit Museum with a train-obsessed houseguest. Lately, we've acquired another, er, jokebutt: Zizek. Zizek! We're convinced he meets Klawens at the movies weekly.

But that's giving too much credit to Zizek. Klawens might, at least so far as ALK is concerned, miss some nuance, but he never matches Zizek's dementia. It's as if his filmic memory is a tribute to Travesties (with Lacan filling the structural position provided by Wilde in the original). Some examples. Enjoy Your Symptom! (second edition!) on Now, Voyager: Charlotte (Bette Davis) does not relapse "soon after" (17) returning home from her sea voyage; she relapses after about 20 minutes of film and months of narrative time, and then only after she takes on responsibility for her mother's death, a motivation that should have produced something for Zizek; Charlotte does not have to make a choice between the sanity of Tina, her surrogate daughter, and her love for Tina's father, Jerry: she sacrifices marriage, and that perhaps only for a time: she doesn't sacrifice love or companionship. Plague of Fantasies offers the example of Spielberg's Star Wars (75). The Parallax View silently corrects the error, but refers to The Phantom Menace as "Stars Wars III" (arguably correct) and, in the same paragraph, The Return of the Jedi as "Part III of the Saga" (103; not that I'm a Star Wars fan, but Jedi is part VI: and even we call it Part III because it's the third movie made, we can't have two different films be III). On 411 n1, he writes of Kill Bill 2 that "in the final confrontation between the Uma Thurman character [KTS: er, "The Bride" or "Beatrix Kiddo"] and her father ("Bill")": nope, oh god nope.

Here's what finally set me off. On The Valve, John Holbo cites a 2002 interview with Zizek in which Z calls Microsoft Word a "language" ("The paradigmatic example here is probably Microsoft. Microsoft word [sic] has more or less established itself as the predominant computer language, but this has nothing to do with normal market logic. Why do the vast majority of people use Microsoft? Not because it’s the best. Almost every hacker will tell you that other languages are better."). Series of Tubes anyone?

As has probably happened hundreds of times with Zizek's readers, I'm on the verge of giving up, and not because of his philosophy or politics, but because of his sloppiness. Can't the man hire a fact-checker? Surely there are grad students who would do this for free?

Now, I don't deny Zizek's brilliance. Of course not. Nor do I deny his clarity. Maybe I'm missing something in Agamben, but I tend to find Zizek explains Agamben much better than Agamben explains himself. For example.

So, with all this in mind, I'm asking a boring (to use one of Zizek's favorite words) question for the weekend: what do we do with Zizek's sloppiness? How should it affect our reading? Am I missing the point by focusing on mere facts? Is brilliance better than accuracy (of course it is, but accuracy has to count for something: how would we grade a student who made these errors?)? Could someone else (someone not white or male?) get away with this? Is Zizek's sloppiness symptomatic and is it worth thinking about in itself? Surely one or ten of you have a standard answer to what I perhaps mistakenly think is a problem. I'm wondering if we can do this without the standard repudiations of Zizek or professions of weariness, but perhaps that's impossible. Or, given this post, hypocritical.

(if you'd prefer, a side discussion on the question of time and the now and its problems, particularly for a philosopher from the Balkans, which we might say was an emblematic mixture of modern and medieval during the 90s: in The Parallax View:
The clearest sign of the reign of biopolitics is the obsession with the topic of 'stress': how to avoid stressful situations, how to 'cope' with them. 'Stress' is our name for the excessive dimension of life, for the 'too-muchness' that must be kept under control. (For this reason, today, more than ever, the gap that separates psychoanalysis from therapy imposes itself in all its brutality: if you want therapeutic improvement, you will in fact get help much more quickly and efficiently from a combination of behavioral-cognitivist therapies and chemical treatment [pills].) (310)
Fair enough: psychoanalysis as a mode of critique rather than a medical regime. We preserve its utility by sloughing off what might be thought its primary utility. But wait, who's Zizek's "our"? When's "today"? Where are we?)

UPDATE: eerily, at the very moment I was writing this, Adam Roberts was writing this. The Corsican Brothers? Or Dead Ringers?

For Eileen: A Shark in Formaldehyde

The following editorial from today's NYT made me think of Eileen, who has several times propounded her thesis of the superagency of lucre here at ITM. I had once intended to post on Hirst's conceptual piece "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (what an Eileen Joy-like title that is!) and had apparently harvested the shark image from the web last year, but if I did ever blog about it my early Alzheimer's has wiped that memory from me. Anyway, from the NYT OpEd page, on the controversial (is there any other kind?) conceptual artist Damien Hirst:

Dumping the Shark

In August, the shark in formaldehyde — Damien Hirst’s signature work — will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Steven A. Cohen, a hedge fund trader and art collector. Mr. Hirst’s shark, whose proper name is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is usually called a piece of conceptual art. So when you go to visit the shark (actually the second to be entombed in this vitrine) it will be worth considering the entire scope of the conceptualism surrounding it.

First, you will have to shelve any objections you might have to the idea of killing a female tiger shark in the interests of Mr. Hirst’s career. You might even wonder whether the catching of the shark, somewhere off the coast of Australia, wasn’t in its own way more artful than the shark’s lamentable afterlife suspended in formaldehyde.

But the real concepts here are money and reputation. It may appear as if Mr. Cohen is doing the Met a favor by lending this work. In fact, it is the other way around. The billionaire, number 85 on the most recent Forbes 400 has been collecting art at a furious rate since 2000, and he is being courted by museums in the way that prodigiously wealthy collectors have always been courted. Part of that courtship is, of course, endorsing and validating the quality of the collector’s eye. The only defense against the skewing of the art market created by collecting on Mr. Cohen’s scale is to appropriate the collector himself.

The difference in this case is Mr. Hirst, who has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art. No artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr. Hirst. That is the real concept in his conceptualism, which has culminated in his most recent artistic farce: a human skull encrusted in diamonds.

You may think you are looking at a dead shark in a tank, but what you’re really seeing is the convergence of two careers, the coming together of two masters in the art of the yield.

Maybe. Then again, artists have historically had patrons, and it isn't all that unusual for them to seek the most money they can extract for their talent -- we'd be missing a little thing called the Italian Renaissance without that urge. In speaking of the shark as if it had been pulled from her oceanic eden to the hell of formaldehyde display, too, the piece doesn't allow that Hirst might have been up to something more than profiting from the suffering of animals -- that is, how fair is it to reduce Hirst's motivation to bald careerism? If he has anything in common with the rest of us mortals, his production of art is surely more complicated (and more desire-filled) than that.

I'm willing to be persuaded that something is lost when art exists for its investment value alone. Still, I'd rather have “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” exist than not, even if I disagree with its very title (a giant shark -- even or maybe especially a dead giant shark -- makes me contemplate my mortality in ways both mindful and physical).

Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull was all the rage in the London media while I was there, mostly in a "can you believe it?!" way. More interesting to me at the time were the artfully arranged skulls in the Museum of London, possibly the decapitated victims of Boudica's devastation of Roman London. I kept thinking: what happens when you display these remnants of the murdered dead with subtle lighting and a geometric arrangement? (They were stacked in a vertical column, with pots in a similar floating column alongside). What's the difference between the skulls of history in the Museum of London and Hirst's aesthetically overloaded display of bone? Can curators be artists? Should they be?

What do you think?

[Of related interest: Tiny Lunar Art; The Slow Continuum That Proceeds in Your Absence; Ant Love; Are bioluminescent bunnies queer?; Postcard from a Former Student; Inapposite Art; Lindow Man I; Who Mourns for Lindow Man?]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism

At long last, BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory, "Premodern to Modern Humanisms" (vol. 37, no. 2) is winding its way to press, for publication later this summer. The Introduction to that issue, "A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism," co-authored by myself and Christine Neufeld, represents a more full elaboration of BABEL's mission, which I sketched out more haphazardly this past spring in my "Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies." This "confession," as it were, has been tortuous and difficult to write, but I honestly do not know how we could have arrived at it without the help of the commentators on this blog, especially JJC, Mary Kate Hurley, Nicola Masciandoro, N50, Michael O’Rourke, Dan Remein, srj, Karl Steel, and Michael Uebel. There is a special dedication to all of you in the Journal. I am appending here the table of contents as well as the opening of the Introduction, along with links that will take you to the full essay, as well as to the opening remarks of each individual essay in the issue. Obviously, any further comments and criticisms will help BABEL immensely in its perpetual self-fashioning.

Table of Contents

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism
Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld

A Medieval Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism
Michael E. Moore

A New Species of Humanities: The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory
Doryjane Birrer

Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Present
Myra J. Seaman

Mourning Rights: Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq
Robin Norris

Who Cares? Novel Reading, Narrative Attachment Disorder, and the Case of The Old Curiosity Shop
Maria K. Bachman

Michael Uebel

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism

Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld

“To dwell in the ruins of the University is to try to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge . . . . [and] resources liberated by the opening up of disciplinary space, be it under the rubric of the humanities or of Cultural Studies, should be channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research (to speak in familiar terms) which would be abandoned after a certain period, whatever their success.”
—Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (176)

“This will no doubt be like a profession of faith: the profession of faith of a professor who would act as if he were nevertheless asking your permission to be unfaithful or a traitor to his habitual practice.”
—Jacques Derrida, “The University Without Condition” (Without Alibi 202)

In his important book The University in Ruins, published two years after his untimely death in 1994, Bill Readings argued that, partly due to a certain state of affairs which he termed both “Americanization” and “globalization,” whereby “the rule of the cash nexus” has replaced “the notion of national identity as a determinant in all aspects of social life,” the University has become a “transnational bureaucratic corporation” and “the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured” (3). Further, the University “is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture,” and as a result, “the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us” (3, 9). Ultimately, the University is “a ruined institution, one that lost its historical raison d’etre,” but which nevertheless “opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication” (19, 20). This is a space, moreover, where the University “becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question” (20).

Although Readings’ argument in The University in Ruins has been subject to carefully considered counter-critique, it remains today, we would argue, a powerful spur to thought and action for those working within the academy who are concerned with the future of humanistic teaching and scholarship. One could say, as we do, that Readings’ emphasis on (and hope for) the University as “one site among others where the question of being-together is raised” is an emphasis (and hope) that is under a certain pressure from work within the humanities, social sciences, and sciences on posthumanism, post-individual personhood, and even, post-histoire. For before we can even begin to raise the question of being-together we must first raise the question of the being that could find or wish itself with others, and to what end? In her classical defense of a reform in liberal education that would emphasize global citizenship and a deep sensitivity to and embrace of human diversity, Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum argues that becoming an educated citizen means, in addition to “mastering techniques of reason,” also “learning how to be a human being capable of love and imagination” (14). But how can this singular human being to whom Nussbaum refers situate herself in a world where, as the philosopher of religion John Caputo writes, “one has lost one’s faith in grand récits,” and “[b]eing, presence, ouisa, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams?” (6). For Caputo, “we are in a fix, except that even to say ‘we’ is to get into a still deeper fix. We are in the fix that cannot say ‘we’,” and yet, “the obligation of me to you and of both of us to others . . . . is all around us, on every side, constantly tugging at our sleeves, calling upon us for a response” (6).

For those of us who work within the humanities in the public (or private) university setting, the question of obligation can weigh heavily—as teachers, as scholars speaking to specialized audiences, and as public intellectuals. Although it is possible to slip so far into one’s own highly specialized and arcane area of research that nothing else seems to matter much, and “effective outcomes” or material results can often be, with good reason, beside the point, Jacob Marley’s reproachful lament to Ebeneezer Scrooge that “the world should have been my business” is never too far removed from our thoughts. Indeed, we would agree with John McGowan that,

The term “public intellectual” is redundant. There is—and can be—no such thing as a private intellectual. An intellectual is someone who, by way of words and arguments, aims to influence others. Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, the intellectual is always in search of a public, an audience. (47)

But how can we effectively communicate our work and thought to a public that is made up of so many diverse and competing pluralities, and when, as the political theorist William Connolly writes, the Kantian idea of regulative reason “embraces a profoundly contestable metaphysic during a time in which the global variety of religious/metaphysical perspectives is both visible and palpable” (196)? And what would it mean to communicate our ideas, effectively, to even one person when, if certain robotics and artificial intelligence scientists such as Rodney Brooks and Hans Moravec are right, the days of the human person are numbered? Or, if philosophers of science such as Nick Bostrom, who is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, are right and the end of the human person, as currently designed, is devoutly to be wished? As Bostrom himself puts it, “it could be good for most human beings to become posthuman” (24), by which he means, to become “humans” who, through the aid of various technologies, have increased intellectual and physical capacities, never age, and never die. And if this were to actually happen, it would present a profound challenge to cultural theorists and public intellectuals such as Terry Eagleton, who believe that it is “our perishing, not our bestowals of meaning, which is necessary” to understanding our “creaturely nature” and the world in which we live (163).

Go here to read the entire essay.

Go here to read the opening remarks of each individual contributor's essay.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"The Romans created time machines that we still inhabit."

So states Denis Feeney in the Chronicle of Higher Education (7/13/07). According to the article, Feeney traces the permutations of the classical calendar from "synchronization" ("events are elaborately correlated backward, forward, and sideways") to the "horizon between myth and history" ("an imaginary boundary which can be activated to reflect relative movement," creating the elasticity in dating the founding of Rome and "deep nostalgia among Romans for a past golden age") and finally to
the Roman consular year and other indigenous time charts that preceded the Julian calendar, and shows how Caesar's new system, grounded in astronomy (how can something be grounded in the astral, wonders JJC), altered the world overnight -- January 1, 46 BC. When told that the constellation of Lyre would rise days into the new year, Cicero was amused. "Yes, by decree," joked the orator.
More information on the book here.